Garcilaso de la Vega, was a soldier-poet from the 1500s, who served the Spanish Empire in Spain itself, in Flanders and in Naples. As an educated gentleman, poetry and literary pursuits were just as well thought of as military exploits. Garcilaso turned out to be one of the finest poets of Spain in the 1500s, up there with Fray Luis de Leon and San Juan de la Cruz, some of whose poems have also been featured on this blog.
Classical themes were of course a commonplace of the time. You can find many in Shakespeare for example, and it was a kind of parlour game to be able to understand the allusions of texts to classical stories and myths, which the educated classes had come across while studying Greek and Latin.
This poem is about the tale of Leander and Hero, the ill-fated lovers, as Leander drowned while attempting to swim across the Hellespont Strait to join Leander on the other side. Gongora also has a poem on this theme, which comes across as somewhat comic. Garcilaso’s version is a bit more straightforward, I think. As a sonnet, it is concise and allusive, and needs to be very well-crafted to capture the essence of the tale in just fourteen lines.
Here it is…
Pasando el mar Leandro el animoso,
en amoroso fuego todo ardiendo,
esforzó el viento, y fuese embraveciendo
el agua con un ímpetu furioso.
Vencido del trabajo presuroso,
contrastar a las ondas no pudiendo,
y más del bien que allí perdía muriendo,
que de su propia muerte congojoso,
como pudo, esforzó su voz cansada,L
y a las ondas habló desta manera
mas nunca fue su voz de ellas oída:
«Ondas, pues no se excusa que yo muera,
dejadme allá llegar, y a la tornada
vuestro furor ejecutad en mi vida».
The first stanza shows Leander, brave, bursting with energy, driven forward by love and desire, plunging into the rough water, whipped up by the wind. The educated reader would automatically know who was Leander, why and where he was beginning his swim and who he was in love with – so no need for lengthy exposition here.
The second stanza immediately switches to Leander in trouble in the water, knowing he is going to drown, and caring more about the fact that he will not see his loved on again than the fact that he himself is about to die. So the poem again just seizes the essence of the story.
The third stanza shows Leander gathering his final strength to call out to the waves which are pulling him down. And the final stanza is his request to the waves to let him get to the other side at least and drown him on his return – just so that he can see Hero one more time. The reader knows this is not to be, Leander will drown without ever reaching Hero.
Hero’s name is never mentioned in the poem, nor any more of the back story of how the situation developed or what happened afterwards. It just focusses on the moments of Leander’s deadly struggle in the water and his despair as he drowns. A very nice example of concision, precision and economy in a very well-structured poem. It is more of an intellectual pleasure than a sensual one, but fascinating all the same.
The Poetry Dude