Fray Luis de Leon takes on a moral question, fitting his status as a Catholic priest, but also this was a fairly common theme of poetry at this time – the vanity and ultimate pointlessness of pursuing worldly goods, riches, fame and power. The title, On Avarice, refers not just to seeking to keep wealth in an unproductive way, but also to making the pursuit of wealth one’s main purpose in life. Compare also the Rubai Yat of Omar Khayyam in which similar sentiment is the main theme of the poem – however in the case of Fray Luis the alternative to avarice would be the religious life, whereas in the Persian classic it would be taking pleasure in the moment with wine, women and song.
Fray Luis de León
ODA V – DE LA AVARICIA
A FELIPE RUIZ
En vano el mar fatiga
la vela portuguesa; que ni el seno
de Persia ni la amiga
Maluca da árbol bueno,
que pueda hacer un ánimo sereno.
No da reposo al pecho,
Felipe, ni la India, ni la rara
que más tuerce la cara
cuanto posee más el alma avara.
Al capitán romano
la vida, y no la sed, quitó el bebido
y Tántalo, metido
en medio de las aguas, afligido
de sed está; y más dura
la suerte es del mezquino, que sin tasa
se cansa ansí, y endura
el oro, y la mar pasa
osado, y no osa abrir la mano escasa.
¿Qué vale el no tocado
tesoro, si corrompe el dulce sueño,
si estrecha el ñudo dado,
si más enturbia el ceño,
y deja en la riqueza pobre al dueño?
The very first words of the poem set the tone – vanity, in the sense of worthless endeavour, is what has driven the great Portuguese maritime expeditions, seeking to tap into the riches of Asia. This first example is very contemporary, Vasco da Gama was of the same era as Fray Luis and must have been one of the most famous men in Europe at this time. The Molucca islands had been reached by the Portuguese earlier in the sixteenth century and were at the origin of the lucrative trade in eastern spices.
In the next stanza there are both historical and mythical references to the dangers of avarice. The Roman captain who was killed after pursuing Persian treasure would be Crassus, who, after being killed in battle against the Persians, had molten gold poured into his mouth by his enemies. And then Tantalus was famously subject to one of the torments of Hades, standing in a pool of water which drained out of his reach each time he bent to quench his thirst. These examples would have been familiar to Fray Luis’s educated readers of the time, and so the poem could be made more interesting by being as allusive as possible.
The final example, in the third stanza is of the miser who works hard to keep his gold but can never enjoy it because he dares not open his hand to use it for productive or enjoyable pursuits.
So the final stanza poses the question, already answered by everything else in the poem – of what use is it to hold treasure if it leads to anxiety, stress, unease and in fact impoverishes the experience of its owner.
Thus the poet claims the high ground, although I doubt any of his readers rushed to relinquish their wealth as a consequence.
The Poetry Dude