This is one of those poems that you have to spend a bit of time with before you can figure out what it is about. Garcilaso is writing a sonnet here which depends on being read by an educated audience who will congratulate themselves by getting the references and allusions, and then admiring the wordplay. For this modern reader, at least, the process is reversed – I admire the wordplay initially and then get to grips with the references and with what it all could mean.
Garcilaso de la Vega
Si para refrenar este deseo
loco, imposible, vano, temeroso,
y guarecer de un mal tan peligroso,
que es darme a entender yo lo que no creo.
No me aprovecha verme cual me veo,
o muy aventurado o muy medroso,
en tanta confusión que nunca oso
fiar el mal de mí que lo poseo,
¿qué me ha de aprovechar ver la pintura
de aquél que con las alas derretidas
cayendo, fama y nombre al mar ha dado,
y la del que su fuego y su locura
llora entre aquellas plantas conocidas
apenas en el agua resfríado?
The sonnet begins with a device which I always enjoy – a sequence of adjectives on the second line, which cumulatively qualify the idea on the first line – this adds both meaning and rhythm to the poem and grabs the attention right at the start. There follows a couple of examples of the seeming paradox of pairing opposite ideas, a method which occurs so often in sixteenth and seventeenth century poetry, “entender yo lo que no creo”, “aventurado…medroso”.
The final six lines are where the classical allusions and references come into play, and here the allusions are inspired by paintings which the poet has seen of these classical myths. The first reference id to Icarus, who attempted flight but flew too close to the sun, so that his wings melted and he fell into the sea and drowned. The second reference is to Phaeton, the driver of the sun’s carriage, who lost control and fell into the river.
So what does all this mean? I think it is a meditation on the conflict between self-awareness and self-delusion. The poet is subject to unrealistic desires – perhaps for a woman, perhaps for wealth and position, perhaps for fame, this is not made clear. But the rest of the poem is a warning not to be carried away by such desires and to be aware of your own abilities and limitations. The examples of Icarus and Phaeton are cautionary tales, warnings, of what can happen if you foolishly go beyond your limits.
There is a school of thought in modern self-help literature that people can achieve anything if they set their mind to it. I wish the writers of this nonsense would reflect on poems like this.
The Poetry Dude