Cercada tiene a Baeza — ese arráez Andalla Mir,

For today’s poem we go back to mediaeval Spain and a ballad of the wars between the Castilian Spaniards and the  Moors who had conquered most of the country  in the early 700s. I love the way these seem mere fragments but they capture the intensity of a moment and really draw you in to a distant time and place.
The subject of this is the siege of Baeza a town in southern Spain. Part of the early Moorish conquest, it was captured back by  the Spaniards in the mid 1200s. This poem is about events about 100 years later in the mid 1300s, when the Moors are besieging the town with the Spaniards trying to defend it. (As a side note, most people think of the hundred years war as about the longest of sustained conflicts in Europe, but the struggle for supremacy in Spain lasted almost 800 years, from the Moorish invasion in 712 until the fall of Granada in 1492. That’s about 50 generations who nothing but war…
Romance del cerco de Baeza
de Anónimo 

Cercada tiene a Baeza — ese arráez Andalla Mir,
con ochenta mil peones, — caballeros cinco mil.
Con él va ese traidor, — el traidor de Pero Gil.
Por la puerta de Bedmar — la empieza de combatir;
ponen escalas al muro, — comiénzanle a conquerir;
ganada tiene una torre, — no le pueden resistir,
cuando de la de Calonge — escuderos vi salir.
Ruy Fernández va delante, — aquese caudillo ardil,
arremete con Andalla, — comienza de le ferir,
cortado le ha la cabeza, — los demás dan a fuir.

 The Moorish general, Andalla Mir has surrounded Baeza with 80000 foot soldiers and 5000 cavalry, and also has enlisted the services of a Spanish renegade, Pedro Gil. In three lines the poem has described the situation and the strength of the attacking forces. The rest of the ballad tells the story of how the attack plays out – in only eight lines, a marvel of compression, economy and focus which only serves to heighten the impact of the narrative. It is specific about which city gates saw the most important action – the strongest assault was at the Bedmar gate, where the Moors put up scaling ladders and managed to capture a fortified tower. Then at the Calonge gate, the defenders make a sortie, led by Ruy Fernandez – who attacks and kills Andalla Mir, and cuts off his head. At this, all the other attackers flee.
And that is the end of the ballad. There is no preamble and no aftermath, just the critical moment. The language is direct and forceful,  a wonderful illustration that “old” poetry doesn’t have to be hard or inaccessible to the modern reader. I really enjoy these poems.
As a footnote to today’s post, especially for those who have been following this blog for a while, this will be the last of the daily poems, at least for a while. When I started this blog, almost at the end of September 2014, I set out to post and comment on a poem a day for a year. This was to reacquaint myself with some of the poetry languishing on my bookshelf; and also as an occupation while I was out of work, having been laid off earlier in 2014. I think I have achieved both objectives, and have now been back to work, gainfully employed in a job which is very interesting, I have less time to select and reflect on the poems I like. I will post from time to time, firstly a recap on the most popular poets and poems posted here during that  year, and then irregularly, perhaps a few times a month, I will post a poem that gets my attention. Thaks for following, and please check back in from time to time.
Best to all
The Poetry Dude

Il a vécu tantôt gai comme un sansonnet,

Épitaphe

 

Il a vécu tantôt gai comme un sansonnet,
Tour à tour amoureux insoucieux et tendre,
Tantôt sombre et rêveur comme un triste Clitandre.
Un jour il entendit qu’à sa porte on sonnait.

C’était la Mort ! Alors il la pria d’attendre
Qu’il eût posé le point à son dernier sonnet ;
Et puis sans s’émouvoir, il s’en alla s’étendre
Au fond du coffre froid où son corps frissonnait.

Il était paresseux, à ce que dit l’histoire,
Il laissait trop sécher l’encre dans l’écritoire.
Il voulait tout savoir mais il n’a rien connu.

Et quand vint le moment où, las de cette vie,
Un soir d’hiver, enfin l’âme lui fut ravie,
Il s’en alla disant : ” Pourquoi suis-je venu ? ”

Gerard de Nerval

 

Here is a sonnet from Nerval, attempting to write an epitaph, presumably for himself, as a way of assessing his own life and legacy. Sounds like a useful exercise for anyone at any stage of his life. It does not have the intensity of Ronsard’s deathbed sonnet, posted here on September 25th, but it is focused on death, its meaning and the poet’s view of himself. Interestingly, Nerval uses the third person throughout the sonnet, lending a slight degree of ambiguity as to the subject, but I have no doubt he was referring to himself, it would be much harder to be so introspective about another person.

The first four lines reflect on the life experience of the poet, sometimes happy and carefree, sometimes in love and tender, sometimes sad and depressed. And then one day the doorbell rings.

The second four lines announce the visitor – it  is death (presumably wearing a hooded cloak and carrying a scythe like in the Woody Allen movie, Love and Death, his parody of War and Peace). So like Ronsard, the poet begs death to wait while he finishes his last sonnet.And when it is done he goes to lie down in a cold coffin.

The final six lines sum up his legacy, the verdict of posterity and ultimately his own view of his life. It is not a very flattering portrait – lazy, unproductive (as a poet he let the ink dry  in the inkwell, rather than keep on writing), curious but ultimately ignorant. Adding all this up, Nerval comes to his final conclusion – “Why was I alive?”, finding nothing worthy of celebration or remembrance.

Clearly, Nerval was too hard on himself, he is remembered as one of the  great post-Romantic French poets. But the sonnet is a reminder that most of humanity does indeed die without leaving a trace, and is soon forgotten.

 

The Poetry Dude

 

 

HOW can I, that girl standing there,

Politics

HOW can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

I have lots of sympathy for the sentiments expressed by  Yeats in this poem, When you see a pretty girl in front of you, other concerns do tend to fade into the background. Here it is politics, but  it could be business, schoolwork, or even writing poetry. This is why professional sportsmen used to be separated from their wives and girlfriends before big events (not sure that  is still the case these days). But when a political leader falls into this trap he tends to be severely criticized, like Silvio Berlusconi.
Anyway, right or wrong, this poem captures that  moment when the poet is listening to some deep and important political discourse, he sees a girl standing near him, and straight away his attention leaves the politician and he wishes or imagines that he is young and holding her in his arms. I;m guessing most of us know the feeling very well.
Thank you WB Yeats.

¿Miras este Gigante corpulento

Here is a sonnet from Quevedo which takes up the theme that appearances are deceptive, that we should not draw conclusions from the outside appearance of someone, necessarily superficial. The truth is often different. It is a kind of morality tale, in this way. You could interpret it as a satire of the powerful, the elite, who seem like giants with their power, influence and dominance, but in fact it is all illusion. Like the Wizard of Oz, perhaps.

DESENGAÑO DE LA EXTERIOR APARIENCIA, CON EL EXAMEN INTERIOR Y VERDADERO

¿Miras este Gigante corpulento
Que con soberbia y gravedad camina?
Pues por de dentro es trapos y fajina,
Y un ganapán le sirve de cimiento.

Con su alma vive y tiene movimiento,
Y adonde quiere su grandeza inclina,
Mas quien su aspecto rígido examina
Desprecia su figura y ornamento.

Tales son las grandezas aparentes
De la vana ilusión de los Tiranos,
Fantásticas escorias eminentes.

¿Veslos arder en púrpura, y sus manos
En diamantes y piedras diferentes?
Pues asco dentro son, tierra y gusanos.

Francisco de Quevedo

In both the first and second four -line stanzas there is a symmetry whereby the first two lines depict the outward, impressive appearance, and the second two lines contrast the inner, hollow truth, that underneath the proud and imposing exterior there is an inner decay and emptiness. Many public figures are like this, because they have to be constantly creating and recreating an impression of omniscience, power and invulnerability as a façade against challenge and subversions. This would have been just as true in the time of Philip 4th, when Quevedo was alive, as it is today with  almost any political leader.

In fact, Quevedo explicitly links this concept with tyrants in the first of the three-line stanzas – their apparent power is but vain illusion. And then the final three lines compare their outward pomp, dressed in purple, with diamonds and precious stones on their fingers, with their inner decay.

Maybe this is the equivalent of that confidence-boosting advice often given to young and inexperienced employees, that they should imagine their bosses naked.

 

The Poetry Dude

Vendéronlle os bois,

This poem, written in Galician, by Rosalia de Castro is a moving testimony to the hardships and deprivations of life in Spain in the late nineteenth century, which spurred emigration to the New World. The experience would have been quite similar to that of the Irish in the period following the famines of the late 1840s when so many Irish peasants and country folk left everything and went to the USA, firstly to the slums of New York and Boston. In this case, the Galicians are going to Havana, in Cuba, presumably seeking some cultural and linguistic continuity. But the tone is not one of hope, or optimism or expectation of a better life. Rather it is a tone of despair and disillusion, the people are being driven to this as a last resort because of poverty and misery.

Going to Havana – adventure or misfortune?


¡Pra a Habana!

I
Vendéronlle os bois,
vendéronlle as vacas,
o pote do caldo
i a manta da cama.
Vendéronlle o carro
i as leiras que tiña;
deixárono sóio
coa roupa vestida.
“María, eu son mozo,
pedir non me é dado;
eu vou polo mundo
pra ver de ganalo.
Galicia está probe,
i á Habana me vou…
¡Adiós, adiós, prendas
do meu corazón!”

II
Cando ninguén os mira,
vense rostros nubrados e sombrisos,
homes que erran cal sombras voltexantes
por veigas e campíos.
Un, enriba dun cómaro
séntase caviloso e pensativo;
outro, ó pe dun carballo queda imóvil,
coa vista levantada hacia o infinito.
Alǵun, cabo da fonte recrinado,
parés que escoita atento o murmurío
de augua que cai, e eisala xordamente
tristísimos sospiros.
¡Van a deixá-la patria…!
Forzoso, mais supremo sacrificio.
A miseria está negra en torno deles,
¡ai!, ¡i adiante está o abismo…!

III
O mar castiga bravamente as penas,
e contra as bandas do vapor se rompen
as irritadas ondas
do Cántabro salobre.
Chilan as gaviotas
¡alá lonxe…!, ¡moi lonxe!,
na prácida ribeira solitaria
que convida ó descanso i ós amores.
De humanos seres a compauta línea
que brila ó sol adiántase e retórcese,
mais preto e lentamente as curvas sigue
do murallón antigo do Parrote.
O corazón apértase de angustia,
óiense risas, xuramentos se oien,
i as brasfemias se axuntan cos sospiros…
¿ÓNde van eses homes?
Dentro dun mes, no simiterio imenso
da Habana, ou nos seus bosques,
ide ver qué foi deles…
¡No eterno olvido para sempre dormen!
¡Probes nais que os criaron,
i as que os agardan amorosas, probes!

IV
“¡Ánimo, compañeiros!
Toda a terra é dos homes.
Aquel que non veu nunca máis que a propia,
a iñorancia o consome.
¡Áńimo! ¡A quen se muda Dio-lo axuda!
¡I anque ora vamos de Galicia lonxe,
verés desque tornemos
o que medrano os robres!
Mañán é o día grande, ¡á mar, amigos!
¡Mañán, Dios nos acoche!”
¡No sembrante a alegría,
no corazón o esforzo,
i a campana armoniosa da esperanza,
lonxe, tocando a morto!

V
Éste vaise i aquél vaise,
e todos, todos se van.
Galicia, sin homes quedas
que te poidan traballar.
Tes, en cambio, orfos e orfas
e campos de soledad,
e nais que non teñen fillos
e fillos que non tén pais.
E tes corazóns que sufren
longas ausencias mortás,
viudas de vivos e mortos
que ninguén consolará.

In the first stanza, the emigrant sells his possessions, all the humble artefacts and livestock he has left to pay for his passage across the Atlantic. For Galicia is poor and surely he can do better elsewhere. But in the second stanza he looks around and everywhere he looks he sees downcast, somber faces, suffering in the present but also fearful of the future. This is not an easy choice.
The longer third stanza sees the travelers at sea, packed into a boat at the mercy of the winds and the waves. They are not joyful, they are anxious, people are sighing, probably regretting their departure. For after one month they could be in the cemetery in Havana, forgotten. The poet pities the parents that have raised them and the lovers they have left behind. In the fourth stanza, the travelers try to raise their spirits by thinking that one day they could return and be again in the beloved countryside of their homeland in Galicia. But it is clearly a forlorn hope.
The final stanza focusses on a picture of Galicia emptied of its men, its most productive people, reverting to a state of nature with no-one to work the land, and widows who will get comfort from nobody.
It is a bleak picture, with emigration driven by lack of opportunity in people’s own land. Rosalia de Castro has done us a service by capturing it with sympathy and compassion. Where are the poets of the great migrations of our own age?
The Poetry Dude

Je n’ay plus que les os, un Schelette je semble

This sonnet from Pierre de Ronsard is supposed to be one of the last poems he wrote, while lying on his deathbed in his final days. Certainly the subject matter of the poem bears this out. It is both sad to read him witnessing his own decomposition, fully aware of the accelerating approach of death, but at the same time it is quite uplifting that he still had the sharpness of mind and the force of will to continue composing fine poetry. It as if he was holding on to the essence of himself, just as everything corporeal and material was wasting away.

And there is also some dark humour here, the notion of himself as already a skeleton seems to be more ironic or self-mocking than self-pitying. The title and the first line translate loosely as “Now all I have is my bones, I am just like a skeleton”. Well, those bones still knew how to write.

 

Je n’ay plus que les os, un Schelette je semble

Je n’ay plus que les os, un Schelette je semble,
Decharné, denervé, demusclé, depoulpé,
Que le trait de la mort sans pardon a frappé,
Je n’ose voir mes bras que de peur je ne tremble.

Apollon et son filZ deux grans maistres ensemble,
Ne me sçauroient guerir, leur mestier m’a trompé,
Adieu plaisant soleil, mon oeil est estoupé,
Mon corps s’en va descendre où tout se disassemble.

Quel amy me voyant en ce point despouillé
Ne remporte au logis un oeil triste et mouillé,
Me consolant au lict et me baisant la face,

En essuiant mes yeux par la mort endormis ?
Adieu chers compaignons, adieu mes chers amis,
Je m’en vay le premier vous preparer la place.

Recueil : Derniers vers

I love the second line also for its cumulative impact of disintegration and dematerialization of the poet’s body -“unfleshed, un-nerved, un-muscled, un-pulped”, all the signs of a prosperous and healthy life are evaporating because death is near. He daren’t even look at his arm because he will see it is trembling. There follows a classical reference to Apollo, the sun-god of classical mythology who was also the God of medicine, who couldn’t save him, even helped by his son  (I’m not sure which of Apollo’s many sons would be referred to here.)

In the last six lines, Ronsard comments on friends coming to visit him, and unable to stop themselves from crying at his pitiful state as they return to their homes. But it sounds like the poet is more pitying them rather than himself – for the final line is to tell his friends they will die too, Ronsard is just going first to prepare for their arrival. In a sense he will play the role of the skull in their portrait, a memento mori which they can read and reflect on after his passing.

It is indeed a fine poem from a dying man.

The Poetry Dude

Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw–

Here is one of TS Eliot’s cat poems, which were revived in the 1980s, if I remember rightly as a hit musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. These poems are more accessible than most of Eliot’s other work, but still very well put together and a lot of fun.
This poem is about Macavity a cat whom Eliot presumably modelled on Sherlock Holmes’s arch-enemy, Moriarty – both criminal masterminds who weave dastardly plots which are almost completely undetectable.
So let’s see what Macavity is up to…

 
Macavity: The Mystery Cat
by T. S. Eliot

Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw–
For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime–Macavity’s not there!

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
He’s broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime–Macavity’s not there!
You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air–
But I tell you once and once again, Macavity’s not there!

Macavity’s a ginger cat, he’s very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly doomed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he’s half asleep, he’s always wide awake.

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
For he’s a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity.
You may meet him in a by-street, you may see him in the square–
But when a crime’s discovered, then Macavity’s not there!

He’s outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)
And his footprints are not found in any file of Scotland Yard’s.
And when the larder’s looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,
Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke’s been stifled,
Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair–
Ay, there’s the wonder of the thing! Macavity’s not there!

And when the Foreign Office finds a Treaty’s gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair–
But it’s useless of investigate–Macavity’s not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
“It must have been Macavity!”–but he’s a mile away.
You’ll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumbs,
Or engaged in doing complicated long division sums.

Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
He always has an alibi, or one or two to spare:
And whatever time the deed took place–MACAVITY WASN’T THERE!
And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!

From <http://www.best-poems.net/t_s_eliot/macavity_the_mystery_cat.html&gt;

When reading out loud you get carried along by the rhythm of this poem. In that sense it reminds me a bit of one of those Gilbert and Sullivan numbers which pile up comic references at a faster and faster pace until you almost can’t understand any word. It is the repetitions which keep the reader in the game , “Macavity. Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity”, and “Macavity’s not there”.

There are references to Sherlock Holmes mysteries here – the loss of the Admiralty plans for example, or the reference to Macavity (Moriarty) as the Napoleon of crime. You can also think of Macavity as a sort of James Bond villain, or the gang leader in that old cartoon series “Top Cat”.

This poem brings pleasure on many levels.

Here is a YouTube of the treatment of this poem in the musical Cats

The Poetry Dude