Nin fea nin fermosa

I recently came across Sem Tob by chance while looking into Spanish mediaeval poems. He was a fourteenth century Spanish rabbi who wrote poems of morality. Here we have an example which enumerates popular proverbs or sayings. It can be compared with Francois Villon’s Ballade des Proverbes of roughly the same period (posted here on June 7th 2015). It is as much fun to look at the archaic word forms as to recognise which of these sayings has survived to the present day.., and, of course, to be included in a poem like this they most likely already had a very long history.


Sem Tob

Nin fea ni fermosa
En el mundo, aves
Pued hombre alcanzar cosa
Si non con su reves.
Quien antes non esparce
Trigo, non lo allega;
Si son tierra non yace
A espiga non llega.
Non se pued coger rosa
Sin pisar las espinas;
La miel es dulce cosa,
Mas tien agras vecinas.
La paz non se alcanza,
Si non con guerrear;
Non se gana folganca
Si non con el lazrar.
Mon ha noche sin dia,
Nin segar sin sembrar,
Nin caliente sin fria
Non reir sin llorar.
Non ha corto sin luengo,
Nin tarde sin aina,
Nin ha sin fumo fuego,
Nin sin somas farina.
Nin ganar sin perder,
Nin baxar sin alteza;
Salvo en Dios, poder
No lo ha sin flaqueza.

The first four lines set out the premise of the poem, that a man can’t have one thing without it opposite ie, there are always two sides to every question and unexpected consequences to every act. The rest of the poem goes through a number of examples of this universal truth, many of which are quite banal (you can’t have night without day, or heat without cold), and some of which are instantly recognisable today (there is no smoke without fire). I haven’t quite worked out ” Non se gana folganza Si non con el lazrar”, but I am sure it is wisdom worth knowing.

Enjoy this trip back to the 1300s

The Poetry Dude


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