Claro cisne del Betis que, sonoro

There are many poems in which great poets pay tribute to other great poets, either in recognition of following their tradition, or to acknowledge their influence and inspiration or perhaps to put themselves in the company of poets known to be masters of their art. Here , we have a poem by Lope de Vega in praise of his almost exact contemporary, Luis de Gongora. They could have been rivals, but this poem looks a genuine appreciation of the great Gongora’s poetic gift.

In some ways, I think of Lope de Vega as the closest Spanish equivalent of Shakespeare, for his mastery of both theatre and poetry, and his willingness to push the envelope, particularly in dramatic themes (think for example of Fuenteovejuna, or El Caballero de Olmedo).

With all that as background, here is the sonnet (of course), which one genius, Lope, wrote to celebrate another genius, Gongora…

A don Luis de Góngora

Lope de Vega

Claro cisne del Betis que, sonoro

y grave, ennobleciste el instrumento

más dulce, que ilustró músico acento,

bañando en ámbar puro el arco de oro,

a ti lira, a ti el castalio coro

debe su honor, su fama y su ornamento,

único al siglo y a la envidia exento,

vencida, si no muda, en tu decoro.

Los que por tu defensa escriben sumas,

propias ostentaciones solicitan,

dando a tu inmenso mar viles espumas.

Los ícaros defienda, que te imitan,

que como acercan a tu sol las plumas

de tu divina luz se precipitan.

From <>

This is a poem of two halves (Brian)… In the first half, Lope praises Gongora’s musicality, the fact that the words of his poems elevate the qualities of the musical instruments or choral arrangements which might accompany them. In the second half of the poem, Lope points the finger at those who write praises of Gongora just to make themselves well-known – like Icarus, as they approach Gongora, the glue that holds their feathers together will melt and they will fall back to earth.

Which leaves Gongora and Lope alone at the pinnacle of their accomplishments.

The Poetry Dude


Our conquering swords shall marshall us the way

On December 12th 2014, this site posted a piece by Christopher Marlowe entitled “Accurs’d be he who first invented war”. Today’s poem goes In the opposite direction, praising the conquering swords and the excitement and exhilaration of victory in a battle fought at close quarters, with the spoils of war awaiting the victorious army.

The poem is short, but intense, taking us into the heat of battle, but fully confident in victory and triumph, capturing in a way the intense experience of being in such an extreme situation. The outcome is never in doubt for the reader, of course, once the title is understood, There is no irony here that I can detect.


Our Conquering Swords

by Christopher Marlowe


Our conquering swords shall marshall us the way

We use to march upon the slaughter’d foe,

Trampling their bowels with our horses’ hoofs,

Brave horses bred on the white Tartarian hills.

My camp is like to Julius Caesar’s host,

That never fought but had the victory;

Nor in Pharsalia was there such hot war

As these, my followers, willingly would have.

Legions of spirits, fleeting in the air,

Direct our bullets and our weapons’ points,

And make your strokes to wound the senseless light;

And when she sees our bloody colours spread,

Then Victory begins to take her flight,

Resting herself upon my milk-white tent–

But come, my lords, to weapons let us fall;

The field is ours, the Turk, his wife, and all.

Christopher Marlowe


From <>


The air of triumph is established right at the start of the poem as the poet describes he and his fellows already trampling over the corpses of their enemy. He compares his army to that of Julius Caesar. In fact lines five and six are quite interesting – you have t read the word “camp” as meaning “army”, not those who stayed in the camp; and then the sixth line means they won victory in every battle, not that they won without fighting. That reading makes the whole poem more coherent.


And then, what or where is Pharsalia? It turns out that it is not a place, but a book of history, written by Lucan (the Roman historian, not the disappearing Lord), in which, presumably there were many accounts of Roman victory in battle.


So the momentum continues inexorably towards Victory, and, as hinted in the final line, the inevitable rape and pillage that follows.


This is a stirring poem of the glory of war, in stark contrast to other war poetry, such as that of the first world war poets, and also very different in tone from Marlowe’s other poem.


The Poetry Dude

Cher frère blanc,

Half tongue-in-cheek, bit more than half with a serious point, this poem by Leopold Senghor muses about why white people call black people “coloured”, when there is a huge range of observable colours on white people’s skin.  Of course, Senghor was right between the two worlds, first as a Senegalese representative in the French Parliament, a black man in the midst of a white-dominated institution, and then as the first President of independent Senegal, but with former white colonists still pulling a lot of the levers in his country. He must have been acutely sensitive to these matters of colour and racial identity, particularly living at a time, in the 1950s and 1960s, when unconscious and overt  prejudice was even more rampant than it is today.


I like it, and I think it is significant, that the poem is addressed to the poet’s white brother…, and the first line makes it clear that the white brother is dear to the poet.


Poeme a mon Frère blanc


Cher frère blanc,

Quand je suis né, j’étais noir,

Quand j’ai grandi, j’étais noir,

Quand je suis au soleil, je suis noir,

Quand je suis malade, je suis noir,

Quand je mourrai, je serai noir.

Tandis que toi, homme blanc,

Quand tu es né, tu étais rose,

Quand tu as grandi, tu étais blanc,

Quand tu vas au soleil, tu es rouge,

Quand tu as froid, tu es bleu,

Quand tu as peur, tu es vert,

Quand tu es malade, tu es jaune,

Quand tu mourras, tu seras gris.

Alors, de nous deux,

Qui est l’homme de couleur ?




From <>


Five lines describe how the poet remains black in every circumstance and phase of his life – at birth, when grown up, when in the sun, when sick and when dead. Then seven lines describing how the white man can be pink, red, blue, green, yellow or grey. And then the ironic pay-off, who is really the man of colour, asks the poet?


Good question, and one which aims to undermine prejudice and difference to get at the common humanity of us all.


The Poetry Dude

Dejad que siga y bogue la galera 

Here is the Nicaraguan poet, Ruben Dario’s, poem on Spain, the cultural, historical and linguistic source of inspiration and tradition across the whole Spanish-speaking world. It is a sonnet which includes a real tension between the sentiments of admiration and of reprehension for the Spanish influence and legacy.


Fittingly, the sonnet begins with the image of a ship drifting, battered by the winds and waves of a storm, capturing the history of Spain as a pioneering sea-faring nation, but also the fact that the country has lost its way.



Ruben Dario


Dejad que siga y bogue la galera

bajo la tempestad, sobre las olas:

va con rumbo a una Atlántida española,

en donde el porvenir calla y espera.


No se apague el rencor ni el odio muera

ante el pendón que el bárbaro enarbola:

si un día la justicia estuvo sola,

lo sentirá la humanidad entera.


Y bogue entre las olas espumeantes,

y bogue la galera que ya ha visto

cómo son las tormentas de inconstantes.


Que la raza está en pie y el brazo listo,

que va en el barco el capitán Cervantes,

y arriba flota el pabellón de Cristo.




From <>



The poem goes on to say that the ship is heading to a Spanish Atlantis, a mythical land of plenty across or under the sea, reflecting the ideals and aspirations of Spain, but also with the connotation that this would be illusory, doomed to failure, disappointment and suffering. The second four lines call out the resentment, hatred and absence of justice afflicting humanity, and by implication, afflicting Spaniards above all.


But in the final six lines, Dario’s appreciation of more positive qualities of the Spanish people comes through – the ship perseveres in battling through the waves, however rough and unpredictable they are, and the people are brave and stoic, following the example of illustrious forebears like Cervantes and  inspired by their Catholic faith.


On balance, the poem is conflicted in its vision of Spain, but at least brings out the contradictions, the challenges and the redeeming qualities of the poet’s experience of the country which sets the tone for his cultural heritage.


The Poetry Dude

Head to limp head, the sunk-eyed wounded scanned

Here is a poem by Wilfred Owen, one of quite a few posted on this site chronicling the suffering and absurdity of life in the trenches on the Western front during World War One (you can also find poems on this theme on the blog by Siegfried Sassoon, Guillaume Apollinaire and WB Yeats).

The three smiles of the title could be the men smiling to keep their spirits up; smiles at the huge gap between the soldiers’ experience of suffering and daily exposure to death, compared to the gung-ho jingoism of the reports in the press (here the Daily Mail); and the smiles assumed by people back in England who believed what they read in the press reports about the cheerful heroism of “our boys in France”.

Read and weep – there is still too much of this sort of thing going on, one hundred years later.

Smile, Smile, Smile


Head to limp head, the sunk-eyed wounded scanned

Yesterday’s Mail; the casualties (typed small)

And (large) Vast Booty from our Latest Haul.

Also, they read of Cheap Homes, not yet planned;

“For,” said the paper, “when this war is done

The men’s first instinct will be making homes.

Meanwhile their foremost need is aerodromes,

It being certain war has just begun.

Peace would do wrong to our undying dead,—

The sons we offered might regret they died

If we got nothing lasting in their stead.

We must be solidly indemnified.

Though all be worthy Victory which all bought.

We rulers sitting in this ancient spot

Would wrong our very selves if we forgot

The greatest glory will be theirs who fought,

Who kept this nation in integrity.”

Nation?—The half-limbed readers did not chafe

But smiled at one another curiously

Like secret men who know their secret safe.

(This is the thing they know and never speak,

That England one by one had fled to France

Not many elsewhere now save under France).

Pictures of these broad smiles appear each week,

And people in whose voice real feeling rings

Say: How they smile! They’re happy now, poor things.

From <>

The poem absolutely nails the suffering of the soldiers, “Head to limp head”, “the sunk-eyed wounded”, “The half-limbed readers”; the pompous triumphalism of the reportage from England, heralding vast booty but minimising numbers of casualties, and proclaiming the glory of those who would die; and the accepting delusion of the public in England, convinced that the soldiers could genuinely smile as they did their duty for England.

Thank goodness there were voices like Owen, Sassoon and others to tell the truth in poetry. Where are the war poets of today?

The Poetry Dude

Une foule d’amants, que chez vous on tolère,

Posting this entry on October 15th 2016, I realise that this date corresponds to Isaac de Benserade’s birthday (unless some change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar messes up the calculation, as it always seems to with the date of the Russian revolution), and that he would be 404 years old, if he had lived to today. Having said that, he did seem to live a full and prosperous life, dying at the age of 79, after having been a court favourite in France for most of his life because of his poetry, his plays and his ballets.

This sonnet is on the theme of a particular form of disappointment in love – not the pining of a lover whose loved one disdains or rejects him, but a lover who sees his loved one welcoming the attentions of all his rivals, as well as his own. The term of art is “coquette”, so effectively resuscitated by Proust in his description of Odette de Crecy, before she became Madame Swann.

Anyway, this coquette’s behaviour is making the poet tear his hair out…This is how love transforms into jealousy, which is exactly the narrative progression of the poem.

Sur une coquette – Sonnet

Isaac de Benserade

Une foule d’amants, que chez vous on tolère,

De vos facilités cherche à s’avantager ;

La patience même en serait en colère,

Etes-vous un butin qu’il faille partager ?

N’avez-vous rien à craindre, et rien à ménager ?

Quoi ! tous également attendent leur salaire ;

Avez-vous résolu de me faire enrager

A force de vouloir éternellement plaire ?

Enfin, si je suis las de ce que cent rivaux

Se disputent le prix qu’on doit à mes travaux,

Vous devez l’être aussi de ce qu’on en caquette ;

Votre honneur est en proie aux escrocs, aux filous ;

Et si vous excellez en l’art d’être coquette,

Je n’excelle pas moins en l’art d’être jaloux.

From <>

A cautionary tale, indeed.

The Poetry Dude

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;


This sonnet by Shakespeare shows off his playfulness, both acknowledging and making fun of the conventions of love poetry of his time, when the various attributes of female loved ones most often call upon a small number of images and metaphors. Of course, Shakespeare was equally as capable of using these images in the same way as all the other poets, but here he takes a step back and draws our attention, and his own, to the limitations of the conventional poetic language most often used. It is also useful as a permanent reminder that, whenever and wherever used, metaphors are figurative, not literal, and that truth carries over into all spheres of life. We would do well to remember it and know how to recognize the metaphor.


My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun (Sonnet 130)


William Shakespeare, 1564 – 1616



My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.


I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.


I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;


My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.


From <>


Having said that, when you read this poem, you might get the impression that Shakespeare’s lovers eyes are dulled, her breasts are sallow, her cheeks pale, her breath smelly, and her voice rasping. Which all might well have been true. But, poet and smooth talker as he is, Shakespeare makes it all OK again with the final couplet in which he proclaims the depth of his love.


The Poetry Dude