Mario, el ingrato amor, como testigo

Garcilaso, was a soldier-poet, commanding Spanish forces in Italy in the mid-1500s, and finally being killed in action there. This poem is dedicated to a friend, Mario, and is written after being wounded in the arm, although the sub-title opens the way to some doubt over whether this wound was real or a poetical device, when it says “according to some”. No matter, whether real or contrived, the idea drives the poem’s subject – the wound may cause the poet to write unworthy verse to his friend, but his poetic energy and talent will win the day.
And it is another sonnet, of course, number 35 of the collection posthumously assembled by Garcilaso’s friend and fellow poet Juan de Boscan.


Soneto Xxxv
Garcilaso de la Vega
A Mario, estando, segun algunos dicen, herido en la lengua y en el brazo

Mario, el ingrato amor, como testigo
de mi fe pura y de mi gran firmeza,
usando en mí su vil naturaleza,
que es hacer más ofensa al más amigo;

teniendo miedo que si escribo o digo
su condición, abato su grandeza;
no bastando su fuerza a mi crüeza
ha esforzado la mano a mi enemigo.

Y ansí, en la parte que la diestra mano
gobierna. y en aquella que declara
los conceptos del alma, fui herido.

Mas yo haré que aquesta ofensa cara
le cueste al ofensor, ya que estoy sano,
libre, desesperado y ofendido.
Garcilaso de la Vega

From <;

The first eight lines express the poet’s fear that he will write a verse to his friend Mario which is unworthy, and which will offend by not doing justice to his friend’s great virtues. In the next three lines, he gives the explanation, which is that he has been wounded in the hand, and it is the right hand which he uses to declare the nobility of the soul – so how will he be able to praise his friend with such a handicap. But in the final three lines, Garcilaso declares he will overcome this adversity and even make it cost his attacker dear, as he will emerge stronger, free, and energised by having been attacked. The response of a warrior indeed, and it is great that this energy is out into great poetry. I am also reminded, of course, of that other great writer, Cervantes, who also was wounded in the hand at the battle of Lepanto and went on to write one of the greatest literary creations ever, Don Quijote.

The Poetry Dude

Escrito está en mi alma vuestro gesto,

This is a love sonnet from Garcilaso de la Vega, perhaps based on a real love, but just as likely an exercise in the expression of a theme, a vehicle to bring to bear the range of the poet’s technical skills and inspire admiration from the reader, rather than empathy or emotion. Many poems of this era tend to be designed to appeal to the intellect or to a sense of aesthetics, rather than touch our hearts, but I like to think there is at least a smidgeon of real feeling in poems such as this. For this poem, at least speaks of a love so deep that the poet feels totally imbued with the presence of his loved one.

Soneto V

Escrito está en mi alma vuestro gesto,
y cuanto yo escribir de vos deseo;
vos sola lo escribisteis, yo lo leo
tan solo, que aun de vos me guardo en esto.

En esto estoy y estaré siempre puesto;
que aunque no cabe en mí cuanto en vos veo,
de tanto bien lo que no entiendo creo,
tomando ya la fe por presupuesto.

Yo no nací sino para quereros;
mi alma os ha cortado a su medida;
por hábito del alma mismo os quiero.

Cuanto tengo confieso yo deberos;
por vos nací, por vos tengo la vida,
por vos he de morir, y por vos muero.

From <;

The momentum of the poem builds up from a fairly gentle beginning, setting out the premise that the poet’s lover’s every gesture is written into his soul, gaining in intensity with every line, every example of the lover’s effect on him, until the last two lines are a crescendo of deep feeling. The repetition of “por vos” four times in the final two lines deepens the expression of the poet’s feeling of connection with his lover. The reader will truly feel that this love is so special, almost unreally noble compared to the flawed and volatile love affairs that exist in real life. But isn’t that a valid use of poetry – to express the ideal, the aspiration, rather than mundane reality. Such poetry has the capacity to lift us up.

The Poetry Dude

Por ásperos caminos he llegado

Like yesterday’s posting of the poem by Salvador Espriu, this sonnet by Garcilaso also seems to be a musing on death and its meaning. As far as I know, Garcilaso was not afflicted by age or illness, but, as a soldier, he knew that death was always possible. And, in fact, he was indeed killed in a military action in southern Italy. It was a commonplace in those days for people to want to be reminded of their mortality (hence the skull you can often see in elaborate portraits of the nobility), but in Garcilaso’s case, this was a common reality.

Garcilaso de la Vega

Por ásperos caminos he llegado
a parte que de miedo no me muevo;
y si a mudarme a dar un paso pruebo,
y allí por los cabellos soy tornado.

Mas tal estoy, que con la muerte al lado
busco de mi vivir consejo nuevo;
y conozco el mejor y el peor apruebo,
o por costumbre mala o por mi hado.

Por otra parte, el breve tiempo mío,
y el errado proceso de mis años,
en su primer principio y en su medio,

mi inclinación, con quien ya no porfío,
la cierta muerte, fin de tantos daños,
me hacen descuidar de mi remedio.

From <;

The sonnet is about the inevitability of death, or perhaps, to be more precise, the poet’s realisation of the inevitability of death. He has arrived at this point in his life travelling rough roads (the school of hard knocks) and now realises that death is inevitable. It is the voice of experience coming to terms with the human condition, an attitude which would be applauded by contemporary sensibilities, but which was particularly appropriate for Garcilaso personally, in his role as a military commander.

The poem is constructed very artfully – with series of alliterations in several places, and with the echoing of vowel sounds within lines. Like a fine wine, you can read and re-read it and appreciate the different tones and depths of the language and the structure.

Read it again and enjoy…

The Poetry Dude

Cuando me paro a contemplar mi estado

This sonnet from Garcilaso is about that typical theme of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of the suffering of the poet in love, because his lover scorns him. There are numerous variations of this topic, from Garcilaso to Shakespeare and many in between. Although a bit convoluted, there is a lot to admire in the clever sequencing, language and ultimately impeccable logic of these pieces.


Cuando me paro a contemplar mi estado
y a ver los pasos por dó me ha traído,
hallo, según por do anduve perdido,
que a mayor mal pudiera haber llegado;

mas cuando del camino estoy olvidado,
a tanto mal no sé por dó he venido:
sé que me acabo, y mas he yo sentido
ver acabar conmigo mi cuidado.

Yo acabaré, que me entregué sin arte
a quien sabrá perderme y acabarme,
si quisiere, y aun sabrá querello:

que pues mi voluntad puede matarme,
la suya, que no es tanto de mi parte,
pudiendo, ¿qué hará sino hacello?

From <;

The first four lines put the poets own state of mind at the centre of the poem, saying basically that he was heading for ruin, but things haven’t got as bad as they could be. But the second four lines are in direct contrast with the opening of the poem, saying that the poet is on the path to ruin and nothing he can do will stop it. Note that at this point the poet’s lover has not yet entered the picture as the explanatory variable. She comes in the first group of three lines when the poet admits he fell for one who could lead to his ruin if she wanted to, and she will surely want to. And the poem ends with a Baroque paradox – if he can end his own life through his own will, how much more likely is it that his lover will end it for him?

It quite makes your head swim, but that’s OK, the poem does a good job of retaining your interest.

The Poetry Dude

Si para refrenar este deseo

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?

From <;

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

A la entrada de un valle, en un desierto

Garcilaso de la Vega saw military service in North Africa in the 1530s, when he was present at the siege and capture of Tunis by the Spanish and Neapolitan forces. During this campaign it is quite possible that he saw a real scene, as depicted in this poem, of a dying dog in the desert. But of course, purely descriptive poetry was, I think, quite rare at this time, and so he uses the scene to build an allegory of absence and loss which generalises it to a universal experience. But I like this poem as much for the fact that it seems to be clearly based on something the poet personally witnessed, as for the more general meaning or for the elegance of the form and language.

A la entrada de un valle, en un desierto
do nadie atravesaba ni se vía,
vi que con extrañeza un can hacía
extremos de dolor con desconcierto:

ahora suelta el llanto al cielo abierto,
ora va rastreando por la vía:
camina, vuelve, para, y todavía
quedaba desmayado como muerto.

Y fue que se apartó de su presencia
su amo, y no lo hallaba, y eso siente:
mirad hasta dó llega el mal de ausencia.

Movióme a compasión ver su accidente;
díjele, lastimado: “Ten paciencia,
que yo alcanzo razón, y estoy ausente”.

From <;

The first two stanzas are an entirely visual description of a dog dying in the desert, howling, obviously in pain, dragging itself up and down the track and finally collapsing as if it were already dead. Note that Garcilaso chooses to use an archaic (or perhaps poetic?) word for dog, “can”, instead of the everyday word, “perro”.

The third stanza brings the poet into the picture from being a mere observer, to an interpreter, speculating that the dog has lost its master and has been brought to its pitiful state by the master’s absence or neglect. Very plausible, of course, in the case of a real dog.

The final stanza evokes the compassion of the poet as an onlooker and offers a shared experience of suffering through absence – in the dog’s case, absence of its master, in the poet’s case, probably absence from his homeland and loved ones, and, by implication, the universal experience of absence and loss. In this way, a particular episode is given broad significance, relevant to all, at all times. Thus, one of the functions of a fine poem is fulfilled.

The Poetry Dude

En tanto que de rosa y azucena

Garcilaso was chronologically the first, I think, of Spain’s great poets pf the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, pre-dating Fray Luis de Leon, Quevedo and Gongora. He was a soldier poet, and died in battle in Italy. This sonnet, on the theme of enjoy life while you are young because age will inevitably come and wither youthful beauty and vigour, is a direct precursor of Gongora’s “Mientras por competir con tu cabello”, (see post here on October 2nd 2014), both in the subject matter, the rhythms and the images. Look at both poems and compare…

Garcilaso de la Vega

Soneto XXIII

En tanto que de rosa y azucena
se muestra la color en vuestro gesto,
y que vuestro mirar ardiente, honesto,
enciende al corazón y lo refrena;

y en tanto que el cabello, que en la vena
del oro se escogió, con vuelo presto,
por el hermoso cuello blanco, enhiesto,
el viento mueve, esparce y desordena:

coged de vuestra alegre primavera
el dulce fruto, antes que el tiempo airado
cubra de nieve la hermosa cumbre;

marchitará la rosa el viento helado.
Todo lo mudará la edad ligera
por no hacer mudanza en su costumbre.

From <;

The first two stanzas paint the picture of a young lady in the prime of her youth with rose and lily colours in her cheeks, a way of looking which gladdens the heat, blonde hair blowing in the wind over a beautiful neck. This is very similar to the imagery in Gongora’s later sonnet and is a lead in to the final two stanzas in which the same conclusions are reached. The message is enjoy life while you are young before the ravages of age whither youthful beauty and vigour.

These themes are of course commonplace throughout poetry, and especially of this time. You can find them equally in Shakespeare, for example. But this is a fine example at all levels – language, imagery, rhythm and elegance.

To be enjoyed like a fine bottle of vintage wine.

The Poetry Dude