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"To Build Castles in Spain"

Ten Centuries of Spanish Verse , edited by Eleanor L. Turnbull. New York: Grove Press, 1955.

The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse , edited by J. M. Cohen. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1960.

To anthologize ten centuries of any country's poetry would seem a very ambitious job—and the more so, when the country is one so vague in our minds as is Spain. I don't know that either Miss Turnbull's selection, or that of Cohen, succeeds altogether in giving the necessary orientation. But such success would be in any case extremely relative. Briefly, I would prefer Cohen's book for these reasons: (1) his system of identifying authors in the table of contents is uncomplicated and allows quick reference; (2) his prose translations, running beneath the Spanish text on each page in the character of unpretentious footnotes, make a very usable "trot"; and (3) his material, although paralleling Miss Turnbull's in great part, seems to me a more solid continuity. To these things, I should add the fact that his anthology costs $1.50 less than Miss Turnbull's; and consider the matter settled.

There is, however, a tendency evident in Miss Turnbull's book that might be mentioned—because it seems without justification. The translations which she has provided are often very curious. They include, for example, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's translation of the formalist Jorge Manrique's "Coplas por la Muerte de su Padre "—and also Lord Byron's translation of "La Pérdida de Al -

Poetry , December 1958.


hama ," which he calls "A Very Mournful Ballad on the Siege and Conquest of Alhama" reasonably enough. And there are a number of other translators present, who have that strangely insistent tone of great enthusiasm and limited perception. Again, that is why I favor the workmanlike continuity of Cohen's prose notes. But an instance may make the point more clearly:

. . .  Como al partir del sol la sombra crece,
y en cayendo su rayo levanta
la negra escuridad que el mundo cubre,
de do viene el temor que nos espanta
 . . .
(Garcilaso de la Vega, from "Egloga Primera ")

. . . As when the sun departs the shadows grow and, as its rays sink, the black darkness rises to cover the world, whence comes the fear that strikes us . . .


. . . As at the set of sun the shades extend,
And when its circle sinks, that dark obscure
Rises to shroud the world, on which attend
The images that set our hair on end . . .
(Turnbull: Jeremiah H. Wiffen, translator)

Miss Turnbull would, I think, have been better advised to follow her own abilities; Contemporary Spanish Poetry (another of her anthologies, wherein she used translations of her own) seems to me a much happier example of her care and intelligence.

That done, there remains Spanish literature to be spoken of; and I feel as tentative here, as the usual American must. Both books are, in effect, a substantial offering of that literature, but I wonder how simply a reader will find their materials available, lacking much acquaintance with either literature or the peculiar characteristics of the national temper of which it is the form. It is true enough, as Cohen notes, that "For the majority, Spain is the country of a single prose masterpiece, Don Quixote  . . ." For the American, we may add background instances of Spanish temper, such as Cortes, Coronado, et al., and of course Columbus (by Robert Graves' conjecture quite probably Spanish also, i.e., a Mallorquin from Soller, etc.). But then our orientation moves north. And although one may see bullfights in Nîmes, Arles, and other French cities close to the Spanish border, there is no such acquaintance with Spanish form allowed in Texas.

So then the background for this literature is also a problem, and we are left here with what references we can manage, wherewith to


take hold of this work. Granted writing comes from a place , and the complex of attitudes there to be found effectual, I would recommend as a primer William H. Prescott's History of the Reign of Philip the Second (1855), simply because it conveys with all the singularities of 19th-century American intelligence, a world unequivocally Spanish , in a variety of relationships, both European (because this period was one in which Spain, contrary to usual position, was much involved in European politics) and Moorish (the opening chapters of Book V will place that relationship clearly in the reader's mind). What we have, in short, to manage is even the most minimal sense of what that "world" was—for ten centuries. Prescott will usefully let one look both backwards and forwards, and that is more to the point here than would be a work perhaps more modern or more accurate.

Continuing this sense of background, I would also cite a few ideas , more than actual references, which may have bearing. I don't know that we see, or can see, such areas "all of a sudden"; yet an idea, a perception of some aspect of that reality, can do much to help, no matter what questions of bias or opinion. For example, Stendhal comments on the Spanish character in his A Life of Napoleon as follows:

Ferocious yet generous at one and the same time; hospitable yet unrelenting; lazy yet tireless when on the move, burned by his sun and his superstitious beliefs, the Spaniard offers all the freakish characteristics of an irascible temperament carried to extreme.


The specific character of the priests is perhaps the main characteristic which divides Spain from the rest of Europe. The clergy in Spain is resident .

In her Autobiography Gertrude Stein writes:

She always says that americans can understand spaniards. That they are the only two western nations that can realise abstraction. That in americans it expresses itself by disembodiedness, in literature and machinery, in Spain by ritual so abstract that it does not connect itself with anything but ritual. . . . They have no close contact with the earth such as most europeans have. Their materialism is not the materialism of existence, of possession, it is the materialism of action and abstraction.

Ramón Sender calls the Spanish poet ("if he survives") the most civilized man in the world today. I note that Elie Faure in an introduction to a collection of Goya's etchings speaks of "a kind of equivocal


atmosphere wavering between Catholic cruelty and life on the one hand, and Protestant hypocrisy and morals on the other . . ." It will be, then, by such apparently disrelated comment, often incisively personal, that our own reaction may be stimulated, to supply that contact on which these, or any poems, will be dependent.

There are many poets in the two collections, otherwise, who will enlarge anyone's concept of Spanish or, equally, of world literature. Juan Ruiz, Jorge Manrique, Garcilaso de la Vega, Fray Luis de León, Baltasar de Alcázar—to note only those to the time of Shakespeare—are such men. Yet to say it that way quickly falls into speciousness. It is better to think of one poem. "Antonio Machado (1875–1939), a poet of great and individual simplicity, sober and reflective, and a great interpreter of the Castilian landscape. He defended the Republic, and died on the French side of the Pyrenees when its armies were defeated" (Cohen). This is one of his poems:


            En memoria de Abel Martín

Mientras traza su curva el pez de fuego,
junto al ciprés, bajo el supremo añil,
y vuela en blanca piedra el niño ciego,
y en el olmo la copla de marfil
de la verde cigarra late y suena,
honremos al Señor
—la negra estampa de su mano buena—
que ha dictado el silencio en el clamor.

Al Dios de la distancia y de la ausencia,
del áncora en la mar, la plena mar . . .
El nos libra del mundo—omnipresencia—,
nos abre senda para caminar.

Con la copa de sombra bien colmada,
con este nunca lleno corazón,
honremos al Señor que hizo la Nada
y ha esculpido en la fe nuestra razón.[*]


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