Poetry and Poets: May 2003 Archives

One Darkest Night


The June/July Issue of First Things has a new translation of St.John of the Cross's most famous poem--here called "One Darkest Night." While the translation is in some ways a version that gives a far finer sense of the poetry of St. John than most previous translations, it has some minor flaws. The original Spanish is noted below for context. The majority of this critique will focus on the first stanza. (But this brief comment gives me the excuse to post the entire thing).

La noche oscura
St. John of the Cross

Canciones del alma que se goza de haber llegado al
alto estado de la perfección, que es la unión con Dios,
por el camino de la negación espiritual.

En una noche oscura,
con ansias en amores inflamada,
(¡oh dichosa ventura!)
salí sin ser notada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

A oscuras y segura,
por la secreta escala disfrazada,
(¡oh dichosa ventura!)
a oscuras y en celada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

En la noche dichosa,
en secreto, que nadie me veía,
ni yo miraba cosa,
sin otra luz ni guía
sino la que en el corazón ardía.

Aquésta me guïaba
más cierta que la luz del mediodía,
adonde me esperaba
quien yo bien me sabía,
en parte donde nadie parecía.

¡Oh noche que me guiaste!,
¡oh noche amable más que el alborada!,
¡oh noche que juntaste
amado con amada,
amada en el amado transformada!

En mi pecho florido,
que entero para él solo se guardaba,
allí quedó dormido,
y yo le regalaba,
y el ventalle de cedros aire daba.

El aire de la almena,
cuando yo sus cabellos esparcía,
con su mano serena
en mi cuello hería,
y todos mis sentidos suspendía.

Quedéme y olvidéme,
el rostro recliné sobre el amado,
cesó todo, y dejéme,
dejando mi cuidado
entre las azucenas olvidado.

First, a quibble--the translation does not include the famous header that is commonly called the "argument" of the poem. This is a standard literary device present in the poems of Milton and a great many others and it assists the reader in analyzing what follows. For this poem the header reads (in Kiernan Kavanaugh's and Otilio Rodriguez's translation):

Songs of the soul that rejoices in having reached the high state of perfection, which is union with God, by the path of spiritual negation.

The header tells us two things--that there is more than one song present here and the songs are about union with God. Now Kavanaugh and Rodriguez number the stanzas, as do other translations and manuscripts of the original. This tends to give the impression that each stanza is a song unto itself, which I suppose is one possibility--rather like a leider cycle. I tend to read it somewhat differently--I see two songs here that overlap at the fifth stanza. There appears to be a change of poetic direction so that stanza five ends the first song and gives rise to the second. At least the poem is intelligible read in that way. The author of the new translation has chosen to make the translation a single song--which, in fact is not antithetical to the original poetic intent despite the header.

Let's look briefly at a couple of more serious problems with the new translation. For some reason both the title and the first line of the first stanza are rendered "One darkest night." Literally the title is "The Dark Night" and the first line of stanza one is "On a dark night." There are two problems with this translation, one minor the other major. The minor problem is the disservice done to the English language. Darkest is a superlative. There can only be one such. Thus to say "One darkest night," has the flavor of redundancy and absurdity. Admittedly a small flaw, but a small flaw that has much more profound implications.

The implications come from the commentary on the poem. In The Ascent of Mount Carmel St. John of the Cross claims to be spelling out his theory of prayer and union with God in the form of a commentary on this poem. In fact the work comments only on the first two stanzas and then abandons the original structure. However, in commenting on those two John makes the important division between the active night of the senses and the active night of the spirit. Of this second, which he says was intended by the second stanza, he says that it is the darkest night of three--sense, spirit, and God. He likens the first to night with moonlight and starlight, the second to night without moon or any light at all, and the third to night beginning to be pierced by daylight. Thus, to say of the first stanza "One darkest night" gets around the use of the poem in The Ascent of Mount Carmel. I suppose this is only troublesome if the translation is used in conjunction with its commentary--nevertheless it is a flaw that would need to be remedied in order to make the poem useful for the commentary.

Now that I've quibbled it to death, I must say that the poem is refreshing. Let me quote the first full stanza to give you a sense of the rhythm and the beauty of the translation/paraphrase:

from "One Darkest Night" translated by Rhina P. Espaillat

One darkest night I went,
aflame with love's devouring eager burning--
O fortunate event!--
no witnesses discerning,
the house now still from which my steps were turning.

Now one could fault the choice of moving the action of the poem to the first line, but I see no real problem poetically with the choice--it is not literal, but it allows the poet to use the swinging rhythm caused by the gerunds in lines 2, 4, and 5. As you might well imagine, in Spanish nearly every line has a rhyme or a half-rhyme or at least an echoic phrasing. This translation very nicely captures the essence of that. I have a little problem with "no witnesses discerning" because of the connotative load of the word discern, but it is a choice I can live with for the sake of the overall effect.

In fact, despite my many quibbles here, I really like the translation and recommend it to everyone's attention. If you get First Things turn to page six and begin reading. Quiz in one week.

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How Close this Comes to Home


Ode to the Confederate Dead
Allen Tate

Row after row with strict impunity
The headstones yield their names to the element,
The wind whirrs without recollection;
In the riven troughs the splayed leaves
Pile up, of nature the casual sacrament
To the seasonal eternity of death;
Then driven by the fierce scrutiny
Of heaven to their election in the vast breath,
They sough the rumour of mortality.

Autumn is desolation in the plot
Of a thousand acres where these memories grow
From the inexhaustible bodies that are not
Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row.
Think of the autumns that have come and gone!--
Ambitious November with the humors of the year,
With a particular zeal for every slab,
Staining the uncomfortable angels that rot
On the slabs, a wing chipped here, an arm there:
The brute curiosity of an angel's stare
Turns you, like them, to stone,
Transforms the heaving air
Till plunged to a heavier world below
You shift your sea-space blindly
Heaving, turning like the blind crab.

Dazed by the wind, only the wind
The leaves flying, plunge

You know who have waited by the wall
The twilight certainty of an animal,
Those midnight restitutions of the blood
You know--the immitigable pines, the smoky frieze
Of the sky, the sudden call: you know the rage,
The cold pool left by the mounting flood,
Of muted Zeno and Parmenides.
You who have waited for the angry resolution
Of those desires that should be yours tomorrow,
You know the unimportant shrift of death
And praise the vision
And praise the arrogant circumstance
Of those who fall
Rank upon rank, hurried beyond decision--
Here by the sagging gate, stopped by the wall.

Seeing, seeing only the leaves
Flying, plunge and expire

Turn your eyes to the immoderate past,
Turn to the inscrutable infantry rising
Demons out of the earth they will not last.
Stonewall, Stonewall, and the sunken fields of hemp,
Shiloh, Antietam, Malvern Hill, Bull Run.
Lost in that orient of the thick and fast
You will curse the setting sun.

Cursing only the leaves crying
Like an old man in a storm

You hear the shout, the crazy hemlocks point
With troubled fingers to the silence which
Smothers you, a mummy, in time.

The hound bitch
Toothless and dying, in a musty cellar
Hears the wind only.

Now that the salt of their blood
Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea,
Seals the malignant purity of the flood,
What shall we who count our days and bow
Our heads with a commemorial woe
In the ribboned coats of grim felicity,
What shall we say of the bones, unclean,
Whose verdurous anonymity will grow?
The ragged arms, the ragged heads and eyes
Lost in these acres of the insane green?
The gray lean spiders come, they come and go;
In a tangle of willows without light
The singular screech-owl's tight
Invisible lyric seeds the mind
With the furious murmur of their chivalry.

We shall say only the leaves
Flying, plunge and expire

We shall say only the leaves whispering
In the improbable mist of nightfall
That flies on multiple wing:
Night is the beginning and the end
And in between the ends of distraction
Waits mute speculation, the patient curse
That stones the eyes, or like the jaguar leaps
For his own image in a jungle pool, his victim.

What shall we say who have knowledge
Carried to the heart? Shall we take the act
To the grave? Shall we, more hopeful, set up the grave
In the house? The ravenous grave?

Leave now
The shut gate and the decomposing wall:
The gentle serpent, green in the mulberry bush,
Riots with his tongue through the hush--
Sentinel of the grave who counts us all!

Brought to the fore in a roundabout way by a post at Video Meliora (Look for the entry titled "Russell Kirk on Donald Davidson." From there goggled Davidson to see if there might be some poetry online and found at the American Academy of poets a magnificent tribute to this somber poem. Thus it winds up here.

An Aside: There is a very fine Russell Kirk Essay--"The Attack on Leviathan: Donald Davidson and the South's Conservatism"--available here.

Go and find a print version to savor the spacing and identation that adds to the stateliness and meaning of this magnificent work.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Poetry and Poets category from May 2003.

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