Monday, September 1, 2014

A Poet Of The Thirteenth Century

Jorge Luis Borges
Un Poeta Del Siglio XIII

(go to the end of this blog for the text of the poem in Spanish, and Alexander Coleman's English translation for the Penguin edition)

   Presenting this poem in the original Spanish - or Argentine, which perhaps isn’t quite the same: a dialect of Spanish, dare I suggest? - is not an example of showing-off, for in truth I understand the words of this poem as little as I imagine do you, my reader. Every word is a permutation of letters, and letters are as inanimate as blocks of stone. Use, on the other hand, gives each word a spark of individual existence, imbues it with cultural life and makes of it something specific; and we, the users, attach values accordingly. The letters C-O-N in English represent trickery and duplicity, a form of cheating; the same letters in Spanish form the conjunction “with”; in French they describe the female pudendum and colloquially constitute an obscene insult. The words themselves are quite innocent, but we impose upon them our moral attitudes. (This is why the banning and burning of books is so absurd). When we, today, use the descriptive term “quaint” - what more innocuous adjective is there? – we are using the same word that Chaucer used frequently in his Canterbury Tales; the word has evolved considerably since his time, when it too described the female pudendum. Today there are two words, the innocuous adjective that has retained the mediaeval spelling; the mediaeval meaning that has acquired a modern spelling.

    Why am I saying this? Because the cultural life of every word remains specific to time, people, place. No usage of words is more specific, more precisely selected, than that of poetry. In translating poetry, it is not enough to transfer the language; one has somehow to transport an entire culture across the great divide.

    I present this poem, then, in Spanish and in translation, that the reader may sense for himself those rhythms, cadences, sonorities, silences, which even the most valiant translation cannot hope to capture. And as to the poem itself. The moment is historic - in retrospect, of course: no moment is ever intrinsically historic - yet who but Borges would ever have thought to commemorate it?

    The form, inexorably, derives from the content: it would have been absurd to honour the invention of the Italian sonnet - so much more difficult a form than the English, Elizabethan, sonnet - in any other form but an Italian sonnet. Yet the subject...does it matter who the poet was, or the theme of his labours, or where, or when, or how successfully? That “archetypal thing”, surely it is simply “a poem by Borges”; and the poem about the poem and its labouring poet, is it not simply a reflection in the mirror?

   The poem nonetheless tantalises with the question that I have declared irrelevant in that last paragraph. Who was the poet? You, I am certain, have assumed Dante, Durante Alighieri to give him his full name, the author of that astonishing extended metaphor which Boccaccio renamed "The Divine Comedy". It is entirely possible that Borges made the same assumption, but given the breadth and depth of his scholarship in all matters poetical, I suspect he knew the rather more obscure truth, but chose not to show off, as I am about to do. The sonnet in fact came into European poetry by way of the Hebrew and the Arabic, introduced by one Immanuel of Rome, or Manoello Giudeo, almost anonymous today in the Jewish let alone the non-Jewish world, though it is unlikely that any Jew who has ever been to synagogue is unfamiliar with his most famous poem, a digest of the complexities of Maimonides’ "Thirteen Principles of Faith" into the language of Everyman, and known as the "Yigdal". Immanuel spent much of his life in Moorish Spain, from where he also brought a form known as the "makama", which he renamed in Italian as the "meliza", and taught it to Dante. It seems a very simple form, but it broke all the traditions of rhymed poetry, by employing a formal chronological narrative to give it unity of structure, and within that structure granting itself enormous freedom, constantly changing style and tone, mixing verse with rhymed prose, sometimes frivolously comic, at others deeply spiritual, intensely serious, self-consciously intellectual and always full of wise saws and witty epigrams, while combining knowledge with anecdote. In Dante's hands it became the "Vita Nuova", his first great work before the Divine Comedy. It was so new, people simply called it "la novella – the novel" - and the name appears to have stuck.

   That Immanuel also taught Dante the sonnet cannot be confirmed, but it seems extremely likely, given their relationship, and the degree to which the sonnet "took off", particularly in the hands of another of Dante's guides and fellow Guelph, Guittone d'Arezzo. Giacomo Da Lentini is credited with its invention, but in fact he was adapting into Italian what he had learned from the Trovères, the Troubadours of southern France, and they in turn had learned it from the Moors of Spain, from whom they came - the Arabic route that paralleled the Hebrew. But the first sonnet to appear in Europe preceded Lentini; it can be found, with a variety of other Arabic and Hebrew forms which European poets did not choose to take up, amongst the "piyyut", the liturgical poetry of the Day of Atonement.

    When Dante died, Manoello was devastated. There exists an exchange of sonnets between Manoello and the poet Bosone da Gubbio, mourning and commemorating Alighieri. And when Manoello himself lay dying, da Gubbio and Cino de Pistoia sat, metaphorically, at his bedside, and exchanged sonnets of the same order, placing him alongside Dante as an equal.

Vuelve a mirar los arduos borradores
De aquel primer soneto innominado,
La página arbitraria en que ha mezclado
Tercetos y cuartetos pecadores.

Lima con lenta pluma sus rigores
Y se detiene. Acaso le ha llegado
Del porvenir y de su horror sagrado
Un rumor de remotos ruiseñores.

¿Habrá sentido que no estaba solo
Y que el arcano, el increíble Apolo
Le había revelado un arquetipo,

Un ávido cristal que apresaría
Cuanto la noche cierra o abre el día:
Dédalo, laberinto, enigma, Edipo?

Think of him labouring in the Tuscan halls
On the first sonnet (that word still unsaid),
The undistinguished pages, filled with sad
Triplets and quatrains, without heads or tails.

Slowly he shapes it; yet the impulse fails.
He stops, perhaps at a strange slight music shed
From time coming and its holy dread,
A murmuring of far-off nightingales.

Did he sense that others were to follow,
That the arcane, incredible Apollo
Had revealed an arechetypal thing?

A whirlpool mirror that would draw and hold
All that night could hide or day unfold:
Daedalus, labyrinth, riddle, Oedipus King?

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