Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Spiritual Canticle by Saint John of the Cross (translated by Nims)

A few years back I found a lesser known translation of Saint John of the Cross'Spiritual Canticle. I've read a few versions (I cannot completely understand the original Spanish), and I find this one most delightful.  According to the author this one reconstructs the the original by mimicking metre, rhyme, cadence, style, colloquial expressions, etc. This has a sparkling spirit and feel to it. It has verve . . . pizzaz.  Not stale and stodgy like other translations I've read.  Maybe I'm wrong but I think Saint John would love this translation.

The translator is John Frederick Nims. Originally published in 1959 by First Grove Press.

The Bride:

Where have you gone to hide,
lover, and left me sighing? Couldn't care
less for your wounded bride
but off like a deer from there?
I hurried forth imploring the empty air.

You shepherds, you that rove
over the range where mountains touch the sky,
if you should meet my love
--my one love--tell him why
I'm faint and in a fever and may die.

I'll wander high and low
after the one I worship--til he's found
not stop where daisies grow
nor shrink for beasts around;
bow to no bully and obey no bound.

A question to the creatures:

O woods and brush between,
foliage planted by a lover's hand,
meadows of bluegreen
with many a flower japanned,
tell me: has he been lately in your land?

Their Reply:

Scattering left and right
a thousand favors he went streaming by
these regions, quick as light.
And where it touched, his eye
left a new glory over earth and sky.

The Bride:

New suffering what's to soothe?
Once and for all be really mine, and cure it.
From now on, never use
go-betweens--who'd endure it?
I want your loving voice, and these obscure it.

All that come and go
tell of a thousand wonders, to your credit;
each glimmering's a blow;
like death I dread it--
something they still stood stammering. Yet said it.

How manage to withstand
so long, my life, not living where you live?
Knowing your death at hand
from arrows you receive
only to think of him? To think: to grieve.

Seeing you've wounded, dear,
this heart of mine, why never stoop to mend it?
Steal and yet leave it here?
By halves a bandit,
neither entirely take it nor unhand it?

Console my miseries.
Help as no other can in any measure.
Appear, light of my eyes,
sight's only treasure.
I have eyes for you. Or having them's no pleasure.

If only, crystal well,
clear in your silver mirror could arise
suddenly by some spell
the long awaited eyes
sketched in my heart, so faint they tantalize--

Those eyes, love! Look away!
I'm a gossamer on air!

The Bridegroom:

Swing lower, dove.
The wounded deer, astray,
shows on the hill above
drawn by your wing he loves the coolness of.

The Bride:

My love, the Pyrenees;
depths in a pathless forest cool with cresses;
rivers that seem like seas,
isles no explorer guesses,
the affectionate air, its whisper and caresses;

night sunk in a profound
rest, with the stir of dawn about the skies,
music without a sound,
a solitude of cries,
a supper of light hearts and love-lit eyes.

Our bed, a couch of roses;
lions in grottoes to assure the ground;
purple that folds and closes
on beams of peace around;
our roof, with a thousand gold escutcheons crowned.

Seeing your sandal-mark
girls whirl to the four winds; their faces shine
stung by a sudden spark,
flushed with the glorious wine.
Their breath a very heaven--the air's divine!

Shown deeper than before
in cellars of my love I drank; from there
went wandering on the moor;
knew nothing, felt no care;
the sheep I tended once are who knows where?

He showed his secret heart;
had certain marvelous matters to confide.
Proposals. For my part
I kept nothing aside,
but made a promise: to become his bride.

Forever at his door
I gave my heart and soul. My fortune too.
I've no flock any more,
no other work in view.
My occupation: love. It's all I do.

If I'm not seen again
in old places, on the village ground,
say of me: lost to men.
Say I'm adventure-bound
for love's sake. Lost on purpose to be found.

In the cool morning hours
we'll go about for blossoms we can wear;
string emeralds in the flowers
sprung in love's summer air.
I'll give a strand to bind them--my own hair.

curling upon my shoulder.
You loved to see it lifted on the air.
You loved it, fond beholder
caught fascinated there;
caught fast by an eye that wounds you unaware.

Your eyes in mine aglow
printed their living image in my own.
That's why you loved me so.
And why I've grown
worthier to return the fervor shown.

You thought me, cheek and brow,
a shade too Moorish, and were slow to praise.
Only look this way now
as once before: your gaze
leaves me with lovelier features where it plays.

Now that the bloom uncloses
catch us the little foxes by the vine,
as we knit cones of roses
sturdy as those of pine.
No trespassing about this hill of mine.

Keep north, you winds of death.
Come, southern wind, for lovers. Come and stir
the garden with your breath.
Shake fragrance on the air.
My love will feed among the lilies there.


She enters, the bride! closes
the charming garden that all dreams foretold her;
in comfort she reposes
close to my shoulder.
Arms of the lover that she loves enfolds her.

Under the apple tree,
that's where! Rings on your fingers--to foretell
a wedding, yours with me--
broke in a flash the spell
where all that scandal on your mother fell.

Wings flickering here and there,
lion and gamboling antler, shy gazelle,
peak, precipice, and shore,
flame, air, and flooding well,
night-watchman terror, with no good to tell,

by many a pleasant lyre
and song of sirens I command you, so:
down with that angry choir!
All sweet and low
and let the bride sleep deeper. Off you go!


Girls of Jerusalem,
now that the breath of roses more and more
swirls over leaf and stem,
keep further than before,
Live elsewhere. And no darkening our door.

Stay hidden close with me,
darling. Look to the mountain; turn your face.
Finger at lips. But see
what pretty friends embrace
the passer of fabulous islands in her chase.


The little pearl-white dove
with frond of olive to the Ark returns.
Wedded, the bird of love
no longer yearns,
settled above still water, among ferns.

Hers were the lonely days;
in loneliest of solitudes her nest.
Her guide on lonely ways
her love, who knew them best,
that arrow from the desert in his breast.


Let's live delighted, love!
Gaze eye to eye, see only you in these!
To the hill and heights above!
Cool waters playing! Please
come with me deep and deeper in the trees!

And on to our aerie then,
that cave in the dizzy cliff--few ever guessed it,
hid cunningly from men.
Ah but we've traced it,
and wine of the red pomegranate--there we'll taste it!

And there at last you'd show
the very thing my soul was yearning for;
and, dearest life, although
I lost it once, restore
something you gave the other day: once more

the breathing of the air,
the nightingale in her most jubilant vein,
woods and pleasures there
in night's unruffled reign--
these, and the flame caressing without pain.

With none around to see.
Aminadab's away, that once offended.
Above, the cavalry,
their long siege ended,
sighted the shining waters and descended.

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