After last week’s brace of Ancient Greek poetic pessimism, I trawled the annals of world literature to find something even more negative and despairing. Why? I don’t know – I was just in that kind of mood, that’s all.
And on a page long ago marked in my Penguin book of Spanish poetry, I found the satisfyingly cheerless ‘Lo Fatal’, by the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. Darío is not much known in the English speaking world, but is a big name in Spanish literature for being the man who transmitted 19th Century French symbolism into Spanish poetry, giving it a new lease of life and inaugurating a period of modernist poetry that would eventually give the world the better known names Antonio Machado and Federico García Lorca. Which is all to the good, obviously, but how’s his poetry?
It’s melodramatic, for one thing. HisWiki biography mentions his twin influences as Verlaine and Hugo. To the modern ear, the Hugo influence seems more prominent- doom laden, heavy handed, seeking after meaning and spiritual succour. Whether or not we recognise the style as modernist, it is modern in another sense – and in that same sense which Hugo can be called modern – in that it locates man in a universe of doubtful meaning, without the old certainties, possibly without God, Nietzsche lurking in the shadows of the library ready to perform an autopsy.
I’ve translated the poem using the prose translation of J.M Cohen to help me, and attempted where possible to follow the rhyme scheme of the original, though I’ve put sense ahead of rhyme where to maintain both is impossible.
Happy is the tree that is insensitive to feeling,
Still happier, for it feels nought, the solid stone.
There is after all no pain greater than living.
Conscious life itself is the very worst affliction:
Being, knowing nothing, with no certain path,
Loathing what has past, for the future feeling terror
With a keen dread of (tomorrow perhaps) death,
And suffering for life, the foreshadow of death, for…
What we do not know, of which we’re barely conscious
And the flesh tempting us with its tender fruits
And the tomb awaiting with its funeral branches
And knowing neither where we’re going
Nor from whence we came.
For the hispanophones among you, here is the original Spanish poem:
Dichoso el árbol, que es apenas sensitivo,
y más la piedra dura porque esa ya no siente,
pues no hay dolor más grande que el dolor de ser vivo,
ni mayor pesadumbre que la vida consciente.
Ser y no saber nada, y ser sin rumbo cierto,
y el temor de haber sido y un futuro terror…
Y el espanto seguro de estar mañana muerto,
y sufrir por la vida y por la sombra y por
lo que no conocemos y apenas sospechamos,
y la carne que tienta con sus frescos racimos,
y la tumba que aguarda con sus fúnebres ramos,
¡y no saber adónde vamos,
ni de dónde venimos!…