H.L. Hix

On the Ascension

Fray Luis de León

Translated by H. L. Hix     

Will you leave, holy Shepherd,
your flock in this valley, deep, obscure,
in weeping and solitude,
while you, piercing the pure
air, rise to immortality secure?
    The ones once blest
but now facing grief and affliction,
once nursed at your breast,
now in dispossession,
in what direction can they turn?
    What can they witness
who once saw the beauty of your face
that knows no angers?
After your sweet voice,
what would not be dull and graceless?
    This turbulent sea,
who can check it? who can halt
the fierce wind, angry?
If you are cloaked,
what north star will guide the ship to port?
    Oh envious cloud,
will you not suffer us so brief a joy?
Where do you speed?
What wealth you take away!
How blind you leave us, in what poverty!

 

Since the poem I’ve translated here is four centuries old, for the Bonus Round I’d like to add a couple of words of context for it.

“On the Ascension” employs Fray Luis’s favorite verse form, a stanza he stole from Garcilaso, who took it from Tasso, who hoped to out-Horace Horace. Called the lira, its five lines have 7, 11, 7, 7, and 11 syllables, rhymed aBabB (small letters designate assonantal rhyme, capitals consonantal rhyme). I have cheated. I give the translation shorter lines with two heavy accents, and longer lines a line with four, but I allow the syllable count to vary. I also forfeit the assonantal/consonantal distinction, and resort to sometimes very slant rhyme (e.g. halt/cloaked/port).

Formally, then, I have followed rules that nod toward those Fray Luis was following, but also free me to honor his natural word order and deliberate word choice. Word choice mattered to Fray Luis. He believed, as Colin Thompson puts it in The Strife of Tongues, not in an accidental relationship between, but in an “ideal union of,” word and meaning; for him, “the word is a spiritual reality, which enables the individual to participate in all the variety of creation, and it in him” (177).

Which makes Luis’s choice of “Shepherd” (“Pastor” in Spanish) a clue to the poem’s tenor. In his poetry, he uses this name of Christ only here and in one other poem. Its use here, in a poem meditating on the ascension, locates care in the future, and thus in hope. It positions us, in other words, within the kingdom of earth, but orients us toward the kingdom of God. When he explicates the name “Pastor” in his theological study The Names of Christ, Luis locates Christ’s shepherding in the next world: “To compare with this region the miserable exile in which we live,” Marcelo continues, “is to compare agitation with peace, the disorder, trouble, tumult, and malaise of the most turbulent city with purity, tranquility, and sweetness. Because here one suffers and there one rests; here one imagines, there one sees; here there are the shadows of things which frighten and shock us, there it is truth which soothes and charms us. This is only darkness, tumult, uproar; that is a very pure light at the core of an eternal peace” (91). “On the Ascension” makes that comparison, and laments the “darkness, tumult, uproar” in which we live.

For me it is not the Christian-ness of the poem’s language and mythos that are engaging, but the particular way Fray Luis employs that culture-bound language and mythos here: in service, as I understand it, of a tension that is not culture-bound: the tension between our need for care (the vulnerability imposed on us by our mortality) and our felt lack of care (the ultimate indifference implied by our finitude, our inconsequentiality in the cosmic order).

 

Wendy XuH. L. Hix’s most recent books are a “selected poems,” First Fire, Then Birds: Obsessionals 1985-2010, published in Fall 2010 by Etruscan Press, and a translation, made with the author, of Eugenijus Ališanka’s from unwritten histories, published in Spring 2011 by Host Publications. His website is www.hlhix.com .