Francisco de Quevedo (1580–1645), one of the greatest poets of the Spanish Golden Age, was the master of the baroque style known as “conceptismo,” a complex form of expression fueled by elaborate conceits and constant wordplay as well as ethical and philosophical concerns.
In one of his sonnets, Quevedo celebrates the solace his books give him; they are "few but erudite," he says, and yet through them, he holds "a conversation with the deceased." In a following line, which should be engraved on the façades of libraries, he states, "I listen to the dead with my eyes." When we read, we listen with our eyes; we transform something seen into something heard, if heard inaudibly.
Quevedo excelled himself in metaphysical and moral poetry, grave elegies and moving epitaphs, amorous sonnets and melancholic psalms, playful romances and profane burlesques. He was an immensely erudite man with diverse interests and extremely prolific. At his best, Quevedo achieved a deeply lyrical, highly intelligent voice. He is toda regarded as one of the greatest European poets.
It is a pleasure to read Edith Grossman’s translation of his poems in her book “The Golden Age-The poems of Spanish Renaissance”. I am an ardent admirer of Edith Grossman, one of the world’s greatest translators of Spanish fiction. If there was a Nobel Prize for translation, she deserved it just for the modern translation of Cervantes’s masterpiece, “Don Quixote”.
Her versions of the "Metaphysical Poems" of Quevedo catch something of his elegant ferocity. Here is a sample of Quevedo’s metaphysical poetry.
Metaphysical Poem -2
by Francisco de Quevedo
Translated by Edith Grossman
Which represents the brevity of our present life
And the apparent nothingness of our past
“Hear me, ah my life!” What? Does none respond?
Bring back those days I lived so long ago
Fortune has gnawed at my allotted time,
And my own folly hides the passing hours.
Ah, not knowing how or where they have gone,
my health and youth and time are lost to me!
I have no life except what I have lived,
Nothing but misfortune hovers round.
Yesterday's gone, tomorrow's not yet come,
Today's in headlong flight and will not stop;
I am a weary was, will be, and is.
In my today, tomorrow, yesterday
I join swaddling and shroud, and have become
Present successions of the same dead man.
The sonnet is a serious meditation on life (and its absence) and time. The opening address or apostrophe “Hear me, ah my life!” immediately and dramatically launches us into poem. It demands our attention with the poetic “I” addressing life itself but getting no response. The address is a cry for communication. The “I” is knocking on the door of life, and the following rhetorical question, “Does none respond?” underlines the fact that there is no reply. The “I” realizes that there is a void where his life should be and wonders where his life has gone.
Alone, the “I” appeals for the return of his past years, but as the exclamation mark makes clear, it is a forlorn appeal. Why? Because Fate and his obsession have eaten away and hidden all vestiges of his past , leaving the “I” with no idea of how or where his years have fled . As a result, life is absent and all that remains is what he has “lived” , and what he has “lived” is a succession of deaths ("In my today, tomorrow, yesterday/I join swaddling and shroud, and have become/Present successions of the same dead man) which explains why life is not answering his call.
The sestet (last six lines of the sonnet) is grim and stripped of all human warmth. Time is so relentless that his very being is no more than an expression of time, a “was,” a “will be” and a tired “is”. His life, compressed to a mere link between birth and death is an endless series of deaths; i.e. he’s been paradoxically a dead man living throughout his life, from birth to old age. This is the climax leading to the last word, “dead man” appropriately used in this context.
I liked that striking paired metaphor, Swaddling cloth or diapers and funeral shroud, alluding to birth and death, with textually no “life” in between. The compressed leap from birth to death in these two juxtaposed words captures superbly the idea that life is absent.