“Sky” and “Who Knows…” (Juan Ramón Jiménez)

April 13, 2009


   I had forgotten you,
sky, and you were nothing
more than a vague presense of light,
seen–without a name–
by my tired indolent eyes.
and you appeared, among the lazy
and despairing words of the traveller,
as a vision of small repeated pools
in a watery landscape seen in a dream…

   Today I have gazed at you slowly,
and you have gradually risen up to your name.


Who Knows…

   Who knows what’s at the back of every minute!
   How many times the sunrise
has happened behind a mountain!
   How often the royal thrill of a new horizon
held in its golden womb a clap of thunder!
   That rose was deadly poison.
   That cruel sword gave life.
   I dreamed of a flower meadow
–at the far end of a long road–
I found myself in a marsh.
   Then I dreamed of the glory of all things human,
and found myself in the divine.

(Trans. by J.B. Trend and J.L. Gili)


Discussing the poets of his country, Jiménez said: “The true poetry of Spain, the only possible kind of written lyric poetry, was begun by the feelings of Everyman and by the few strange mystics, whose landscape was the sullen rock and the marvellous sky. They all try to fly, naturally; and for that reason the best Spanish lyrics have been, and are, inevitably mystical, with God or without Him.”

Jiménez’s nod to the “landscape [of] sullen rock and the marvellous sky” intmates something central about the Spanish poets of his time (Machado, Hernandez, Lorca, etc.)–that one could write the sacramental without necessarily invoking God. Light alone, which illuminates “the glory of all things human,” was sufficent to wed heaven and earth. This sensibility, at least in part, is due to a Spanish culture which Jiménez himself described as “deeply realist and falsely religious, Catholic rather than Christian, ecclesiastical rather than spiritual, a country of roots and feet rather than of wings.”

However beautifully we might describe the objects in our lives, they appear only through the mediation of light. For Machado, this could be a cause for distress. He writes, “Those wonderful pinewoods, and those mountains of stone, which know nothing of us, however much we know of them! This has its charm, though it is also solemn cause for distress.” But for Jiménez, though they remain silent, “At times, they leave a rose behind them,/ an ash-grey essence unperfumed,/ sensual pledge of a faith left namelss.”


Cervantes said that a translation is like looking at the wrong side of a tapestry. I have always believed, rather, that is like looking at a new tapestry–informed, no doubt, by the original, but no less “new” or original. J.B. Trend, one of Jiménez’s translators, tells tells us that “poetry [in translation] does not not really depend on the…vowel-harmony or beauty of the original verbal sounds, but on the colour of the poetic emotions.” A nebulous phrase, no doubt, but I like it because it invokes painting, which is fitting when talking about Jiménez. Early in his career, Jiménez had thought of becoming a painter. One of his primary interests was the way in which light and the objects it illumines converse with one another.

Look, light, you are left alone
to play, there, with the leaves so green.
What will you do, now that your sun’s left you alone?

. . . Come to this leaf of paper,
this white leaf and my dark sorrow…

(from “Last Light”)

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