Monday, October 10, 2011

Book post: Poesias Completas de San Juan de la Cruz

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: Poesias Completas de San Juan de la Cruz

Author: Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross), edited by Cristobal Cuevas

Date: 1981

Publisher: Editorial Bruguera

ISBN: 84-02-07990-3

Length: 218 pages by Juan de la Cruz, 80 pages by Cristobal Cuevas

Quote: "Mi alma se ha empleado, y todo mi caudal, en su servicio; ya no guardo ganado, ni ya tengo otro oficio, que ya solo en amar es mi exercicio."

The Carmelite monk known as St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) was born in Madrid, lived in Spain, and wrote his Dark Night of the Soul in Spanish. Some of his word choices and spellings are archaic, but he tried to use simple language to express his profound thoughts, and the "lyrics" to which he refers in his full-length book are surprisingly easy to read. Understanding his theology and philosophy is much harder than understanding his language. I had a Spanish dictionary at hand while reading Poesias Completas, but opened it only once.

Now, about what he said... "[P]ara que una alma llegue al estado de perfeccion, ordinariamente ha de pasar primero por dos maneras principales de noches, que los espirituales llaman purgaciones o purificaciones del alma..."

"In order to arrive at a state of perfection, a soul ordinarily has to pass through two principal kinds of nights, which spiritual people call purgings or purifications of the soul. Here we call them nights because the soul, in one just as in the other, travels as if by night, in darkness. The first 'night' or purgation is of the sensitive [sensory?] part of the soul...and the second is of the spiritual part."

Is this true? If so, to what extent is it true, and what is it true of? Christians have been pondering these questions for five hundred years.

The long poem, of which two editions are reproduced in this book and to which The Dark Night of the Soul refers, is a lyrical paraphrase of the Song of Solomon. Several metaphors used in the original Hebrew sound strange in English or in Spanish. The original text is a wedding song, or collection of such songs, with lots of descriptions of the perfect young bodies of a couple of young sheepherders. "Hair like a flock of goats" is one image that used to make me smile, until I began working with wool and mohair and realized that it means the girl has smooth rather than frizzy hair. Then there's the image of her neck "like a tower" (long and straight) on whose balconies soldiers hung their shields (shiny beads?). That was whimsical enough, but then the search for rhyme and meter seems to have inspired Juan to elaborate, "reflejaste en mi cuello," "you were reflected on my neck," and then expound on the neck being the symbol of strength, i.e. brazen. Some people find this kind of meditations helpful. Some can only laugh at them.

Most of Juan's poems are shorter religious lyrics meant to be sung to popular song tunes of the day. If you're into madrigals, tunes may come to your mind as you read them. They rely on images that have become cliches by now, if they weren't at the time; on the other hand, the cliches make the songs easier to understand, sing, or translate into rhymed songs if one wants to try.

Additionally, Cuevas makes a case for including the rhetorical devices of some of Juan's sermons as a sort of pre-modern unrhymed poems. "Poems" exhorting audiences, "Choose the rough over the smooth! Choose the bitter above the sweet!" were not new to medieval European Christians, but Juan may have been the first to turn them into poems in a popular language that would catch the ear, be translated, and become famous.

Clearly, those who want to apply Juan's thoughts to their own lives and religious practice will find food for years of long, deep thought even in this little supplementary book.

There are bilingual Spanish-English editions of the long poem and lyrics in Poesias Completas, all-English editions, editions where the poems are bound together with The Dark Night of the Soul. For some readers, Cuevas's historical and biographical notes may be the most important part of the edition I have.

Anyway, Poesias Completas is hard to find in the United States. I have it. If you're one of the select few who want it, let me know.