|Singing the Songs of Love
copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
15 December 2007
Not long ago, I bought a book by the American
poet WS Merwin, dated 1961 and called Some Spanish Ballads.
A curious feature: the published text bears a dedication to
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. As is well known, Hughes and Plath
were interested in the translation of poetry, especially modern
poetry. They were friends with Merwin and his wife, Dido, and
this book is a testament to that friendship and that interest.
The hardback, published by a small firm called Abelard-Schuman,
is not expensive on the internet. There was also a paperback,
of which I found a copy in New York recently.
Hughes talks about that interest in a letter
to Anne Stevenson dated 1986, in Christopher Reid's new Letters
of Ted Hughes. Not about the Spanish ballads themselves, but
about a "general surge of curiosity about modern poetry
outside the US/English tradition" in the early 1960s. Robert
Bly was "one of the earliest and most gifted transmitters,
sure enough, but so was Bill Merwin (whom [Plath] knew well.
She had sheafs of translations by him - some of his first-rate
Neruda among others). In a way, we collected that sort of thing
and by 1960-61 we had a good deal - Italian, Spanish, French,
German, South American, Czech and Polish (Sylvia grasped the
point of Zbigniew Herbert straight off)."
Plath, Hughes tells us, "was perpetually
studying German and used Rilke as a text. She regarded Rilke
and Herbert as much more her 'fellow-countrymen' than other
US poets". He adds that "the 'movement' to break down
the parochial confinements of 50s verse - academic verse basically
- which was also one aspect of England and America returning
to an awareness of the rest of the world, after the locked doors
of the war ... did help her, give her courage and confidence,
and general permission, to take the steps natural to her."
No doubt, as far as their relation to Merwin's
work was concerned, poets such as Neruda and Lorca had the greater
weight. But the old Spanish ballads (which were themselves of
capital importance to Lorca) must have had their place in the
consciousness of this ambitious group of young writers, and
it has often seemed to me that Merwin's volume (especially if
it were provided with Spanish originals) would be worth reprinting.
What are the Spanish ballads? They are the
mostly anonymous equivalents of our own Border ballads, but
they are not always nearly as long as the Scottish or English
ballads. They are denoted by the word Romance, which means ballad,
as long as you bear in mind that the word ballad is capable
of meaning rather different things. They are part of the Spanish
oral tradition, and they often tell a bit of a story, something
from history or legend, rather than the whole tale from beginning
The easiest place to find them is in the admirable
Penguin Book of Spanish Verse, edited by JM Cohen, which itself
dates from 1956, but they have been of interest to English writers
since the Romantic period (Lockhart, the author of the life
of Sir Walter Scott, translated them) and even earlier. One
of the most famous is the "Romance of Count Arnaldos".
It has been rendered into English at least nine times, by Longfellow
among others. It tells of the count who, riding with his hawk
on his wrist, sees a ship approaching land, with silken sails.
A sailor on board is singing a song that makes the sea calm,
the fish rise to the surface and the birds perch on the mast.
Count Arnaldos asks the sailor to teach him this song, but the
sailor replies that he will only tell the song to those who
will come with him.
Another of the famous short ballads is the
"Romance of the Prisoner", which Cohen translates
like this: "For it was in May, in May, at the time of the
great heat, at the time when lovers go to serve their loves.
Only I, sad and wretched, lie in this prison, and I do not know
when it is day, nor yet when it is night, except by a little
bird which used to sing to me at dawn. A cross-bowman killed
it for me; may God give him an ill reward!" The last line
is especially concise in the original.
Merwin includes a Catalan ballad called "The
Corpse-Keeper", about a woman who has a skeleton hidden
in her chamber. For seven years she has kept the man there,
dead, changing his shirt once a year, unable to confide her
secret to her parents or siblings. One day a huntsman passes,
and she asks him to take the body and bury it. She rewards him
with two thousand kisses. But what the ballad never explains
is who the lover is, or how he came to be dead.
This is one of the things that makes these
ballads so attractive - their suggestiveness and concision.
In the case of "The Prisoner", a longer version is
known that gives the man's name and why he is in prison, and
so on. Scholars have argued as to whether the short version
is pared down from the longer original, or whether the long
version is simply an uninspired elaboration of the short.
The other night on the radio, I heard Montserrat
Figueras singing two of the Sephardic romances, to the accompaniment
of her husband Jordi Savall and his group Hespèrion XX.
It turned out that one of the ballads had been collected in
Sarajevo. Such material has been passed down orally among Jews
who were expelled from Spain in 1492 and who found refuge in
the Ottoman empire and North Africa. In some cases, ballads
that were lost in Spain survived among the Sephardim.
This last fact (among many others) I learnt
from a book called Spanish Ballads, edited by Colin Smith (Bristol
Classical Press). This has an excellent introduction and notes,
but the texts are given without translation. Taken together,
Smith, Merwin and Cohen open a window on to the world of the
Spanish ballad. The next step would be to learn Spanish.