In 1907, at forty-three years of age, Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo published his first book of poetry, titled simply Poesías (Poems). Already well known in Spain as a prominent intellectual and the rector of the University of Salamanca, by this time Unamuno had produced novels, essays, and works of philosophy. Yet in the verse of Poesías, the collection from which the two poems translated below have been taken, Unamuno’s thought finds perhaps its most natural manifestation. As the Nicaraguan bard Rubén Darío wrote in 1912, “Unamuno is a poet before all else, and perhaps only that.” Born in 1864 in Bilbao, Unamuno received his doctorate in philosophy and letters from the University of Madrid. He wrote his doctoral thesis on the origins of the Basque language—an early indication of his striking linguistic dexterity and affinity for languages. After graduating he taught some Latin and eventually took a position as professor of Greek at the University of Salamanca; he translated Leopardi, Carducci, Coleridge, and his Catalan contemporary Juan Maragall. One of the most often-cited facts about this prolific Spaniard is that he read Kierkegaard in the original, having taught himself Danish. In 1901 Unamuno was named rector of the University of Salamanca, and that old city in Castile was his home for the rest of his life—although he was forced to spend several years away from it. In 1924 his opposition to the military dictatorship of Primo de Rivera sent him into exile in France; he lived and wrote just across the Pyrenees from his beloved Spain until Rivera died in 1930. In 1936 Unamuno denounced another political regime—this time that of Francisco Franco—and was consequently placed under house arrest in Salamanca, where he died during the first year of the Spanish Civil War.
Think the feeling, feel the thought;
may your verses settle down in earthly nests,
and when they rise up in flight to the heavens
past the clouds not go amiss.
They need weight, weight in the wings,
the pillar of smoke disperses, nothing left,
poetry is something that is not music,
only what has weight is kept.
Beyond doubt, what’s thought is felt.
Pure sentiment? One who believes it exists
from the deepest current of feeling’s fountain
has never managed to sip.
Don’t focus too much on clothes,
your trade is that of sculptor, not of seamstress,
don’t forget, an idea is never more
gorgeous than when it’s undressed.
Not he who embodies in body a soul
nor who gives form to idea, bear in mind;
the poet rather finds soul through the body,
and through form, idea finds.
An underbrush of theorems
makes science veil truth, clumsily, in our midst;
strip it away with your hands, and your eyes
will view its beauty with bliss.
Seek out the lines of a nude;
though you aim to wrap us in misty vagueness
even mist has lines and it can be sculpted;
as you work, don’t be careless.
May your songs be sculpted songs,
anchored fast to the earth even as they lift,
language is, before all other things, thinking,
and in thought its beauty lives.
Let us strap down, with truths found
in spirit, the core of forms so prone to shift.
May the Idea reign sovereign in all this;
now then, let us sculpt the mist.
Translated from the Spanish by Leslie Harkema
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.