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.
For Juan Maragall,
most noble poet
The cathedral of Barcelona says:
My columns rise up naked, palms of granite;
opening themselves in the vaults their branches
intertwine, and from the enclosure in turn
their thick foliage falls to fasten again
on the ground, leaving slashes in tall windows
and closing off with blossoming masonry
a tent of peace pitched in a vast encampment.
To the miracle of faith deep in my core
the rock’s heavy grief gives way, from massive
bulk my ideal structure is then relinquished,
and it is all shadow, shadow set in forms
of mystery amid humble light that falls
through the muted colors of eternal dawn.
Come here, troubled mortal, come into my chest,
enter my chest and I’ll descend to yours;
my hands—hands of shadow in light, mother’s hands—
will mold your heart into a quiet temple
and in it I’ll raise up tall naked columns
of noble reflections crowned with vaults of faith.
Happiness and sadness, love, hate, faith, despair,
in my chest all things like light and shadow blend,
and in the eternal crepuscule of hope
death’s dark night approaches you all, while the Sun
divine, your source of life, unfolds upon you.
I am the flesh of devotion, in my lap
sleep loving kisses, angry shoves, sweet regrets,
sad vows, flimsy promises, and sacred pains.
Pains above all; those pains are the crucible
that melts mortals down, like a mystical flux
is my shadow, shadow of pain that binds us.
Here underneath the silence in which I rest
noises from the avenues melt together,
here the darkness of my chest washes the wounds
inflicted by the light of the crude heavens.
Here my chest’s universal homeland reminds
the stranger of his country; my peace stifles
echoes of the mindless fight between bloodlines
where clans slash their common trunk to ugly shreds.
Supplications brush against my breast of stone
dressed in the tongues of various languages,
and it’s a single, solitary whisper,
it’s a collective psalm, a common lament.
My choir sings its songs in the sacred Latin
from which the noble romance tongues came flowing,
it sings in the old maternal dead language
that came down from Rome, the queen of the ages,
through Italy, cradle and tomb of glory
and of misfortune, came to impart her word
to my dry Catalan earth, the austere
fields of Castile, to the pampered Portuguese
meadows, and the mellow, verdant plain of France.
The catholic spirit abides within me,
and my voice sounds in a Pentecostal tongue
that speaks to each of you in your own language,
my mouth’s edge caressing the ears of your hearts.
My shadow combines all people, their colors
extinguish under the light of my stained glass;
in me all are united, in my enclave
the crowd becomes water, eternal and pure.
The peoples filter through me, and forever
their stream is the same, an enduring current,
and if out there in the world it seems to change
what changes are just the banks and riverbed
over which it runs its rough, combative course.
Come to me from the solitary struggle
when wounds reach your hearts; my shade’s divine potion
is for forgetting earthly hostilities,
a concoction of peace, eternal wellspring
that from heaven carries us consolations.
Come to me, for here there’s room enough for all,
enveloped in my arms you are all brothers,
I am the tent of heaven pitched here on earth,
of heaven, mankind’s universal homeland.
Translated from the Spanish by Leslie Harkema
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.