Friday, July 30, 2010

Anoche cuando dormía

It often happens that when we least expect it, the day brings if not a revelation, then some incident, some words or thoughts that stick with us, provoking us to think on a deeper level—which then sends us back to replay or read again those words whose first contact scorched us with their heat.

Antonio Machado (1875-1939) was born in Seville and is acknowledged as Spain’s finest poet of the early twentieth century. I have a collection of Machado’s poems, and a second collection of different poets which includes one of his poems, one titled, “Last Night as I was Sleeping.” This is a poem which stung me with its power, not to mention the fine translation from the original Spanish by Robert Bly.


Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that a spring was breaking

out in my heart.

I said: Along which secret aqueduct,

Oh water, are you coming to me,

water of a new life

that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that I had a beehive

here inside my heart.

And the golden bees

were making white combs

and sweet honey

from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that a fiery sun was giving

light inside my heart.

It was fiery because I felt

warmth as from a hearth,

and sun because it gave light

and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that it was God I had

here inside my heart.

The emotion is similar to a mystic’s ecstatic experience. Machado discovers three delights in his heart, which seem to expand his being with a joy that fills everything. Notice the phrases, ‘breaking out’ and ‘secret aqueduct’ and ‘water of new life.’ These are all familiar to mystical ecstasy. He discovers a liquid that warms the heart, filling him with a new sense of life. Water from this spring that fills his heart has a sweetness that is later reflected in the sweet honey of golden bees that transforms all failure into triumph. There is next a light and warmth that seeps into his body, a fiery sun. Easy to imagine that with these discoveries coursing through his heart, he imagines it is God finding space there. Look closely and you will see that it resonates with the first line of Matthew 5:14, ‘Ye are the light of the world…’

The second line of the poem includes a key phrase that can be troublesome in going from Spanish to English. The original line in Spanish reads, bendita ilusión, and is translated by Bly as ‘marvelous error.’ On first reading this can be confusing. Another translation by Alan S Trueblood treats the line as ‘blessed illusion.’ Bly’s 'marvelous error’ is I think, meant to exclaim something like, ‘Can this really be happening?’ which avoids the use of ‘illusion,’ a word carrying the aura of 'self-deception’ or ‘fantasy.’ My guess is, the Spanish ‘ilusión’ is not synonymous with the English ‘illusion.’ I like to think the meaning is in a clumsy fashion something like, ‘I dreamt—or could it be real!—’

“Last Night as I was Sleeping” was written in 1903. It is translated and recited by American poet, Robert Bly. The film below is by Four Seasons Productions.

The two collections of poetry mentioned above are here and here.

1 comment:

  1. Why was "bendita ilusión" erroneously translated into "marvellous error"? The error is in the translation, not in what Machado was trying to say. Bendito=blessed and ilusión=hope. The rest of the poem is very well translated, but using "error" instead of the correct word "hope" really kills the true message that the poet is conveying.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America