Poems – St John of the Cross

For this, the 200th post in this blog, I have chosen a Penguin Classic translation of the poetry of St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic christian and follower of Teresa of Ávila whose writings have also appeared in the Penguin Classics catalogue. The book is actually rather more than a translation as it is a parallel text edition with the original Spanish text on the left hand pages and the English on the right. Saint John (Juan de la Cruz in Spanish) was a Catholic priest and Carmelite friar involved in setting up religious houses in northern Spain but was also the greatest of the mystic poets in Spanish literature and indeed one of the giants of Spanish literature regardless of style or theme.

However, before discussing the poems, I would like to take a little time over the translator, much as the book does with a preface by his widow Mary Campbell. Roy Campbell was born in South Africa in 1901 and first came to England in 1919 where he met and married Mary in 1922 and they moved back to South Africa in 1925. He worked as an editor on a literary magazine whilst writing poetry but disagreed with the apartheid regime so moved back to London in 1927. On their return to England they fell in with the Bloomsbury Group and Mary started a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West at the same time as Virginia Woolf was also having an affair with Vita. Roy strongly, and reasonably, disapproved of his wife’s affair and to separate Mary and Vita the Campbell’s moved first to Provence and then to Toledo in Spain where Roy Campbell discovered the works of St John of the Cross and the couple converted to Roman Catholicism. It was in Toledo that St John had been imprisoned by rival Carmelite monks opposed to the very strict variant of the calling espoused by Teresa and John, he wrote most of his poems during his confinement. Roy Campbell, by the 1930’s, was becoming a well known poet in his own right and was fascinated by the poems of St John and whats more his heroic poetic style seemed ideally suited to the extant works of St John so he began work on a translation that was finally published by Harvill in 1951 and won the 1952 Foyle Prize. It is this verse translation that is reprinted in the 1960 Penguin first edition that I have, Roy Campbell having died in 1957 hence his widow penning the preface where she completely fails to mention the lesbian affair that took them to Spain in the first place.

The Spanish text is by Padre Silverio de Santa Teresa CD, and first appeared in an UK book in 1933 published by the Liverpool Institute of Hispanic Studies.Roy Campbell has done an excellent job of translating the poems as not only has he translated the text but found English words which allow the lines to largely scan and always rhyme as the originals do. A moments thought would tell you how difficult this is and why many poetry translations don’t attempt this.The longest work is ‘Songs between the soul and the bridegroom’ where the poem is in the form of a conversation between the two parts where God is gradually revealed to be the bridegroom that the soul or bride is conversing with. I really enjoyed this one as there is more time for development of the story within the poem as it goes on for seven pages, most are less than a page and a half and some are simply one verse.

Several of the poems use repetition of the last line of each verse such as ‘Song of the Soul that is Glad to Know God by Faith’ where each verse, apart from the eleventh, ends “Aunque es de noche” (Although it is night) although with this particular poem Campbell varies the last line between “Although by night” and “Though it be night” and I’m not sure why he made the change as reading it with “Although by night” seems to scan perfectly well with each verse. My favourite poem of the collection though is ‘Verses about the soul that suffers with impatience to see God’ and this is another where repetition of the last line of each verse is utilised although this time it is the sense of the last line that is repeated as the words vary between “Am dying that I do not die”, “And die because I do not die”, “The more I live the more must die” etc. culminating in the more hopeful “I live because I’ve ceased to die”.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this volume of poetry as I’m not remotely religious, let alone Catholic, so am clearly not the target audience. I suspect this is partly down to the way religion is handled in English schools where is is taught as a ‘normal’ subject and after all nobody asks you to believe in geography.

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