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Wednesday, May 22, 2002

POETICAL EXCURSION #3

"The Ruins of Time", by Luis de Gongora (1561-1627)

This chapel that you gaze at, these stern tombs,
the pride of sculpture...Stop here, Passer-by,
diamonds were blunted on this porphyry,
the teeth of files wore smooth as ice. This vault
seals up the earth of those who never felt
the earth's oppression. Whose? If you would know,
stand back and study this inscription. Words
give marble meaning and a voice to bronze.
Piety made this chapel beautiful,
and generous devotion binds these urns
to the heroic dust of Sandoval,
who left his coat of arms, once five blue stars
on a gold field, to climb with surer step
through the blue sky, and scale the golden stars.

(translated from the Spanish by Robert Lowell. From the collection World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time, edited by Katharine Washburn and John S. Major.)

I read this poem a week or two ago, skimming it fairly quickly. Since then I've kept coming back to it. There is something compelling in the way de Gongora directly addresses the reader and forces him to pay tribute to the one interred within the tomb on which these words are inscribed. The poem appears to be an epitaph for the Duke of Sandoval, a patron of de Gongora's. (I am not sure on this point; my attempts to locate information specific to this particular poem were not successful.) In any event, de Gongora uses the physical characteristics of the tomb itself to pay tribute to Sandoval's greatness. We are told nothing of Sandoval's deeds or acts or qualities as a person; all we know is that this is man who warranted the "blunting of diamonds" and the "wearing smooth of files" on the marble of his tomb. All this is done, de Gongora tells us, to give meaning to blank stone and voice to mute bronze. Also notable is the reversal of the color in the last portion of the poem. Sandoval has died, leaving behind his coat of arms -- blue stars in a gold sky -- to walk amongst the gold stars set in the blue firmament of Heaven. Luis de Gongora is one of the most important Spanish poets of the baroque era; his works were deemed praiseworthy by Cervantes. And to think, until a week or two ago I had never before heard of him.

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