I grew up in a moderately religious family, and attended a Catholic high school and a Lutheran college, so I suspect I’ll be working to understand my relationship to Christianity for the rest of my life. My relationship to these facts of my life is likely one reason I’m fascinated by the figures of the Christian fringe throughout history—the mystics, monastics, and ascetics who were excommunicated or deemed blasphemous—and by the text of the bible itself (see: my Psalm translation project). And I’m especially drawn to poets with Christian leanings: William Blake, Denise Levertov, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dante Alighieri, Anne Bradstreet, and many others. (I had a brilliant professor, Richard DuRocher, whose love of Milton was so infectious that I’ve also loved Milton ever since his class.)
All of which is to say that when I saw Milkweed Editions was publishing a new bilingual edition of The Complete Poems of San Juan de la Cruz, translated by María Baranda and Paul Hoover, I wanted to read it. I was only vaguely familiar with de la Cruz’s poem “Dark Night,” so this would be my introduction to his writing. As an introduction, I recommend it highly.
The book opens with brief but informative overviews of de la Cruz’s life and his poetry, as well as a translator’s note. Totaling 23 pages, these pieces provide a gloss on the poet and his work geared toward a non-academic audience. For the purposes of this book, these materials are ideal, providing enough context and supporting information to deepen the experience of reading the poems. These materials also offer paths of further study for the reader more curious about de la Cruz’s life and work. For instance, we are told, “To clarify his message for [the nuns at Beas], he produced extensive commentaries, with line by line exegesis, for both [‘Dark Night’ and ‘Spiritual Cantacle’],” including The Ascent of Mount Carmel, “a four-hundred-page prose work explicating ‘Dark Night.’” Beyond the first paragraph or so of Ascent quoted in the introductory materials, there is no further discussion of this exegesis or why de la Cruz thought it was necessary to produce for a 40-line poem.
Additionally, we’re told that de la Cruz produced two versions of “Spiritual Canticle,” the Sanlúcar and the Jaén manuscripts, though not what the differences are nor the reason behind the changes. Again, a curious reader can find the stanzas that depart from one another and enjoy puzzling through the way these changes shift the poem. Personally, though I enjoyed this exercise, I felt limited by my own resources and wished for a guiding hand.
The poems themselves are fascinating, Baranda and Hoover’s rendering of the Spanish is clear and approachable. They note that de la Cruz’s famous poems were inspired by the poet hearing a popular love ballad being sung outside of his prison cell where he was being held for promoting a reformed Carmelite faith that went against the Calced Carmelites in power. Writing a devotional love poem in his native language rendered his philosophy in a common vernacular, and the translators remain faithful to that sense, favoring a conversational English to a more heightened, archaic rendering. In their translator’s note, Baranda and Hoover explain their goal to offer “the plain sense of the imagery” rather than reaching for rhymes to match de la Cruz’s Spanish. Here is the first stanza of “Dark Night”:
On a dark night, anxious, by love inflamed, oh, what good fortune!, I left without being noticed, my house already at rest.
The narrative arrives in the plainspoken lines of the final two lines here, the speaker driven by a passion he can’t quite explain or understand. Slowly, we follow his travels through the night and begin to understand the “love inflamed.” While the poem remains direct, there still is music, especially in the stanza the speaker finally meets his beloved:
Oh night, you guide me!, oh night kinder than the dawn!, oh night that joined Beloved with beloved, beloved in the Beloved transformed!
The twisting syntax of this stanza acts as a thread holding the stanza together. The repetition of “oh night” in the first three lines balances with the joined/beloved/transformed slant rhyme of the final three. In the original, the stanzas of this poem rhyme a-b-a-b-b, so the slant rhyme doesn’t follow that pattern, but it does gesture toward the subtle shifts between “Amado” and “amada” in the original that are lost in translation.
I’ve focused here on one of de la Cruz’s most famous poems because it may be familiar to some readers and because it exemplifies the translation in this edition. However, this is a complete edition and the so-called “minor” poems offer other ways to understand de la Cruz’s thinking. I found myself drawn to “Romances,” a sequence of poems seeking to understand the Holy Trinity and God as verb. The poem’s epigraph sets the context: “Concerning the Gospel ‘In the Beginning Was the Verb’ with regard to the Holy Trinity.” Containing some elements of “Spiritual Canticle,” “Romances” offers a more philosophical, less narrative entry point to de la Cruz’s understanding of theology. Three minimal or repetitive poems end the collection, breaking formally with de la Cruz’s major works.
Taken together, the poems in The Complete Poems of San Juan de la Cruz are a fascinating look at one man’s drive to understand faith and the Gospels through the vernacular of his lived experience. This translation is elegant and direct, bringing de la Cruz’s 15th century Spanish into a 21st century English that feels both plainspoken and musical. Baranda and Hoover’s translation is a superb introduction to a fascinating figure.
Apologies that this dispatch is late. Other deadlines and a transition to a new job slowed me down this month. Thank you for your patience.