Monday, June 27, 2011

Bookmarks – St. John of the Cross: The Poems

I have often been drawn to the poetry of mystics, and my first foray into the world of St. John of the Cross came when I was writing about T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” in my long ago undergraduate days. Then I found a handful of poems which were beautiful and nice, but was focused on the “teaching” and “theology” parts, as I was trying to get a paper done.
A few years later, I came across John Michael Talbot’s stark and moving The Lover and the Beloved album. As I was working late shifts during this time, and facing my own “dark nights,” the album and the words brought great comfort and a measure of peace, or at least helped me to focus on the source of that peace.
Recently, I found this book in my local Half Price Books,  and felt it needed to be in my library. I am glad I did.
I know so little Spanish, I feel quite unqualified to speak on the accuracy of Roy Campbell’s translation. I like that this edition is bilingual, so when I do learn more of the poet/mystic’s language, I can read his words as he wrote them.
That said, readers are likely to find the poems speak to the desire for connection with God (or God as one might think of Him, for non-believers) in a way that is accessible and, mostly, artful. Even if the reader is not Catholic, the verses communicate that one’s most significant actions are those in search of and union with the Beloved Lord. The verses, however, are not didactic. We are looking, most often, at what seems deeply personal and universal at the same time.
I do have two criticisms. First, the nine “Romances",” did not do much for me. Perhaps the translation is a bit stale (or too formal). Maybe the poems are too sing-songy. Maybe I didn’t get to these at the right time of my life or in the right frame of mind. But I did not find these nearly as poignant as the other poems. I do think, however, many readers have enjoyed and are going to enjoy these more than I did.
Second, I am not too keen on the titles. P.J. Kavanagh, in his fine and enlightening introduction, notes that one “beautiful poem” is “entitled, unfortunately ‘Verses written after an ecstasy of high exaltation.’ How unlike the humility of the poem is the claim of the title.” I think this might be said for several pieces in the volume.
However, this should not distract from what is, largely, a meaningful collection. It was, and shall be, a stirring read.
Though not from Mr. Campbell’s translation, this link will take you to several of the poet’s best and well known verses.

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