Life Is a Dream

by Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681)
Translated by Elwin Wirkala

The king dreams he is king, and lives
with this deception ordering,
disposing of and governing,
and all the applauses he receives
are but a loan writ on the wind
and burnt to ashes in the end
by death itself (what rotten luck!);
to try to rule’s a waste of breath,
since all will see themselves wake up
at last within the dream of death!

The rich man dreams of riches he
is offered for a weight of care;
paupers dream the fate they bear
their misery, their poverty;
others dream they’re set to win,
strivers dream of toil’s end,
some who dream aggrieve, offend,
and through the world, in conclusion,
all are dreaming self-delusion
no one seems to comprehend.

I dream that I in prison lie
burdened with a prisoner’s fate,
and then I dreamed another state
and saw myself more lionized.
What is life? A frenesy.
What is life? Illusory,
shadow ’tis, fiction, it,
its greatest good not worth a whit,
since all this life of ours seems
but a dream, and dreams… are dreams.



Original Spanish

La vida es sueño

Sueña el rey que es rey, y vive
con este engaño mandando,
disponiendo y gobernando;
y este aplauso que recibe
prestado, en el viento escribe,
y en cenizas le convierte
la muerte (¡desdicha fuerte!);
¡que hay quien intente reinar,
viendo que ha de despertar
en el sueño de la muerte!

Sueña el rico en su riqueza
que más cuidados le ofrece;
sueña el pobre que padece
su miseria y su pobreza;
sueña el que a medrar empieza,
sueña el que afana y pretende,
sueña el que agravia y ofende;
y en el mundo, en conclusión,
todos sueñan lo que son,
aunque ninguno lo entiende.

Yo sueño que estoy aquí
destas prisiones cargado,
y soñé que en otro estado
más lisonjero me vi.
¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño;
que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son.



Elwin Wirkala was in the Peace Corps in his early twenties and subsequently spent two plus decades in South America, gaining near native fluency in Portuguese and Spanish. He has translated Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s sonnets and the great Primer Sueño, on which he is writing a book.

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5 Responses

  1. Michael Pietrack

    “all the applauses he receives
    are but a loan writ on the wind
    and burnt to ashes in the end
    by death itself”

    This touched me. A timely message. Thank you.

    It reminded me of Ecclesiastes 2:11.

    • Elwin Wirkala

      Thank you for this reminder of Ecclesiastes 2:11, Michael. I often have Ecclesiastes in mind when translating from the Spanish Golden Age and other transcendentally-minded poets.


    A very timely reminder of what human existence is for countless millions, as much in the past as for us alive today.

    So a very warm-hearted thanks for your rendering of a very famous passage in La Vida es Sueño. Translation is a very difficult art, very time-consuming and all too often casually dismissed.

    Amid the world´s woes of today, how good to listen to the voice of a master of verse talking to us of real and lasting values!

    My only question concerns the final lines: Calderon does not say ´´since all this life “seems” but a dream (he confirms it is a dream) and I wonder if the final line ¨and dreams .. are dreams could somewhow be strengthened?

    These are minor points and many readers , especially those who have read Golden Age Spanish Literature, will be delighted with your rendition. Thank you once again!

    • Elwin Wirkala

      Thank you for this kind comment, Donald.
      Your point is well taken.
      I couldn’t find a way to avoid ‘seems’ because of the rhyme with ‘dreams’, and also, in the Spanish Golden Age the powerful presence of the Arabic and Berber dispensation of eight plus earlier centuries remained. Asín Palacios writes of that period, with the great Sufic thinkers and poets like Ibn-Masarra and Ibn el-Arabi. Their main point from the Perennial Philosophic point of view (as per Aldous Huxley’s title of that name) is that people are basically upside-down in relation to reality. I owe that point mainly to Idries Shah who has a chapter on Palacios’ discoveries in The Sufis. The idea is that a greater reality exists and we can access it through philosophical study, whether Sufic or one of the other mystic schools. This is always in tension with credal institutions. As Barth said, mystics basically abolish institution and priesthood on their way to salvation. So ordinary life is a dream, and only seems to be reality. It’s Christ’s ‘Let the dead bury their dead’ and so on. Evan kindly mentions my translation of Sor Juana’s First Dream…it’s basically on the same topic: why we think everyday reality is experienced as anything but a dream. Poets intuit it, as did Emily D. with her ‘There is another loneliness’, or Rosalía de Castro with her ‘I don’t know what I’m eternally seeking/it’s something I lost I don’t know where’…well this probably sounds terribly pedantic. I’d like to hear more from you on this, Donald. Thank you for your kind words. Oh, in case this wasn’t clear: the Golden Age poets were so keenly aware of this ‘other dimension’, and I think it mined the true ore and put the gold into their age. Nowadays, iron pyrite seems to reign supreme, alas.


        Thank you very much Elwin for your reply. I look forward to your next publication.
        Now retired I was a so-called Cervantista ( my biography of Cervantes entitled No Ordinary Man was relatively successful ( published by Peter Owen) and translated into Dutch and Mandarin; finally the copyrights were bought by an American company.

        My doctorate was on JORGE GUILLEN ( CANTICO) so I had a foot in two camps! Guillen ´s work is so refreshingly positive, buoyant and life-affirming and needs to be studied much more. I am a buddhist and so follow a teaching that looks at reality, morality and at current attitudes that perhaps, somehow, Calderon shared? ¿Quien sabe?
        On a different note is it not a great pity that Spain has no great classical theatre tradition that we have in the UK with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford? How many of us who have studied G:Age drama have seen productions? Very few!

        Thanks once again and keep translating G.Age works!

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