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Sonnet XVIII of the Sacred Rhymes

by Lope de Vega (1562-1635)
translated by Martin Rizley

What have I, that you’d seek me as a friend?
What interest draws you, Jesus, to my door,
All drenched with dew, as you have come before,
In winter’s dark, the long night hours to spend?

O how unyielding was my heart, so hard,
To shut you out!  How daft, if for my vice
Of cold ingratitude the freezing ice
Dried your pure feet, cut sore by many a shard!

How many times the Angel said to me,
“Soul, come, draw near, and see now through the pane
With what great love He calls persistently!”

How oft then, Sovereign Beauty, I’d explain,
“Tomorrow, we’ll receive Him willingly.”
But each tomorrow proved my vow was vain!

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Original Spanish 

Soneto XVIII, de las “Rimas Sacras”

¿Qué tengo yo, que mi amistad procuras?
¿Qué interés se te sigue, Jesús mío,
que a mi puerta cubierto de rocío
pasas las noches del invierno oscuras?

¡Oh cuánto fueron mis entrañas duras
pues no te abrí! ¡Qué extraño desvarío
si de mi ingratitud el hielo frío
secó las llagas de tus plantas puras!

¡Cuántas veces el Ángel me decía:
«Alma, asómate agora a la ventana,
verás con cuánto amor llamar porfía!»

¡Y cuántas, hermosura soberana,
«Mañana le abriremos», respondía,
para lo mismo responder mañana!

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Biographical Note

Félix Lope de Vega y Carpio (1562-1635), known to history simply as Lope de Vega, is considered one of Spain’s greatest writers, his fame being second only to that of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote de la Mancha.  Born in the year 1562 in the middle of what is known as Spain’s “Golden Century,” a period of cultural flourishing in the arts and literature in Spain, Lope de Vega rose to become a key literary figure of his age as a playwright, poet, and novelist.  On account of his prolific output—he was the author of some 3,000 sonnets, 3 novels, 4 novellas, and possibly a thousand plays, of which over 400 survive to the present day—his contemporary Cervantes nicknamed him the “Monster of Nature” and the “Phoenix of the wits.” His literary gifts were evident at an early age, for as a child prodigy, he was composing verses by the age of five, translating verses from Latin by the age of ten, and writing comedies by the age of twelve.  During his colorful and often turbulent life, he wore many hats, serving as a secretary to aristocrats and government officials, as an enlisted man in the Spanish armada, and as a royal courtier (a sort of butler) to the Duke of Alba. As a young man, he was on more than one occasion in trouble with the law on account of scandalous conduct involving love affairs with women, both married and unmarried.   In later life, he was consecrated to the priesthood, although that does not seem to have curtailed altogether his romantic dalliances. In his Sacred Rhymes, he expresses the dualistic conflict he experienced between the pull of earthly passions and spiritual aspirations.  The sonnet XVIII is one of his most famous brief compositions.

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Martin Rizley grew up in Oklahoma and in Texas, and has served in pastoral ministry both in the United States and in Europe. He is currently serving as the pastor of a small evangelical church in the city of Málaga on the southern coast of Spain, where he lives with his wife and daughter. Martin has enjoyed writing and reading poetry as a hobby since his early youth.


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16 Responses

  1. Paul Freeman

    3,000 sonnets! The guy was a machine.

    I really enjoyed the introspective style of this poem, Martin. Low key and profound. A hard mix to get right.

    Reply
    • Martin Rizley

      I agree with assessment of Lope de Vega as a “machine”– or as Cervantes called him, a “Monster of Nature.” I thought I had misread the number when I saw that he had written 3000 sonnets, but that figure is confirmed by a number of sources. To write that many sonnets, one would have to write a sonnet a day for over eight years– and he did that while at the same time writing plays, novels and novellas! When someone read this poem to me years ago, I found it moving and wanted to translate it into English (although other English translations exist).

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        G.G. Belli wrote over 2000 sonnets, and Petrarch penned over 800. The thing about sonnets is that, once you have mastered the basic structure, you can crank out a lot of them easily. In the Renaissance poets produced sonnet “sequences,” which were collections of sonnets (Shakespeare has about 150 in his), generally focused on their love for a particular woman.

  2. Jeremiah Johnson

    So rich with scriptural reference – “Behold I stand at the door and knock,” as well as the parallels to The Song of Songs. Enjoyed this!

    Reply
    • Martin Rizley

      I think that this is what makes the poem work so well– the powerful images drawn right from the Bible which tug at the heart, as well as the lovely musical flow of the language in the original Spanish. Thanks for your feedback Jeremiah.

      Reply
  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    Translating a rhyming poem while at the same time maintaining the original form and the original rhyme scheme is one of the toughest tasks in poetry. You have to know both languages like the back of your hand, you have to know a really abundant vocabulary in your native tongue, and you have to be able to handle a variety of syntactical options.

    Rizley has done an amazingly good job here. There isn’t a single misstep in any part of his rendering. Where he deviated slightly from the strict sense of the Spanish, he still maintained an overall fidelity to the text.

    It’s hard to find translators these day who are patient enough and honorable enough to treat the original poem with this kind of respect.

    Reply
    • Martin Rizley

      Thank you for your kind words, Dr. Salemi; I feel very honored by your positive critique. It was not an easy task to translate this poem– to preserve its meaning while at the same trying to make it flow naturally and poetically in English. But it was a labor of love, which made it fun to translate, at the same time that it was challenging.

      Reply
  4. Mike Bryant

    With only a smattering of Spanish, I can see how perfectly you’ve rendered the meaning, the feeling, the rhyme and the rhythm of the original. Like Jeremiah, I see all those scriptural references.
    I was wondering if the Spanish has been updated at all. It seems modern. Beautiful translation and message, Martin.
    It’d be great to hear you read both of the poems!

    Reply
    • Sally Cook

      Mike, I love the sonnet above all forms. Appropos of what you were saying about the modernity of this sonnet, I have noticed a certain refreshing directness in some of the paintings of that early period.

      Breughel, Leonardo and others of that time it seems could go directly to the subject, leaving out all extraneous stuff. I wonder why it was so easy for them? Any thoughts on this? Anyone else?

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        There’s an old Latin saying: “Ut pictura, poesis.” It means “As the painting is, so is the poetry.” The idea is that just as a painting can depict reality in certain ways, so also can poetry do the same thing in its special ways. In the 17th century, there were many
        “Advice to a Painter” poems, where the poet gave directions to an imaginary painter about how to limn a subject.

    • Martin Rizley Rizley

      Thank you for your comments, Mike. The Spanish has not been updated, to my knowledge, but is exactly as the poet wrote it. That is evident from the use of the term “agora” (an archaic form of the Spanish word “ahora”–now, at this moment).
      Here is a link to the reading you requested: https://youtu.be/hDSWs61Ye0E

      Reply
  5. Joshua C. Frank

    Martin, I love this! It’s a very nice, readable sonnet in English as well as Spanish. As a Christian, I can sure identify with the sentiment behind it.

    I know how difficult it is to translate foreign classical poetry into English while keeping rhyme and meter. I’ve done a few myself (published here), from French, which has a lot more rhyming words than English. The ones I chose had existing translations in English, but they were so badly done that I had to write my own.

    Reply
  6. Margaret Coats

    What great purity of diction and richness of devotion there is in so much of the Spanish Golden Age poetry! Those are two qualities very difficult to render well in translation, but you’ve done it here, Martin. For diction, the conclusion of the sonnet is an example, and you’ve managed to give the same idea even with a need to change words for the sake of English rhyme. For devotion, the sores on the soles of the feet in the second quatrain represent Lope de Vega’s precise devotion to Our Lord’s humanity, and your words on ice of ingratitude well convey his rather unusual meditation.

    Reply

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