“Cervantes to Veneziano” by Miguel Cervantes
Translated by Gabrielle Piedad Ponce-Hegenauer
In November 1579, just one month after his thirty-second birthday, a young soldier-poet by the name of Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), was being held in solitary confinement by Hasan Pachá following his fourth unsuccessful escape attempt from captivity in Algiers. By the age of twenty-one his lyric verse had made him the featured poet for the funeral exequies of Philip II of Spain’s third wife, Isabel de Valois; the volume was published in 1569. From 1569-1571 he had served Giulio Acquaviva in Rome. In 1571 he was he wounded at the Battle of Lepanto and lost the use of his left hand, earning him the epithet el manco de Lepanto. In September 1575 after departing Naples for the court in Madrid with letters of commendation from Don Juan de Austria and the Third Duke of Sessa, he was captured by Arnaut Mamí and sold into captivity in Algiers. He would not be ransomed until the fall of 1580.
One of the most significant periods in the authors literary biography, it was during his Algerian captivity that Cervantes befriended—among several captive writers—the foremost Sicilian poet, Antonio Veneziano (1543-1593). Over the course of 1579 the two poets developed a strong literary friendship during which time Veneziano composed over 289 estrambote —antique Italian canzone or songs consisting of two hendecasyllabic quartets rhymed ABAB: ABAB—for his beloved lady, Celia. Throughout the sixteenth-century it was standard for a poet to dub his lady with a literary, often pastoral, pseudonym. Veneziano’s choice of Celia punned on the lady as both an astrological heaven, a metaphorical paradise, and a theological perfection. In his octaves (estrambote) to Veneziano, Cervantes makes full use of Veneziano’s form whilst transposing into his Castilian tongue. His free-play with the meaning of Celia embellishes Veneziano’s central lyric conceit.
Upon his return to Madrid Cervantes would rejoin a circle of pastoral and amorous poets, many of whom he knew from his time as a court poet for Isabel de Valois, and amongst whom he would continue to pursue the art of lyric verse. In 1585 he published his first novel, a pastoral work called the Galatea (Alcalá de Henares). In keeping with the conventions of his day and in accordance with the prologue, it is likely that Cervantes considered the work to be an eclogue. Like other pastoral novels of the period, the work is a weaving of verse and prose and most of the expressions of interiority undertaken by the characters appear in verse. Veneziano’s influence can be observed in the lyric verse of this subsequent published work.
However, Cervantes octaves (translated here for the first time) did not, to my knowledge, circulate during his lifetime. They were included in a brief letter which Cervantes composed from solitary confinement in Algiers on November 6 th , 1569. Like the letter with which they were sent, these octaves are a direct address to Veneziano with concern for the suffering he continues to undergo for his beloved Celia. The closing three octaves transition to a direct address to Celia on Veneziano’s behalf. Because of the intimate nature of this letter, these lyric verses may be considered some of the closest remnants of the author’s own thought. While it would be decades before Cervantes would compose the Don Quijote (1605, 1615), the final plea which he voices before Celia shares much with later tropes, including don Quijote’s devotion to the immaterial Dulcinea—lady of his thoughts. For Cervantes and his peers, the term ingenio was used to refer to the poet, rather than poeta. In keeping with this practice, I have left Cervantes’ use of ingenio in the original and supplemented with a footnote. I have done this in a handful of additional cases where the rich wordplay requires some explication. The original title page of his master work read, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha . Surely the themes of inspiration, love, madness and devotion are readily evident in this early and candid work. Due to Cervantes’ sensitivity to conceptual, as well as linguistic, play I have at times opted for a nearer sense if not also a less felicitous phrase.
Cervantes to Veneziano
If the rope, the fire, the dart and the pure ice
that binds, burns, wounds and chills your soul1
were born of heaven and sent to tie,2
ignite, to kill and freeze you here below–
What is this knot, flame, injury, snow or ice
which today holds, smarts, pricks, and bites
a tender breast, Antonio, such as yours,
in lofted manner as my words have shown?
This very heaven that your ingenio regards3
has kept you employed in heavenly matters.
By your deeds we see your ingenio aspire, for Celia,
to raise yourself to the Empyrean heaven.
You set your sights so high
that the wide world envies you:
Happy he, the unhappy one,
rich in the yearning he sustains!
In these concepts that your quill transposed4
from the motion of your soul onto the page
you not only tell of it, but show
that you are entombed in heaven.
Up there, love yields a strong right hand
on your behalf. Alive in death, in life put out;
and, he can never die who’s not of earth.
Just so you have your soul in Celia who is heaven.
But I am astounded to see that this divine
heaven of Celia is a living hell,
that with and without the force of her force
in sempiternal grief and sorrow you are held.
You pursue your path to heaven.
But in accordance with your luck,
I discern that while your soul hastens aloft
your fortune remains on mortal soil.
If with a kind and a propitious gaze
heaven looks to someone here on earth
a perfect good is secretly at work
which exiles every bad.5
But if angered eyes are set upon an object,
it is consumed by weeping and by war,
as has happened to you with your heaven:
now war, now peace, now fire and ice.
Heaven, in clearest serenity, is not seen
to hold as many bright illuminated lights
as your rich and fecund lyrics
have in virtues your heaven adorned.
Nor are the as fine grains of sand
in the remote Lybian desert as numerous
as your lauds which, I believe, are deserved
by the heaven that has you prostrate and exalted.
In Scythia you burn. In Libya you feel cold—
contrary operation and invisible.
You greet good with weakness, injury with enthusiasm.
But to the lynx that you regard though you cannot see her,
you demonstrate with discretion your mad thought
which captures your soul and conquers your reason.
And this operation is born from that which
is your heaven, your sun and star.
If this heaven were a chaos, a single materia
without forma , it would not surprise me6
that the continuous argument of
your grief-stricken soul went unheard.
But, being already dispersed in parts
which form a rare and virtuous foundation,
it is a marvel that this heaven
has deaf ears to your sad supplications.
If it is licit that a friend plead on behalf
of a friend lost to a dangerous state,
I, as yours, from this point am obliged
not to be lazy in the task.
But if I must temper what I’ve said
and conduct this to a happy end,
we shan’t trade lots, as my own is little,
but the words, yes, of I will lend.7
I will say: “Gentle Celia, in whose hand
lies the death and life and sorrow and glory
of a miserable captive who neither sooner
nor later will let you from his memory:
Turn your soft pretty face
to look on one over whom you are victorious:
you will see the body in the hard sad prison
of the soul that you first conquered.8
A breast of constant virtue is moved
by cases of honor and furied demonstration;9
so let your breast be moved:
before you is a firm lover brought to passion.
And, if you wish to excel,
to do a great heroic deed,
rescue there his soul by loving it,
the body which remains will follow hence.
The body here, the soul captive over there,
the miserable lover who suffers for you is divided,
pretty Celia, in the light that heaven
illuminates and clarifies is intensified.
Look on that one who crude, aloof, ungrateful
is unworthy to be pitied with such beauty;
show yourself grateful and loving
to him who has you for a heaven and a goddess.”
Cervantes a Veneziano10
Si el lazo, el fuego, el dardo, el puro hielo
que os tiene, abrasa, hiere y pone fría
vuestra alma, trae su origen desde el cielo,
ya que os aprieta, enciende, mata, enfría,
¿qué nudo, llama, llaga, nieve o celo,
ciñe, arde traspasa, o hiela hoy día,
con tan alta ocasión como aquí muestro,
un tierno pecho, Antonio, como el vuestro?
El cielo, que el ingenio vuestro mira,
en cosas que son dél quiso emplearos,
y según lo que hacéis vemos que aspira
por Celia al cielo empíreo levantaros.
Ponéis en tal objecto vuestra mira,
que dais materia al mundo de envidiaros.
¡Dichoso el desdichado a quien se tiene
envidias de las ansias que sostiene!
En los conceptos que la pluma vuestra
de la alma en el papel ha trasladado,
nos dais no sólo indicio pero muestra
de que estáis en el cielo sepultado,
y allí os tiene de amor la fuerte diestra
vivo en la muerte, a vida reservado,
que no puede morir quien no es del suelo,
teniendo el alma en Celia, que es un cielo.
Sólo me admira el ver que aquel divino
cielo de Celia encierre un vivo infierno,
y que la fuerza de su fuerza y sino
os tenga en pena y llanto sempiterno.
Al cielo encamináis vuestro camino,
mas, según vuestra suerte, yo dicierno
que al cielo sube el alma y se apresura
y en el suelo se queda la ventura.
Si con benino y favorable aspecto
a alguno mira el cielo acá en la tierra,
obra ascondidamente un bien perfeto,
en el que cualquier mal de sí destierra;
mas si los ojos pone en el objeto
airados, le consume en llanto y guerra,
ansí como a vos hace vuestro cielo:
ya os da guerra, ya paz, y fuego, y hielo.
No se ve el cielo en claridad serena
de tantas luces claro y alumbrado
cuantas con rica habéis y fértil vena
el vuestro de virtudes adornado;
ni hay tantos granos de menuda arena
en el desierto líbico apartado
cuantos loores creo que merece
el cielo que os abaja y engrandece.
En Scitia ardéis, sentís en Libia frío,
contraria operación y nunca vista;
flaqueza al bien mostráis, al daño brío;
más que un lince miráis, sin tener vista;
mostráis con discreción un desvarío
que el alma prende, a la razón conquista,
y esta contrariedad nace de aquella
que es vuestro cielo, vuestro sol y estrella.
Si fuera un caos, una materia unida
sin forma vuestro cielo, no espantara
de que del alma vuestra entristecida
las continuas querellas no escuchara;
pero, estando ya en partes esparcida
que un fondo forman de virtud tan rara,
es maravilla tenga los oídos
sordos a vuestros tristes alaridos.
Si es lícito rogar por el amigo
que en estado se halla peligroso,
yo, como vuestro, desde aquí me obligo
de no mostrarme en esto perezoso;
mas si me ha de oponer a lo que digo
y conducirlo a término dichoso,
no me deis la ventura, que es muy poca,
mas las palabras, sí, de vuestra boca.
Diré: “Celia gentil, en cuya mano
está la muerte y vida y pena y gloria
de un mísero captivo que, temprano
ni aun tarde, no saldrás de su memoria,
vuelve el hermoso rostro, blando, humano,
a mirar de quien llevas la victoria:
verás el cuerpo en dura cárcel triste
del alma que primero tú rendiste.
Y pues un pecho en la virtud constante
se mueve en casos de honra y muestra airado,
muévele al tuyo el ver que de delante
te han un firme amador arrebatado.
Y si quieres pasar más adelante
y hacer un hecho heroico y extremado,
rescata allá su alma con querella,
que el cuerpo, que está acá, se irá tras ella.
El cuerpo acá y el alma allá captiva
tiene el mísero amante que padece
por ti, Celia hermosa, en quien se aviva
la luz que al cielo alumbra y esclarece.
Mira que el ser ingrata, cruda, esquiva,
mal con tanta beldad se compadece:
muéstrate agradecida y amorosa
al que te tiene por su cielo y diosa.”
1 The reader may quickly hear John Donne’s (1572-1631) “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” echo the first stanza. It is not unreasonable to imagine that Donne was familiar with works of this kind, though these exact verses were not known to have circulated during the early modern period. In these lists, Cervantes echoes the lyric verses which Veneziano had composed for Celia while captive in Algiers. Cervantes nearly repeats this list again in the opening poem of his pastoral novel, the Galatea (Alcalá de Henares,1585), six years later.
2 This line marks the first use of the word cielo or heaven which is a pun on the name of Veneziano’s beloved, Celia. Over the course of these octaves, Cervantes will play with the significance of cielo , not only in reference to the lady, but also through various religious and scientific resonances. At times cielo is a paradise; at others it is, in the Aristotelian sense, the physical universe of forma and materia. Because the conceptual play relies upon cielo always meaning more than one thing, I have translated it as heaven every time so that the presence of the single signifier will be readily identifiable within the poem. I have left Celia , the proper literary pseudonym of Veneziano’s beloved, in the original.
3 The word ingenio , commonly translated at wit , means something quite different prior to the turn of the sixteenth-century. It is associated with Intellect and the receptive faculty of the mind, on which it depends; but it explicitly refers to the inventive —in the Aristotelian sense, imaginative , faculty of the mind. According to the Dr. Huarte de San Juan, writing in 1575, it was responsible for the conceptual form of human procreation, in addition to the standard biological procreation undertaken by other organs and faculties. Throughout the sixteenth-century, the word had a Platonic resonance among circles of poets, it was used interchangeably for the poet. In fact, most authors did not use the word poeta , but referred to their literary comrades exclusively as ingenios. This is the way in which Cervantes uses ingenio here and pervasively throughout his poetry and prose. As I have demonstrated in my doctoral dissertation— Cervantes, Poet: Lyric Subjectivity as Practice in the Rise of the Novel in Sixteenth-Century Spain (JHU, 2016)—the use of ingenioso as a qualifier in the full original title of the Don Quijote reveals much of the way in which Cervantes structured the novel and its protagonist on lyric conceits. Don Quijote is, in essence (pun intended), a poet.
4 The use of the Spanish word “concepto” here is important. Conceptimso was a form of metaphysical poetry which developed throughout the sixteenth-century and came to fruition in the work of Francisco Quevedo. This conceptual poetry relied upon the development of logical conceits or “conceptos” over the course of several stanzas. The sophistication of a work of lyric verse was judged for its conceptual movements more so than its linguistic variety; the latter was later associated with Luis de Góngora and juxtaposed to the work of Quevedo though the two types of poetry are not dissimilar. Here Cervantes stresses the conceptual foundation of amorous and pastoral lyric verse in the work of Antonio Veneziano. The central concept of both Veneziano’s book-length collection ( Celia ) and Cervantes’ octaves pivoted on the eponymous pun of Celia for heaven.
5 The simple bad ( mal ) is juxtaposed to the simple or perfect good ( bien ) in the previous line.
6 The Aristotelian distinction between forma and materia add new resonance to the use of cielo ( heaven ).
7 I have translated fortuna as lots in order to keep the strong biographical weight which Cervantes has set upon this line. Cervantes is writing to Veneziano from solitary confinement after taking responsibility for a failed attempt to escape from Algiers with several other captives. Thus, he stresses that his fortune/fate/lot/circumstance would do Veneziano little good; Cervantes is suffering more than his friend. Rather, he suggests to speak on Veneziano’s behalf. Thus the subsequent three closing octaves. This represents a decisive moment in Cervantes’ literary development. By ventriloquizing a direct address to Celia—what Veneziano should say—Cervantes rewrites the canon of amorous tropes which he has deployed throughout the poem, typically Petrarchan. In place, Cervantes interposes a trope from the medieval Provençal troubadours and the knights of the romances of chivalry: the genuflection before the divine exalted lady. The resonance with Dante’s Vita Nuova and Divina Comedia is also evident, particularly in the use of Empyrean Heaven earlier in the second stanza.
8 The belief that the soul could work—and at times more effectively—outside of the body was current in Cervantes’ day. In his 1575 treatise on melancholy ( Libro de la Melancholia ) the Dr. Vazquez attempted to refute this general claim, particularly of poets and lovers, but reserved such dissociative work for theologians, reiterating the legitimacy of the concept.
9 I have chosen to translate airado as furried in order to capture the sense of amorous and poetic inspiration with the Latin furore . This would have been commonly understood among poets since Ficino’s translation and commentary of Plato’s Phaedrus (1484).
10 I have taken the Spanish from Vicente Gaos’ critical edition, Poesías Completas , v.2 (Madrid: Castalia, 1981), p.347-350.
Also by Gabrielle Piedad Ponce-Hegenauer (see all)
- Francisco de Quevedo’s “Constant Love” - February 18, 2019
- “Cervantes to Veneziano” - February 17, 2017