Francisco de Quevedo, Five Poems

Translated from the Spanish by Brandon Holmquest. These poems are part of an ongoing project of Spanish Golden Age translations.

[A note on the presentation: Because Blogger and the Internet in general are mechanistically and aesthetically opposed to publishing free verse, we've uploaded PDFs of the poems alongside their translations below. Just click on the image to blow it up and enjoy.]


Other than being extremely ugly, Francisco de Quevedo (1580 - 1645) had every chance in the world to make something respectable of himself. Born of a good Madrid family, he was sent to university at a time when perhaps 1% of Europeans could so much as sign their own name. There, he was more noted for his satirical pamphlets than for his academic achievements. Not long after graduating he became involved in a scandal that led to a duel which led to him leaving the country, bound for Italy. He served in Sicily and Naples before getting tangled up in a political conspiracy which forced him to leave Italy and return to Spain.

After years of this sort of thing, he somehow managed to land a post at the court of the Spanish king, Philip IV. Quevedo, however, was not well suited to life at court, to say the least. When he found himself unable to win over the king’s favorite courtier, a man named Olivares, Quevedo said some awful things about him. In response, the king had Quevedo, who was 59 at the time, thrown into an underground dungeon. This was in 1639, which assures that conditions in the dungeon were at best uncomfortable. Quevedo languished there for four years. When he was finally released he was the classic “broken man.” He died two years later, at the age of 65, having lived a remarkably long life for a poet with so little skill at navigating the “real” world.

What remains is his work, which shows where Quevedo‘s mind must have been while he was doing all of that biographical bungling. He is, along with Lope de Vega and Luis de Góngora (both of whom he hated intensely), one of the pillars of the so-called Spanish Golden Age’s late period.

Primarily known as a satirist in life, he certainly had satiric skill, and wrote a great deal of satire that was not to be equaled in Europe until the coming of Voltaire, but he was much more than a mere wisecracker. The intervening centuries have revealed a poet of much greater emotional range and depth than his contemporaries may have suspected. He is a superb poet of nostalgia and despair, as well as just plain funny when he wants to be, usually at his own expense.

The poems presented here attempt to display something of that range in the space available. In the Spanish they are all sonnets of the Petrarchan variety, the usual form at the time in Spain, considering the immense influence of Italian vernacular poets on Spanish poetry beginning with Garcilaso de la Vega in the early 16th Century. A quick glance at my translations will of course reveal that they do not even attempt to be English sonnets. I imagine there will be those who hesitate to dignify my work on Quevedo with the term “translation.” This is fine with me. Let us call them “versions.”

In translating Spanish Golden Age poets, the first problem you have is the usual one with rhyme. Romance languages have, because of the uniform endings applied to verbs in the same tense and adjectives in the same gender, a much larger amount of possible rhymes than English. This has caused translators no end of difficulty from time immemorial. Because of this rhyme-differential, forms like the strictly rhymed sonnet get badly mangled in the attempt to retain the rhyme.

There is also the problem of datedness. Many translators, knowing that these Spanish poems are very old, attempt to make their versions sound like very old English poems, with results that are usually reminiscent of Shakespeare or John Donne. This would seem to make sense, given that Quevedo and Shakespeare were contemporaries, but it is actually nonsense, for two reasons.

The first is that the modern reader of Spanish has a much easier time reading 16th and 17th Century poetry than does the modern reader of English. The English poetry of the period was written at a time when the grammar of the language was still very open and spelling was only loosely standardized. Add this to a large amount of antiquated words and concepts and the English reader has real problems. The Spanish reader, by contrast, finds poets writing in a much more recognizable language. The result is that the Spanish Golden Age poets simply seem more alive to the Spanish reader than the Elizabethans do to the reader of English. Indeed, it has long been a source of wonder to the Spanish-speaking world why, since everyone all over the world loves Cervantes, no one outside the Spanish language has much regard for the poets of the same period. The answer is because they have rarely if ever been translated in a way that brings them across to the English reader in the right way.

This brings us to the second reason, which is that these are translations for the modern reader. It makes no sense to translate Quevedo, or any other poet, for readers who have been dead four hundred years. If the idea were valid we would all still be reading Chapman’s Homer.

So, I have made my versions they way they are. I have been no more strict with the exact meaning of the individual word than I have with the individual line. At times I have added or subtracted things for the sake of clarity of meaning or the accentuation of some poetic quality that seemed to matter.

My guides have been Ezra Pound and Paul Blackburn, in their versions of the Provençal troubadours, George Economou’s “Test of Translation” essay from The Caterpillar Anthology, which examines Pound’s and Blackburn’s results in excellent detail. Essentially, Pound put the troubadours into free verse and Blackburn put them into open field verse. I have followed that example while trying especially to maintain something of the strong rhythms these poems have in the Spanish. Each of these versions, hopefully, has a noticeable pulse, and while it may change from stanza to stanza within a poem, while also varying from poem to poem, I have tried to get it into every poem. Such were my intentions, and I would prefer to be evaluated on that level than on my ability or inability to make a Spanish mummy dance the way an English mummy dances.