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Retrato de José Asunción Silva

Portrait of José Asunción Silva (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s poet of honor is one José Asunción Silva, a Colombian poet, and one of the exemplars of the Spanish-American offshoots of the 19th century Modernist movement.

He is at once a wonderful and a tragic figure–a case, as we have seen in previous weeks, too often to be found in the poetic world. To begin with, life blessed him with several things beneficial to the poet’s mind–the potential of youth was marked by journeys overseas, by a caring family, and a seemingly agile intellect. He learned from the traditions of Europe on journeys abroad, incorporating their styles into his own. He basked in the ways of the Romantic writers and joined together poetic tendencies from across national and cultural borders.

Unfortunately, with the death of his father, family debt also forced him back from all of this. Back in Colombia, unable to cope with the staggering debt his forebears had accumulated, he took a post as a diplomat, and in his time therein, began to put himself to his poetry in earnest. Yet in 1895 a writer’s worst nightmare struck him, with the loss of a ship bearing his major, completed manuscript of prose.

Though he would go on to recover from this, he could not recover from the face of personal tragedy. The loss of his manuscript was, perhaps, an icing on the cake–as just three years earlier, his sister Elivra suddenly died. Alone, bankrupt, and facing the loss of so much hard labor, Silva finally collapsed under the weight of it all in 1896, committing suicide by pistol. He was 30 years old. Today, however, his legacy lives on in the form of his former home, which has been turned into a museum.

And here we showcase his talents in one of his more well-known works, Nocturno, an elegy written for that lost sister, Elivra, but which was in turn not published until after Silva’s own death. Twelve years after, in fact, in 1908…

The tragedy here I must confess, however, is that though his works are regarded as great beauties of the Spanish language, I have but the English translation here today. If I find a good copy of the original, I’ll tack it on here later.

~Chris Galford


ONE night,
One night all full of murmurs, of perfumes and the brush of wings,
Within whose mellow nuptial glooms there shone fantastic fireflies,
Meekly at my side, slender, hushed and pale,
As though with infinite presentiment of woe
Your very depths of being were troubled,–
By the path of flowers that led across the plain,
You came treading,
And the rounded moon
Through heaven’s blue and infinite profound was shedding whiteness.
And your shadow
Languid, delicate;
And my shadow,
Sketched by the white moonlight’s ray
Upon the solemn sands
Of the path, were joined together,
As one together,
As one together,
As one together in a great single shadow,
As one together in a great single shadow,
As one together in a great single shadow.–
Another night
Alone–all my soul
Suffused with infinite woes and agonies of death,
Parted from you, by time, by the tomb and estrangement,
By the infinite gloom
Through which our voices fail to pierce,
Silent and lonely,
Along that road I journeyed–
And the dogs were heard barking at the moon,
At the pale-faced moon,
And the croaking
Of the frogs–
I was pierced with cold, such cold as on your bed
Came over your cheeks, your breasts, your adorable hands,
Between the snowy whiteness
Of your mortuary sheets;
It was the cold of the sepulchre, the chill of death,
The frost of nothingness.–
And my shadow
Sketched by the white moonlight’s ray,
Went on alone,
Went on alone,
Went on alone over the solitary wastes;
And your shadow, slender and light,
Languid, delicate,
As on that soft night of your springtime death,
As on that night filled with murmurs, with perfumes and the brush of wings,
Came near and walked with me,
Came near and walked with me,
Came near and walked with me — Oh, shadows interlaced!–
Oh, shadows of the bodies joining in shadow of the souls!–
Oh, shadows running each to each in the nights of woes and tears!–
~José Asunción Silva. Translated by Thomas Walsh, “Hispanic Anthology: Poems Translated from the Spanish by English and North American Poets