Sweet dreams

poem is taped to bus shelter

 

Last Night As I Was Sleeping

by Antonio Machado

translated by Robert Bly

 

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that a spring was breaking

out in my heart.

I said: Along which secret aqueduct,

Oh water, are you coming to me,

water of a new life

that I have never drunk?

 

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that I had a beehive

here inside my heart.

And the golden bees

were making white combs

and sweet honey

from my old failures.

 

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that a fiery sun was giving

light inside my heart.

It was fiery because I felt

warmth as from a hearth,

and sun because it gave light

and brought tears to my eyes.

 

Last night as I slept,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that it was God I had

here inside my heart.

 

 

For this posting I took a Ringo Starr route—that is, I got by with a little help from my friends. Sending thanks at the outset to my niece Christine and my friends Ruth and Chris for elf assistance.

 

Christine helped me find a good spot for “Last Night As I Was Sleeping” in Washington, D.C., a city that has one of the most beautiful spring seasons in the world. Christine taped the poem to a bus shelter, taking her cue from the spiritual themes in the poem and the church in the background. Notice how fresh the air looks, a sign of earth’s springtime renewal, and hopefully our own as well now that we’ve entered the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

 

Ruth and Chris, both fluent in Spanish, helped me with a translation problem. More on that later.

 

*

 

Four mystical visions structure the poem. The visions come in dream form, perhaps one long beautiful dream, perhaps separate dreams connected and inspired by joy. The first dream is of water, water of a new life; the second of bees, making white combs/and sweet honey/from my old failures (oh the power of that image!); the third of the sun, it gave light/and brought tears to my eyes.

 

Those three images point, respectively, to renewal, transformation, and comfort. For religious people, the speaker of the poem included, renewal, transformation and comfort are gifts from God, who reveals himself/herself as the source in the final dream.

 

We’re accustomed to thinking of nightmares as dreams that allow us to feel emotions we wall off in our waking hours, the surfacing of subconscious fears to the conscious mind. But we don’t have a corresponding word for dreams that bring joy. “A good dream” feels lightweight; “vision” might do, but it has a spiritual connotation that makes it a less-than-universal term. I’m not offering an alternative—I’m just musing on how experiences without names often get discounted.

 

Which brings me to the troublesome phrase “marvelous error!” The first few times I read the poem, “marvelous error!” didn’t bother me. The poem holds so much emotion that such an outburst seems necessary, just as valves and vents are needed to let out steam.

 

But the words began to get in the way of my experience of the poem. Marvelous, at least in modern American English, has a silliness to it. I can’t help but hear Billy Crystal in Fernando Lamas mode or someone doing a bad imitation of how rich people talk.

 

More troublesome is “error.” Error covers everything from typos to moral failings. Whichever way it’s used, error signals mistake, something that is wrong, not as it should be. Naming the dream an error goes beyond just saying that dreams are not real. Is the joy, the transformation, the presence of God also a mistaken apprehension?

 

This is where Ruth and Chris came to the rescue. I sent them the phrase in the original Spanish— ¡bendita ilusión! They translated it as “blessed vision!” or “blessed illusion!” Well now, that changes everything. Vision and illusion both house some level of mystery. Illusion more forcefully says that events in the poem are not actually happening, but it doesn’t imply that they are false or wrong, especially since these illusions are blessed. Dreams, like poems, are not true in the literal sense, but so often truer to our emotional experiences than any scientific study or documentary could hope to be.

 

Poet Robert Bly translated the version of the poem I posted, and for the life of me I don’t understand why he used this particular phrase. Ruth and Chris’ translation sent me on a search for another version of “Last Night As I Was Sleeping.” Here’s one from professor emeritus and translator Armand F. Baker. I wish I had seen his version first—I like it better.

 

 

Last Night As I Was Sleeping

by Antonio Machado

translated by Armand F. Baker

 

Last night when I was sleeping,

I dreamed—blessed illusion!—

there was a fountain flowing

deep within my heart.

Water, tell me by what hidden

channel you come to me,

with a source of new life

I never drank from before.

 

Last night when I was sleeping,

I dreamed—blessed illusion!—

I had a beehive

deep within my heart;

and the golden bees

were using old

bitterness to produce

white wax and sweet honey.

 

Last night when I was sleeping,

I dreamed—blessed illusion!—

a blazing sun was shining

deep within my heart.

It burned because it gave off

heat like a red hearth;

it was a sun that illumined

and also made me cry.

 

Last night when I was sleeping

I dreamed—blessed illusion!—

it was God that I felt

deep within my heart.

 

*

 

Antonio Machado (1875-1939) was born in Seville, Spain, second of five sons. He moved as a young boy to Madrid where his father was a professor of folklore. When his father died suddenly, Machado was forced to put his university studies on hold. He worked as an actor across Europe and spent a lot of time in Paris. Eventually he got his PhD in Madrid and went to the Sorbonne in Paris.

 

In his early twenties he moved to Paris with his older brother Manuel (also an accomplished writer) to work as a translator. There he met many of the literary lights of the day, including Oscar Wilde.

 

He published his first poem a year after he moved to Paris, followed by a book of poetry which he continued to revise over several years. He became a professor of French literature at a school in Spain. When he was 34 he married the 16 year-old daughter of his landlord, and the couple moved to Paris. Not three years later she died of tuberculosis, leaving him broken-hearted.

 

He returned to Spain, taught French literature and collaborated with his brother on plays which proved popular.

 

In 1936 the Spanish Civil War separated him from his brother forever. His brother was trapped in the Nationalist zone. Machado left for Barcelona. Eventually he evacuated with his mother to head for Paris. He got pneumonia and died before arrival.

4 Comments

  1. Tom

    Blessed illusion, indeed. I’ve liked this poem for a long while. With this better translation of his refrain I like it all the more. Thank you

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