Posts Tagged ‘Spanish poetry’

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.

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by César Vallejo


I’m sitting here on the old patio

beside your absence. It is a black well.

We’d be playing, now. . . I can hear Mama yell

“Boys! Calm down!” We’d laugh, and off I’d go

to hide where you’d never look. . . under the stairs,

in the hall, the attic. . . Then you’d do the same.

Miguel, we were too good at that game.

Everything would always end in tears.


No one was laughing on that August night

you went to hide away again, so late

it was almost dawn. But now your brother’s through

with this hunting and hunting and never finding you.

The shadows crowd him. Miguel, will you hurry

and show yourself? Mama will only worry.



I regret posting this poem on a seesaw at an empty lakeside park.


I mean this poem, the words you see above, not César Vallejo’s actual poem, which unless you read Spanish, is inaccessible to you.


What I regret is that I used the translation above. I got it from the Poetry Foundation website, so it’s legitimate, but it seems to have sacrificed meaning for rhyme. The translation from Poets.org from the Academy of American Poets is completely different. I think it’s better. I say “better” cautiously. I think it’s better because it’s more complicated and layered:


To My Brother Miguel in Memoriam

by César Vallejo



Brother, today I sit on the brick bench outside the house,

where you make a bottomless emptiness.

I remember we used to play at this hour of the day, and mama

would calm us: “There now, boys…”

Now I go hide

as before, from all these evening

prayers, and I hope that you will not find me.

In the parlor, the entrance hall, the corridors.

Later, you hide, and I do not find you.

I remember we made each other cry,

brother, in that game.


Miguel, you hid yourself

one night in August, nearly at daybreak,

but instead of laughing when you hid, you were sad.

And your other heart of those dead afternoons

is tired of looking and not finding you.  And now

shadows fall on the soul.


Listen, brother, don’t be too late

coming out. All right? Mama might worry.



Given how distinct the two translations are, I can’t begin to examine this poem on a line-by-line basis. I can only feel it. It’s tender, it’s loving, it’s haunting. It breaks my heart. Like Vallejo, I have ten siblings. That’s as far as I’ll go with the comparison, it’s too painful to contemplate.


Death in “Miguel” is not abstract and it’s not in the past. Death is an absence that’s never filled, a game of hide-and-go-seek that’s never finished. The tears of frustration that ended the childhood game become exhaustion in the present. Miguel’s brother can look and look, but Miguel hides forever.


Here’s a musical version of the poem by the amazing Mercedes Sosas. No matter that I can’t understand the words, the intense emotion comes through.




How is it I’ve never heard of César Vallejo, poet, novelist, playwright, journalist, a man Thomas Merton called “the greatest universal poet since Dante”?


Vallejo (1892-1938) was born in a remote area of the Andes in Peru, the youngest of eleven children. His grandfathers were Spanish Catholic priests, his grandmothers Chimu Indians. Make of that what you will. (I read somewhere that his grandmothers were brought into the rectory as housekeepers. There’s a story in there and I’m not sure it’s romantic.) Regardless, Vallejo was deeply attached to both his indigenous and his Spanish identities.


The family was very religious. His father encouraged him to become a priest, but Vallejo didn’t want to be celibate. He went to university but had to drop out several times because he couldn’t afford tuition. In between enrollments he worked as a tutor and in an office at a sugar plantation, where he was appalled by the exploitation of the workers.


After graduating and getting his master’s degree, he became a principal at a prestigious school. At night went to opium dens. Then his life took a Job-like turn. He got fired after he refused to marry a woman with whom he was having an affair, he tried to commit suicide, he returned home, and his mother died. While he was home, or on his way home (the story confused me), a general store was looted and burned, a man was shot, and Vallejo was accused of instigating the crime and sent to jail for months. Released on parole, he moved back to Lima, and from there, on to Europe. He knew when he left he would never be able to return home because of his criminal status.


In Paris he lived in dire poverty and nearly starved to death. There he befriend an also-impoverished Pablo Picasso and met Jean Cocteau, among other artists. He studied Marxism, and decided to give up poetry altogether to write a book about Marxist theory. He became a Communist, took three trips to the Soviet Union, and was expelled from France for his politics in 1930.


In Spain he worked as a journalist during the Spanish Civil War. He was horrified at the conditions on the front. Somehow he was able to go back to Paris (I’m telling you, his life story has so many twists and turns I had a hard time following it), where he contracted an illness and could not recover. His death was dramatic. Not to make light of it, but I collect deathbed scenes and they usually have some element of humor. This one is no exception:


From poets.org:


No one knew how to heal him; at one point, his wife even enlisted the help of astrologers and wizards. On the morning of April 15, the Fascists finally reached the Mediterranean, cutting the Loyalist territory in two. At more or less the same moment, Vallejo cried out in delirium, “I am going to Spain! I want to go to Spain!” and he died. It was Good Friday.


He was only 46 when he died.



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