Periodic Poetry: El Comendador Juan Escrivá, “Ven muerte tan escondida” (Come death and be concealed)
Almost nothing is known of Juan [possibly Joan] Escrivá. He was probably born in Valencia sometime in the 15th Century. His birthplace is presumed from his authorship of certain poems (not this week’s) in the Catalan language and because of the one title we know of—he was Maestre Racionale to Ferdinand (an official in charge of the treasury of the Kingdom of Valencia). Ferdinand also sent him as an envoy to Rome in 1497.
He wrote other verse in Castillian and Catalan, but none achieved the renown of this week’s canción. In addition he wrote a sentimental dialogue entitled Queja que da a su amiga ante el dios de Amor, por modo de diálogo en prosa y verso [Complaint which one makes to his lady before the god of Love, in the manner of a dialogue in prose and verse], which was published in 1514.
The canción for which his fame solely rests was widely respected during the Golden Age of Spanish Literature. Lope de Vega, and others, annotated the poem. Many later poets imitated the pose. Both Cervantes and Calderón de la Barca used the poem in major works. Cervantes in Chapter 38 of the Second Part of Don Quixote, published some 100 years after the canción, uses the poem to show the deep grief of Countess Trifaldi who comes to Don Quixote to request that he help her confront a dragon who not only turned her mistress into a brass monkey and her lover into a metal crocodile but also gave the Countess herself and all her maids beards that could not be removed. After a mournful dirge-like approach the Countess with her 12 maids, she explained how the knight gained access to the princess through her by means of amatory poems and the sorrowful canción which she quotes as follows:
Ven, muerte, tan escondida
que no te sienta venir,
porque el placer del morir
no me torne á dar la vida.
[Come, death, so hidden / that one feels not your coming /
lest the pleasure of dying / turn me from giving my life.]
Calderón used the poem in a more appropriate setting in his “comedia” El Mayor Monstruo los Zelos [The Greatest Monster, Jealousy], a drama remarkably like Othello (which was produced a couple of decades before). Herod, the Tetrarch of Judea, lives in fear that his faithful wife will leave him for another. He desires to conquer the world to lay at her feet, but in the process runs afoul of Octavius Caesar, which puts Herod’s life in his hands. Herod now fears that after his death, his wife will fall to Octavius, so he orders that his wife be killed (without her knowing his agency) in the event he dies. The cross-purposes under which the three main characters act guarantee, in that Renaissance-Baroque manner we are familiar with in Elizabethan theater, that what is most feared comes to pass by the character whose judgment of others is most flawed. Before the end, Herod’s wife learns of his order, and while dressing her, her maids, like a Greek chorus, sing the canción, which is quoted (in Jornada III) exactly as Cervantes quotes it.
Calderón would also use the poem in his Manos blancas no ofenden (Jornada II). In all these cases only the first verse is used.
The poem thus has many reputable admirers. And the reasons are obvious. It has very tight feminine rhyme scheme: ABBA CDDCABBA. The rhymes themselves are quite musically related to each other: A=ida; B=igo; C=iere; D=ido.
Moreover, the attractiveness of death is made the reason for seeking its stealth, lest it fail of its purpose. Quickness and wounding, silence and pleasure all in simple musical words give a view of death both simple and mystical. It perfectly accorded with the sentiment of the era where the heroic extravagances were no longer believed in and lyrical exploration was taking the place of adventurous bravado.
from the Cancionero general de Hernando del Castillo (1511)
by El Comendador Juan Escrivá
Ven muerte tan escondida
que no te sienta comigo,
porqu’ el gozo de contigo
no me torne a dar la vida.
Ven como rayo que hiere,
que hasta que ha herido
no se siente su ruydo
por mejor herir do quiere:
assi sea tu venida,
si no, desde aqui me obligo
qu’ el gozo que aure contigo
me dara de nuevo vida.
[translated by DK Fennell]
Come death and be concealed
so that I do not sense you with me,
lest the solace of your presence be
the reason I don’t yield.
Come like a ripping bolt
that up till the time of its slash
one feels no sense of the gash
to render best its jolt:
so be your arrival,
if not, I can only fear
that the joy of your being near
will ensure my survival.
Text note: Modern editions have the last four lines as:
Asi sea tu vendia,
Sino desde aquí te digo
Que el gozo que habré contigo
Me dará de nuevo vida.
[So be your coming / But I tell you now /
That the joy of having you with me / Will give me new life.]