She pleaded with me on her knees
On her knees with me she pleaded;
She shivered like a fresh cut shaft
Trembling in a stiff sea breeze.
Like someone who fears being heard,
She said: “For God’s sake, I beg…”
“You are fresh,” is how I replied,
“Come now with prayers on your lips!
The fox will never let go
Of the hen he has in his maw,
The bee will not leave the flower
Till the honey is all sucked out,
And a wild goshawk won’t drop
A sweet, plump, white dove.”
This poem by Eduardo Pondal (1835-1917) is from Queixumes dos Pinos (APG: Vigo, 1996), which was originally published in 1886.
In the collection the poet creates a Galician Celtic world of heroes and bards who live in mountain-top settlements. There is some basis for this in history and archaeology: all over the region there are the remains of Iron Age hill forts that were used up until the arrival of the Romans. They had no literary culture and the Galician nationalist writers of the nineteenth-century who wanted to build up the Celtic prehistory of their region looked to Ireland for their source material.
This is a rape poem and on your first reading the natural instinct is revulsion. Does Celtic myth take away from the shock? Greek mythology is, after all, full of the “rapes” that Zeus perpetrates on boys and girls, nymphs and maidens, and Renaissance and Baroque painting has its fair share of randy satyrs chasing down the forest beauties. Is there some overarching mythic need to this poem?
The fact that the rapist tells the woman to pray suggests that if there is a deity it is male. The best candidate would seem to be Maponos, the Celtic lover God who is somewhat synonymous with Apollo and, in the Irish tradition, Aengus Og. In the first verse he says he is a beast (fish- in Gallego) and in the final verse he compares himself to the fox, the bee and the goshawk. In Celtic mythology the hawk (Seabhag) is one of the oldest of all animals and can communicate between the world of Fairie and this world.
The connections are not explicit enough to satisfy me. Furthermore, the female character is weak. In Celtic mythology there are many strong female characters the strongest being the Cailliach, who has been suggested as the source of the name Galicia itself (Cal- Gal). The woman in this poem seems neither strong nor potent enough to be equated with a Goddess and even the story of Aine, who was raped and then took her revenge, seems improbable as a source.
I find the poem powerful and troubling as a cultural artefact. This blog by Galnarciso www.blogoteca.com/galnarciso/index.php?cod=40274 is incisive in its critique of the poet’s machismo, including a list of the heroic male adjectives the poet uses contrasted with a list of pejorative feminine adjectives that all refer to weakness: “the superiority of the man over the woman is a fundamental of patriarchal thought and that of Pondal.”
Furthermore, this is not the only example of rape in Pondal’s poetry and, as Galnarciso points out, there is a sadistic streak in the manner in which the victim begs him to stop, her panic is described in detail and there is no escape from his desires:
Enough now of prayers…
Because now you cannot be freed of me
Neither by God nor the Devil, no.
It is rather extraordinary that the poet should be so frank with these disturbing visions.
What do you think?