The Girl at the Fountain

feb4I saw you on a clear night,
It was Midsummer´s Eve,
And you were putting fresh herbs
Out in the fountain to cool.
Ah, but you were so pretty
Like the rose on the rosebush
When it is covered all over
By the early morning dew.
That’s why,  in love with you
And breathing softly,
I wanted to wrap my arms
Around your waist,
And with your sweet eyes
And even sweeter voice,
feb3Enchantress,you fooled me
With calm solace.
All the little stars
Up there in space
Looked down and smiled on us
Gentle in their clarity
And were witnesses, alas,
To your soft sighs
Replying to mine
With equal love.
But afterwards with other men-
This fine fellow and that young lad-
(Not that they loved you more,
No one  will ever do that)
feb4What’s more, what’s more, my girl
You were ready to converse
With them beneath the willows
Beside the rosemary patch.
That is why I sang to you
In sad solitud
If- oh poor me- I saw
You starting up with them;
“Be careful, girl, watch out:
The place where many spit
Turns to mud.”

How sad you seem now!
feb3How sad, my girl, you are!
And your fresh colours,
Where are they, lass?
And your serene gaze
And your sweet singing,

Where, my girl, wretched thing,
Where will you find them?
I didn’t see you, girl,
This Midsummer’s Eve
Putting fresh herbs
Into the fountain to cool.
You no longer seemed fresh
As a rose on a rosebush,
feb4Since you were cast down
From so much sobbing.
Today, cut up and suffering,
You go in search of honour;
The honour you lost.
Who can give it you back?
Well I would, my little girl,
Would like to give it to you:
Since I loved you so much
I suffer to see you in pain.
But child, although I may
Say that you are clean,
They smile at me and reply
To mock me all the more:
O“You well know, Farruquiño,
Farruco del Pombal:
The place where many spit
Turns to mud.”

This poem is from Rosalía’s Cantares Gallegos number 12.  The story is pretty plain: the romantic lad hangs out with a girl in the night and falls in love with her, but she is toying with him because she likes to hang out with other lads as well.  She gets the reputation of being a “slut”, as they say in schools these days.  People start to talk about her and she loses her honour.  The repellent narrator can then come to her with his pious, and frankly repulsive, metaphor: “the place where many spit turns to mud.”

Rosalía does not sweeten things up in her poetry and acknowledges as much in the introduction to the Cantares saying that some of her readers might have been expecting happier love songs.  What she gives us, on the contrary, is a world in which the gaitero, or bagpipe player, moves from village to village stealing girls’ virtue and where those same girls are ruined when they have lost their honour.   In my previous post we saw how this vision, combined with other perceptions of her life, leads to a comprehensive nihilism in her later verse.

I have been on an eccentric loop in my literary investigations and I’d like to share it with you, if you have the patience, because I have made some surprising connections.  Next week I will be in Andalucía leading a group and, wanting to understand the background of the Moorish culture of southern Spain, read No God But God by Reza Aslan (Heineman, London, 2005): it is a comprehensive introduction to Islam for beginners. Chapter 8, concerning Sufis, starts with the story of Layla and Majnun.  Majnun literally means “crazy” and the whole story revolves around the troubles of the young noble, Kais, who goes off to live in the wilderness when he is separated from his childhood love, Layla.  He becomes a mad poet and people go out into the desert to consult him in his isolation from the world: his mad love is full of poetic wisdom.  Layla is married to another by her family and eventually dies of sorrow after meeting up with Majnun in a garden.  Majnun then finds her tomb and dies there also.

The most widely known version of the story is by the Persian poet Nizami.

When I read the story as recounted by Aslan I was struck by this passage:

“Little does anyone understand me,” Majnun thought.  “Do they not realize that their idea of happiness is not mine?  Do they not see that while it may be possible for them to have their wishes granted in this life, my longing is for something else entirely, something that cannot be fulfilled while I remain in this transient world?”

This seems to me to be a beautiful encapsulation of saudade, the existential pain that is so common in Portuguese, Galician and Asturian writing.  As I investigated further I became more and more interested in the connection between this idealised, unattainable love and saudade.

Nizami’s poem is a version of older poems in the Arab tradition, the earliest of which, by Imru al Qays Ibn Hujr (500-550 AD), is pre-Islamic.  It starts with the lines: “Stop, oh my friends, let us pause to weep over the remembrance of my beloved.”  It is rich and vivid with powerful descriptions of place and feeling, and contains the seed of the idea that would grow into a long and fecund poetic tradition: the lover whose love brings him disaster.  This was the line from the poem that suggested the translation I have posted today: “Pure water, unsullied by the descent of many people in it, has nourished her.”  The idea of purity becomes dominant in the tradition over time.

By the time of Nizami we are already looking at a fully-fledged example of Virgin Love poetry.   Layla and Majnun are forever separate even though they are united in their love: their love transcends their physical separation and can, therefore, act as a cosmic metaphor.  There is a heavy symbolic weight placed on this love that acts as a grand metaphor for universal longing and, within the sufi tradition, represents the soul’s longing for God.

Once I get a hold of an idea like this I tend to rocket around like a pinball.  I thought of Don Quijote: the episode of Marcela and Crisóstomo is a condensation of the Virgin Love tradition; the young woman becomes a wandering shepherdess to avoid love and her lover goes off into the wilderness where he dies of love.  This tradition goes back to the troubadours and I cannot help thinking of the unrequited love of so many wandering minstrels.

Just as in the Persian and Arabic literatures, in the West love songs are converted into esoteric religious texts: St John of the Cross takes the Song of Solomon and turns it into an allegory of the mystic union of the Soul with Christ.  St Teresa of Ávila seems to use the traditions of Petrarchan love poetry to describe her loving union with God.   As I have flitted around reading into this tradition I have even bumped up against the surprising notion that the Majnun/Layla model lies behind the Dante/Beatrice relationship.

Rosalía openly rejects this tradition.  What a brave woman!  She was steeped in the poetry of the cancioneros, or songbooks, and in other posts I have noticed the borrowings from traditional songs in her verse, yet she takes the traditions and turns them on their head.  It is the believable reality of her poetry that gives it such freshness and life.

The world has changed.  I resolutely do not want purity for my daughters: I am glad they live in an age where they can go out into the world on equal terms with men, owners of their own bodies and minds.  What a relief that these ideas of honour, purity and virginity are fading away!  Farruco is a creep, not a mythic lover, and the girl crying by the fountain will get up and get on with her life because we don’t believe in Madonnas and Whores these days.

About Jason Preater

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5 Responses to The Girl at the Fountain

  1. golembook says:

    Every time I come to your blog, there is something awesome. Thanks for the great effort and thanks for all the great posts.


  2. A Great read Jason – loved your conclusion…! I’m not so well read, but what it makes me think of is this longing for perfection in painting and the absolute revulsion of the idea at the same time – strange… It is the experiences and sufferings that give us what we want and need to say. And finally – I love love Love the paintings that go with this post! Thank you –


  3. Well put. I agree with your conclusion completely. The virgin ideal, to me, is dated and misogynistic. In this poem there’s a great deal of beauty and sadness expressed, both feeding off of each other. Do you think there’s a present-day application to some of the thoughts expressed here?


    • That’s a big question for someone like me. I have always been a reader and I suppose I have also always been aware of reading as a dangerous activity in the sense that superficial readings that give you happy conclusions and upbeat messages can break up like thin ice under scrutiny. Rosalía is a profoundly sad poet who is often taken in excerpts to give a vague wistfulness a little like snipping out a bit of John Coltrane to sell coffee, perhaps. You cannot turn her around and paint a lick of positive thinking over her. This fascinates me. Sometimes I have a feeling that, as a part of this great big modern Leviathan that is giving us chemical and technological solutions to everything, I may at some point have the poetry excised from my mind as an unhelpful and unproductive aberration. Funnily enough Avicena, who I mention in that post, also thought that love was a mental disorder. Haha. Thanks for your interest and your comment.


  4. jane says:

    Hi you might like this poem of Majnun-and-Layla


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