Rosalía de Castro as Penelope

IMG_1446From the four cardinal points
of our good planet,
-young despite its many wrinkles-
thousands of minds,
active and powerful
in broadening the fields of Science-
so vast now that Reason gets lost
in their immense undergrowth-
come for the invitation Progress
sent out from its hundred-gated temple.

Tireless workers, I salute you,
full of wonder and of respect,
seeing how the Faith that once guided
the holy hermit into the desert,
today with the same transparent veil
carries you forward to the threshold of the impossible.
Wait and believe! Believers create,
and with redoubled ardour love the ones they await.

But I, in the most hidden corner
of the earth and also the most beautiful,
am not waiting for Ulysees,
because ours was shipwrecked in the storm,
but like Penelope
weaving and unweaving my tapestry,
think that this is human destiny
the tireless task,
and that now going up, now down,
sometimes with light and then in the dark,
we fill our days and arrive
sooner or later at the seashore.

In this poem from En las Orillas del Sar, Rosalía de Castro presents us with the figure of Penelope as the model of herself as the poet. Penelope was the wife of Ulysees. As described in the Odyssey, Ulysees’ journey home was delayed by many adventures along the way. His wife Penelope had to put up with the attentions of suitors who wanted to take her as their bride. When she was cornered into making a commitment she said she would marry as soon as she finished the tapestry she was weaving. During the day she would weave and at night undo all the work she had done. This put off the day of decision-making until Ulysees himself returned and took vengeance.

The first verse is one long and convoluted sentence. Progress has sent out an invitation to the thousands of scientific minds. They are making their way to this appointment at the temple of Progress with its one hundred gates from the four corners of the world. They are like the suitors in the Penelope tale.

The second verse is directed to these tireless workers. Rosalía does not emphasise their scientific qualifications. Instead she compares their ceaseless activity to the faith of desert hermits. The “transparent veil” reminds us of the images of blind faith you can see on medieval cathedrals. There is one on the pórtico de la inmaculada of the Cathedral of Santiago and perhaps Rosalía was thinking of this image. It also ties the work of the scientists into the work of the poet and Penelope, a comparison that is made more explicit in the last lines of the stanza when she says “believers create” and “love the ones they await.”

In the final stanza she tells us that, unlike Penelope, she is waiting for no Ulysses but, tucked away in a hidden corner of the world, continues to weave her tapestry of verse, which is her destiny. She will eventually arrive at the seashore. In Galicia you go west to arrive at the seashore. This far western corner of Europe where the last point is called Fisterra, the end of the earth, is a fitting metaphor for death, since the sun sets in the western sea.

In classical sources there are tales of the Cassiterides in the western sea, mysterious islands where the fountain of eternal youth was hidden. This transmutes over time into the legends of Arthur, and in Portugal Sebastian, the king who goes west but is destined to return. These threads go to make the weave of the tapestry of Rosalía’s poem. In any case the story of Ulysses has had an attraction to poets in Galicia (see Cunqueiro, for example) and Rosalía’s poem takes its place in this tradition- another little gem.

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About Jason Preater

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