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Campanella’s Prison Song to his God: New Year

Lyric Strain

 

 

As Tommaso Campanella counts it, his imprisonment began in 1591/2, with his first Neopolitan trial. By July 1604 he had been transferred from a more comfortable prison to the dank, nearly lightless dungeons of San Elmo. There he would remain for four years continously manicled and chained, and in which he would undergo a conversion of a kind acceptance in 1606. (Transfered to better conditions in 1608, he returned again to the “belly” from 1614-1618). Far from the abstract alegory of a cave, dreamed up by that great Greek philosopher, Campanella lived the rock-hewn reality of a human bodily, political limit, as his photographic memory-aided mind reached out beyond that limit. What his poetry surely lacks in elegance or sophistication, it makes up with prodigious emotional content and primordial situtation, inscribing his dolorous hopes and glints of light in an utter bleakness of condition. Nearly the whole of his adult life will have been spent in prison when he was finally released by the Spanish in 1628.

 

I cannot help but think how these words, before translation, existed on difficult to procure scraps of paper, held in manicled hands, tipped to the angle of the sun in high window, light for only a few hours a day, and yet now exist floating across an ethernet into your eyes. When he says, I’m “tortured in chains within a pit for Thee” what might be a heavy-handed poetic trope suddenly turns leaden when you hear the sound of links that tink as he writes and turns. Even if you care nothing for the poem, there is something to the redemption of that moment, when his words find your eyes, the impossibility that those thoughts could ever reach their compliment, not only beyond the powers of the Spanish monarchy and Papal authority that contrained him, but also across the four vast centuries intervening, in which the memory of the man and his writings has nearly been swallowed whole, something to this moment that speaks to what a New Year is.

 

Prisons are mulitfarious. But not nearly so as their voices. One wonders what inspires one to rhyme, in prison. Is there an apophanic limit to Plea?

 

 

Orazioni ire in Salmodia Metafisicak congiunte insieme

 

I
Almighty God! what though the laws of Fate
Invincible, and this long misery,
Proving my prayers not merely spent in vain
But heard and granted crosswise, banish me
Far from Thy sight,-still humbly obstinate
I turn to Thee. No other hopes remain.
Were there another God with vows to gain,
To Him for succour I would surely go :
Nor could I be called impious, if I turned
In this great agony from one who spurned,
To one who bade me come and cured my woe.
Nay, Lord! I babble vainly. Help ! I cry,
Before the temple where Thy reason burned,
Become a mosque of imbecility!

II.
Well know I that there are no words which can
Move Thee to favour him for whom Thy grace
Was not reserved from all eternity.
Repentance in Thy counsel finds no place:
Nor can the eloquence of mortal man
Bend Thee to mercy, when Thy sure decree
Hath stablished that this frame of mine should be
Rent by these pangs that flesh and spirit tire.
Nay if the whole world knows my martyrdom-
Heaven, earth, and all that in them have their home-
Why tell the tale to Thee, their Lord and Sire?
And if all change is death or some such state,
Thou deathless God, to whom for help I come,
How shall I make Thee change, to change my fate?

III.
Nathless for grace I once more sue to Thee,
Spurred on by anguish sore and deep distress:-
Yet have I neither art nor voice to plead
Before Thy judgment-seat of righteousness.
It is not faith, it is not charity,
Nor hope that fails me in my hour of need;
And if, as some men teach, the soul is freed
From sin and quickened to deserve Thy grace
By torments suffered on this earth below,
The Alps have neither ice, I ween, nor snow
To match my purity before Thy face!
For prisons fifty, tortures seven, twelve years
Of want and injury and woe-
These have I borne, and still I stand ringed round with fears.

IV.
We lay all wrapped with darkness: for some slept
The sleep of ignorance, and players played
Music to sweeten that vile sleep for gold:
While others waked, and hands of rapine laid
On honours, wealth, and blood; or sexless crept
Into the place of harlots, basely bold.-
I lit a light:-like swarming bees, behold !
Stripped of their sheltering gloom, on me
Sleepers and wakers rush to wreak their spite:
Their wounds, their brutal joys disturbed by light,
Their broken bestial sleep fill them with jealousy.-
Thus with the wolves the silly sheep agreed
Against the valiant dogs to fight;
Then fell the prey of their false friends’ insatiate greed.

V.
Help, mighty Shepherd! Save Thy lamp, Thy hound,
From wolves that ravin and from thieves that prey!
Make known the whole truth to the witless crowd!
For if my light, my voice, are cast away-
If sinfulness in these Thy gifts be found-
The sun that rules in heaven is disallowed.
Thou knowest without wings I cannot fly :
Give me the wings of grace to speed my flight!
Mine eyes are always turned to greet Thy light:
Is it my crime if still it pass me by?
Thou didst free Bocca and Gilardo; these,
Worthless, are made the angels of Thy might.-
Hast Thou lost counsel? Shall Thine empire cease?

VI.
With Thee I speak: Lord, thou dost understand!
Nor mind I how mad tongues my life reprove.
Full well I know the world is ‘neath Thine eye,
And to each part thereof belongs Thy love :
But for the general welfare wisely planned
The parts must suffer change;-they do not die,
For nature ebbs and flows eternally;-
But to such change we give the name of Death
Or Evil, whensoe’er we feel the strife
Which for the universe is joy and life,
Though for each part it seems mere lack of breath.-
So in my body every part I see
With lives and deaths alternate rife,
All tending to its vital unity.

VII.
Thus then the Universe grieves not, and I
Mid woes innumerable languish still
To cheer the whole and every happier part.-
Yet, if each part is suffered by Thy will
To call for aid-as Thou art God most High,
Who to all beings wilt Thy strength impart;
Who smoothest every change by secret art,
With fond care tempering the force of fate,
Necessity and concord, power and thought,
And love divine through all things subtly wrought-
I am persuaded, when I iterate
My prayers to Thee, some comfort I must find
For these pangs poison-fraught,
Or leave the sweet sharp lust of life behind.

VIII.
The Universe hath nought that changes not,
Nor in its change feels not the pangs of pain,
Nor prays not unto God to ease that woe.
Mid these are many who the grace obtain
Of aid from Thee :-thus Thou didst rule their lot:
And many who without Thy help must go.
How shall I tell toward whom Thy favours flow,
Seeing I sat not at Thy council-board?
One argument at least doth hearten me
To hope those prayers may not unanswered be,
Which reason and pure thoughts to me afford:
Since often, if not always, Thou dost will
In Thy deep wisdom, Lord,
Best laboured soil with fairest fruits to fill.

IX.
The tilth of this my field by plough and hoe
Yields me good hope-but more the fostering sun
Of Sense divine that quickens me within,
Whose rays those many minor stars outshone-
That it is destined in high heaven to show
Mercy, and grant my prayer; so I may win
The end Thy gifts betoken, enter in
The realm reserved for me from earliest time.
Christ prayed but’ If it may be,’ knowing well
He might not shun that cup so terrible:
His angel answered, that the law sublime
Ordained his death. I prayed not thus, and mine-
Was mine then sent from Hell?– ‘ .
Made answer diverse from that voice divine.

X.
Go song, go tell my Lord-’ Lo! he who lies
Tortured in chains within a pit for Thee,
Cries, how can flight be free
Wingless?-Send Thy word down, or Thou
Show that fate’s wheel turns not iniquity,
And that in heaven there is no lip that lies.’-
Yet, song, too boldly flies
Thy shaft; stay yet for this that follows now!

trans. John Addington Symonds 

Tommaso Campanella’s Poems, original language 

Symond’s Translation of the Sonnets

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