Góngora: Mientras por competir…

Luis de Góngora (1561-1627): Sonnet clxvi: Mientras por competir… 1582.

1.    Mientras por competir con tu cabello,

oro bruñido al sol relumbra en vano;
mientras con menosprecio en medio el llano
mira tu blanca frente el lilio bello;
5.    Mientras a cada labio, por cogello,
siguen más ojos que al clavel temprano;
y mientras triunfa con desdén Lozano
del luciente cristal tu gentil cuello:
9.    Goza cuello, cabello, labio y frente,
antes que lo que fue en tu edad dorada
oro, lilio, clavel, cristal luciente,
12.  No sólo en plata o viola troncada
se vuelva, mas tu y ello juntamente
en tierra, en humo, en polvo, en sombra, en nada.

Prose Translation:
While burnished gold gleams in vain in the sun to compete with your hair;/ while in the middle of the plain your white brow gazes on the fair lily with disdain;/ while more eyes follow each lip to kiss them [each lip] than [follow] the early carnation;/ and while your slender neck triumphs over gleaming crystal with self-assured scorn: enjoy your neck, hair, lips and brow, before what was in your golden youth, gold, lily, carnation, gleaming crystal not only turns to silver or to drooping violet but you and all of it together [turn] into earth, smoke, dust, shadow, nothing.


This poem is a sonnet, i.e. 14 hendecasyllabic lines (i.e. 11 syllables each line). It has two quatrains, (each quatrain contains four lines), and two tercets (each made up of three lines). Sometimes we talk of the two quatrains together as an octet, and the two tercets together as a sestet.  The rhyme scheme is ABBA, ABBA, CDC, DCD.

        Luis de Góngora by Velazquez.
                      Click to enlarge.

"Mientras por competir…" is one of Góngora’s most popular sonnets and appears in virtually all anthologies of Spanish poetry.  Although the theme is common (the urgent appeal to a young woman to enjoy her youth before time destroys it), the poem's significance is based on the art with which it is written.

The source is classical: the “Carpe diem” (“Enjoy the day”) of Horace, and the “Collige, virgo, rosas” (“Gather, maiden, the roses”) from Ausonius. We can see how Garcilaso de la Vega handled the topic in his “En tanto que de rosa y de azucena...” and it is this poem that Góngora had in mind when he penned “Mientras por competir…”  The thematic similarity invites us to compare both sonnets in what we call intertextuality.  Garcilaso’s sonnet is the “pre”text or implied text for Góngora and the context within which he writes his own sonnet. This raises the question: to what degree does Góngora imitate Garcilaso and in what way is he different?

One of the features of Renaissance poetry was imitation, and the poet’s “originality” was measured by his ability to select good models for inspiration. “No tengo por buen poeta al que no imita los excelentes antiguos," ("I don’t consider anyone who does not imitate the excellent ancients to be a good poet”), said Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas (better known as El Brocense), the first to write a commentary on Garcilaso’s poetry (1574). El Brocense’s commentary was recognition of Garcilaso’s stature as a model worthy to be imitated, equal to the great Latin and Italian poets (e.g. Virgil, Horace, Petrarch). In another commentary, published in 1580, the Andalusian poet, Fernando de Herrera, goes a step further, urging poets not only to choose good models but also to aspire to surpass them in the pursuit of poetic excellence. It was in this vein of imitating and striving to exceed what Garcilaso had written in "En tanto que…" that Góngora wrote his sonnet. He does this in two ways: 1) in his treatment of the theme, and 2) in his handling of the imagery and rhetoric that he employs.

Theme: Time and beauty:

In Garcilaso’s sonnet, the lady’s beauty is compared to that of nature ("rose," "lily," "gold") and her youthful qualities evoked by metaphors of "fruit" and "spring" (lines 9-10). There is a blending of nature and feminine beauty, with each equal to the other.

Góngora, on the other hand, emphasises the superiority of the lady’s beauty over that of nature (lines 1-8).  We read that burnished gold can’t “compete” with the lady’s hair (lines 1-2); her white brow “looks down” on the lily (lines 3-4); “more” eyes are fixed on her lips than on the carnation (lines 5-6; and her neck “triumphs” over the gleaming crystal (lines 7-8). As a result, Góngora’s lady  appears more vibrant, and her beauty more intense and colourful, more in keeping with baroque aesthetics of marked contrasts..

Time is a constant in  both sonnets, its destructive force becoming more evident with the ladies’ loss of beauty. Indeed, in the last six lines of Garcilaso’s sonnet, the poem becomes progressively more a meditation on time itself, and the lady --the “you” whom the poet (or poetic voice) addresses-- disappears completely in the second tercet (lines 12-14).

Such is not the case in Góngora’s sonnet. The lady (the “you”) remains integral to the end, where the effects of time on her reach their logical conclusion: time consumes her and everything (“tú y ello”) leaving behind only “earth,” “smoke,” “dust,” “shadow” and “nothingness” (line 14). Garcilaso takes us no further than old age; Góngora carries us to extinction. Where Garcilaso projects us into the future in the second tercet (“marchitará,” “mudará”), Góngora avoids the future tense, creating thereby a much more intense way of conveying the urgency of the appeal to the lady to enjoy her youth while she can.  This dramatic jump from beauty to decay/extinction, life’s pleasures to death, appearance to reality belongs to the baroque sensibility of illusion and disillusion, and is a characteristic of the great literature at the turn of the 17th century.

Imagery and Rhetoric:

The structure of Góngora’s sonnet parallels that of Garcilaso’s: the anaphoric conjunctions of time (“en tanto que” in Garcilaso, “mientras” in Góngora), the appeal to enjoy youthful days, followed by another conjunction of time (“antes que” in both poems) which then leads us to the conclusion. But that’s where the similarity ends. Garcilaso’s conclusion is a resigned recognition of the changes wrought by time: you’ll grow old; Góngora’s ending is much more hard hitting: you’re going to end up as nothing!

The two-fold function of the anaphora, i.e. the repeated conjunction of time, is similar in both poems: it creates suspense as we await the main verb, and it is a constant unifying harmoniously the ladies’ hair, brow, eyes, lips and neck into an impressionistic, beautiful image.

The structure of Góngora’s sonnet, however, is more highly-crafted and complex.  For example, the use of anaphora is more prolonged with “mientras” being used four times while Garcilaso uses “en tanto que” twice and an abbreviated form “que” once. This increased repetition of the anaphora (in lines 1, 3, 5, 7) intensifies our expectation and underlines, more than in Garcilaso’s sonnet, time’s omnipresence.

Associated with each use of “mientras” and following in regular order from top down are: “hair,” “brow,” “lips” and “neck.”  The point here is the logical order (something not followed by Garcilaso: “brow,” “eyes,” “hair,” “neck”), which increases the feeling of harmony and, by extension, beauty. Two further devices add to the sensation of harmony: 1. each body part is evoked over two lines (couplets) and each has a corresponding element drawn from nature: "hair/gold", "brow/lily," "lip/carnation," and "neck/crystal." So, by the end of the octet (lines 1-8), we have a harmonious image of feminine beauty, enclosed in a structural symmetry of four parallel and counterbalancing couplets, each beginning with “mientras”.

Then we finally come to what appears to be the main verb and its message: “enjoy” (“goza” line 9).  But we have scarcely absorbed that exhortation when we are quickly whisked forward by another conjunction of time, “before,” (“antes que”). The same is used by Garcilaso, but in Góngora’s sonnet it is more emphatically placed at the beginning of the line.  Where does this last conjunction of time lead us to?  To the sobering truth that we all face decay and extinction (line 14).

The first tercet (lines 9-11) is very clever, condensing within its three lines the body parts and their corresponding natural elements, extended over the octet. The enumeration of previously mentioned elements into one line (as in lines 9 and 11 here) is called correlation or recapitulation and was a device much favoured by baroque writers usually to convey order/ symmetry. But Góngora overturns that principle here, because the symmetrical correspondence of lines 1 to 8 is ruptured in two ways.  First, the lady’s beauty is no longer evoked in an orderly fashion from “hair” to “neck,” but is now “neck,” “hair,” “lip” and “brow,” i.e. the image is no longer harmonious, but fractured like a Picasso face. Second, although the natural elements correlated in line 11 do follow their order in the octet, they no longer correspond to the parts enumerated in line 9. 

This now asymmetrical image prepares us for old age (second tercet), metaphorically depicted as “silver” and “drooping violet.” But as the “Not only” (“No sólo”) at the beginning of line 9 suggests, there is more to come. By now Garcilaso has arrived at the main message (“you’ll grow old”), but Góngora carries the suspense right to the last line, and what a line it is!  It looks longer than all the other lines, but thanks to synalepha** it is in fact a hendecasyllable like the others. Thus: "e(1)n ti ͜(2)erra, ͜(3) en hu(4)mo, ͜(5) en po(6)lvo, ͜(7) en so(8)mbra, ͜(9) en na(10)d(11)a."
**Synalepha occurs when a word ending in a vowel
is followed by a word beginning with a vowel.  The
two vowels count as one syllable.  
The enumeration of five colourless nouns underlines the dark world of decay that leads to nothingness.  And the preponderance of labial consonants “m”, “p”, “v”, “b”, and the soft intervocalic “d” which combined with several open vowels, evokes superbly the sensation of tomblike silence. Finally, the repetition of the preposition “en,” with each of the five nouns, echoes along the line like a spade tamping the earth covering the grave.

What started off as a call to a young woman to enjoy her youth (carpe diem) ends as a "menacing Baroque memento mori" ("remember you must die") (Gaylord 223).

How do Garcilaso and Góngora’s sonnets compare? Both are excellent poems, but Góngora’s holds together better.  The focus is on the “you” and time together throughout the poem; in Garcilaso’s sonnet, the poetic voice strays from the “you” in the final tercet to finish with a semi-philosophical meditation on time. Structurally “Mientras por competir …” is denser, with a remarkable display of symmetry, order and harmony which underline the beauty of the lady.  That symmetry collapses with the advent of old age, and regular anaphora, parallel couplets, and correlation give way in the last line to enumeration, which leads us inexorably to nothingness.

Like Garcilaso’s sonnet, Góngora’s is not a love poem but a poetic exercise applied to a common theme. It was a daring proposition to compete with Garcilaso, the great Spanish model, all the more so if we consider that Góngora was only 21 when he wrote his version. It was a measure of his brilliance that he was able to pull it off.

Rivers, Elias ed  Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain Prospect Heights Illinois 1988 (With English prose translations of the poems.)
Gaylord, Mary Malcolm "The Making of Baroque Poetry" in The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature, ed. David T Gies Cambridge 2009, pp. 222-37
Jones, R. O.  Poems of Góngora  Cambridge 1966
Wardropper, Bruce   Spanish Poetry of the Golden Age  New York 1971
Image of Góngora from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luis_de_G%C3%B3ngora