San Juan de la Cruz (1542-91): Llama de amor viva (Living Flame of Love).
Anyone interested in mystical literature will sooner or later come across San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross). The Spanish saint lived a busy life, and his poetic output was modest: nineteen poems.
His fame rests mainly on three poems: Noche oscura (Dark Night), Cántico espiritual (Spiritual Song), and Llama de amor viva (Living Flame of Love). These poems are widely acknowledged to be amongst the best expressions of mystical love in any language, although at a superficial level they could be interpreted as erotic secular verse.
The mystical union of the soul with God, the desired object of religious experience, is an impossible feeling to put into words. So, in order for readers to get some sense of what the mystical experience was, San Juan turned to human, sexual love as a metaphor for the intensely spiritual sensation.
To achieve the desired union with God, the soul must discard earthly passions and desires and undertake a three-stage, spiritual journey: the vía purgativa (the cleansing or purifying step), the vía iluminativa (the path of enlightenment or illumination) and the vía unitiva (the stage of union).
Here, we’ll focus on Llama de amor viva, a remarkable poem that centres on the vía unitiva and post union repose. As is the case with Noche oscura, an explanatory preface points to how the poem should be read: “Songs of the soul in its intimate communication (and) union with God’s love.”
Llama de amor viva.
Llama… consists of four stanzas (songs), each consisting of six lines with a combination of heptasyllables and hendecasyllables (7 and 11 syllables) and a consonantal rhyming pattern abCabC (the six lines are a variation of the usual 5-line lira; the lower case letter = 7 syllables and upper case = 11 syllables).
Unlike Noche oscura, which describes a past experience of mystical union, Llama de amor viva recreates the experience as an intensely felt moment through the use of the present tense. Here (again unlike Noche oscura), there is no journey or shedding of earthly appetites but instead the soul’s immediate emotional expression of the bliss it experiences when united with its lover.
The poem can be divide into two equal parts each built around images of light and fire: !Oh llama de amor…! and !Oh lámparas de fuego. The first half is intense with paradoxical and suggestively violent images (oxymora): e.g. stanza 2, line 1 portrays a sensation that both cauterises (i.e. burns) and is gentle or sweet.
The second half is more difficult to understand and is emotionally more restrained: there are, for example, fewer exclamations, and no violent paradoxes. The reason for this is that the poem moves from the profound and searing effects of the purifying fire in stanzas 1 and 2 to a reflective recognition of the power of the fire which illuminates the dark caverns of the senses. The poem concludes with the soul affirming that her lover’s (i.e. God’s) love and gentleness inspires still more love in her.
Stanzas 1 and 2.
¡Oh llama de amor viva Oh living flame of love
que tiernamente hieres that tenderly wounds
de mi alma en el más profundo centro!, the deepest centre of my soul!
pues ya no eres esquiva, since you are no longer indifferent,
acaba ya si quieres, kill (me) if you wish,
rompe la tela de este dulce encuentro. break the fabric of this sweet encounter.
¡Oh cautiverio suave! Oh gentle burning!
¡oh regalada llaga! Oh delicate wound!
¡oh mano blanda! ¡oh toque delicado Oh gentle hand! Oh delicate touch
que a vida eterna sabe, that tastes of eternal life,
y toda deuda paga! and pays off all (my) debts!
Matando, muerte en vida la has trocado. (By) killing me, you have turned death into life.
The opening two stanzas are deeply felt songs which recreate the ecstasy the soul experiences in her union with the personified Living Flame of Love (the Holy Ghost** according to San Juan).
of the Holy Trinity, made up of God the Father, God
the Son (i.e. Jesus Christ) and God the Holy Ghost.)
How is the intensity of that union captured? First, by the anaphora Oh! which is used five times, and with increasing intensity in the second stanza (four times) where the act of union between soul and lover reaches its climax. Second, by a series of oxymora that unites opposites of violence and tenderness, conflicting sensations often experienced in the sexual act. Here, for example, the Flame of Love “tenderly wounds,” and it “breaks the fabric of this gentle encounter.” Third, by what is essentially a passionate plea by the soul at the end of the first stanza: acaba (“kill”) and rompe (“break”).
The reason for such an unusual request becomes clear in the stanza 2: the soul experiences exquisite sensations described paradoxically as “gentle burning,” “delicate wound,” which, administered by the lover’s hand and gentle touch, lead to death. This death, however, paradoxically leads to life (st. 2. l. 6).
The immediate lead up to the final paradox of death equals life is brilliantly conveyed by a striking synesthesia**: “the gentle touch that tastes of eternal life.” Taste and touch are amongst the most basic of our senses, and play an active erotic role in lovemaking.
an attribute associated with one sense to another. It is
recognised as a neurological condition suffered by some
people. For example, they might say that they can taste
the colour green.
How can touch be conceived as taste? By bringing them together, San Juan suggests that they are interchangeable, that nothing separates one sense from the other, as indeed is the case between the soul and her lover, i.e. taste and touch are one, soul and lover are one. It is this total union that leads to a loss of self and to death and then to spiritual life: “By killing (me), you have turned (my) death into life.”
Stanzas 3 and 4.
¡Oh lamparas de fuego Oh lamps of fire
en cuyos resplandores in whose radiance
las profundas cavernas del sentido, the deep caverns of the senses
-que estaba oscuro y ciego- -which were dark and blind-
con extranos primores with exquisite delicacy
calor y luz dan junto a su querido! together give warmth and light to their beloved!
¡Cuan manso y amoroso How gently and lovingly
recuerdas en mi seno, you wake up upon my breast,
donde secretamente solo moras; where secretly you alone dwell;
en tu aspirar sabroso, with your delicious breath
de bien y gloria lleno, full of joy and glory
cuan delicadamente me enamoras! how sweetly you inspire me to love you.
After ecstasy comes rest and reflection, which is what we find in stanzas 3 and 4. Although the light and fire image (lámparas de fuego) that opens stanza 3 parallels the Living Flame (Llama … viva) of the beginning line of stanza 1, the erotically laden “ohs” have disappeared as have the violent paradoxes. Now the mood is reflective and descriptive.
In stanza 3, the soul explains how the rays (resplandores) from the lamps of fire illuminated and transformed the dark caverns of her earthly senses –previously dark and blind— into spiritual senses, i.e. light. And this light, in turn, with exquisite delicacy, gives light and warmth to the soul’s lover. This mutual exchange of light is the result of the soul’s new life and evidence of the complete fusion experienced by the soul with her beloved after her “death” (stanza 2, line 6). The act of love, then, is two way.
Stanza 3 presents a brief moment of reflection by the soul while her beloved is asleep. We deduce that her lover is asleep from stanza 4 when she again addresses him as he wakes up (recuerdas: “you wake up”).
The picture the soul describes in stanza 4 echoes the post union description we find in Noche oscura. It presents an intimate image of the soul talking to her lover as he wakes up on her breast. This deeply tender and personal moment opens with two adjectives used adverbially manso (“gently”) and amoroso (“lovingly”) and is underlined by the exclusive relationship between the soul and her lover: her breast is reserved for him alone (donde secretamente solo moras: “where secretly you alone dwell”).
The soul concludes with a striking image of how her beloved’s delicious (literally “tasty”) breath inspires love in her. To evoke her beloved’s breath is fitting for two reasons: 1. breath has no material form and complements the spiritual love that is at the heart of the poem, and 2. breath can paradoxically be felt and, in this case, be tasted, which is basic in the act of love. Touch and taste again, but now bathed in light and warmth.
The image cleverly brings together, then, the two halves of the poem: the first which is dominated by the sense of touch and the second enhanced by the presence of light. Likewise, the final word of the poem, (me) enamoras, returns us to the opening line of the poem: !Oh llama de amor. These are the only lines in which the word “love” appears; structurally and conceptually it unites the whole poem.
The vocabulary used by San Juan is simple even though the concepts expressed pose challenges. The imagery of wounding, burning, killing, and dying related to love is not original; it can be found in the 15th-century Castilian courtly love lyric and Petrarchan verse tradition, both of which were inspired by medieval courtly love poetry.
Playing with concepts and words became part and parcel of the language of this secular poetry, and San Juan too was adept at it. For example, in a romance (ballad) dealing with the opening lines of the Gospel according to St John, San Juan writes: El mismo Verbo Dios era/ que el principio se dezía/ el morava en el principio/ y principio no tenía (“God was the Word itself/ who was called the beginning/ he lived in the beginning/ and had no beginning./ He himself was the beginning / And so had none (i.e. no beginning).” Of course, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, of God Three in One, was a concept that lent itself to wordplay, but San Juan had the innate ability to avoid trite repetition. He was able — to paraphrase the linguist and historian, Ambrosio de Morales, 1546– “to select and … to put words together” (escoger y saber juntar las palabras), which is perhaps the secret of all great writers.
Rivers, Elias Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, Prospect Heights, Illinois 1988. (Has very useful English prose translations).
Thompson, Colin St. John of the Cross: Songs in the Night Washington, D.C. 2003.
Walters, D. Gareth The Cambridge Introduction to Spanish Poetry Cambridge 2002.
Weber, Alison P. “Religious Literature in Early Modern Spain,” in The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature, ed. David T. Gies Cambridge 2009, pp. 149-58.
Ynduraín, Domingo San Juan de la Cruz: Poesías Madrid 3rded. 1987.