Fray Luis de León. Noche serena.
Like his contemporary, the great mystic poet, San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross), Fray Luis’s poetic output was very modest. Like San Juan, too, Fray Luis is now much better known for his verse than for his devotional prose works.
Fray Luis collected but did not publish his poems, although they circulated in manuscript form until finally published by Francisco de Quevedo in 1631 as antidote to the perceived excesses of culteranismo, the highly elaborate and complex poetic style of Quevedo’s literary enemy, Luis de Góngora and his followers (gongorismo is another term sometimes used). As you will see when reading Noche serena, the poem is remarkably easy to read and follow with vocabulary and ideas accessible to ordinary readers. It is an excellent example of the art of communication, of choosing words carefully for their suitability, musicality and proportion, i. e. knowing how to “select and how to put words together” (escoger y saber juntar las palabras, to paraphrase a contemporary of his, Ambrosio de Morales, 1546).
Fray Luis’s composed 23 original poems, most of which were written in liras, an Italian stanza form introduced into Spain by Garcilaso de la Vega and very widely used. The lira is composed of five lines with a combination of heptasyllables and hendecasyllables (7 and 11 syllables), with the following consonantal rhyming scheme: aBabB, (lower case = heptasyllable, upper case = hendecasyllable). Noche serena is an example of this stanza form.
Noche serena (Peaceful Night) is one of several of Fray Luis’s poems that are anthology favourites. Like so much of his verse, Noche serena centres on the contrast between the sordidness, deception and brevity of earthly life and the eternal beauty and harmony of the heavens.
Structurally, Noche serena can be divided into two generally balanced halves, the first (Stanzas 1-8) focussing on the contrast between the beauty of the heavens and the baseness and seductive powers of the earth, with emphasis falling on the latter. The half concludes with an appeal to people to wake up and recognise how inconsequential the earth is compared to the heavens. The second half (stanzas 9-16) focusses entirely on the heavens and concludes with a description of the celestial bliss awaiting those who have followed the ordered journey through the cosmos to that place where Amor sagrado (“Sacred/Holy Love” i. e. God) dwells.
1. Cuando contemplo el cielo
de innumerables luces adornado,
y miro hacia el suelo,
de noche rodeado, en sueño y en olvido sepultado,
2. El amor y la pena
despiertan en mi pecho un ansia ardiente,
despiden larga vena
los ojos hechos fuente;
la lengua dice al fin con voz doliente:
Translation: 1, When I contemplate the sky/ adorned with endless lights,/ and look towards the earth/ surrounded by darkness (and) buried in sleep and oblivion, 2. love and pain/ awaken in my breast a blazing longing,/ my eyes, become fountains/ pour out a flood of tears;/ (and) finally my tongue says in a sorrowful voice:
The first half opens with two stanzas which establish its framework: night leads Fray Luis to contemplate the contrast between the star-filled heavens and the earth buried in sleep and darkness. The operative word appears in the first line: contemplo (“I contemplate”). The result of that contemplation is what unfolds in the rest of the poem.
Night here plays two roles: the peaceful night of the title reveals the presence of the stars, but the night in line 4 serves as a metaphor for the ignorance in which the earth is submerged. Compare San Juan’s Noche oscura where night is seen positively (dichosa-“joyous,” amable-“pleasing”) because it allows the soul to escape and unite with its Beloved (God).
This contrast –light and darkness—is the source of the love and grief with which the second stanza opens. They also prompt a tearful yearning that points to the frustration Fray Luis feels, a frustration which leads him to address the heavens, source of light and beauty:
3. Morada de grandeza,
templo de claridad y hermosura
el alma que a tu alteza
nació ?qué desventura
la tiene en esta cárcel baja, escura?
4. ?Qué mortal desatino
de la verdad aleja ansí el sentido
que de tu bien divino
sigue la vana sombra, el bien fingido?
Translation: 3. Dwelling place of greatness/ temple of brightness and beauty/ my soul to your greatness/ born ?what misfortune/ keeps it in this lowly and dark prison? 4. What mortal blunder/ so separates my senses from the truth/ that forgetting (and) lost to/ your divine riches/ they pursue empty shadows and false riches?
The address and the two questions both dramatize, in stanzas 3 and 4, Fray Luis’s bewilderment that the soul –born for higher things—, and the senses –by means of which man should be able to capture and recognise the reality of the world around him—, have been led astray. The soul has been confined in a prison, a common image of the earth in religious verse (but which has added impact here since Fray Luis was himself imprisoned for four years by the Inquisition). The senses have been diverted from the truth and seduced by empty shadows and false treasures.
The result of this is that man has given himself completely over to sleep, with no thought for his destiny, and is unaware of the silent passage of the heavens that is robbing him of his life.
5. El hombre está entregado
al sueño, de su suerte no cuidando;
y con paso callado
el cielo, vueltas dando,
las horas del vivir le va hurtando.
Translation: 5. Man is given over/ to sleep, disregarding his destiny;/ and (meanwhile) with silent step/ the heavens, going around,/ are robbing him of his hours of life.
Fray Luis’s frustration now breaks out in two stanzas which open with direct exclamatory appeals, !Ay!…. First, he urges people to wake up from their sleep and recognise the danger that their souls –meant for greatness—might be living in shadows and deception. Second, he implores them to lift their eyes to the eternal heavens the sight of which will awaken them to the passing fancies of this seductive life.
6. !Ay!, !despertad mortales!
Mirad con atención en vuestro daño.
?Las almas inmortales,
hechas a bien tamaño,
podrán vivir de sombra y solo engaño?
7. !Ay!, levanted los ojos
a aquesta celestial eterna esfera:
burlaréis los antojos
de aquesa lisonjera
vida, con cuanto teme y cuanto espera,
Translation: 6. !Ay! wake up mortals!/ Pay careful attention to your loss./ ?Can (our) immortal souls,/ created for such great glory,/ live on shadows and illusion alone?/ 7. !Ay! lift up your eyes/ to this celestial (and) eternal sphere:/ (and) you will escape the whims/ of that seductive/ life, with all its fears and hopes.
The first part of the poem concludes with a rhetorical question that confirms the baseness of the earth compared to the greatness of the heavens, which contain all that is superior, in the past, present and future.
8. ?Es más que un breve punto
el bajo y torpe suelo, comparado
a aqueste gran trasunto,
do vive mejorado
lo que es, lo que será y lo que ha pasado?
Translation: 8. ?Is the low and graceless earth/ more than a brief spot compared/ to this great heavenly state,/ where, in an improved form, exists/ what is, what will be and what has been?
The second half (stanzas 9-16), which is devoted entirely to a description of the heavens, opens with an indirect question that projects us upwards to the heavens.
9. ?Quién mira el gran concierto
de aquestos resplandores eternales,
su movimiento cierto,
sus pasos desiguales
y en proporción concorde tan iguales:
Translation: 9. ?Who can look at the great concert/ of these eternal lights,/ their fixed movement,/ their unequal pace/ (and) yet so equal in their harmonious proportion: ...
The contemplation (“I contemplate”) of stanza 1, which led to a recognition of the baseness of earthly life compared to the beauty of the heavens, now changes to the act of looking: ?quién mira (“who can look…?”). At the same time, the “I” of stanza 1 expands the field of association to include all people. The “I” cannot conceive that anyone looking at the heavens could … what?
The answer cleverly “hangs in the air” until stanza 13, by which time we have been taken on a journey progressively from the moon to the outer galaxies of stars in the order allotted to them according to the cosmos as described by the Greek astronomer and mathematician Ptolemy: la luna (“the moon”), la luz do el saber llueve (= “Mercury”), la graciosa estrella/ de amor (= “Venus”), el sanguinoso Marte (“bloody Mars), el Júpiter benino (“kindly Jupiter”), Saturno (Saturn) and la muchedumbre/ del reluciente coro (= “the outermost stars”).
Finally, in stanza 13, a second question –again using the verb mirar (“to look”)– signals that we have reached the end of the journey and that we have now reached the object of both contemplation and seeing. But there is one further reminder of what we have left behind with the second question: ?Quién es el que esto mira (“who can look at all this”). Who can indeed look at the wonders of the heavens and still cherish the baseness of the earth, and doesn’t groan and sigh with the effort of trying to free the soul from what keeps it exiled from such treasures?
The final three stanzas (14-16) describe the conclusion of the journey. The increased emotion is underlined by the rapid repetition of aquí (“here”) and the end of the journey conveyed by words suggesting stillness: asentado (“seated”), asiento (“seat”), está (“is”), rodeado (“surrounded”). This is where God is found, although Fray Luis –keeping within the classical template established in the journey— does not mention God by name. Rather, he turns to the (Neo)Platonic idea of Love (Amor), here qualified by sagrado (“holy”) which provides the touch of Christian orthodoxy.
The penultimate stanza (15) maintains the sense of stillness and, alluding only briefly to the significant absence of darkness, focusses on the “immense beauty” and “extremely pure light” emanating everywhere. The final line –“Eternal springtime flowers here.”– prepares us for what is appropriately the climax of the poem, which Fray Luis carries off magnificently:
16. !Oh campos verdaderos!
!Oh prados con verdad dulces y amenos!
!Oh deleitosos senos!
!Repuestos valles, de mil bienes llenos!
Translation: 16. !Oh true fields!/ !Oh meadows sweet and pleasant with truth!/ !Extremely rich mines!/ !Oh havens of delight!/ !Hidden valleys stocked with endless riches!
This is the end of the journey and all movement has vanished completely, thanks to the complete absence of verbs and the abundance of adjectives, seven in total. The painful tears related to earthly life have given way to joy, the intensity of which is movingly conveyed in the series of exclamations and the anaphora !oh…! (ll. 1,2,4. Anaphora is the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive lines or phrases).
Both the exclamations and anaphora also give structural unity/ harmony to the beauty that the light of the preceding stanza reveals. But these technical features alone are not sufficient to capture the celestial bliss experienced at the end of the journey. In order for readers (or listeners –poetry should be read aloud!) to be able to visualise the scene of heavenly paradise, Fray Luis makes use of something that they could relate to: nature.
The Bible itself make plentiful use of nature images and in the secular world pastoral literature was very much in vogue during the Renaissance. Concrete words drawn from pastoral descriptions of the natural world –”fields,” “meadows,” “valleys,” “havens” (senos)–, give “body” to the abstract terms used so far (contento, paz, Amor sagrado, hermosura, luz). But at the same time, Fray adds two related words in the first two lines that balance the abstract with the concrete: verdaderos and verdad. These fields and meadows in paradise are not described as “green,” but “true” or “real” (although their relationship to verde -“green”- is fortuitously suggested in both verdaderos, and verdad!).
Of course, the escape from earthly baseness and ascent through the Ptolemaic cosmos to the “true fields” etc. point to the journey as a spiritual experience. No one doubts the Christian context within which Fray Luis worked, and yet nowhere is that spiritual experience related to any readily identifiable Christian context. Terms such as “God,” “heaven,” “paradise,” for example, are conspicuously absent. On the contrary, it is via classical allusions and names that the soul undertakes the journey upwards and heaven is seen as “immense beauty” and God as “Sacred Love”, terms which are more in keeping with Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophies.
Uniting Neo(Platonic) terminology to the Christian message –here the ascent of the soul to heaven— is the result of the humanistic search for order and meaning. Christian thinkers found within classical philosophy strands of thought applicable to their message, especially the Platonic concept that the beauty of the visual world or earth was a reflection of the world of Ideas or Truth, or for Neoplatonists, Love. Contemplation of earthly beauty: fields, meadows, valleys, etc. led to recognising in them reflections of true beauty: hence true fields, meadows and valleys.
Gies, David T. ed. The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature Cambridge 2009.
Jones, R. O. A Literary History of Spain: The Golden Age: Prose and Poetry London, New York. 1971.
Rivers, Elias Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, Prospect Heights, Illinois 1966, reissued 1988. (Has very useful English prose translations).
Walters, D. Gareth The Cambridge Introduction to Spanish Poetry Cambridge 2002.
Wardropper, Bruce Spanish Poetry of the Golden Age New York 1971.
Image of Fray Luis at the University of Salamanca By Victoria Rachitzky – originally posted to Flickr as Salamanca, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=109365352
January 13, 2023: Fray Luis would undoubtedly be moved by photos of the awesome beauty and magnificence of the heavens as seen through the lens of the James Webb telescope. For examples, see https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-64051171 published by the BBC Britain.