Garcilaso de la Vega. Sonnet 1. Cuando me paro … Analysis.

Garcilaso de la Vega: Sonnet 1

1.    Cuando me paro a contemplar mi estado,
y a ver los pasos por do me ha traído,
hallo según por do anduve perdido,
que a mayor mal pudiera haber llegado;
5.    mas cuando del camino estó olvidado
a tanto mal no sé por do he venido;
sé que me acabo, y más he yo sentido
ver acabar conmigo mi cuidado.
9.    Yo acabaré, que me entregué sin arte
a quien sabrá perderme y acabarme
si ella quisiera, y aun sabrá querello;
12.   que pues mi voluntad puede matarme,
la suya, que no es tanto de mi parte,
pudiendo, ?qué hará sino hacello?

Prose Translation.
When I stop to consider my state, and see the steps along which I have been brought, I find –considering the road where I got lost– I could well have come to greater misfortune.  But when I forget about the road, I don’t know how I’ve come to so much misfortune; I know that I am dying and I regret all the more seeing my suffering end along with me.  I shall die, for I surrendered myself naively to the one who can ruin me and destroy me if she wished, and she can so wish;  for if my love can kill me, her love –which doesn’t favour me—since it can kill me, isn’t that what it will do (i.e. by not loving me, she will kill me)?

Sonnet 1 tells us how the poetic “I” suffers because of unrequited love.  The sonnet begins with an image of life as a road –taken from Petrarch—which is sustained for the first five lines.  As the “I” looks back, the past doesn’t look so bad compared with the present or future. 

The present is full of suffering and the future looks hopeless since he will die of unrequited love.  Still, he does not want to die, because death will end the suffering that gives meaning to his life.  In other words, there is joy in suffering, a popular concept in 15th-century Spanish cancionero love lyrics.

15th century cancionero poetry is an outgrowth of literary, courtly love which traces its roots to the medieval troubadour poetry of Provence (France). Based on a sophisticated reverence for women, courtly love had wide repercussions throughout Europe in subsequent centuries. The first collection of cancionero poetry in Spanish, the Cancionero de Baena, appeared in 1445.  By the end of the 15th century, the cancionero lyric had degenerated in the hands of inferior poets into intellectual virtuosity, where excessive wordplay, abstraction, paradox, and antithesis overshadowed feeling. These features, combined with the shorter lines of the native tradition –the octosyllable in particular— produced verse with little body or depth.  It was the kind of poetry that needed regeneration.

In the two quatrains, Garcilaso has skilfully created tension because we don’t yet know what has brought about the suffering.  Paradoxically we move our eyes over the words but conceptually we are at a standstill because the main verb that controls the poem from line 1 is “stop” (me paro).  It is by stopping that the “I” is able to take measure of his present suffering, which he ascribes finally –in line 11– to an unattainable lady: “she” (ella).  She will cause his death without any remorse because she does not love him. The closing question adds a final resigned note, because there is no doubt about the answer: she will be the cause of his death.

The poem captures well the rejection and frustration the “I” feels.  It is remarkably devoid of imagery, except for the opening metaphor of the road.  Even here, the road is barren and empty with no adjective to give it colour or warmth. 

In fact, one of the most striking features of this sonnet is the complete lack of adjectives and preponderance of verbs (18 conjugated verbs alone!).  Once we get past the road metaphor, we run into constant wordplay, repetition, and impersonal pronouns to refer to the lady (a quien, ella, la suya).  What is the effect of all this?  It gives the impression of coldness and captures well the isolation of the “I” … there is nothing to comfort him in his suffering. 

Where it falls short is that we get no depth of feeling, no insight into the “I’s” suffering. Why is that? Well, it’s the product of the constant wordplay and the abstract nature of the verbs used. Look at them: (lines 5, 6), me acabo, acabar,  acabaréacabarme (lines 7, 8, 9, 10), sabrá (lines 10, 11), quisierequerello (line 11), puedepudiendo (lines 12, 14), haráhacerlo (line 14). (This kind of wordplay, i.e. variation of the same root word, in this case acabarsaber, quererpoderhacer is known technically as polyptoton.)

A particularly interesting feature of Sonnet 1 is the break between the opening metaphor of the road, and the wordplay, abstraction and lack of imagery that prevail in the rest of the poem. They reflect two different traditions: the Italianate or Petrarchan/Renaissance –the road metaphor—and the conventional language of cancionero love lyrics. 

In this sonnet, Italianate and cancionero features come face to face, but do not fuse. The opening road metaphor is sustained for the first five lines, but then disappears entirely to be replaced by cancionero  wordplay.

The break is artfully introduced by mas cuando del camino estó olvidado (“but when I forget about the road”), because the “I” does indeed “forget” about the road in the rest of the poem as he enters the anguished world of the unrequited lover. It’s cleverly done, but in the rest of the sonnet the wordplay overshadows the anguish of the lover.

Sonnet 1 shows that the cancionero language was capable of being adapted to the Italian hendecasyllable (11-syllable line). What Garcilaso did in his later poetry was enrich Spanish poetry with new vocabulary, and Italianate and classical imagery (e.g. mythological, pastoral, Petrarchan), infused at the same time with philosophical ideas then current in Italy.

Garcilaso does not abandon wordplay entirely, but in later poems he absorbs it more effectively within their structure. In e.g. Sonnet 36, the play on sentir and ser captures well the madness the “I” suffers from; in Canción 3 the play on words in stanza 3 evokes strikingly the confusion felt by the “I” who suffers both as a captive of love and captive of the king (an allusion to Garcilaso’s exile on the River Danube in 1531 at the command of the king, Carlos/ Charles V).

For comparison and a display of Garcilaso’s poetic maturity, read one of his most famous sonnets, En tanto que de rosa y azucena (Sonnet 23).

Rivers, Elias ed  Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain Prospect Heights Illinois Waveland Press 1988 (With English prose translations of the poems.)

Wardropper, Bruce   Spanish Poetry of the Golden Age  New York, Meredith Corporation, 1971