Garcilaso. Sonnet 23. En tanto que de rosa… Analysis.

Garcilaso de la Vega: Sonnet 23

1.    En tanto que de rosa y de azucena
se muestra la color en vuestro gesto,
y que vuestro mirar ardiente, honesto,
enciende al corazón y lo refrena;
5.    y en tanto que el cabello, que en la vena
del oro se escogió, con vuelo presto,
por el hermoso cuello blanco, enhiesto,
el viento mueve, esparce y desordena:
9.    coged de vuestra alegre primavera
el dulce fruto, antes que el tiempo airado
cubra de nieve la hermosa cumbre.
12.   Marchitará la rosa el viento helado,
todo lo mudará la edad ligera
por no hacer mudanza en su costumbre.

Prose Translation.
As long as the colour of roses and lilies can be seen on your face, and (as long as) your ardent, chaste eyes inflame my heart and restrain it; and as long your hair –singled out from veins of gold—is blown, scattered and disarranged by the wind over your beautiful, white and slender neck: gather the sweet fruit of your joyful spring before angry time covers with snow your beautiful crown (i.e. your hair turns white with age).  The cold wind will wither the rose, swift time will change everything so as not to change its usual custom.

The form of the poem is a sonnet, made up of 14 lines, each of which is a hendecasyllable (i.e. 11 syllables each line). Its structure is that of two quatrains, (i.e. each quatrain contains four lines), and two tercets (each made up of three lines). Sometimes we talk of the two quatrains together as an octave, and the two tercets together as a sestet.  The rhyme scheme is ABBA, ABBA, CDE, DCE.

Sonnet 23, one of Garcilaso’s most famous poems, is an appeal to a young lady to enjoy the fruit of her youth before fleeting time destroys it.  The source of the theme is classical: the Carpe diem (“Enjoy the day”) of Horace, and the Collige, virgo, rosas (“Gather, maiden, the roses”) from Ausonius.

The differences between this poem and, for example, Sonnet 1 are immediate: here there is an abundance of adjectives (twelve, plus two adjectival phrases: de rosa y (de) azucena, line 1), plenty of colour, no wordplay (except mudará mudanza lines 13, 14), and fewer verbs. In other words, the native tradition does not intrude; on the contrary, the poem’s Petrarchan imagery, keen awareness of time, classical sources and structural sophistication are characteristics of the Renaissance world.

Unlike Sonnet 1, where the lady’s cruelty is invoked and time is static –as the me paro (“I stop”) of line 1 suggests–, Sonnet 23 is structured around the inexorable passage of time and the lady’s inevitable loss of beauty. 

The argument is superbly presented through structural devices, the principal being anaphora (repetition at the beginning of a line).  The anaphora here is a conjunction of time at the very opening of the poem:  En tanto que (“As long as”), repeated in abbreviated form que (line 3) and again en tanto que (line 5). 

What is the effect of the anaphora here?  It creates tension or expectancy as we await the main verb.  We want to know where all the references to the lady’s beauty are leading us to.  Finally, in line 9 we get to what appears to be the main verb and its attendant message coged… (“gather the sweet fruit of your joyful spring”).  But no, it is quickly replaced by another message as we are carried forward by another conjunction of time: antes que (“before”) and thrown into the future with the future verb tenses: Marchitará (“will wither”) and mudará (“will change”). 

The advice to enjoy the fruit of youth is, then, only a partial message which is completed in the last tercet (three lines)… fleeting time will wither the rose etc.  The overall message is, in fact, a warning about the relentlessness of time, and the anaphora is instrumental in conveying that message.

But that isn’t all the anaphora en tanto que does in the two quatrains. The quatrains convey an impressionistic image of the lady’s beauty following very much the Petrarchan/ Renaissance ideal: rosy cheeks, pale brow, chaste eyes, golden hair, and white slender neck.  What the anaphora does here is unite these different parts of the face: it is the one common element bringing together the different attributes of the face and contributes thereby to the harmonious beauty of the lady.

Now let’s look at the anaphora in relation to one of the features of this sonnet mentioned above: the numerous adjectives.  Adjectives not only provide descriptive qualities to nouns but also slow the sensation of movement.  One of the outstanding effects of the six adjectives (ardiente, honesto, presto, hermoso, blanco, enhiesto) and two adjectival phrases (de rosa, de azucena) in the two quatrains is to slow down the insistent passage of time as conveyed through the repeated conjunction of time. 

There is a struggle going on: the conjunctions of time carry us forward, the adjectives slow us down. As long as youth’s beauty and colour are there, we may ignore the passage of time, but it is there even in youth, and the anaphora shows that it cannot be stopped. Indeed, once we get to the tercets (i.e. lines 9-11, and 12-14), the pace speeds up.  There is almost a desperate note to the exhortation coged… and we soon learn why.  As soon as the lady is urged to enjoy the fruits of her youth, another conjunction of time (antes que) catapults us to the metaphor of old age: the lady’s “crown covered by snow”. 

Everything suddenly turns cold (nieve– “snow,” helado– “frozen”) and there are fewer adjectives to rein in the relentlessness of time.  The single rosa (line 12) reminds us briefly of that past beauty but it is now covered by snow.  By the last two lines every vestige of that beauty has disappeared and only indifferent time remains, its negative, dulling effect brilliantly evoked by the labial consonants “m” “v” “b” “p” and the soft intervocalic  “d” (helado, todo, mudará, edad, mudanza). The vitality and vibrancy of youth have gone to be replaced by a mute colourless world.

Finally, a comment about enjambement  or run-on line.  The sonnet starts and ends with full enjambement, i.e. there is no syntactical pause (e.g. comma, semi-colon) so that both lines 1-2 and 13-14 read as one sentence/ statement.  Enjambement can produce different effects.  Here, it complements the anaphora in creating a sensation of non-stop movement, i.e. of the steady passage of time.  There is enjambement also in lines 5-6-7, but there are also five commas in the quatrain that slow down the movement to allow us to contemplate the lady’s hair carried by the wind. Lines 9-10-11 have two more enjambements as the speed picks up again (some editions do not have a comma after fruto so that the whole tercet reads as a non-stop statement, which of course emphasises even more the rapid passage of time).  The final enjambement, lines 13-14, complements perfectly the thematic message of the inexorable passage of time. Nothing stops it!

This sonnet is not love poem, but rather a meditation on time and its effects. The choice of feminine beauty as a means to convey time’s power is universally recognised and the topic long standing.  We all grow old and, as the saying goes, “time waits for no man … or woman.”

For another treatment of the theme, inspired by Garcilaso’s poem, see Góngora’s Mientras por competir con tu cabello.

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