Quevedo. ¡Ah de la vida!… Analysis.

Francisco de Quevedo 1580-1645

Representase la brevedad de lo que se vive y cuán nada parece lo que se vivió.

1.      “¡Ah de la vida!” … ¿Nadie me responde?
¡Aquí de los antaños que he vivido!
La Fortuna mis tiempos ha mordido;
las Horas mi locura las esconde.
5.      ¡Que sin poder saber cómo ni adónde,
La salud y la edad se hayan huido!
Falta la vida, asiste lo vivido,
Y no hay calamidad que no me ronde.
9.     Ayer se fue; mañana no ha llegado;
Hoy se está yendo sin parar un punto;
Soy un fue, y un será, y un es cansado.
12.      En el hoy y mañana y ayer, junto
Pañales y mortaja, y he quedado
Presentes sucesiones de difunto.

 Note: Translations are notoriously problematic, but especially so in poems such as ¡Ah de la vida!… whose impact depends on compressed expressions intended both to demonstrate the poet’s ingenuity and to underline stylistically the theme. The sonnet is preceded by an epigraph which summarises the theme:

Here is depicted the brevity of life in progress and how our past life seems to be nothing. 

Hello there, life! Is there no-one answering me?/ Come back those past years that I have lived!/ Fortune has eaten away my time;/ My madness is hiding the hours.
Without knowing how or where,/ My health and lifetime have fled!/ Life is missing; what I have lived is present,/ And there is no calamity that doesn’t haunt me.
Yesterday has gone; tomorrow has not arrived;/ Today is going away without stopping for a moment;/ I am a “was”, and a “will be” and a tired “is.”
In my today and tomorrow and yesterday, I join together/ Diapers and shroud, and I am left/ An endless sequence of a dead being.

The poem is a sonnet, with each of its 14 lines a hendecasyllable (i.e. 11 syllables each line). It is made up 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.  If you have read Góngora’s sonnet Mientras por competir…, you will recognise that this poem by Quevedo has exactly the same rhyme scheme: ABBA, ABBA, CDC, DCD.

Like Garcilaso de la Vega’s En tanto que de rosa … and Góngora’s Mientras por competir …, Quevedo’s sonnet deals with time. But that is all they have in common. Both Garcilaso and Góngora take female beauty as their starting point; Quevedo removes all that is human to focus on life itself (or rather, its absence).

The two earlier poems take their inspiration from the classical themes (topoi) of Horace’s  Carpe diem (“Enjoy the day”) and Ausonius’s Collige, virgo, rosas (“Gather, maiden, the roses”). Quevedo’s source is not classical; he takes as his starting point a conversational colloquialism “!Ah de la vida…!” based on a popular expression, !Ah de la casa…! (“Anyone home”) and follows it with another Aquí de…

Central to Garcilaso and Góngora’s sonnet is the passage of time which ruins the beauty of the ladies they address. Not so in !Ah de la vida…! Quevedo focuses exclusively on the absence of life (Falta la vida l. 7). There is no progress from youth to old age, from beauty to death, from colour to nothing. For Quevedo life is paradoxically a “living death.”

!Ah de la vida…!  is more pessimistic and harder hitting even than Mientras por competir…  which ends with the magnificent climax taking us to the lady’s eventual fate: she will end up as nada (“nothing”).  Even so there was a time of beauty and colour that preceded old age, death and nothingness. Quevedo doesn’t give us even that consolation. His sonnet is unrelentingly bleak, predictably so given that life is absent.

The opening address or apostrophe “!Hello there life!” immediately and dramatically launches us into poem. It demands our attention with the poetic “I” addressing life itself but getting no response. The address is a cry for communication. The “I” is knocking on the door of life, and the following rhetorical question, “Isn’t there anyone answering?” underlines the fact that there is no reply. The “I” realises that there is a void where his life should be and wonders where his life has gone.

Alone, the “I” appeals for the return of his past years (l. 2), but as the exclamation mark makes clear, it is a forlorn appeal. Why? Because Fate and his obsession have eaten away and hidden all vestiges of his past (ll. 3-4), leaving the “I” with no idea of how or where his years have fled (ll. 5-6). As a result, life is absent and all that remains is what he has “lived” (asiste lo vivido l. 7), and what he has “lived” is a succession of deaths (ll. 13-14; which explains why life is not answering his call). This is a complicated idea (conceit) which is what makes the poem difficult to understand.

The sestet is grim and stripped of all human warmth. Time is so relentless that his very being is no more than an expression of time, a “was,” a “will be” and a tired “is” (l. 11).  His life, compressed to a mere link between birth (pañales) and death (mortaja), is an endless series of deaths (ll. 13-14; i.e. he’s been paradoxically a “dead man living” throughout his life, from birth to old age). This is the climax leading to the last word, appropriately in this context:  difunto (“dead man“)**.

**In a letter written to an acquaintance in 1635, Quevedo wrote: “How can I call life my old age, where I myself am the burial place of five deaths” i.e. infancy, early years, youth, mature years and old age.

Quevedo’s success lies in his use of language. The sonnet is a serious meditation on life (and its absence) and time, which normally would be accompanied by elevated language. This sonnet, however, opens with two unconventional expressions based on colloquialisms: ¡Ah de la vida l.1  from ¡Ah de la casa (“Anyone in”), and Aquí de los antaños l.2 from Aquí de los nuestros (“Come and help”).  

They strike a popular tone, typical of sermons of the time, where the message is relevant to all listeners.  The vocabulary is straightforward, with no intrusive Latinisms or neologisms or complex puns, all of which were normally very much part of Quevedo’s poetic style.

How exactly does Quevedo convey this idea of life being absent?  He does so by creating a kind of poetic “skeleton,” i.e. full of verbs, nouns and verbal nouns (fueseráes), all related to time, and with a notable lack of adjectives and imagery.  In fact, there are only two adjectives, cansado (l. 11) and presentes (l. 14). The former suggests exhaustion from knocking at the door, and is linked to the lost health and lifetime of line 6. The latter alludes to the constant presence of death.

There is a striking paired metaphor, pañales y mortaja (“diapers and shroud“) alluding to birth and death, with textually no “life” in between. The compressed leap from birth to death in these two juxtaposed words captures superbly the idea that life is absent.

Adjectives and imagery create pictures which flesh out a poetic “skeleton.” Here their virtual absence underlines the fact that there is no colour, no warmth, and no picture. There is nothing tangible to grasp, the vocabulary being as abstract as time itself.

In the first tercet, time is compressed to “Yesterday,” “tomorrow,” “today,” whose juxtaposition brilliantly continues the concept of life having been squeezed out; without life, the “I” is no more than time metaphorically made flesh, a “was,” “will be” and “is” (l. 11).  “I” is simultaneously past, future and present.

In the second tercet, the four conjunctions y underline the leap conveyed by the juxtaposed hoy, mañana, ayer (l. 12) and move us (thanks to enjambement, ll.13-14) immediately to the “I’s” bleak conclusion and appropriately the last word of the sonnet:  difunto, i.e. he is a dead man living.

The language here is straightforward but concentrated or compressed. So, we have to work to make sense of the poem, which was the aim of conceptismo**, a major literary development of the Baroque. Conceptismo demonstrated the writer’s verbal ingenuity or “wit” (agudeza) at playing with ideas, which in turn required the use of the reader’s intelligence to work between the lines or behind the words.

** Conceptismo is often unfortunately contrasted with another contemporary literary development, culteranismo, when in fact they had much in common. Conceptismo played around with ideas (often using word play, puns), culteranismo appealed more to the senses, made abundant use of classical allusions and Latinisms as well as hyperbaton (dislocation of the normal word order). But conceptismo and culteranismo both sought novelty through ingenuity; both aspired to create surprise and wonder in the reader.

Here our common image of life as a passage/ journey from birth to death is turned upside down. This and the artistically arranged temporal contrasts and compression (“yesterday,” “tomorrow,” “today;” “am,” “will be,” “is;” “today,” “tomorrow,” “yesterday” (ll. 8-11) are intended to produce surprise, astonishment or –to use the term much used in the Baroque– admiratio.  The poet who achieved such an effect was greatly esteemed.
!Ah de la vida…!  belongs to those moral poems by Quevedo devoted to the brevity of human life. Its despairing conclusion –that the poetic “I” hasn’t lived but experienced a succession of deaths– places it under the umbrella of desengaño (“disillusion“), a major theme of the Baroque.

What appears to be life is really no more than illusion, a cover for death. The opening line summarises in many ways the Baroque culture of uncertainty, the questioning of assumptions and beliefs, and the examination of appearance and reality. We find it in e.g. Góngora’s Mientras por competir…; in Don Quixote’s difficulty in determining what he sees and what others see; in the questioning of honour of El burlador de Sevilla; in the painting of Las Meninas by Velázquez; and many other works, fictional, religious and political.

Gaylord, Mary Malcolm “The Making of Baroque Poetry” in The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature, ed. Gies, David T Cambridge 2009
Price, R.M ed. An Anthology of Quevedo’s Poetry Manchester 1969
Rivers, Elias ed  Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain Prospect Heights Illinois 1988 (With English prose translations of the poems.)
Robbins, Jeremy The Challenges of Uncertainty: An Introduction to Seventeenth-Century Spanish Literature New York 1998
Image of Quevedo from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Quevedo_%28copia_de_Vel%C3%A1zquez%29.jpg