Dramatic Prologue for the Profession of a Nun

We present this work in honor of the poet’s 415th birthday.

Sor Marcela de San Felix
Spanish
1605 – 1687

 

Solemn and most enlighted conclave,
in each of whom sense, devotion,
and wisdom dwell in equal measure
(oh, may I steer clear of contention)—
for refreshments, dear nuns, I beseech you,
and I beseech your Reverences
—forgive me that I put you second,
But I have poetic license:
Loquitur cermina
tatius frasis sonat.
—To sum up, I beseech you all
for a minute now to heed me,
and heed a flood of tribulations,
and a reservoir of miseries;
indeed to an ocean of misfortunes
please lend compassionate ears.
I come, good mothers and fine ladies,
with a hurt that grieves me sore,
I suffer a great and mortal anguish
by an unheard-of offense;
never in all your lives have you heard
of a similar disgrace,
nor affliction thus shown abroad,
nor of rot on so many tongues.
Abundantiam malorum,
tacitum numquam.
You all recall that I am a poet
Of the highest—indeed bachelor’s—degree;
well-known as they are, I’ll not rehearse
my talents and qualities.
Elsewhere I’ve told of my lineage,
my descent and ancestry;
of my good father and of my mother’s
great deeds and nobility,
but somehow I forgot to tell—
and it’s certainly a fact
I saw with my own eyes—that they drowned
my old granny in a cask;
but let me get back to the topic at hand,
for such worldly things as these,
though they greatly glorify a man,
are full of vanity.
Vanitas humana,
Pessima infirmitas.
—Well, then, as I say, I told you all
on a certain festive evening,
of how I was a worthy student
suffering poverty.
Necesitas magna
caret lege.
Well, then, my poverty inspired me
to relate all of my needs
in this convent of goodly nuns—
or more aptly put, of beasts
who prove themselves far worse than vipers
in cruel severity.
I shan’t say this is true of all;
with decorum and decency
you’ll hear me speak of all the rest—
just three tormented me:
these were the nuns in charge of stores,
women most bloodthirsty,
they are a squadron of nunnydevils,
the very height of meanness.
I’m not a rash or daring man
and my tongue shall not pronounce
a single word not ministered
by the force of reason;
I’m not permitted to tell this tale
nor the beastly and cruel actions
these women, forged of iron, performed,
by the force of my ire and shame.
If you might have somewhere a drop
your Reverences could share,
then let’s have a sip, for my poor throat
has gone quite dry with rage.
Animum debilem
vinum corroborat.
I knew that, in this very convent,
festivities would be held
for the heavenly wedding feast
of an angel pledged to God;
therefore, because I knew full well
that on occasions like these
the blessed nuns enjoy performing
holy comedies
(I mean, the dialogues divine
in which lately they find some fun),
it seemed to me that I could surely
(given my wit and learning)
By writing a dramatic prologue
Escape from poverty,
And, at the very least could eat
For a day or two or three.
And then I thought the good secretary,
Senor Deficiency,
would be generous in this case and have
the house quite full indeed.
I left for the convent in a trice,
but oh! at the door I met
a lion, a savage Hircanian tiger:
I encounted, in short, a Marcela.
Approaching her ever so carefully,
I said with deference,
“Good mother, it is a happy chance
to run into your Reverence,
“because I have right here for you
just what you need, I know it.
Although my scholar’s hood is ragged,
I fancy myself a poet,
“and proud to be a disciple of
that fertile riberbank, Vega,
the many offspring of whose wit
gave Spain such grand resplendence.
“For you, a prologue I’ve composed
to accompany your fiesta,
and it is my wish that every nun
derive from it great pleasure.”
“Where have you put this prologue, then?”
she rejoined with a mouth of thistles,
all slantymouthed and droughtymouthed
and thornymouthed and splintered.
“Good Mother, I carry it at my breast;
here it is, your Reverence.”
“Show me the Prologue, good fellow; God keep you,
I’m off to chapel for terce.”
“Now, my good Mother,” I made reply,
“I beg you the charity
of giving me something, your Reverence,
for great is my poverty.”
“In Jesus’ name, my friend, see here!
far greater is our own need:
for the persons number forty and two
that this convent must house and feed;
“with a hundred thousand expenses to meet
And the scarcest revenue;
not a single penny do we collect,
and our debts are coming due.”
“I’m sure, good Mother, that it is so,”
I said, “but please see here,
for my poverty and my hunger too
have the very simplest cure:
“Give me no more than a nice broad bowl
of cabbage and lentils, stewed,
and you’ll have fulfilled all I could ask
with a deed most kind and good.”
“It surely would be good, in truth!”
each cabbage costs one whole penny,
six farthings each endive costs at the least,
and every measure of lentils
“—what with prices rising, and carried on up—
why it easily comes to fifty;
and then the grocer’s lds will want
a drink and a bit of luncheon.
“Mariana, is it not just as I say?
Since everything costs us more
than it’s worth, the good Lord Himself only knows
whether in fact God desires
“that nuns should be fed!” These words were said
by the first of her dear companions,
and sisters indeed they might have been,
both miserly and phlegmatic.
But the next nunnyverbiage,
Her second companion dear,
More merciful—though little enough—
Would restrain this sad affair:
“Mariana, please bring this poor lad a bite,
for upon the tablecloth
I left two leeks and most of an egg,
missing nought but its yolk.”
I have kept those for myself,
so I may save on my supper;
your Charity must not give it away—
I am going to close up the cupboard.
“Now I can see how little you know
of costs, your Charity:
with so little caution, oh spendthrift woman!
you give things aways for free.”
This was said by the serpent herself,
That harsh and sour Marclea.
Then I found myself somewhat
emboldened (for
to be right grants some permission),
and I said to her, “Then, Mother mine,
in a fiesta like yours here,
can there be nothing that is left over?
Not even a little pear,
“nor perhaps a morsel of boiled fish,
Nor a crust of bread today?”
“If fish or fruit has been left over,
or such things as you say,
“don’t you see, brother, I still must face
the greater part of Lent?”
And in it the Annunciation occurs;
But first Saint Joseph’s is spent;
“Holy Thursday, obligatory to serve
a good substantial meal;
the Resurrection; a hundred Apostles
from Easter to Christmastide;
the Cross of Mary and Saint Anne’s Day,
but first the Magdalene…”
and if I had not interrupted, she would
have recited the calendar then,
leaving aside neither female nor male,
on earth nor in highest heaven,
whom this stingy woman would fail
to include in her saints’ day planning.
She’d not fail to mention them, I mean;
the refectory they’d not enter,
save in the “Garland of Saints” read aloud,
or some other holy legend.
“But can it be,” was my retort,
“you’ve not even a bit of bread?”
Miss Empty-Pockets answered me,
“And how should we have it, friend?
“You see how expensive bread has become,
and seven whole measures won’t keep
the convent supplied with enough for its use
for even a single week;
“and we are, if indeed you do not know,
Plunged in the direst hardship.”
Then may it not soften (good Saint Bruno give aid)
by so much as a bit of water!
You three most miserable and cruel
and evil-hearted of ladies
that were ever described in bygone tales
or invented in stories:
may God give you a ravening appetite
and never let you fill it;
when you break bread, may every bite
stick fast in your gullet.
And may all the rest of your food
turn either salty or bitter,
may you find a thousand flies in your broth
and in your eggs find chiggers;
may bits of dirt fall from your figs
and a thousand worms from your raisins;
may you have ringworm upon your scalps
and on your hands have scabies;
and in your larders may you find
little mice aplenty.
And lest you take too great a part
in a speech so lengthy,
may not a molar or tooth remain
in the mouth of any nun;
may their bones stick out all over,
may they vomit and never be done,
and have cramps beyond all counting,
and tapeworms, and stitch in the side;
may all of you sicken at water,
so you go through gallons of wine;
may not a one be able to eat
simple olives or greens;
may everything be banished away
that brings you the slightest relief,
may you only digest medicinal jams
and nutmeg and dry biscuit;
and may all the nuns, at the top of their lungs,
shout that you’ve tried to kill them.
And so, were I not such a patient lad,
I’d spout more imprecations,
For a righteous anger requires of me
this impressive demonstration.

To Her Portrait

We present this work in honor of the 325th anniversary of the poet’s death.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Mexican
1651 – 1695

 

This that you see, the false presentment planned
With finest art and all the colored shows
And reasonings of shade, doth but disclose
The poor deceits by earthly senses fanned!
Here where in constant flattery expand
Excuses for the stains that old age knows,
Pretexts against the years’ advancing snows,
The footprints of old seasons to withstand;

‘Tis but vain artifice of scheming minds;
‘Tis but a flower fading on the winds;
‘Tis but a useless protest against Fate;
‘Tis but stupidity without a thought,
A lifeless shadow, if we meditate;
‘Tis death, tis dust, tis shadow, yea, ‘tis nought.

Alice Sick

We present this work in honor of the 325th anniversary of the poet’s death.

Jean De La Fontaine
French
1621 – 1695

 

Sick, Alice grown, and fearing dire event,
Some friend advised a servant should be sent
Her confessor to bring and ease her mind;—
Yes, she replied, to see him I’m inclined;
Let father Andrew instantly be sought:—
By him salvation usually I’m taught.

A messenger was told, without delay,
To take, with rapid steps, the convent way;
He rang the bell—a monk enquired his name,
And asked for what, or whom, the fellow came.
I father Andrew want, the wight replied,
Who’s oft to Alice confessor and guide:
With Andrew, cried the other, would you speak?
If that’s the case, he’s far enough to seek;
Poor man! he’s left us for the regions blessed,
And has in Paradise ten years confessed.

Those Who Painted My Portrait

Nef’î
Turkish
1572 – 1635

 

Those who painted my portrait painted me
With cup in hand
When they saw I was drunk on the wine of love,
They drew me as a drunkard

If the zâhid were wise, he wouldn’t ask me
to give up pleasure
What a shame! They have portrayed me as crazy,
and him as sane!

What you see in the eye of the lover
in not the shadow of her eyelash
They have drawn the darkness of her cheek-down
onto the white of the weeping eye

I am that lover whose fame in humility
has taken the entire city
Those who wrote the story of Mejnûn
have written it in vain!

Oh Nef’î, from the way you speak we see
Yyur heart is burning
When they write your verse, their pens
shall burst in flame!

You Foolish Men

In honor of the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, we present this work by one of Mexico’s premier colonial poets.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Mexican
1651 – 1695

 

You foolish men who lay
the guilt on women,
not seeing you’re the cause
of the very thing you blame;

if you invite their disdain
with measureless desire
why wish they well behave
if you incite to ill.

You fight their stubbornness,
then, weightily,
you say it was their lightness
when it was your guile.

In all your crazy shows
you act just like a child
who plays the bogeyman
of which he’s then afraid.

With foolish arrogance
you hope to find a Thais
in her you court, but a Lucretia
when you’ve possessed her.

What kind of mind is odder
than his who mists
a mirror and then complains
that it’s not clear.

Their favour and disdain
you hold in equal state,
if they mistreat, you complain,
you mock if they treat you well.

No woman wins esteem of you:
the most modest is ungrateful
if she refuses to admit you;
yet if she does, she’s loose.

You always are so foolish
your censure is unfair;
one you blame for cruelty
the other for being easy.

What must be her temper
who offends when she’s
ungrateful and wearies
when compliant?

But with the anger and the grief
that your pleasure tells
good luck to her who doesn’t love you
and you go on and complain.

Your lover’s moans give wings
to women’s liberty:
and having made them bad,
you want to find them good.

Who has embraced
the greater blame in passion?
She who, solicited, falls,
or he who, fallen, pleads?

Who is more to blame,
though either should do wrong?
She who sins for pay
or he who pays to sin?

Why be outraged at the guilt
that is of your own doing?
Have them as you make them
or make them what you will.

Leave off your wooing
and then, with greater cause,
you can blame the passion
of her who comes to court?

Patent is your arrogance
that fights with many weapons
since in promise and insistence
you join world, flesh and devil.