Ariosto and the Arabs :: J. L. Borges

No man can write a book. Because
Before a book can truly be
It needs the rise and set of the sun,
Centuries, arms, and the binding and sundering sea.

So Ariosto thought, who to the slow pleasure
Gave himself, in the leisure of the roads
With the shining statuary and black pines,
Of dreaming again on things already dreamed.

The air of his own Italy was dense
With dreams, which recalling and forgetting,
With shapes of war that through harsh centuries
Wearied the land, plaited and schemed.

A legion that lost itself in valleys
Of Aquitaine into ambush fell;
And thus was born that dream of a sword
And a horn that cried in Roncesvalles.

Over English orchards the brutal Saxon
Spread his armies and his idols
In a stubborn, clenching war; and of these things
A dream was left behind called Arthur.

From the northern islands, with the blind
Sun blurring the sea, there came
The dream of a virgin, waiting in sleep
For her lord, within a ring of flame.

From Persia to Parnassus — who knows where? —
That dream of an armed enchanter driving
A winged steed through the startled air
And suddenly into the western desert diving.

As if from this enchanter’s steed
Ariosto saw the kingdoms of the earth
All furrowed by war’s revelry
And by young love intent to prove his worth.

As if through a delicate golden mist
He saw a garden in the world that reached
Beyond its hedge into other intimacies
For Angelica’s and Medoro’s love.

Like the illusory splendors that in Hindustan
Opium leaves on the rim of sight,
The Furioso’s loves go shimmering by
In the kaleidoscope of his delight.

Neither of love nor irony unaware,
He dreamed like this, in a modest style,
Of a strange lone castle; and all things there
(As in this life) were the devil’s guile.

As to every poet what may chance —
Or fate allot as a private doom —
He traveled the roads of Ferrara
And, at the same time, walked the moon.

The dross of dreams that have no shape —
The mud that the Nile of sleep leaves by —
With the stuff of these for skein, he’d move
Through that gleaming labyrinth and escape;

Through this great diamond, in which a man
May lose himself by the hap of the game,
In the whereness of music drowsing,
Be beside himself in flesh and name.

Europe entire was lost. By the working
Of that ingenious and malicious art,
Milton could weep for Brandimarte’s
Death and Dolinda’s anguished heart.

Europe was lost. But other gifts were given
By that vast dream to fame’s true scions
That dwell in the deserts of the East,
And the night that was full of lions.

The delectable book that still enchants
Tells of a king who, at morning’s star,
Surrenders his queen of the night
Before the implacable scimitar.

Wings that are shaggy night, and cruel
Claws that an elephant grip,
Magnetic mountains that with loving
Embrace can shatter a ship,

The earth sustained by a bull, the bull
By a fish; abracadabras, and old
Talismans and mystic words
That in granite open caves of gold;

This the Saracen people dreamt
Who followed Agramente’s crest;
This the turban’d faces dreamed
And the dream now lords it over the West.

And Orlando is now a region that smiles,
A country of the mind for miles
Of wonders in abandoned dreams;
And not even finally smiles, but seems —

By the skill of Islam, brought so low
To fable merely and scholarship,
It stands alone, dreaming itself. (And glory
Is oblivion shaped into a story.)

Through the window, paling now, the quivering
Light of one more evening touches the book
And once again the gilding on the cover
Glows and once again it fades.

In the deserted room the silent
Book still journeys in time. And leaves
Behind it — dawns, night-watching hours,
My own life too, this quickening dream.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]

Androgué :: J. L. Borges

Let no fear be that in indecipherable night
I shall lose myself among the black flowers
Of the park, where the secret bird that sings
The same song over and over, the round pond,

And the summerhouse, and the indistinct
Statue and the hazardous ruin, weave
Their scheme of things propitious to the langour
Of afternoons and to nostalgic loves.

Hollow in the hollow shade, the coachhouse
Marks (I know) the tremulous confines
Of this world of dust and jasmine,
Pleasing to Verlaine, pleasing to Julio Herrera.

The eucalyptus trees bestow on the gloom
Their medicinal smell: that ancient smell
That, beyond all time and ambiguity
Of language, speaks of manorhouse time.

My footstep seeks and finds the hoped-for
Threshold. The flat roof there defines
Its darkened edge, and in measured time the tap
In the checkered patio slowly drips.

On the other side of the door they sleep,
Those who by means of dreams
In the visionary darkness are masters
Of the long yesterday and all things dead.

I know every single object of this old
Building: the flakes of mica
On that gray stone that doubles itself
Endlessly in the smudgy mirror

And the lion’s head that bites
A ring and the stained-glass windows
That reveal to a child wonders
Of a crimson world and another greener world.

For beyond all chance and death
They endure, each one with its history,
But all this is happening in that destiny
Of a fourth dimension, which is memory.

In that and there alone now still exist
The patios and the gardens. And the past
Holds them in that forbidden round
Embracing at one time vesper and dawn.

How could I lose that precise
Order of humble and beloved things,
As out of reach today as the roses
That Paradise gave to the first Adam?

The ancient amazement of the elegy
Loads me down when I think of that house
And I do not understand how time goes by,
I, who am time and blood and agony.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]

Ars Poetica :: J. L. Borges

To gaze at the river made of time and water
And recall that time itself is another river,
To know we cease to be, just like the river,
And that our faces pass away, just like the water.

To feel that waking is another sleep
That dreams it does not sleep and that death,
Which our flesh dreads, is that very death
Of every night, which we call sleep.

To see in the day or in the year a symbol
Of mankind’s days and of his years,
To transform the outrage of the years
Into a music, a rumor and a symbol,

To see in death a sleep, and in the sunset
A sad gold, of such is Poetry
Immortal and a pauper. For Poetry
Returns like the dawn and the sunset.

At times in the afternoons a face
Looks at us from the depths of a mirror;
Art must be like that mirror
That reveals to us this face of ours.

They tell how Ulysses, glutted with wonders,
Wept with love to descry his Ithaca
Humble and green. Art is that Ithaca
Of green eternity, not of wonders.

It is also like an endless river
That passes and remains, a mirror for one same
Inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
And another, like an endless river.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]

Luke XXIII :: J. L. Borges

Gentile or Hebrew or simply a man
Whose face has now been lost in time;
From oblivion we shall not redeem
The silent letters of his name.

Of clemency he knew no more
Than a robber whom Judea nails
To a cross. The time that went before
We cannot reach. But in his final

Job of dying crucified,
He heard among the jibes of the crowd,
That the fellow dying at his side
Was a god, and so he said to him, blind:

“Remember me when you shall come
Into your kingdom,” and the inconceivable voice
That one day will be judge of all mankind
Made promise, from the terrible Cross,

Of Paradise. And they said nothign more
Until the end came, but the pride
Of history will not let die the memory
Of that afternoon when these two died.

O friends, the innocence of this friend
Of Jesus Christ, this candor which made him
Ask for his Paradise and gain it so,
Even in the shame of punishment,

Is the same that many a time has brought
The sinner to sin — as it chanced, to murder.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]

On Beginning the Study of Anglo-Saxon Grammar :: J. L. Borges

At fifty generations’ end
(And such abysses time affords us all)
I return to the further shore of a great river
That the vikings’ dragons did not reach,
To the harsh and arduous words
That, with a mouth now turned to dust,
I used in my Northumbrian, Mercian days
Before I became a Haslam or Borges.
On Saturday we read that Julius Caesar
Was the first man out of Romeburg to strip the
………………………………………………..veil from England;
Before the clusters swell again on the vine
I shall have heard the voice of the nightingale
With its enigma, and the elegy of the warrior twelve
That surround the tomb of their king.
Symbols of other symbols, variations
On the English or German future seem these words to me
That once on a time were images
A man made use of praising the sea or sword;
Tomorrow they will live again,
Tomorrow fyr will not be fire but that form
Of a tamed and changing  god
It has been given to none to see without an ancient dread.

Praised be the infinite
Mesh of effects and causes
Which, before it shews me the mirror
In which I shall see no-one or I shall see another,
Grants me now this contemplation pure
Of a language of the dawn.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]

Ode Composed in 1960 :: J. L. Borges

Sheer accident or the secret laws
That rule this dream, my destiny,
Will — O needed and sweet homeland
That not without glory and without shame embrace
A hundred and fifty arduous years —
That I, the drop, should speak with you, the river,
That I, the instant, speak with you, who are time,
And that the intimate dialogue resort,
As the custom is, to the rites and the dark hints
Beloved of the gods, and to the decorum of verse.

My country, I have sensed you in the tumbledown
Decadence of the widespread suburbs,
And in that thistledown that the pampas wind
Blows into the entrance hall, and in the patient rain,
And in the slow coursing of the stars,
And in the hand that tunes a guitar,
And in the gravitation of the plain
That, from however far, our blood feels
As the Briton feels the sea, and in the pious
Symbols and urns of a vault,
And in the gallant love of jasmine,
And in the silver of a picture-frame and the polished
Rubbing of the silent mahogany,
And in the flavors of meat and fruits,
And in a flag sort of blue and white
Over a barracks, and in unappetizing stories
Of street-corner knifings, and in the sameness
Of afternoons that are wiped out and leave us,
And in the vague pleased memory
Of patios with slaves bearing
The names of their masters, and in the poor
Leaves of certain books for the blind
That fire scattered, and in the fall
Of those epic rains in September
That nobody will forget — but these things
Are not wholly you yourself nor yet your symbols.

You are more than your wide territory
And more than the days of your unmeasured time,
You are more than the unimaginable sum
Of your children after you. We do not know
What you are for God in the living
Heart of the eternal archetypes,
But by this imperfectly glimpsed visage
We live and die and have our being —

O never-from-me and mystery-my-country.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]

In Memoriam : A. R. :: J. L. Borges

Vague chance or the precise laws
That govern this dream, the universe,
Granted me to share a smooth
Stretch of the course with Alfonso Reyes.

He knew well that art which no one
Wholly knows, neither Sinbad nor Ulysses,
Which is to pass  from one land on to others
And yet to be entirely in each one.

If memory ever did with its arror
Pierce him, he fashioned with the intense
Metal of the weapon the rhythmical, slow
Alexandrine or the grieving dirge.

In his labors he was helped by mankind’s
Hope, which was the light of his life,
To create a line that is not to be forgotten
And to renew Castilian prose.

Beyond the Myo Cid with slow gait
And that flock of folk that strive to be obscure,
He tracked that fugitive literature
As far as the suburbs of the city slang.

In the five gardens of the Marino
He delayed, but he had something in him
Immortal, of the essence which preferred
Arduous studies and diviner duties.

To put it better, he preferred the gardens
Of meditation, where Porphyry
Reared before the shadows and delight
The Tree of the Beginning and the End.

Reyes, meticulous providence
That governs the prodigal and the thrifty
Gave some of us the sector or the arc,
But to you the whole circumference.

You sought the happy and the sad
That fame or frontispieces hide;
Like the God of Erigena you desired
To be no man so that you might be all.

Vast and delicate splendors
Your style attained, that manifest rose,
And turned that fighting blood of your forbears
Into cheerful blood to wage in God’s own wars.

Where (I ask) will the Mexican be?
Will he contemplate with Oedipus’ horror
Before the stranger Sphinx, the unmoving
Archetype of Visage and of Hand?

Or is he wandering, as Swedenborg says,
Through a world more vivid and complex
Than our earthly one, which is scarcely the reflex
Of that high, celestial something impenetrable?

If (as the empires of lacquer
And ebony teach) man’s memory shapes
Its own Eden within, there is now in glory
One Mexico more, another Cuernavaca.

God knows the colors that fate
Has in store for man beyond his day;
I walk these streets — and yet how little
Do I catch up with the meaning of death.

One thing alone I know. That Alfonso Reyes
(Wherever the sea has brought him safe ashore)
Will apply himself happy and watchful
To other enigmas and to other laws.

Let us honor with the palms and the shout
Of victory the peerless and unique;
No tears must shame the verse
Our love inscribes to his name.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]

The Moon :: J. L. Borges

History tells us how in that past time
When all things happened, real,
Imaginary, and dubious, a man
Conceived the unconscionable plan

Of making an abridgment of the universe
In a single book and with infinite zest
He towered his screed up, lofty and
Strenuous, polished it, spoke the final verse.

About to offer his thanks to fortune,
He lifted up his eyes and saw a burnished
Disc in the air and realized, stunned,
That somehow he had forgotten the moon.

The story I have told, although a tale,
Can represent the witching spell
So many of us use when at our craft
Of transmuting our life into words.

The essence is always lost. This is the one
Lay of every word about inspiration.
Nor will this summary of mine avoid it
About my long traffic with the moon.

Where I saw it first I could not tell,
If in an earlier heaven than the teaching
Of the Greek, or some evening when it was reaching
Over the patio fig tree and the well.

As we know, this life being mutable
Can be, among many things, so beautiful
Because it brings some afternoon, with her,
The chance to gaze at you, oh varying moon.

But more than moons of the night I can
Remember those in verse: like that enchanted
Dragon moon so horrible in the ballad,
And then Quevedo with his moon of blood.

Of another moon of blood and scarlet
John spoke in his book about the ferocious
Monsters and their revelries;
And other clear moons with a silver sheen.

Pythagoras (so tradition tells)
Wrote words of blood on a looking glass
That men could read with the naked eye
Reflected in that mirror in the sky.

And there’s the forest of iron where lurks
The enormous wolf whose destiny
Is to shatter the moon and do it to death
When the last dawn reddens the sea.

(Of this the prophetic North is aware
And how on that day the opened seas
Through all the world will be scoured by a ship
Fashioned of dead men’s nails.)

When in Geneva or Zurich fortune willed
That I should be a poet too,
I secretly assumed, as poets do,
The duty on me to define a moon.

Of faraway ivory, smoke, and the cold
Of snows were the moons that lit
My verses, which certainly were not fit
For the difficult honor of reaching print.

I thought of the poet as being that man
Who, like red Adam in Paradise,
Lays down for everything its precise
And exact and not-known name.

Ariosto taught me that in the shifting
Moon are the dreams, the ungraspable,
Time that is lost, the possible
Or the impossible, which are the same.

Apollodorus let me descry
The magical shade of triform Diana;
And Hugo gave me a golden sickle,
An Irishman, his tragic obscure moon.

And, while I sounded the depths of that mine
Of mythology’s moons, just here
At the turn of a corner I could see
The celestial moon of every day.

Among all words I knew there is one
With the power to record and re-present.
The secret, I see, is with humble intent
To use it simply. Moon.

Now I shall never dare to stain
Its pure appearing with a futile image;
I see it indecipherable and daily
And out of reach of my literature.

I know that the moon or the word moon
Is a letter that was created to share
In the complex scripture of that rare
Thing that we are, both manifold and one.

It is one of those symbols given to man
By fate or chance, which one day he
May use to write his own true name,
Uplifted in glory or in agony.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]

Mirrors :: J. L. Borges

I, who felt the horrors of mirrors
Not only in front of the impenetrable crystal
Where there ends and begins, uninhabitable,
An impossible space of reflections,

But of gazing even on water that mimics
The other blue in its depth of sky,
That at times gleams back the illusory flight
Of the inverted bird, or that ripples,

And in front of the silent surface
Of subtle ebony whose polish shows
Like a repeating dream the white
Of something marble or something rose,

Today at the tip of so many and perplexing
Wandering years under the varying moon,
I ask myself what whim of fate
Made me so fearful of a glancing mirror.

Mirrors in metal, and the masked
Mirror of mahogany that in its mist
Of a red twilight hazes
The face that is gazed on as it gazes,

I see them as infinite, elemental
Executors of an ancient pact,
To multiply the world like the act
Of begetting. Sleepless. Bringing doom.

They prolong this hollow, unstable world
In their dizzying spider’s-web;
Sometimes in the afternoon they are blurred
By the breath of a man who is not dead.

The crystal spies on us. If within the four
Walls of a bedroom a mirror stares,
I’m no longer alone. There is someone there.
In the dawn reflections mutely stage a show.

Everything happens and nothing is recorded
In these rooms of the looking glass,
Where, magicked into rabbis, we
Now read the books from right to left.

Claudius, king of an afternoon, a dreaming king,
Did not feel it a dream until that day
When an actor shewed the world his crime
In a tableau, silently in mime.

It is a strange dream, and to have mirrors
Where the commonplace, worn-out repertory
Of every day may include the illusory
Profound globe that reflections scheme.

God (I keep thinking) has taken pains
To design that ungraspable architecture
Reared by every dawn from the gleam
Of a mirror, by darkness from a dream.

God has created nighttime, which he arms
With dreams, and mirrors, to make clear
To man he is a reflection and a mere
Vanity. Therefore these alarms.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]

Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-Odd :: J. L. Borges

The wheeling of the stars is not infinite
And the tiger is one of the forms that return,
But we, remote from chance of hazard,
Believed we were exiled in a time outworn,
Time when nothing can happen.
The universe, the tragic universe, was not here
And maybe should be looked for somewhere else;
I hatched a humble mythology of fencing
walls and knives
And Ricardo thought of his drovers.

We did not know that time to come held a lightning bolt;
We did not forsee the shame, the fire, and the fearful
night of the Alliance;
Nothing told us that Argentine history would be thrust
out to walk the streets,
History, indignation, love,
The multitudes like the sea, the name of Córdoba,
The flavor of the real and the incredible, the
horror and the glory.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]

To Luís de Camoëns :: J. L. Borges

Without lament or anger time will nick
The most heroic swords. Poor and in sorrow,
You came home to a land turned from tomorrow,
O captain, came to die within her, sick,
And with her. In the magic desert-wastes
The flower of Portugal was lost and died,
And the harsh Spaniard, hitherto subdued,
Was menacing her naked, open coasts.
I wish I knew if on this hither side
Of the ultimate shore you humbly understood
That all that was lost, the Western Hemisphere
And the Orient, the steel and banner dear,
Would still live on (from human change set free)
In your epic Lusiados timelessly.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]

The Borges :: J. L. Borges

I know little — or nothing — of my own forebears;
The Borges back in Portugal; vague folk
That in my flesh, obscurely, still evoke
Their customs, and their firmnesses and fears.
As slight as if they’d never lived in the sun
And free from any trafficking with art,
They form an indecipherable part
Of time, of earth, and of oblivion.
And better so. For now, their labors past,
They’re Portugal, they are that famous race
Who forced the shining ramparts of the East,
And launched on seas, and seas of sand as wide.
The king they are in mystic desert place,
Once lost; they’re one who swears he has not died.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]

Referring to the Death of Colonel Francisco Borges (1835-1874) :: J. L. Borges

I leave him on his horse, and in the gray
And twilit hour he fixed with death for a meeting;
Of all the hours that shaped his human day
May this last long, though bitter and defeating.
The whiteness of his horse and poncho over
The plain advances. Setting sights again
To the hollow rifles death lies under cover.
Francisco Borges sadly crosses the plain.
This that encircled him, the rifles’ rattle,
This that he saw, the pampa without bounds,
Had been his life, his sum of sights and sounds.
His every-dailiness is here and in the battle.
I leave him lofty in his epic universe
Almost as if not tolled for by my verse.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]

Referring to a Ghost of Eighteen Hundred and Ninety-Odd :: J. L. Borges

Nothing. Only Muraña’s knife.
Only in the gray afternoon the story cut short.
I don’t know why in the afternoons I’m companioned
By this assassin that I’ve never seen.
Palermo was further down. The yellow
Thick wall of the jail dominated
Suburb and mud flat. Through this savage
District went the sordid knife.
The knife. The face has been smudged out
And of that hired fellow whose austere
Craft was courage, nothing remained
But a ghost and a gleam of steel.
May time, that sullies marble statues,
Salvage this staunch name: Juan Muraña.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]

To an Old Poet :: J. L. Borges

You walk the Castile countryside
As if you hardly saw that it was there.
A tricky verse of John’s your only care,
You scarcely notice that the sun has died

In a yellow glow. The light diffuses, trembles,
And on the borders of the East there spreads
That moon of mockery which most resembles
The mirror of Wrath, a moon of scarlet-reds.

You raise your eyes and look. You seem to note
A something of your own that like a bud
Half-breaks then dies. You bend your pallid head

And sadly make your way — the moment fled —
And with it, unrecalled, what once you wrote:
And for his epitaph a moon of blood.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]