The Hourglass :: J. L. Borges

It is well that time can be measured
With the harsh shadow a column in summer
Casts, or the water of that river
In which Heraclitus saw our folly,

Since both to time and destiny
The two seem alike: the unweighable daytime
Shadow, and the irrevocable course
Of water following its own path.

It is well, but time in the desert
Found another substance, smooth and heavy,
That seems to have been imagined
For measuring dead men’s time.

Hence the allegorical instrument
Of the dictionary illustrations,
The thing that gray antiquaries
Will consign to the red-ash world

Of the odd chess-bishop, of the sword
Defenseless, of the telescope bleared,
Of sandalwood eroded by opium,
Of dust, of hazard, of the nada.

Who has not paused before the severe
And sullen instrument accompanying
The scythe in the god’s right hand
Whose outlines Duerer etched?

Through the open apex the inverted cone
Lets the minute sand fall down,
Gradual gold that loosens itself and fills
The concave crystal of its universe.

There is a pleasure in watching the recondite
Sand that slides away and slopes
And, at the falling point, piles up
With an urgency wholly human.

The sand of the cycles is the same,
And infinite, the history of sand;
Thus, deep beneath your joys and pain
Unwoundable eternity is still the abyss.

Never is there a halt in the fall.
It is I lose blood, not the glass. The ceremony
Of drawing off the sand goes on forever
And with the sand our life is leaving us.

In the minutes of the sand I believe
I feel the cosmic time: the history
That memory locks up in its mirrors
Or that magic Lethe has dissolved.

The pillar of smoke and the pillar of fire,
Carthage and Rome and their crushing war,
Simon Magnus, the seven feet of earth
That the Saxon proffered the Norway king,

This tireless subtle thread of unnumbered
Sand degrades all down to loss.
I cannot save myself, a come-by-chance
Of time, being matter that is crumbling.

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

Poem about Gifts :: J. L. Borges

Let none think that I by tear or reproach make light
Of this manifesting the mastery
Of God, who with excelling irony
Gives me at once both books and night.

In this city of books he made these eyes
The sightless rulers who can only read,
In libraries of dreams, the pointless
Paragraphs each new dawn offers

To awakened care. In vain the day
Squanders on them its infinite books,
As difficult as the difficult scripts
That perished in Alexandria.

An old Greek story tells how some king died
Of hunger and thirst, though proffered springs and fruits;
My bearing lost, I trudge from side to side
Of this lofty, long blind library.

The walls present, but uselessly,
Encyclopedia, atlas, Orient
And the West, all centuries, dynasties,
Symbols, cosmos and cosmogonies.

Slow in my darkness, I explore
The hollow gloom with my hesitant stick,
I, that used to figure Paradise
In such a library’s guise.

Something that surely cannot be called
Mere chance must rule these things;
Some other man has met this doom
On other days of many books and the dark.

As I walk through the slow galleries
I grow to feel with a kind of holy dread
That I am that other, I am the dead,
And the steps I make are also his.

Which of us two is writing now these lines
About a plural I and a single gloom?
What does it matter what word is my name
If the curse is indivisibly the same?

Groussac or Borges, I gaze at this beloved
World that grows more shapeless, and its light
Dies down into a pale, uncertain ash
Resembling sleep and the oblivion of night.

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

On Rigor in Science :: J. L. Borges

Museum

Φ

. . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography reached such Perfection that the map of one Province alone took up the whole of a City, and the map of the empire, the whole of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps did not satisfy and the Colleges of Cartographers set up a Map of the Empire which had the size of the Empire itself and coincided with it point by point. Less Addicted to the Study of Cartography, Succeeding Generations understood that this Widespread Map was Useless and not without Impiety they abandoned it to the Inclemencies of the Sun and of the Winters. In the deserts of the West some mangled Ruins of the Map lasted on, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in the whole Country there are no other relics of the Disciplines of Geography.

Suarez Miranda: Viajes de Varones Prudentes, Book Four, Chapter XLV, Lérida, 1658.

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

The Magnanimous Enemy :: J. L. Borges

Museum

Φ

Magnus Barfod, in the year 1102, undertook the general conquest
of the kingdoms of Ireland; it is said that on the eve of his death
he received this greeting from Muirchertach, king in Dublin:

May gold and the storm fight along with you in your armies,
Magnus Barfod.
Tomorrow, in the fields of my kingdom, may you have a
happy battle.
May your kingly hands be terrible in weaving the sword stuff.
May those opposing your sword become meat for the red swan.
May your many gods glut you with glory, may they glut you
with blood.
Victorious may you be in the dawn, king who tread on Ireland.
Of your many days may none shine bright as tomorrow.
Because that day will be the last. I swear it to you,
King Magnus.
For before its light is blotted, I shall vanquish you and blot
you out, Magnus Barfod.

From H. Gering: Anhang zur Heimskringla (1893)

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

Limits :: J. L. Borges

Museum

Φ

There is a line in Verlaine I shall not recall again,
There is a street close by forbidden to my feet,
There’s a mirror that’s seen me for the very last time,
There is a door that I have locked till the end of the world.
Among the books in my library (I have them before me)
There are some that I shall never open now.
This summer I complete my fiftieth year;
Death is gnawing at me ceaselessly.

Julio Platero Haedo: Inscripciones (Montevideo, 1923)

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

Quatrain :: J. L. Borges

Museum

Φ

Others died, but it happened in the past,
The season (as all men know) most favorable for death.
Is it possible that I, subject of Yaqub Almansur,
Must die as roses had to die and Aristotle?

From Divan of Almoqtadir El Magrebi (12th century)

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

Dreamtigers Epiloge :: J. L. Borges

God grant that the essential monotony of this miscellany (which time has compiled – not I -and which admits past pieces that I have not dared to revise, because I wrote them with a different concept of literature) be less evident than the geographical and historical diversity of its themes. Of all the books I have delivered to the presses, none, I think, is as personal as the straggling collection mustered for this hodgepodge, precisely because it abounds in reflections and interpolations. Few things have happened to me, and I have read a great many. Or rather, few things have happened to me more worth remembering than Schopenhaur’s thought or the music of England’s words.

A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Through the years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face.

J. L. B

Buenos Aires, October 31, 1960.

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

The Poet Declares His Renown :: J. L. Borges

Museum

Φ

The circle of the sky metes out my glory,
The libraries of the East contend for my poems,
Emirs seek me out to fill my mouth with gold,
Angels already know by heart my latest ghazal.
My working tools are humiliation and an anguish;
Would to God I’d been stillborn.

From the Divan of Abulcasim El Hadrami (12th century)

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

Susana Soca :: J. L. Borges

With slow love she looked at the scattered
Colors of afternoon. It pleased her
To lose herself in intricate melody
Or in the curious life of verses.
Not elemental red but the grays
Spun her delicate destiny,
Fashioned to discriminate and exercised
In vacillation and in blended tints.
Without venturing to tread this perplexing
Labyrinth, she watched from without
The shapes of things, their tumult and their course,
Just like that other lady of the mirror.
Gods who dwell far-off past prayer
Abandoned her to that tiger, Fire.


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

Parable of the Palace :: J. L. Borges

That day, the Yellow Emperor showed the poet his palace. They left behind, in long succession, the first terraces on the west which descend, like the steps of an almost measureless amphitheater, to a paradise or garden whose metal mirrors and intricate juniper hedges already prefigured the labyrinth. They lost themselves in it, gaily at first, as if condescending to play a game, but afterwards not without misgiving, for its straight avenues were subject to a curvature, ever so slight, but continuous (and secretly those avenues were circles). Toward midnight observation of the planets and the opportune sacrifice of a turtle permitted them to extricate themselves from that seemingly bewitched region, but not from the sense of being lost, for this accompanied them to the end. Foyers and patios and libraries they traversed then, and a hexagonal room with a clepsydra, and one morning from a tower they descried a stone man, whom they then lost sight of forever. Many shining rivers did they cross in sandalwood canoes, or a single river many times. The imperial retinue would pass and people would prostrate themselves. But one day they put in on an island where someone did not do it, because he had never seen the Son of Heaven, and the executioner had to decapitate him. Black heads of hair and black dances and complicated golden masks did their eyes indifferently behold; the real and the dreamed became one, or rather reality was one of dream’s configurations. It seemed impossible that earth were anything but gardens, pools, architectures, and splendrous forms. Every hundred paces a tower cleft the air; to the eye their color was identical, yet the first of all was yellow, and the last, scarlet, so delicate were the gradations and so long the series.

It was at the foot of the next-to-the-last tower that the poet — who was as if untouched by the wonders that amazed the rest — recited the brief composition we find today indissolubly linked to his name and which, as the more elegant historians have it, gave him immortality and death. The text has been lost. There are some who contend it consisted of a single line; others say it had but a single word. The truth, the incredible truth, is that in the poem stood the enormous palace, entire and minutely detailed, with every illustrious porcelain and every sketch on every porcelain and the shadows and the light of the twilights and every unhappy or joyous moment of the glorious dynasties of mortals, gods, and dragons who had dwelled in it from the interminable past. All fell silent, but the Emperor exclaimed, “You have robbed me of my palace!” And the executioner’s iron sword cut the poet down.

Others tell the story differently. There cannot be any two things alike in the world; the poet, they say, had only to utter his poem to make the palace disappear, as if abolished and blown to bits by the final syllable. Such legends, of course, amount to no more than literary fiction. The poet was a slave of the Emperor and as such he died. His composition sank into oblivion because it deserved oblivion and his descendants still seek, nor will they find, the word that contains the universe.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

Paradiso, XXXI, 108 :: J. L. Borges

Diodorus Siculus tells the story of a god, broken and scattered abroad. What man of us has never felt, walking through the twilight or writing down a date from his past, that he has lost something infinite?

Mankind has lost a face, an irretrievable face, and all have longed to be that pilgrim — imagined in the Empyrean, beneath the Rose — who in Rome sees the Veronica and murmurs in faith, “Lord Jesus, my God, true God, is this then what Thy face was like?”

Beside a road there is a stone face and an inscription that says, “The True Portrait of the Holy Face of the God of Jaen.” If we truly knew what it was like, the key to the parables would be ours and we would know whether the son of the carpenter was also the Son of God.

Paul saw it as a light that struck him to the ground; John, as the sun when it shines in all its strength; Teresa de Jesus saw it many times, bathed in tranquil light, yet she was never sure of the color of His eyes.

We lost those features, as one may lose a magic number made up of the usual ciphers, as one loses an image in a kaleidoscope, forever. We may see them and know them not. The profile of a Jew in the subway is perhaps the profile of Christ; perhaps the hands that give us our change at a ticket window duplicate the ones some soldier nailed one day to the cross.

Perhaps a feature of the crucified face lurks in every mirror; perhaps the face died, was erased, so that God may be all of us.

Who knows but that tonight we may see it in the labyrinth of dreams, and tomorrow not know we saw it.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

Parable of Cervantes and Don Quixote :: J. L. Borges

Weary of his land of Spain, an old soldier of the king sought solace in Ariosto’s vast geographies, in that valley of the moon where misspent dream-time goes, and in the golden idol of Mohammed stolen by Montalban.

In gentle mockery of himself he conceived a credulous man who, unsettled by the marvels he read about, hit upon the idea of seeking noble deeds and enchantments in prosaic places called El Toboso or Montiel.

Defeated by reality, by Spain, Don Quixote died in his native village around 1614. He was survived only briefly by Miguel de Cervantes.

For both of them, for the dreamer and the dreamed, the tissue of that whole plot consisted in the contraposition of two worlds: the unreal world of the books of chivalry and the common everyday world of the seventeenth century.

Little did they suspect that the years would end by wearing away the disharmony. Little did they suspect that La Mancha and Montiel and the knight’s frail figure would be, for the future, no less poetic than Sinbad’s haunts or Ariosto’s vast geographies.

For myth is at the beginning of literature, and also at its end.

Devoto Clinic, January 1955.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

The Witness :: J. L. Borges

In a stable that stands almost within the shadow of the new stone church a gray-eyed, gray-bearded man, stretched out amid the odors of the animals, humbly seeks death as one seeks for sleep. The day, faithful to vast secret laws, little by little shifts and mingles the shadows in the humble nook. Outside are the plowed fields and a deep ditch clogged with dead leaves and an occasional wolf track in the black earth at the edge of the forest. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten. The angelus awakens him. By now the sound of the bells is one of the habits of evening in the kingdoms of England. But this man, as a child, saw the face of Woden, the holy dread and exultation, the rude wooden idol weighed down with Roman coins and heavy vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he will die, and in him will die, never to return, the last eye-witness of those pagan rites; the world will be a little poorer when this Saxon dies.

Events far-reaching enough to people all space, whose end is nonetheless tolled when one man dies, may cause us wonder. But something, or an infinite number of things, dies in every death, unless the universe is possessed of a memory, as the theosophists have supposed.

In the course of time there was a day that closed the last eyes to see Christ. The battle of Junin and the love of Helen each died with the death of some one man. What will die with me when I die, what pitiful or perishable form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernandez? The image of a roan horse on the vacant lot at Serrano and Charcas? A bar of sulpher in the drawer of a mahogany desk?

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

A Yellow Rose :: J. L. Borges

Neither that afternoon nor the next did the illustrious Giambattista Marino die, he whom the unanimous mouths of Fame — to use an image dear to him — proclaimed as the new Homer and the new Dante. But still, the noiseless fact that took place then was in reality the last event of his life. Laden with years and with glory, he lay dying in a huge Spanish bed with carved bedposts. It is not hard to imagine a serene balcony a few steps away, facing the west, and, below, marble and laurels and a garden whose various levels are duplicated in a rectangle of water. A woman has placed in a goblet a yellow rose. The man murmurs the inevitable lines that now, to tell the truth, bore even him a little:

Purple of the garden, pomp of the meadow,
Gem of the spring, April’s eye . . .

Then the revelation occured: Marino saw the rose as Adam might have seen it in Paradise, and he thought that the rose was to be found in its own eternity and not in his words; and that we may mention or allude to a thing, but not express it; and that the tall, proud volumes casting a golden shadow in a corner were not — as his vanity had dreamed — a mirror of the world, but rather one thing more added to the world.

Marino achieved this illumination on the eve of his death, and Homer and Dante may have achieved it as well.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]