It was a riddle which he could not solve, whether he was dreaming now, or had before dreamed of a wife and friend

From Ludwig Tieck’s The Fair-Haired Eckbert (as Thomas Carlyle renders Der Blonde Eckbert). Tieck is one of those chance treasures that literary nomadism occasionally yields and while I’m not surprised he’s today out of fashion – at least with English readers – I am surprised Borges either never read him or never (that I can find) found occasion to comment on him. Just count the Borgesian preoccupations below.

This passage is from near the end of the tale. It’s not a direct spoiler but it would likely color a first reading. The full English is here and German here.

He set out, without prescribing to himself any certain route; indeed, he took small heed of the country he was passing through. Having hastened on some days at the quickest pace of his horse, he, on a sudden, found himself entangled in a labyrinth of rocks, from which he could discover no outlet. At length he met an old peasant, who took him by a path leading past a waterfall: he offered him some coins for his guidance, but the peasant would not have them. “What use is it?” said Eckbert. “I could believe that this man, too, was none but Walther.” He looked round once more, and it was none but Walther. Eckbert spurred his horse as fast as it could gallop, over meads and forests, till it sank exhausted to the earth. Regardless of this, he hastened forward on foot.

In a dreamy mood he mounted a hill: he fancied he caught the sound of lively barking at a little distance; the birch-trees whispered in the intervals, and in the strangest notes he heard this song:

Alone in wood so gay,
Once more I stay;
None dare me slay,
The evil far away:
Ah, here I stay,
Alone in wood so gay.

The sense, the consciousness of Eckbert had departed; it was a riddle which he could not solve, whether he was dreaming now, or had before dreamed of a wife and friend. The marvellous was mingled with the common: the world around him seemed enchanted, and he himself was incapable of thought or recollection.

Er zog fort, ohne sich einen bestimmten Weg vorzusetzen, ja er betrachtete die Gegenden nur wenig, die vor ihm lagen. Als er im stärksten Trabe seines Pferdes einige Tage so fortgeeilt war, sah er sich plötzlich in einem Gewinde von Felsen verirrt, in denen sich nirgend ein Ausweg entdecken ließ. Endlich traf er auf einen alten Bauer, der ihm einen Pfad, einem Wasserfall vorüber, zeigte: er wollte ihm zur Danksagung einige Münzen geben, der Bauer aber schlug sie aus. – »Was gilt’s«, sagte Eckbert zu sich selber, »ich könnte mir wieder einbilden, daß dies niemand anders als Walther sei.« – Und indem sah er sich noch einmal um, und es war niemand anders als Walther. – Eckbert spornte sein Roß so schnell es nur laufen konnte, durch Wiesen und Wälder, bis es erschöpft unter ihm zusammenstürzte. – Unbekümmert darüber setzte er nun seine Reise zu Fuß fort.

Er stieg träumend einen Hügel hinan; es war, als wenn er ein nahes munteres Bellen vernahm, Birken säuselten dazwischen, und er hörte mit wunderlichen Tönen ein Lied singen:

Mich wieder freut,
Mir geschieht kein Leid,
Hier wohnt kein Neid,
Von neuem mich freut

Jetzt war es um das Bewußtsein, um die Sinne Eckberts geschehn; er konnte sich nicht aus dem Rätsel herausfinden, ob er jetzt träume, oder ehemals von einem Weibe Bertha geträumt habe; das Wunderbarste vermischte sich mit dem Gewöhnlichsten, die Welt um ihn her war verzaubert, und er keines Gedankens, keiner Erinnerung mächtig.

Incidentally, the concept of Waldeinsamkeitwald (forest) + einsamkeit (solitude/isolation/loneliness) – has a lengthy history in later Romanticism and beyond.

You who read me, are you sure you understand my language?

From Borges’ The Library of Babel (La Biblioteca de Babel)

The impious assert that absurdities are the norm in the Library and that anything reasonable (even humble and pure coherence) is an almost miraculous exception. They speak (I know) of “the febrile Library, whose hazardous volumes run the constant risk of being changed into others and in which everything is affirmed, denied, and confused as by a divinity in delirium.” These words, which not only denounce disorder but exemplify it as well, manifestly demonstrate the bad taste of the speakers and their desperate ignorance. Actually, the Library includes all verbal structures, all the variations allowed by the twenty-five orthographic symbols, but it does not permit of one absolute absurdity. It is pointless to observe that the best book in the numerous hexagons under my administration is entitled Combed Clap of Thunder; or that another is called The Plaster Cramp; and still another Axaxaxas Mlö. Such propositions as are contained in these titles, at first sight incoherent, doubtless yield a cryptographic or allegorical justification. Since they are verbal, these justifications already figure, ex hypothesi, in the Library. I cannot combine certain letters, as dhcmrlchtdj, which the divine Library has not already foreseen in combination, and which in one of its secret languages does not encompass some terrible meaning. No one can articulate a syllable which is not full of tenderness and fear, and which is not, in one of those languages, the powerful name of some god. To speak is to fall into tautologies. This useless and wordy epistle itself already exists in one of the thirty volumes of the five shelves in one of the uncountable hexagons—and so does its refutation. (An n number of possible languages makes use of the same vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol library admits of the correct definition ubiquitous and everlasting system of hexagonal galleries, but library is bread or pyramid or anything else, and the seven words which define it possess another value. You who read me, are you sure you understand my language?)

Afirman los impíos que el disparate es normal en la Biblioteca y que lo razonable (yaun la humilde y pura coherencia) es una casi milagrosa excepción. Hablan (lo sé) de «la Biblioteca febril, cuyos azarosos volúmenes corren el incesante albur de cambiarse en otros y que todo lo afirman, lo niegan y lo confunden como una divinidad que delira». Esas palabras que no sólo denuncian el desorden sino que lo ejemplifican también, notoriamente prueban su gusto pésimo y su desesperada ignorancia. En efecto, la Biblioteca incluye todas las estructuras verbales, todas las variaciones que permiten los veinticinco símbolos ortográficos, pero no un solo disparate absoluto. Inútil observar que el mejor volumen de los muchos hexágonos que administro se titula «Trueno peinado», y otro «El calambre de yeso» y otro «Axaxaxas mlo». Esas proposiciones, a primera vista incoherentes, sin duda son capaces de una justificación criptográfica o alegórica; esa justificación es verbal y, ex hypothesi, ya figura en la Biblioteca. No puedo combinar unos caracteres dhcmrlchtdj que la divina Biblioteca no haya previsto y que en alguna de sus lenguas secretas no encierren un terrible sentido. Nadie puede articular una sílaba que no esté llena de ternuras y de temores; que no sea en alguno de esos lenguajes el nombre poderoso de un dios. Hablar es incurrir en tautologías. Esta epístola inútil y palabrera ya existe en uno de los treinta volúmenes de los cinco anaqueles de uno de los incontables hexágonos, y también su refutación. (Un número n de lenguajes posibles usa el mismo vocabulario; en algunos, el símbolo biblioteca admite la correcta definición ubicuo y perdurable sistema de galerías hexagonales, pero biblioteca es pan o pirámide o cualquier otra cosa, y las siete palabras que la definen tienen otro valor. Tú, que me lees, ¿estás seguro de entender mi lenguaje?).

The things which no one sees, except for Berkeley’s God

Things (Cosas) from Borges’ The Gold of the Tigers (El Oro de los tigros) followed by notes from the critical edition.

The fallen volume; hidden by the others
from sight in the recesses of the bookshelves,
and which the days and nights muffle over
with slow and noiseless dust. Also, the anchor
of Sidon, which the seas surrounding England
press down into its blind and soft abyss.
The mirror which shows nobody’s reflection
after the house has long been left alone.
Fingernail filings which we leave behind
across the long expanse of time and space.
The indecipherable dust, once Shakespeare.
The changing figurations of a cloud.
The momentary but symmetric rose
which once, by chance, took substance in the shrouded
mirrors of a boy’s kaleidoscope.
The oars of Argus, the original ship.
The sandy footprints which the fatal wave
as though asleep erases from the beach.
The colours of a Turner when the lights
are turned out in the narrow gallery
and not a footstep sounds in the deep night.
The other side of the dreary map of the world.
The tenuous spiderweb in the pyramid.
The sightless stone and the inquiring hand.
The dream I had in the approaching dawn
and later lost in the clearing of the day.
The ending and beginning oí the epic
of Finsburh, today a few sparse verses
of iron, unwasted by the centuries.
The mirrored letter on the blotting paper.
The turtle in the bottom of the cistern.
And that which cannot be. The other horn
of the unicorn. The Being, Three in One.
The triangular disk. The imperceptible moment
in which the Eleatic arrow,
motionless in the air, reaches the mark.
The violet pressed between the leaves of Becquer.
The pendulum which time has stayed in place.
The weapon Odin buried in the tree.
The volume with its pages still unslit.
The echo of the hoofbeats at the charge
of Junin, which in some enduring mode
never has ceased, is part of the webbed scheme.
The shadow of Sarmiento on the sidewalks.
The voice heard by the shepherd on the mountain.
The skeleton bleaching white in the desert.
The bullet which shot dead Francisco Borges.
The other side of the tapestry. The things
which no one sees, except for Berkeley’s God

El volumen caído que los otros
ocultan en la hondura del estante
y que los días y las noches cubren
de lento polvo silencioso. El ancla
de sidón que los mares de Inglaterra
oprimen en su abismo ciego y blando.
El espejo que no repite a nadie
cuando la casa se ha quedado sola.
Las limaduras de uña que dejamos
a lo largo del tiempo y del espacio.
El polvo indescifrable que fue Shakespeare.
Las modificaciones de la nube.
La simétrica rosa momentánea
que el azar dio una vez a los ocultos
cristales del pueril calidoscopio.
Los remos de Argos, la primera nave.
Las pisadas de arena que la ola
soñolienta y fatal borra en la playa.
Los colores de Turner cuando apagan
las luces en la recta galería
y no resuena un paso en la alta noche.
El revés del prolijo mapamundi.
La tenue telaraña en la pirámide.
La piedra ciega y la curiosa mano.
El sueño que he tenido antes del alba
y que olvidé cuando clareaba el día.
El principio y el fin de la epopeya
de Finsburh, hoy unos contados versos
de hierro, no gastado por los siglos.
La letra inversa en el papel secante.
La tortuga en el fondo del aljibe
Lo que no puede ser. El otro cuerno
del unicornio. El Ser que es Tres y es Uno.
El disco triangular. El inasible
instante en que la flecha del eleata,
inmóvil en el aire, da en el blanco.
La flor entre las páginas de Becquer.
El péndulo que el tiempo ha detenido.
El acero que Odín clavó en el árbol.
El texto de las no cortadas hojas.
El eco de los cascos de la carga
de Junín, que de algún eterno modo
no ha cesado y es parte de la trama.
La sombra de Sarmiento en las aceras.
La voz que oyó el pastor en lá montaña.
La osamenta blanqueando en el desierto.
La bala que mató a Francisco Borges.
El otro lado del tapiz. Las cosas
que nadie mira, salvo el Dios de Berkeley.

And below are the (untranslated) notes from the Obras Completas Edicion Critica. These turn out generally less helpful than you’d want but feel more valuable here in helping pinpoint the direction of certain references.

To arrange a library is to practice, in a quiet and modest way, the art of criticism

From Borges’ In Praise of Darkness (Elogio de la sombra), in the Norman Thomas di Giovanni translation.

JUNE 1968
On a golden evening,
or in a quietness whose symbol
might be a golden evening,
a man sets up his books
on the waiting shelves,
feeling the parchment and leather and cloth
and the satisfaction given by
the anticipation of a habit
and the establishment of order.
Stevenson and that other Scotsman, Andrew Lang,
will here pick up again, in a magic way,
the leisurely conversation broken off
by oceans and by death,
and Alfonso Reyes surely will be pleased
to share space close to Virgil.
(To arrange a library is to practice,
in a quiet and modest way,
the art of criticism.)
The man, who is blind,
knows that he can no longer read
the handsome volumes he handles
and that they will not help him write
the book which in the end might justify him,
but on this evening that perhaps is golden
he smiles at his strange fate
and feels that special happiness
which comes from things we know and love.

JUNIO, 1968
En la tarde de oro
o en una serenidad cuyo símbolo
podría ser la tarde de oro,
el hombre dispone los libros
en los anaqueles que aguardan
y siente el pergamino, el cuero, la tela
y el agrado que dan
la previsión de un hábito
y el establecimiento de un orden.
Stevenson y el otro escocés, Andrew Lang,
reanudarán aquí, de manera mágica,
la lenta discusión que interrumpieron
los mares y la muerte
y a Reyes no le desagradará ciertamente
la cercanía de Virgilio.
(Ordenar bibliotecas es ejercer,
de un modo silencioso y modesto,
el arte de la crítica.)
El hombre, que está ciego,
sabe que ya no podrá descifrar
los hermosos volúmenes que maneja
y que no le ayudarán a escribir
el libro que lo justificará ante los otros,
pero en la tarde que es acaso de oro
sonríe ante el curioso destino
y siente esa felicidad peculiar
de las viejas cosas queridas

Perhaps in death when the dust is dust, we will be forever this undecipherable root

Alguien / Someone from Borges’ El Otro, El Mismo / The Self and the Other, in the W.S. Merwin translation. At bottom is the commentary from Obras Completas Edicion Critica (v.2 pg 562) quoting Guillermo Sucre’s Borges, el poeta explanation of the poem’s ‘antigua inocencia‘ (pg. 130 there, my translation).

A man worn down by time,
a man who does not even expect death
(the proofs of death are statistics
and everyone runs the risk
of being the first immortal),
a man who has learned to express thanks
for the days’ modest alms:
sleep, routine, the taste of water,
an unsuspected etymology,
a Latin or Saxon verse,
the memory of a woman who left him
thirty years ago now
whom he can call to mind without bitterness,
a man who is aware that the present
is both future and oblivion,
a man who has betrayed
and has been betrayed,
may feel suddenly, when crossing the street,
a mysterious happiness
not coming from the side of hope
but from an ancient innocence,
from his own root or from some diffused god.

He knows better than to look at it closely,
for there are reasons more terrible than tigers
which will prove to him
that wretchedness is his duty,
but he accepts humbly
this felicity, this glimmer.

Perhaps in death when the dust
is dust, we will be forever
this undecipherable root,
from which will grow forever,
serene or horrible,
our solitary heaven or hell.

Un hombre trabajado por el tiempo,
un hombre que ni siquiera espera la muerte
(las pruebas de la muerte son estadísticas
y nadie hay que no corra el albur
de ser el primer inmortal),
un hombre que ha aprendido a agradecer
las modestas limosnas de los días:
el sueño, la rutina, el sabor del agua,
una no sospechada etimología,
un verso latino o sajón,
la memoria de una mujer que lo ha abandonado
hace ya tantos años
que hoy puede recordarla sin amargura,
un hombre que no ignora que el presente
ya es el porvenir y el olvido,
un hombre que ha sido desleal
y con el que fueron desleales,
puede sentir de pronto, al cruzar la calle,
una misteriosa felicidad
que no viene del lado de la esperanza
sino de una antigua inocencia,
de su propia raíz o de un dios disperso.

Sabe que no debe mirarla de cerca,
porque hay razones más terribles que tigres
que le demostrarán su obligación
de ser un desdichado,
pero humildemente recibe
esa felicidad, esa ráfaga.

Quizá en la muerte para siempre seremos,
cuando el polvo sea polvo,
esa indescifrable raíz,
de la cual para siempre crecerá,
ecuánime o atroz,
nuestro solitario cielo o infierno.

The ancient innocence is “the return, not only to his past but to his own origin, to that dimension where evocation is identified with invention, where memory is nourished on oblivion; still more: where oblivion is the non-being that is a form of being. For this reason, at the end of the poem, Borges intuits that this innocence (the “undecipherable root”) will not arise except from death; death, not as negation, but as true revelation of the identity of time

Art is that Ithaca of green eternity, not of marvels

From Borges’ El Hacedor / The Maker. The English translation is W.S. Merwin’s from, most recently, the Viking Selected Poems Borges collection. Merwin truly does pop up in the widest range of places.

Ars Poetica
To look at the river made of time and water
and to remember that time is another river,
to know that we lose ourselves like the river
and that faces pass by like the water.

To feel that wakefulness is another sleep
that dreams of not dreaming and that
the death that our flesh fears is that
death that comes every night,
which is called sleep.

To see in the day or the year a symbol
of the days of man and his years;
to turn the insult of the years
into a music, a murmur and a symbol.

To see sleep in death, in the sunset
a sad gold, such is poetry
that is immortal and poor. Poetry
returns like the dawn and the sunset.

At times in the evenings a face
looks at us from the depths of a mirror;
Art should be like that mirror
that reveals to us our own face.

They say that Ulysses, sick of marvels,
cried tears of love at the sight of his Ithaca
green and modest. Art is that Ithaca
of green eternity, not of marvels.

It is also like the endless river
that flows and remains and mirrors the same
inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
and is another, like the endless river.

Arte Poética
Mirar el río hecho de tiempo y agua
y recordar que el tiempo es otro río,
saber que nos perdemos como el río
y que los rostros pasan como el agua.

Sentir que la vigilia es otro sueño
que sueña no soñar y que la muerte
que teme nuestra carne es esa muerte
de cada noche, que se llama sueño.

Ver en el día o en el año un símbolo
de los días del hombre y de sus años,
convertir el ultraje de los años
en una música, un rumor y un símbolo,

ver en la muerte el sueño, en el ocaso
un triste oro, tal es la poesía
que es inmortal y pobre. La poesía
vuelve como la aurora y el ocaso.

A veces en las tardes una cara
nos mira desde el fondo de un espejo;
el arte debe ser como ese espejo
que nos revela nuestra propia cara.

Cuentan que Ulises, harto de prodigios,
lloró de amor al divisar su Itaca
verde y humilde. El arte es esa Itaca
de verde eternidad, no de prodigios.

También es como el río interminable
que pasa y queda y es cristal de un mismo
Heráclito inconstante, que es el mismo
y es otro, como el río interminable.

Because myth is at the beginning of literature and also at its end

From Borges’ El Hacedor / The Maker:

Parable of Cervantes and Don Quixote
Weary of his Spanish homeland, an aging soldier of the king’s army sought comfort in Ariosto’s vast geographies, in the lunar valley where lies the time that dreams squander away, and in the golden idol of Mohammed stolen by Montalban.

Gently mocking himself, he thought up an impressionable man who, unbalanced from reading fantastic tales, went forth to find feats of arms and enchantments in ordinary places with names like El Toboso and Montiel.

Defeated by reality – by Spain – Don Quixote died in his native village around 1614. Miguel de Cervantes briefly outlived him.

For both the dreamer and the man he dreamed, the story was about the clash of opposing worlds: the unreal world of chivalric fiction and the average, everyday world of the seventeenth century.

Neither imagined that with the passage of years the strife would diminish, nor did they imagine that La Mancha and Montiel and the knight’s scrawny physique would be no less poetic in the future than the adventures of Sinbad or Ariosto’s vast geographies.

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

Devoto Clinic, January 1955.

Parábola de Cervantes y de Quijote
Harto de su tierra de España, un viejo soldado del rey buscó solaz en las vastas geografías de Ariosto, en aquel valle de la luna donde está el tiempo que malgastan los sueños y en el ídolo de oro de Mahoma que robó Montalbán.

En mansa burla de sí mismo, ideó un hombre crédulo que, perturbado por la lectura de maravillas, dio en buscar proezas y encantamientos en lugares prosaicos que se llamaban El Toboso o Montiel.

Vencido por la realidad, por España, don Quijote murió en su aldea natal hacia 1614. Poco tiempo lo sobrevivió Miguel de Cervantes.

Para los dos, para el soñador y el soñado, toda esa trama fue la oposición de dos mundos: el mundo irreal de los libros de caballerías, el mundo cotidiano y común del siglo XVII.

No sospecharon que los años acabarían por limar la discordia, no sospecharon que la Mancha y Montiel y la magra figura del caballero serían, para el porvenir, no menos poéticas que las etapas de Simbad o que las vastas geografías de Ariosto.

Porque en el principio de la literatura está el mito, y asimismo en el fin.

Clínica Devoto, enero de 1955.

To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole

Borges’ prologue to Adolfo Bioy-Casares’ The Invention of Morel (from the NYRB edition). This is the second time I’ve read the novel(la?) and while I can’t quite share Borges’ enthusiasm I do support his line of reasoning from this intro (minus the Proust comment):

AROUND 1880 Stevenson noted that the adventure story was regarded as an object of scorn by the British reading public, who believed that the ability to write a novel without a plot, or with an infinitesimal, atrophied plot, was a mark of skill. In The Dehumanization of Art (1925) Jose Ortega y Gasset, seeking the reason for that scorn, said, “I doubt very much whether an adventure that will interest our superior sensibility can be invented today,” and added that such an invention was “practically impossible.” On other pages, on almost all the other pages, he upheld the cause of the “psychological” novel and asserted that the pleasure to be derived from adventure stories was nonexistent or puerile. This was undoubtedly the prevailing opinion in 1880, 1925, and even 1940. Some writers (among whom I am happy to include Adolfo Bioy Casares) believe they have a right to disagree. The following, briefly, are their reasons.

The first of these (I shall neither emphasize nor attenuate the fact that it is a paradox) has to do with the intrinsic form of the adventure story. The typical psychological novel is formless. The Russians and their disciples have demonstrated, tediously, that no one is impossible. A person may kill himself because he is so happy, for example, or commit murder as an act of benevolence. Lovers may separate forever as a consequence of their love. And one man can inform on another out of fervor or humility. In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos. But the psychological novel would also be a “realistic” novel, and have us forget that it is a verbal artifice, for it uses each vain precision (or each languid obscurity) as a new proof of realism. There are pages, there are chapters in Marcel Proust that are unacceptable as inventions, and we unwittingly resign ourselves to them as we resign ourselves to the insipidity and the emptiness of each day. The adventure story, on the other hand, does not propose to transcribe reality: it is an artificial object, no part of which lacks justification. It must have a rigid plot if it is not to succumb to the mere sequential variety of The Golden Ass, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, or the Quixote.

I have given one reason of an intellectual sort; there are others of an empirical nature. We hear sad murmurs that our century lacks the ability to devise interesting plots. But no one attempts to prove that if this century has any ascendancy over the preceding ones it lies in the quality of its plots. Stevenson is more passionate, more diverse, more lucid, perhaps more deserving of our unqualified friendship than is Chesterton; but his plots are inferior. De Quincey plunged deep into labyrinths on his nights of meticulously detailed horror, but he did not coin his impression of “unutterable and self-repeating infinities” in fables comparable to Kafka’s. Ortega y Gasset was right when he said that Balzac’s “psychology” did not satisfy us; the same thing could be said, of his plots. Shakespeare and Cervantes were both delighted by the antinomian idea of a girl who, without losing her beauty, could be taken for a man; but we find that idea unconvincing now. I believe I am free from every superstition of modernity, of any illusion that yesterday differs intimately from today or will differ from tomorrow; but I maintain that during no other era have there been novels with such admirable plots as The Turn of the Screw, The Trial, Voyage to the Center of the Earth, and the one you are about to read, which was written in Buenos Aires by Adolfo Bioy Casares.

Detective stories—another popular genre in this century that cannot invent plots—tell of mysterious events that are later explained and justified by reasonable facts. In this book Adolfo Bioy Casares easily solves a problem that is perhaps more difficult. The odyssey of marvels he unfolds seems to have no possible explanation other than hallucination or symbolism, and he uses a single fantastic but not supernatural postulate to decipher it. My fear of making premature or partial revelations restrains me from examining the plot and the wealth of delicate wisdom in its execution. Let me say only that Bioy renews in literature a concept that was refuted by St. Augustine and Origen, studied by Louis-Auguste Blanqui, and expressed in memorable cadences by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

In Spanish, works of reasoned imagination are infrequent and even very rare. The classics employed allegory, the exaggerations of satire, and, sometimes, simple verbal incoherence. The only recent works of this type I remember are a story in Leopoldo Lugones’s  Las fuerzas extranas and one by Santiago Dabove: now unjustly forgotten.  The Invention of Morel (the title alludes filially to another island inventor, Moreau) brings a new genre to our land and our language.
I have discussed with the author the details of his plot. I have reread it. To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.
— Jorge Luis Borges

Beyond my anxiety and beyond this writing the universe waits, inexhaustible

From Borge’s El Otro, El Mismo (which my Collected Poems takes as The Self and The Other). Borges famously took up Anglo-Saxon in his seventies (eighties?). I hope to do the same with Persian.

Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf

At various times I have asked myself what reasons
moved me to study while my night came down,
without particular hope of satisfaction,
the language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons.
Used up by the years my memory
loses its grip on words that I have vainly
repeated and repeated. My life in the same way
weaves and unweaves its weary history.
Then I tell myself: it must be that the soul
has some secret sufficient way of knowing
that it is immortal, that its vast encompassing
circle can take in all, accomplish all.
Beyond my anxiety and beyond this writing
the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.

Composición escrita en un ejemplar de la gesta de Beowulf

A veces me pregunto qué razones
me mueven a estudiar sin esperanza
de precisión, mientras mi noche avanza
la lengua de los ásperos sajones.
Gastada por los años la memoria
deja caer la en vano repetida
palabra y es así como mi vida
teje y desteje su cansada historia.
Será (me digo entonces) que de un modo
secreto y suficiente el alma sabe
que es inmortal y que su vasto y grave
círculo abarca todo y puede todo.
Más allá de este afán y de este verso
me aguarda inagotable el universo.

Spanish is far the weakest of my languages but I find aspects of this translation baffling. A couple of examples:

lines 2-3 – sin esperanza de precisión (‘without particular hope of satisfaction’). Precisión is exactness. The sense here is not lacking satisfaction (which suggests an emotional element) but lacking mastery at the technical level. I don’t know where the qualifying ‘particular’ crept in from.

final line – ‘me aguarda inagotable el universo’ (‘the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting’). I have a minor quibble with removing the direct object (me) and a more major one with including ‘inviting’ when it doesn’t appear in the original unless you want to give aguarda a double translation ‘waits and invites.’

Virgil set out to write a masterpiece; curiously, he succeeded.

I am rereading Troilus and Cressida and, for lack of engagement, my mind keeps wandering to Homer and Virgil. So here, by association, is Borges’ prologue to The Aeneid from his A Personal Library project (translation included in Selected Non-Fictions):

Leibniz has a parable about two libraries: one of a hundred different books of different worth, the other of a hundred books that are all equally perfect. It is significant that the latter consists of a hundred Aeneids. Voltaire wrote that Virgil may be the work of Homer, but he is the greatest of Homer’s works. Virgil’s preeminence lasted for sixteen hundred years in Europe; the Romantic movement denied and almost erased him. Today he is threatened by our custom of reading books as a function of history, not of aesthetics.

The Aeneid is the highest example of what has been called, without discredit, the artificial epic; that is to say, the deliberate work of a single man, not that which human generations, without knowing it, have created. Virgil set out to write a masterpiece; curiously, he succeeded. I say “curiously” because masterpieces tend to be the daughters of chance or of negligence. As though it were a short poem, this epic was polished, line by line, with the felicitous care that Petronius praised-I’ll never know why-in Horace. Let us examine, almost at random, a few examples.

Virgil does not tell us that the Achaeans waited for darkness to enter Troy; he speaks of the friendly silence of the moon. He does not write that Troy was destroyed, but rather, “Troy was.” He does not write that a life was unfortunate, but rather “The gods understood him in another way.” To express what is now called pantheism, he says, “All things are full of Jupiter.” He does not condemn the aggressive madness of men; he calls it “the love of iron.” He does not tell us that Aeneas and the Sybil wandered alone among the shadows in the dark night; he writes, “Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram.” This is not a mere rhetorical figure, a hyperbaton: “alone” and “dark” have not changed places in the phrase; both forms, the usual and the Virgilian, correspond with equal precision to the scene they represent.

The selection of each word and each turn of phrase also makes Virgil the classic of the classics, in some serene way, a Baroque poet. The carefulness of his writing did not impede the fluidity of his narration of Aeneas’ deeds and adventures. There are events that are almost magical: Aeneas, exiled from Troy, disembarks in Carthage and sees on the walls of a temple images of the Trojan War, images of Priam, Achilles, Hector, and even himself. There are tragic events: the Queen of Carthage who watches the Greek boats leaving and knows that her lover has abandoned her. There is a predictable abundance of heroism, such as these words spoken by a warrior: “My son, learn from me strength and genuine valor; and from others, luck.”

Virgil. Of all the poets of the earth, there is none other who has been listened to with such love. Even beyond Augustus, Rome, and the empire that, across other nations and languages, is still the Empire. Virgil is our friend. When Dante made Virgil his guide and the most continual character in the Commedia, he gave an enduring aesthetic form to that which all men feel with gratitude.