Josep Carner – ‘Prince of Catalan Poets’

It’s not without considerable effort that one becomes initiated into royalty of any kind. Impossible, you might say. Perhaps then royalty is inherent in some, ready and waiting to be discovered and gloried in.

Josep Carner i Puig-Oriol, to give the man his full name, must have known from a young age that he was uncovering artistic greatness. He was 12 when he first saw his articles in print. By 18 he had gained a law degree, and by 22 – as if being a law graduate wasn’t enough – he earned an Arts degree too. Throughout the following years he unleashed an incredible amount of poetry, articles and translations (as diverse as writers such as Mark Twain and Charles Dickens) on the Catalan public. Small wonder then that by his mid-30s he had earned the epithet ‘Prince of Catalan Poets’.

Eugeni d'Ors, coiner of the term 'Noucentist'.
Eugeni d’Ors, coiner of the term ‘Noucentist’ (credit: udg.edu)

Carner’s work – particularly his poetry – is characteristic of a cultural movement that emerged in Catalonia in the 1910s, Noucentisme.

The term ‘noucentist’ – coined by Catalan essayist and philosopher, Eugeni d’Ors – was meant to capture the movement’s desire for newness. It played on the Catalan word ‘nou’ which means both ‘new’ and ‘nine’, signifying the ‘ninth’ century of the millennium, and its potential for new ideas.

It was also a term designed to distance itself from the ‘modernist’ cultural movement, with its radical, individualist perspective, preferring instead the order and objectivity of classicism.

Noucentist art - 'Apollo and two nymphs' by Joaqium Torres Garcia (credit: sidissabteplou.cat)
Noucentist art – ‘Apollo and two nymphs’ by Joaquim Torres Garcia (credit: sidissabteplou.cat)

For poetry then, this meant a painstaking attention to word selection and meaning, to verse form, and – of course – to metre and rhyme. While both Carner and Joan Maragall (almost contemporaries in Catalan cultural circles) believed in the power of the word, the modernist Maragall felt that spontaneity was required to draw a true essence of that being represented. In contrast, ‘noucentist’ Carner held that to represent beauty needed full consciousness, and truth was only kept by absolute control of words used and their meanings.

That Carner had significant influence in the institutionalization of the Catalan language will therefore come as no surprise. He was invited to join the ‘Institute of Catalan Studies’ where he collaborated with  Pompeu Fabra, a man who is synonymous with standardising the Catalan language, i.e. forming a common language for all of Catalonia, where before local dialects could be quite different.

Pompeu Fabra, standardiser of the Catalan language (credit: nuvol.com)
Pompeu Fabra, standardiser of the Catalan language (credit: nuvol.com)

Noucentisme was strongly allied with Catalan politics, and along with his influence in linguistic matters, Carner also walked in high political circles. This was in particular thanks to his friendship with Enric Prat de la Riba, first Catalan president (1914-1917). Yet his political position meant he and his family faced real dangers as the sociopolitical situation in Spain darkened. In 1921 he left for Genoa, Italy where he was Spanish vice-consul.

In 1939, General Franco’s victory in the Spanish civil war was confirmed. Carner – a Catalan nationalist – became a full exile. He moved to Mexico during the War, then to Belgium afterwards, where he taught at the Open European University of Brussels.

Nationalism is just as fierce today as in Carner's day, in Catalonia especially (credit: Guardian.com)
Nationalism is just as fierce today as in Carner’s day, in Catalonia especially (credit: Guardian.com)

Until his death in 1970, Carner – despite what he had witnessed, and despite his own nationalist sentiments – was a strong pro-claimer of Europeanismbelieving in a shared European identity based on common norms and values that transcends those of individual nationalities. What ‘Europe’ is, and whether its people have a ‘European’ identity is hotly debated – anyone living in Europe knows that all too well. This lack of definition is what makes ‘Europe’ so easy to attack by the ‘Euroskeptics’.

Perhaps (and this is only a unthought-through final thought!) Carner’s noucentist approach of truth and beauty through order and objective clarity could be adopted as a framework for European identity? But then what is truth? What is beauty? Can anything be truly objective? 

Sources: http://www.lletra.net/en/author/josep-carner/detail;  http://www20.gencat.cat/portal/site/culturacatalana/

Two Lovers – by Josep Carner

At sea’s edge there sat two lovers and their sorrow.
Falling came the autumn from darkening peaks beyond.
The wind whistled out as it raced across the furrow;
With leaf-litter and dust were the lovers wrapped around.
Imploringly with hands they raised a hopeless plea;
Against their backs came lashing down an icy, whipping chill,
With dust and dirt the wind had brought they found their mouths were filled,
Remnant skins upon their frames in aspect beggarly.
And flashed across each lover’s eyes a bolt of ire strange.
Perhaps they cursed the sea, and damned the mountain range.
If death would only take them, to sleep oblivion’s dream!
As pathways fork the cries of blame ring out along the coast,
And the night, the starless night, engulfs the lovers’ ghosts.
No more in places without name were those two lovers seen.

Josep Carner (1884-1970)

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Original Catalan Text

‘Dos Amants’

Hi havia dos amants vora la mar en pena.
Venia la tardor per serres fosquejants.
El vent féu un xiulet saltant per la carena;
amb fullaraca i pols embolcallà els amants.
En imploració van aixecar les mans;
un glacial fuet els afrontà l’esquena;
de polseguera es van trobar la boca plena,
despulles sobre el cos a estil de mendicants.
I van guspirejar llurs ulls d’una ira estranya.
Potser els van maleir la mar i la muntanya.
Tant de bo que la mort o l’oblit els colgués!
En un forc de camins esclataren en blasmes,
i la nit sense estels engolí llurs fantasmes.
Per indrets sense nom no es van veure mai més.

(Text sourced from: http://lletra.uoc.edu/especials/folch/carner.htm)

Rambling thoughts – On ‘Rambla de Catalunya’ by M.C. Ferreres

“RAMBLE [ram-buh l] v. – To wander around in a leisurely, aimless manner.”

Being no linguist, I would merely have to hazard a guess that this English word and the Spanish Rambla come from the same source. Even if I am wrong, this definition of ‘ramble’ seems to resonate perfectly with my most recent translation ‘Rambla de Catalunya‘, capturing the essence of M.C. Ferreres’ Catalonia – leisurely, aimless, wandering…

In trying my hand at interpreting this poem, the first image I meet is the broad and bustling avenue, the ‘rambla’. This is the main artery of the city, where you experience the flow of its life-force. I immediately assumed the city in reference was Barcelona, and mention of ‘Tibidabo’ (line 6) – a mountain just on the outskirts of Barcelona – confirms this. Barcelona is undoubtedly the beating heart of Catalonia, and so by extension, we can see Ferreres’ Rambla as an image of Catalonia itself, as the flow of life that sustains it.

Gaudi's Casa Mila, or 'La Pedrera' (Ben Wright, 2013)
Gaudi’s Casa Mila, or ‘La Pedrera’ (Ben Wright, 2013)

Yet this beating heart is not a healthy one, but one whose tubes have become greasy through years of inert indulgence, clogged with the trappings of modern high society (‘lordly decay’ in my translation). ‘Modern’ here refers to the time when Catalan culture was experiencing a glorious and powerful resurgence, be that in the modernist buildings of Antoni Gaudí, the surrealist paintings of Joan Miró or the noucentist poetry of Josep Carner.

So, while from within, Catalonia appears to be at the height of progress – a burgeoning, fashionable city full of art, culture and riches – Ferreres takes a step back and what meets his eye is much less agreeable…

The fashionable hat (I assume!) worn by the well-to-do says “good day” – yes, a good day for you wearing it perhaps. But a ‘good day’ for the workers in your factory, the servants in your house, or the beggars you walk past on your Sunday ramble? Then there are Barcelona’s cultured class, sitting in cafés that line La Rambla. But from their lips comes no stimulating or incisive social comment. Instead, you might hear something more along the lines of ‘Eh Joan, did your hear of young Pere? What a scandal!’  And finally, passing by these gossips sipping their ‘Orxata’ (a creamy drink made from tiger-nuts, milk and water) are the nannies with their master’s children. No longer do families spend their time together; parental duties are delegated – even for something as simple as a Sunday stroll – to the nanny.

'Els Quatre Gats' by Ricard Opisso, showing the creme de la creme of Catalan fin de secle intellectuals and artists (credit: grupferre.com)
‘Els Quatre Gats’ by Ricard Opisso, showing the creme de la creme of Catalan fin de siecle intellectuals and artists (credit: grupferre.com)

To me, Ferreres paints a picture of a society in the thralls of decadence, unaware, unable, perhaps even unwilling to stir itself from its luxurious slumber. The ‘lordly decay’ is emphasised by all these acts taking place on a Sunday, the traditional holy day for Christians (the Catalan word ‘diumengera’ roughly translates as “of or pertaining to Sunday”).

Dismay is not all Ferreres expresses though, for there is undoubtedly a note of threat in the last line of the poem:

Al fons, el Tibidabo t’espia.

This literally translates as: “In the background, Tibidabo watches you.”

This unholy frivolity – Ferreres warns – is not going unnoticed. Tibidabo is a mountain on the outskirts of Barcelona, visible from practically anywhere within the city. Upon its summit stands the Sagrat Cor, the ‘Sacred Heart’ Temple, and upon this stands a sculpture of Christ. This makes me wonder whether Ferreres (continuing with the thought of desecrating the holy day) felt that Catalans were bringing righteous judgement on themselves.

credit: conocerbarcelona.com
Sagrat Cor, Tibidabo. Credit: conocerbarcelona.com

 

Interestingly (well, I think so anyway!) the name ‘Tibidabo’ means ‘I will give to you’ and comes from the Latin translation of Matthew 4:9: “All this I will give you,” he [the devil] said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” This is where Satan took Jesus, during his period of temptation, to a high mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the earth (Matt 4:8) and promised to give them to Jesus if Jesus would worship the devil. Tibidabo, according to Catalan folklore, is that very mountain. Has Catalonia sold its soul in order to reap earthly reward?

Away from religious imagery, another thought I had is that Tibidabo represents the watchful eye of Spain, jealous of Catalonia’s success, irate at its confident self-expression, and ever-ready to break both. It’s just a tentative thought, but nonetheless interesting to note that by the mid-1920s Catalonia was under a temporary military dictatorship and would soon become a victim to one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century – the Spanish Civil War. The times of Sunday walks along the Rambla would not return for a long, long time…

What do you think? Do you agree, or have a different interpretation? I’d love to hear from you! 

Frozen December’s New Song – by Josep Carner

Come December’s icy freeze;
in confusion it retires
from the city it must appease
and from afar admires
where the sky is filled with love;
the mountain shields from above
and the blue waves beside
in sweetest slumber they reside.
Barcelona, city of charm,
Catalonia’s flow’r,
December’s chill does you no harm
but smiles on from afar.
‘To you my frost shall not come near,
yet in abundance are roses here,
all over are the bushy bowers
enveloped in the whitest flowers.’
‘Woe to the one who mars your face
and a fool who you forgoes;
your soul of joy and solace
in fullness overflows.’
With dark shadows the wintry wight
comes to this place with all his might
but finds his fright turned clear and pure:
December smiles, and does demur.
There in the most secluded ways
the goldfinch sings his song;
and pollen fresh from earlier days
in dust is borne along;
laughs Sant Jordi, champion;
and between the hills of lush garden
a spout of water clear
cries ‘Onward’ and ‘No fear!’
Each city-girl shares her heart
and wears her violets for him;
their looks are lights that burn and spark
from Love’s own cherubim.
Golden is this city fair.
The icy wind of December
must confusedly retire
in tones as gentle as from a lyre.

Josep Carner (1884-1970)

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Original Catalan text

Nova Canço del Desembre Congelat – per Josep Carner’
El desembre congelat
confós se retira:
el detura una ciutat
que de lluny admira
on el cel és amorós;
la muntanya fa redós
i la blava onada
s’és adormissada.
Barcelona, bell casal,
flor de Catalunya,
el desembre no et fa mal:
dolçament s’allunya.
Diu: -Gebrada no et duré,
que hi ha encara en ton roser,
al cim de les branques,
tot de roses blanques.
Malaurat qui et faci tort
i foll qui t’oblida;
tens de festa i de conhort
l’ànima reblida;
l’ombra fosca de l’esglai
pervinguda a ton espai
es fa clara i fina,
somriu i declina.
Hi ha al carrer més amagat
cants de cadernera;
hi ha un nou pol·len del passat
en la polseguera;
riu sant Jordi el paladí
i, entre tosses de jardí,
un broll d’aigua clara
diu: “Avant!” i “Encara!”
Cada noia té promès
i duu violetes;
son esguard és tot encès
de les amoretes.
És daurada la ciutat.
Del desembre el vent gelat
confós se retira,
dolç com una lira.

 

(Text sourced from http://www.xtec.cat/~evicioso/index.htm and http://horinal.blogspot.co.uk/2013_12_01_archive.html)

Novelty in the Night – by Josep Carner

Oh sweetest night, to aid us you have come!
To one and all your call is otherworldly.
The signals of all things are moved and undone:
more subtle is the breeze, more lofty the tree.

There dwells in this place an invisible race
and in the moon our spirits have found their guide.
Spoken in whispered echoes is our pace
as softly across the earth our footsteps glide.

Around us change the lessons that time has shown
for upon the gentle hour is love approaching swift.
We have sights and we have views unto our eyes unknown:
you and I are made anew, and so too is our kiss.

Josep Carner (1884-1970)

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Original Catalan Text

‘Novetat en la Nit’ – per Josep Carner

Oh dolça nit, al nostre ajut vinguda!
Tot el món es diria incorporal.
El senyal de les coses es trasmuda:
és més subtil l’oreig, l’arbre més alt.
Pobla l’espai una invisible raça
i la lluna ens governa l’esperit.
Comenta amb un ressò la nostra passa
el sòl que havem a penes percudit.
Arreu canvia les lliçons sabudes
l’hora lleugera de l’amor que ve.
Tenim esguards i veus inconegudes:
tu i jo som nous, i el nostre bes també.

(Text sourced from http://lletra.uoc.edu/especials/folch/carner.htm)