Saturday, December 1, 2007

Heredia's "The Exile's Hymn"

I applaud — how could I not? — rsnlk's decision to bring culture and patriotism to Babalú and hope that this trend continues and expands. We should take inspiration from those who suffered and endured in past centuries what we have been called upon to suffer and endure in this one, especially when they are our countrymen. José María de Heredia (1803-1839), the first Romantic poet in the Spanish language as Martí was the first Modernist, left like Martí many poignant hymns to his love of country and the terrible ordeal of exile. Even in his most famous poem, Heredia's "Ode to Niagara," he mentions his condition as an exile (Niagara itself is the perfect metaphor for the torrential anguish of exile). The greatest of his patriotic poems, however, is his "Himno del Desterrado." Rsnlk is right to say that no English word conveys the pathos of desterrado. "Expatriate" would do if Americans had any inkling of the Latin roots of their language. Of Anglo-Saxon words, "banished" probably comes closest. With the exception of the Loyalists in the American Revolution (whose "Americanness" was denied by their countrymen) and journalist Clement Vallindingham (who was forcibly exiled to Canada by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War), the experience of exile is not one known to Americans. It is for that reason, more than the lack of an exact equivalent to "desterrado," that it is difficult to translate Heredia's poem. Yet it was done and very credibly so at the height of Heredia's fame in this country. The translation was long credited to Heredia's friend, the great American poet William Cullen Bryant, who translated other poems by Heredia. In fact "The Exile's Hymn" was translated by William Henry Hurlbert, the author of Gan-Eden (1856), the best travelogue of Cuba ever written by an American. His empathy for the Cuban people and their struggles for freedom is clearly felt in his stirring translation, which, in accordance with 19th century norms, takes certain liberties which will go unnoticed by most readers. Still, it is the best translation of Heredia's poem and one of the best patriotic hymns in the English language.

The Exile's Hymn

Fair land of Cuba! on thy shores are seen
Life's far extremes of noble and of mean;
The world of sense in matchless beauty dressed,
And nameless horrors hid within thy breast.
Ordained of Heaven the fairest flower of earth,
False to thy gifts, and reckless of thy birth!
The tyrant's clamor, and the slave's sad cry,
With the sharp lash in insolent reply, —
Such are the sounds that echo on thy plains,
While virtue faints, and vice unblushing reigns.
Rise, and to power a daring heart oppose!
Confront with death these worse than deathlike woes.
Unfailing valor chains the flying fate;
Who dares to die shall win the conqueror's state!
We, too, can leave a glory and a name
Our children's children shall not blush to claim;
To the far future let us turn our eyes,
And up to God's still unpolluted skies!
Better to bare the breast, and undismayed
Meet the sharp vengeance of the hostile blade,
Than on the coach of helpless grief to lie,
And in one death a thousand deaths to die.
Fearest thou blood? Oh, better, in the strife,
From patriot wounds to pour the gushing life,
Than let it creep inglorious through the veins
Benumbed by sin, and agony, and chains!
What hast thou, Cuban! Life itself resign, —
Thy very grave is insecurely thine!
Thy blood, thy treasure, poured like tropic rain
From tyrant hands to feed the soil of Spain.
If it be truth, that nations still must bear
The crushing yoke, the wasting fetters wear, —
If to the people this be Heaven's decree,
To clasp their shame, nor struggle to be free,
From truth so base my heart indignant turns,
With freedom's frenzy all my spirit burns, —
That rage which ruled the Roman's soul of fire,
And filled thy heart, Columbia's patriot sire!
Cuba! thou still shalt rise, as pure, as bright,
As thy free air, — as full of living light;
Free as the waves that foam around thy strands,
Kissing thy shores, and curling o'er thy sands!


Vana said...

Beautiful translation Manuel, seems us Cubans have always lived in exile, always mourning for our country, Heredia could not have imagined he was also writing it for us.

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