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Sepulcro en Tarquinia - an introduction to the poem

'Sepulcro en Tarquinia' by Antonio Colinas was published in 1975 in a book of poems with the same title which received the Premio Nacional de la Critica (the critic’s prize) in the same year. The poem is set in Italy where Colinas was Professor of Spanish Literature in the universities of Milan and Bergamo from 1970 to 1974. This was a formative period in his poetic career when he developed a strong interest in Italian poetry, culture and history.

The poem has two epigrams in Italian. The first is an excerpt from the poem 'Ferrara' which forms the first part of 'Le Città del Silencio' by Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938) which was published in his collection of poems "Elettra" in 1903. The second is an excerpt from part 23 of Dante’s “Vita nova”. The epigrams are about loss, grief and nostalgia for the past and set the tone for the poetic elegy that follows.

The poem is written in twenty stanzas of varied length with some passages in parentheses, the longer ones of which may be designed to separate the poem into three movements. There are no full stops to break the continuity and no capital letters are used other than for the names of people or places. The poem, shaped by memory, flows like a stream of consciousness and works on the reader like a piece of music. It presents a cascade of images and sensations.

For an English translation of the poem, go to Sepulcro en Tarquinia - translation.

The poem begins in winter with the poet remembering autumn and his amada. She is personally addressed (‘tú’) and the reader has the feeling of reading an intimate and private letter to her:

...otoño con árboles de oro,
con torres incendiadas y columnas,
con los muros cubiertos de rosales
tardíos
y tú en aquel tranvía salpicado
a la orilla del agua por las barcas,
por las luces
y el viento y los faroles y los remos,
aquel rostro otoñal que no vería
nunca más, amor mío, nunca más,

...autumn with trees of gold,
with burnt towers and columns,
with walls covered with late
roses
and you in that tram splashed
at the water's edge by the boats,
by the lights
and the wind and the lamps and the oars,
that autumnal face which would never
see again, my love, never again

She is associated with autumn, the death of the year, and her own ending is foreshadowed; her eyes are described as having the smoke of cemeteries within them.

The poet reflects on their relationship as he writes in bleak surroundings with life drained and poisoned by loss. In the formal gardens or patio the stone lions are muzzled and the fountain no longer flowing.

ataron los leones con cadenas,
les metieron argollas por las bocas,
alguien llenó de plomo cada tubo
de la fuente y el agua de la taza
de mármol

the lions were bound in chains,
rings placed in their mouths,
someone filled with lead each pipe
of the fountain and the water in the basin
of marble

In his grief the poet feels that his beloved has been stolen from him and their life together ruined, and this is conveyed through a scene of desecration:

debieron de robarles la custodia,
los hachones de oro y aquel cáliz
de ónice y pedrerías muy hermoso,
debieron de picar todos los techos,
artesonados, púlpitos, altares

they had to steal the pyx,
the gold candlesticks and chalice
of onyx and beautiful gemstones,
they had to break all the roofs,
coffered ceilings, pulpits, altars

The church isn’t specifically named in this stanza, but is described as having Titian and Botticelli paintings on the walls and being a place where the music Scarlatti and Vivaldi was performed. It may well be a church on an island in the Venetian lagoon that was plundered as the population moved from island to island to escape the malaria-infested swamps. The church is embued with memories of the amada (aquella virgen de Botticelli con tu rostro/the Botticelli virgin with your face) and the stanza ends on a note of fury induced by feelings of grief:

...un gran coro
tronando enfurecido con el órgano

a great choir
furiously thundering with the organ

The amada is pictured as ill and in distress in the next stanza:

...tan beoda
se diría, con los cabellos sueltos,
tan sofocada y tímida, tan triste,
la música te hacía estremecer

...so drunk
it would seem, with disheveled hair,
so suffocated and feeble, so sad,
the music made you tremble

She is described as having her chest destroyed and coughing blood, and we can presume that she is suffering from a terminal illness, most likely a pulmonary disease. It is worth remembering, however, that this is a poem first and foremost and not necessarily autobiography, however convincing the descriptions may be.

A further form of destruction is now described, not caused this time by man or disease, but by the forces of nature. A storm batters the landscape:

mil ramas tronchó el viento en la espesura, 
ramas de pinos, de manzanos, de álamos

the wind tore down branches in the forests,
branches of pine trees, apple trees, poplars

Here, and throughout the poem, Colinas uses a musical technique where passages of quiet reflection are followed by those of high drama. Also at many key moments there are references to music.

un cisne flota en música de Liszt
a swan floated on the music of Liszt

las muchachas más jóvenes bebían
las notas de Chopin y se olvidaban
del champagne espumoso de las copas
the younger girls drank
the notes of Chopin and forgot
the sparkling champagne in their glasses

...la tormenta
de música que Mozart compusiera
el día de su muerte y que no oímos
...the storm
of music that Mozart composed
on the day of his death and we did not listen to

Music is fleeting, as soon as a note is heard it vanishes. It leaves nothing tangible in its wake. All it leaves is a memory of itself. So the references to music are fitting in a poem that is intent on exploring memory through memory.

Memory is a form of history and in the next scene we are taken back in time to the Italian city of Sirmione at the time of Catallus. The villa of Catallus is now a ruin, but the poet imagines how the region must have been teeming with life in the past:

debieron de ser dulces los olivos
de entonces, cuando el lago devoraba
el sol y era de fuego cada ola,
olas de verde fuego, cuántos peces
desde los miradores y qué hermosas
las doncellas del templo y de los baños,
Sirmio, Sirmio de entonces, la dilecta
entre las islas bellas de aquel lago

the olives must have been sweet
then, when the lake devoured
the sun and every wave was on fire,
waves of green fire, with so many fish
from the look-out points and how beautiful
the maidens of the temple and bathhouses,
Sirmio, the Sirmio of that time, the jewel
among the beautiful islands on the lake

Memory inevitably reflects on things that are dead or have faded away. The poem is so embued with memory that the reader gets the sense of being ungrounded, that there is no present as such, that every moment passes so swiftly into memory it can only be perceived and experienced there.

The present can intrude into memory, but the poet is not distracted by his wintry surroundings with dogs howling, the dead chicken on his path (last night) and the pigs with their entrails dripping blood on the snow. He has a memory of more precious blood, that of his amada:

pero me llega otro recuerdo, tengo
un recuerdo de sangre más valioso,
y qué dulce y qué triste recordarlo

but I have another memory, I have
a memory of more precious blood,
and how sweet and how sad to remember it

She is seen in the company of other girls with white and feverish brows listening to Chopin who, one remembers, also died of tuberculosis. That this scene is set in a sanatorium is not made explicit in the poem, however it is in the novel “Larga Carta a Francesca” (Long Letter to Francesca) written by Colinas ten years later which can be seen as an elaboration and re-working of the poem’s story.

Memory unearths the past. Colinas introduces the unearthing of the Etruscan soldier from the sepulchre of the poem’s title “Sepulcro en Tarquinia” three-quarters of the way through the poem. The placing of this episode is important so that it is not given the prominence that one might expect, the poem is not strictly ‘about’ the sepulchre. In the context of what went before, its metaphorical import is made apparent. The tomb of the Etruscan soldier is opened and when its contents enter the air, everything is turned to dust apart from some rotted clothing and rusty weapons:

a golpe de piqueta entraba el aire
en aquel tabernáculo de sombra,
de milenaria piedra resonante,
entraba el aire y todo se mutaba
en polvo negro y sacro que no hedía

at the blow of a pickaxe it entered the air
in that tabernacle of shadow
and ancient resounding stone,
it entered the air and everything turned
into odourless black and sacred dust

When unearthing memories from the darkness, nothing remains except for ‘sacred dust’. In the same way, when contemplating death there is nothing of a physical nature that can be held on to. The poet repeats that the amada delivers to him the unknown:

tú me entregabas lo desconocido...

you delivered to me the unknown...

He reflects on what she has taught him about the great unknowable, death. How she faced it on her own terms, contemplating the sea with immense calm or, at another time, having a kind of ecstasy in her eyes:

contemplabas la mar con calma inmensa
mientras ibas tejiendo con la hiedra
una grave y bellísima corona
que, ante mis ojos, arrojaste luego
a la mar

you contemplated the sea with immense calm
while weaving with ivy
a solemn and beautiful garland
that, before my eyes, you then threw
into the sea

vimos partir sin luz la última nave,
toda la isla nuestra, cuánto éxtasis
entre pagano y místico en los ojos,

we saw without light the last ship,
all our island, such ecstasy
half pagan, half mystical, in your eyes

The poem ends, fittingly enough, on an island in the Venetian lagoon where there is a sense of all that is civilised and cultured being on the cusp of disappearing. In the imagination of the poet it is the amada who is now remembering after her death. She comes and seems to be embodied in the remote island. No one will ever come to that place, but somehow she is there.

en vano escucharás junto a las rocas, 
jamás llegará nadie a este lugar,
recorrerás las salas del convento, 
escrutarás la faz de la Diana,
los gatos mirarán la fría aurora,
habrá un fresco con grumos de salitre
en la cripta, sin techo, del castillo,
el huracán arrancará geranios,
jamás llegará nadie a este lugar, 
jamás llegará nadie a este lugar
y las gaviotas me darán tristeza

in vain you will listen by the rocks,
no one will ever come to this place,
you will look through the convent’s rooms,
you will scrutinise the face of Diana,
the cats will watch the cold dawn,
there will be a fresco with splodges of salt
in the crypt, without a roof, of the castle,
the hurricane will uproot geraniums,
no one will ever come to this place,
no one will ever come to this place
and the seagulls will bring me sadness

‘Sepulcro in Tarquinia’ is a complex poem, an elegiac exploration of life and death, of sorrow and celebration, of memory and dream via memory and dream. It offers an intimate experience that is similar to listening to music that only exists as perceived within mental processes. It asks us to immerse ourselves in its coruscating imagery, sensuality and personal, historical and geographical allusions.

la enfermedad, y el Arte y el deseo
illness and Art and desire

These three words occur in line 215 of the poem. They also form the headings for the three parts of “Larga Carta a Francesca” (Long Letter to Francesca), the novel written by Colinas in 1985. In the novel it is Francesca’s sister Patrizia who dies of a pulmonary disease, pneumonia, while Francesca declines into mental illness (‘la sinrazon’). The writer of the letter is called Jano, and like Janus he has two faces, one that looks back to the past and one that looks forward to the future. Jano recalls his past in his letter to Francesca but he also envisions his future, moving to ‘la luz’ of Greece which symbolises Apollonian order, knowledge and harmony in contrast to the Romantic view with which ‘Sepulcro en Tarquinia’ ends.

Colinas would continue in his poems after ‘Sepulcro en Tarquinia’ to examine the Romantic entwining of the natural and the personal but he would also infuse them with ‘la luz’. In this sense ‘Sepulcro en Tarquinia’ is not only the masterpiece which brought Colinas recognition, it also marks an important turning point in his development as a poet.

Glossary of names in the poem

Tarquinia  Region of Lazio in Italy originally called Tarquinii by the Romans.

Titian  Italian painter Tiziano Vecelli or Tiziano Vecello, known in English as Titian, an important member of the 16th century Venetian school of painting.

Lentz  Dutch composer Johan (or Johannes) Nicolaas Lentz (1720-1782)

Scarlatti   Italian composer Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757).

Telemann.  German composer Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767).

Vivaldi  Italian composer Antonio Lucio Vivaldi (1678-1741) born in Venice.

Bergamo City in Lombardy, northern Italy. Colinas taught at the University of Bergamo.

Sirmione City in Lombardy built on the Sirmio peninsula on the southern shore of Lake Garda.

Catallus  Roman poet born in Verona. Catallus wrote that he had a house in the Sirmione region, however it is unlikely to have been the villa whose ruins on the Sirmio peninsula have been given the name the Grottoes of Catallus not because they are caves but due to the collapsed walls.

Joyce and Pound Ezra Pound, the American poet who lived in Italy, met James Joyce the Irish novelist in Sirmione in 1920.

The Stygian Lake  Lake formed by the River Styx that forms the boundary between the Earth and the Underworld, the Hades of Greek mythology. It also appears in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ as the fifth circle of hell. The painting referred to is presumably ‘El paso de la laguna Estigia’, or ‘Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx’ as it is known in English, by Joachim Patinir which was completed around 1524 and is currently exhibited in the Prado Museum in Madrid. The centre of the painting shows the River Styx with the ferryman Charon carrying in his boat the soul of a recently deceased person, on the waterway’s left bank is Paradise and on the right Hell.

Patinir Joachim Patinir (c 1480-1524), the Flemish landscape painter who the English art historian Kenneth Clarke described as ‘the first painter to make landscapes more important than his figures’. The phrase ‘el Patinir de los verde-manzana’ in brackets in the poem is obscure but may refer to the apple green colours that were used in the lower half of the painting to depict the verdant grass and foliage on the banks of the Styx.

Chopin  Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) the Polish pianist and composer.

Noah and the Ark. The ark is the vessel in Genesis chapters 6-9 of the Bible. Noah builds the ark and takes on board his household and two pairs of all living things. Thanks to the ark he was able to survive the great flood until the waters receded.

Valle-Inclán Ramon del Valle-Inclán (1866-1936) the radical Spanish dramatist and novelist whose influential work mocked and subverted what he saw as the bland and bourgeois theatrical establishment.

Beatrice d'Este Beatrice d’Este (1475-1497) was the daughter of Ercole I d’Este and Eleanora of Aragon. She became the wife of the Milanese ruler Ludovico Sforza and the Duchess of Cari and later of Milan. She made the Milanese court a centre of literary and artistic creativity and was the patron of Leonardo da Vinci among others. She was renowned as a fashion designer and appears in the painting ‘Pala sforzecsa’ (1494) wearing an elaborate gold dress with vertical black stripes. She died in childbirth at the age of 21.

Crotone A city in Calabria, Italy.

Dufy. Unknown. Possibly Jean Dufy (1888-1964) the French painter whose work often included a purple colour, or his brother Raoul Dufy (1877-1953).

Pinki. Unknown.

Bucintero The Bucintero, or Bucentaur in English, was the state barge of the doges of Venice.

Etruscan  The Etruscan civilisation existed in ancient Italy in an area that corresponds to Tuscany, western Umbria and northern Lazio. It flourished from around 800 BC to 500 BC after which it was gradually sublimated by Rome.

Cyclops  In Greek and Roman mythology the Cyclops were a race of giants with a single eye in the middle of their foreheads.

Lake Trasimeno  Lake in the province of Perugia in the Umbrian region of Italy.

Gubbio  Town in Perugia on the slope of Mt Ingino.

San Damiano  Convent church near Assisi in Italy where St Francis received his calling in 1205.

Umbria  Region in central Italy that includes Lake Trasimeno and the regional capital of Perugia.

Mozart  Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).

Torcello  The first island in the Venetian lagoon to be populated. It grew to be an important political and trading centre but from the 12th century onwards the lagoon around the island turned into a swamp infested by malaria-carrying mosquitoes and it was abandoned in favour of Murano, Burano and Venice. It now has a population of about ten people. Many of the churches and palaces were destroyed as the Venetians recyled their building material but four medieval buildings remain including the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta.

Byzantine  Style of architecture developed in the Byzantine Empire, the eastern extension of the Roman Empire with its capital at Constantinople. It influenced medieval architecture throughout Europe and features opulent mosaics and circular domes on pendentives. Many Venetian churches are Byzantine in style, the most famous being the Basilica di San Marco.

Burano  Island in the Venetian lagoon.

San Francesco del Deserto  Island in the Venetian lagoon.

Murano Series of islands linked by bridges in the Venetian lagoon.

Diana  Goddess of the hunt, the moon and nature in Roman mythology.

Monterosso al Mare  Coastal town in the province of La Spezia, part of the region of Liguria, where Colinas wrote 'Sepulcro en Tarquinia' in the spring of 1972.

For an English translation of the poem, go to Sepulcro en Tarquinia - translation.

For translations of other poems by Antonio Colinas, go to Translations.

 Translations
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