Poems by Juan Ramón Jiménez and Edward Elgar

At some point in the year 2000, by the end of my first year at university, I started to cultivate something of an obsession with the life and work of the late-romantic British composer Edward Elgar. However catchy and brilliantly orchestrated the Pomp & Circumstance marches were, what ignited my interest in Elgar’s music was what I saw as a very personal contrast between a surface of studied sobriety (or pomposity) alternating with really striking episodes, sometimes very humorous, sometimes very moving. After a first hearing of Pierre Monteux’s recording of the Enigma Variations, I believed I had encountered in Elgar a musical mind whose mysteries were worth devoting oneself to.

An example of Elgar at his most mysterious is found in the choral song Owls, an Epitaph, set on a poem written by Elgar himself and dedicated to Pietro d’Alba –his daughter’s pet rabbit– a work which both in text and music represents perhaps the most obvious case of Elgar working at several removes from the ceremonial style of Pomp & Circumstance.

A couple of years after discovering Owls I came across a poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez which struck me as being remarkably similar in many ways to Elgar’s text. The poem by Juan Ramón had been published in 1904, and Elgar’s song in 1908; however, there isn’t anything in the biographies of Elgar that I’ve read to suggest that he would have known the work of the Spanish poet. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always thought there are some haunting parallels between these two entirely unrelated texts. So here I present them, Juan Ramón’s poem given in my own English translation (the original is included in the appendix at the end of this post), followed by Elgar’s.


Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958)

[It was no-one] 

— It was no-one. The water. — No-one?
Then the water’s no-one? — No-one
‘s there. It’s the flower. — Is there no-one?
Why’s it no-one, the flower?
— It’s no-one. It’s the wind. — No-one?
Then the wind is no-one? — No-one
‘s there. Illusion. — There is no-one?
And Illusion’s no-one?

First published in Jardines lejanos (1904). Translated from Spanish by Alex A. Basilio.


Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Owls (an Epitaph) 

What is that? … Nothing;
The leaves must fall, and falling, rustle;
That is all:
They are dead
As they fall, —
Dead at the foot of the tree;
All that can be is said.
What is it? … Nothing.

What is that? … Nothing;
A wild thing hurt but mourns in the night,
And it cries
In its dread,
Till it lies
Dead at the foot of the tree;
All that can be is said.
What is it? … Nothing.

What is that? … Ah!
A marching slow of unseen feet,
That is all:
But a bier, spread
With a pall,
Is now at the foot of the tree;
All that could be is said.
Is it … what? … Nothing.

First published in Four Partsongs, Op. 53 (1907-1908).

 

Juan Ramón Jiménez and Edward Elgar, both around 1900.


APPENDIX

[No era nadie]

– No era nadie. El agua. – ¿Nadie?
¿Que no es nadie el agua? – No
hay nadie. Es la flor. – ¿No hay nadie?
¿Pero no es nadie la flor?
– No hay nadie. Era el viento. – ¿Nadie?
¿No es el viento nadie? – No
hay nadie. Ilusión. – ¿No hay nadie?
¿Y no es nadie la ilusión?

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