Dark Night of the Soul: Lenten Observance Day 2, 2013

February 2:
The prolog gives the 8 stanzas of the poem “Dark Night of the Soul.” And it indicates what the process will be – that we will look at the poem stanza by stanza and the line by line in the stanza. There is not much here on which to comment. I will make some comments about the poem itself, though I must say that I’m approaching it in ignorance, both of St. John’s mysticism and of the original Spanish of the poem. As one translator of ancient texts noted, Translator is Traitor (the pun here is greater in Italian), and so, no matter how good Peers translation is, we can’t fully get at the play of language here without looking at the Spanish original. And then, one would have to be quite versed in Renaissance Spanish, and that is a bridge too far for me. So I’ll be struggling with what I get from the English rendering of the verse, and later of the exposition.
In the poem, we have a speaker (an “I”), who goes out at night, not observed by anyone, in secret, but guided by some light, a light more welcome than the noonday sun. The goal is union with the beloved that the light is guiding the “I” towards.
In Stanza 6, there is a statement about “On my flowery breast…” And these seem rather strange words. They seem closer to the woman in a romance – she all bedecked in flowers, or wearing some flowery perfume, when she comes to her lover. That idea continues when there is talk of caressing the Beloved, while he sleeps. I get how this could be a metaphor for the soul’s union with God, and the word for soul is likely feminine, and so we get the “passivity” of the soul here. And yet, it is the Beloved (God) who is sleeping here, while the “I” looks on and caresses him. So, what’s that all about?
Then things get even weirder in Stanza 7, where there is a breeze which causes the Beloved’s locks (and based on my own background, I’m seeing fair haired Jesus here) to part, and then the Beloved wounds the speaker’s neck and causes the senses to be suspended. Seems a rather intense moment. Not sure what to make of the neck wounding.
And then in Stanza 8, the speaker seems to have a sense of death – I let all my concerns lie forgotten among the lilies. These are words that are appropriate for someone who is dead. Lilies are what are used to deck the casket in a funeral. I’m guessing that they have the same sense for St John. In Virgil’s Aeneid, Anchises strews lilies for the Marcellus he imagines dead. And I get the sense of dying in some way to be born again in the spirit, though I can’t say that I know what that would be like. And I’m a bit suspicious of giving in to some excessive feeling like that.

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