The Spring That Feeds the Torrent: A Review

The Spring that Feeds the Torrent: Poems by St. John of the Cross, translated by Rhina P. Espaillat. Menomonee Falls: Wiseblood Books, 2023. Paperback. 92pp.

St John of the Cross (1542-1591) is one of the greatest Spanish poets, as well as one of the greatest Christian mystics. His poems appear here in a new translation by Rhina P. Espaillat, a Dominican-born, bilingual poet, known for her translations of poetry from both Spanish into English and English into Spanish. John of the Cross’ poems use simple language but in a way that is far from simple to translate. The words are loaded with references to themes from the Bible and the tradition of mystical theology, while the poems follow the conventions of Spanish Golden Age poetry. Espaillat’s translation shows a remarkable command of both languages and poetic traditions, rendering the poems into English according to their original rhyming scheme. Few have attempted this among many modern translators. John’s verses may well have been sung by his first readers in Carmelite monasteries, and Espaillat manages to convey the musical quality of his poems, with her use of direct, plain words and fitting rhymes.

All but John of the Cross’ Romances, a cycle of nine poems on the incarnation and one elaborating the Psalm “By the waters of Babylon,” are to be found in this translation. The Romances are doctrinally important but poetically less sophisticated than John’s other poems collected here. The book begins with his Spiritual Canticle, a poem in forty stanzas based on the Song of Songs, using the erotic images of the scriptural text, of beloved (Bridegroom/Christ) and lover (Bride/soul), wound of love, embrace, longing and consummation in love (union). Most of John’s writing is thought to come from the period after his imprisonment in Toledo in 1577, in an ugly dispute between different factions of the Carmelite Order. He was in solitary confinement for nine months, escaping only by throwing himself out of a high window, a period of suffering which is especially visible in his poem “One dark night” and his commentary which followed, on the “dark nights” of the soul (called The Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night). The present book ends with this poem, which Espaillat describes as John’s ‘poetic masterpiece’ (89). In most editions this poem is put first, but it is well placed at the end here, because John understands the darkness of the “dark night” as coexisting with the light and warmth of loving union with God introduced in the Spiritual Canticle. By putting the Dark Night last, the reader can see that darkness is not a simple absence of the divine beloved, but a union in which the beloved is both present in love and known to be ungraspable and beyond knowing at the same time. It has never been established precisely in what order John wrote his poems, but placing the Dark Night as the culmination, if not chronologically right, provides an original insight.

The intervening poems between these bookends build the element of longing which suffuses all John’s poetry. The intensity of love between the individual and the divine Beloved lies in its not being fully possessed, or more correctly, in the fact that it is both possessed and not possessed at the same time. The first stanza of the Spiritual Canticle announces the point:

Where have you fled and vanished, 
Beloved, since you left me here to moan?
Deer-like you leaped; then, banished
and wounded by my own,
I followed you with cries, but you had flown (13).

Love is found in the “moan” of the heart for the beloved, which reminds the lover at once of her lover’s presence and absence. He has ‘flown’, leaving her “wounded” with longing. As in the Song of Songs, the lover is female; like other male writers in this popular medieval tradition, John speaks of his own (and the reader’s) soul as female. The more she is aware of her love, the more she is also aware of her lack of possession of her beloved:

And why, having arrived 
home to my heart, not heal it with relieving?
Why, since you have deprived
me of it, leave it grieving,
rather than grasp the plunder of your thieving? (17)

The translation “home to my heart” nicely captures the way that the soul recognises the touch of her beloved in her heart, while at the same time experiencing a greater lack: “you have deprived/me of it, leaving it grieving.” To know this love is to feel how much more there is to possess.

The phrase “to heal it with relieving” in the second line, to rhyme with “grieving” and “thieving” in the fourth and fifth, is a little awkward, reflecting the difficulty of reproducing the rhyming pattern of the Spanish (sanaste, dejaste, robaste). At other points, however, the translation makes light work of some of the most difficult twists of meaning. A key transition comes in the twelfth stanza:

O crystal fountain flowing,
if in your silver stream I might discern
them there, suddenly glowing—
those eyes that make me burn,
deep in my heart inscribed—for which I yearn! (19)

The poem moves from increasing expressions of longing to a moment of transformation, where the lover discovers that her Beloved’s “eyes” are to be found deep in her “heart”: “those eyes that make me burn,/deep in my heart inscribed.” She realises that her lack of fulfilment is not caused by the departure of her Beloved to a distant place but, rather, that he is desiring her with “eyes” inscribed in her own heart. With this revelation, she no longer fears that her love is unrequited. Though she continues to long for more, she knows that he is present with her, and that she can delight in his love, rather than only seeing what she lacks. They begin to share their love for one another, leading to a full consummation in the second half of the poem, where he takes her and she “comes to rest in . . . the sweetness of the groom’s embrace” (23).

Several complex images are combined in these few lines. The “silver stream” in which she sees the “eyes that make me burn” recalls Narcissus looking at his own reflection in the water. Contrary to Narcissus, she sees not herself but God looking at her: the stream, now recognised as the “crystal fountain,” is “suddenly glowing” with the “eyes that make me burn.” The fact that this presence is found within, “in my heart inscribed,” further alludes to the creation of the soul in the image of God. Since Augustine, theologians had understood the soul’s creation in the image of God as the awareness of personal longing for God (Augustine’s “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee”). The image is transformed in this stanza by the realization that the soul’s desire for God is reciprocated by God’s desire for the soul. He is present “within” her desire for him, looking at her with his own desire. All this is conveyed in this stanza just as economically and lyrically in Espaillat’s English as in John’s Spanish.

John expands on these theological links in his commentaries on his poems. He wrote long commentaries explaining his spiritual teaching on three of his poems, the Dark Night, the Spiritual Canticle, and the Living Flame of Love. The relationship between the poems and his prose commentaries has attracted considerable interest. John was asked by his readers to explain the spiritual meaning of his poems. In the Prologue to the commentary on the Spiritual Canticle, John says that the poem was written out of “expressions of love arising from mystical understanding.” Such expressions exceeded his understanding, but he says that they can be encapsulated to some extent in the “figures, comparisons and similitudes” of language which, he adds, contain more than any “rational explanations” can convey.[1] Some readers today have taken this to mean that the poems are the truest representations of John’s experience, while the commentaries, as ‘rational explanations’, are pale shadows by comparison. Might we even be better off without the commentaries? Given the difficulty of reading the commentaries – the Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night are especially hard going at points–this might seem an attractive option. But John’s comment that mystical understanding exceeds language applies as much to the poems as to the commentaries. While “figures, comparisons and similitudes” can be most intensively crafted in poems, they are also the basis of his prose commentaries, where he seeks to interpret them in terms of the spiritual journey. His caution about “rational explanations” is that the figures and images contain what today we would call an “excess of meaning,” so that however much we explain them, there will be more that needs saying. Thus, the commentaries are an important key to the meaning of the poems, even if they cannot exhaust the range of possible meanings that might be drawn from them.

For the translator of the poems, at least some of the meanings of John’s words are to be found in the commentaries. Problems arise, therefore, when key terms that John expounds in the commentaries do not appear in the translations of the poems. For instance, consider the translation of the first lines of the poem “O love, you living flame” (most often entitled the Living Flame of Love):

O love, you living flame
who wound with tender fire
my very soul, down to its depths descending!
¡Oh llama de amor viva, 
que tiernamente hieres 
de mi alma en el más profundo centro! (63)

The word “centro” at the end of the third line is the subject of a long exposition by John in his commentary, but it does not appear in the translation here. The “centre” (centro) of the soul is where the soul meets God, the inner point of union and the goal of the spiritual journey. Of course, some loss of the Spanish terminology is inevitable in any translation, particularly ones which seek to retain the original poetic form. Roy Campbell’s celebrated translation of John’s poems of 1951 makes the same decision not to use the word “centre,” though he introduces the word “core,” which comes closer than Espaillat’s “depths.” The translator could also point to the fact that the original Spanish is given alongside the English in this edition, which is very helpful, particularly on fine points of meaning. But to omit a key term like this remains problematic for anyone interested in John’s wider thought.

Inevitably, for anyone familiar with the poems, there will be moments of disappointment such as this. But there will also be points of illumination and discovery. I found something new in the translations of every poem which, I felt, brought me closer to John’s own words. For instance, the translation of the poem “I went in, I knew not where” (Entréme donde no supe) has the refrain “toda ciencia trascendiendo,” a phrase usually translated literally as “all knowledge transcending” (48). The decision not to use the term “transcending” but rather the phrase “past the boundaries of knowing” struck me as more natural, by avoiding a word which in English has a somewhat rarefied and distracting use. Similarly, the wonderful poem “How well I know the spring that feeds the torrent,” which provides the title of this collection, has the refrain “aunque es de noche” usually translated as “although it is night,” but here as “though night has fallen” (57). This phrase is not only more natural but the word “fallen” serves to envelop the divine knowledge imparted in the first lines of each stanza in the darkness of night, creating a more effective sequence.

The delight of any translation of John of the Cross’ poems is of course John’s own extraordinary genius. Yet non-native readers will always rely on a translator who is skilled not just in the meaning of the words but in the art of poetry, to convey the idiom and poetic form in another language. In a crowded field of translations, many readers will have their own favourites. For me, Lynda Nicholson’s translation, included in Gerald Brenan’s book on John of the Cross (1973), remains a strong contender. But even for those who do, Espaillat brings new riches. She applies a more authentic rhyming scheme than Nicholson–more like Roy Campbell–and her choices of words offer original insights. Both those coming to these poems for the first time and seasoned enthusiasts, who already know “the spring that feeds the torrent,” will find plenty here to enjoy.

Edward Howells is Associate Tutor in Christian Spirituality at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Oxford, UK.

  1. See The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991), pp. 469-470


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