The Augustinian Fray Luis de León was one of the outstanding writers of the Spanish Golden Age in the generation following Garcilaso de la Vega. Though he playfully dismissed his verse as childish exercises, his poems, written largely in the five-line lira stanza pioneered by Garcilaso de la Vega as a Spanish equivalent to the Horatian ode, are among the most admired of the period. A notable biblical scholar and Hebraist, he held a series of Chairs at the University of Salamanca, and his fine vernacular dialogues De los nombres de Cristo (On the names of Christ) made the fruits of his scholarship available to a wider readership. In the spring of 1572, however, he and two of his closest colleagues were denounced to the Inquisition for questioning the accuracy of the Vulgate (the official Latin Bible of the Church) and for favouring Jewish interpretations of Scripture. They were arrested, and Fray Luis spent almost five years in solitary confinement in the cells of the Inquisitorial prison in Valladolid before being released at the end of 1576, cleared of all charges, though warned to avoid controversy in the future. He returned to Salamanca, where he was in due course elected to the prestigious Bible Chair, and wrote a series of Latin commentaries on Old Testament books, as well as a vernacular commentary on the book of Job which remained unpublished until the eighteenth century,
The poem an ascent from the darkness of earth through the celestial spheres of the Ptolemaic universe to the eternal light and beauty of the heavenly realm. It is constructed around a series of antithetical images such as darkness, sleep and ignorance on the one hand and light, beauty and knowledge on the other, which contrast the errors and delusions of human existence with the eternal truth which lies beyond them. It begins with contemplation of the night sky, in the darkness of which stars and planets shine to point the soul towards its true home. Then comes the opposite movement, downwards, to a series of reflections on the earthbound state of humans, prey to deception and to the inevitable transience of mortal life. The poem lies clearly within Neoplatonic tradition. As Plotinus among others also observes, metaphors of ascent and of introspection represent the same reality: to ascend is also to journey within, and vice versa.
The poem is written in the Spanish verse-form of the lira, a five-line verse of 7 and 11 syllables (rhyming 7A 11B 7A 7B 11B. In his translation, Colin Thompson has used rhyme only for the two hendecasyllables. But he has attempted to reproduce the line-length of each line, while making allowance for the fact that six- and ten-syllable lines ending in a masculine stress are equivalent to seven and eleven syllables in normal Spanish usage, which always presupposes a feminine stress at the end of the line. The poem is mentioned in Colin Thompson’s chapter ‘The Ascent of the Soul: Neoplatonic Themes in the Literature of Golden-Age Spain’ (FoI, p. 312).
Fray Luis de León (1986). Poesía, ed. Juan Francisco Alcina (Madrid: Cátedra). English translation by © Colin Thompson 2017.