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Ausiàs March, an Unfading Voice

Robert Archer

At some point in the 1420s, Ausiàs March, a member of the middle ranks of the Valencian nobility, took the unusual step of deciding to write verse in his own language. Both his father and his uncle had been distinguished poets, but as was usual, they had used Provençal, or at least a language which approximated to it. Catalan poetry had depended for its terminology, concepts and rhymes on that of the troubadours, and before March there had been no point in trying to write verse in Catalan. No point that is, unless your wanted to say something different.

There seems little doubt that it was precisely because he had something different to say -something remarkably different- that March (1397-1459), undoubtedly the greatest poet in the Iberian Peninsula before the mid-sixteenth century, took this major step. There are signs that the transition into Catalan was not easy -some of the unusual ellipses in March's style may be due in part to the difficulty of accommodating Catalan to verse- but the overwhelming impression is of brilliant success. March made Catalan into a medium of thought and feeling not only equal to Provençal but, in contemporary terms at least, immensely superior to it. This was due largely to the sheer energy of March's voice and his consistently innovative development of the tradition he had inherited. But, from the viewpoint of today's readers, what marks his poetry out from that of his contemporaries and predecessors is something even more striking: a capacity for transcending its original context. That is, March's work at its best is not merely great medieval poetry; it is great poetry -one that manages to speak to us directly and powerfully today.

One hundred and twenty-eight poems have survived -some ten thousand lines of verse. For at least a hundred years after his death there was a very strong interest in March both in the Catalan-speaking part of the Peninsula and in Castile, even though Catalan soon went into decline as a literary medium. This interest in March is reflected in the unusual number of surviving manuscripts containing his work (there are thirteen, at least four of which were copied within forty years of his death) and is evident in the fact that his poems went through five editions in the sixteenth century. But his influence did not stop there. His role in the later resurgence of Catalan poetry, particularly in our own century, is vital. The linguistic confidence in Catalan as a vehicle for poetry that we find in J. V. Foix, Josep Carner and Carles Riba owes a great deal to what March had already achieved by the mid-1400s.

He wrote in a wide range of genres. And yet to label his poems generically would be to misrepresent them. Certainly, some of his finest pieces might be termed «love-poems» or «laments» or «prayers»; but in each case what is remarkable is the extent to which March's work goes beyond the conventions he inherits.

Much of his poetry concerning love, for instance, is not focused in the usual way on the relationship with the addressed lady but rather on the psychic states which this relationship induces in the poet. Increasingly, as March's work develops, a main concern in the love-poems are the moral implications of love as March sees it; that is, a sexual obsession with strong spiritual elements that aspires to transcend its own carnality.

It is when he writes about love that March makes the greatest use of one of the most distinctive features of his style: the simile. The love poems are filled with analytical comparisons between many areas of late medieval life and the poet's psychic or moral condition. Sometimes whole poems are worked out analogically, one comparison intertwining with another. There is no other poet, before or since, who has used the simile to the same extent or as deftly as March. He is not concerned merely with illustrating an idea or even with emotionally charging his poems. Rather, his comparisons are often used to such ends as undermining through their imagery the very statement they purport to explain, or in order to introduce a moral dimension not openly acknowledged in the poem.

Another group of poems -the Cants de mort or «Poems on a Woman's Death»- turns the traditional lament into what is essentially a study of grief. March analyses the emotions that spring from his loss of a woman who was almost certainly one of his two wives. Little is said about the woman herself, however, and the eulogy normally found in the lament is missing: this is private poetry, and the public eulogy would be out of place.

The «private» orientation of his work is seen above all, perhaps, in the great poem known as the Cant espiritual («The spiritual song»). Its sixteenth-century title is somewhat misleading: while it does indeed concern spiritual matters, it is principally an extension of the moral problematics of love into relationship with God. March confesses his difficulties in loving God as he ought, and at one point reveals strong deterministic doubts about the fate of his soul. There is a thinly veiled questioning of the necessary beneficence of the God he addresses throughout the poem and whom he tries unsuccessfully to define in terms of love rather than fear.

In poems like these we see an uncompromising intelligence at work, moulding what had been essentially a prose language into a vehicle for new forms of poetic expression that have lost none of their power in over five centuries.


The day fades in terror as the night
draws in, spreading darkness before it.
Every small creature keeps a wide-eyed vigil,
while the sick must bear redoubled pain.
Under its cover criminals work their evil:
they wish the night could last all year.
Not I: none need fear harm of me, tormented
like no other: I cannot wait for night to pass.

And yet, were I to murder in cold blood a thousand
innocent men, I could do no worse: each night
I summon all my wits to plot my self-betrayal.
Believe me, the dawn brings no respite,
for I toil all night racking my brains
how best to shape the next day's treachery.
Death or the prison cell can hold no fears
for the man who is his own self's traitor.

Prudent lady, there's only myself to blame
if Love has placed his noose about my neck.
The road runs straight, and I do not drag my steps.
My days are over, unless your pity sends reprieve.

Translated by Robert Archer.



Let wind conspire with sail to do my will,
forcing dangerous paths across the sea!
Against it West and North-West winds take arms:
South-West, Sirocco, must hold them back,
joined by their allies -North-Eastern, Midi-
humbly pleading with the great North wind
it will not blow against their cause
so that all five together may ensure my return.

The sea will bubble like stew in an oven,
changing natural form and colour as it seethes.
Whatever ventures upon it even for a moment
will feel the force of its rage,
and all the creatures of the deep will rush
in vain to their secret refuge, fleeing
the place which spawned and nurtured them,
and in desperation leap out on to dry land [...]

I fear the death that would bring absence from you,
and because death would blot out love.
But I know that even such parting
could not extinguish my desire.
Your poor show of love keeps me in anguish:
if I died, you'd have no thought of me.
I am wretched thinking only this
(I know nothing that could do so while we live):

that you would lose all love's power
once I was dead, and love would turn to hate.
As for me, driven from this world,
my sole torment would be not to see you [...]

Love, if only I understood you as I feel you!
I'll end up with the loser's share.
Who really knows you until he's free?
You seem to me much like a game of dice.

Translated by Robert Archer.

Poem XCVI (Cant de mort)

The terrible anguish no tongue can tell
of the dead man who waits to learn his fate
(he does not know if he will be taken up to God
or if He will decide to bury him in Hell):
a torment like this afflicts my soul,
not knowing what God has ordained for you:
your good or ill will also be mine.
Whichever it is, I shall suffer it too.

You, spirit, who have taken leave
of that body I have loved so much,
can you see me suffering here?
I want to speak to you, yet am afraid to:
everything I have to say depends
on the place your soul inhabits.
Through you I will attain joy or sadness:
God disposes for me the fate that is already yours.

In vain I press my hands together in prayer:
all that could happen to her has come to pass.
If she is in Heaven, her joy is ineffable:
if in Hell, then all prayers are in vain.
If that is the case, annihilate my soul:
may all my being be returned to nothingness,
especially if she is there because of me.
Let me not be stricken with such pain as that.

What words, once spoken, do not seem useless?
My cries and my silence, both are futile.
I clear my mind, or let it fill with thoughts: in vain.
I regret everything I do, even before I do it.
So great are my fears she is in torment
I scarcely feel the pain of my own lost pleasure.
Eternal torment makes nothing of our pain
-and I fear this is the punishment she earned.

Nothing we fear more than death,
impartial with us all, but no less
dreadful. Oh pain, be kind:
be my shield against forgetting.
Pierce my heart and seize all my senses.
Spend all your rage: I will offer no defence.
So hurt me that everyone will grieve.
Let your power do all it can in me.
You, spirit, if nothing prevents you,
break the customs of the dead:
come back to the world, and tell me your fate,
I shall have no fear at the sight of you.

Translated by Robert Archer.

Poem CV (Cant espiritual)


You created me that I might save my soul,
and yet perhaps You know that is not my fate.
If this is so, then why did You create me,
since Your knowledge was infallible?
Return my being to nothingness, I beg You:
sooner that than eternity in the dark dungeon.
I believe in You as the God who said of Judas
it were better that man had not been born.

If only, baptised safely into heaven, my soul
had not been returned to the arms of life,
but even then had paid death his due:
better that than life in this present fear.
Men more keenly feel the pain of Hell
than they can guess the bliss of paradise:
the pain we feel here is a foretaste of that other,
while paradise, unfelt, can only be imagined.

Translated by Robert Archer.

Selected Bibliography

Ausiàs March

  • Les obres d'Auzias March. Amédée Pagès. Barcelona: Institut d'Estudis Catalans, 1912-1914.
  • Ausiàs March. Poesies. Pere Bohigas. Barcelona: Barcino, 1952-1959.
  • Ausiàs March. Antologia poètica. Joan Fuster, 1959. Valencia: Editorial 3 i 4, 1979.
  • Les poesies d'Ausiàs March. Joan Ferraté. Barcelona: Quaderns Crema, 1979.
  • Ausiàs March. Cinquanta-vuit poemes. Robert Archer. Barcelona: Ed. 62, 1989.
  • Ausiàs March. Poesies. Vicent Josep Escartí. Edicions Alfons el Magnànim. Generalitat valenciana, 1993.


Ausiàs March

  • Czech
    • In Verše lásky a loučení: katalánská milostná poezie 14. a 15. století. Přelozil Jan Schejbal. Praha: Odeon, 1976.
  • English
    • Selected poems. Edited and translated by Arthur Terry. Edinburgh: The University, 1976.
    • Selecció de poemes = Selected Poems. Traducció a l'anglès de Manuel Conejero Tomás, Purificación Ribes Traver i Dominic Keown. Valencia: Fundación Instituto Shakespeare, 1986-1989.
    • Ausiàs March: A Key Anthology. Edited and translated by Robert Archer. Sheffield: The Anglo-Catalan Society, 1992.
  • Esperanto
    • In Kataluna antologio. Compilita de Jaume Grau Casas. Barcelona: Impr. Jaume Vinyals, 1925.
  • German
    • In Romanische Dichter. Deutsch von Karl Vossler. München: R. Piper, 1946.
    • Gedichte: altkatalanisch und deutsch. Aus dem Altkatalanischen uberset, ediert sowie mit einer Einleitung und einem Glossar versehen von Hans-Ingo Radatz. Frankfurt: Domus Editoria Europaea, 1993.
  • Russian
    • In Iz Katalonskoj poezii. Sostavlenie E. Plavskina i. Vs. Bagno. Leningrad: Khudojestvennaia Literatura, 1984.
  • Spanish
    • Las obras del famosíssimo philósopho y poeta Mossén Osias Marco. Traduzidas por don Baltasar de Romaní. Valencia: Juan Navarro, 1539.
    • ——. 2a ed.: Sevilla: Ioan Canalla, 1553.
    • Primera parte de las obras del excellentíssimo Poeta y Philósopho Mossén Ausias March cavallero Valenciano. Traduzidas de lengua lemosina en castellano por Iorge de Montemayor. Valencia: Ioan Mey, 1560.
    • ——. 2a ed.: Zaragoza: Viuda de Bartolomé de Nágera, 1562.
    • ——. 3a ed.: Madrid: Francisco Sánchez, 1579.
    • Ausias March: obras de aquest poeta. Publicadas... per Francesch Pelayo Briz, acompanyadas... de una mostra de la traducció castellana que d'ellas feu lo poeta Jordi de Montemayor. Barcelona: Llibreteria de E. Ferrando Roca, 1864.
    • Ausias March. Traducción de Jorge de Montemayor (1560), corregida y enmendada... por Manuel de Montoliu. Barcelona: Cervantes, 1921.
    • Ausiàs March: obras. Selección, traducción, prólogo y notas de Martín de Riquer. Barcelona: Yunque, 1941.
    • Traducciones castellanas de Ausias March en la Edad de Oro. Martín de Riquer. Barcelona: Instituto Español de Estudios Mediterráneos, 1946.
    • Las obras de Ausias March. Traducidas por Jorge de Montemayor, edición de F. Carreres de Calatayud. Madrid: Instituto Nicolás Antonio (CSIC), 1947.
    • Canto espiritual. Traducción y notas de Jesús Massip. Tortosa: Géminis, 1959.
    • In La lírica medieval catalana. Antología y traducción por Enrique Badosa. Madrid: Rialp, 1966.
    • Poemas. Selección, versión y prólogo de Juan Antonio Icardo. Las Palmas de Gran Canaria: Inventarios Provisionales 1973.
    • Antología poética. Selección, prólogo y notas de Juan Ramón Masoliver, traducciones de Baltasar de Romaní... [et al.]. Barcelona: Los Libros de la Frontera, 1976.
    • ——. 2a ed.: 1981.
    • Obra poética. Selección y traducción de Pere Gimferrer, introducción de Joaquim Molas. Madrid: Alfaguara, 1978.
    • Obra poética completa. Edición, introducción, traducción y notas de Rafael Ferreres. Madrid: Castalia, 1979.
    • Canto espiritual, precedido de Tercer canto de muerte. Traducción de Juan Ramón Masoliver, edición y prólogo de Josep Miquel Sobré. Barcelona: Edicions del Mall, 1985.
    • Poesías. Edición e introducción de Martín de Riquer, traducción de Jorge de Montemayor. Barcelona: Planeta, 1990.