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HALL OF FAMEon 9 January 2006
St. John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz) did not write many poems, or, if he did, he took little care to preserve them. Barnstone, in his introduction, thus likens St. John of the Cross to Emily Dickinson, who likewise did not seek widespread distribution of her poetry in her lifetime. There are eleven primary poems, with some small fragments beyond -- in this way, he is more like ancient Greek and Roman obscure poets than his contemporary Iberians, who tended toward overproduction.
Barnstone describes St. John's poetry as being of three primary influences -- Italian, Iberian (both Spanish and Portugese) and Hebrew scriptural poetry.
St. John of the Cross was a controversial figure -- imprisoned, tortured, crippled and outcast at various times, at any given point in his life he was more likely to have been excommunicated than canonised. His bitter hardships made his black night, his dark night of the soul, one of incalculable ecstasy in poetic and spiritual disciplines. While he writes in the first person, it is sometimes shocking to realise that a monk vowed to poverty and celibacy would write of such rich and sexual/sensual imagery.
In the same sense of poetry that the biblical 'Song of Songs' can be taken in physical and spiritual ways, so too can many of St. John's poetry. His 'Spiritual Canticle' (Cantico Espiritual) is a conversation between bride and bridegroom including the creation around them, in startling terms. It is included here twice, in different redactions. His piece on Psalm 136 -- By the waters of Babylon/Super Flumina Babylonis -- also shows strong biblical influences overlaid by contemporary poetic sensibilities.
Barnstone's introduction is a good overview of both of the basic biography and a literary analysis of St. John of the Cross. The dual-language format of this text is of great help to students and scholars who wish to see the original and an interesting translation side by side.
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