Thursday, May 16, 2013

Poetics of the Romancero Viejo

The Spanish romance (pronounced as three syllables, /ro'man.tse/ historically, /ro' or /ro'man.θe/ today depending on region) is a type of poem comparable to the English ballad. They appear to have originated in a form derived from chansons de geste and epics, but by the time the true romance form appears (probably in the middle of the 15th century), it is reliably in the form we think of as a romance today: relatively brief lines, constant assonant rhyme, written in a very conversational style.

From 1510-1550, the romance form reached its zenith as a popular poetic style, with examples frequently published as broadsheets. Sometime in the 1540s, the publishing house of Martin Nucio published a compilation entitled Cancionero de romances ("Songbook of ballads"), which collected and reprinted a large number of these broadsheets; a second edition was published in 1550 which corrected a few errors and added a handful of romances that had been omitted from the first edition. (The first edition is now referred to by specialists as the Cancionero de romances sin año, "Songbook of ballads with no year," while the later text, commonly considered the definitive collection of the form, is referred to with the date.) Broadsheet romances considered to be published afterwards, and it later became a fashion for poets to write literary, non-anonymous poems in the form. For this reason, the early folk poems are referred to as the romancero viejo ("old balladry"), in contrast to the later artistic romancero nuevo ("new balladry"). Ballads of the romancero viejo were transmitted by a mix of oral tradition and broadsheets; some of them persisted orally into the late nineteenth century or even a bit later and continued to be reprinted, leading to a few that have quite a number of variants surviving in print today. (My translation of the romance del conde Arnaldos as previously posted to this blog, for example, is based on a brief version; the 1550 Cancionero has one which is slightly longer as it includes the words of the sailor's song, and I am aware of one text in which the story continues with Arnaldos sailing with the sailor for seven years before returning home to discover that he has inherited the crown of Portugal.)

The metrical behavior of many Romance-language verse forms (especially older ones) is quite different from what English speakers are accustomed to. The reasons for this are usually given as something like "the prosody is different," which doesn't actually explain anything to non-specialists. More usefully, English is what is called a "stress-timed" language, meaning that the length of time between two stressed syllables is usually relatively steady. This gives rise to poetic forms where lines have a fixed number of stresses; to keep them sounding similar, they generally also have matching patterns of unstressed syllables between those, though it normally passes without comment (and often even without notice) if the precise pattern is violated in small ways on occasion. Most Romance languages, on the other hand, are "syllable-timed," meaning each syllable lasts approximately the same amount of time regardless of stress. This tends to make for verse forms in which stresses move with some freedom about the line.

In traditional Italian and Spanish verse forms, as a result, each line has a particular number of counted syllables, generally counting the last stressed syllable as though it were the penultimate syllable of the line even when it isn't. At least in Spanish, an unstressed initial syllable can often optionally be counted as though it were absent if the syllable immediately following it is stressed, and an unstressed syllable at the end of a word that ends in a vowel and an unstressed syllable at the start of the following word that begins with a vowel can be merged into a single counted syllable. In a romance, there should be eight (counted) syllables in every line:

Qvien vuiesse tal ventura
sobre las aguas de la mar
como vuo el conde Arnaldos
la mañana de san Iuan

In this case, the first line has a genuine eight syllables; the third has eight if the final -o of vuo (hubo in modern spelling) and the el afterward glide together, and likewise the -e Ar- of conde Arnaldos. The fourth line has seven syllables, the last of them stressed (which means a phantom eighth syllable is added to the count; as noted, the last stressed syllable is always treated as though there were exactly one more syllable after it, which is usually true but there may instead be zero or two). The second line is a metrical imperfection, as it counts out as being nine syllables; perhaps unsurprisingly, many texts of versions of this poem have del mar (for a proper eight-syllable line) where the 1550 Cancionero gives de la mar. (Mar "sea" can, in 16th-century Spanish, be either masculine or feminine.) That variant follows the intended meter more precisely.

In a romance, there is a very strict assonant rhyme scheme, in which the final stressed vowel of a line and all vowels after it must match exactly with any lines it is intended to rhyme with, but the consonants are irrelevant. This is fairly easy, as early modern Spanish only has five vowel sounds. (English has more - at least ten, more in many dialects - even though we write them with only five letters.) However, matching the consonants would rapidly get repetitious in the romance form, as all even lines rhyme - that is to say, line 4 must rhyme perfectly with line 288.

While later literary movements such as culteranismo would involve flowery language in poetry (sometimes to the point of near-impenetrability, for which the golden-age poet Luis de Góngora was known even in his own time), the romancero viejo is characterized by an accessible, conversational style. This can be one of the most challenging aspects for a modern translator to convey, but it makes for poetry that is incredibly readable while still having an artistic charm of its own.

The subject matter of most romances is either Spanish history (both real and legendary) or the classic medieval Matters of France, Britain, and Rome. Early Spanish history is often directly tied in to the Matter of France, as Spanish legend holds that Roland died at the hand of the Leonese folk hero Bernardo del Carpio (about whom I intend to post more in the future), while the end of the Reconquista is often told from the Moorish perspective (albeit often with a thoroughly Christian substrate presenting the Spanish cause as the heroic one). A few of the poems, such as Conde Arnaldos, are on subjects of their anonymous poets' own invention. Overall, these ballads give us an impressive insight into what Spaniards of the early sixteenth century knew and believed about their own history, and what legends they were familiar with from the Classical, Arthurian, and Carolingian cycles - subjects rarely treated in English ballads, whose heyday was somewhat further removed from the medieval period. I find it most unfortunate that they are unavailable to the vast majority of English speakers interested in the period.

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