Anniversary Ode (1577–1977)


“Cuando será que pueda
Libre desta prision volar al cielo,
Felipe, y en la rueda
que huye mas del suelo
contemplar la verdad pura sin duelo?”
Luis de León; “Oda a Felipe Ruiz”, 1577

When, at the last, we can
Freed of this prison of sense, freely descry
The illimitable plan,
Fray Luis, you and I,
Spread out majestic as the starry sky,

The centuries between
Your world and mine must dwindle to a day
As though they had not been,
And smile to hear you say
Your: “Dicebamus hesterna die …”

Yet, speaking mind with mind
In that pure wordless mirror which Dante saw,
What difference shall we find,
What different concepts draw
From our two separate visions of natural law?

You, writing to your friend
In fifteen seventy-seven, conceive a sky
In which mount and descend
Spirits of those who die
And angels who on God’s occasions fly,

A sky, whose moon and sun
And the fixed stars in their revolving sphere
Upon earth’s axis spun,
Prove all is neat and near
With God in human form to forge and steer;

A modest universe
Where God rides on the clouds and drives his car,
Though in the year your verse
Was penned, a hairy star
Seen at Oraniborg presaged not war

But this new earth and heaven
Of frame and scale not dreamed of in your day.
In nineteen seventy-seven
We can no longer say
With you: “As we were saying yesterday!”

Your Ptolemaic gyres
Dissolve; we see earth orbit round the sun;
The sun himself retires,
A minor star and one
Of millions in our galaxy alone.

The fixed stars of your day
Scatter each way we turn; they fade and flee;
Galaxies pass away;
Among their myriads we
Shrivel to dust in that immensity.

Our cosmos, ruled by blind
Energies darkly thrusts towards ends unknown.
We search and yearn to find
Some voice to greet our own
And meet with silence and an empty throne.

For he has taken his leave,
Your god whose manlike image rode the storm;
A being, who could conceive
Such worlds and frame and form,
What human mind could touch, what heart could warm?

Life of the intellect,
Fray Luis, would not trouble you, I know;
Nor would your heart reject,
However keen the blow,
Truth demonstrated plainly to be so.

As in your prison cell,
Your faith would shine as lucid and serene;
Your spirit flash as well
Beyond the sensory screen
And reach the source and pierce to the unseen.

Returning from this height
We should resolve things in this world below;
What guides the seasons right;
Such things you longed to know:
The cause of tides, the source of storms and snow.

What pleasure! To discuss
Things since made plain, to reason and foretell;
And, things still hid from us
To contemplate as well:
The structures of the atom and the cell,

And yet no less than yours
To know our century’s vision a fleeting view.
Tomorrow other doors
Must open onto new
Prospects and unguessed vistas to pursue,

By which what we now see
May seem a sketch scrawled by a child at play.
To every age, maybe,
Old ignorance swept away,
The mystery merely deepens day by day.

Fray Luis, I reach to you
In golden Salamanca from a land
Of which you never knew,
Fellows in that rare band
Whose joy is still to learn and understand.

I reach towards the light,
That primal radiance you too strove to find.
In vain we question sight;
The eye of sense is blind;
The source is in the heart and in the mind.

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