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Between I, myself and me

Old poems

Between I, myself and me

Maria S. Mendes

 

Between I, myself and me

 

Between I, myself and me

What has risen I do not know

Which makes me my enemy

 

For a time with much delusion

I myself have lived with me

Now in the greatest misery

I find great harm comes in profusion.

Sorely costly is disillusionment

and yet kill me it did not

but how sorely did I pay the cost.

 

To myself I am made a stranger

Between consideration and concern

Evil lies there, spun

By great evil to which I succumb.

A new fear, a new woe

This is what has had me so,

Thus I am had, thus I am so.

 

Bernardim Ribeiro 

 

This poem should not have been forgotten because it can avoid many appointments with a psychiatrist. It is the perfect example of a certain poetic “breathing” which eases our own breathing, as any asthma patient, myself included, knows perfectly well.

It is a very self-contained poem, closed in itself, “solipsist” (inverted commas because this is an ugly word which becomes eloquent with time), and at the same time universal, troubling and illustrative of what Oscar Wilde, to whom flamboyance was no stranger, claimed – the worse crimes of Humanity are committed in the brain.

Bernardim makes us face alienation (“to myself I made a stranger”), which we could perhaps define as the feeling of looking at ourselves in the mirror and seeing a complete stranger bearing entirely different values, morals and truth to our own – to the point we could call them lies. This villancico explains all the moments in life in which we struggle against what we should do and not against what we can and want to do.

We usually choose the ease and the cowardice of doing what we can and want to do, instead of what is right – and this “makes us our enemy”. In Linguistics, modality is defined as the speaker’s attitude and his or her engagement towards the utterance; it is conveyed by certain verbs which with some pomposity are called “modal” – “should” and “can” prominently. Bernardim calls it something “that has risen”; “delusion”; “great harm”; and he also describes the moment of cruel lucidity (“Sorely costly is disillusionment”) when we imperatively know that our brain has committed a crime; or the coward moment in which we choose what is easy, not what is right.

The world is full of bad people who think they are good people simply because they have never killed or insulted anyone to their face. We are all like that except for Bernardim (in itself a very musical name). He knows that when the moment of “disillusionment” comes, the kind masks which cover our ugly, not at all ideal self, will fall and uncover a dire portrait of Dorian Grey (who would tell that Oscar Wilde could have so much to do with all this). At least, we have Bernardim to tell us that life is what it is, that the human condition struggles against its own turpitude and, alas, “thus I am had, thus I am so”.

Originally published in Cancioneiro Geral, this villancico follows the “new metrics”, the fashion of the time, and it postulates the equally fashionable theme of the “fragmentation of the self”, which is furthermore reflected in Sá de Miranda’s “troubled” cantiga. The latter complains about not being able to live with himself nor without himself (here, prepositions and pronouns convey to perfection the intricate philosophy exuding from the minds of these poets). However, I would say that the truthful and disarming simplicity of Bernardim’s poem scores many points. “Between I, myself and me/ What has risen I do not know”. “Between consideration and concern”. In his frequent alliterations, the poet says everything he means in a couple of lines. No need for endless verbal drivel. 

 

* Very little is known about Bernardim Ribeiro but at the same time a great deal is known. His poetry was included in Garcia de Resende’s 1516 Cancioneiro Geral and fellow poet and friend Sá de Miranda writes about him (“amigo Ribeiro”) to both praise his literary gifts and lament his mysterious fall from grace. Almeida Garrett attributes the latter to a heartbreaking love story between Bernardim and Beatriz, who happened to be the King’s daughter. Sadly there is no historical evidence for such a cinematic love story. What we do know is that Bernardim, in all likelihood born in the late 1400s and deceased in the mid-1500s, was a poet who enjoyed success and royal favours for a time; left the court for reasons unknown but probably in disgrace; transformed the cadence of music and alliteration into cerebral poetry and wrote the most wonderful beginning to a novel – “Menina e moça me levaram de casa de minha mãe para muito longe. Que causa fosse então daquela minha levada, era ainda pequena, não a soube”. It is also Menina e Moça who provides grounds to believe Bernardim might have been Jewish – converted, reconverted, in exile, we don’t know (as explained by Helder Macedo in his preface to Menina e Moça, D. Quixote, 1999). His mind seems to have been a mind in exile – and there are many forms of exile, with which Bernardim was certainly acquainted. This, we know. 

Translation and reading Rita Faria


Rita Faria is a professor at the Catholic University of Portugal. She doesn’t know how to do anything else apart from reading and writing and wants to do nothing else apart from reading and writing. Besides this, she enjoys horror films, vampires, ghosts and zombies in general and thinks the Portuguese language is the most fun in the whole world.