I face such great changes,
what can I find safe?
Hope which is so lame,
Misfortune which remains…
All my long illusions beget
All these disillusionments, and let
them go, for time and years have passed
and other concerns I’ve amassed.
Change for me is no more,
a safe pain I’ll have instead:
let in futile hope tread
those who risk what they ignore!
Bernardim Ribeiro, “Antre tamanhas mudanças”, Antologia do Cancioneiro Geral. Lisboa: Ulisseia, s/d. Translation for this website Rita Faria.
This poem should not have been forgotten because it is about growing old, and that happens to the best of us. As much as one would want to hide under the cloak of a so called “optimism” or “happiness”, the absurdity of old age eventually swallows all of us whole. This is not merely about being unable to read subtitles without glasses or going to bed late and wake up the next day feeling as if you’ve been run over by a lorry – it is also about what Bernardim describes here, which is to prefer “a safe pain” to the irresponsible follies of “adventure”. Youngsters will be youngsters and shall entangle themselves in shenanigans, fine; that’s their problem, though, because life does not lie to the old poet anymore, the same poet who is now equipped to answer the questions that life itself has asked him: “what do I find safe” when I face such changes? Misfortune only, for hope is an illusion. The certainty of contents is clarified by the brevity of form, a cantigawhich is headed by a four-line motto and is prolonged by an eight-line, seven-syllable gloss. Some cantigas include ten-line glosses, but concise Bernardim has clearly felt no need to inflict further verbosity on his philosophy.
Because it is about old age, the poem is also about the aforementioned youth. An interesting opposition is drawn between the poet, “disillusioned”, wide-awake, who has amassed “other concerns” due to the passing of “time and years”, and those who “risk what they ignore” due to their “lame hope”. The poet seems to almost despise such irresponsibility due to the indifference he affects – other people can do what they wish for I don’t care; I’ve got other concerns, namely the pleonasm “time and years”, which impose a “safe pain” and cause a certain mental torment.
Like in other poems by Bernardim, this particular one unfolds a poet who lives by and for himself, concerned with his own issues only, and in that process he verbalises a human and humanistic consciousness, instead of simply retrenching into a self-serving, egocentric discourse of very little interest. The minds of men, of any man, are the centre of the universe, for the world changes but the mind stays. Nothing happens outside of it and nothing can happen outside of it to the extent that, one hundred years later, Descartes will make the very existence of God dependent on the amply known statement cogito, ergo sum. To think that Bernardim, old, wise, impatient and indifferent, already knew about this…
As far as the topic of growing old is concerned, there is another poem I believe to be quite useful and which goes “I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”. This is what happens when you reach an age in which certain things cannot possibly bother you – neither rolled trouser bottoms, nor the change of time, nor misfortune, as Bernardim points out. Young people have so much to risk – and so much to lose. Not the old. There is indeed a country for them.
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.