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Cantiga, upon departing

Old poems

Cantiga, upon departing

Maria S. Mendes


Cantiga, upon departing


Lady, so sad my eyes

depart from you, my sweet,

that never so sad again 

others so sad you’ll meet.


So sad, so weary,

so sick with the departure,

so tired, so teary,

a thousand times wishing death

more than life’s breath.

So sad the saddest depart,

so tired of waiting in vain,

that never so sad you’ll meet

others so sad again.


João Roiz de Castelo-Branco, “Cantiga, partindo-se”, Florilégio do Cancioneiro de Resende, 4ª edição, selecção, prefácio e notas de Rodrigues Lapa. Lisboa: Textos Literários, 1973.  Translation for this website Rita Faria. 


This poem should not have been forgotten because it is (sigh) beautiful. Why? The poem is beautiful due to its “linguistic matter”, that is, the ways in which the Portuguese language is used to create an “impressionist” effect, more than the “subject matter” itself. The “impressionist” effect comes from the “impression” that the poem creates when it repeatedly alludes to crying and to “eyes”.

The poem thus resorts to repetition (the adjective “sad”, the adverb “so”), alliteration (“sad”, “meet”, “sweet”) and pronominalisation (“you” vs “others”) to invoke an almost material sadness – one should note that the main referent of the poem is the “eyes”, not the Lady (her presence is determined by the initial vocative, which is repeated at the end, albeit with elision of the form of address “Lady”). The repeated allusions to sadness pertain to the eyes (so much so that the Lady has never seen, nor will she ever see, “others so sad again”); the eyes are the ones who are weary, sick, tired, teary (another reference to a physical act – to cry) and who wish for death “a thousand times more than life’s breath”. One should also note that the eyes of the poet are mentioned only once at the outset, included in the motto. This reference is enough to make the eyes the true referent of the glosa (that is, the eyes are “so sad, so weary”, etc.), but it is not enough to make them the referent in the last lines. “So sad the saddest depart” – who departs, the eyes or “the great lovers” (grandes amadores), to borrow from Bernardim Ribeiro?

The theme is again love and the pain of separation, but the magnitude of the hurt is conveyed by the linguistic resources of the poem, to which we have called “impressionist” because of the importance attached to physical referents, mainly tears and eyes, who fall “sick”, and to repetition which allows for the parallel created at the beginning and at the end of the poem. Without this craftsman’s work on language, the poem would be nothing more than a banal complaint about the pains of love. We all have them, we have all been through them and therefore all is quiet on the Western front. The Portuguese language, however, is resplendent and lends the poem its exquisite uniqueness, all the while creating a musical simplicity which makes everyone love this poem (in my opinion).

The English translation was the absolute best I could do, and my primary aim was to preserve the rhyme (albeit not the rhyming pattern), the repetition parallels and the position of the referent “eyes” in the poem, that is, the fact that “eyes” are mentioned in the motto but omitted at the end. This creates the aforementioned ambiguity as to who are “the saddest” who “depart”. I couldn’t find an adequate translation for “saudosos” apart from “longing” (perhaps), which simply would not fit the poem and thus I settled for “weary”. 

Although I love the English language, it is with deep satisfaction that I have realised whilst translating that no other language will make this poem more beautiful than Portuguese. The merit of Poetas do Cancioneirois also this – to show that the eternal peripheral Portugal produced an unsurpassable language.

* The cantiga was a very popular verse form in Cancioneiro Geral, and in the Iberian Peninsula in general, consisting of a motto of three to four lines and a volta of eight to ten lines, whose last line would usually be taken from the motto. The verse would vary between five and seven syllables but many of the compositions from Cancioneiro preferred the heptasyllabic line, ie, the redondilha maior. In its sixteenth-century form, the cantiga is different from the medieval verse forms also called cantigas; perhaps the more approximate Anglo-Saxon equivalent to the latter is the “ballad stanza”, “two lines of four stresses alternating with two lines of three stresses rhyming alternately”(Hobsbaum 1996:189). The sixteenth-century cantiga, however, is a variation of trova and close to the vilancete (villancico), which also follows a motto developed into a longer volta which repeats a line from the motto at the end. 


João Roiz de Castelo-Branco was a civil servant (he was a sort of “royal accountant”) in Guarda and served under D. João II. He eventually moved to the Court in Lisbon and retired from his job into his country estates after the death of the King. Not much is known about him, but we do know he was a great poet, which abundantly suffices.

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.