Greater plight was never cast
Greater plight was never cast
not even in love found
than remembrance of grace past,
at times when disgrace abounds.
I have for my great misfortune
seen all the plight existing,
but never a greater sadness
reminded me of feelings persisting.
I was and I am a lover
and love favours me not
and great pain I’ve seen begot,
but this is pain like no other.
Obras de Bernardim Ribeiro, organização, introdução e notas de Helder Macedo e Maurício Matos, Lisboa: Editorial Presença, 2010.Translation for this website by Rita Faria.
This poem should not have been forgotten because it evokes the power of memory and its lingering presence in our identity and life.
This is again a cantiga by Bernardim Ribeiro, the cerebral poet of the pains of love and existential philosophy, who this time states that the greatest pain one can experience is the remembrance of past happiness at times of adversity. The antonymic pair “grace”/”disgrace” seems a very apt choice to describe the pain of evoking happy times which are now over.
I like this poem very much because I view it as a crucial predecessor of many other works which have taught me the absolute importance of the memory of the past in the present – By the rivers that flow (Sôbolos rios que vão), by Camões; Amália’s voice singing “triste quero viver pois se mudou/em tristeza a alegria do passado” (“sad I wish to live for the happiness/of the past has turned into sadness), a poem some say was also written by Camões; Sophie Call’s book Doleur Exquise in which the artist produces a countdown in journal form to the painful breakup with her then partner. It is a constant process of remembrance of past happiness – on that day, there were 92 days left before the pain. 91 days. 90 days. Etc. Happy times are the silly happiness of ignorance which lasts until something or someone decides to ruin everything.
The poem is also a linguistic gem. It was written at a critical time in the history of Portuguese, in which the language was looking for stable forms but would also exhibit great variation (Cardeira 2012). This cantiga chooses the unsurpassable word “tristura” (“sadness”) instead of “tristeza”, which other compositions included in the Cancioneiro prefer. The period of elaboration of Middle Portuguese was actually quite handy to poets. Had Bernardim tried to write his cantiga at a later stage and the rhyme with “má ventura” (“misfortune”) would have given him a headache.
The use of “amador” (“lover”) in its etymological sense, as derived from “amar” (“to love”) and “amor” (“love”) is also unforgettable. “Fui e sou grande amador” (“I was and I am a great lover”) is almost an intentional pleonasm with lots of personality.
To sum up, I like this poem because, in the words of another unsurpassable poet who came later, “I saw that joy, once ended/ isn’t pleasure, it’s grief”. One of life’s greatest truths, whether we like it or not.
Camões, L. (2009). Sonetos e outros poemas. Organização e tradução de Richard Zenith: Planeta Manuscrito.
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.