The Greatest Conquest

A Christmas gift I treasure greatly was a small, used paperback book of the verses of St. John of the Cross, translated by Roy Campbell.  I did not want to post on these verses until I’d been able to read and think on them all, but the surprising interest in yesterday’s post has led me to share this one. I hope it is not precipitate of me.

With a most unpoetic title – “Other verses with a divine meaning” (Otras del mistro a la divina), St. John of the Cross writes of the spiritual quest:

Other verses with a divine meaning

by St. John of the Cross,
translated by Roy Campbell

Not without hope did I ascend
Upon an amorous quest to fly
And up I soared, so high, so high,
I seized my quarry in the end.

As on this falcon quest I flew
To chase a quarry so divine,
I had to soar so high and fine
That soon I lost myself from view,
With loss of strength my plight was sorry
From straining on so steep a course.
But love sustained me with such force
That in the end I seized my quarry.

The more I rose into the height
More dazzled, blind and lost I spun.
The greatest conquest ever won
I won in blindness, like the night.
Because love urged me on my way
I gave that mad, blind, reckless leap
That soared me up so high and steep
That in the end I seized my prey.

The steeper upward that I flew
On so vertiginous a quest
The humbler and more lowly grew
My spirit, fainting in my breast.
I said ‘None yet can find the way’
But as my spirit bowed more low,
Higher and higher did I go
Til in the end I seized my prey.

By such strange means did I sustain
A thousand starry nights in one,
Since hope of Heaven yet by none
Was ever truly hoped in vain.
Only by hope I won my way
Nor did my hope my aim belie,
Since I soared up, so high, so high,
That in the end, I seized my prey.

From “The Poems of St. John of the Cross” translated by Roy Campbell, published by  Grosset & Dunlap,  Universal Library Edition, 1967, NY. There is another excellent edition by E. Allison Peers as well.

by peregrine for love of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, December 30, 2017.

6 thoughts on “The Greatest Conquest

  1. Rosemary says:

    http://carmelitemonks.org/Vocation/DarkNight-StJohnoftheCross.pdf St John’s poems, every line, are full of mystical insight, the working of the divine in the soul. Your readers may well be acquainted with his works.’Dark Night of the Soul’ and ‘Ascent of Mount Carmel’ always worth a reread as they hold the most profound understanding of the soul’s journey to union with God and perfection of living the Divine Will.
    Many thanks for posting this beautiful translation of his poem ‘Of Falconry’.

    • peregrine says:

      The version I used is by Roy Campbell who titled it: VI Otras del mismo a lo divino, or Other verses with a divine meaning.
      However, John Frederick Nims, in his translation, has the title, Of Falconry.
      I prefer Campbell’s translation and do not especially like Nims’ poetry at all.
      To confuse things even more, there is a site, Poetry Foundation, that has a completely different poem under the title Of Falconry, also translated by Nims and attributed to St. John of the Cross.

      If readers would like to compare them, the link for Nims’ version of the poem I presented is here:
      http://www.sjsu.edu/people/cynthia.rostankowski/courses/HUM120AF14/s3/The-Poems-of-John-of-the-Cross.pdf
      And the link to the Poetry Foundation’s poem of the same title is here:
      https://www.Poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=27760

      • Rosemary says:

        Dear Peregrine:
        Roy Cambell’s translation is a treasure and the better of the two without a doubt.
        Thanks for your service of posting the links for comparison.

        • peregrine says:

          When you see the two side by side, Campbell’s is so lyrical, I loved it right away.
          I got sidetracked by the title change though and hope to resolve it when I get Peers translation. Maybe I’ll post more on the poetry of St. John of the Cross.
          The following verse seems particularly appropriate to the writings of Sister Josefa:
          The steeper upward that I flew
          On so vertiginous a quest
          The humbler and more lowly grew
          My spirit, fainting in my breast.
          I said ‘None yet can find the way’
          But as my spirit bowed more low,
          Higher and higher did I go.

          And also, to Father Gabriel who cites him (St. John of the Cross) often.

Your thoughts?