St. John of the Cross -- On a dark night

On her CD The mask and mirror, Loreena McKennitt sings a song entitled The dark night of the soul. Loreena writes in the CD-booklet about this song:
May, 1993 - Stratford ... have been reading through the poetry of 15th century Spain, and I find myself drawn to one by the mystic writer and visionary St. John of the Cross; the untitled work is an exquisite, richly metaphoric love poem between himself and his god. It could pass as a love poem between any two at any time ... His approach seems more akin to early Islamic or Judaic works in its more direct route to communication to his god ... I have gone over three different translations of the poem, and am struck by how much a translation can alter our interpretation. Am reminded that most holy scriptures come to us in translation, resulting in a diversity of views.
As Loreena writes, there can be several different translations of a poem, depending on how the translator interprets the poem and what his/her intention for the translation is. And as Loreena says, the translation guides our interpretation, if we do not know (can not read) the original.
With many thanks to Irina I can here give the original poem in Spanish as well as a translation she took from a book.

Original Spanish Poem Translation
San Juan de la Cruz
En una noche oscura

En una noche oscura,
con ansias, en amores inflamada,
¡oh dichosa ventura!,
salí sin ser notada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada;

a escuras y segura
por la secreta escala, disfrazada,
¡oh dichosa ventura!,
a escuras y encelada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada;

en la noche dichosa,
en secreto, que naide me veía
ni yo miraba cisa,
sin otra luz y guía
sino la que en el corazón ardía.

Aquesta me guiaba
más cierto que la luz del mediodía
adonde me esperaba
quien yo bien me sabía
en parte donde naide parecía.

¡Oh noche que guiaste!
¡oh noche amable más que la alborada!;
¡oh noche que juntaste,
Amado con amada,
amada en el Amado transformada!

En mi pecho florido,
que entero para él solo se guardaba,
allí quedó dormido,
y yo le regalaba,
y el ventalle de cedros aire daba.

El aire del almena,
cuando yo sus cabellos esparcía,
con su mano serena
en mi cuello hería,
y todos mis sentidos suspendía.

Quedéme y olvidéme,
el rostro recliné sobre el Amado;
cesó todo y dejéme,
dejando mi cuidado
entre las azucenas olvidado.

St. John of the Cross
On a dark night

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings
--oh, happy chance!--
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised
--oh, happy chance!--
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide,
save that which burned in my heart.

This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he
(well I knew who!) was awaiting me
-- A place where none appeared.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

This translation is quite close to the Spanish original, Irina writes, except for a few things:
   =    Stanza 1, line 2: "With longing, and burning love"
   =    Stanza 6, line 4: "And I gave him gifts"
   =    Stanza 7, line 2: "As is parted his hair"
Note that Loreena chose the fifth stanza as the chorus of her song.

Irina added:
St. John of the Cross himself has written two books on this poem, explaining its meaning as a metaphor of a soul that unites with God. The books are "The Dark Night of the Soul", the title Loreena chose for her song, and "Ascent of Mount Carmel".
Nevertheless, some modern critics take the poem for an erotic love poem, which it clearly seems to be at first look.
When reading as it is meant, however, the poem feels to me much stonger than reading it as an ordinary love poem.

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created: 14 November 2001
last modified: 17 June 2008