robert lowell

While taking a Spanish literature class last fall, I came across the following poem in our text, and it sort of destroyed me. I’ve never fancied myself to be Someone In The Know when it comes to poetry, but I can recognize when a writer has ripped my heart out, kicked it around a bit and stuck it back in upside down…

(Pablo Neruda is someone else who can do this, if you’re looking for multiple rippings-out of tu corazón)

– but anyway, here’s the poem

RIMA LIII by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer —

Volverán las oscuras golondrinas
en tu balcón sus nidos a colgar,
y otra vez con el ala a sus cristales,
jugando llamarán;

pero aquellas que el vuelo refrenaban
tu hermosura y mi dicha a contemplar;
aquellas que aprendieron nuestros nombres,
ésas… ¡no volverán!

Volverán las tupidas madreselvas
de tu jardín las tapias a escalar,
y otra vez a la tarde, aun más hermosas,
sus flores se abrirán;

pero aquellas cuajadas de rocío,
cuyas gotas mirábamos temblar
y caer, como lágrimas del día…
ésas… ¡no volverán!

Volverán del amor en tus oídos
las palabras ardientes a sonar;
tu corazón de su profundo sueño
tal vez despertará;

pero mudo y absorto y de rodillas,
como se adora a Dios ante su altar,
como yo te he querido… desengáñate:
¡así no te querrán!

En inglés, that’s something along the lines of ‘lil birds’ll come back to your balcony, playfully singing their little birdsongs, but the ones who stopped to hang out by the window and get to know us, they won’t return, and the honeysuckle in your garden will grow and its flowers will open, but those with all the dew, that looked sort of like they were crying, they won’t return, and you’ll probably hear whispered into your ear (by someone else, natch) some warm/fuzzy words of love, and it might even be enough to wake your frigid heart, but don’t kid yourself, you won’t be loved again like i loved you’…

That’s an incredibly casual and not-at-all-scholarly translation. I don’t put it that way out of disrespect for the poem or its author; rather, to emphasize just how incredibly gorgeous is Robert Lowell’s loosely-translated adaptation of the poem:


Dark swallows will doubtless come back killing
the injudicious nightflies with a clack of the beak;
but these that stopped full flight to see your beauty
and my good fortune… as if they knew our names –
they’ll not come back. The thick lemony honeysuckle,
climbing from earthroot to your window,
will open more beautiful blossoms to the evening;
but these… like dewdrops, trembling, shining, falling,
the tears of day – they’ll not come back…
Some other love will sound his fireword for you
and wake your heart, perhaps, from its cool sleep;
but silent, absorbed, and on his knees,
as men adore God at the altar, as I love you –
don’t blind yourself, you’ll not be loved like that.

There are a multitude of other translations out there, and I found several here.

Aaaaaand there’s another poem of Lowell’s that was once adapted and set to music to become my favorite John Vanderslice song ever; it’s an equally heart-crushing piece. Here’s the original:

THE OLD FLAME by Robert Lowell

My old flame, my wife!
Remember our lists of birds?
One morning last summer, I drove
by our house in Maine. It was still
on top of its hill –

Now a red ear of Indian maize
was splashed on the door.
Old Glory with thirteen stars
hung on a pole. The clapboard
was old-red-schoolhouse red.

Inside, a new landlord,
a new wife, a new broom!
Atlantic seaboard antique shop
pewter and plunder
shone in each room.

A new frontier!
No running next door
now to phone the sheriff
for his taxi to Bath
and the State Liquor Store!

No one saw your ghostly
imaginary lover
stare through the window
and tighten
the scarf at his throat.

Health to the new people,
health to their flag, to their old
restored house on the hill!
Everything had been swept bare,
furnished, garnished and aired.

Everything’s changed for the best –
how quivering and fierce we were,
there snowbound together,
simmering like wasps
in our tent of books!

Poor ghost, old love, speak
with your old voice
of flaming insight
that kept us awake all night.
In one bed and apart,

we heard the plow
groaning up hill –
a red light, then a blue,
as it tossed off the snow
to the side of the road.

Oh! and, holy crap, I just happened across a post at biblioklept where you can listen to Lowell reading this poem hisveryownself. It’s awesome and good, and he interjects with commentary (‘I’m afraid we went there often,’ he says of the State Liquor Store)… I hadn’t ever read biblioklept before, but just a quick look around their site tells me I’m going to be back soon…




  1. anna~lynne

    one of my favorites, by rainer maria rilke.


    everything is far
    and long gone by.
    i think that the star
    glittering above me
    has been dead for a million years.
    i think there were tears
    in the car i heard pass
    and something terrible was said.
    a clock has stopped striking in the house
    across the road…
    when did it start?…
    i would like to step out of my heart
    and go walking beneath the enormous sky.
    i would like to pray.
    and surely of all the stars that perished
    long ago,
    one still exists.
    i think that i know
    which one it is –
    which one, at the end of its beam in the sky,
    stands like a white city…

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