Proverbs and Songs

by Antonio Machado

English version by Robert Bly
Original Language Spanish

Dedicated to Jose Ortega y Gasset

     The eye you see is not
an eye because you see it;
it is an eye because it sees you.

     To talk with someone,
ask a question first,
then -- listen.

is an ugly fault,
and now it's a boring fault too.

     But look in your mirror for the other one,
the other one who walks by your side.

     Between living and dreaming
there is a third thing.
Guess it.

     This Narcissus of ours
can't see his face in the mirror
because he has become the mirror.

     New century? Still
firing up the same forge?
Is the water still going along in its bed?

     Every instant is Still.

     The sun in Aries. My window
is open to the cool air.
Oh the sound of the water far off!
The evening awakens the river.

     In the old farmhouse
-- a high tower with storks! --
the gregarious sound falls silent,
and in the field where no one is,
water makes a sound among the rocks.

     Just as before, I'm interested
in water held in;
but now water in living
rock of my chest.

     When you hear water, does its sound tell you
if it's from a mountain or farm,
city street, formal garden, or orchard?

     What I find surprises me:
leaves of the garden balm
smell of lemonwood.

     Don't trace out your profile,
forget your side view --
all that is outer stuff.

     Look for your other half
who walks always next to you
and tends to be what you aren't.

     When spring comes,
go to the flowers --
why keep on sucking wax?

     In my solitude
I have seen things very clearly
that were not true.

     Water is good, so is thirst;
shadow is good, so is sun;
the honey from the rosemarys
and the honey of the bare fields.

     Only one creed stands:
quod elixum est ne asato.
Don't roast what's already boiled.

     Sing on, sing on, sing on,
the cricket in his cage
near his darling tomato.

     Form your letters slowly and well:
making things well
is more important than making them.

     All the same...
               Ah yes! All the same,
moving the legs fast is important,
as the snail said to the greyhound.

     There are really men of action now!
The marsh was dreaming
of its mosquitoes.

     Wake up, you poets:
let echoes end,
and voices begin.

     But don't hunt for dissonance;
because, in the end, there is no dissonance.
When the sound is heard people dance.

     What the poet is searching for
is not the fundamental I
but the deep you.

     The eyes you're longing for --
listen now --
the eyes you see yourself in
are eyes because they see you.

     Beyond living and dreaming
there is something more important:
waking up.

     Now someone has come up with this!
Cogito ergo non sum.
What an exaggeration!

     I thought my fire was out,
and stirred the ashes...
I burnt my fingers.

     Pay attention now:
a heart that's all by itself
is not a heart.

     I've caught a glimpse of him in dreams:
expert hunter of himself,
every minute in ambush.

     He caught his bad man:
the one who on sunny days
walks with head down.

     If a poem becomes common,
passed around, hand to hand, it's OK:
gold is chosen for coins.

     If it's good to live,
then it's better to be asleep dreaming,
and best of all,
mother, is to awake.

     Sunlight is good for waking,
but I prefer bells --
the best thing about morning.

     Among the figs I am soft.
Among the rocks I am hard.
That's bad!

     When I am alone
how close my friends are;
when I am with them
how distant they are!

     Now, poet, your prophecy?
“Tomorrow what is dumb will speak,
the human heart and the stone.”

     But art?
               It is pure and intense play,
so it is like pure and intense life,
so it is like pure and intense fire.
You'll see the coal burning.

-- from Times Alone: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado, Translated by Robert Bly

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

Aren't these riddling, haiku-like proverbs wonderful? I'm not sure they all entirely make sense even, but they bring the mind to a stop in contemplation and happy confusion.

Gathered together, I notice certain themes in these verses: Water keeps appearing, how its flow animates us and sustains us as it does the world. Narcissism and relationship with others. Action and stillness, how stillness underlies action, stillness suggesting something of the eternal. The seeing beyond the surface of reality to its inner depths, seeing the true nature of things. Waking up. And the secret, mysterious self.

Let's just take a look at the opening verse, delightful and arcane:

The eye you see is not
an eye because you see it;
it is an eye because it sees you.

That first verse draws me in immediately. If I really want to find meaning in that first verse, perhaps he is saying that an eye is not an eye because it appears to be so (not "because you see it") but because it sees. Maybe he is suggesting that it is not surface appearance but function and action that reveals the true nature of things. ...But I don't think reading such specific meaning in the verse is as important as simply being knocked cold by it.

Almost every pithy, strange saying stands out to me here. I could highlight them all. Instead, I encourage you to go back and read them slowly, one at a time, let them parade through the back of your thoughts as you go through your day. What are they saying to you

Recommended Books: Antonio Machado

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) Real Thirst: Poetry of the Spiritual Journey The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry Times Alone: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado Border of a Dream: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado
More Books >>

Proverbs and Songs