St. John of the Cross has won universal recognition for his poetry. But some 300 years went by before this recognition was achieved. Dámaso Alonso in his noted study of the poetry of St. John of the Cross calls him a wonderful literary artist and the loftiest poet of Spain. Menéndez Pelayo had already pointed out the heavenly character of John’s poetry, noting that it didn’t seem to be of this world. Other critical studies have demonstrated that this poetry is more than a simple overflow of mystical experience; it is an artistic creation of the highest craftsmanship as well. Nonetheless, the divine tone that pervades John’s work of art undeniably owes its presence also to the mystical experience.
While John was a student in Medina del Campo he learned about poetry and practiced composing his own poems. Nothing from those early exercises has come down to us. The first indications of his poetic work reach us through St. Teresa. Discovering in poetry a means for celebrating liturgical feasts and other special occasions, she introduced into her Carmels the practice of writing verses. In addition, like a greeting card, poems represented for her a simple way of sending a special word to another. A recently discovered letter written to her brother Lorenzo in January 1577, while John was confessor at the monastery of the Incarnation, shows that Teresa’s first friar also participated in this practice of celebrating through poetry. Teresa, sending her brother a little poem written by John, tells Lorenzo that she finds it delightful. John gradually came to realize that these symbolic expressions of poetry could also provide an excellent introduction into the intimate knowledge of the mystery of God.
The largest block of poetry comes to us from John’s days in the dark prison of Toledo. This comprises the Romances on the Trinity and on the psalm “Super flumina Babylonis“, “For I know well the spring,” and the first 31 stanzas of The Spiritual Canticle. Whether any of the other poems predate his imprisonment is a matter for speculation. Possibly “I entered into unknowing” and “I live but not in myself” were written during John’s years in Avila. The rest of the poetry was written after the imprisonment.
Always turning to the Bible as a tool for expressing his own experience, John does not surprise us by the way his exalted poetry resonates Scripture. This inspired word is always a primary source for him. Alongside the Bible one notes the literary surroundings of the time. Boscán and Garcilaso were two poets John mentioned and apparently esteemed. Nor did he shrink from working with some of the popular verses of his day. He adds a lo divino, that is, with a spiritual meaning, to the title of some of his poems. These are usually compositions taken from the secular world and reworked to give them a religious interpretation. A good example of this is “A lone young shepherd,” a secular poem that, through some carefully made changes, John turned into a delicate work of literary art.
Lyric poetry, strictly speaking, was meant to be sung, not recited. Singing was popular in Carmelite monasteries. The nuns and friars sang to celebrate liturgical feasts and also for simple recreation. Deeply sensitive to singing, John could be profoundly moved by melodious voices coming from the street, or by a nun singing of the pains of divine love faintly from behind the convent grille. His companions testify that he frequently sang, especially on long journeys through the countryside. He sang psalms, hymns to our Lady, and other songs with melodies he had made up himself. The happiness of being out in the country induced him to burst into song. The nuns could not help putting his poems to music. We know that Teresa herself listened with delight and joined her nuns in singing the poems of Fray John of the Cross.
His commentaries on his three outstanding poems help us discern the theological and spiritual riches in the other poems that received no commentary. In some of his poetry John contemplates the great Christian mysteries; in the rest he speaks of his spiritual experiences, which also bear a doctrinal content.
The particular introductions to the commentaries on The Spiritual Canticle, The Dark Night, and The Living Flame of Love will deal with those three, the most resplendent of John’s poems. A brief word about the others is in order.
I entered into unknowing. This poem sings about a mystical understanding of God that far transcends all human knowledge. But paradoxically, in this lofty understanding God is revealed as ever transcendent, infinitely distant from all human understanding, so that the more one understands the less it seems one understands.
I live, but not in myself. This poem has the same refrain as one of Teresa’s. The soul sees separation from God on this earth as a kind of dying and longs to die in order to live and enjoy her true life completely.
I went out seeking love. The prey in this poem is the loved one. The poet sings of how through faith, love, humility, and hope one flies high enough to catch the prey.
A lone young shepherd. Recasting a popular pastoral love song and giving it a religious meaning, John interprets the Incarnation, life, and death of Christ from the perspective of love. The delicacy in tone and development have a stunning effect. Love is rejected and forgotten; it weeps, it seeks, it goes great distances; it finally suffers a lonely death.
For I know well the spring. Using the symbol of a flowing spring, this poem deals with God’s intimate life. The poet knows this divine life in the darkness of faith, the night of faith remaining throughout the poem. But aspects of the flowing spring unfold as one proceeds: It is hidden, the source of creation, beauty, and light; its streams are threefold; we can drink from its waters in the bread of the Eucharist.
The Romances. As poetry, these romances do not match the literary quality of the other poems. We find in them, however, the great themes of John’s theological and spiritual thought. The view extends from the preparatory beginnings of salvation history to the Incarnation of Christ. In groups of two they present the story in descending levels: 1-2, Trinitarian life and predestination; 3-4, creation as a plan and then its realization; 5-6, the hope of humanity in general and then of some persons in particular; 7-8, the Incarnation as a plan and then its historical realization; 9, the birth, in which the Word takes on our humanity.
On the psalm “By the waters of Babylon.” In this poem John adds his own creative touches to psalm 137. It invites a twofold interpretation: composed in prison, it may refer to John’s isolation there from his brothers and friends; or it may refer to the ongoing experience of the “moaning” that refers to hope and that accompanies this earthly life.
Without support yet with support. The poet sings of the happiness that comes from life in God, detachment, and a love that grows in dark faith.
Not for all of beauty. The mystical experience of God causes a kind of love-sickness that makes it impossible for the soul to find happiness anywhere but in God alone, who on this earth is known always in faith.
Christmas Refrain. This fragment probably comes from a longer hymn John composed for the friars to sing during the Advent processions preparatory for Christmas.
The Sum of Perfection. A small summary of John’s teaching.
The basic codices followed for the poetry are Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Jaén.
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