Re-imagining Cardenio


January 26, 2011

Love-light of Spain- hurrah!
Death-light of Africa!
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.

I don't know when these lines first seeped into my brain. I don't think it was a poem I had to learn at school. But I am sure I was caught in the thrilling rhythm of the poem, before I ever realised what the piece was actually about. Lines like 'Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard' create such a sense of tension and excitement and held breath. They come from G.K.Chesterton's poem Lepanto, celebrating Don John of Austria's triumphal naval victory over the Ottoman Turks in 1570.

And like the galloping anapaests of Byron's The Destruction of Sennacherib
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
The poem demands to be spoken out loud.

One verse in Lepanto contrasts Action Man hero Don John with the fungal pallor of King Philip II shut up in the Escorial:

King Philip's in his closet with the Fleece about his neck
(Don John of Austria is armed upon the deck)
The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarves creep in.

It's baroque in its depiction of the decaying Spanish king, and its almost comic book in its thrill at the fury of the sea battle:

Don John pounding from the slaughter painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate's sloop...

I went back to the poem last week to see how much of it I remembered, and came across a line which obviously had not registered on my young brain. In the last verse Chesterton says:

Cervantes on his galley sets his sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight for ever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not a sultans smile, and settles back the blade...
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

Yes, Miguel Cervantes fought at the battle of Lepanto. In fact, as he was suffering from malaria, he should not have fought, and had been told by his captain to stay below. Instead, he positioned himself at the head of twelve men in a fighting skiff, alongside the galley ship, La Marquesa, in a sea tinged red with blood. He was shot three times in the chest by an harquebus, and lost the use of his left arm. His valour was later recognised by Don John, who visited him in the army hospital, and wrote letters of recommendation on his behalf. He was twenty three.

During our research trip to Spain, Chesterton's poem keeps ringing in my ears.

by Greg Doran  |  No comments yet

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