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Aztec singer of poems compared to Shakespeare

The ‘art of memory’: sonnet versus song

Comparing poetry written roughly at the same time (end of the 16th century) in both ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Worlds - a Nahua song-poem from the Cantares Mexicanos and Shakespeare’s Sonnet no. 81 - is not just anecdotally of interest: it sheds some light on two different world views, on two very different approaches to immortality, human love, the mystery of life and death, writing as a monument and legacy, the future - indeed, to the whole ‘art of memory’... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Song to Xochipilli, Aztec god of music and song. Florentine Codex Book 2
Song to Xochipilli, Aztec god of music and song. Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

First, the New World:-
Here through art I shall live forever.
Who will take me, who will go with me?
Here I stand, my friends.
A singer, from my heart I strew my songs,
my fragrant songs before the face of others.
I carve a great stone, I paint thick wood
my song is in them.
It will be spoken of when I am gone.
I shall leave my song-image on earth.
My heart shall live, it will come back,
my memory will live, and my fame.
I cry as I speak and discourse with my heart.
Let me see the root of song,
let me implant it here on earth so it may be realized.

Early edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, British Library
Early edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, British Library (Click on image to enlarge)

Second, the Old World:-
Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die.
The earth can yield me but a common grave
When you entombèd in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse
When all the breathers of this world are dead.
You still shall live - such virtue hath my pen -
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

Mexica scribe, Codex Mendoza fol. 70r (detail) and gilt/bronze figure of boy scribe with quill
Mexica scribe, Codex Mendoza fol. 70r (detail) and gilt/bronze figure of boy scribe with quill (Click on image to enlarge)

Both writers speak wistfully of the inevitability of death, of how transitory life on earth is, and of how proudly and confidently they intend to leave behind a legacy through their art, and in both pieces we sense their common awe in the face of beauty and good.
Yet there is a striking contrast: whilst Shakespeare dedicates his sonnet to the memory of a single, unnamed but much loved (probably male) individual, the Nahua scribe both remains anonymous - like most pre-contact artists - and is happy to make his composition a communal offering, dedicated to the wider community of friends and society.
In Miguel León-Portilla’s words, Nahua poetry (‘flowers and song’) carries within it ‘a message with significance for humankind today: ancient Mexico learned somehow to reconcile the ideals of a strongly socialized people with the aspirations of the individual, “the master of a face and heart”... Their poets proclaimed the supreme value of the person in the context of the friendship that draws distinct “faces” together, uniting them in what they called cohuayotl, “community”.’

‘I surround friendship... with a circle of songs’
‘I surround friendship... with a circle of songs’ (Click on image to enlarge)

This message is expressed most clearly in another of the Cantares:-
I have come, oh our friends,
with necklaces I gird you,
with macaw feathers I adorn you...
With gold I paint,
with quivering quetzal feathers,
I surround friendship...
With a circle of songs,
I give myself up to the community.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets, edited by John Kerrigan, Penguin Books, London, 1986
The Aztec Image of Self and Society: an Introduction to Nahua Culture by Miguel León-Portilla, University of Utah Press, 1992
Image of the New World by Gordon Brotherston, Thames & Hudson, London, 1979.

• Main picture (L) and Song to Xochipilli: images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Main picture (R): image from Wikimedia Commons (Title page William Shakespeare’s First Folio 1623)
• Image of Shakespeare’s Sonnets: from British Library website
• Mexica scribe: image scanned from our own copy of the James Coopet Clark facsimile edition of the Codex Mendoza, London, 1938; gilt and bronze figure: downloaded from an internet auction website
• Final picture: figure in the Museo Dolores Olmedo, Mexico City; photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 18th 2016

Aztec Song

Aztec Poetry: Introduction

‘Opening Poem of the Cantares Mexicanos’ - Words Without Borders website
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