THE POET WHO CHEATED DEATH
by Phantomimic All rights reserved © RAGG
What would you write on the eve of your execution? Imagine yourself in a jail, wrongfully accused and convicted. There is no hope, your fate is sealed. Within 24 hrs there won't be any more sunrises or sunsets, no more birds or flowers, no more evenings spent with your family or friends, no more lovers' caresses, no more memories, no more poems. What then would you write? This question is what poet José Rizal faced one December day in 1896. Rizal was a Philippine patriot who opposed the Spanish imperial rule. He wrote several works where he harshly criticized the dealings of the Spanish government and the church in the Philippines, and demanded equal rights for the Philippinos and autonomy. Although he advocated achieving these goals by peaceful means, and denounced the violence of more radical members of the Philippino independence movement, he was declared an enemy of the state by Spanish authorities. Rizal was apprehended and tried by a military court for rebellion, sedition, and conspiracy, and sentenced to death. It was thus that on the day before his execution that Rizal wrote a poem which he hid in an alcohol stove that was later handed to his family along with his other possessions after his death. His relatives found the poem and had copies of it sent to Rizal's friends, and eventually it was printed overseas and translated into many languages. The original poem written in Spanish did not have a title but it is now known as "Mi Ultimo Adios" (My Last Farewell). I am reproducing here an English translation made in 2001 by Edwin Agustin Lozada (if you want to see this English version side by side with the Spanish version you can go to: Modern English Translation by Edwin Agustin Lozada). Please read it carefully and remember, this was written by a man who knew the certainty of his imminent death.
My Last Farewell Farewell, beloved Country, treasured region of the sun, Pearl of the sea of the Orient, our lost Eden! To you eagerly I surrender this sad and gloomy life; And were it brighter, fresher, more florid, Even then I’d give it to you, for your sake alone. In fields of battle, deliriously fighting, Others give you their lives, without doubt, without regret; The place matters not: where there’s cypress, laurel or lily, On a plank or open field, in combat or cruel martyrdom, It’s all the same if the home or country asks. I die when I see the sky has unfurled its colors And at last after a cloak of darkness announces the day; If you need scarlet to tint your dawn, Shed my blood, pour it as the moment comes, And may it be gilded by a reflection of the heaven’s newly-born light. My dreams, when scarcely an adolescent, My dreams, when a young man already full of life, Were to see you one day, jewel of the sea of the Orient, Dry those eyes of black, that forehead high, Without frown, without wrinkles, without stains of shame.
My lifelong dream, my deep burning desire, This soul that will soon depart cries out: Salud! To your health! Oh how beautiful to fall to give you flight, To die to give you life, to die under your sky, And in your enchanted land eternally sleep. If upon my grave one day you see appear, Amidst the dense grass, a simple humble flower, Place it near your lips and my soul you’ll kiss, And on my brow may I feel, under the cold tomb, The gentle blow of your tenderness, the warmth of your breath. Let the moon see me in a soft and tranquil light, Let the dawn send its fleeting radiance, Let the wind moan with its low murmur, And should a bird descend and rest on my cross, Let it sing its canticle of peace. Let the burning sun evaporate the rains, And with my clamor behind, towards the sky may they turn pure; Let a friend mourn my early demise, And in the serene afternoons, when someone prays for me, O Country, pray to God also for my rest!
Pray for all the unfortunate ones who died, For all who suffered torments unequaled, For our poor mothers who in their grief and bitterness cry, For orphans and widows, for prisoners in torture, And for yourself pray that your final redemption you’ll see. And when the cemetery is enveloped in dark night, And there, alone, only those who have gone remain in vigil, Disturb not their rest, nor the mystery, And should you hear chords from a zither or psaltery, It is I, beloved Country, singing to you. And when my grave, then by all forgotten, has not a cross nor stone to mark its place, Let men plow and with a spade scatter it, And before my ashes return to nothing, May they be the dust that carpets your fields. Then nothing matters, cast me in oblivion. Your atmosphere, your space and valleys I’ll cross. I will be a vibrant and clear note to your ears, Aroma, light, colors, murmur, moan, and song, Constantly repeating the essence of my faith.
My idolized country, sorrow of my sorrows, Beloved Filipinas, hear my last good-bye. There I leave you all, my parents, my loves. I’ll go where there are no slaves, hangmen nor oppressors, Where faith doesn’t kill, where the one who reigns is God. Goodbye, dear parents, brother and sisters, fragments of my soul, Childhood friends in the home now lost, Give thanks that I rest from this wearisome day; Goodbye, sweet foreigner, my friend, my joy; Farewell, loved ones, to die is to rest.
As with any translation, the English version can not perfectly reflect the tone and rhythm of the poem: the way the cadence changes subtly from verse of verse. Nevertheless, even in translation there is something remarkable in these words. An English translation was read in the House of Representatives by a Congressman from Wisconsin called Henry A. Cooper in 1902 to try to convince his skeptical colleagues to grant a degree of autonomy to the Philippines. It looked like such a bill would never pass the house as the prevailing notion was that the Philippine people were barbarians incapable of self-government. But when Congressman Cooper, teary-eyed and full of emotion recited the poem, and Rizal's words echoed across the silent chamber of the house mesmerizing his transfixed colleagues, the mood against the bill changed and it passed. Such is the power of these extraordinary words.
When I read "My Last Farewell" in its original version in the Spanish language, I was ignorant of the Philippines, its people and its history and of who Rizal was, and the circumstances under which this poem was written. Nevertheless as I read it I was invaded by a strange sensation: something took over me. All the hairs of my body stood on end. I got tears in my eyes, lost my breath, and I found I was feeling a bit lightheaded. I felt an energy flowing from the poem into my body. Now, you could try to explain this by arguing that this is what good poetry is all about. That when you write from the heart with honesty and feeling you touch people's souls and move them. I would agree with you in the case of most poetry, but not in the case of this poem. You see, I believe that this poem is exceptional in a way that cannot be explained just merely by labeling it "excellent poetry". When I held it in my hands and read it I sensed a life in these words. I sensed a consciousness. Let me say it bluntly: I think there is a ghost moving among the words of this poem. In her Harry Potter series J. K. Rowling tells us of a way in which wizards can cheat death. This is by creating a "horcrux". A horcrux is created when a wizard splits his soul and hides a part of it in an object. Then, even if the wizard is killed he can never really die and his soul transition to the afterlife because a bit of it is still trapped in this object. To split the soul the wizard has to commit a murder, which is why horcruxes are considered one of the darkest and most evil types of magic. Since horcruxes carry a piece of soul from such an evil wizard their proximity to people can affect their behavior for the worse.
Of course, Harry Potter is fantasy, but I wonder if in the real world some exceptional persons have the capacity to create a type of horcrux that is not evil. I wonder if perhaps certain individuals exist who, when they engage in a creative process under extreme circumstances of duress and hardship, can unknowingly transfer a part of their soul to the work of art they are creating, be it a sculpture, a painting, a song, or a poem. When they do this, they in effect cheat death. They never die until the artistic creation they have produced is destroyed and its memory forgotten. Unlike the fictional horcruxes from the Harry Potter universe, proximity to these real life horcruxes brings out the best in us. They move us to better our lives and those of others. I think this is what is so exceptional about Rizal's poem. I believe the words are linked to a piece of the man's soul and every time we read them we are filled not only by his sadness and sense of loss, but also by his yearnings, his desire for justice, his resolve in the face of adversity, and his love for life, family, and country. More than a century after Rizal's death those who conspired against him and brought about his demise have been forgotten. But a part of him is still alive in this poem, and his ideas still resonate with the people of many countries in many languages. He is in effect the poet who cheated death!
The image of José Rizal is in the public domain. Afterword Rizal's execution was the catalyst that began the bloody Philippine revolution that started in 1896 and ended in 1898 with the beginning of the Spanish-American war. Unfortunately, the Philippino's desire for independence was not to be fulfilled as the United States replaced Spain as the new imperial power giving rise to the Philippine-American war that raged from 1899 to 1902. All in all both conflicts led to hundreds of thousands of Philippinos dying directly from the war or indirectly from hunger and disease. Despite the approval by the House of Representatives of the Philippine Bill of 1902 after the reading of Rizal's poem, it was only in 1916 that the Philippines were granted autonomy, followed by self government in 1934, and full independence in 1946. José Rizal is considered a hero in his native land and this poem is one of the most widely translated and read "swan songs" in the world. If you liked this story you may be interested in: Visiting my website: Phantomimic's Website Following me on Twitter: Phantomimic on Twitter Liking my Facebook Page: Phantomimic on Facebook Thank you! : ^ )