Don Quixote as a Topographic Poet


Gustave Doré, Illustration 14 for Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, 1863

by Timothy Hampton

In addition to his signal achievements as a knight errant, Don Quixote de la Mancha produced a small but noteworthy body of poetry. Samples of this poetry appear at different places in the history that Miguel de Cervantes wrote about the great knight. The most dramatic depiction of Don Quixote as a poet comes in chapter 26 of the first half of the story, when Don Quixote retires to the mountains to lament his love for the beautiful Dulcinea del Toboso. He sends his squire, Sancho Panza, on a mission to Dulcinea to express his love. Then Don Quixote strips down to his underwear, leaps about a bit, and writes some poetry. I want to consider here the challenges he faces in his poetic undertaking.

Don Quixote’s poetry is written in the highly stylized manner known as Petrarchism. This is poetry that builds upon and develops the images and situations set forth several centuries earlier by the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, in his Canzoniere or “Book of Scattered Rhymes.” Petrarch invented the model of the weeping lover sighing for his absent lady (think of Romeo at the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, mooning over Rosalind). Petrarch is the model for all of Don Quixote’s contemporaries–even, in most cases, those who write religious verse. So we should not be surprised to see that the knight’s lyrics adhere generally to the Petrarchan tradition.

Quixote’s poetic opus while he is in the mountains consists of set of rhymes (“muchos versos”) either written in sand, or carved into the bark of trees. Of these poems, unfortunately, only one survives. “Árboles, yerbas y plantas. . . ” presents three eleven-line stanzas, commemorating both Quixote’s misery and the composition of the very poem we are reading. Each stanza ends with a refrain that refers both to poetry and place: “here Don Quixote wept/ over the absence of Dulcinea/del Toboso” [aquí lloró don Quijote/ ausencias del Dulcinea/ del Toboso].

The act of writing on trees recalls a scene in Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso, in which the footsoldier Medoro writes poems on trees about his dalliance with the Cathayan princess Angelica. Medoro’s precedent underscores the great literary historical problem that haunts Don Quixote’s poetry. This is the problem of how to present the uniqueness of his passion. Petrarch’s poetry commemorated his love for his beloved Laura. It was so original as to make that love appear to be a love like no other. What, then, is one to do when one writes Petrarchan poetry about a different love that, nevertheless, one feels is no less extraordinary? How can we express the sense we all have that our love is like no other–in a poetry where everything has already been said? Don Quixote’s contemporaries try to solve this problem in different ways. The French poet Pierre de Ronsard gets past Petrarch’s depiction of a love for Laura that lasted thirty years by simply dumping the idea of devotion to a single lady. He takes multiple beloveds and makes it clear that if they seem to be bewitchingly beautiful, it is because his poetry is making them so. The English sonneteer Philip Sidney reverses this approach. He begins his collection “Astrophel and Stella” by noting that many poets quote Petrarch as they struggle for originality. In his case, the lady Stella is simply so beautiful that all he has to do is look at her and he will write well. So, for Ronsard the power to evoke the uniqueness of love lies with the poet; for Sidney it inheres in the lady.

Don Quixote’s poetic strategy is different. He stresses the act of inscription, and its relationship to place. He links his poetry both to the place in which he is writing it–this love took poetic form in precisely this place–and to the place from which Dulcinea comes–it sings this particular lady. Don Quixote wagers that he can he escape becoming a tired copy of all of the lover/poets who have preceded him by rooting both himself and Dulcinea in a place. Here is the first stanza, with a crude translation by me:

Árboles, yerbas y plantas
que en aqueste sitio estáis,
tan altos, verdes y tantas,
si de mi mal no os holgáis,
eschuchad mis quejas santas.

Mi dolor no os alborote,
aunque más terrible sea;
pues, por pagaros escote,
aquí lloró don Quijote
ausencias de Dulcinea
del Toboso.

Trees, grass, and plants
which grow in this place,
tall, green, and luxurious,
if you are not amused by my pain,
listen to my holy complaints.

However terrible my pain,
let it not disturb you;
yet, to pay you my share,
here Don Quixote wept
over the absence of Dulcinea
del Toboso.

In their concern for place we might locate Don Quixote’s verses in a long tradition of topographic poetry. Its roots are in the epigrammatic tradition, where poems get carved on stones. But we could link his poems as well to a tradition of land sculpture. Robert Smithson’s “Circular Jetty” in the Great Salt Lake comes to mind as a famous example of art as landscape and landscape as art. Don Quixote is doing the same thing, in his way. Indeed, when he writes his poems in the sand he is creating a self-consuming piece of modern art worthy of Marcel Duchamp.

This topographic dimension to Don Quixote’s poetry–a blending of text and object–might be seen as a reasonable response to his cultural situation. “All that is solid melts into air,” says Karl Marx of the world of commodity capitalism in which everything can be exchanged for something else and nothing is unique. Similarly (though in a different historical context) all notions of originality and even sincerity have vanished into cliché in Don Quixote’s world, a world where everything has already been done and said. This sense of abstraction and cliché is clear from Dulcinea’s very name. Petrarch’s beloved is named Laura, a name suggesting both the air, and the laurel leaf that symbolizes the poet’s fame and undying love. The French poet Du Bellay loves a lady named Olive, who brings peace. Sidney’s Stella is a star. Dulcinea’s name, however, means nothing more than “Sweetie.” Thus she very much needs to be distinguished from other ladies. Quixote does this by insisting on her origin, on the place from which she comes.

Yet when we consider Dulcinea’s place of origin, “El Toboso,” things get even more interesting. “El Toboso” seems to refer to a real place in Spain, a unique location. Yet the word also suggests the Greek word “Topos,” which means “place.” The “b” and “p” sound alike in Spanish, and the two letters are frequently interchanged in the unstable orthography of early printed books. Thus “Toboso” is a word caught between languages. It may be Greek; it may be Spanish; it maybe a kind of Hispanicized Greek. Yet it matters very much what it refers to. On the one hand, it may refer to a singular place in Spain that grounds Dulcinea’s beauty and origin in a culture and a landscape (you can look it up on Google Maps). That would indeed make her unique, as the only Dulcinea from Toboso. Or, on the other hand, the word may mean “any place.” In that case, at the very moment Don Quixote tries to root Dulcinea in space, he is revealing, despite himself, that she may just be “Sweetie from Someplace.” In a sense, the whole question of whether Quixote (or anyone else, for that matter) can assert the originality of his love in a language saturated with clichés rests on our reading of the word “Toboso.” No wonder he’s carving this stuff on trees!

This brings us to the courage–or desperation, depending on your point of view–that shapes Don Quixote’s poetics. The narrator tells us that he makes sure to add the half-line “del Toboso” to the end of each of his stanzas, every time he mentions Dulcinea. This addition of a kind of stringer (technically called a versus caudatus or “line with a tail”) makes it clear to anyone reading that we are talking about, not just any Dulcinea, but the Dulcinea who is from Toboso, “del Toboso.” “Here don Quixote wept over/ the absence of Dulcinea/ del Toboso.”

The paradox of this poetic solution to Dulcinea’s typicality is that, in order to affirm his lady’s rootedness and uniqueness, Don Quixote must destroy the form of his poems. For the elegance of his well balanced 10-line stanzas is upset by the addition of the tail. The tail quite literally ruins the aesthetic integrity of the stanzas. At the very least, it sounds dopey, since Toboso doesn’t rhyme with anything else. He could drop it and each stanza would end elegantly with “Dulcinea,” which rhymes back to line 7, leaving us with two balanced five-line groupings of lines, each grouping semantically complete. The half-line also looks clumsy. Thus phonically, metrically, and visually, the half-line ruins the poem. This is not just my impression. The narrator tells us that it was precisely the tail that those who read the poem found ridiculous (“no causó poca risa”). “Del Toboso” may distinguish Dulcinea as a girl like no other. But it makes Don Quixote’s heartfelt poetry a joke.

Don Quixote faces the problem that is faced by many artists working in times of cultural overload. In order to make his poetry stand out–in order to stress the originality of this passion and this experience–he has to destroy its formal integrity. He has to wound his verse in order to accomplish the expressive goal he sets for it. In this regard we might see him, not only as one of the first “modern” characters in literature, but as the quintessential modernist poet. “Le paradis n’est pas artificiel,” wrote the modernist poet Ezra Pound, “but is jagged.”

Piece originally published at Arcade | Creative Commons License