There is in the Deaf and Dumb Asylum of Madrid a blind old woman known as La Ciega de Manzanares, some of whose exhibitions of the improvisatore arts have excited great attention from their appropriateness and poetical beauty. It has been usual to introduce her into the tertulias or conversazioni of the capital; and, overhearing the conversations that take place, she breaks out in sudden bursts of poetry. We will attempt to convey an idea by translations of some of these outpourings. A lady having been asked whether she was studying the art of dramatic declamation, the Ciega stopped the reply thus:
What! —to the theatre you’ll go,
And try your fascinations there,—
An actress? maiden, be it so,
And blest and brilliant your career!
Let glory on your brow descend, —
Yet hear the counsels of a friend,
And make a wiser, happier choice;
For know, no sounds are ever heard
So sweet as maiden’s loving word,
The wife’s, the mother’s household voice.
One of her impassioned verses reminds us of some of Milton’s touching references to his own blindness:
For me the sun over the mountain height
Flings his fresh beams in vain. — In vain for me
The awakened Venus fills her lamp with light,
And morn breaks forth in joy and festive glee.
In vain the fragrant rose excites the longing
Its tints, its motions, and its form to see –
No beauty mine — No nothing but the thronging
Of multitudinous blanks of misery.
She has been called on to improvise verses, omitting all words in which the vowels most commonly occurring in Spanish are found, and there has been no hesitation in their production.
The vowel e is the letter most frequently employed in the Spanish language, and being asked by a lady of distinguished grace and beauty to produce a stanza in which that letter should be wholly wanting, the Ciega improvised this verse:
Thou art indeed a floweret bright,
And thou hast eyes of crystal light,
And lips so delicate and fine
They make a mouth almost divine, [pursue
And while thy cautious feet
Their path, to virtue ever true, [goest,
Around, before thee as thou
Thou all the charms of beauty throwest,
And all admire and praise and bless
Thy heart of love and gentleness.
Divina flor purpurina!
Y tus labios los mas finos,
Tu boca la mas divina,
Asaz la virtud camina
Y mira con gran cuidado;
Todos alaban tu agrado
Con la mayor importancia
Tu amor y fina fragrancia
Y corazon apiadado.
This somewhat free rendering does not, of course, preserve the peculiar character of the original.
On being reminded by a lady that she had forgotten a promise made on a certain occasion to extemporise a verse, the Ciega answered:
O yes! I heard thee at the college;
For blind, alas! I had no knowledge
Of whom thou wert ; but now I here
Fulfil the promise made thee there,
And with this hurried verse I bring
Good wishes, blessings, everything
Which the suggestion of a minute
Can offer; and I only pray
Forgiveness for this roundelay,
And all the faults — too many — in it.
The Spaniards are remarkable for the success with which they cultivate the art of improvisation, and I have heard excellent asonante verses sung by the muleteers, in which they recounted their own adventures, and lightened the fatigues of their journeys by rhymed extempore narratives of their own invention.
The most extraordinary improvisator of whom I have had personal knowledge, was Willem de Clercq, of the Hague, who in a language — the Dutch — not remarkably poetical, would pour out fine verses by the hour, distinguished alike for the perfection of the stanza and the variety of fanciful thought and excursive knowledge they displayed.
Author: John Bowring.
Cover: elizabeth nourse