In the Hall of Paintings:
Metaphor and World View in the Poetry of Nezahualcoyotl
I chose a study of the poetry of Nezahualcoyotl, fifteenth century ruler of Texcoco, as I was at once struck by both the simplicity and subtle elegance of poems attributed to him. In Xopan Cuicatl, or Song of Springtime (of which I attempt to render a very rough translation in the body of this paper), for example, Nezahualcoyotl uses natural imagery such as a pheasant or turtledove and red-plumed birds to convey a complex of metaphorical associations, that, admittedly, I have only begun to penetrate. In this regard, the set of poems, chants, or songs attributed to Hungry Coyote resembles to me, in form and in essence, the finest works of the classical Sufi poets, such as Rumi and Hafiz. These poets “paint” elaborate multi-leveled pictures using few very well chosen words.
Inseparable from the theme of Nezahualcoyotl’s word paintings, is how he himself has been “painted” in English language source material, by writers, poets, historians, and linguists. As I will examine in my discussion of the sources used in my research, a historically accurate and unbiased reconstruction of Nezhualcoyotl’s life and world-view is problematic in many ways, most particularly in that words attributed to him were first literally painted as text by Spanish missionaries after the Conquest, a century after the composer’s death. Deliberate missionary revisionism is rampant throughout the Spanish codices, so that, as Bierhorst asserts, it may be impossible to de-Christianize, with certainty, any of the Spanish collected source texts.
To address the difficulties involved in separating the historical Nezahualcoyotl, his words, and world-view from later revisionist accounts, it is essential that we examine the words attributed to him closely by continually asking, “Who is Nezahualcoyotl’s audience?” Were his words directed toward his conception of divinity, towards himself, or towards an audience of nobles and/or commoners?
TECHNIQUES AND METHOD OF ANALYSIS
In presenting my research on the life and poetic work of Nezahualcoyotl, I present a short biography of Nezahualcoyotl, along with some historical context. I then attempt a translation, by simple substitution, primarily using Joe Campbell’s A Morphological Dictionary of Classical Nahuatl and Frances Kartunnen’s An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl, of Nezahualcoyotl’s Xopan Cuicatl. I will examine this poem structurally, and for metaphorical word meaning(s) in terms of Hungry Coyote’s possible audiences. I show the results of my rough translation with the Nahuatl original, along with that of Miguel Leon-Portilla for translation word choice, in order to compare my results with his, and to represent Leon-Portilla’s important Nahuatl to English translations of Nezahualcoyotl’s work.
My research will be limited in scope by at least three crucial factors. First, I have scant knowledge of Nahuatl language in both its classical and modern forms, save that which I have learned in the course of preparing this paper. Second, and perhaps most crucially, I have little competency in the Spanish language, other than the most rudimentary “pidgin” phrases (a situation that I hope to resolve in future studies). As I do not “have” Spanish or Nahuatl in any substantive way, finally, I am limited to works in English translation only, which spawns two sub-limitations. First, and as expected, there is a far greater depth of biographical and analytical data regarding Nezahualcoyotl published in Spanish, than in English. Second, I would posit from my limited experience in composing this paper, that all English translations, ranging from Leon-Portilla’s very polished and informed ones, to my rough and methodologically very simple translation, are qualitatively a further step (or more) away from Spanish translations.
I’ve relied on a number of sources to assist in the construction of this paper, and for purposes of translation.
I selected three sources, John Bierhorst’s Cantares Mexicanos, Frances Gillmor’s Flute of the Smoking Mirror, and Miguel Leon-Portilla’s Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World for historical and biographical data.
Bierhorst provides an excellent summary of the dominant themes in Nezahualcoyotl’s work, along with an overview of the difficulties involved in accurately interpreting oral to written post-Conquest sources.
Gillmor’s work appears to me to have less value, in that it is an older work, originally published in 1949, and is both a highly fictionalized and novelized painting of the life of Nezahualcoyotl.
While Gillmor does an admirable job of “piecing-together” data from post-Conquest codices, her fictionalized additions, used by her most probably to maintain the flow of and reader’s interest in the story, to me serve only to provide her reader with imaginative speculation concerning the reign and poetic work of Nezahualcoyotl. In this aspect, I would compare Gillmor’s work with the Disney Corporation’s more recent presentations of themes in American History---entertaining, but unreliable, revisionist, and potentially damaging to subsequent, more objective evaluations.
Gillmor’s value as a source lies mainly in her preface to Flute of the Smoking Mirror, in which she accurately describes, and clearly states the limitations involved in the arduous task of reconstructing Hungry Coyote biographically, and the conflicting nature in etic representations of the ruler/poet.
To attempt translation from Nahuatl to English, as previously mentioned, I used Kartunnen’s An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl, and R. Joe Campbell’s A Morphological Dictionary of Classical Nahuatl. Both sources, which I used interchangeably, were invaluable to the completion of this paper. Kartunnen’s work furnished translations of some entire lexical compounds, while Campbell’s work was extremely helpful to me in providing meanings of morphemes for the more complex, agglutinated classical Nahuatl words that I encountered in Nezahualcoyotl’s work. When I could not resolve a word in this fashion, I used a Nahuatl to Spanish freeware translator available on the internet to attempt to match the Nahuatl word to a suitable Spanish word (using word substitution by sometimes deductive elimination). I then used another freeware translator for Spanish to English translation. For example, when I could not locate any references regarding the Nahuatl word puyuma in Kartunnen or Campbell, I used this process to find the Spanish word embriagan, and ultimately the English meanings of intoxicate or rapturous.
I selected Miguel Leon-Portilla as my source for Nezahualcoyotl’s verses in both Nahuatl and English, as it was his translations that initially excited me as I began to select a topic from my research. His writing is clear, and his translations look to me to retain both the simplicity of images and the conceptual complexity exhibited in the original (insofar as painted in text by the Spanish missionaries and their converted scribes).
Additionally and biographically, Leon Portilla references two major traumas in the life of Nezahualcoyotl which undoubtedly contributed to the tone and theme of much of his work.
One source that I had planned on including in the body of the electronic format of this paper was the addition of .mp3 sound files, via hyperlink, of the recitation of 2 or 3 of the shorter poems attributed to Nezahualcoyotl by an experienced reader and speaker of classical Nahuatl. Those I approached as possible sources for endeavor were gracious and supportive of my effort, but unanimous in rejection of my requests for short-term, unfunded expert assistance. I continue, however, to consider sound file recordings of extant Mesoamerican poetry, chants, and songs recorded in native languages, spoken by native speakers as a fruitful area for future academic exploration. There is little recorded material of this type published in accessible sound formats anywhere, as far as my researches have uncovered, save for a long play album recited by Leon-Portilla in 1960, and it appears virtually unobtainable.
In the Hall of Paintings:
Metaphor and World View in the Poetry of Nezahualcoyotl
Nezahualcoyotl, or Hungry Coyote, was born the son of the Texcocan rulers Ixlilxochitl and Matlalcihuatzin in 1402 CE, recorded as the year 1 – Rabbit in the Mesoamerican calendar. His mother, Matlalcihuatzin, was the daughter of the second ruler of Tenochtitlan, Huitzilihuitl. As the son of nobles, Nezahualcoyotl would certainly have received a comprehensive formal education in the Mexica oral tradition beginning at a very early age. (1)
Comparison of the work attributed to Nezahualcoyotl to his Basin of Mexico (rough) contemporaries show marked stylistic and thematic similarities, suggesting the presence a more or less rigid “institutional” noble common curricula defining rules of composition, form, word choice, metaphor derivation, meter, theme, along with other poetic rules unique to classical Nahuatl poetry. Nezahualcoyotl and the tlamatinime of his day, lacking true a true writing system, would have been literally taught to “paint pictures” with xochitl, or flowers (words).
The work of Nezahualcoyotl, however, appears to me to exhibit a genuineness and newness that is observed only to a lesser degree in the compositions attributed to other contemporary Aztec nobles. We cannot, then, attribute the brilliance of his words, solely to an excellent and exclusive education. I would suggest, however, that we may look at two incidents in the life of Hungry Coyote, which would have surely been formative in his work, and in the world-view.
When Nezahualcoyotl was sixteen, he witnessed the assassination of his father at the hands of the Azcapotzalco, and subsequent Tepanec rule at Texcoco.
He remained an exile from 1418 – 1433, or for sixteen years, until, under the protection of the Mexica, established his reign at Texcoco. He reigned 39 years until his death in 1472, or the 6 – Flint in the Mesoamerican calendar. (2)
Later in his life, another incident would impact Nezshualcoyotl’s world-view. As Leon-Portillo notes, almost poetically “Nezahualcoyotl deprived Cuacuauhtzin of his life in order to marry his wife.” (3) Neither the assassination of his father (and his own long exile) or Hungry Coyote’s selfish destruction of another’s life for his purpose (much different in quality than taking a life on the battlefield, or in making human sacrifice to cause the sun to rise), could have failed to greatly inform his world-view or his work, especially in one with so refined a creative sensibility. The greatest artists sometimes suffer greatest, and we might see in much of his work pathos of despair. Some of his works finely balance the age-old creative dyad of human joy and despair, while others, such as Xopan Cuicatl, or Song of Springtime, of which I have attempted a preliminary translation in the following pages, are outright joyful and celebratory.
LEGEND: Non-Italicized, Non-Bracketed Text = Nahuatl
Italicized text = Leon-Portillo Translation
Bracketed, Non-Italicized Text = Perret Attempt
****** = Untranslated refrain line, after Bierhorst
SONG OF SPRINGTIME
[GREEN TIME OF YEAR SONG]
N2) pehua cuica,
N3) yeyecohua, yehuaya,
N4) quimoyahua xochitl,
N5) on ahuia cuicatl, hue, hahuayya, ohuaya, ohuaya.
LP1) In the house of paintings,
LP2) the singing begins,
LP3) song is practiced,
LP4) flowers are spread,
LP5) the song rejoices, ********.
P1) [Painting book house,
P2) begins song,
P3) is experienced,
P4) spill flowers,
P5) bring forth song, ********.]
N8) zan quinanquiliya,
N10) quimoyahua xochitl
N11) on ahuia cuicatl.
LP6) The song resounds,
LP7) little bells are heard,
LP8) to these answer
LP9) our flowery timbrels.
LP10) Flowers are spread,
LP11) the song rejoices.
P6) [Hear song,
P7) bells they come,
P8) only after they respond,
P9) flowers grow.
P10) Spill flowers,
P11) bring forth song.]
N12) Xochiticpac cuica
N13) in yectli cocoxqui,
N14) ye con ya totoma
N16) Ho ilili yaha, ilili yio,
N17) hui, ohui, ohui, ohuaya, ohuaya.
N18) Zan ye connanquilia
N19) in nepapan quechol,
N20) in yectli quechol,
N21) in hel ya cuica.
N22) ho ilili yaha, ililili,
N23) ohui, ohui, ohui.
LP12) Above the flowers is singing
LP13) the radiant pheasant;
LP14) this song unfolds
LP15) into the midst of the waters.
LP18) To him reply
LP19) All manner of red birds,
LP20) the dazzling red bird,
LP21) beautifully sings.
P12) [On the flowers sings
P13) this pure turtledove,
P14) to be young already hen hunts.
P18) Only answer him,
P19) the various red plumed birds,
P20) the pure red plumed birds,
P21) the very already song.]
N24) Amoxtlacuilol in moyollo,
N26) in tictzotzona in mohuehueuh,
N27) in ticuicanitl.
N28) Xopan cala itec,
N29) in tonteyahuiltiya.
N30) Yao yli yaha, ilili lili ilaya,
N31) ohama hayya, ohuaya, ohuaya.
LP24) Your heart is a book of paintings,
LP25) you have come to sing,
LP26) to make your drums resound,
LP27) you are the singer.
LP28) Within the house of springtime,
LP29) you make the people happy.
P24) [Book paintings the heart,
P25) to come to make song,
P26) to beat the upright drum,
P27) to sing.
P28) Green time of year house next to,
P29) to shine first entertain.]
N32) Zan tic moyahua
N33) in puyuma xochitli,
N34) in cacahua xochitli,
N35) in ticuicanitl.
N36) Xopan cala itec,
N37) In tonteyahuiltiya,
N38) yao, ya, oli, yaha,
N39) Ilili, lili, iliya, ohama, ohuaya, ohuaya.
LP32) You alone bestow
LP33) flowers that intoxicate,
LP34) precious flowers.
LP35) you are the singer.
LP36) Within the house of springtime,
LP37) you make the people happy.
P32) [Only you disperse
P33) rapturous flowers,
P34) precious flowers,
P35) to sing.
P36) Green time of year house next to,
P37) To shine first entertain.]
In Xopan Cuicatl, Nezahualcoyotl, at the most literal level of analysis, sings in praise of spring, illuminating his song with naturalistic depictions of a pheasant (or turtledove), red-plumed birds, flowers radiant and rare, and the overall beauty and happiness that spring brings. The imagery that Nezahualcoyotl uses in Xopan Cuicatl is simple and precise.
On the metaphorical level of analysis, however, the song is a complex multi-levelled commentary, I would argue, on the nature of deity and its manifestation in the apparent world and its relation to Nezahualcoyotl’s notions of self and of his role as ruler of Texcoco, in relation to the people, both elite and commoners.
Lines 1 through 5 of Xopan Cuicatl introduce the mood, happiness or joyfulness, and the theme, spring to the song.
Nezahualcoyotl describes the beginnings of song in the amoxcalco, or house of paintings, which, in the literal sense may have housed picture codices to assist in the conveyance of the Mexica elite oral curriculum. In a more metaphorical sense, and given some analogy in other of Nezahualcoyotl’s work, the amoxcalco may represent human reality as painted into existence by the deity that he addresses throughout the song in the third person, as “spring” or “green time of year”. Song, or perhaps life, begins, and is practiced or experienced. Flowers, are spread or spilled, a Mesoamerican metaphor used commonly for speech, especially elegant, poetic manners of speech (as opposed to “flinty” insulting speech), reference both the generative powers of spring, of the spoken word, and to Hungry Coyote’s conception of deity.
In lines 6 – 11, which may hint to a call and response format for Xopan Cuicatl, Nezahualcoyotl introduces tiny bells into the sound and sight painting he is developing. The bells suggest musical accompaniment to the piece, and less literally, in their audible pattern of sound, silence, sound, silence, may allude to the dualistic nature of reality and deity. The “song rejoices” in line 5, then “resounds” in line 6, indicating a build-up of intensity of the verse, or perhaps an increase of volume or rhythm for the song’s performer. The performer’s words spread as “flowery timbrels” in response to the call of the bells. Then, in a sort of refrain, lines 10 and 11 repeat lines 4 and 5. In line 11, the song again “rejoices”, allowing for a balanced transition into the next stanza, lines 12 – 23.
Lines 12 and 13 draw the listener’s attention away briefly from word/flowers to birds, while at the same time implying a correspondence between the two elements, as birds sing, and are often observed poetically or metaphorically to have “languages”. The pheasant or turtledove is presented by Nezahualcoyotl above, in line 12, or in a class apart from the “pure red-plumed birds” of lines 19 and 20. We see a similar call and response pattern in lines 12 – 23 to that exhibited in lines 6 – 11.
The hierarchy between the birds may be speculated on, as metaphor, in at least three ways. First, Hungry Coyote may be painting his conception of man’s (the red-plumed birds) relation to deity (the pheasant or turtledove). He might also be painting his conception of his relationship between his role as ruler and his elite subordinates. I would doubt, faced with all manner of evidence of Aztec class divisive political ideology, that Nezahualcoyotl, the preeminent member of Texcoco’s ruling faction, would have spoken of commoners as radiant or pure birds with plumes.
Finally, it may be possible that Nezahualcoyotl was drawing another correspondence, this one between spiritual and earthly hierarchy, or, in Hermetic terms, “As above, so below.” I do not tend to interpret these lines in a mystical, or esoteric sense. Rather, I see his words as reflecting the essential world-view of the poet, that rulership is linked to deity in an essential way, and that the ruler is entitled by this link to command the people (through subordinate nobles).
In lines 24 – 31, the call and response pattern is eliminated. The performer appears to speak or sing these lines uninterrupted by response, for emphasis. Nezahualcoyotl addresses Spring/deity by exclaiming, “Your heart is a book of paintings…” This section of the poem summarizes the preceding lines, adding only an upright drum to the sound painting, and serves as a rhythmic crescendo to the entire song.
Metaphorically, it is possible to interpret in these lines another component of Nezhualcoyotl’s conception of deity. All songs are sung, all drums are struck, in essence, all of life’s activities and sensations are performed as the on-going pulsation (the drum in line 26) or manifestation of deity. Lines 28 and 29 conclude as a refrain that will be repeated in the final stanza, lines 36 and 37, effectively bringing Xopan Cuicatl to a close.
In the closing stanza, lines 32 – 39, Nezahualcoyotl continues to address the deity in the third person, continuing, in essence, his metaphor of human life in relation to deity, and also brings the song back to its original lines references to flowers, describing them as intoxicating or rapturous (puyuma) and rare or precious (cacahua).
In these final lines, I would assert, we glimpse Nezahualcoyotl’s intellectual depth. Words can often be more intoxicating than datura or peyotl. The possibility of speaking true words is truly rare and precious, and, as Bierhorst contends, is a major theme in Hungry Coyote’s body of extant work. “Speaking true words” is, at least to me, the very essence of poetic composition.
Many “text paintings” exist that portray Nezahualcoyotl. In approaching the study of his life, and the poetic works attributes to him, we would do well to keep in mind that we cannot see Nezahualcoyotl or his work directly, that we are always looking at a painting. Paintings can be realistic or fanciful. At best, we can hope to see Hungry Coyote as poet, only by looking at his words as painted first by the Spanish missionaries, then by Nezahualcoyotl’s descendants, and finally by contemporary academics, translators, and popularizers. At core, however, we have only the words attributed to him to begin to know him by.
Xopan Cuicatl, or Song of Springtime lends well to comparative translation. It simple in structure and imagery, but conveys in metaphor a rich description of Nezahualcoyotl’s conceptions of himself and his people in relation to deity, and perhaps even serves to legitimize his mandate to rule.
The work, from an oral tradition, is rich in expressive “paintings” of sight, sound, and emotion. It is likely that some of the metaphor employed by him had more esoteric senses, common only to the ruling class and ostensibly transmitted in the amoxcalco.
In my research, I have attempted to approach Nezahualcoyotl, as closely as possible, by using the words attributed to him. My translation work, admittedly, is haphazard and elementary, though it did connect me in a very real way to Nezahualcoyotl’s composition in Nahuatl.
I found that the words Hungry Coyote chose had different senses, and that in translation, words often convey only the sense that the translator chooses to provide. Often, when, comparing my translation with Leon-Portilla’s (and using his as a guide), I purposely chose a different sense or meaning for the Nahuatl word than Leon-Portilla, to see how it sounded, and to see if it continued to make sense in context. It was apparent, from my exercise, that translations are not always literal, and are altered, not in the spirit of intellectual dishonesty, but in a sincere attempt to convey the translation in a manner that will be acceptable and understandable to the target audience.
The work of Nezahualcoyotl is important and is understudied outside of Mexico. In addition to the study of classical Nahuatl as arduous and specialized, this may be because we are still comfortable with the “paintings” presented to us of the Mexica solely as bloodletting, human-sacrificing, warriors. Reading Nezahualcoyotl removes us from our ethnocentric “comfort zone”. His world did include bloodletting, sacrifice, war, and even murder, but his words force us to confront that world’s essential elegance.
1) Leon-Portilla, Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World, pp. 74 – 78.
Gilmore, Flute of the Smoking Mirror, preface.
2) Leon-Portilla, Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World, pp. 74 – 78.
3) 3) Leon-Portilla, Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World, pg. 78.
Bierhorst, John, 1985, Cantares Mexicanos Songs of the Aztecs. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Campbell, R. Joe, 1985, A Morphological Dictionary of Classical Nahuatl. Madison: The Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, Ltd.
Gillmor, Frances, 1949, Flute of the Smoking Mirror (a portrait of Nezahualcoyotl poet-king of the Aztecs). Arizona: The University of Arizona Press.
Kartunnen, Frances, 1983, An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl. Austin: The University of Texas Press.
Leon-Portilla, Miguel, 1992, Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.