Borges on Don Quixote

Though I’m often fascinated with Borges’ ideas, too often I find his poetry too “intellectual” for my taste. In that sense, he reminds me more of Emerson, whose ideas I adored and whose poetry I tolerated, than he does of Whitman, whose poetry I adored but whose ideas seemed, at best, derivative.

Occasionally, though I run into poems like these that seem almost perfect:


Beginning to fear his own unworthiness
for campaigns like the last he fought, at sea,
this soldier, resigning himself to minor duty,
wandered unknown in Spain, his own harsh country.

To get rid of or to mitigate the cruel
weight of reality, he hid his head in dream.
The magic past of Roland and the cycles
of Ancient Britain warmed him, made him welcome.

Sprawled in the sun, he would gaze on the widening
plain, its coppery glow going on and on;
he felt himself at the end, poor and alone,

unaware of the music he was hiding;
plunging deep in a dream of his own,
he came on Sancho and Don Quixote, riding.

As a footnote explains, Cervantes was a soldier in Urbina’s army. How perfect that a sense of “unworthiness” should produce one of the greatest works of literature ever written, a work often described as the first novel. In retrospect, that sense of “unworthiness” probably was essential in creating Don Quixote, one of the most charming failures ever created. What a fine line there is between failure and success.

And a few pages later, I find:


Of that gentleman with the sallow, dry complexion
and knightly disposition, they conjecture
that, always on the edge of adventure,
he never actually left his library.
The precise chronicle of his campaigning
and all its tragicomical reversals
was dreamed by him and not by Cervantes
and is no more than a record of his dreaming.
Such is also my luck. I know there is something
essential and immortal that I have buried
somewhere in that library of the past
in which I read the story of that knight.
The slow leaves now recall a solemn child
who dreams vague things he does not understand.

This is one of my favorite poems dealing with Borges’ dream motif. He adds another dimension here when he has a “character” dreaming his own adventures, rather than the author dreaming them, and ties these dreams into his childhood dreams, dreams he never quite understood. In an early poem “Break of Day” he says “if things are void of substance/ and if this teeming Buenos Aires/ is no more than a dream/ made up by souls in a common act of magic. In “Ars Poetica,” he says, “To be aware that waking dreams it is not asleep/While it is another dream, and that the death/That our flesh goes in fear of is that death/Which comes every night and is called sleep.”