Don Carlos

Photo credit: Richard Davenport, The Guardian

This poem, an adaptation of the 21st Psalm, is a tribute to the friendship story at the heart of Schiller’s Don Carlos, a play that captivated Dostoevsky’s imagination in his schoolboy days. A certain actor had taken the stage in this play and in Schiller’s The Robbers with an energy and emotive range and candor previously unheard of in the Moscow theater world, and Dostoevsky’s letters to his best friend at the time, and his copious fan references to Schiller’s plays in his later novels, testify to the lasting impression his performances made on the young writer’s mind.

Young Dostoevsky left the theater determined to learn German, so that he could read Schiller in the original rather than in translation. In their correspondence he and his best friend role played the idyllic friendships that motivated these two plays and Homer’s Iliad. This is a side of Dostoevsky one rarely sees, and I have a gem of a book of literary criticism to thank for it – Schiller in Russian Literature, by Edmund Kostka.

I read Don Carlos in order to be able to appreciate those fan references in The Brothers Karamazov, and because it came in a volume together with Schiller’s Mary Stuart, which I wanted to read because David Tennant was recently in the film Mary, Queen of Scots (it’s on my watch list). I found an excellent blank verse translation and found myself captivated, too.

In this scene, Don Carlos, the Spanish prince, has been imprisoned at his best friend the Marquise of Posa’s command. The prince has long lived in the shadow of a disapproving father who married the woman Prince Carlos had been betrothed to, after the death of the prince’s mother. In his turn, the prince disapproves of his father’s autocratic and clerical rule, and the burning of heretics and routing of nascent democracy in Spain’s rebellious territories in Flanders. Now his secret infatuation with his mother-in-law is on the verge of becoming public, and his best friend has mysteriously risen in the king’s favor. Trusting his friend to steer the king toward better statesmanship even if he must sacrifice their friendship to achieve this influence, Don Carlos vacillates between pleading for his own life, which clearly hangs by a thread, and extending to the Marquise his blind faith in the values they both share.

Posa, where are you? Have you forsaken us?
Shut up far from hope, in anguish I roar.
Posa, I sought you by day – still no answer,
by night – only restless exhaustion, alone.
And now you are renowned in the King’s favors.
In you the monarch invests his guarded praise,
he listens, and you work to set his soul free.
To you he turned when all others seemed faithless,
in you he trusted and was not put to shame.
But I am reduced to this – I am no prince,
a disgrace in his eyes, by the court reviled.
All who see me taken thus are disgusted –
I see their lips twist up, and their heads shaking.
Who turns to the truth, the truth will set him free.
Honor will save him, for honor safeguards truth.
For you drew me out of the cave and turned me,
brought me safe into the glaring light of day.
Into your arms fate cast me from my first test,
your friendship filled my life, from my mother’s womb.
Do not be distant, please, do not hide your face,
for my hour of desperation is come,
for between us if there were worlds, none would help.
Armed guards have seized me, their armor surrounds me,
the captains of Spain have turned their spears toward me.
They showed me their teeth and they gaped against me –
all Spain confronts me, a ravening lion.
You gave the order. My limbs turned to water,
arrested at your feet, I obeyed, splayed out.
My heart curled like a wax tablet, now effaced,
softer than beating flesh, melting in my breast.
My palate went dry as a grave’s crude ceiling,
and sealed my tongue to my jaw, meat on a hook,
and in with the dust of the dead you thrust me.
For the courtiers rushed to encircle me,
a pack of scavengers crowded around me,
like a lion they bound me up, hand and foot.
They seemed to be tallying up all my bones.
It is they who turned their eyes and stared at me.
They divvied up all that I had – my garments,
indeed they cast lots for my clothes, the jackals.
But you, Posa, in this bleak void, be not far.
Root and stem of my strength, make haste to my side!
Redeem my naked life from my father’s sword,
safeguard me from scavenging court flatterers.
Prise me from the grip of murderous clerics.
With the ringing of silver trumpets reply.
Let me cry your name to my beloved Queen,
in my last words to her, let me praise Posa.
Those who quake before the King’s favorite, praise him!
All the flower of Spain, revere the Marquise!
And be afraid of him, all knights of Madrid!
For he has not stood aloof from nor despised
the plight of the heretics burned in Flanders,
and has not covered his eyes to our clerics;
when free men at bay cried out to him, he heard.
For you I give praise before Madrid’s people.
Our vows I fulfill – for the King is in awe.
The lowly will finally taste freedom in Spain.
Those who seek help will praise the noble Marquise.
May this day mark your triumph – be glad, my friend.
All the cities of Europe will remember
and return our people to honor and grace.
All the burghers and princes of blood and kings
will concede that your rule has been just and sane.
For in your hands the King’s trust resides today –
and through him you will transform this proud nation.
Have faith, for on earth as in heaven bow down
the souls of all peoples before a just lord.
Before him who governs with virtue will kneel
Spain’s soldiers and all who go down to the dust,
on his soul will they lay their lives when undone.
My children, too, would have needed your guidance.
Your legacy must stand in mine’s stead, my friend.
All Spain will acclaim the fruits of your labors,
for with my consent, your ascendancy comes.

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