My rendition below of the old Nahuatl song is derived from both Daniel G. Brinton’s notes and his translation of “Cuicapeuhcayotl” (that is, “Song at the Beginning”), the first section of the song-poems he translates in his Ancient Nahuatl Poetry, published in 1890. Brinton asserted that the original predates the Spanish conquest of that area in Mexico. He wrote:
The song is an allegory, portraying the soul-life of the poet. By the flowers which he sets forth to seek, we are to understand the songs which he desires to compose. He asks himself where the poetic inspiration is to be sought, and the answer is the same as was given by Wordsworth, that it is to the grand and beautiful scenes of Nature that the poet must turn for the elevation of soul which will lift him to the sublimest heights of his art. But this exaltation bears with it the heavy penalty that it disqualifies for ordinary joys. As in medieval tales, he who had once been admitted to fairyland, could nevermore conquer his longing to return thither, so the poet longs for some other condition of existence where the divine spirit of song may forever lift him above the trials and the littleness of this earthly life.
There is no sign of Christian influence in the poem, and it is probably one handed down from a generation anterior to the Conquest.
Brinton’s translation was into a prose form, each section being a paragraph, some of the impact for me coming from his notes. I chose to take his version, plus his notes, rewrite, and cast the song into the form of a current poem.
This song would have been important to the culture especially at that time, influencing the citizens greatly the first and each time they heard it. In no way could it with full import translate to us outside that time, country, and language. It cannot be ours.
My attempt here is to bring as much of it over, to cast it somehow into our waters, such that even if it does not change our lives, as it would the ancient Mexicans submerged in it, ripples may still be felt, even if mixed ones.
Song at the Beginning
For a place to gather fragrant flowers–
whom shall I ask?
Suppose that brilliant hummingbird,
the trembler in emerald.
Suppose the butterfly in yellow.
They will tell me. They know
where flowers are blooming,
and whether I may gather them
here in laurel woods where
the mountain trogon dwells,
or amid the forest flora
where the spoon-billed heron lives.
There, they may be plucked
sparkling with dew. There they
surface in perfection. If appearing,
perhaps they will be shown to me.
I shall place them in folds
of my clothes. I shall
greet the children, and make
you, the noble, glad.
Along such a walk, the rocks
sound in response to the hymns
of flowers. Glittering, trickling water
chatters and turns into
a green fount of birds in love,
singing, dashing together,
and singing again. Mockingbirds
echo them, tanagers answer
with chucks and rattles–
a sundry birds scattering
an outpouring of song
and voice, blessing the earth.
Then, crying out to you in your places,
who can hear . . . if I could help it,
beloved, I would cause no pain.
May those brilliant hummingbirds
come soon. Noble poet,
whom do we seek?
My request, then . . . where are
the beautiful, fragrant flowers,
the ones I use to make you,
my good companions, glad?
Soon they would sing to me, “Here,
minstrel, we will make you see,
and by this, you will make
your noble companions glad.”
Led to a sequestered valley,
a fertile spot, a flowery spot,
where dew is spread in glittering splendor,
I should see beautiful, fragrant flowers,
lovely, odorous flowers, clothed
in this dew, scattered in rainbow glory.
There they would say to me,
“Pluck the flowers, the ones
you wish, so that you, minstrel,
may be glad, then give them
to your friends, the nobles,
so they may rejoice on the earth.”
Gathering into the folds
of my clothes, various fragrant flowers–
the delicate scented, the delicious–
asserting that others may enter,
a myriad of us to be here–I would plan
the announcement that we should rejoice
in all these gorgeous flowers,
to glean sweet songs, to bring this joy
to both friends on earth,
and the mighty in their dignity.
As a minstrel, gathering all
the flowers, placing some upon
the noble ones as clothes, and others
into their hands, I sing to glorify them
before the divine source of all,
where there is no servitude.
Where shall one pluck them?
Where gather the flowers?
How will I get to such a flowery land,
that fertile land
where there is no servitude,
no affliction? If one purchases it
on earth, it is only by submitting
to the divine source. Here on earth
I now grieve to recall where, as poet
and singer, I beheld the flowery spot.
Truth be told, no such spot
exists on earth. Gladness is where
we will all go. What good is earth?
Another life awaits, where sweet
birds sing, where I will know those lovely
fragrant flowers, the delicious ones, the only ones
that intoxicate to rapture, the only
ones that intoxicate to rapture.
1. Ninoyolnonotza, campa nicuiz yectli, ahuiaca xochitl:—Ac nitlatlaniz? Manozo yehuatl nictlatlani in quetzal huitzitziltin, in chalchiuh huitzitzicatzin; manozo ye nictlatlani in zaquan papalotl; ca yehuantin in machiz, ommati, campa cueponi in yectli ahuiac xochitl, tla nitlahuihuiltequi in nican acxoyatzinitzcanquauhtla, manoze nitlahuihuiltequi in tlauhquecholxochiquauhtla; oncan huihuitolihui ahuach tonameyotoc in oncan mocehcemelquixtia; azo oncan niquimittaz intla onechittitique; nocuexanco nictemaz ic niquintlapaloz in tepilhuan, ic niquimellelquixtiz in teteuctin.
2. Tlacazo nican nemi, ye nicaqui in ixochicuicatzin yuhqui tepetl quinnananquilia; tlacazo itlan in meyaquetzalatl, xiuhtotoameyalli, oncan mocuica, momotla, mocuica; nananquilia in centzontlatolli; azo quinnananquilia in coyoltototl, ayacachiçahuacatimani, in nepapan tlazocuicani totome. Oncan quiyectenehua in tlalticpaque hueltetozcatemique.
3. Nic itoaya, nitlaocoltzatzia; ma namechellelti y tlazohuane, niman cactimotlalique, niman hualtato in quetzal huitzitziltin. Aquin tictemohua, cuicanitzine? Niman niquinnanquilia niquimilhuia: Campa catqui in yectli, ahuiac xochitl ic niquimellelquixtiz in amohuampotzitzinhuan? Niman onechicacahuatzque ca nican tlatimitzittitili ticuicani azo nelli ic tiquimellelquixtiz in toquichpohuan in teteuctin.
4. Tepeitic tonacatlalpa, xochitlalpa nechcalaquiqueo oncan on ahuachtotonameyotimani, oncan niquittacaya in nepapan tlazoahuiac xochitl, tlazohuelic xochitl ahuach quequentoc, ayauhcozamalotonameyotimani, oncan nechilhuia, xixochitetequi, in catlehuatl toconnequiz, ma mellelquiza in ticuicani, tiquinmacataciz in tocnihuan in teteuctin in quellelquixtizque in tlalticpaque.
5. Auh nicnocuecuexantia in nepapan ahuiacxochitl, in huel teyolquima, in huel tetlamachti, nic itoaya manozo aca tohuanti hual calaquini, ma cenca miec in ticmamani; auh ca tel ye onimatico nitlanonotztahciz imixpan in tocnihuan nican mochipa tiqualtetequizque in tlazo nepapan ahuiac xochitl ihuan ticuiquihui in nepapan yectliyancuicatl ic tiquimellelquixtizque in tocnihuan in tlalticpactlaca in tepilhuan quauhtliya ocelotl.
6. Ca moch nicuitoya in nicuicani ic niquimicpac xochiti in tepilhuan inic niquimapan in can in mac niquinten; niman niquehuaya yectli yacuicatl ic netimalolo in tepilhuan ixpan in tloque in nahuaque, auh in atley y maceuallo.
7. Can quicuiz? Can quitlaz in huelic xochitl? Auh cuix nohuan aciz aya in xochitlalpan, in tonacatlalpan, in atley y macehuallo in nentlamati? Intla y tlacohua in tlalticpac ca çan quitemacehualtica in tloque in nahuaque, in tlalticpac; ye nican ic chocan noyollo noconilnamiquia in ompa onitlachiato y xochitlalpana nicuicani.
8. Auh nic itoaya tlacazo amo qualcan in tlalticpac ye nican, tlacazo occecni in huilohuayan, in oncan ca in netlamachtilli; tlezannen in tlalticpac? tlacazo occecni yoliliz ximoayan, ma ompa niauh, ma ompa inhuan noncuicati in nepapan tlazototome, ma ompa nicnotlamachti yectliya xochitl ahuiaca xochitl, in teyolquima, in zan tepacca, teahuiaca yhuintia, in zan tepacca, ahuiaca yhuintia.