Jose Rizal: the poetry of patriotism
There was a bookstore in the Spanish city of Sevilla that sold an anthology of poems considered the best in the Spanish language. Among the works contained in its pages was the poem of Jose Rizal written on the eve of his execution on Dec. 30, 1896. For one reason or another, Rizal did not put a title to that poem. His biographers would now let us know it by the name “Mi Ultimo Adios.” The Spanish editors of the book called it “Despedida.”
But the prosaic title given to the poem could not hide the lofty flights of lyricism in its stanzas. Rizal was given to rhythmic lines. In his “Mi Ultimo Adios,” he wrote: Adios Patria adorada, region del sol querida, perla del mar del oriente, nuestro perdido Eden. In his “Me Piden Versos” written in Madrid in 1882, he mused: piden que pulse la lira, ha tiempo callada y rota, si ya no arranco una nota, ni mi musa ya me inspira. Ever the romantic, he sang to his beloved Josephine: Josefina, Josefina, si tu suerte te encamina, en Japon China o Shanghai, no te olvides, que en estas playas, late por ti un corazon.
Rizal did not appear to have started writing in Spanish. Among his first poems was the well-known “Sa Aking Mga Kabata” written in Tagalog when he was eight years old, where he articulated his now famous aphorism: Ang hindi magmahal sa kanyang salita mahigit sa hayop at malansang isda. But his genius could not be confined to parochial boundaries. He went on to master not only Spanish but other languages as well. He was the linguist non pareil. He was known to have spoken a total of 18 foreign languages. In a little more than a year in Germany he learned to speak in German, delivering a lecture in that language his “Tagalische Verskunst” before the Anthropological Society of Berlin in 1887.
It was the year when Rizal, 26, published his first novel, “Noli Me Tangere,” in Spanish. At an age when college students were still struggling through 24 units of Spanish, he had written a literary masterpiece, a stinging social commentary in the tradition of Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” showing the parallel between the enslaved Negroes of America and the lot of the Filipinos under colonial Spain. In a sense, the “Noli” was the mature stirrings of a soul that was nourished since early years in love of country and steeled by the personal frustrations of later life.
What haunting melody could have accompanied Maria Clara’s rendition of “Sweet are the hours In one’s native land”—dulces las horas en la propia patria, donde es amigo cuanto alumbra el sol, vida es la brisa que en sus campos vuela, grata la muerte y mas tierno el amor. Or who could not have empathized with Elias at the end of the book when he glanced at the east and said: muero sin ver la aurora brillar sobre mi patria…no os olvideis de los que han caido durante la noche. English translators had this read: “I die without seeing the dawn brighten over my native land… Forget not those who have fallen during the night.” The quotation became the source of the title of a major classic of Philippine literature, the novel “Without Seeing the Dawn” written by Stevan Javellana in 1947.
The idea of patriotism was already dominant in Rizal’s early works. His prize-winning poems were written when he was a student at the University of Santo Tomas. In “A La Juventud Filipina,” he exhorted the Filipino youth to rise from lethargy and let their genius untie the chains that bound them.
He soon reeled from the evils that he saw inflicted on his countrymen by the mores of colonial rule. In 1882, he left for Spain to continue his studies and broaden his social and political perspectives. He was then 21. He was terribly homesick but, his nationalism aroused, he stayed on, rejuvenating the Filipino expatriates in Madrid. He wrote “El Amor Patrio” for the first bilingual newspaper in the Philippines showing the sensitivity that only a man pining for his faraway home could feel.
Even in prose, he was the bard soaring on wings of poetic eloquence, as one of his biographers wrote. His toast to Luna and Hidalgo for their achievement in the fine arts may be considered one of his finest public deliveries in defense of the genius of the Filipino race. In Germany, four years later, he saw the wonderful flowers of Heidelberg. Ever lonely for home, he addressed these blooms in his “A Las Flores De Heidelberg”—Id a mi patria, id extranjeros flares, sembradas del viajero en el camino, y bajo su azul cielo, que guarda mis amores, contad del peregrino, la fe que alienta por su patrio suelo.
After the “Noli”, Rizal completed only one more novel, “El Filibusterismo,” which continued the saga of Crisostomo Ibarra in the person of the enigmatic revolutionary Simoun. Probably the most dramatic passage in the work was when the Filipino priest Padre Florentino confronted the dying Simoun. The colloquy that followed was soul-wrenching. The priest looked at the prostrate figure and murmured: Donde esta lajuventud que ha de consagrar sus rosadas horas, sus ilusiones y entusiasmo al bien de patria?
Rizal was still resting his hopes on the Filipino youth whom he earlier referred to in “A La Juventud Filipina” as the fair hope of the fatherland—la bella esperanza de mi patria mia.
A few more notable poems came out of his facile pen. It was his “Himno A Talisay,” written in Dapitan in 1895, that became one of the pieces of evidence against him in his trial a year later. Here he wrote of the talisay tree whose leafy growth symbolized the transformation of the youth into mighty souls in small bodies—alma grande en un cuerpo chiquito—who can guard the rights of their families.
Rizal’s martyrdom was inevitable. He had awakened the spirit of freedom in the hearts and minds of Filipinos of his time.
Mario Guariña III is a former associate justice of the Court of Appeals.
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