Week Four: The Ovillejo

The Ingenious Gentleman Cervantes

The Ovillejo is the first form of this challenge with a lineage that can be traced back to a single well-known source: Miguel de Cervantes’ epic comedy (or is it a tragedy?) The Ingenious Gentleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha, better known today simply as Don Quixote (1605).

Untangling the Ovillejo

Ovillo in Spanish means “ball,” usually indicating a ball of yarn or wool. A Poet’s Glossary explains: “The word ovillego refers to a spool of thread or wool, and this complicated Spanish stanzaic form is ‘tied in a little knot’…[which] unravels in ten lines.”

Learning by Example

The Ovillejo is a complex form which can perhaps be best introduced through example. Below you’ll see an excerpt from Paul Archer’s English translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ poem, “Ovillejos” from Don Quixote, followed by the original Spanish version.

Ovillejos (Archer Translation)

What undermines all I attempt?
Contempt!
What heaps sorrow onto me?
Jealousy!
And what gnaws me through and through?
Missing you!

That’s why nothing will do
to make my distress less –
I’m killed by hopelessness,
contempt, jealousy and missing you!

Ovillejos (Original Spanish)

¿Quién menoscaba mis bienes?
¡Desdenes!
Y ¿quién aumenta mis duelos?
¡Los celos!
Y ¿quién prueba mi paciencia?
¡Ausencia!

De este modo en mi dolencia
ningún remedio se alcanza,
pues me matan la esperanza,
desdenes, celos y ausencia.

Translation vs Original

It’s an understatement to say that translating poetry in any language is a difficult task. In a form with as many requirements as this has, you’ll likely have to make some compromises. Even a non-Spanish speaker should be able to notice that Archer’s translation has preserved the original’s punctuation (excepting the exclamation in the last line) and rhyme scheme, but not the syllable count. The lesson here is you can’t rely solely on any translation to learn the requirements of a given form.

Form Requirements

Structure:
– The Ovillejo is a poem consisting of ten lines

– These ten lines are usually made up of a sestet (6 line stanza) and a quatrain (4 line stanza)

– Any number of Ovillejos can be connected to create a sequence (you’ll see here that Cervantes’ “Ovillejos” is a sequence of three Ovillejos)

Content:
– Lines 1, 3, and 5 of the first stanza must ask a question, which the preceding line (2, 4, 6) must answer

– The second stanza reflects and amplifies the first stanza

– The last line of the second stanza must be a culmination of lines 2, 4, and 6 of the previous stanza (this is known as a redondilla). The exclamation point on the final line appears to be optional

Rhyming:
– The first stanza can either be seen as three couplets, or a sestet with an aa bbcc rhyme scheme

– The second stanza is always a quatrain, with a cddc rhyme scheme

Syllable Count:
– In the first stanza, lines 1 ,3, and 5 consist of eight syllables. Lines 2, 4, and 6 consist of two to three syllables

– Lines 7, 8, and 9 consist of eight syllables in the second stanza

– The final line should consist of seven to ten syllables

If all of these rules are leaving your brain feeling like a ball of tangled yarn, here’s a breakdown:

Ovillejo Requirement Breakdown*

Line 1: a rhyme in 8 syllables (question)
Line 2: a rhyme in 2-3 syllables (single word exclamation)
Line 3: b rhyme in 8 syllables (question)
Line 4: b rhyme in 2-3 syllables (single word exclamation)
Line 5: c rhyme in 8 syllables (question)
Line 6: c rhyme in 2-3 syllables (single word exclamation)

Line 7: c rhyme in 8 syllables
Line 8: d rhyme in 8 syllables
Line 9: d rhyme in 8 syllables
Line 10: (Line 2) (Line 4) (Line 6) (optional exclamation)

*line breakdown adapted from Writer’s Digest

An Original Ovillejo

What do we say when men oppress?
Confess!
To those who drink as others drown?
Step down!
And after we destroy the throne?
Atone!

To prove your soul’s not made of stone,
There’s nothing that you need to do
But lift your polished, deadly shoe,
Confess, step down, and atone.

Online Resources:

Top 10 Question Poems – Tweetspeak
Ovillejo – Writer’s Digest
Ovillejos – Paul Archer (Translator of Cervantes)
Ovillejo – Dark Side of the Moon
Ovillejo – Popular Poetry Forms
Unraveling the Ovillejo – dVerse Poets

2 thoughts on “Week Four: The Ovillejo

  1. Pingback: Week Twelve – The Triolet – Astra Poetica

  2. Pingback: The Ovillejo – Adam of the Universe

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