"Día De Difuntos" by José Asunción Silva

On the night of May 23, 1896, José Asunción Silva, one of the first Modernist poets, sat on his bed with a mind clouded by grief. After a gilded youth in Bogotá, Colombia, having penned his first poem at the age of 10, Silva danced through the salons of Europe and enjoyed the company of some of the finest artistic minds of the time. It made an indelible impression on his literary style, though his time as a carefree young man would be short lived. 

Following the death of his father and the family’s mounting financial difficulties, Silva returned to Colombia. He took a job in the diplomatic corps in Caracas, Venezuela, to help pay off the swelling debts. During this period, writing poetry was one of his sparing creative outlets. Then more tragedy struck. In 1892, his beloved sister Elvira died. Three years later, a shipwreck took most of his unpublished manuscripts to the bottom of the sea. His life’s work was lost. Despair consumed him. 

Silva made an appointment with a local physician, asking the man to indicate the exact spot of his heart. After a dinner party that evening, he went home, sat on his bed, and shot himself through the chest. He was 30 years old. The poems he left behind were haunting in their musicality and despairing in tone, but were pioneering in their technical construction. "Día De Difuntos" (Day of the Dead) is one of his best known.

Portrait photograph of José Asunción Silva, author of "Día De Difuntos" a poem about bells

Image: Portrait photograph of José Asunción Silva (1865-1896). Courtesy: Casa de Poesía Silva.

"Día De Difuntos" 

José Asunción Silva

(Translated from the original Spanish)

The vague light...the dull day,
    The drizzle falls and makes wet
With its penetrating threads the city cold and deserted.
Through the dreary air an unseen hand throws
A dark, opaque veil of lethal melancholy,
And there is not anyone who, deep-down, is not calmed and recovered
When they see the grey clouds of the somber atmosphere,
    And when they hear above
    Gloomy and dark
    The sleepy accents
    Sad and uncertain
    With which the bells sound
The wailing bells that speak to the living
    of the dead!
    And there is something anguished and uncertain
That mixes its sound with that sound,
And resonates unharmoniously in the concert
That rises the bells up to touch death,
    For all those who have been!
    It is the voice of a bell
    That is marking the time,
    Today the same as tomorrow,
    Rhythmic, constant, and pleasant,
    One bell complains,
    And the other bell weeps,
    The former has the voice of an old woman,
    The latter that of a girl in prayer.
The larger bells, that are twice as hard
Ring with an accent of mystic scorn,
    But the bell that gives the time
    Laughs, it does not cry.
It has in its dry tone subtle ironies,
Its voice seems to speak of joys, of happiness,
Of pleasures, of dates, of parties, and of dances,
Of the worries that fill our days,
It is a voice of the century among a chorus of monks,
    And with its notes it laughs,
    Skeptic and mocking,
    Of the bell that begs
    Of the bell that implores
    And of whatever chorus that commemorates,
    And it's because with its jangling
    It measured out human pain
    And marked the pain's end;
That's why it laughs at the serious bell
That rings there above with funereal sound,
That's why it interrupts the sad concerts
With which the holy bell cries for the dead...
Don't listen to it, oh bells! Don't listen to it,
To the clamor of its serious voice,
Ask the people to sleep now
Far from life, free from desire,
Free from the base human battles!
Follow in the air your swinging,
    Don't listen to it, bells!
Against the impossible what could desire do?
    Up there it rings,
    Rhythmic and serene,
    That golden voice
Without its sisters impeding it
They that pray in chorus
The clock bell 
Ring, ring, ring now
And says that it marks
With its rich vibration
The forgetfulness of time,
That after the veil,
Through which every dead person passes,
In a mourning room
And with their families nearby
In a painful state
While the light of the candles
Illuminates the coffin
And the wreaths of iris
That after the sadness
Of their cries of pain,
Of their words of bitterness,
Of their heart-wrenching weeping,
It marked the moment
In which with the lethargy
Of mourning thought fled
From the dead, and feeling...
Six months later or ten...
And today, the Day of the Dead, now that melancholy
Floats in the grey fog,
In which the drizzle falls, drop by drop,
And with its sadness dulls the nerves,
And wraps in a cloak of the gloomy city,
It has measured the hour and the day
In which to every house, bleak and empty
After the brief mourning joy returns;
It that has marked the time of the dance
In which exactly a year ago, an airy dress,
Worn by a girl for the first time, whose mother sleeps
Forgotten and alone, in the cemetery
It rings indifferent to the monk's voice
Of the serious bell and its serious song;
It that has measured the precise time,
In which to every mouth, that pain had stamped,
As if by magic a smile returned,
That precursor to laughter,
It that has measured the time in which the widower
Spoke of suicide and asked for arsenic
When in the very room, recently perfumed,
Floated the aroma of carbolic acid
And then marked the time in which, mute
With the emotions with which joy overwhelms,
So that they could unite it with sacred knot,
In the same church it was with another bride;
It does not understand the mystery
Of those pains that fill the air,
And it sees in life every tragi-comedic thing
And it keeps marking in the same way
The same enthusiasm and the same recklessness
The flight of time that erases everything!
    And that is what's distressing and uncertain
    That floats in the sound
That is the ironic note that resonates in the concert
    That the bells raise in announcing death.
    For all those who have been!
    That is the final, subtle voice,
    Of crystal vibrations
    That with young accent
    Indifferent to good and evil,
    It measures the vile hour the same 
    As the sublime one or the fateful
    And it resounds,
    In the dark, melancholy heights
    Without having in its ringing
    Clear, rhythmic, and rich,
    The very sad and uncertain accents
    Of that mysterious chorus,
With which the bells pray, the bells,
    The wailing bells
    That speak to the living
    of the dead!

Cover image: Swinging bells hang outside the neoclassical Metropolitan and Primate Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and Saint Peter of Bogotá, which bounds the Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá, Colombia.