The sinking of Atlantis

When Jacint Verdaguer burst into the Saló de Cent at the 1865 Jocs florals dressed in traditional Catalan costume, he caused a sensation. The intellectuals of the Catalan cultural renaixença hailed this young man from the countryside writing a fine Catalan a peasant poet


The Catalan language had survived for several centuries in the vernacular, spoken by peasants, labourers and artisans. The language of power was Castilian; and so administration, law courts and education were all conducted in that language. The nineteenth-century renaixença, at first cultural and then through political organisation, started with the recovery of Catalan as a written language. The annual Jocs florals, a mediaeval celebration of poetry re-established in 1859, became a major focus of this cultural renaissance.

Verdaguer (1845-1902) was born in Folgueroles, a village just 4 kilometres from Vic, into a peasant family. A bright child, he was taken into the seminary at Vic for his education. The image of the peasant poet is both false, for Verdaguer was highly educated in classical and European literature, and true, in that the great power of his poetry (and his popularity) is based on his close observation of nature. Long passages of Atlantis (Atlàntida in Catalan) lyrically describe birds, mountains and flowers, contrasting with the poem’s narrative drive, which is the destruction of the legendary city and the slaughter of its inhabitants. This combination of myth and realism, written in a beautiful Catalan, inspired the youth of the renaixença.

Atlàntida won a special prize at the Jocs florals of 1877. It is a poem of 2,591 lines, divided into 10 cantos of four-line stanzas of 12 to 15 syllables rhyming ABAB, though there are variations, particularly in the Introduction and Conclusion, which have six-line stanzas. Much of it was composed on Verdaguer’s trips criss-crossing the Atlantic as chaplain on his patron Antonio López’s trading ships. Ordained a priest in 1870, he had suffered a nervous breakdown in 1873 and was prescribed tobacco (!!) and sea air. With the heightened sensitivity that may follow illness and passing over where Atlantis had sunk, he returned to a poem he had previously set aside and completed his epic.

Hercules, God’s agent

A hermit narrates the ferocious story of Atlantis’ destruction to the sole survivor of a shipwreck, the young Columbus. Alcides, or Hercules, reaches the Garden of the Hesperides to steal the “dazzling golden oranges” (p.65). He kills the guardian dragon, which signifies the woe and end of the Atlantean Empire. Through several cantos, Atlantis is destroyed by pagan Hercules with the support of God who, wrathful at the city’s corruption, punishes the “Babylon of the West”:

Yet – seeing her so lovely! – who would have said

the corrupt humors and cancerous strain

of dark sins would be gnawing at her chest,

and tomorrow’s sun would come to wake her in vain. (p.65)

In Canto Two, Verdaguer excels with his celebration of the beauty of the Garden of the Hesperides:

By green riverbanks, like a splash of pearls,

the bird of paradise leaps in fits and starts;

merry mockingbirds and bashful blackbirds are heard,

joined, now and then, by thrushes sore at heart. (p.67)

This is just one stanza out of numerous, long descriptions of nature, based on the poet-priest’s youthful excursions through the Montseny and Pyrenees. This beauty and peace is constantly contrasted with “boil and chaos” as the city’s mighty marble towers are hurled down into the sea when Hercules wrenches Africa apart from Iberia at Gibraltar and creates the Mediterranean.

Hercules seizes Queen Hesperis as Atlantis and its Titans fall. Canto 6 sees the Queen’s long lament as her daughters and palace are drowned beneath the waves. The giant Titans erect a mighty tower to “mock the rising waters below” and hurl “great stones and bars of iron” (p.127) at the fleeing Hercules and his captive. The world is collapsing. Hercules slays the Titans and uses one of their huge bodies as a club to crush the three-headed dragon, Geryon. Verdaguer (not unlike a director of disaster movies) revels in the violence, while Hesperis recalls happier times with her children and husband.

Spain’s creation myth

Canto 7 is the lyrical Chorus of the Greek Islands, a later addition thought by many to be the best of the poem. While Atlantis is riven by God’s rage and Hercules’ power, new worlds arise, lands of flowers and honey. When in Cantos 8 and 9 Atlantis finally sinks, the Titans’ tower dashed down, Spain is born out of the ruins:

Spain, summoned by a choir of angels, opens eyes

to an unknown sea by her naked body. “Who,”

she asks, “will replace the fallen star in your sky?”

Embracing her, the joyful sea replies, “You.” (p.183)

In Atlantis’ Conclusion, Columbus is inspired by the hermit’s story to seek Queen Isabella’s sponsorship and, following the sun, sets sail for America. “I shall bridge the wide Atlantic once more,” he says (p.221). Verdaguer was no anti-imperialist. For him Spain’s sacred destiny was to link again the continents after the sinking of the corrupt Atlantis.

It may seem strange that this creation myth of Spain is written in Catalan. However, Verdaguer makes it clear this is not the monotone Spain of the centralists, but, as Puppo puts it in his Introduction, “a Spain reborn as a rainbow of Iberian nations.” Hercules’ and Hesperis’ children race round Iberia to found Galicia, Sagunt, Mallorca and Barcelona. Ten years later, Verdaguer surpassed Atlantis with Mount Canigó, his epic of the birth of Catalonia.

This volume, with Catalan and English on facing pages, is the first verse translation of Atlantis to be published in English. It is a labour of love by Ronald Puppo, who has miraculously managed to match the assonance and rhymes of Verdaguer’s stanzas. It reads beautifully, quite rightly prioritising rhythm and flow over strict metrics. Such a 19th-century religious epic as Atlantis may seem daunting, but it is surprisingly accessible. Verdaguer is not academic. His descriptions are vivid. Terrifying destruction is dramatic. Tender beauty is moving.

book review

ATLANTIS Author: Jacint Verdaguer Translation & Introduction: Ronald Puppo Pages: 221 Publisher: Fum d’Estampa (2024) “[Verdaguer’s] images have... a visionary sweep which at the same time is rooted in direct observation.” Professor Arthur Terry

Poetry translator

Ronald Puppo (San Francisco, 1954) is a talented translator of poetry from Catalan to English. He himself is a poet, for his translations are written in fluent verse. Resident in Catalonia since 1979, he became Lecturer in Translation and English at the University of Vic in 1994.

After his Mount Canigó (Barcino·Tamesis, 2015), Atlantis means he has published translations of Verdaguer’s two great epics. The former won the 2016 Serra d’Or Critics Prize for Research in Catalan Studies. Earlier, in a bilingual edition, the University of Chicago Press published Puppo’s Selected Poems of Jacint Verdaguer (2007). He has also translated Josep Carner and Joan Salvat-Papasseit. One Day of Life is Life (Fum d’Estampa, 2020) is a magnificent bilingual selection of Joan Maragall’s poetry and winner of the 2021 Ramon Llull International Literary Translation Award.

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