"Will nothing last in my name - Nothing of my fame here on earth?"

My grandmother died in 1991.   She lived over 95 years and she loved to paint landscapes.   I am fortunate to have one of her paintings.   The painting was framed in a simple and inexpensive manner.   It had a cheap wooden frame.   The matting around the painting was green burlap material.   The backside was a brown paper Piggly Wiggly grocery bag glued to the edges of the wooden frame.   My grandmother always re-used materials in this manner.

Recently my wife and I decided to have this painting properly framed so that we might proudly display it.   While removing the painting from the old frame, we discovered a poem on the back of a blank check in my grandmother's handwriting.   It was glued to the backside of the painting and then covered by the brown paper bag.   I am convinced that she left this as a message to those of us that survived her.

This page is about her message and the source of the poem.

I was struck by this poem.   She must have known that the painting would last beyond her years.   She wanted to leave this to us, and to let us know that this was her way to leave a part of herself to us after her death.

I was also intrigued by the source of the poem.   What is the "Songs of Huexotzingo"?   I decided to do some reasearch.

These lines are from a poem that is attributed to Ayocuan Cuetzpaltzin, also known as the White Eagle of Tecamachalco.   It dates back to the 1500's, about the time of the Spanish invasion of Mexico (1521).   The language of the Aztecs is known as Nahuatl.   The poems of the time were passed down verbaly.   In his book on the life of Netzahualcoyotl, the ruler of Texcoco, Jose Luis Martinez points out that Nahuatl poetry routinely used extended metaphors, not only for the names of deities but also for places, actions, heroes, and concepts of special significance.   The floating city of Tenochtitlan was known as "the place of the white willows" or "the place of the eagle and the cactus".   Warfare was "the song of shields" or "flowers of the heart upon the plain."   For the Mexicans, poetry was a combination of two words, flowers and song.   These terms and concepts appear frequently in the poetry of the time.

It was not until later that century that various Nahualt poems of the Aztecs were documented in two collections: "Romances de los señores de la Nueva España" and "Cantares Mexicanos."   Both were compiled between 1560 and 1582.   A few songs are duplicated in both the Romances and the Cantares, attesting to their authenticity and popularity.   Neither manuscript has a compiler's name attached.

In 1992 (after my grandmother's death) professor Miguel León-Portilla translated many of these works and published them in his book "Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World."   Below is a copy of the entire poem as translated by Miguel León-Portilla.

From within the Heavens
by Ayocuan Cuetzpaltzin
(translated by Miguel León-Portilla)

From within the heavens they come,
the beautiful flowers, the beautiful songs,
but our yearning spoils them,
our inventiveness makes them lose their fragrance,
although not those of the Chichimec prince Tecayehuatzin.
With his, rejoice!

Friendship is a shower of precious flowers
White tufts of heron feathers
are woven with precious red flowers,
among the branches of the trees
under which stroll and sip
the lords and nobles

Your beautiful song
is a golden wood thrush
most beautiful, you raise it up.
You are in a field of flowers.
Among the flowery bushes you sing.
Are you perchance a precious bird of the Giver of Life?
Perchance you have spoken with God?
As soon as you saw the dawn,
you began to sing.
Would that I exert myself, that my heart desire,
the flowers of the shield,
the flowers of the Giver of Life.

What can my heart do?
In vain we have come,
we have blossomed forth on earth.
Will I have to go alone
like the flowers that perish?
Will nothing remain of my name?
Nothing of my fame here on earth?
At least my flowers, at least my songs!

What can my heart do?
In vain we have come,
we have blossomed forth on earth.

Let us enjoy, O friends,
here we can embrace.
We stroll over the flowery earth.
No one here can do away
with the flowers and the songs,
they will endure in the house of the Giver of Life

Earth is the region of the fleeting moment.
Is it also thus in the Place
Where in Some Way One Lives?

Is one happy there?
Is there friendship?
Or is it only here on earth
we come to know our faces?

How did my grandmother know of this poem?   It is fairly obscure, and most translations are in Spanish.   Did she see it in a book? a magazine? a newspaper?   This is a mystery, which we will never solve.

Chris Guinn, Nov. 13, 2003

Selected Research Links

These links contain other versions of this poem and additional information about Nahuatl Poetry.   The poem originated in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.   It has since been translated into Spanish and then English.   Some of these pages are automated tanslations from Spanish into English by Google and may be awkward.

Aztec (Nahuatl) Poetry (source of this translation)

Songs of Huexotzingo Spanish and English of short verse

Flowers and song: Nahuatl poetry including another short version of the poem

The Flowers and The Songs [English Translation by Google] (another version) and Los flores y los cantos [original SPANISH]

Flowers and Songs [English Translation by Google] (another version) and additional information

The Flower Songs of Hungry Coyote - Poet of Ancient Mexico (background material on Nahualt Poetry)

An interpretation of Nahuatl metaphysics in the era of the Conquest (background material)

Nahuatl Poetry research by Angel María Garibay K

Aztec Poetry (background material)

Nahua Literature: fusion between reality and desire additional background material [English translation by Google]

The Aztec Way of Poetry (background material)