The Theme and Origin of the Poem
Though the lyric verses of The Spiritual Canticle do not mention Christ explicitly, St. John of the
Cross, according to his commentary, sings in them about the loving exchange between a soul and Christ,
the Bridegroom. The soul undoubtedly represents John himself and the stanzas disclose the colloquy of love
that must have occurred between himself and Christ.
Asking ourselves why John expressed this loving communication in poetry, we find the clue to an
answer in his Prologue. There he explains that the stanzas are utterances of love flowing from mystical
understanding. In stanza 25, he tells how the Beloved can set the soul ablaze by a loving touch, like a hot
spark leaping from a fire. The will is then enkindled in loving, desiring, praising, and thanking God. The bride
calls these acts "flowings from the balsam of God." Born out of the mystical understanding that was
communicated to John's soul in the touch of the spark, these stanzas or canticles are, then, like flowings or
outpourings from the balsam of God.
St. Teresa in chapter 16 of her Life tells explicitly how the mystic sometimes feels the impulse to
express in poetry a deep spiritual experience, even though talent as a poet may be lacking: "Oh, help me
God! What is the soul like when it is in this state! It would want to be all tongues so as to praise the Lord. It
speaks folly in a thousand holy ways, ever trying to find means of pleasing the one who thus possesses it. I
know a person who though not a poet suddenly composed some deeply felt verses well expressing her
Expression of the Ineffable
Although these canticles resulted from a love flowing out of abundant mystical understanding,
they cannot declare fully the understanding or experience. John asks in the Prologue: "Who can describe in
writing the understanding he [the Beloved] gives to loving souls in whom he dwells? And who can express
with words the experience he imparts to them? Who, finally, can explain the desires he gives them?
Certainly, no one can! Not even they who receive these communications." Always, as John explains in
stanza 7, there is an "I-don't-know-what" that strives to be articulated, something further to say, something
unknown, not yet spoken, a sublime trace of God still uninvestigated but revealed to the mystic. The effort to
convey the contents of the experience becomes sheer stammering.
Faced with an inability to make their experience clearly known and at the same time feeling a
loving impulse to convey it outwardly, these persons who speak of mysteries and secrets seem to be
uttering absurdities. But the apparent absurdities of the poetic images and similes are a more powerful
means than rational explanations for expressing the mystical experience; they can suggest so much more
about its contents. John, in fact, points out that his is the method of the Holy Spirit who, "unable to express
the plenitude of his meaning in ordinary words, utters mysteries in strange figures and likenesses," as for
example in the Song of Songs.
In fact the Song of Songs is the principal source of The Spiritual Canticle. In this biblical work
John found an expression of his own profound experience, and also found the scenes, images, and words,
even though sometimes foreign to his environment, with which to create his own work.
That the figures and similitudes of poetry speak about the inexpressible exchange of love
between Christ and John of the Cross more adequately than do ordinary words does not mean that every
mystic must be a poet. The work of art, as such, is the creation of the poet, not of the mystic. Still, the
mystical understanding and experience will doubtless have an impact on the activity of the poet. The lines of
poetry may flow from the impulse of the mystical understanding or they may be composed in the love that
endures for some days after the spark of the divine touch has passed. This love, says John, lasts together
with its effect a long while, and sometimes a day or two, or many days, though not always in the same
degree of intensity.
A Story About Love
In the form of an eclogue, the poem tells a story of love between two lovers, bridegroom and
bride. The story unfolds through dialogue between them. In this way John recounts, somewhat mysteriously,
the history of his love for Christ, a love in response to Christ's love for him. Essentially dynamic, the love
moves forward, marking degrees or stages of John's spiritual life, which develops along lines parallel with
love and dependent on it. This movement of love sustains the poem and supplies the direction and
framework for the stanzas. Although the verses uncover a personal story by describing the advance in love,
they do not set forth explicitly every moment of communion with Christ. Nor do they present a precise
temporal perspective; they do not reveal in their sequence a progressive chronological order, verse by
verse, stanza by stanza. The development appears rather in blocks of stanzas that focus on some of the
vibrant moments in the life of divine love.
The bride speaks in 32 of the stanzas, the bridegroom in 7, and creatures in 1. The stanzas
contain both narration and supplication. The bride tells of her anxious search for her beloved, describes her
encounters with him, the qualities of the beloved, and the gifts she receives from him. She beseeches the
beloved to surrender and reveal himself, to free her from her enemies, from obstacles, and from all ties that
impede union with him; she begs above all for a greater communion with him.
The bridegroom speaks at three places in the poem where a shift in the action occurs. His words
bring about the union that the bride seeks; they have transforming power. He also gives himself with his
words, in peace, solitude, and unreserved love,
The first 13 stanzas show a state of anxious, hurried searching. The two stanzas that follow
express the joy of union, and they delay over it through the use of many adjectives and the absence of
verbal activity. Then the poet returns to images of restlessness conveying the incompleteness of the union.
Beginning with stanza 22, where full union takes place, the rhythm slows and the images turn inward: the
bed, the inner wine cellar, the garden. The poem in this way moves between two extremes, one moment
turning to the whole realm of nature, and the next concentrating on one tiny part. The first stanza bursts
forth abruptly in interrogation and action, the last provides a scene of complete peace; it is in fact
anticlimactic and gives a sense of relaxation, termination, and rest.
More precisely, the four phases of the action dealt with in the blocks of stanzas are: The bride
goes out searching for her beloved to the mountains and the watersides, learning many things about him but
never satisfied; this knowledge only increases her longings for him, wounds her with deeper love (stanzas 1-
12). After all this searching and longing, she catches sight of him on the hill. Her condition changes; he is
for her like mountains, lonely wooded valleys, strange islands, silent music, the tranquil night. Yet the bride
and her beloved are not wholly free from disturbances, the foxes, the deadening north wind, the girls of
Judea, the swift-winged birds, lions, stags, fears of night; all seek to unsettle the communion of love
(stanzas 13-21). Ultimately the bride enters the sweet garden of her desire, laying her neck on the gentle
arms of her beloved, and in the inner wine cellar drinks of her beloved. There he gives her his breast, and
there teaches her a sweet, living knowledge. She is no longer seen or found on the common (stanzas 22-
35). In the end she desires to go with her beloved to the mountain and the hill, further, deep into the thicket,
and then on to the high caverns in the rock there where he will show her and give the vision of his beauty
in glory (stanzas 36-40).
This overall plan of the poem embodies four main aspects of the life of love. From the viewpoint
of the communion of love between Christ and the soul we have: 1) the anxious loving search for the
Beloved; 2) the first encounter with him, called the spiritual betrothal, and the life of union with him that is
nonetheless disturbed by many outward and inward impediments; 3) perfect union with the Bridegroom, or
the spiritual marriage, the mutual and total gift of self, various facets of the communion of love; 4) desire for
perfect union with the Beloved in glory.
The poetic symbols delineate this development of love and represent the gracious gifts the soul
receives from her Beloved. These gifts are the communications of knowledge and love: the favors, visits,
wounds, and touches of love. The increasingly intimate communion with the divine Bridegroom is wrought by
means of an increasingly elevated knowledge and love of him. First, such loving knowledge arises from the
consideration of creatures; second, it flows from consideration of God's works manifested in the mysteries of
faith, particularly the Incarnation; third, it originates with a touch of supreme knowledge of the divinity. As the
loving knowledge of God grows in depth and power, the soul withdraws from every affection contrary to her
good, which is the will of the divine Bridegroom.
The Time of Composition
In the confinement of his cramped prison cell in Toledo, John had to look inward for a feeling of
expansion. What helped him were the images of the Song of Songs, a work he knew by heart: mountains,
valleys, rivers, fountains, flowers all that we associate with being outside, free in the open country.
Rearranging these images, he began composing his own song based on them. The result was the first 31
stanzas of the Spiritual Canticle. Later, with writing materials supplied by a sympathetic guard, he jotted
down these stanzas along with other poems he had composed there. Not long after the night that John
escaped from his prison, the discalced Carmelite nuns in Beas read his little notebook of poems; they at
once made copies of them. In the following years, at various times, John added more stanzas.
With regard to the last five stanzas, the story is told that while John was prior of Granada and
was passing through Beas, he asked Madre Francisca de la Madre de Dios her manner of prayer. She
answered simply that it consisted in beholding God's beauty and rejoicing that he possessed it. John so
exulted in her answer that for several days he spoke sublime and wonderful things concerning the beauty of
God. Carried away by love, he wrote five stanzas on this beauty, beginning with: "Let us rejoice,
beloved,/and let us go forth to behold ourselves in your beauty."
The first ones to read the Canticle, the Carmelite nuns in Beas, were in awe over its lines,
recognizing in them something of astounding depth. What lay hidden behind these words that to some might
seem absurdities? They begged the poet for some enlightenment. How could they, left to themselves, probe
deeply enough to catch all the meaning hidden in the rich symbols? Thus Fray John of the Cross began his
commentary. At first in spiritual conferences, later in writing, he drew out the treasures contained in his
verses. In the end, at the request of Madre Ana de Jesús, he compiled a complete commentary.
In the commentary, the Carmelite friar wishes to do no more than shed some general light on the
meaning of his poem by interpreting the symbols. Translating the imagery verse by verse, he discloses the
basic order of the poem, which, he assures us, corresponds to the personal experience of the poet and, in
its general plan, to the common path that leads to spiritual perfection. In addition to his proposal in the
prologue to give a commentary on the poem, he promises to dwell at length on some matters concerning
prayer and its effects, making use of scholastic theology.
Shaping the commentary and the poem into a unified whole did not come easily to the master of
spiritual theology. A lyric creation by a poet does not necessarily show concern for the logical demands of a
theologian. Finally, in an effort to present an orderly analysis of the evolution of the spiritual life, John
rearranged the stanzas to establish more precise order. He did this while revising the first commentary he
composed. The result is that two redactions of The Spiritual Canticle have been preserved for posterity.
Some think that the change of sequence in the stanzas has harmed the poetic spontaneity and
inspiration of the poem. Whether or not this is true, the doctrinal underpinnings have been enhanced in the
second version. Despite the improvement, though, some imprecision in the order of the stanzas still
remains. In an attempt to explain the arrangement of the verses, John asserts that the soul begins with the
practice of mortification and meditation, referred to in the first four stanzas, then walks along the paths and
straits of love until stanza 13. But the first two stanzas do not speak of mortification and meditation. They
speak clearly of the pains, longings, and straits of love. The condition alluded to in the first two stanzas is
that of "impatient love." If any of these stanzas speak of mortification and meditation, they are stanzas 3 and
4. In stanza 7, John speaks of a touch of supreme knowledge of the divinity, a favor belonging more
properly to those stanzas in the general plan that describe a higher period of the spiritual life. Stanza 22
speaks of spiritual marriage, a state, in his teaching, far surpassing spiritual betrothal. Still in stanzas 27, 28,
and 30, we find John speaking again, not precisely, of spiritual betrothal.
The stanzas in themselves do not have to be held hostage within the strict confines of the period
designated for them in the commentary. The lines pulsating with impatient love need not apply only to the
first period of searching; nothing prevents them from being uttered again in those absences of the Beloved
that the soul suffers in the period of spiritual betrothal when the torment is greater because of a more
intense love. The luxuriant images used in describing the abundant communication received in the state of
spiritual betrothal could just as well apply to a communication received in the state of spiritual marriage.
This difficulty involved in attempting to fit the poetic work of art into the logical framework of the
commentary calls for caution in any endeavor to determine the period of the spiritual life to which the
stanzas refer, even though these periods are specified both at the beginning of the work in the Theme and
in stanza 22.
The Elements of the Commentary
The chief elements constituting the commentary are:
1) After the particular quotation of each stanza a general summary of its meaning brings into relief
its content and relation to the previous or following stanza.
2) A detailed explanation of each verse presents a literal interpretation of the words in relation to
the narrative as a whole. Focusing on the various moments of the spiritual life to which the poem alludes, it
may be separate from or united to the doctrinal clarifications.
3) The doctrinal clarifications seek to justify theologically the teaching contained in the explanation
of the verse; in addition, they seek to accommodate the teaching as much as possible to the actual
development of the spiritual life. With the use of texts from Sacred Scripture and through theoretical
reasoning they enlarge considerably the doctrinal scope of the simple commentary. It is important to note
these teachings, for they do not always correspond to the spiritual moment laid before us in the lines of the
stanza. Sometimes these explanations are patent digressions forming something apart from the commentary
on the verses. They become the lengthier explanations promised in the prologue about "some matters
concerning prayer and its effects." More frequently they appear in immediate relation to the literary and
doctrinal content of the stanza. In these cases the additional elucidation suits well the spiritual moment
described in the poem; but at the same time establishes general principles that do not belong to this
moment alone, as for example in stanza 1, numbers 4-11.
4) Finally, the introductions placed before most of the stanzas mold them into a systematic whole.
These introductions, with the exception of the one to stanzas 13 and 14, are proper to the revised version of
the Canticle known as the second redaction, or Canticle B. In his second redaction, after quoting the entire
poem, John also adds a few paragraphs under the title Theme that tell generally how the stanzas refer to
the classic stages of the spiritual life. But keeping in mind all the elements that go to make up the
commentary, one can expect and will find doctrine about a particular spiritual period in stanzas other than
those ascribed to that period.
The Two Redactions of the Commentary
The two redactions of The Spiritual Canticle, commonly distinguished as Canticle A and Canticle
B, differ from one another in both the sequence and the number of stanzas. Moreover, the commentary of
the second redaction, Canticle B, incorporates more detail. Canticle A comprises 39 stanzas; Canticle B, 40,
the additional one being stanza 11. The first 14 stanzas follow the same sequence in both redactions; the
final seven stanzas also follow the same sequence. The reorganization of the stanzas occurs, then, in the
middle section of the poem, from stanza 16 (or 15 in Canticle A) to stanza 33 (or 32 in Canticle A).
No one has ever seriously questioned the authenticity of the first redaction, but that of the second
did come under debate, although with arguments that scholarship has shown to be unacceptable. No reason
now exists for doubting that the revision is the work of John himself. The historical documentation in
manuscripts and testimonies supporting the authorship of John of the Cross is plentiful and trustworthy. The
style of the work, the language, the thought, are inimitably John's. The attempts made to attribute the work
to some other author have either lacked a concrete historical foundation or failed to establish even the
slightest similarity in style.
That John might review his writings and make additions and revisions should bring no surprise.
We find an excellent example of his doing so in the Codex of Sanlúcar de Barrameda (a copy of Canticle
A). Here in his handwriting are a number of marginal and interlinear corrections, changes, and additions.
These paved the way for Canticle B and the developments made therein.
All the codices of both redactions state that the commentary was written at the request of Madre
Ana de Jesús, prioress of the discalced Carmelite nuns in Granada, and they add the date 1584. As for
the second redaction, it must have been written sometime in 1585-86, after the first redaction of the Living
Flame of Love, since in the revised commentary on stanza 31 John refers to this latter work.
Clearer, better arranged, and more valuable from a doctrinal viewpoint, Canticle B best suits our
purposes for this collection of John's works. The translation follows the Codex of Jaén, the most
trustworthy copy of the second redaction.
The Spiritual Canticle may be divided this way:
I. The Search for the Beloved (stanzas 1-12).
The initial burst into song; the bride laments the absence of her bridegroom.
First steps of the spiritual journey.
Longings and the weariness of impatient love.
II. Preparations for Perfect Union (stanzas 13-21).
Encounters of loving union.
Urgent desires for complete freedom from inner and outer
III. Full Union (stanzas 22-40).
The mutual, total surrender and gift of self in spiritual marriage.
Comparison of the present with the past.
Delights of union and desires for the vision of glory.