The Prison of Love

Diego de San Pedro

Artwork by June Glasson

After last year's war was over, returning home to pass the winter in my miserable abode, and walking one morning, when the sun had already begun to throw light over the land, through the dark, empty valleys that clutter in the Sierra Morena, I came upon a horseman among the oak woods where my path had led, as cruel of countenance as he was fearsome to behold, all covered in hair like a savage; he had in his left hand a shield of thick steel, and in the right held the figure of a woman carved in some brilliant stone, of such extraordinary beauty that, looking on it, my vision began to blur; she gave off flickers of flame that singed the flesh of the man the horseman towed behind him, who was bound with chains. And from time to time the prisoner called out, with a wounded cry: "In my devotion, all is endured."  And as he came up beside me he said, in mortal agony, "Traveler, in the name of God, follow me, and aid me in my misery."

I had more cause to tremble than reason to reply. My eyes fixed on the strange scene and I was stunned, diverse considerations echoing in my heart. To leave my path would be foolish, but it was indecent to refuse the pleas of one in such travail; to follow him would be perilous, to turn away, craven; and I did not know what was best. But then I saw how much more obliged to virtue I was than to life. I rebuked myself for having doubted, and I ran after the prisoner. With little delay I reached him, and we went on through regions no less arduous of access than barren of solace or signs of life; and though the prisoner's cry had compelled me to follow, I had neither the strength to vanquish nor the stature to address his captor; and I was unsure how to go forward. Various prospects passed through my mind, until at last I thought it best to engage him in talk, so that having heard his responses, I might better understand his character. I begged him to tell me who he was; to which he responded: "Traveler, naturally I have not the least wish to converse with you; my office is rather to execute evil than to conciliate with good. But being of noble stock, I will treat you with the grace of my rearing and not with the malice of my character. Know then, since it pleases you, that I am chief officer in the House of Love; my name is Desire; and with this shield I smite all hope, with this icon I kindle longings and with them I burn lives to cinders, as you can see with my captive, whom I am escorting to the Prison of Love, from which death is the sole means of escape."

As the knight said these things, we were scaling a mountain so high, I feared the thin air might kill me; he finished his answer as, with great effort, we overtook the peak; and seeing that I wished to engage him further—I had just begun to thank him for his kindness—he vanished from sight. Night was falling, and there was no way to tell where he had fled; and as the darkness and the unfamiliarity of the landscape weighed against me, I thought it best to travel no further.

Then I began to curse my misfortune. I lost hope; I awaited my doom; and in this tribulation, I did not rue what I had done, for it is better to embrace death in virtue than to elude it in cowardice; and I was all night lost in sad and straitened meditations.

And when the light of day pulled back the darkness from the fields, I saw nearby, on the summit of the range, a tower so high, it seemed to graze the heavens; of such artful construction, I marveled at its oddity. Standing at the foot of it, I was awed by its shape and the novelty of its construction. Its foundation was of a strong and lucent stone, the like of which I had never seen, above which rested four pillars of violet marble, very beautiful to behold. So high they stretched, I wondered that they could stand; and above them was a three-cornered tower of unimaginable fortitude. In each of its corners, at the crest, were human figures wrought in metal, each of a distinct color: the first lion-orange, the second black, the third one grey: the colors of sorrow, grief, and toil. Each grasped a chain tight in one hand. I saw above the tower a pinnacle on which an eagle perched, whose beak and wings, blazing with the light that shone within the tower, flickered fiercely; and I heard the call of two sentries, each fast at his post.

Naturally astonished at these things, I knew not what they were nor what they boded. In great doubt and confusion, I saw a staircase affixed to the marble that led to a portal in the tower. Its entrance was so dark, any man would fear to mount it. But I resolved rather to lose my life in the ascent than to preserve it on the ground, and scorning fate, I began to climb. With three steps left I found an iron door. I touched it with my hands. I could not see it, so thick lay the darkness around me. In the doorway I found a watchman, and I asked his leave to enter; and he bid me pass, but said I must leave my arms behind; and when I handed him my wayfarer's sword and dagger, he said:

"It appears, my friend, you are unacquainted with the house's customs. The arms I asked of you are rather those employed by the heart in its struggle against sorrow; I mean, tranquility, hope, and happiness; it is these you must leave with me, or I cannot grant your request."

Not pausing to consider so unusual a condition, I replied that I had come without them. He opened the door, and with great effort I groped my way to the top, where a second guard asked me the same questions as the first. Hearing the same answer, he let me by; and reaching the main hall, I saw in the center of it a flaming throne, on which was seated the captive who had been the cause of my perdition. I said nothing. My eyes could not rest, and I saw that the chains held by the three figures atop the tower bound that wretched creature, who was bathed in unquenchable flames. I saw two woeful maidens, their faces streaked with tears, and they attended to him. Ruthlessly they pushed down on his head a crown of iron thorns, which pierced his brain. And I saw a black man in yellow dress who came in several times and gouged at him with a pike, and he bore the blows, I saw, on a shield sprung suddenly from his head, which stretched to the bottoms of his feet. And more, I saw that when they served his meal, they set before him an ebon table. Three meticulous waiters fed him with utmost ceremony. And turning my eyes to the table's far edge, I saw an old man sitting in a chair, his chin in his hand like a thinker; and I should have seen none of this, in the darkness of the chamber, but for the brilliance that shone from the captive's heart and immersed the whole scene in light.

He saw I was stunned by the mysteries before me, and he gave me an account, blended with desolate tears.



The Prisoner to the author

"If only some chamber of my heart were drained of longing, I might feel for you the pity you deserve. But you can see that in my tribulation I am numb to all pain but my own. Take comfort not in what I do, but what I would do, if I had the power. You came here for me. You saw me taken prisoner. In your confusion, I wonder that you recognized me. You came to rescue me: let my words be your solace. I wish to tell you who I am; to explain what you have seen; to tell you how I came here; and to beg of you to free me, if you should find it right to do so.

"I am Leriano, son of Duke Gueriso and Duchess Coleria. I am of this kingdom, which is called Macedonia. Fate decreed that I should fall in love with Laureola, daughter of King Gaulo, our present sovereign. I should have fled this affliction rather than seeking it out; but man cannot elude the stirrings of sensuality, as Thomas Aquinas has explained, and rather than routing them with reason, I embraced them with my will. In this way Love defeated me and dragged me to this house, which is called the Prison of Love. Pitiless, watching the sails of my desire unfurl, he condemned me to the state you find me in. And that you should better understand what lies behind it all and the meaning of what you have seen here, you should know that the stone on which the prison is founded is my hope, which steels me against my torments for the sake of the benefits they harbor. The four pillars that rise above it are my Understanding, my Reason, my Memory, and my Will. Love ordered them to his presence before he sentenced me, and that justice should be served, he asked each in its turn whether it consented to his taking me; for if any had not, he would have chosen mercy.

"My Understanding said: 'I consent to this cruelty for the good of its cause. I therefore vote for imprisonment.'

"My Reason said: 'Not only do I consent to imprisonment, I demand death; as a happy death will suit him better than the wretched life that awaits him, given her who is the object of his sufferings.'

"My Memory said: 'Since his understanding and reason agree, and without dying he shall never be free, I too consent, and it shall not be forgotten.'

"My Will said: 'Then let me be the key that locks his prison, and I shall never falter in this duty.'

"As those who might have saved me cast me down, Love saw that his cruel sentence was just.

"And you saw three figures above the tower, lion-orange and black and grey: the first is Sorrow, the second is Grief, the last is Toil. The chains in their hands bind my heart so it may never see reprieve. The brilliance reflected in the eagle's beak and wings above the spire is my Thoughts. They shine so bright because of her who inhabits them, so that even the obscurity of this dismal prison glows, and the thickness of these walls cannot impair it from climbing to the eagle's perch. They keep each other company, the eagle and my thoughts, for they alone can soar to such heights, and it is because of them my prison lies on the highest ground on earth. The two sentries you heard calling out are Lovelessness and Misfortune; they work with care, assuring no hope may steal in to give me solace. The stairway you ascended is the Anguish with which I came to where you see me. The first watchman you met is Desire, the one who brought me here; he will open the door only to sorrow, and that is why he told you to set aside the arms of pleasure, if you had them. The second, whom you met in the tower, is Torment; he takes his orders from the first, who is his master. The seat of fire you see me in is my longing itself, the flames of which ever burn in my interior. The two ladies who bestowed on me a martyr's crown are called Yearning and Passion, and their gift was in recognition of my loyalty. The old man you see seated, who is burdened by his thoughts, is Unease; together with the others, he threatens me with death. The black in yellow clothes is named Despair; the shield that comes from my head, on which I bear his blows, is my Judgment. Seeing me in despair, and that I wish to kill myself, it counsels me to endure; in view of my beloved's virtues, it says, I should crave for a long life to suffer rather than death to cease doing so. The ebon table they set me to dine at is the Devotion with which I eat and think and sleep, on which are ever scattered the bitter crumbs of my contemplation. The three diligent waiters are known as Suffering, Sickness, and Sorrow: one brings me the utensils of grief, the other the sadness in which my meal is served, and the last brings tribulation, and with it, so that I may drink, he draws water from my heart up to my eyes and it runs from my eyes into my mouth.

"Judge for yourself if I be well-fed. You see how I require solace. I beg of you, since you are come to this land, take pity on me, and seek it for me. I ask nothing else but that Laureola know you have seen me. Perhaps you will refuse, for I have no means to thank you. I beg you, do otherwise. So much better it is to aid the fallen than to give provision to the prosperous. Act so that you may never condemn yourself for what you failed to do, nor I for what you could have done."



The author's response to Leriano

"Your words show that Love could take your freedom but not your virtue; and you have proved yourself noble, for I could see you would rather die than speak, and did so only to indulge my alarm, knowing I had feared to survive. In begging for redemption, you led me astray, but in the perfection of your judgment, you have restored me. Your words have given no less pleasure than your aspect has pain, for your person embodies your agony and your reasoning, your virtue. Amid the worst ill fortune, the good always show mercy, as you have done for me just now. Having seen this prison, I doubted I could escape, thinking it rather a contrivance of the black arts than of love. For what you have told me, sir, I stand in your debt; I am glad to have met you, and what labors I have engaged in, I count as time well-spent. To know the meaning of these signs has brought me pleasure; I had seen them many times before, but they are arcane to all but the captive heart; I once had such a thing, and understood them; but being free, I found myself ignorant.

"I should tell Laureola, you say, of the state I found you in. I confess it is a hardship. What use can a foreigner be in such things?  I am of rough character and speak the language but poorly; Laureola is high-born, and the matter grave. Only my good will recommends me: but as you have asked, I shall use it, to overcome these obstacles, and will act in your stead as a sworn vassal gladly. Pray God I should have as much fortune as ardor, and that your freedom be a testament to my diligence. Your nobility has compelled me to love you, and I would have your reprieve as my sole reward. Temper your terrors with hope. On my return, I shall bring good news. Some part of you must remain alive to hear it."



The author


Later that day, finding myself among townspeople, I asked about the road to Suria, where the king of Macedonia held court. It was a half-day's journey from the prison I had just left. When I arrived there, I took up lodgings, and afterwards went to the palace to observe the conduct of the courtiers and the arrangement of the rooms, the better to acquaint myself with the work I was to undertake. I did this several days, unsure what would serve me best; and the more I thought how to do it, the fewer chances I saw at my disposal. I deemed it best to fall in among the young men of the court, who were well-bred and received me so courteously that soon I was esteemed as one of their own; and in this way, the ladies came to take note of me. Little by little I made Laureola's acquaintance. In order to grow close to her, I told her marvelous tales of Spain, and this gave her much joy. And seeing that now she treated me as one of her attendants, I felt I could tell her why I had come. And one day, seeing her alone in a room, far from her chambermaids, I knelt and said:



The author to Laureola

"Forgiveness is no less becoming to the great, when they are badly served, than vengeance to the poor when they are wounded; one acts for the sake of virtue and the other for honor; and if such be the duties of mere men, how much more so for well-born women, whose hearts are noble and whose compassion innate. I say this because it is on account of your nobility that I have dared to speak, and nobility cannot but be magnanimous. I have thought it through; I wavered in my choice; but in the end it struck me better to risk the penalty for speaking than suffer that of keeping silent.

"I must tell you that, walking one day through harsh and lonely lands, I saw Leriano taken captive on Love's orders. He is the son of Duke Gueriso and Duchess Coleria. He begged me to help him in his anguish, and I left the path of quiescence to follow that of his travail. After I had walked with him a long while, I saw him locked in a prison as pleasing to his will as it was bitter to his flesh, where he endures every torment his captors can devise. Sorrow wracks him, passion stalks him, despair consumes him, death haunts him; he is crushed by grief, kept awake by contemplation, taunted by desire, doomed by sadness; and against them, even his loyalty is useless. With cries that pierced him inwardly, he begged me to tell you of his plight; his appeal sprang from torment, and my compliance from compassion; when I saw him, I thought you cruel, but as I have seen you, I think you merciful, for such splendid beauty cannot but have its counterpart in kindness.

"If you remedy with your pity the grief your excellence has caused him, you will be the most praised among all woman born. Think how much better to be lauded for restoring him than blamed for leaving him to die. Look what you owe him, whose passion does you honor; if you choose to free him, your might will be like God's; for redemption is no less noble than creation, and you will do no less, in snatching him from death, than God in endowing him with life.

"I do not know why you hesitate to help him, unless you believe murder is a virtue. He asks nothing else but that you consider his misfortune. Do not think he would exact some wicked tribute; he would rather suffer than be a cause of suffering to you.

"My boldness may condemn me; you may think my words rash; if so, I am acquitted by the sorrow of him who sent me, and it is so great, I could come to no worse grief than that I met on witnessing it. I entreat you that your answer conform to those virtues you harbor rather than the fury you now disclose—for then you should be praised, and I a good messenger, and the captive Leriano made free."



Laureola's response

"Your words were as badly spoken as they are difficult to forgive. Were you a Macedonian and not a Spaniard, I would have cut your discourse short, and your life not long after; but as you are a stranger, I will withhold the punishment you merit, not the least because of this pity of mine, which you have just acclaimed; although in these cases it is not compassion, but justice that is called for. And had I exacted it, it might yield double advantage: one, that others should be warned of such impudence, and two, that in the future, ladies should be better esteemed, and treated as befits their station. But if your boldness begs for punishment, my kindness commands me to forgive you, though prudence would properly choose otherwise; for not only your audacity renders you worthy of death, but also your offense against my virtue, which by your actions you have put in doubt. Should what you have spoken come to the notice of others, they would attribute it to some fault you saw in me rather than to Leriano's suffering; and sensibly, for my stature should no less have frightened you than his distress stoked your impertinence.

"Leave off with your efforts to procure his freedom. In seeking redemption for him, you court danger for yourself. And I warn you, though you are a stranger in this country, we will make you a native of your grave.

"To tarry in such foul discourse offends against my tongue; therefore I will say nothing more. You know what you must now do; what I have said suffices; and if you take hope because I have spoken to you, let it be short-lived, and do not think again of acting as Leriano's emissary."

translated from the Spanish by Adrian West


Click here to read an essay by the translator.



Read the original in Spanish

Diego de San Pedro is the author of The Prison of Love, among other works. Virtually nothing is known with certainty of him. The dates commonly given for his birth and death are 1437 and 1498, respectively. It is considered that he studied law, that he was a member of the lower nobility engaged in service to Queen Isabella, and that he fought on the side of the Catholic Monarchs against the army of the Nasrid Dynasty in the Granada War (1482-1492). Of his scant surviving works, The Prison of Love is considered the most important. The first example of the epistolary novel, it was translated into numerous languages shortly after its author's death and achieved international renown.

Adrian West is a contributing editor at Asymptote. His translations include the long poem cycle Alma Venus by Pere Gimferrer and Büchner-prize–winning novelist Josef Winkler's Natura Morta and When the Time Comes. His essays, translations, and short fiction have been published in numerous print and online journals, including McSweeney's, 3:AM, and Words Without Borders. He lives with the cinema critic Beatriz Leal Riesco.