Nahuatl Poetry

A Nahuatl speaker. Florentine Codex.

The Mexica are known for many things– their fierce nature in war and fearsome tzompantli, their beautiful temples and mosaics, and their naturalistic sculpture. But did you know that they were also accomplished poets? 

Mexica sages or wise men, known as tlamatinime, frequently expressed philosophical ideas about life on earth in poems written in the Nahuatl language. Some of these tlamatinime were kings, but not all of them were. In their poetry, they discuss the temporary quality of life, how one should spend their living days, and even the yearning for self-expression through poetry. 

Let’s take a look at four Nahuatl poems. These poems all come from the manuscript known as Cantares Mexicanos, or Mexican Songs. Although we don’t know who wrote each one of these poems, in some cases they have been attributed to important figures. 

Poem #1:

Is it true that on earth one lives?

Not forever on earth, only a little while.

Though jade it may be, it breaks;

though gold it may be, it is crushed;

though it be quetzal plumes, it shall not last.

Not forever on earth, only a little while.

– Cantares Mexicanos, fol. 17, r., attributed to the great tlatoani or ruler of Texcoco, Nezahualcoyotl

This poem expounds on the temporary state of life, and the inevitability of death and decay. It uses jade, gold, and quetzal plumes  (all extremely precious materials to the Mexica) as analogies for the value of life, and shows that no matter how invincible a person may be, they will inevitably deteriorate and pass on. 

Poem #2:

One day we must go,

one night we will descend into the region of mystery.

Here, we only come to know ourselves;

only in passing are we here on earth.

In peace and pleasure let us spend our lives: come, let us enjoy ourselves.

Let not the angry do so; the earth is vast indeed!

Would that one lived forever; would that one were not to die!

– Cantares Mexicanos, fol. 26, r.

This poem addresses the temporary nature of life and then asks how one should live, if life doesn’t last forever. The response reflects Nahua thought toward life: that life should be spent in the search of peace and pleasure, not anger and strife. 

Poem #3: 

Eagerly does my heart yearn for flowers;

I suffer with songs, yet I create them on earth,

I, Cuacuauhtzin;

I crave flowers that will not perish in my hands! 

Where might I find lovely flowers, lovely songs?

Such as I seek, spring does not produce on earth;

indeed, I feel tormented, I, Cuacuauhtzin.

Perchance, will our friends be happy; will they feel pleasure?

Where might I, Cuacuauhtzin, find lovely flowers, lovely songs? 

– Cantares Mexicanos, fol. 26, r.

The Nahuatl phrase for poetry was created using the difrasismo or couplet “flower and song.” When this poem refers to flowers and songs, then, it is actually referring to “flowery speech” or poetry. The poet, Cuacuauhtzin, expresses his deep yearning to find beautiful and lasting poetry, more beautiful than flowers produced during springtime. 

Poem #4:

My flowers shall not cease to live;

My songs shall never end:

I, a signer, intone them;

they become scattered, they are spread about.

– Cantares Mexicanos, fol. 16, v., attributed to Nezahualcoyotl.

With this poem, Nezahualcoyotl expresses his desire–and the eventual fate– of Nahuatl poetry. He hopes that his flowers and songs– his poems– could outlive him, and spread across the face of the earth. How appropriate, then, to honor his legacy by sharing them here with the world. 

Check out these resources for more Mesoamerican poetry: 

León-Portilla, Miguel. Aztec Thought and Culture.

León-Portilla, Miguel. Native Meso-American Spirituality Ancient Myths, Discourses, Stories Doctrines, Hymns, Poems from the Aztec, Yucatec, Quiche- Maya and Other Sacred Traditions.

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