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I am reading John Rutherford's translation of Don Quixote. In the prologue there are several sonnets that appear to be some sort of puzzle/guessing game as the last syllable (syllables?) are missing. For example:

I am the squire called Sancho Pa---;
I took French leave, and scarpered pre---
To live a life of indepe---
Far from Don Quixote de la Ma---;

In some cases I can sort out the missing syllables, but not all. In his notes Mr. Rutherford provides this information:

These verses are in a form that enjoyed some transitory popularity in Spain at the time of writing, with the last unstressed syllable of each line omitted, for the reader to fill in (versos de cabo roto). Only the final stressed vowels rhyme, in the pattern abbaaccddc (the decima).

The only references I can find to this are in Spanish, unsurprisingly, which I can't read. What does this abbaaccddc pattern mean? How do I use it to decode this missing syllables? I assume there is a method here and that guessing is not the idea.

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    I don't believe the abbaaccddc pattern helps at all in filling in the missing syllable. The pattern tells you that Panza and Mancha have the same vowel in their stressed syllable, as do presto and independence. But you're trying to fill in the last syllables, which have different vowels. I think it's a guessing game, and it's probably somewhat easier in Spanish, because there are fewer possibilities for final syllables in that language.
    – Peter Shor
    Apr 16 at 11:04
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    @Lambie Rutherford's sentence seems fine to me. I would paraphrase it as follows: "Only the final stressed vowels rhyme. They rhyme in the pattern abbaaccddc. This pattern is known as the decima." See the décima article in Wikipedia. Apr 16 at 15:47
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    Well, my impression is that we should say that abba means that the 1st verse rimes with the 4th, and the 2nd with the 3rd, which may seem obvious to most of us but not to the OP. In fact, I don't even know if such schemes are used in the English language or taught in school in other countries like in Spain.
    – Pere
    Apr 16 at 17:32
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    @Pere that is very helpful w/r/t abba - thank you. I will get back to this question this evening after work!
    – Omortis
    Apr 16 at 18:53
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    @Omortis That's a subtlety I hadn't noticed, it looks like 8 syllables in the "broken" version, and 9 when the final syllable is restored, right? So it's the cabo roto which is strictly décimal. Apr 17 at 5:58

1 Answer 1

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This verse form, versos de cabo roto ("verses with broken ends") was reputedly invented by the poet Alonso Álvarez de Soria at the beginning of the seventeenth century, around the time when Quixote was first published. As Rutherford remarks, the form "enjoyed some transitory popularity in Spain at the time of writing", and it was mainly used for satire and mockery. Alvarez, for example, made fun of the poet and playwright Lope de Vega using cabo roto, and later came to a sticky end when he was executed for mocking the powerful Don Bernardino de Avellaneda in this way.

A verse has the form of ten lines (a "decima"), consisting of two stanzas of five lines, having the rhyme scheme abbaa/cddcc. That is, within each five line stanza, line 1 rhymes with lines 4 and 5, while line 2 rhymes with line 3. In Spanish I do not think it is very difficult to decode the missing syllables. Many words either end in "-a" or "-o", so the endings will typically be consonant-vowel combinations like ""-lo", "-to", "so" etc. The first two lines of each stanza are also typically easy to complete. I remember reading these poems in literature class at school; the teacher would read the line, pause, and then we would shout what we thought the last word would be, in a type of "call and response" (and we generally all agreed on the solution).

This is probably much more difficult to achieve in English where words have a wide array of endings, and I think that Rutherford's efforts to translate the form are not very easy to read. It is probably better to go back to the original Spanish.

Scan of a page from "Quixote" showing the poem "A Sancho Panza" in the original Spanish

The first line reads:

Soy Sancho Panza, escude-

this can only be "Soy Sancho Panza, escudero" - "I am Sancho Panza, the squire" followed by

del manchego don Quijo-

again this is easy, this must be "del manchego don Quijote", meaning "of the man from La Mancha, Don Quijote". The next lines read:

pues pies en polvoro- becomes pues pies en polvorosa
por vivir a lo discre-; becomes por vivir a lo discreto;
que el tácito Villadie- becomes que el tácito Villadiego

Going onto the second part of the verse:

toda su razón de esta-

can only be "toda su razón de estado" and the next line:

cifró en una retira-

must be "cifró en una retirada". This lets us fill in the rest of the verse:

toda su razón de esta-do
cifró en una retira-da,
según siente Celesti-na
libro, en mi opinión, divi-no
si encubriera más lo huma-no

Filling in the missing syllables is, of course, only the start of the story. Working out the meaning of the lines can be a lot more work, as they may be based on obscure proverbs and idioms. An example of this is the reference to Villadiego in the first stanza, which refers to an event in La Celestina, a work itself mentioned in the second stanza. Fortunately this is a very famous Spanish work of literature, familiar to Cervantes' audience and also to Spaniards of today.

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  • The Instituto Cervantes says this, in part, about los versos de cabo roto: El desgarro propio de los versos de cabo roto (no en balde había empezado a cultivarlos el poeta y hampón Alonso Álvarez de Soria, ajusticiado en 1603) y las alusiones de actualidad (véase en especial la nota a los vv. 31-32) se unen a múltiples ecos de frases hechas, modismos y refranes, de forma que el texto resulta de difícil interpretación. cvc.cervantes.es/literatura/clasicos/quijote/edicion/parte1/… [italics mine] Some of the truncations are easy, others are quite difficult: pues al cielo no le plu...[plugo]
    – Lambie
    Apr 16 at 11:52
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    @clara Thank you so much for this thorough answer. Unfortunately I have no Spanish at all so I will have to muddle through in English. I enjoy the challenge and I do not think it will detract from the novel if my responses to the sonnets' calls are incomplete :-) Rutherford explains the Villadiego reference in detail in his notes!
    – Omortis
    Apr 17 at 0:11
  • Also thank you to yourself and @pere above for the explanation of the abbaaccddc rhyming pattern. I just worked some of it out on paper. Neat! We did not cover this in engineering school (though I was a literature minor...).
    – Omortis
    Apr 17 at 0:13
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    My pleasure @Omortis - I hope you enjoy the rest of Quijote, and feel free to ask plenty of questions about it! Apr 17 at 5:50

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