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Filipinos in the twenty-first century are separated from their past by the language they speak. While it is true that Jose Rizal, National Hero of the Philippines, wrote a great deal for a nation that cannot read him in the original Spanish, nevertheless his vast and excellent opus guarantees his place in Filipino letters. These include, of course, his two major novels, Noli me tangere, published in 1887, and El filibusterismo, published in 1891, and an annotated edition of Antonio de Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas that Rizal completed and published in 1890. Despite the fact that today Rizal’s works are read mainly in translations into English and Filipino, his privileged status as outstanding Filipino author results from the ease with which he wrote and his essential contributions to the birth of the nation. Born in Calamba, Laguna, on June 19, 1861 the young Rizal grew up in a cultured home, with a sizeable library, something rare in the colonial Philippines. He learned to read and write at his mother’s knee, and it was she who introduced him into the world of books and literature. He is said to have composed verse as a child, but unfortunately this is not documented. The only one of those early works extant is the poem written in Tagalog titled Sa Aking Mga Kabata (“To my fellow children”), which he allegedly wrote at the age of eight. This and another, later, poem are the only two he wrote in Tagalog, his native tongue; the rest are all in Spanish. Sa Aking Mga Kabata contains one of the most quoted lines in Filipino poetry: “ang hindi magmahal sa kanyang salita/ mahigit sa hayop at malansang isda” (he who does not love his native tongue is worse than a beast and a stinking fish). This poem compares Tagalog with English, Latin, Spanish and other languages and is even more popular as of Tagalog’s, later Filipino, designation as official language of the Philippines in 1937. Unfortunately, neither its style nor content make it easy to recognize Rizal as the author, and in view of its dubious provenance this poem is, at best, only attributable to Rizal. It may not even be by Rizal. Such are the myths that shroud the childhood of history’s great men. Jaime C. de Veyra established the canon of Rizal’s poetry in his compilation Poesías de Rizal. 1 It is generally agreed that the best English translation is The Complete Poems and Plays of Jose Rizal2 by the late Filipino National Artist for Literature, Nick Joaquin. Joaquin provides the original Spanish and its matching translation in parallel, enriched with an insightful introduction to each poem and pertinent annotations. From these basic reference works one can divide three periods in Rizal’s poetry. The first is the Early Period (from 1871 to 1882), including poems composed when he was a student in Manila, first in the Ateneo Municipal, a school belonging to the Jesuits, and then when he studied at the Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomás, a center belonging to the Dominican order. Following this, the Middle Period (from 1882 to 1888) includes a small number of poems composed during his first trip to Europe. And finally, the Final or Mature Period (between 1889 and 1896), during which he traveled to Europe for a second time and was exiled in Dapitan. To this period belongs the valedictory poem entrusted to his family after his execution on December 30, 1896.

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