Antonio Machado (trans. Michael Smith & Luis Ingelmo)
Shearsman Books, paperback
166 pages, £10.95, 978-1848613911
‘These blue days and this sun of childhood.’ This, Antonio Machado’s (1875-1939) last line of verse (‘Estos días azules y este sol de infancia’) found in his jacket after he died in exile in 1939, is more reminiscent of his evocative early poetry than of his later, most celebrated work. It is as if the poet were reclaiming his Andalusian origin and turning back to an inner sensorial realm, in which the horror of the ‘two Spains’ he had bemoaned so often had evaporated.
Machado’s early poems are extraordinary, packed with subtle images and written in an intimate, plain language that manages to shed light on shadowed realities. Yet they have generally not attracted as much attention as his later work. They do not offer an openly political reading, as Machado’s later poetry does; nor do they speak of the struggle of the ‘two Spains’ which would eventually collide in the Spanish Civil War. Contemporary fascination over and concern with the causes and consequences of this national conflict are partly responsible for the neglect of artistic works of that era that are not directly related to it. Shearsman’s new edition of Machado’s early poems, in an inspired bilingual facing-page edition translated by Michael Smith and Luis Ingelmo, represents a breath of fresh air. It is comforting to see more and different twentieth-century Spanish poetry translated with such care.
One of the finest lyric poets of modern Spain, Machado is not as internationally recognized as Federico García Lorca. A member of the Generation of 1898 – a group of novelists, poets and philosophers known for the criticism of Spain’s decay after having lost its last colonies —, his verse and prose work were, however, instrumental to Lorca. Even outside of poetry, both men shared much common ground: Machado, the so-called poet of the central region of Castile, was actually born, as Lorca, in southern Andalusia. And, as Lorca, he died a victim of the Spanish Civil War, three years after lamenting the death of that poet who was first his admirer, and then admired by him. Machado’s poem ‘The Crime Was in Granada,’ first published in 1936, is a plaint for Lorca’s murder. As was the case with the majority of Spanish intellectuals, Machado supported the Republic. When Madrid fell, becoming Nationalist (Francoist) territory, Machado was evacuated, first to Valencia then to Barcelona. Ultimately, he was obliged to cross the French border with his elderly mother and uncle under terrible circumstances. A short time later, physically exhausted, he fell ill and died. It is thus not surprising that his later, more political poems have attracted more attention. But recognizing the unique craftsmanship of his early work is imperative in order to reconstruct the history of the Spanish lyric.
Machado’s poetic work begins with the publication of Soledades in 1903. He re-published this first book under the title Soledades, Galerías y otros poemas as an expanded version with some extra poems in 1907, which is where the majority of the poems include in Shearman’s Solitudes & Other Early Poems come from. The poems in this work are imbued with Machado’s journeys to Paris in 1899 and 1902, where he came into contact with French Symbolism. The poems in Solitudes display the characteristic fin-de-siècle introspective contemplation of the poet’s sensorial realm. Yet Machado develops a unique kind of symbolism, often focused on nature and ordinary human reality. Even during his most introspective phase, he never ceased to be aware of his surroundings. For Machado, the poem’s inner spirit prevails over form. He goes beyond aesthetics: the word must reflect the human soul. Everything is contained, for example, in this eight-line poem, XXIV: ‘The sun is a ball of fire / the moon a purple disc/ […] / The garden and the peaceful evening! / The water sounds in the marble fountain.’ The fountain occupies the central place in the garden, representing the core of human strength, the poem’s ‘inner spirit’. The fact that the water flows, identified with the painful flowing of time, is as obvious as the statement that the sun is fire, an unavoidable reality.
Above all, Machado’s early poems are far removed from the florid classical rhetoric of some French fin-de-siècle poetry and of the Hispanic Modernist movement. The characteristics that would mark all of his works are already present in this volume: a nostalgic, softly melancholic tone and usage of a languidly simple and natural style. The first poem of Solitudes, ‘The Traveller’, is a calling card; it presents his exquisite lyric voice and a subject that he would develop over and over again: the poet as wanderer, as eternal traveller. He also starts singing to that arid Castile which would become his home and the object of his most famous volume of verses, Lands of Castile (1912). In ‘Banks of the Duero’, the Spanish river and its adjacent landscape timidly start to catch the poet’s attention: ‘The Duero flows, smooth and silent, gently. / The countryside seems young, almost adolescent.’ This adolescent image cannot be overshadowed; it marks the onset of the life-long relationship between poet and land.
The majority of these poems are also related to another key element of Machado’s work, popular culture. Machado’s stance towards folklore, which we already appreciate in his early verse, would be later masterfully expressed through his character Juan de Mairena (1936):
If you want to be a poet, look after your folklore. Because the real poetry is made by the people. Let’s understand: it is made by someone we do not know, or, ultimately, by someone we can ignore, without at all damaging the poetry.
It was during Machado’s generation that popular culture became legitimate raw material for Spanish art forms, which would become absolutely instrumental for the following generation, the Generation of ’27, to which Lorca belongs. Machado’s poem ‘Flamenco Song’ anticipates, among others, Lorca’s famous ‘To the Guitar’. Lorca’s lines ‘Oh, guitar! / Heart mortally wounded / by five swords’ seems to be in dialogue with Machado’s ‘And on the guitar, resounding and tremulous, / the sudden hand, on striking, echoed / the coffins settling into the earth.’ Machado also recovers in his early poetry the copla, a poetic form of four verses found in many Spanish popular songs, that Lorca would later extol to high art. Likewise, some of Machado’s songs, in particular ‘Song XXXVIII’, recall Lorca’s ballads: a circular story, which, using natural symbolism and plain language, speaks of the unavoidability of death. In this poem, the poet breaks with some Romantic traditions and reinterprets symbols and popular songs: spring replaces autumn as the melancholic season and summer becomes the deadly season in place of winter. The moon, the melancholic evening and the colour white are all Machado’s representations of death that glide over his early poems, and symbols that would also become Lorca’s favourites. At once traditional and modern, metaphysical and aesthetic, Machado’s early poetry places him as one of the major lyric poets of Spanish literature. It is only fair to return to these verses now, as Machado himself did in his last days, when he sang to the inextinguishable image of his, and Lorca’s, sun.