Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer wrote stories as well as poems, the posthumous Leyendas (Legends). I have read one of them, “Master Pérez the Organist” (1861), again in Great Spanish Stories (tr. Martin Nozick). An obscure but great organist dies at the organ and then haunts it. The story is a good knockoff of E. T. A. Hoffmann, and has some particularly good passages describing the music (“The organ exhaled a strange discordant sound, like a sob, and fell silent”) and some excellent Seville local color. You can, in fact, visit the church – you can see the organ. Just scroll down a bit past the “cuerpo incorrupto” of the nun who founded the convent. Now there’s some Andalucian local color.
It is funny how little it matters that the Bécquer story is derivative. The changes in locale and custom are sufficient to give it some interest, even if it were otherwise a pure copy of a Hoffmann tale. Just moving from Berlin to Seville is an interesting change in the hands of a skilled writer.
I am less convinced that moving typical Romantic ideas from French or German into Spanish is similarly interesting. Thus I suggested that the value of Bécquer’s poetry lies more in its intrinsic qualities than in its ideas, however much trouble this causes for a translator. Bécquer seems to agree:
Do not say, Its treasure exhausted,
the lyre went mute for want of content:
it may be there’ll be no more poets,
but there will always be poetry! (IV)
Translation can provide the narrative of a poem , if it has one, and can give us a good sense of the concerns of a poet, and poetic translation is usually good with imagery. Bécquer’s poems are as stuffed with imagery as any poets, little of it especially original or surprising. I can imagine him sacrificing an original image for an original sound. He compares himself, his artistic self, in one poem to an “[a]rrow randomly shot,” a “gale-whipped leaf,” a wave and “light in trembling rings,” and in another his “inspiration” is like a hurricane or madness or “a flying horse \ with no reins to guide it” or
of impossible beings,
landscapes that appear
as if through tulle (III)
which is pretty good, right, but also awfully fuzzy. Those rings or circles of light, a recurring image, actually do strike me as original, but abstract. But Bécquer’s aesthetic is abstract. He is describing his poetry accurately. I will not get a good look at those “impossible beings” but perhaps the sound and shadow of them will work on my imagination, as it did on a generation of Spanish-language poets who followed Bécquer.
A concrete setting forms at the end of the Rimas sequence* when the beloved woman dies and is entombed. “The startled owls that pursued me” and “From a clock was heard the pendulum’s rhythmic beat” and
Pick-axe on shoulder
Faded into the distance. (LXXIII)
Still, even these last poems, although set in a church and a crypt, also find the poet in “the silent world of ideas” – “I do not know if that visionary world lies within or outside us” (LXXV), about as succinct a summary of Romanticism as I know. In the poems of Bécquer, more within than outside, although I wonder what he might have found if he had lived even a few years longer.
* The sequence Michael Smith provides, at least. I am sticking with him and Collected Poems (Rimas) today.