Thursday, July 7, 2016

Oh, deep wisdom of the cipher - some Antonio Machado

Spanish Literature Month!

My July vacation has gelled so that I will be away for most of the month and will thus not write about Leopoldo Alas’s La Regenta until the last week, starting on July 26th if I have la fuerza.  I have finished the novel, but will leave it atop my Currently Reading list to encourage other readers.  When I return, I will have completely forgotten everything about the book, so it is essential that other readers do not wait for my return, but write long, detailed posts which I can use as refreshers.  ¡Muchas gracias por anticipado!

Before vacation, a couple of posts of poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939), as translated by Alan S. Trueblood in Selected Poems (1982, Harvard UP).

Oh, deep wisdom of the cipher, savor
of ripe fruit for man alone to taste,
dream-water and dark wellsprings,
God-given shade cast by the mighty hand!  (from “The Death of Abel Martín,” ll. 21-4, p. 253)

I found Machado to be, in general, difficult, largely because he is a genuinely philosophical poet.  By “philosophical” I mean that he read Henri Bergson, Miguel de Unamuno, etc. – by the 1930s, of course, yikes, Martin Heidegger – for fun, like I read Trollope, and wrote poems that express specific moods or states drawn from his own experience but filtered through philosophy.  Here is an Idea approached analytically through philosophy; here is the same Idea approached through some kind of lived experience, perhaps something as simple as a walk by a river.

Abel Martín, the subject of the above poem, is a fictional philosopher and the “author” of some of Machado’s poems; the poems about his death is “by” one of his students.  Machado has got a little Fernando Pessoa action going.

Luckily for me, Machado’s favorite philosopher is Heraclitus, who is not so hard – water and fire.

The Waterwheel

    Evening was falling,
dusty and sad.
    The water sang
its workaday tune
in the brimming scoops
of the slow-turning wheel.
    The old mule was dreaming,
poor worn-out mule,
keeping time with the shadowy
sound of the water.
    Evening was falling,
dusty and sad.
    I can’t say what noble
and godlike poet
linked the soft accord
of the dreaming water
    to the bitter toil
of the endless round
and blindfolded you,
poor worn-out mule…
    But that poet, I know,
was noble and godlike,
a heart steeped in shadow
and ripe with knowing.  (pp. 85-7, ellipses in original)

The lovely match between subject and stanzaic form is visible in English, whatever other rhythmic pleasures have been lost.  Machado has a strong post-religious mystical side, which is visible here in this metaphor for the nature of existence – I am, we are, generally, the blindfolded mule, not the godlike poet who somehow is able to make a little more sense of the shadows and dream, of that inexplicable, endless sound of flowing water.

A reader with some Spanish might well notice that Machado’s vocabulary is mostly entry-level and his syntax untangled.  He was anti-Baroque, anti-gongorism.  He is a perfect poet for anyone working on his Spanish, with some level of meaning available to a basic level of the language.  Then there’s that next level, a whole other problem.


  1. I still have about 300 pages of La Regenta to go. I was planning to steal from your posts.

    The waterwheel poem is pretty good. You're right about the rhythm of the form, falling and falling. I had that very thought while I was reading it.

  2. Somebody's gonna have to steal from somebody. That novel is over-stuffed.

    The Spanish of "The Waterwheel" has that kind of rhythm line by line.