Friday, July 8, 2016

Sweet taste of being alive - some clearer Antonio Machado

Antonio Machado became a schoolteacher in 1907 – French, and later Spanish.  He taught in schools all over Spain, and in each case wrote poems about the landscape, or about himself in the landscape.

    Yes, I have brought you along, landscapes of Soria,
still evenings, lavender hills,
poplar lanes by the river, green dreaming
of gray soil and drab-brown earth,
aching melancholy of a town’s decay,
you have found your way to my heart –
or were you already there?  (from “The Soria Country,” ll. 129-35, p. 121)

Do these poems ever feel Spanish.  Maybe too much so, as if they were written for the tourism board.  But they make it easy to understand how Machado became a beloved poet.

At the end of his life, he was involved in the awful politics of the 1930s, and Trueblood only includes three poems from the period, all clear and lovely, including a heartbreaking tribute to Federico García Lorca (“The Crime Was in Granada”) and a return to the landscape seen above, “The Poet Remembers the Soria Country,” but this time he asks an “avión marcial,” a “warplane,” if the river “recalls its poet still / amid red ballad sagas reenacted.”

I wanted to counter my trouble understanding Machado’s philosophical or mystical side with some poems with a clearer surface.  Whatever else the poems might mean, the political poems have a public purpose, and the landscape poems have something specific to evoke.

I am tempted by a perfect sonnet Machado wrote about his father, and his childhood:

    My father, young still.  He reads and writes,
leafs through his books and muses.  He gets up,
goes toward the garden door and walks about.
Sometimes he talks out loud, sometimes he sings.
  And then his large eyes with the restless look
seem to be wandering in a void,
unable to settle anywhere.  (Sonnet IV, ll. 5-11, p. 217)

A portrait as self-portrait.  And I am tempted by another kind of self-portrait, “Gloss,” meaning notate, interpret, a poem that begins with a Heraclitean quotation from the Coplas of Jorge Manrique, another tribute to a father:

    Our lives are rivers
flowing in to the sea,
the sea of dying.  Matchless lines!
    Among all my poets
I worship Manrique most.
    Sweet taste of being alive,
hard learning how things pass,
blind rushing to the sea.
    After the fright of dying,
the joy of having arrived.
    Boundless joy!
But – that dread of a return?
Endless pain!

In the Spanish, most of the lines end with an infinitive verb as part of a prepositional phrase, a series of ongoing actions – living, passing, dying, returning – somehow all at once.  The lines do not exactly rhyme, but all end with -ar, -er, or -ir, and even the lines that do not end with verbs repeat these sounds, like “placer” (pleasure) and “la mar” (the sea).  A poem of great complexity constructed from the most basic materials.

I’ll be wandering about for a couple of weeks.  Writing resumes sometime during the last week of July.


  1. Hope you have a great vacation, Tom! I was very moved by Machado's homages to García Lorca and Manrique. Lovely stuff.

  2. Thank you. Machado is good with the mystics, too - San Juan de la Cruz and so on - but it is more of a system of conference reference to them.