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Good in the Good Sense: Antonio Machado

By (August 1, 2012) 2 Comments

When I first encountered Antonio Machado’s poetry in a Spanish literature class at the University of Connecticut, I found myself, even by my standards, more than usually baffled:

     The florid lemon grove,
    the cypress grove of the garden,
    the green meadow, the sun, the water, the iris . . .
    the water in your hairs!

Such, at least, was my understanding of Machado’s rather more coherent and graceful depiction of a moment of rapturous introspection in an Andalusian garden:

     El limonar florido,
    el cipresal del huerto,
    el prado verde, el sol, el agua, el iris . . .
    el agua en tus cabellos!

The “iris,” the “hairs,” and the “florid” lemon grove, alas, existed only in the desperate guesswork of my mistranslation. That’s what happens when you let loose an ignorant American undergraduate on one of the modern masters of the Spanish language.

Whatever my linguistic limitations then and now, I have persisted with my readings in Spanish literature for a reason succinctly phrased by Kenneth Koch in Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry: “The reason for reading poetry in other languages is not to miss the great things that are in it.” There are a lot of great things in the poetry of Antonio Machado: his calm, meditative voice, his aphoristic wit, his classical simplicity, his piercing melancholy, his eye for the ordinary and his feeling for the mundane.

Many discussions of Machado begin with what he derived from Henri Bergson’s concept of ”pure time” (durée reele). Machado was more poet than metaphysician, but it’s clear that he shared with the French philosopher (whose lectures he attended in Paris) an obsession with linear time and a belief in the possibility of transcending or at least mitigating it. It’s no accident that many of his poetic reveries take place in the late afternoon, when the stillness of the earth evokes a sensation of timelessness, and the lengthening shadows suggest the remorseless passing of yet another day into yet another night. Machado calls to mind the strange doubleness of this feeling in “Horizonte,” one of the rare titled pieces from his first collection, Soledades. Alan S. Trueblood, whose 1982 translation I’ll use unless otherwise noted, renders the first stanza as follows:

         On a bright evening, vast as tedium,
        beneath the swinging sword of the summer’s heat
        a thousand tall shadows were lined up in the plain,
        copying the phantom of my somber dream.

Bright, vast, and tedious: how like Machado to conjoin exhilaration with ennui. And how like nature (or time) itself: endless, mysterious, and sickeningly indifferent to the merely human. Beyond the philosophical associations that Machado packs into these lines, there’s also the observation of local landscape without which poetry wouldn’t quite be poetry. I’ve seen one or two of the Castilian sunsets that Machado describes in the second stanza of “Horizonte.” They really are like “a purple mirror, / flaming glass relaying toward infinity.”

Several years ago I was strolling through Segovia, where the poet lived from 1919 to 1934, after having lived earlier in the even more Castilian (higher, dryer, starker) Soria. Chancing upon a sign pointing to the Museo-Casa Antonio Machado, I found myself alone with the elderly, gracious, and still beautiful caretaker in the poet’s simple and unadorned home, a character much like the man himself. For the next hour or two she and I spoke of Machado’s life and work while she complimented me on my plain but elegant Spanish. Actually, I was too terrified to go in and make an ass of myself; I did catch a glimpse of the place, however, and it looked like a fittingly unassuming house for Machado – unless I’m confusing it with the souvenir shop where I bought Segovia: 100 Pictures To Remember Her By. Anyway, I have seen a bit of Castile and can easily imagine how its austere beauty would have resonated with the austere author.

A great nature poet, Machado delighted in the macrocosmic (the crossbow-like curve of the River Duero seen from a mountaintop) no less than the microcosmic (the sage and lavender growing between the rocks on the same mountaintop). His grandfather was a pioneering naturalist, and a sense of scientific exactitude survives in the grandson’s poetry. In “Along the Duero,” for instance, the poet climbs the steep Cerro de Santa Ana, taking note of the vultures, weasels, and mountain herbs along the trail. In the tradition of the paysage moralisé, however, Machado has more in mind than fauna and flora. The vantage point of the mountain’s summit affords him a comprehensive overview – in time as well as space – of the Spain spread out below him. What he sees isn’t good:

         Noble, sad Castilian land!
    Country of high plateaus, of rocks and empty spaces,
    of crumbling cities, roads without stopping-places,
    of fields untouched by plow or shade or spring,
    of boors that gape but cannot dance or sing,
    who still, when hearth fires fail, can only flee
    down the long river valleys to the sea.
        Wretched Castile, supreme once, now forlorn,
    wrapped in her rags, closes her mind in scorn.
    Does she dream or wait or sleep?

Coming after the thrill of the ascent described in the long unhurried alexandrines (fourteen syllables in Spanish) that Machado favored for his more discursive lyrics, this abrupt turn to social criticism startles. I thought we were having a nice outing in the country; all of a sudden we’re plunged into an outburst about the backwardness of Castile, the very heart of Spain. Well, good topographical poetry is always more than that. In this case Machado contrasts the illiberality and ignorance of his countrymen with the splendor of the landscape that they unthinkingly inhabit. In the end, however, his liberal humanism prevails, as it usually does. With its image of an open inn along a white road glimpsed below in the gathering darkness, the poem closes on the possibility of a more hopeful future:

                 Daylight grows dimmer.
    Across a white strip of road the inn casts a glimmer
    toward darkened fields and stony wastes in the plain.

If only it had been so. The liberal humanism that defined Machado’s reformist “Generation of 98” ultimately succumbed to brute force in 1939. To no great sorrow on the part of his Fascist enemies, he died from the rigors of a forced exile across the border into France, undertaken with thousands of other desperate Republican refugees (including his eighty-five-year-old mother) once Franco’s forces had captured Catalonia. Earlier in the Civil War the Falangists had murdered his younger colleague and friend Federico García Lorca.

It must have been hard to maintain his humanist faith under those circumstances, and in his elegy for Lorca, “The Crime Was in Granada,” he doesn’t try. That this harmless, mostly apolitical young man, who happened to be a genius, should be murdered – and in his own cherished Granada, of all places – defies Machado’s comprehension. Nonetheless, it is the poet’s job to comprehend the incomprehensible, or at least give it voice. If Machado had died, Lorca would have composed for him a baroque / surrealist threnody of despair. Machado, as always, keeps it simple:

     He was seen, surrounded by rifles,
    moving down a long street
    and out to the country
    in the chill before dawn, with the stars still out.
    They killed Federico
    at the first glint of daylight.
     . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
            Friends, carve a monument
    out of dream stone
    for the poet in the Alhambra,
    over a fountain where the grieving water
    shall say forever:

The crime was in Granada, his Granada.

No wonder he said, “I have a great love for Spain and a completely negative idea of it. Everything about it enchants me and at the same time fills me with disgust.” Love of country tempered by disgust – could there be a better formula for constructive social criticism? Machado’s side lost, quite tragically, to those with a rather different formula: disgusting love of country.

Antonio was known as the “good” Machado, in contrast to his not-so-good brother Manuel, a writer of less distinction and an official propagandist for the Falangist party. But Antonio was also known as the “good” because that was the mock-heroic epithet he assigned to himself in his triumphantly modest self-portrait of 1908, “Retrato.” Literally, the line reads, “I am, in the best sense of the word, good” (“soy, en el buen sentido de la palabra, bueno”), but translation mutes the effect of the suspension between the subject and its touchingly banal complement:

     The springs that feed my verse are calm and clear
    for all my heritage of rebel blood;
    I’m neither doctrinaire nor worldly wise –
    just call me in the best sense simply good.

“Retrato” is both ars poetica and ars vivendi. By claiming no special distinction in either art or life, special distinction is precisely what the poem achieves. The penultimate quatrain, which alludes to Machado’s position as a modestly paid teacher of French in a provincial high school, offers a vision of the good life dependent on no more than the satisfaction of a few basic needs and a lot of personal integrity:

     In the end I owe you nothing – you owe me all I’ve written.
    I go about my work, I pay in my own coin
    for the clothes upon my back, the roof over my head,
    the bread that sustains my life, the bed where I lie down.

Much could be made of the mixture of humility and pride, the metaphor of cash exchange, or the rhyming on concepts (“sereno/bueno,” “jacobina/doctrina”) as much as on sounds, but what really interests me is this: Did Machado actually live like that? Could I? While under no obligation to stick to the facts in a rhymed lyric poem of thirty-six lines, Machado nonetheless composes a recognizable self-portrait – the shyness with women, the shabby dress, the religious doubt, the monastic simplicity of his daily life. Perhaps the accuracy or lack of it shouldn’t matter, but for many readers Machado isn’t merely a great poet – he’s a hero, the most “lovable poet of the twentieth century,” according to Robert Bly.

Although “lovable” doesn’t seem quite the right word for his philosophical sophistication, existential anguish, or occasional slippages into chauvinism (such as the nostalgic evocation of plundering Spanish conquistadors that I tactfully omitted from my discussion of “Along the Duero”), I understand why Bly should think so. If poetry is ever to get out of the classroom, it might help to have some sense of the person behind the poems, especially if that person is as principled, brave, and decent as Antonio Machado was. Contrary to Yeats, neither he nor Machado nor anyone who ever lived had to choose between “perfection of the life, or of the work,” but Machado did a more creditable job with the former than many other great writers. He tenderly nursed his adored child-bride Leonora through her death by tuberculosis at eighteen, he supported and encouraged the efforts of other poets, he defended the beleaguered Spanish Republic with his voice and his pen, he conscientiously performed his duties as a school teacher though bored to distraction, and, being human, he allowed himself an infatuation with a married woman (the “Giomar” of the late sonnets). According to Ian Gibson’s biography Ligero de equipaje (Aguilar, 2006), “like all shy men he had something of a repressed exhibitionism.” That’s about it for moral turpitude. So yes, he did live a life consonant with the values of his poetry.

So much for mere genius. What about me? Well, nobody calls me “Esteban el bueno,” but although I can’t claim to have lived a life of such virtuous austerity, I have derived my share of consolation, instruction, and delight from Machado’s poetry. To begin with, there’s all that tiresome despair over a lost love transformed into a manageable and shared loneliness through the act of poetry – writing it, in Machado’s case, reading it, in mine. Little is known about Leonor Izquierdo Cuevas, the fifteen-year-old daughter of his provincial landlords whom the much older poet married in 1909. Young, beautiful, and doomed, she might have been the heroine of an Edgar Allan Poe tale. Fortunately for us, she is the heroine of something much better: the half a dozen or so lyrics Machado wrote after her death in 1912. Apparently Leonor was everything the grieving widower was not, as he intimates in the crushing succession of adjectives that concludes the untitled “There in the highlands” (“Allá, en las tierras altas”):

    Leonor, do you see the river poplars
    with their firm branches?
    Look at the Moncayo blue and white. Give me
    your hand and let us stroll.
    Through these fields of my countryside,
    embroidered with dusty olive groves,
    I go walking alone,
    sad, tired, pensive, old.
    (Trans. Willis Barnstone)

To name the grief is partly to appease it. Come to think of it, poetry is in some sense exactly that – an apt and judicious naming. This, by the way, is the only poem in which the beloved is named, and the relief feels immense. But she had to die first.

Nor, under the circumstances, does a little blasphemy hurt. Machado shared his friend Miguel de Unamuno’s metaphysics of unbelief. How very Spanish to respectfully reproach the Lord for not existing, which is what Machado more or less does in the four-line “Señor, ya me arrancaste lo que yo más quería.” In fact, God had better not exist; the alternative, as Machado innocently implies, is far more devastating:

    Lord, now what I loved most you tore from me.
    God, hear again my heart cry out alone.
    Your will was done, my Lord, against my own.
    Lord, now we are alone, my heart and the sea.
    (Trans. Willis Barnstone)

Not that Machado suffered any illusions about the piety of his countrymen. He lived much of his life among campesinos and understood that for them religion was as much practical as spiritual and that their God was something like a divine but willful meteorologist. He probably heard words similar to those he attributed to a field worker in “The Iberian God”:

     Lord, by whose will I slave for my daily bread,
    I know your might, I recognize my fetters.
    Oh, sender of the summer cloud
    That devastates the land,
    Of autumn drought, of frosts that come untimely,
    And torrid spells that scorch the grain.

Big themes: God, belief, love, death, solitude, time, Spain. But Machado wrote about small things as well, and my favorite poem of his concerns something of monumental, so to speak, insignificance: the common housefly. Despite its tightly rhymed octosyllabics and half-lines, the tone of “Las moscas” is relaxed and conversational; Machado might have titled it “My Life with Flies.” The life he describes from infancy to fidgety boyhood to dreamy youth to disillusioned adulthood is so unspectacular as to be all lives, even if the family parlor mentioned in the third stanza happened to be in a palace in Seville. (The Machados were impecunious but highly cultured.) In contrast to the archetypal imagery of the seasons of life and their attendant objects, Machado particularizes the flies with their hairy legs bouncing off the windowpanes. Where we would expect to find disgust, however, he evokes something like enchantment. There’s enough real horror out there (and inside our heads) without having to work up any literary anguish over some houseflies buzzing around. Besides, in their acrobatic ubiquity, they really are rather amazing. How can you not look?

     Old familiar flies,
    greedy, unavoidable,
    plain flies of everyday,
    you bring back everything.
     Old flies with appetites
    as keen as April bees,
    or running those tickly legs
    over my infant scalp.

The claim Machado makes for the flies is, implicitly, the same he makes for his poetry: “me evocáis todas las cosas” — “you bring back everything.” In their pertinacity the flies witness and participate in every signal human event. Later in the poem he tells us that the flies have alighted:

     on the charmed plaything,
    on the shut schoolbook,
    on the love letter,
    and on the rigid lids
    of the dead.

It’s not just the flies that evoke everything; it’s the poem.

Stephen Akey is the author of College, Library, and A Guide to My Record Collection. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.