Calderón de la Barca

Calderón de la Barca

In my last post I looked at George Herbert.  Calderón de la Barca was his contemporary in Spain.  The two are not particularly alike, but I came across them both when I was a teenager.  We studied El medico de su honra for A level Spanish.  The story did not engage me in the least, but there was something fascinating about the language.  I remember poring over these lines:

No te espantes que los ojos
También se quejan, señor;
Que dicen que amor y honor
Pueden, sin que a nadie asombre,
Permitir que llore un hombre;
Y yo tengo honor y amor.
Honor, que siempre he guardado
Como noble y bien nacido,
Y amor que siempre he tenido
Como esposo enamorado.

Do not be shocked that eyes//Also complain, my lord,//Since they say that love and honour//Can, to no one’s surprise,//Allow a man to cry;//And I have honour and love.// I have always kept my honour//As a well-born nobleman,//And love I have always had//As a loving husband.

Gutierre is talking to the King.  He is about to confess that he believes his wife has been playing around with the king’s brother, the Infante.  This is a moment of high emotional intensity.  It is the crux of the drama: he loves her and he loves his honour; that is what is going to make him kill her.

Imagine me as a seventeen-year-old geek in Somerset, going for long walks on the hills at the weekends and reading all the time.  That England was not close to Spain.  All that talk of honour and nobility could not have been more distant from my experience of life as a common teenager in a posh school.  It was fascinating.  I was reading Shakespeare (and also studying him at a painful snail’s pace at school).  The imaginative worlds of the two writers seemed to be radically different. 

Shakespeare was open to the woods and the trees where I was walking at the weekends, whereas the world of Calderón was sharply cut and formally expressed in tight interior scenes.  I could imagine it presented on the stage: the clear and inevitable denouement of the tragedy would be evident from the first scene; you would follow the language as it played itself out in those beautiful passages of verse.

Subsequently I read more of Calderón.  La Vida es Sueño captivated me.  What a strange play!  A child, Segismundo, is shut away in a cave because his father believes a horoscope that says he will be the horror of the age.  He brings him into the court and it turns out exactly as predicted so he is taken back to his mountain prison.  There he is unable to tell whether his experience in the court was a dream or reality.  When Segismundo eventually comes back into the world and claims his rightful place as king, he conquers his passions by reflecting continually that life is but a dream.

Calderón takes an idea and works it out on the stage. They are philosophical plays. The characters and personalities of the cast are not as important as that working out, and the poetry works along with it. There is a stark discipline in that writing. How many times does he mention the words honor and amor in ten lines? The only image is the eyes, which seem to be reflected in the extraordinary number of Os, culminating in that last line: como esposo enamorado.

I was used to the rhyming of nobles in Shakespeare. In Calderón the rhymes come back quicker because the lines are shorter. There is no time for the lilting of the pentameter here; no place for lyrical beauty. It is as though the language is squeezed in tight and purposeful to a restrictive formal code, which is I suppose how I thought about Spanish seventeenth-century culture generally.

There is an odd connection between Calderón and England.  In 1623 the young Charles I made an extraordinary journey to Madrid under a false name in an attempt to win the Philip IV’s daughter.  While he was in Madrid he saw one of the first plays by the Spanish dramatist.  Perhaps if he had understood a little more of the language, he would have realized that the cocky language of “mounting Spain,” which he seems to have got from the Spanish Ambassador in London, would get him nowhere in the court of Philip IV.

There were many reasons why the whole courtship failed. Neither party ever understood the other, and it was not clear that anyone apart from Charles really wanted the match. 

Colin Burrow, London Review of Books

  In Spain there was a tight connection between amor and honor!

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Whereas my birth and spirit rather took
      The way that takes the town;
Thou didst betray me to a lingring book,
      And wrap me in a gown.
I was entangled in the world of strife,
Before I had the power to change my life.

Yet, for I threatned oft the siege to raise,
      Not simpring all mine age,
Thou often didst with Academick praise
      Melt and dissolve my rage.
I took thy sweetned pill, till I came where
I could not go away, nor persevere.

Yet lest perchance I should too happie be
     In my unhappinesse,
Turning my purge to food, thou throwest me
     Into more sicknesses,
Thus doth thy power crosse-bias me, not making
Thine own gift good, yet me from my wayes taking

George Herbert, Affliction

George Herbert

When I was a teenager I bought a copy of Metaphysical Poets in the Penguin edition with an introduction by Helen Gardner. I think it is the only poetry collection I still have from that time. It’s got a little stained with age because I have taken it with me on my travels. When it was new it came on a walk with me up onto the Quantock hills and back over Exmoor. It joined me in Edinburgh and was one of the few books I took with me to America when I spent a year in Philadelphia. Now it is crumbling away on my shelf in Spain. I want to take it down now and draw from it.

When I bought it I suppose I was drawn to the image on the front. It’s a detail from a painting by John Souch in Manchester called “Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of His First Wife.” The designer, Germano Facetti, did a good job. The skull, the dying woman and the barely covered breasts of the young woman on the right speak of Sex and Death. The stark chiaroscuro is true to the world that produced the poems. That strange black cloth on the wicker chest looked phallic to my teenage eyes and the pillows buttocky and clefted. Carmen would say that I am “enrevesado” in my thinking: over complicated. But that is appropriate to Metaphysical Poetry with its twisting conceits, worked into tight forms. You can read in painting as you can read in words. Poetry and painting have always gone together in my mind. Painting, mind, not Art in general; steer away from the big bombastic. That was another appeal of this collection. They were all pretty short.

Souch, John; Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of His Wife; Manchester Art Gallery;

These three verses come from a longer poem, but it is not horrendously long: eleven verses. You can read it on the Poetry Foundation webpage. Neither is it difficult to read. Herbert is more measured than Donne, for example, whose chains of images could often leave me feeling dizzy and he doesn’t go for fancy vocabulary and classical references. Almost all the words in these three verses are monosyllables and few of the longer ones are hard to understand. You don’t need to know the biographical details to get the picture (though if you want them you can look at the George Herbert website). The seventeenth-century spelling doesn’t hold you up, but gives it character and the one word I don’t know- crosse-bias- is easily understandable in the context. I guess, since Herbert was an educated fellow, he wasn’t referring to cloth or paper but to a more modern sense of bias as a set of pre-set interests.

You can swallow this poetry smoothly

Herbert doesn’t labour his conceits. You are hardly aware of the images but they are there. I’d go so far as to say that it is the images that make it easy to swallow:

  • take the way
  • lingering book
  • wrap me in a gown
  • a siege
  • melt and dissolve my rage
  • sweetened pill
  • purge
  • gift
  • take the ways away

This is all set in the larger metaphor of the poem: a conversation with God that ends with the line: “Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.” When I was sixteen I found Herbert fascinating but tedious in his conversations with God. All the same there was something so heartfelt and genuine about this statement that it stuck in my head. It felt real, not just for a believer, but for anyone who has been stuck in a situation of wanting and not wanting, desire and repulsion, service and rebellion. There is a lot of doubling in this poem. The images are easy to swallow, but not so easy to digest.

The sweetened pill is a good example. You sweeten a pill to cover its bitter taste. So, on the one hand a bitter pill is something bad you want to reject, but it is also good for you. When I reread the images I am aware of the double load the poet places on them. Look at the melting rage. We don’t normally expect rage to be cold, but hot. It is unusual for it to be melted. He is wrapped in a gown, suggesting protection, but immersed in a world of strife. The purge could be turned to food, and he can be happy in his unhappiness if he weren’t so sick. This is more than just cleverness. It speaks to me of the uncertainties of life itself.

You digest it slowly

I’d say I haven’t digested the poem even after forty years. I don’t know how many times I have come back to it. Simpering certainly popped into my head as an apt description of academic life when I was doing research. If you have been to a university cheese and wine party, you will get that. But, as with many really good poems, the easy sense that this was a simple description is elusive. He is not saying that he would have been better for taking the other path or for raising the siege and moving on. He is not satirizing study.

When I wake up in the night because of a pain in my arm that means I have to change position, I might lie awake for awhile. In the middle of the night, when the efforts of the day drift out of focus, the peculiar reality of being right here, right now floats forward. How did it come about? What did I do to get here? It seemed intentional at the time, but looking back I only see a succession of improbable accidents. Even my intentions seem like ex post facto rationalizations. I am in a small village in rural Spain. Did I ever feel like I was on the way that takes the town? Now I am far from it.

I keep doing the things I have always done: reading, writing, painting and teaching. I keep battling with them- the siege- even though I may have the sensation that I could chuck it all in and go for a different life. Or, perhaps, I should say I could have done that when I was younger and had more energy. Have I been wrapped in a comfortable gown that has taken me away from bolder decisions and fluid movement?

Me from my own ways taking

I spent ten years walking along the Camino de Santiago. It is often badly translated as the Way and there was even a film about it with that title. This pilgrimage route is a trail, a path and, I suppose, a way. And, over time, the sensation that the there is a link between the trail itself and a way of being coalesces. The Way can become something like the Chinese notion of Tao.

There are volumes of guff written about this. People really want this way to have a greater transcendental meaning. There is a quaint innocence to accounts of self-discovery on the Camino, as though the act of pilgrimage could be more than just a walk to a destination. Could your ways and the way become one through an act of your own choosing? Or would that all be nothing more than another kind of simpering?

What do you think?

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In this post I am looking at two poems about spinning by Novoneyra. You can listen to the Podcast here: Poetry in the Mountains

-Slender little spinner
always at your spinning
always spinning and dreaming
in the end to come to nothing.
-In the end to come to nothing,
that has still to be seen
since with the linen threads
as I twist them from their place
something has to take.
-Something has to take
and you were right, by faith,
since while watching you
all the time without realising
I went along falling in love.

This poem come from Novoneyra’s Os Eidos Libro do Courel.  I don’t usually put the original alongside the translation but I will here.  Novoneyra’s poems are pure poetic objects: the sound sense is as important as the meaning and, at times, even the visual aspect of the words plays its part.  If that sounds enigmatic, wait until tomorrow and I’ll give you a couple of examples.

sempre metida a fiar
sempre a fiar e soñar
para logo non ser nada.
-Para logo non ser nada
eso inda está por ver
e pois cas frebas do liño
ó torcelas de camiño
algo se ha de prender.
-Algo se ha de prender
i afé que tiñas razón
que eu estábache mirando
sin deñar que encantenón
íbame indo namorando.

And here is the second of the spinning poems:

Spinning Poem

Fiandeira namorada
Que fías detralo lume
Cos ollos postos nas chamas
Roxiñas brancas y azules.
Fiandeiriña que fías
Nas noites do longo inverno
As liñas máis delgadiñas
Co fío do pensamento.
Cai a neve quedo fora
Riba dos teitos calada
Mentras ti fías e soñas
Nunha cousiña lonxana…

(Spinstress in love/who spins beyond the light/with your eyes on the flames/ red, white and blue//Little spinstress who spins/on the long winter nights/the most slender threads/with the thread of her thought//The snow falls quietly outside/over the roofs in silence/whilst you spin and dream/on some small distant thing…)

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Pondal Nadal: Christmas Celts and Nationalism

Listen to the Podcast here:


At the hour the sweet morning star 
Begins to soften and melt,
His well-horned mountain goats
Trotting along in front,
Temenday the Celtic shepherd comes
Returning to his sweet fold
Alone and singing through the broom
Of Xallas, decked with heather so white.
Trembling vague with solitude,
He begins his song like this:
“Ancient tomb of Pïosa,
The wind so sad to hear
Moans in the mute heather
Over all the hills around you
And pierces with animal roar
With pained groan.
Under your mantle
Unforgotten, in the arms
Of sweet and eternal sleep:
He has on his right side
His golden pagan helmet
His strong spear and shield,
Where once the sun would sparkle
While with pleasure the Celts looked
Shut up in the waste lands of Xallas.
Oh, brave son of Ogas
And of sweet and noble Eiriz, 
The long memory of you
Will forever remain!
And when the son of the Celts,
In times yet to come
Walking lost in thought
May happen to pass this way,
When in those times
He sees the moon shining
Spying you afar, he will say:
‘Brave Brandomil,
Of the good pagan race
Of Celts, lies here at rest!’”

Queixumes dos Pinos, ed. Miguel Mato Fondo ( Vigo: AS.PG, 1996)

Eduardo Pondal is one of the leading poets of the nineteenth-century revival of Galego along with Rosalía de Castro and Curros Enríquez.  The ‘complaining pines’ of the title of this book give you a fair indication that the work will be Romantic in tone, with an evocation of the lonely rural spaces of Galicia populated by the ghosts of Celtic ancestors whose remains are so evident in the castros, or iron age hill forts, that dot the countryside.

Pondal was and is popular: he is the author of the Galician national hymn.  He created for himself a poetic persona as the bard of his nation and his verses are full of high-blown phrases and rhythms.  In this particular poem he uses the word ‘sweet’ four times and ‘brave’ three times.  If this is a lack of care as a poet it is of a grand order: I cannot imagine any teacher of composition allowing his students this repetitive liberty, more particularly with such imprecise and woolly adjectives.

It is curious to me how the poem is still effective in spite of this.

The bardic tone is set by alternating feminine and masculine line endings that fall short of being a consistent rhyme-scheme but establish a rhythm to move the poem along in a song-like manner.   Pondal takes an everyday phrase and turns it into memorable poetry.  There is something special about this:

Debaixo das túas antes 
‘sta o valente Brandomil,
Non no olvido, mais nos brazos
Do eterno e doce dormir.

This sounds to me just like a ballad.  Look at all the ‘o’ s in the last two lines.  When you read them aloud they just come tripping off the tongue like some lines of Edgar Allen Poe, the caesura marked by the comma after ‘olvido’ setting off that little alliterative cataract in the last line.

There is a healthy archaeological scepticism about the attempts of Galician nationalists to claim a Celtic ancestry, but if you have visited one of the hill-forts, which are always in stunning locations with extraordinary vistas, it is not difficult to be carried along with the Romantic reveries of Pondal.  The problem is that there is a Romanticization of the Celtic warrior that cannot help but seem sexist and old-fashioned these days (Misoxinia e racismo na poesía de Pondal, María Xosé Queizán, Laiovento, 1998, is a good place to start thinking about this).  Pondal himself was not a pleasant fellow and has come in for a good deal of criticism for his sexist and racist vision.  Have a read of this:

Vosotros sois de los cíngaros,                          You are of the travellers,
de los rudos iberos,                                            of the crude Iberians,
de los vagos gitanos,                                          of the lazy gypsies,
de la gente del infierno;                                    of the people from hell;
de los godos, de los moros                               of the Goths, the Moors
y árabes; que aún                                               and Arabs; so still
os lleven los demonios.                                     You can go to the devil.
Nosotros somos de los galos,                           We are Gallic,
nosotros somos de los suevos,                         We are Swabian,
nosotros somos de los francos,                        We are French,
romanos y griegos.                                              Roman and Greek.
Nosotros somos de los celtas,                           We come from Celts
nosotros somos gallegos.                                   We are Galician.

This unpleasant rant is one short part of an anti-Castilian poem by Pondal.  It would have been laughable even at the time it was written, like a Highland Scot or a Welsh sheep farmer singing about the dignity of his race.   It is lamentable that the Galician national anthem springs from the same source.  Here is the anthem:

Galician National Anthem

I can’t stand this kind of nationalism so I found it difficult to get to the end!

If you are interested in getting a more rounded view of the Celts in north west Spain E-Keltoi is a good place to start.  You will quickly find that the denomination Celt is itself contested!

Catalonia is on my mind.   My friend Amand went to Barcelona to see the referendum on October 1.  He was born in Mallorca and studied in Barcelona as a drama student in the seventies, joining street protests against the Franco régime in its last years.  Like all of us, he is a complex mix of histories: as a witness, a participant and a victim.

“I stayed in a small hostel,” he said.  “There were three others in my dormitory.  One of them was Basque.  The other two were from Galicia.”

“Galicia,” I echoed, thinking of my own life as a walker and a reader.

“Yes.  They wanted to see this happening.”

Of course they did.  From the nineteenth-century to the present, through the Irmandades da Fala to Castelao and onwards, Galicia has sighed its unique identity onto the page.  And there is fellow feeling across the linguistic divides:  Manolo Rivas issued one collection of poetry in Galego, Basque, Catalan and Castilian Spanish.

Spain is a country of peoples.  Those peoples have felt their identities in the richness of their cultural history, their traditions, their music and above all their poetry.  The Spanish state has crushed the separatist movement in Catalonia with the force of the law.  I run around in circles in my head, repulsed by the authoritarianism of the state and equally horrified by the waving of flags in the streets of Catalonia.  I think about the different poets I have been studying over the past year and do not come away from the thoughts with a clearer picture.

R.S. Thomas dug in at the edges of Wales.  He had a visceral dislike of what he called the Machine that pushed the lives of the Welsh hill-farmers he served to the edge.  The English state represented for him what the Spanish state might represent for the Catalans.  His poems about the hills and the mountains, his mourning for the Welsh language and the tender bitterness of his meditations on relationships and landscape, make me think of poets in Asturias and Galicia and Catalonia.


They particularly make me think of Uxío Novoneyra.

Galicia será a mina xeneración quen te salve?
Irei un día do Courel a Compostela por terras libradas?

He asks if his generation will save Galicia: will he one day go from the Courel to Compostela through liberated lands?

I have walked from the Courel, in the Ancares mountains, to Santiago perhaps one hundred times over the past ten years.  On those walks I have often carried Novoneyra’s collection, Os Eidos (1955), with me.  He was a poet who walked the hills.  I felt myself into his words, learning to love the Galician language in my own inadequate way.  His were the eyes of a wolf to see a landscape dressed in heathers.

You do not read Novoneyra because you want to back up your political opinions.  But his poetry, with its emphasis on places and people, seems to inevitably lead him to declare separation and difference.  It comes as the cumulative result of meditations on deep particular moments.


Carles Puigdemont © Yves Herman / Reuters

I look up from a the quiet particular to the cackling commentators who, like a pack of jackals, attempt to ridicule the referendum in Catalonia.  The vilification of Puigdemont  is an insult to the people who voted.  They were not sheep being led by a corrupt and self-serving leader.  They are hardly going to forget their deep-felt desire for their own national identity because Mariano Rajoy imposes the full force of the law to suppress their ebullience.  They may sink back, disappointed, into the grooves of their lives, but culture is not suppressed this way; it has its own life.

The Catalan poet, Verdaguer, gave voice to the equivalent of the Galician rexurdimento:

Poeta i fangador sói
en tot faig feina tan neta,
que fango com un poeta
i escric com un fangador

(I am a poet and a digger and in everything I do I am so clean that I dig like a poet and write like a digger.)  It is like Seamus Heaney considering his pen and how he will dig with it.  This is what poets do: they dig.

Translators on the other hand move from place to place.  They cross boundaries and frontiers and look for correspondences and ways of understanding.  I can’t help but feel that more translation is needed in this fracturing world of shouted identities.  I can’t help but feel that the imposition of “the law” on Catalonia is a heavy-handed mistake that will have the Catalans digging in.  Where is the listening ear?  Where is the open hand?  Who wants to listen to the stories?

The stories must be fascinating.

Amand was present as people went to cast their votes in Barcelona on October 1.

“Old people came tottering up on their canes,” he said.  “The young people formed aisles and applauded them as they made their way to vote.  The young people were crying and the old ones were trembling with emotion.  What had they seen in their lifetimes?”

There is something more powerful here than the realities of business or the harsh application of the word of the law.  There is something that cannot be shouted down with arguments, but demands to be listened to.

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Misreading and Noriega Varela


Humble song

April breeze
Ethereal clouds
Go with you.

Humble stone
Lost in mud
Wounded by sun
Becomes a star.

Black branches
Touching sky
Paint themselves
Celestial blue.

Drop of dew
Trembling light
I see sun
Inside you

Humble things
No one sees
Branch or leaf
Grain of sand.

A charm more
Than divine
The God child
Come to earth.

Humilde Belleza

Noriega wrote, in another poem, “toda humilde belleza me namora”.  This attitude towards nature and life appealed to me when I first encountered the poet in 2007.  I saw in it a reflection of my own attitude as a provincial kid a bit suspicious of what was going on in the cities.

noriega001When I was a teenager I loved Hermann Hesse.  When I came to Spain and started going regularly to Galicia, Os Ermos came into my hands and I made a connection between the poet and Hesse’s heroes Goldmund or Knulp.  They are like innocent wild children outside the currents of mainstream thinking, not antagonistic to mainstream culture but quizzical towards it, as though their experience of life was too direct and ecstatic to be subsumed in cultural pieties.  Noriega seemed like a Franciscan friar wandering through the countryside.

I did not know much about the man.  Noriega was not a novelist’s creation and I feel now that I may have been wrong on many levels.  Somewhere I made a wrong reading and chasing that reading back to its root is a tricky job.  It might reveal something about me and that feels dangerous, but I am going to do it anyway.

A Cara Oculta

noriegaThe spark for these considerations is a book by X. Ramón Freixeiro Mato, A Cara Oculta de Noriega Varela (Laiovento, 1992) that contains some sharp critical essays and some previously unedited verse and letters of the poet.  The fact that this study was published over twenty years ago demonstrates how little I am concerned with being on the cutting edge of research and investigation.

I had known for some time that Noriega wrote some intolerant opinions in the wake of Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War.  I overlooked that.  “Who am I to judge?” I told myself.  “Who knows what people went through and what accommodations they felt obliged to make?”  And, anyway, the poet had been an activist as a young man on a radical rag called Guao-Guao that challenged the local bosses, or caciques.  This seemed to excuse him; he had a good heart.  Perhaps he was just covering himself.

A Different Story

Antonio_Noriega_Varela_1919The poems in A Cara Oculta, however, tell a different story.  There is a series of polemical poems called the Xuicios do Ano.  Although they are not signed by Noriega it seems clear that he was the author (see note p.168).  It is easy enough to pick out the eulogy of Franco and the reference to Cara al Sol, the Fascist anthem, but I do not want to quote these things out of context.

It is not really the fact that Noriega sympathised with Franco that bothers me.  When I say that I made a misreading I don’t mean anything quite so simple as that I overlooked one aspect of a writer and now have to reconsider my judgment.  When you realize you have made a misreading it is like losing your innocence: you still have a memory of it; it still gives you the same good feeling; but you have an aftertaste of bitterness.

The bitterness does not come from thinking that Noriega had “bad” opinions.  It comes from my complicity in the roots of those opinions, my sense of fellow-feeling with the younger poet and my feeling that I am not safe in my own understandings.  The Franciscan innocence really fooled me.  You see, I am with Noriega when he stands up for the local exactness of “his” language- not just Galician but the Galician but the Galician of the people in the villages.  If you have read what I have written about Novoneyra you will understand where this come from. I certainly don’t feel antagonistic towards him as he writes- in Spanish, not Gallego-  to Otero Pedrayo of his work collecting phrases:  Como falan os brañegos.

I am with him when he stands against the politicisation of “his” language in the name of nationalism.  I am only not with him when it comes to Franco because I know much more about the dictator than he did and, even so, it would be presumptuous to say that he was “wrong” as if I, an Englishman living in Spain, could make that kind of judgment.

Local Life

The closest contemporary comparison for me is the issue of Brexit and Europe.  The same understanding that values Noriega’s walks through the hills, his insistence on the local and his eye for the beauty of the particular, makes me feel that the European is an horrendous aberration with its Common Agriculture Policy that destroys local wildlife and human culture.  I feel myself getting irritated-just like Noriega- with the very idea of smart people in distant institutions making decisions that affect everyone except themselves.  It seems that this way lies factory farming, factory schooling, global warming and collapsing biodiversity.  So, like Noriega, I say no and turn my head away from the cities and their lights, looking for inspiration somewhere else.

And the question I have to ask myself is whether that is a bad reading.  Was the whole idea of a transformative experience in Nature going back through Hesse, Noriega, Wordsworth and Schubert a delusion?  Could it possibly be that the city makes a better reading?  It would be bitter to admit that.

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Cesário Verde: Poppies in a Cleavage

At that bourgeois picnic,
There was something so simple and beautiful,
With neither history nor grandeur,
Yet worth a watercolour all the same.

When you dismounted the donkey,
With no foolish pretensions, you went to gather
In a blue chickpea-patterned cloth
A ruby bouquet of poppies.

Shortly after, on top of the cliffs,
we camped out with the sun still going down
and there were sliced melons and apricots
and sponge-cake soaked in malvasia.

But all crimson, emerging from the cleavage
of your two breasts like two cakes,
was the greatest charm of the meal,
the ruby-red bouquet of poppies.

Cesario Verde, O Livro de Cesário de Verde (Estante, 2010)


Cesario Verde

Naquele pic-nic de burguesas, houve uma coisa simplesmente bela, e que, sem ter história nem grandezas, em todo o caso dava uma aguarela.


Foi quando tu, descendo do burrico, foste colher, sem imposturas tolas, a um granzonal azul de grão de bico um ramalhete rubro de papoulas.


Pouco depois, em cima duns penhascos, nos acampámos, inda o sol de via;

e houve talhadas de melão, damascos, e pão de ló molhado em malvasia.


Mas, todo púrpureo, a sair da renda dos teus dois seios como duas rolas, era o supremo encanto da merenda o rmalhete rubro das papoulas.


I was in Porto with a group of tourists.  One part of the tour included the Lello bookshop which has a staircase that appeared in a Harry Potter film.  Now it has become a tourist attraction and you have to pay for admission to the bookshop, but the entrance ticket entitles you to 3€ from your next purchase.  I gathered all the tickets from the group and went to buy some poetry.


One of the books I picked out was Cesário Verde.  I had come across him before by way of Pessoa who held the author of The feelings of a westerner in high esteem.


The poems have clarity of structure and form.  The poet wrote most of them when he was a very young man so they have the virtues and the faults of a precocious wordsmith.  On the one side I admire his facility with rhyme and image, on the other the images and thoughts are adolescent.


My first readings were rather less charitable.  To be honest, I thought Cesário was a creep.  He trails around after young girls admiring them from a distance and fantasising about their clothes.  Carmen said I should remember the age he was writing in.  Laurence said it was no different to any number of contemporary pop songs.


The poem I have translated here is a later example of his work.


Is it charming or is it creepy?  I can’t make up my mind.

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By the River

Ó Longo das Ribeiras


Ao longo da ribeira

Yearning along the water’s edge
I go, my girl.

Where are the boats and flowers?

The rivers head nowhere now.
Far distance and sea don’t exist.
It is all right here and clear.

The hour is anchored,
a barren stretch, no birds, no wind.

Sleep’s wellsprings
are full of dust,
and these eyes are tired and ageing.

But night must come
that went down beyond Urbazán,
with happiness in its wake of longing.

And then I will hoist all sails
of these anchored hours,
poor, dead hours with no birds and no wind.



Ó longo das ribeiras, arelante,


Ao longo da ribeira

eu, meniña.

¿Ónde as barcas e as froles?

Os ríos xa non corren pra ningures.
Non esisten os lonxes nin a mar.
Todo está â beira e craro.

A hora, ancrada,
insua erma sin páxaros nin vento.


As fontelas do sono
están cheas de pô,
e os ollos están cansos e velliños.

Mais ha vir a noitiña,
que se perdéu nos montes de Urbazán,
coa alegría do seu ronsel de arelas.

I-entón eu ergueréi as velas todas
destas horas ancradas,
pobres, ermas, sin páxaros nin vento.

Aquilino Iglesia Alvariño, Cómaros Verdes, 1947 (Voz de Galicia, 2002)


Aquilino Iglesia Alvariño (Seivane, Abadín, 1909-Santiago, 1961) emerged before the Spanish Civil War publishing the collections Señardá (1930) and Corazón ao vento (1933).  These books continue the landscape poetry of Noriega Varela.  He reached his poetic maturity with Cómaros Verdes, from which this poem is taken.


Here he abandons rhyme and achieves a richness of poetic tone using the hendecasyllabic line as the base.  The themes of the collection are saudade, reflections on nature and the strange linking of death and longing that are such common features of Galician poetry.


I bought this book for myself for my fiftieth birthday.  This poem that talks about ageing seemed appropriate.  The rhythm of the day is seen reflected in the rhythm of a life.  We are taken to the hot middle of the day along the water’s edge where everything is still.  The sources, or fountains, of sleep are full of dust.  Night brings sleep and dreaming.  It has a “ronsel de arelas”, “a wake of longings”.


This wake of longing reminds me of Eduardo Blanco Amor’s Ronsel da Morte.

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Privacy Matters

This is a short note to let my subscribers understand my position on the new privacy law.

I am not going to be sending out one of those advice notices that you probably delete instantly without reading, just as I do.  I have read about this privacy law and what I understand is the following:

  • the law to protect people’s digital identity is a sensible move in an increasingly online world
  • it is primarily directed at people and organizations that process data and then use that data for other purposes
  • I do not process data in any way or manner.  I write a blog about poetry that I share online.
  • Sometimes people get in touch with me through the blog and we exchange email.  That is a relationship between friends.  I do not collect any kind of personal information into files or databases online, on my computer or in a filing cabinet.

I would encourage readers of blogs not to get sucked into paranoia about the internet.  It is a marvelous tool that enables us to connect across cultures and languages.  Blogs enable people to engage directly with others at the opposite ends of the planet, without the interference of editors, publishing houses, censors and correcting inspection.


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Ultreya: the Ten Commandments


The Ten Commandments of the Galician Youth Movement Ultreya


  • – Porque amo a Galiza con toda a miña ialma, adicareille os meus millores esforzos pra tornala eternamente feliz.
    • Since I love Galicia with all my heart, I shall dedicate my best efforts to make her eternally happy.
  • – Porque a vida está encheita de mágoas, miña mocidade será unha leda canzón que ha erguer o esprito de tódolos coitados.
    • Since life is full of tears, my youth will be a cheerful song to raise the spirits of all the down-hearted.
  • – Porque estou afincado ao chan nativo e endexamais hei crebar as ligazóns coa miña xente, manterei sempre aceso o fogo do meu lar.
    • Since I am connected to my native earth and must never break the ties with my people, I will always keep the hearth fires burning.
  • – Porque penso no que fun, no que son e no que teño de ser, respetarei aos vellos e pequenos e defendereinos de todo aldraxe e sofrimento.
    • Since I think about what I was, what I am and what I must be, I shall respect the aged and the young and defend them from all insult and suffering.
  • – Porque quero a eficacia da miña laboura, axudarei os nobres desexos dos meus compañeiros como quixera que me axudasen a min na arela dos meus limpos ensoños.
    • Since I want my work to be effective, I shall help the noble desires of my companions just as I would want them to help me in the light of my clean dreams.
  • – Porque teño de sere home útil á miña Terra, cumprirei tódalas miñas obrigas pra ire facendo a miña histórea de cidadán eisemprar.
    • Since I must be someone useful to my Land, I shall fulfil all my obligations so as to make my story one of exemplary citizenship.
  • – Porque quero limpar a miña axuda de erros, educarei meu esprito no estudo e no traballo.
    • Since I want to keep my help clean of error, I shall educate my spirit with study and work.
  • – Porque teño de sere rexo na axuda aos meus irmáns, fortalecerei meu corpo na craridade das augas e no ar das montañas.
    • Since I have to be prompt and ready to help my brothers, I shall stengthen my body in the clarity of the water and the mountain air.
  • – Porque soño nun porvir de verdadeira fraternidade, farei por que rente de min se xunten tódolos rapaces galegos pra que o día de mañán non nos afosten prexuízos de caste.
    • Since I dream of a future of true brotherhood, I shall take an interest in bringing together all Galician young people so that tomorrow they do not suffer prejudice and insults.
  • – Porque quero unha Galiza enteiramente galega en convivio con tódalas razas, en fala con tódalas culturas, abrirei meu peito a tódolos homes de boa voluntade e reita intenzón.
    • Since I want a Galicia that is totally Galician living together with all other races, conversing with all cultures, I shall open my heart to all men of good will and honest intentions.


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Ultreya: Celtic Boy Scouts

scouting for boys.jpgI offended a friend.

“The Boy Scouts?  That’s the Hitler Youth with ginger beer, isn’t it?” I said.

“I love the Scouts,” he replied.  “Choose your weapon!” I backed off quickly because, if he had been a scout, he could probably tie me to a tree and whip me to shreds with his toggle.

I have to say this by way of introduction.  You see, I don’t love the Scouts.  I don’t love the military trappings and the gin-gan-gooley-gooley-wotsit and the military structure.  I don’t love the rituals and the uniform.  And, not loving the Scouts, puts me in a frame of mind not to like Ultreya, a Galician version of the organization that had its moment in the thirties just before the Spanish Civil War.

dofeIt might be my personality.  When I was a kid I refused to go to Scouts, even though my Dad was a veteran and my brother was going.  I can’t dress up what I say here as a reasoned argument: the Scouts never convinced me, in the same way the Duke of Edinburgh Awards seemed a tiresome waste of time.  It was, and is, a feeling.

If I step back from myself, I can see the appeal for young people: the outdoors life, robust exercise, good clean fun.  For my dad, for example, joining the Scouts was the only opportunity he had as a kid to get out of his home town- to go on excursions, to work his way up a juvenile merit system that promised to take him out of his working-class background.

I can also see the value in creating a sense of identity.  Even though I am suspicious of it, I can see that the Scouting life gave my dad a love of the countryside, the experience of discipline and the company of other kids.  I can see that they learnt how to love an idea of England.

Why the Scouts?

Today’s reading comes from an interesting book called De Camiños, Viaxeiros e Camiñantes (Santiago de Compostela: Galaxia, 2016).  Santiago Lamas and Alfonso Mata have taken a pilgrimage by Vicente Risco, Ramón Otero Pedrayo and Ben-Cho-Sey in July 1927, from Ourense to Santo André do Teixido, as the starting point for a series of essay-like chapters that go here-and-there talking about walking.  They are readers so my heart warms to them and we have many of the same points of reference.  They talk about walking and this also brings them close.

(We have come across Risco and Otero Pedrayo before.  I encourage you to read some of Risco’s short stories.  I also recommend you to read Otero Pedrayo’s verse and his novel Os camiños da vida.  Pedrayo was a figure of such authority in the mid-twentieth century Galician literary scene that there is hardly a writer who did not come into contact with him.)

As I was reading the book, I came upon a section to do with the youth group Ultreya and sirens started ringing in my head.  Ultreya was like a Galician Boy Scouts organization.  If my distaste for the Boy Scouts needed affirmation, this section gave it.  I am posting the translation of that passage below and you can make of it what you will.

I was horrified

I was horrified.  They got groups of young people together and had them sing a song that was what the Americans call “a load of cock-a-mamey”.  If you do not understand this, I will have to translate: nonsense, pure invention, bull.  The song says that Galicia is a Celtic nation on a par with Ireland.

But, but, but…

But I just don’t believe it.  Vicente Risco is an amusing writer but he would not cut the mustard as an archaeologist these days.  He is what you might call a Romantic archaeologist: he used archaeology to invent a Celtic past for his country, because it seemed to him that this would mark the separation with Castile better.  I don’t blame him.  After all, there were similar voices from the other side of the spectrum saying what it was to “be Spanish”.  Think of that charlatan Emilio Orozco who made a deal about the Spanish soul being essentially Baroque.   However, there is a great distance between presenting a position, making an argument and defending it, and gathering a group of young people around to sing songs that create a nationalist feeling.  Or am I wrong?

More bullshit

What is the Spanish soul?  How is the Spanish soul different from the Galician soul?  The Asturian soul?  The Catalan soul?  The Irish soul?  If you are a young Galician and you like American pop music are you ipso facto a traitor to your country?  Is it essential that you feel a stir in your guts when the bagpipes sound?  And what can one possibly make of all this now, when the villages are emptying out and modern archaeology pours cold water on the theory of Galician Celticism?

I would feel that I was deceived.


The problem I have with these “intellectuals” is that they gave themselves a priest-like role to interpret the soul of the nation to a group of young people.  Swim in the sea?  Cool.  Go for hikes?  Great!  Adopt a quasi-military structure?  Whatever lights your candle.  Interpret the soul of the nation?  No, no, no, no, no!



In Galicia there was also a youth group that had a certain resemblance to the ones we talked about (the Wandervögel and the Boy Scouts): the Agrupación Xuvenil Galeguista Ultreya, founded in 1932, in Noia, by the writer Álvaro de las Casas, who at that time worked as a Geography and History teacher in the secondary school of that town in La Coruña.  These youths were organized into dúceas and liñas (twelve dúceas), led respectively by a guieiro and a maor.  They also had a council of notables, on which served amongst others, Galeguistas and members of the SEG (Seminario de Estudos Galegos) such as Filgueira Valverde, Xurxo Lourenzo, Risco,  Díaz Baliño, Castelao, Otero, Bouza Brey, a General Secretary, Francisco Fernández del Riego and a rexente, Álvaro de las Casas.

The ten commandments they were governed by centred on love for the land and Gallegos, study, work, a healthy life, and brotherhood, in order to become an exemplary citizen.  Their hymn was “Keltia” or “Celtia”, with words by Filgueira and music by Iglesias Vilarelle (“Ai Armorica, Cornwall and Cambria (Wales), Scotia (Scotland), Erin (Ireland), Galicia and the Isle of Man./  These are the seven Celtic nations/ daughters of Father Breogán…) and the simple uniform consisted of a white jersey, on which the symbol of the organization was embroidered, a yellow triskel.

There were local Ultreya groups in Noia, Pontevedra, Compostela, Vigo, Ourense, Tui, Redondela, A Estrada, Padrón and Lugo.  The work of the Ultreya groups revolved around excursions by boat, bus or on foot (Rías Baixas, Riberiro de Avia), hikes (the Barbanza mountains), educational visits (the Galician Biological Mission), training courses (such as the one in the Colexio Labor, in Vigo, in August 1933, in collaboration with the SEG), the edition and promulgation of popular songs, verse books, romances and short biographies of outstanding people from Galician history and literature.  Also, according to Fernández del Riego, they went out every Sunday to sell books in Gallego in towns and cities.  The point was for young Ultreyans to get to know Galicia fully and directly in all its aspects by means of the excursions, the visits and the courses, and for them to care for and strengthen their bodies by means of hikes, swimming in the sea, gymnastics and sports, at the same time as they learned to live together, in their own group and with the people of their country.

The Ultreya activities faded away after the creation in May 1934 of the Federación das Mocedades Galeguistas, a branch of the Partido Galeguista, since many of their most outstanding directors went on to hold positions in that organization.  Their last activity took place on the eve of the military rising in 1936: an excursion to the Aloia mountain organized by the Tui group.  Between 1932 and July 1936, the Ultreya managed to sign up into its ranks more than one thousand five hundred youngsters.

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