Machado

???????????????????????????????An afternoon in spring
Murmured these words to me:
If you are seeking paths
With flowers in this world
Then put to death your words
And let your old soul speak.
Let the same white linen
That you are wearing now
Clothe you in your mourning
Clothe you at party time.
Cherish your happiness
Cherish your sadness too,
If you are seeking paths
With flowers in this world.
I spoke then my reply
To that spring afternoon:
You have told the secret
That is spoken in my soul:
I abhor happiness
Abhorring suffering.
But before I ever tread
Your flower-strewn path,
I would like to present
My old soul to you: dead.

Antonio Machado is one of the better known poets of the Generation of ´98, a group of writers who changed the direction of Spanish literature at the turn of the century.  This one is XLI from Soledades. Galerías. Otros Poemas (1907- I used the edition edited by Geoffrey Ribbans (Cátedra, 1993)).

The dialogue that he uses here is typical as is the emphasis on seeking a path: one section of the collection is called Del Camino.  The path or way is a dominating symbol in his poetry to which other subsidiary themes and metaphors are joined, frequently expressing fatalism about the inevitability of death.  Machado venerated Edgar Allen Poe’s poem Nevermore and a recurrent meditation on the transitory and ephemeral underlies the lyrical beauty of his phrasing.

What does it mean?  I have found many quotations from Machado while flitting around on the internet.  Machado gives an attractive appearance of being deep especially when read in fragments and this makes him easy to cut into if you are looking for something vaguely poetic and poetically vague.  Well, if you get as far as what the spring says and read no further you would have a good candidate for a motivational blog, wouldn’t you?  When you read further you get a shock: he rejects spring’s advice to leave his words and declares that he hates both happiness and suffering.  He does not want that old, primitive soul and finishes on the shock word: dead.

Machado was concerned about being just a “useless poet” and was proud that he could earn his way in life once he got a job as a secondary school teacher: “I go to work and pay my own way”.  This attitude was influenced by Giner de los Ríos, one of his teachers and the founder of the Institución Libre de Enseñanza, about which I will write more in another post.

Here is a section from the introduction to this collection of poems by Ribbans that seems to me of extraordinary interest:

In a letter to Unamuno of 1903, Machado makes some very interesting declarations… “I am beginning to believe,” he says, “even at the risk of falling into paradoxes, which I dislike, that the artist should love life and hate art.  Quite the contrary to what I previously believed.”  And one year later he says, again to Unamuno:  “We should not create a separate world in which to enjoy in egotistical fantasy the contemplation of ourselves; we should not flee from life to forge for ourselves a better life that is sterile to others.”

This poem seems to belong to the pre-1903 Machado then, the Machado who believed that you should love art and hate life.  I am fascinated by this transition.  All of his poetry, whether it be the melancholy visions of gardens and lonely expanses or the exact descriptions of places and roads, has a delicate lyrical beauty.  You can love both visions.  But, as someone who has started going to the gym, something I never imagined I would do as a young aesthete, I find the movement out of melancholy especially interesting.

About Jason Preater

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3 Responses to Machado

  1. hickson1 says:

    At first I was thinking of the Portugese poet Machado di Assis – author of Dom Casmurra – but this Machado is new to me. I wonder if your Machado ever achieved the equilibrium to love both art AND life? Perhaps, like Calvino’s Mr. Palomar, we only get a glimpse of that perfection?

    Like

    • Antonio Machado also had a brother Manuel who was a writer so the Machado confusion can go deeper! I like Machado de Asís as well. Portuguese poetry is a whole different world. Spring’s demand to go back to something pre-language almost sounds Buddhist to me.

      Like

  2. Pingback: Snow and mist | kestrelart

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