Santiago- a Poem by Lorca

imageTonight Santiago went by
On his path of light through the sky
The playing children say so
a gentle brook’s burbling water.

Where to, celestial pilgrim,
riding that infinite clear path?
He’s heading for distant dawn’s shine
on a horse as white as the sky.

Little children in the field, sing!
May your laughter drill into the wind!


imageA man says he has seen Santiago
with a company of two hundred men,
they were covered all over with lights
with garlands of bright green stars
and the horse Santiago was riding
was the brightest star shining.

The man who tells this story
says, There in the sleeping night
the silvery shuffle of wings
carried off on waves of silence.
Is it that he saw paradise?

The knights they saw were angels.

Federico García Lorca
Libro de Poemas (1921)

El Camino de Santiago en la Literatura
José Luis Prieto ed.
(Edilesa: León, 2004)

In the Protestant north we are used to seeing the saints as rather dull men who spend a lot of time with their books.  But there are saintly heroes.

You might not know much about Santiago, or St James. He has a bit part in the Bible but became the patron saint of Spain, and particularly of the north west corner, Galicia, when his tomb was found there in the ninth century. “Santiago y cierra España” is the battle cry of the Spanish army. Devotion to Santiago is linked into the fabric of traditional Spanish life.

Can you understand England if you have never heard the story of Robin Hood? We’ve cut down the woods and live in hock to modern-day King Johns and bad sheriffs, but the jesting figure who emerges from the woods is embedded in the popular culture of the country. Something similar is the case with St James in Spain. Are there any good books about Robin Hood? I haven’t found one. Are there any good books about St James? The same is true. St James is a fairy tale figure who prances across the pages of history on his magical white horse.

You might be more familiar with St James from the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, which drew millions of pilgrims in the middle ages to do reverence to one of the Apostles of Jesus Christ. There is precious little detail about him in the Bible, although he was one of the inner circle with Peter and John and was present at the Transfiguration and the Agony in the Garden. In the legend he came to Spain to preach the gospel after the Ascension. The Virgin Mary came to visit him in Zaragoza transported by angels and the Basilica there is one of the grandest churches in Spain.

When the tomb of St James was found, the obvious question was: how did the body of the saint get from the Holy Land to this far western corner of Europe? His disciples, we are told, loaded his body into a stone boat that was guided by angels to Galicia, the land that he loved best.  The fantastic elements pile up like the accretions around a diode.  Magical journeys, riding down on his horse at the Battle of Clavijo and an eternal vigilance for his beloved pilgrims.  It is no wonder that people came to love their magical defender- a saintly Superman on the side of the poor and needy;

Lorca wrote many ballad-like poems with the incantatory charm of nursery rhymes that deftly manage the symbolic culture of the Spanish gypsies. His Romancero Gitano is one of the all-time greats of Spanish poetry: everyone recognises a few lines from the poems; he is written into the Spanish heart. His attraction to children’s literature, his innocent vision and his ability to manage the grand symbols make him the ideal poet to write a poem about Santiago.

It is like a nursery rhyme. It is gentle and charming.

Hope you like it.

About Jason Preater

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3 Responses to Santiago- a Poem by Lorca

  1. nannus says:

    I am a bit reserved with respect to the Santiago cult (if I may call it that way). There are legends that Santiago appeared in the war against the “moors” and slaughtered many of them. He is therefore known as “Santiago matamoros” and the picture you are showing is an example of that tradition. Santiago obviously was made part of the reconquista ideology and the pilgrimage might have helped to finance those wars. I am not an expert of the history of this time and area, but I suspect that the relics might have been brought there (or more likely: faked) in order to bring money into the area for exactly this purpose. It seems to me that this story was part of the ideological ferment that lead to racism, mass enslavement, colonization and the destruction of many other cultures later. Why this pilgrimage became so popular again in recent time without anybody calling its historical roots into question is astonishing to me.

    I think some serious historical work is necessary about the history of this pilgrimage and the role it has played.


    • I understand your reservations. St James on his white horse comes from the legendary battle of Clavijo, which you rightly say was used as a rallying symbol in the Reconquest. I find Richard Ford’s take on it provocative. He was a typical nineteenth-century Anglican snob, but there is something in his assertion that the whole deal was copied from the Muslims. The Camino is another Haj, the divine helper assisting in battles is right out of the Hadith and Mohammed even had a flying horse, Buraq.

      What is curious to me is that St James is not just a warrior saint, however. The pilgrims who make their way to Santiago have the other image of him- as a walking pilgrim- much more prominently in their minds. There is something about walking for a long distance together with other people that is distinctly sane compared to the life in cities and towns. And I don’t even think you have to be Christian to get something out of it.

      Thanks for your comment. As always, you make me think.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dick Bird says:

    The line ‘¿Qué sería que el río paróse?’ does not mean ‘Is it that he saw paradise?’ The translator also seems to have confused ‘hielo’ (ice) with cielo (the sky). The poem is incomplete, there is a second, longer part. St. James was actually one of Jesus’s three closest disciples, so rather more than a bit part. As for the poem itself, it could be about St James, or more probably it is about the myth of St James and how people in Spain saw it. The poem itself continually refers to what is said and reactions to what is said, so it could be a comment on the cult-like belief in Santiago along with a recognition, even celebration of the visionary imagination of common, rural folk. By the way, I don’t think we can say that the Christian pilgrimage derives from the Haj. Journeys to Rome and Jerusalem were being undertaken before the foundation of Islam. Hinduism and Buddhism, however, both practised pilgrimages well before Christianity was founded.


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