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!
A 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.