Three Poems About the Mountains

CHow quick the implacable axe
felled to the ground
oaks and holm oaks
and by the light of darling dawn
how bald appears
the mountain crest!

Where yesterday coppice and wood
were rustic thick,
enveloped in sweet mystery
when mists floated
in morning’s light,
where the river source burbled on,
hidden amongst flowers and moss,
now the barren hill-backs bare
their deep, deformed
and black furrows.

Now birds sing their love-songs there
no more, no longer gather
when May tricks out the slopes, left
naked of oaks, and only
passing winds bring echoes of
the barking deer,
the howling wolf.

Rosalía de Castro, En las orillas del Sar

If you have been following this blog for a while you will know that I make no separation between poetry and life. My reading has no function outside itself but it takes points in the landscape, be they geographical or cultural, and weaves stories between them. Today I want to weave a little story between some points that have lit up like little fairy lights in my reading recently. Yesterday I translated Seixo branco by Pernas Nieto and it reminded me of this bleak poem by Rosalía, which in turn made me think of Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

I am an Englishman in Spain and it is always of interest to find connections with other English men and women who have been here. Tennyson came to Spain with his friend Hallam in the summer of 1830. They were a part of a Cambridge group called the Apostles who, in true Romantic fashion, had discovered a cause with which to identify. Here is what John Suiter says about it on the Poetry Foundation website:

Tennyson’s political enthusiasm was considerably cooler than Hallam’s, but he was glad to make his first trip abroad. They went through France to the Pyrenees, meeting the revolutionaries at the Spanish border. Even Hallam’s idealistic fervor scarcely survived the disillusionment of realizing that the men they met were animated by motives as selfish as those of the royalist party against whom they were rebelling. Nonetheless, in the Pyrenees Tennyson marked out a new dimension of the metaphorical landscape that had already shown itself in “Mariana,” and for the rest of his life the mountains remained as a model for the classical scenery that so often formed the backdrop of his poetry. The Pyrenees generated such marvelous poems as “Oenone,” which he began writing there; “The Lotos-Eaters,” which was inspired by a waterfall in the mountains; and “The Eagle,” which was born from the sight of the great birds circling above them as they climbed in the rocks. Above all, the little village of Cauteretz and the valley in which it lay remained more emotionally charged for Tennyson than any other place on earth. He came again and again to walk in the valley, and it provided him with imagery until his death more than sixty years later.

Strictly speaking Cauteretz is not Spain but France. I will come back to the idea of “coming to Spain” in a moment, but first let’s look at a part of that lyrical poem, Oenone, which popped into my head when re-reading Rosalía:
“O mother, hear me yet before I die.
They came, they cut away my tallest pines,
My tall dark pines, that plumed the craggy ledge
High over the blue gorge, and all between
The snowy peak and snow-white cataract
Foster’d the callow eaglet—from beneath
Whose thick mysterious boughs in the dark morn
The panther’s roar came muffled, while I sat
Low in the valley. Never, never more
Shall lone Oenone see the morning mist
Sweep thro’ them; never see them overlaid
With narrow moon-lit slips of silver cloud,
Between the loud stream and the trembling stars.”

OI have wrested this segment from Oenone, which is the complaint of a mountain nymph betrayed by Paris: when he chooses Artemis above Pallas and Hera he brings about all the fatal consequences of the Trojan War. The felling of mountain pines is, therefore, an allegory of human destruction.

The young Tennyson of 1830 was yet to become the exemplary poet of Victorian Britain. He is a young Romantic. Wordsworth and Coleridge had been caught up in the fervour of the French Revolution. In the second generation of Romantics, Shelley had taken his atheistic stance in Italy and Byron found martyrdom fighting for Greek independence. This summer escapade of a gentle poet, a vicar’s son with a Lincolnshire country upbringing, seems pale by comparison, but who knows what imaginings were in the mind of the Apostles. There is something quietly condescending about the Cambridge boys seeking out a little revolution they can support, a naivety I can only compare with the fresh-faced scions of Harvard in our time who are as privileged as they are clueless.

Looking back at the part of the Rosalía poem I have translated for you, we can say that here the felling of the trees is not metaphorical but real: the Galician landscape was changed for ever by capital hungry entrepreneurs who cut down the virgin woods and sold the timber for a quick profit. For Rosalía the destruction of the ancient oaks and chestnut groves is a betrayal of spirits, for her they are sacred trees to the Celts: sacra encina del Celta. The rexurdimento of the Galician language and the enterprise of Galician Nationalists in digging up Celtic connections in their deep history is a phenomenon that echoes across nineteenth-century Europe, from Serbia, to Hungary, to Poland. The rape of the landscape is real, but has a high symbolic charge.

Here is what Hobsbawm says in The Age of Revolutions:

romantic primitivism lent itself more readily to leftwing rebellion… This was notably the case of ‘the folk’. It was accepted among romantics of all shades that ‘the folk’, i.e. normally the pre-industrial peasant or craftsman, exemplified the uncorrupted virtues and that its language, song, story and custom was the true repository of the soul of the people.

Remember that Rosalía’s first book Cantares Gallegos was precisely this: a re-working of ballads and songs; an evocation of the terra nai in the mouthes of the “folk”. Hobsbawm again:

‘The folk’ could be a revolutionary concept, especially among oppressed peoples about to discover or reassert their national identity, particularly those which lacked a native middle class or aristocracy. There the first dictionary, grammar or collection of folksong was an event of major political importance, a first declaration of independence.

He is not talking about Galicia here. In fact, the only Galicia he mentions in his book is the Polish province. Yet these words describe what happened in Spain very well: the Cantares became a symbolic text that launched the rebirth of the Galician language; its potent mix of celebration and outrage struck a chord not only with Gallegos but with a wider audience in Madrid and beyond who were imbued with Romantic ideas about regionalisms, nationalisms and peoples.

If we skip forward to Pernas Nieto we can see a different attitude to the landscape, an attitude he learnt from Noriega Varela. Noriega Varela was a folk writer not only in his themes and inspirations but in his very being: he was no Cambridge boy; he did not have the Classical education of Tennyson; yet the lyricism of his poetry taken from direct observations of fiestas, country customs and mountain life is unique. He was active writing for a satirical magazine that criticised the caciques- powerful land-owners who treated participatory politics with disdain. Much has been made of his about face after the Civil War: an anti-Semitic letter, intolerant and prejudiced. But what does it mean? Who can say what happens to a man who has had to live through the terror of Franco’s repression? As Peter Preston observes in The Spanish Holocaust, Red soldiers were responsible for many of the Nationalist atrocities: offered the choice between death and changing sides they changed sides and then outdid themselves in cruelties to prove themselves “loyal”. Pernas Nieto was a priest, a different man, but he must have witnessed some of the same horrors. And it is precisely the association of the “folk” with revolutionary concepts that brought Franco, a Gallego himself, to put bans on the language that was reborn with Rosalía.

If we put these poems in an historical line we would have Tennyson in 1830, Rosalía in 1884 and Pernas Nieto in 1936, each one taking the mountain landscape as the background for their poetic composition. Tennyson’s escapade in the French Pyrenees looks forward to the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades that came to fight on the Republican side. I can hardly imagine him taking an active role in conflict like George Orwell, but there is a strand of continuity that links the two.

I love Tennyson’s “narrow moon-lit slips of silver cloud.” Isn’t it beautiful? I also admire him for stepping back from Hallam, and converting the landscape into poetry, not the people. For there is something callow in that wish to go out into the world and appropriate the rebellions of others for one’s own personal glory. I think of those Harvard graduates who made such a spectacular mess of the Middle East, probably because they never had enough time to sit down and read Edward Said with the attention he merits.

And this brings me tomy own coming to Spain and these readings. They have nothing of the grandur of nineteenth century travel. I am here because I am here. I read for the occasional glimpse of those fairy lights. And, in my twenty-first century experience as an Englishman in Spain, I can only look back with a feeling of embarrassment at the long line of Brits from Richard Ford to Jason Webster who have come here to patronise the natives and blow the trumpet in their own hero story.

No, there is no gap between reading and life. When I walk down into Grado from the village (which you can see here I go down a mountain valley for the first ten kilometres and it is easy to have a bit of Tennyson float into my head. Just as I turn off onto the road that will take me the next eight kilometres into town the oaks and the chestnuts give way to eucalyptus plantations on these lower slopes and I think of Rosalía and meditate on the continuing effect of speculation on the environment.

Then, when I am almost in Grado, the road takes me past a mass grave from the Civil War, only recently marked with a stone memorial. There are often flowers there. I have tried to think myself into the pain of that and confess I am not capable: a daughter with flowers for her father, perhaps, herself now ageing and most of a lifetime under that dictatorship. When the Nationals took over a town they would take offcials in the Republican government out and shoot them. The women they gave castor oil to make them shit themselves. They shaved their heads and paraded them through town. There was no redistribution of land when democracy returned so the families that profited from the property and land stolen from the “Reds” still have it. I can think of Daniel Pernas Nieto and Noriega Varela and never come to a conclusion.

But Englishmen abroad are not the self-confident sons of privilege they once were. We are human like the people we live among and dare not judge in case that judgement turn back upon us.

About Jason Preater

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This entry was posted in Minor Poets, Rosalía de Castro, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Three Poems About the Mountains

  1. Very good. Thank you 🙂


  2. John Looker says:

    This is a most interesting article. I’m glad to have found your blog.


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