Pondal: A Celtic Bard in Spain

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

Castromaior, near Portomarín

With pained groan.
Under your mantle
Brave Brandomil lies
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:

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!

A few notes are in order:

Xallas is a real place in A Coruña.  The river Xallas is famously beautiful and hasn’t been completely ruined by modern development.

The hero Brandomil takes his name a town of the same name in A Coruña where there is an old bridge from the sixteenth-century that was thought to be Roman in Pondal’s time.

 

According to Wikipedia, Piosa is an old Irish name for a patch or piece, which can also refer to a musical composition.  Ogas and Eiriz do not have any particular significance that I can detect.  Eiriz is a common surname particularly in Lugo.

 

The suevos/Swabians were a Germanic tribe that settled in the north west of the Iberian peninsula on the fall of the Roman Empire.  They were eventually defeated by the Visigoths.

About Jason Preater

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