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
But before I ever tread
Your flower-strewn path,
I would like to present
My old soul to you: dead.
Antonio Machado Soledades. Galerías. Otros Poemas (1907- I used the edition edited by Geoffrey Ribbans (Cátedra, 1993)).
I am returning to this poem by Machado. When I wrote about it before, I said that 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”.
In a letter to Unamuno of 1903, Machado says, “I am beginning to believe, 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.”
The relationship between life and art is something I live with. Do you?
Machado, in both the poem and the letters, sets up the opposing forces of life and art that give him his contradictions. He is hardly to be trusted when he says he does not like paradoxes!
Look at the poem:
Tells the secret of the poet’s soul
|Put to death your words||death = soul|
|Let your old soul speak||Secret spoken in my soul|
|Cherish happiness||Abhor happiness|
|Cherish sadness||Abhor suffering|
|Seek flowery paths||Dead soul before flowery paths|
The poem as a literary object is elusive and paradoxical, arising from the Symbolist tradition that sometimes evades clarity on purpose. I struggle to understand exactly what it means. What is the “old soul” the poet should let speak? And how will it speak if it does not use words? The spring afternoon itself is murmuring words and the poet recognizes that the spring afternoon really does understand his soul: “You have told the secret/That is spoken in my soul.” Tell and speak again. So, when the spring afternoon says, “put to death your words” its meaning is not at all clear.
In these two documentaries there is some good guidance on Machado.
It cannot be that the spring afternoon is saying “love life and hate art,” though that was my first thought on reading it. What is that tension between the spring afternoon, the poet and the old soul?
I showed the poem to Carmen. The first part made some kind of sense to her and she wanted to explain it to me, but when the poet replies to the spring afternoon a frown came across her face. “You’re right,” she said. “Es enrevesado.” The curiosity and the strength of the poem is the poet’s resistance to Spring, that eternal literary trope. It reminds me of a poem by Auden, which starts with quaint songs and ends with despair:
If you have an opinion on the meaning of this poem- what it meant to you- I would be interested to hear it.