Pondal Nadal: Christmas Celts and Nationalism

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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
With pained groan.
Under your mantle
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:

Galician National 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!

Catalonia is on my mind.   My friend Amand went to Barcelona to see the referendum on October 1.  He was born in Mallorca and studied in Barcelona as a drama student in the seventies, joining street protests against the Franco régime in its last years.  Like all of us, he is a complex mix of histories: as a witness, a participant and a victim.

“I stayed in a small hostel,” he said.  “There were three others in my dormitory.  One of them was Basque.  The other two were from Galicia.”

“Galicia,” I echoed, thinking of my own life as a walker and a reader.

“Yes.  They wanted to see this happening.”

Of course they did.  From the nineteenth-century to the present, through the Irmandades da Fala to Castelao and onwards, Galicia has sighed its unique identity onto the page.  And there is fellow feeling across the linguistic divides:  Manolo Rivas issued one collection of poetry in Galego, Basque, Catalan and Castilian Spanish.

Spain is a country of peoples.  Those peoples have felt their identities in the richness of their cultural history, their traditions, their music and above all their poetry.  The Spanish state has crushed the separatist movement in Catalonia with the force of the law.  I run around in circles in my head, repulsed by the authoritarianism of the state and equally horrified by the waving of flags in the streets of Catalonia.  I think about the different poets I have been studying over the past year and do not come away from the thoughts with a clearer picture.

R.S. Thomas dug in at the edges of Wales.  He had a visceral dislike of what he called the Machine that pushed the lives of the Welsh hill-farmers he served to the edge.  The English state represented for him what the Spanish state might represent for the Catalans.  His poems about the hills and the mountains, his mourning for the Welsh language and the tender bitterness of his meditations on relationships and landscape, make me think of poets in Asturias and Galicia and Catalonia.

256px-Uxío_Novoneyra_(Praza_Maior_de_Lugo)

They particularly make me think of Uxío Novoneyra.

Galicia será a mina xeneración quen te salve?
Irei un día do Courel a Compostela por terras libradas?

He asks if his generation will save Galicia: will he one day go from the Courel to Compostela through liberated lands?

I have walked from the Courel, in the Ancares mountains, to Santiago perhaps one hundred times over the past ten years.  On those walks I have often carried Novoneyra’s collection, Os Eidos (1955), with me.  He was a poet who walked the hills.  I felt myself into his words, learning to love the Galician language in my own inadequate way.  His were the eyes of a wolf to see a landscape dressed in heathers.

You do not read Novoneyra because you want to back up your political opinions.  But his poetry, with its emphasis on places and people, seems to inevitably lead him to declare separation and difference.  It comes as the cumulative result of meditations on deep particular moments.

puigdemont

Carles Puigdemont © Yves Herman / Reuters

I look up from a the quiet particular to the cackling commentators who, like a pack of jackals, attempt to ridicule the referendum in Catalonia.  The vilification of Puigdemont  is an insult to the people who voted.  They were not sheep being led by a corrupt and self-serving leader.  They are hardly going to forget their deep-felt desire for their own national identity because Mariano Rajoy imposes the full force of the law to suppress their ebullience.  They may sink back, disappointed, into the grooves of their lives, but culture is not suppressed this way; it has its own life.

The Catalan poet, Verdaguer, gave voice to the equivalent of the Galician rexurdimento:

Poeta i fangador sói
en tot faig feina tan neta,
que fango com un poeta
i escric com un fangador

(I am a poet and a digger and in everything I do I am so clean that I dig like a poet and write like a digger.)  It is like Seamus Heaney considering his pen and how he will dig with it.  This is what poets do: they dig.

Translators on the other hand move from place to place.  They cross boundaries and frontiers and look for correspondences and ways of understanding.  I can’t help but feel that more translation is needed in this fracturing world of shouted identities.  I can’t help but feel that the imposition of “the law” on Catalonia is a heavy-handed mistake that will have the Catalans digging in.  Where is the listening ear?  Where is the open hand?  Who wants to listen to the stories?

The stories must be fascinating.

Amand was present as people went to cast their votes in Barcelona on October 1.

“Old people came tottering up on their canes,” he said.  “The young people formed aisles and applauded them as they made their way to vote.  The young people were crying and the old ones were trembling with emotion.  What had they seen in their lifetimes?”

There is something more powerful here than the realities of business or the harsh application of the word of the law.  There is something that cannot be shouted down with arguments, but demands to be listened to.

About Jason Preater

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