Federico García Lorca: Poet of sleepless love and voice of art

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By: Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee

“I know there is no straight road

No straight road in this world

Only a giant labyrinth

Of intersecting crossroads.”

– Federico Garcia Lorca

These words celebrated ‘sleepless love’ in his poetry and for whom ‘the artist, and particularly the poet, is always an anarchist in the best sense of the word. As he himself believed, he was the poet in whom there was a merger of three voices – ‘the voice of death with all its forebodings, the voice of love and the voice of art.’ Lorca was arguably the most important Spanish writer of the 20th century. The folklore and Gypsy culture of his native Andalusia provided much of his inspiration and subject matter, as did love, mortality, Flamenco and bullfighting. Unfortunately, Lorca was murdered by fascist soldiers in 1936, at the beginning of Spain’s Civil War and the exact whereabouts of his final resting place is unknown. Today the whole world knows that his assassination was part of a campaign of mass killings intended to eliminate supporters of the Leftist Popular Front.

With the publication of his poetry collection Romancero Gitano, or Gypsy Ballads (1928), Lorca received significant critical and popular attention, and the following year travelled to New York City, where he found a connection between Spanish deep songs and the African American spirituals he heard in Harlem. When he returned to Spain he co-founded La Barraca, a traveling theater company that performed both Spanish classics and Lorca’s original plays, including the well-known Blood Wedding (1933), in small-town squares. Despite the threat of a growing fascist movement in his country, Lorca refused to hide his leftist political views, or his homosexuality, while continuing his ascent as a writer.

“I am the immense shadow of my tears,” he sang in his poems. At the heart of all great art is an essential melancholy as our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts. This was very much common to the ‘Generation of 27’ (the group which introduced Lorca to Surrealism), a movement that had a great impact on his writings. In Madrid, he joined this group of avant-garde artists that included Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel. He gradually rose to prominence and this 20th-century Spanish poet and dramatist published numerous volumes of poetry during his career. His lyrical work often incorporates elements of Spanish folklore, Andalusian flamenco and Gypsy culture, and cante jondos, or deep songs, while exploring themes of romantic love and tragedy. Blood Wedding and Yerma are the first and second plays of a trilogy of the Spanish earth that were first mentioned in 1933. In 1935, Lorca told an interviewer that the third play was nearly finished and that those who had liked his last two dramas — Blood Wedding and Yerma — would not be disappointed with this one. There is still some confusion over exactly what Lorca may have had in mind for this trilogy. In 1933 he called it a trilogy of the Spanish earth and included an unknown play called The Destruction of Sodom. In 1934, the same trilogy then included Yerma, but Lorca called the third work The Drama of Lot’s Daughters. These are perhaps different titles or ways of referring to the same project. Only months later (1935), he returned to the title, The Destruction of Sodom, saying that the work was nearly finished (II, 975). Lorca’s good friend, Rafael Martínez Nadal, also recalls talk of a Biblical trilogy whose final work would be a drama of Cain and Abel, a fierce anti-war play in which the ‘madness’ of the modern world would be mixed with the biblical legend in strange but vivid superimpositions.

He studied law at the University of Granada before relocating to Madrid in 1919 to focus on his writing. He was born near Granada in Fuente Vaqueros, Spain, to a prosperous farm owner and a pianist. In August 1936, at the onset of the Spanish Civil War, Lorca was arrested at his country home in Granada by Francisco Franco’s soldiers. He was executed by a firing squad a few days later.

“I’ve often lost myself, in order to find the burn that keeps everything awake,” said Garcia Lorca. Poetry was in his blood and the wonderful imagery he used in his poetry enchants the readers. He could write gracefully of the stars and roses. The poems of Lorca’s most famous collection explore the life and culture of Andalusian Gypsies, a people that Lorca was fascinated by and about whom he wrote with deep understanding. Written in Granada in 1918, ‘Autumn Song’ was published as part of 1921’s Book of Poems, Lorca’s second collection of works. It is an exquisitely melancholy reflection on mortality and love, a young man’s first grappling with questions of meaning and purpose.

One poem among the cluster of short poems that together make up Lorca’s Poem of the Cante Jondo (Poem of the Deep Song), ‘The Guitar’ is a brilliant example of how much feeling and drama the poet could pack into a few lines of verse. Lorca wrote the majority of these poems in November 1921 to prepare for a flamenco festival in Granada the following year. In this work, the sound of flamenco guitar is described as a ‘sob’ that cannot be silenced once it begins. The guitar writes Lorca, ‘sobs for distant things’, such as the scorched landscape of Andalusia, Flamenco’s true home. Lorca attributes an elemental power to the guitar’s music: like the wind or the snow, it is a natural force that cannot be resisted.

The poems of Lorca’s most famous collection Blood and the Moon, explore the life and culture of Andalusian Gypsies, a people that Lorca was fascinated by and about whom he wrote with deep understanding. In this, the first of the Gypsy Ballads, the poet introduces the moon as an important character, a seductive and faintly malevolent being who comes to a blacksmith at night to kidnap a young boy. Critics have pointed out that in his Flamenco poems, Lorca was not concerned with literal descriptions of the music, but with evoking its sounds and effects by other means. ‘The Shout’ provides a powerful demonstration of this technique, in which the piercing wail of the singer’s first notes – introduced by the guitar’s ‘sob’ in the preceding poem – are likened to an ‘arc’, a ‘black rainbow’ stretching over the countryside at dawn. Lorca’s Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Meijias is an elegiac composition written for the famous Andalusian matador Ignacio Sánchez Mejias, fatally gored during a bullfight in August 1934, powerfully conveys the shock of sudden death. ‘Night of Sleepless Love’ – the poems collected under the title Sonnets of Dark Love were inspired by Lorca’s love affair with Rafael Rodríguez Rapun, an engineering student whom he had met in 1933. The last of these works capture, in just four densely packed verses, a restless night of recriminations and intense passion, eventually terminated by dawn breaking over the writer’s ‘shrouded heart’. (The author is a senior academician and Head Post Graduate Dept of English, Dum Dum Motijheel College, Kolkata. He can be reached at [email protected])

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