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The Ballad of Federico García Lorca

An acquaintance in Buenos Aires described Federico García Lorca in 1933 as a “conceited fool, a fat and petulant little charlatan.” In the course of an afternoon’s tour of the city, Lorca had been pedantic, vain, and egotistical, giving his companion the impression that “Spanish poetry began and ended with him.” The Spanish theater had similar origins and termination, while his unfinished play, Yerma, was heralded by its creator as “the consummation of Greek tragedy.”

If Lorca hoped this impression would endure, he has received impressive assistance from publishers in the US and Britain who have issued a substantial number of books on his life and works while neglecting the careers of contemporaries such as Miguel Hernández, the young goatherd who was his equal as a lyric poet, and Antonio Machado, who is widely regarded in Spain as the greatest poet of his generation. The Irish writer Ian Gibson has produced three books on Lorca, including a long and magisterial biography. And now Leslie Stainton presents us with another lengthy volume, which is informative and well researched on the poet’s life but marred by naive and inaccurate depictions of the cultural, historical, and political background.

Spaniards are surprised by the Anglo-American fascination with Lorca—it’s as if their publishers had produced half a shelfful of books on Byron while entirely ignoring the lives of Keats and Shelley—and it is hard to explain in purely literary terms. One reason, no doubt, is the performances abroad of some of Lorca’s plays, especially those dark rural tragedies that appeal to northerners by allegedly revealing the deeps of the Andalusian soul. Another is the circumstances of his death. Like Lorca, Machado and Hernández were republicans and victims of the Spanish Civil War. Machado died in exile, desolate and brokenhearted, at the end of the fighting, while Hernández succumbed three years later in the prison hospital at Alicante, having lingered under a death sentence before dying of tuberculosis. But by then the world had become inured to the savagery of the Civil War. Lorca was murdered at the beginning of the conflict, and his death was seen not only as the romantic tragedy of a poet in his prime but as a symbol of the Manichaean nature of the struggle. For he was held to represent the openness, the talent, the generosity, and the betrayed aspirations of the Republic, while his murderers simply epitomized the stupidity and bigotry of General Franco’s uprising. One of the executioners boasted that he had fired “two bullets into his arse for being a queer.”1

Federico García Lorca was born in the vega of Granada, the plain outside the city, in 1898. The child of a prosperous landowner, he displayed musical and literary talents which delighted and sometimes worried his parents. Unlike his brother Paco, he was a hopeless student at the university, preferring to play the piano or sit in a café with a group of young journalists and intellectuals known as El Rinconcillo. Sometimes his father, who was remarkably indulgent for an Andalusian landowner of the period, gave him money so that he could amuse himself in Madrid, and sometimes he kept him in Granada, exhorting him to complete his law degree, a feat which was finally accomplished when the poet was twenty-four.

Lorca and his friends gratified their artistic temperaments in ways that must have been annoying to other people. In Madrid he roamed the streets with the poet Alberti, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and loudly declaiming the poems of Góngora; he also joined the painter Dalí and the future film director Luis Buñuel in the “Order of Toledo,” a society whose main objective was “to adore Toledo without reservation, drink for at least an entire night, and wander aimlessly through the streets of the city.”2 Lorca’s exuberant imagination overflowed with plans for poems and plays and a traveling puppet show. In Andalusia he and the composer Manuel de Falla visited gypsy singers in an attempt to discover the authentic cante jondo (“deep song”) which they believed had been corrupted by modern flamenco.

Gypsies fascinated Lorca, who believed that “all of us Andalusians have a little gypsy inside us.”3 He collected their songs, sang them, was influenced by them—and then wrote his own. His Gypsy Ballads (1928), which is the most widely read book of poems in the literature of Spain, is a fusion of the dramatic narrative and the lyrical. He called it an “Andalusian altarpiece,” and among its panels is “San Gabriel (Sevilla)” containing a strongly sensual portrait of the archangel transformed into a gypsy.

A beautiful reed-like youth,
broad shoulders, slim waist,
the skin of a nocturnal apple,
sad mouth and big eyes,
with nerves of warm silver,
patrols the deserted street.
His patent-leather shoes
break the dahlias of the air,
with the two rhythms that sing
brief celestial dirges.
On the sea shore
there is no palm tree like him,
no crowned emperor
or walking star.

Only close friends seem to have seen beyond the charm and frivolity to his more somber side, to those growing anxieties about death and his sexuality. Lorca sometimes enjoyed dressing up to enact his death, and his drawings reveal that he shared Dalí’s fascination with severed limbs and heads. But he was petrified by the prospect of real death, especially by drowning, and his poems increasingly reflected this preoccupation. “I’m like a little glow-worm in the grass,” he once said, “terrified that someone is going to step on me.”

Neither his family nor many of his friends discussed or even admitted that he was homosexual: his brother’s posthumously published memoir4 contains no hint of his sexuality and does not mention The Public, the play Lorca decided not to publish because of its explicit content. The poet himself was worried that his parents would find out, and elsewhere he was anxious lest people might think he was a marica, a “pansy” or effeminate homosexual. Forced to lead a tormented double life, he masked his true nature—in his published and performed works—and channeled his feelings into the characters of his persecuted heroines. Such an existence surely explains the most powerful and consistent theme of his plays: the frustration of love through denial of instinct and the obligation to conform.

Ian Gibson pursued Lorca’s sex life with vigor and grumbled when people refused to talk to him about it. Leslie Stainton is more reticent, recognizing its significance while finding it unnecessary to go into great detail. Both recognize the importance of his passion for Dalí and the two men’s obsession with the figure of Saint Sebastian, his arrows and his “exquisite agony.” But whereas Gibson quotes Dalí’s very precise explanation why the relationship was not consummated (among other reasons, “it hurt”), Stainton believes that the surrealist ogre was lying. From the misogynist and homo-erotic contents of his paintings, she argues (not altogether convincingly) that “in all likelihood he and Lorca engaged in a short-lived physical affair.”

At the age of thirty-one the poet spent a year in New York and Cuba. He loved Manhattan, though his lack of application prevented him from learning English, while in Havana he basked in the sensuality of the ambience and the adoration conferred on the most famous poet of the Spanish world. Both places, as friends noticed when he returned home, encouraged him to be more relaxed about his homosexuality. As Stainton points out, “If New York had nudged Lorca toward an acceptance of his sexuality, Cuba allowed him to celebrate it.” A visit to Argentina three years later proved to be an equally liberating experience and allowed him to indulge his enthusiasm for sailors.

Yet although these transatlantic escapes proved beneficial for Lorca, they barely affected the content of his work. His poetic inspiration remained deeply Andalusian—Granada, cante jondo, olive trees and poplar groves, the rivers of the vega, the plight of rural women, even the sacrificial rites of the bullfight. With his terror of bloodshed and his lack of interest in anything athletic, one might have expected Lorca to scorn the bullring; he was certainly too timid to contemplate amateur participation, and he would never have agreed with the Sevillian poet Miguel Machado, who said he would rather have been a good banderillero than a bad poet. Yet he was fascinated—and confused—by the mythology of bullfighting, the pagan origins, the formal ritual, what at times he regarded as “the victory of human virtue over bestial instinct,” and at others as an “authentic religious drama where, as in the Mass, a god is adored and sacrificed.” One of his finest poems, rightly regarded by Stainton as “the culmination of Lorca’s trajectory as an elegiac poet,” is the Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, which was written on the death of a close friend, the bullfighter and aspiring writer who came out of retirement at the age of forty-two and was fatally gored in the bullring at Manzanares.

The poet had been unable to witness the end but, hearing how the dying man had shaken the bed so violently that it moved around the room, wrote:

A coffin with wheels is his bed
at five in the afternoon.
Bones and flutes resound in his ears
at five in the afternoon.5

After describing the event with its somber refrain, Lorca saluted his friend’s greatness and accepted his extinction:

The bull does not know you, nor the fig tree,
nor horses, nor the ants on your floors.
The child does not know you, nor the evening,
because your death is forever.

Only the poet can petrify the memory:

I sing his elegance with words that moan
and remember a sad breeze in the olive groves.

Lorca applauded the advent of the Republic in 1931 and rapidly became one of its icons. But his was a cultural and spiritual identification with the new regime rather than a political one. He wanted the Republic to set up libraries and better schools; he wanted people to be able to read books and see plays without leaving their villages. He became director of La Barraca, a traveling theater company sponsored by the government to perform the great plays of the past in front of rural audiences. Exhilarated by the project, he even gave up writing poetry. Yet this was also the major period of his playwriting life, the years of his great Andalusian dramas: Blood Wedding, Yerma, Doña Rosita, The House of Bernarda Alba.

Abandoning the somewhat Romantic style of earlier works such as Mariana Pineda, he returned to his poetic combination of the dramatic and the lyrical (though in varying ratios) to create his rural tragedies of the south. “The day we stop resisting our instincts,” he said in 1933, “we’ll have learned how to live.”6 The chief theme of these plays is the repression of those instincts (especially erotic ones), a theme which enables him to demonstrate both his compassion and his remarkable empathy with desperate women, the aging spinster, the childless wife, the girl forced to marry a man she cannot love. His women are real, not sultry Carmens of the traditional Andalusian stereotype. One of the best is Doña Rosita, whose loneliness and desperation is recorded with a powerful sympathy. “Each year that passed,” she said, “was like an intimate piece of clothing torn from my body.”

  1. 1

    Ian Gibson, Federico García Lorca: A Life (Pantheon, 1989), p. 468.

  2. 2

    Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh, translated by Abigail Israel (Knopf, 1983), pp. 77-78.

  3. 3

    C. Brian Morris, Son of Andalusia: The Lyrical Landscapes of Federico García Lorca (Vanderbilt University Press, 1997), p. 47.

  4. 4

    Francisco García Lorca, In the Green Morning: Memories of Federico (New Directions, 1986).

  5. 5

    Morris, Son of Andalusia, p. 408.

  6. 6

    Gibson, Federico García Lorca, p. 438.

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