Archive for October 10th, 2019

‘El poeta es un pescador …. de peces que puedan vivir después de pescados.’

[Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape  – page 185)

‘ The poet is a fisherman… of fish capable of staying alive after being hauled out.’

(Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems – Page 7)

The water is deep. Sometimes from far
down invisible messages arrive.
Often it seems it is far more than fish
that we seek; we wait for the
withheld answer to an insoluble

(R. S. Thomas Collected Poems – page 327)

Scanned from Xon de Ros – The Poetry of Antonio Machado

In February last year I declared ‘I am currently going back and re-reading the poetry of Antonio Machado after being triggered by my encounter with The Forty Rules of Love.’ It has clearly taken me some time to get to the point where I feel able to put on record the result of my revisiting his poetry and related books.

Initially I wanted to write about Machado because aspects of his life and the themes he repeatedly returned to resonated for me. As I explored further, reading the views of others such as Xon de Ros, Alan S Trueblood and Don Paterson, I realized his poetry also related to issues of concern to me, but of a different kind. Perversely, it is those I will begin with in detail, after a helicopter biography, before then exploring the themes that attract me in the context of his life.

It might be worth mentioning now, before it gets forgotten, that, to my way of thinking, the UK poet closest to Machado in spirit if not in technique is the Welsh priest-poet R S Thomas, another of my favourites. For instance, they share a similar relationship with God. R S Thomas typically states (Collected Poems – page 361):

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply.

Only to have been anticipated by Machado, who wrote (Trueblood – page 227) of ‘The God of distance and of absence.’

There are four main texts referred to in what follows: Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems, Don Paterson The Eyes, Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape, and Gerald Brenan The Literature of the Spanish People. I have tried to make sure the source of any quotation is clear.

His Life

My sister’s dying four years before I was born triggered my parents’ consequent grief and clouded my childhood. Machado’s life was overshadowed by death in a similar way to mine, which accounts for part of my sense of affinity with him.

He married in 1909. His young wife died of consumption in August 1911. The moment she died is captured in a poem I quoted at the start of my sequence on Los Solitarios, where you’ll also find the original Spanish (the English is my literal translation):

One summer evening –
the balcony and the doors open –
death came into my house.
Approaching her bed
– not even seeing me –
with slender fingers
it tore something most delicate.
Silent and blind to me
death passed by again.
‘What have you done?’
Death made no reply.
As precious as my sight,
my child stayed silent
as my heart splintered.
What death had cut was
the thread between those two.

He later wrote (Trueblood – page 3):

‘Five years in the Sofia country, now sacred to me – I married there and there I lost my wife, whom I adored – oriented my eyes and heart towards the quintessentially Castilian.’

Xon de Ros places this in context – Leonor was 15 when Machado married her (page 240):

The union, even by the standards of the time, was scandalous – he was heckled outside the church in what the poet would painfully recall years later as one of the worst days of his life.

She describes him as (page 242) ‘. . . one of the most haunted poets of modern Spain.’

Gerald Brennan conveys a vivid picture of the man in the eyes of his contemporaries (page 434):

. . .shabbily dressed, sunk in his own thoughts, almost always alone, the picture of a provincial school master run to seed till one looked at him attentively, both timid and proud at the same time – that is how it appeared to Rafael Alberti in the 1920s. His friends, other elderly provincials: his occupations, walking and reading: his severity, that of the inward-looking man who has had to suffer all the boredom of the classroom.…

Writing his biography, according to Xon de Ros, was an intimidating challenge (pages 240-41):

Gibson [his biographer] is at pains to record a life that looks formidably boring. . . So uneventful is it that the biographer finds himself grasping at [straws] . . . Machado’s life was the life of the mind, that of a contemplative poet.

Xon de Ros clarifies what this might mean in terms of his poetry (page 208): ‘[Wallace Stevens’s] meditative and philosophical poetry has much in common with Machado’s.’

Maybe, as she says (page 200), in his renderings of Machado called The Eyes, Paterson also got the point in his translation of La Noria (literally The Treadmill, in this case working a waterwheel):

In Paterson’s poem the poor old mule is transformed into ‘my wretched old pal’ in the second stanza, suggesting a kind of intimacy which is almost a self-recognition as the poet beholds himself in the mule.

The photograph at the top of the post, taken towards the end of his life, captures this sense of weariness.

His life ended tragically. His more famous much younger contemporary, Federico García Lorca, had been murdered by Fascists in Granada in August 1936: he was 38. In poor health already, Machado fled Franco’s Spain in 1938 trying to save himself, but died in France a few months later on 22 February 1939 at the age of 63.

Issues of Concern raised by his Art


A problem that seems to vex a number of critics and literary historians is whether poetry should be political. While I would agree in terms of party politics, many themes that poets draw upon have political implications that are not sectarian and need not be experienced as divisive. As far as I can tell, though, as a result of his education, (Xon de Ros – page 3) ‘liberal principles became part and parcel of Machado’s lifelong ideological makeup, but his was (Trueblood – page 4) ‘. . . a profound conviction that poetry should remain apolitical and that the artist’s integrity required that he keep his distance from centres of power…’

Xon de Ros (page 210) claims that the words quoted from Gray’s Constructive Destruction describe qualities inherent in Machado’s approach: the ‘valorization of the unsystematic over the systematic and a concomitant suspicion of all systems.’ This echoes Sue Prideaux’s perception of Munch, whose true genius I only recently discovered, (her biography – page 326) as ‘an implacable opponent of all –isms . . .’

Early in his life, Machado’s views were mistakenly seen as allied to Franco’s. However, Xon de Ros clarifies that (page 182):

. . . the identification of his work with the Francoist ideology was soon questioned by critics whose vindication of the formalist qualities of his poetry implies his realignment with the poetics of political dissent. . Whereas Lorca’s status as a Republican martyr is based on his political sympathies, Machado’s exile, a trauma which contributed to his death, was the direct result of his political action in favour of the Republic. . .


Accessibility is something that matters to me, as my sequence on what I call brick-wall poetry illustrates. Trueblood argues that he is reaching out to a wider audience than a poetic elite (page 5):

He seeks forms of reintegration through dialogue in communion with his fellow-man, his society, his age, and, more broadly, in speculations on a scheme of things from which God has withdrawn.

However, the degree of his accessibility may not be consistent. Xon de Ros flags up an interesting system for categorizing poems which I had not met before, probably because my ambivalence towards Ezra Pound kept me at a distance from his ideas (page 14):

The main strands of Machado’s poetics,… broadly correspond to the three ‘kinds of poetry’ . . . described by Ezra Pound in the late 1920s. . . While the first, ‘in which words are charged with some musical property’ can be associated with the symbolist emphasis of Soledades, Galerías, Otras Poemas, the second, involving ‘a casting of images upon the visual imagination,’ is more prevalent in Campos de Castilla. The third, characterised by Pound as ‘a dance of intellect among words,’ finds more extensive treatment in Nuevas Canciones.

My brick-wall problem may emerge when I’m dealing with Machado’s ‘dance of intellect among words’ – the label does not suggest an appetizing experience for me.

It is clear that obscurity creeps into some of Machado’s poetry. Trueblood pins down the source of the problem (page 32):

The enigmas and obscurities of all this poetry are neither obscurantist nor wilful. They result from the effort to confront fundamental and, often anguishing, perplexities, dilemmas of existence and of mortality.

I’ll be looking at further influences in this direction later. In the meantime this poem conveys both Machado’s sense of loss and his search for God. First is the original Spanish, and next Trueblood’s translation, both from his book. Last comes my rather melodramatic attempt to capture my sense of it in English.

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