Antonio Machado (1875-1939) is one of Spain’s greatest poets. Not as famous internationally as his younger and more flamboyant contemporary Federico García Lorca, his (later) work owes little to the startling, often violent imagery we associate with Lorca and more to a calm contemplation of nature that goes back, via Wordsworth, to Virgil, Theocritus. Etc, etc. A crude simplification, but I’m afraid it will have to do. This is not an exercise in literary criticism, nor do I want to kick off a history of Spanish poetry at my time of life.

Earlier this week I received an email inviting me to choose a poem or song lyric and forward it to someone, a stranger – to cheer them up (and don’t we need it these days?). I’m not sure why this poem by Machado came to mind. Perhaps it was as a result of seeing a log lying on the pavement outside a local church. It was sprouting “green shoots” – some weeks before the onset of the warm spring weather we’ve been enjoying in virus-blighted London.

Who put it there, and why?

I remember “The Old Elm Tree” from my schooldays. The vocabulary and grammar are fairly simple and there are no obscure Classical allusions, which is why it often features as an A-Level set text. I translated it for Birkenhead School magazine back in 1971.

Amazingly, I found it

My teenage effort

Two years later I went on to study Spanish and Portuguese at university, and there it was again. Machado’s Campos de Castilla (Castilian Landscapes) is a justly famous poetry collection; you can’t take a degree in Spanish and fail to spend some time with it.

My copy, inscribed “A mi amigo Colin, de Eugenio”

Here is my new translation

Upon the old elm, struck by lightning
And rotten through,
April showers and the rays of May
Have teased out a few green leaves.

Venerable elm on the hill
Lapped by the Douro! Yellow moss
Stains the white bleached bark
Of its worm-eaten, crumbling bole.

Unlike the whispering poplars
That guard the path and the river bank,
It will never host dusky nightingales.

An army of ants climbs it
In single file, and spiders
Weave grey webs within its bowels.

Before an axe-wielding woodsman
Fells you, elm of the Douro, and a carpenter 
Makes of you a bell tower,
A cart yoke or axle;
Before you blaze red,
In the hearth of some wretched hut
Along a country path;
Before you’re uprooted by a whirlwind
And flattened by the white sierra’s breath;
Before the river drags you seaward
Through valleys and gullies,
I want, elm tree, to put into words
The grace of those green shoots.
Turning towards light and life,
Like you, my heart craves
Another miracle of spring.

“Al olmo viejo” by Antonio Machado (1875 – 1939)
From Campos de Castilla

For the original Castilian Spanish, go to the foot of this page.

***

The context of this little poem is well known: Machado was in mourning for the loss of his wife, Leonor. But I don’t remember Mr Jackson telling the class that Leonor was just 18 when she died of tuberculosis, or that she was 15 when 32-year-old teacher Don Antonio Cipriano José María y Francisco de Santa Ana Machado y Ruiz obtained her father’s permission to make her his wife.

If that sounds shocking today, it was also far from normal in 1909

Most Spanish women did not marry at that time until they were in their mid twenties. Leonor was a victim twice over. Does this poem combine grief with a tinge of guilt. Did Machado feel that the loss of his child bride was God’s punishment? Not only was he suffering, but he deserved to suffer?

Leonor Izquierdo on her wedding day

It is many years since I’ve translated a poem and I’m not entirely happy with it. Lots of people with greater ability have had a crack at Machado (including Don Paterson, who told me, when starting work on what was to become his third collection, that his Spanish wasn’t too good but that he wasn’t bothered that he sometimes didn’t understand what he was reading). Nonetheless, I am sure that what I have attempted here is better than whatever appeared in the school magazine. There are one or two things I like, such as “dusky nightingales”: a word-play not present in the original. Although whether that’s trying to be clever for no good reason is a moot point.

***

Recently I met an old friend whom I had not seen for more than 30 years. Predictably, it transpired that we had been living within a couple of miles of each other since 2002. It was the Osma Centenary Symposium that brought us together. And now we do not know when we will be able to meet again.

He is now a professor of Spanish in London. He bemoaned the poor quality of teaching, or rather the low expectations of the students who study literature (or Modern Languages, at any rate) when compared to Fine Art. Examine every word. Why was this word chosen, and not some (apparent) synonym? Exactly what is the writer saying? We talked about students being encouraged to translate, to get to grips properly with the language, to discover the precise meaning of each word and consider its connotations, rather than simply breeze through poem after poem, novel after novel, without wrestling with the tools of language, without striving to establish a richer connection – as if words were paint, bronze or clay: the writer’s, and reader’s, treasured medium.

During the second year of my BA course at Oxford I spent less than a week reading Don Quixote (and not the whole book at that) before dashing off a shamelessly superficial and derivative – but apparently satisfactory – essay, which I then read out loud to my tutor, John Rutherford. Many years later John translated Don Quixote and had it published by Penguin Books. How much the richer was his understanding of one of the world’s greatest books! Whether the majority of his fellow Oxford dons appreciated the scale of his achievement, I doubt. I commend to you a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote”.

Finally, here’s what Machado wrote

Al olmo viejo, hendido por el rayo
y en su mitad podrido,
con las lluvias de abril y el sol de mayo
algunas hojas verdes le han salido.

¡El olmo centenario en la colina
que lame el Duero! Un musgo amarillento
le mancha la corteza blanquecina
al tronco carcomido y polvoriento.

No será, cual los álamos cantores
que guardan el camino y la ribera,
habitado de pardos ruiseñores.

Ejército de hormigas en hilera
va trepando por él, y en sus entrañas
urden sus telas grises las arañas.

Antes que te derribe, olmo del Duero,
con su hacha el leñador, y el carpintero
te convierta en melena de campana,
lanza de carro o yugo de carreta;
antes que rojo en el hogar, mañana,
ardas en alguna mísera caseta,
al borde de un camino;
antes que te descuaje un torbellino
y tronche el soplo de las sierras blancas;
antes que el río hasta la mar te empuje
por valles y barrancas,
olmo, quiero anotar en mi cartera
la gracia de tu rama verdecida.
Mi corazón espera
también, hacia la luz y hacia la vida,
otro milagro de la primavera.

“Al olmo viejo”, por Antonio Machado (1875 – 1939)
Campos de Castilla

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