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If Poetry Was a Place

According to Gerardo Diego, Antonio Machado “spoke in verse and lived in poetry.”

Hermitage of San Saturio
Hermitage of San Saturio Photo by Katy Dycus

According to Gerardo Diego, Antonio Machado “spoke in verse and lived in poetry.”

Born in Seville, Spain in 1875, Machado, included by some in Generación del 98 (Generation of 1898, involving Miguel de Unamuno, Pio Baroja and Ramón del Valle-Inclán, among others), ushered in a new Spanish poetics at the turn of the century.

Machado’s generation had experienced the loss of the War of 1898, and with it, the loss of Spain’s last remaining vestiges of empire. The nation and its poets turned ever inward to discover or rediscover villages, common people, places of isolation and longing.

Antonio Machado en el Café de las Salesas. Photo by Alfonso Sánchez Portela

Lain-Entralgo, a Spanish cultural critic, maintains that the Generation of 98 discovered and invented the Castilian landscape. They discovered it by communicating a vision of beauty in its severe, bold lines; they invented it by portraying its connections to the Spanish psyche.

In the spare and lustrous language of Machado, we find great sensitivity to place and natural landscapes, a tender connection to local folklore and song as living testimonies. His poetry isn’t the poetry of closed doors but of the open air. “Wayfarer,” he wrote, “Your footsteps are the road, and nothing more. Wayfarer, there is no road, the road is made by walking.”

Many of his writings are the products of long walks through towns or countrysides. He usually enters the inner world by first penetrating the outer world of landscapes and people and objects. He meditates upon the landscape, underscoring its symbolic value. Machado said, “It is in the solitude of the countryside that a man ceases to live with mirrors.” The material of the outer world transformed through his heart, a poem, to capture the soul of a man within the soul of Spain.

Generation of 98 discovered and invented the Castilian landscape

Resting high on an east-central plain at the gateway to La Mancha, the town of Soria is much like one of Machado’s poems: sensual, natural, assuredly simple. The gentle Duero River flows past Soria in the heart of Castille and Leon, creating an image as much a part of literature as it is of landscape. “Somber oaks, harsh stony wastelands, bald peaks,” Machado wrote, retain a timeless vision. Everything here is real but borders on a dream. In the fields of Soria, “The earth’s not alive, the land dreams.”

Along the cobblestoned streets of Soria, stanzas from Machado’s poems decorate the walls of some buildings. A plaque outside the Hermitage of San Saturio bear an image of Machado and a stanza from “Fields of Soria,” a poem that remembers the local people of the “high Numantian plain.”

Machado made his living as a high school French teacher and in 1907 took his first post in the town of Soria. He taught there until 1911, when he received a fellowship enabling him to study in Paris. While traveling, Machado’s wife fell ill with tuberculosis and later succumbed to the disease.

In 1912, Machado published his second book, Campos de Castilla. The poetic work contained personal and national joys and lamentations, looking both outward and inward. The volume divides into three parts: the first contemplates the Spanish land and people; the second recalls Soria; and the last expresses his love for his late wife, Leonor. Although Machado went on to live in Baeza and Segovia, Spain, he continued to write of Soria.

“You ask me why my heart flies from the coast
Back to Castile, to towering raw terrains,
Why, near the sea, in fertile fields, I most
Long to be back on the high and barren plains.”

The next stanza, beginning with these words, offer an answer: “No one chooses his love.”

As I stand outside the Hermitage of San Saturio, along the banks of the Duero, I can’t help but feel that some places are more beautiful in the rain. I feel the chill of precipitation drip beneath the shelter of my umbrella. I imagine the tears Machado shed for his late wife, Leonor. How they must have fallen in a way remarkably similar to the rain falling around me, gentle yet powerfully persistent. An echo of a beautiful sadness that envelopes you. A feeling people anywhere in the world would recognize.

For Machado, both place and poetry recogize natural symbolism in the ordinary world. Profound lessons lie here, surprising you to real insight. Machado brings you close. He never lets you get any distance on the scene of the poem, yet he rewards you with a vision of amaranthine undertones.

Soria feels this way too; it invites you to look closer. Ever closer. There is great enjoyment in the sensual, not so much the intellectual. Yet you could architect your life around his poems. Without even noticing its influence on you, Machado’s poems work their spell on you in the same way Soria worked its enduring magic on him.

“The Duero bends
its crossbow arc, shadowed oaks,
stone dry-lands, naked mountains,
white roads and river poplars,
twilights of Soria, warlike and mystical,
today I feel, for you,
in my heart’s depths, sadness,
sadness of love! Fields of Soria,
where it seems the stones dream,
you go with me!”

It is no wonder Machado found poetic inspiration in “Soria fria, Soria pura” (Cold Soria! Pure Soria).

Soria itself is a poem.

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Katy Dycus Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, Katy now lives in Madrid, Spain. When she isn't teaching, hiking, or laughing with friends, she's probably writing for the anthropology journal Mammoth Trumpet. Or looking for the perfect avocado.