100 Years of Miguel Hernández

Literature

 

This year, October 30 marks the centennial birth anniversary of the Spanish poet Miguel Hernández, who died in prison in 1942. Unlike Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejos, Juan Ramon Jimenez, and other writers associated with the Spanish Civil War, Hernández remains relatively obscure outside Spain, where he continues to be loved and remembered. A fairly comprehensive critical anthology of his poetry translated into English is The Selected Poems of Miguel Hernández (2001), which features translations by Ted Genoways (also the volume’s editor) and others such as Robert Bly, Philip Levine, and Edwin Honig.

 

Born of peasant stock in Orihuela, near the southeastern coast of Spain, he was a voracious reader encouraged by a local priest. He put in several years of studying at the Jesuit-run colegio (in an annex for the children of the poor) next to his home, but was forced to stop and help in his father’s livestock business. He continued to read, sometimes to the detriment of the flocks of sheep and goats in his care, and joined a circle of more affluent Orihuelan intellectuals led by a writer who went by the pen name Ramon Sijé. At meetings in a bakery, this group nurtured Hernández’s poetry, which would go through dramatic changes over the course of his short career.

 

He published only a handful of poetry books in his lifetime: Perito en lunas (1933), El Rayo que no cesa (1936), El viento del pueblo (1937), El hombre acecha (1939), and El cancionero y romancero de ausencias (1941). Each book represents a development of his style while reflecting a period in his life.

 

Perito en lunas reveals the precocious and youthful Hernández stumping readers and scholars with dense, metaphor-laden octets on everyday objects and situations, inspired by the medieval poet Luis de Góngora. In El rayo que no cesa he loosens his neo-Gongorism, swinging tentatively into surrealism in sonnets that celebrate and bemoan his love and lust for Josefina Manresa, who would later become his wife.

 

Out of this second volume comes one of his most emblematic poems, the “Elegía” to his friend Ramon Sijé, who died of illness at 23 (See an English translation here.). Hernández seems to hit his stride with this poem, in which the intellectual exercise of poetic imagery, metaphor, and form is enflamed with deeply felt emotion. The plaintive yet controlled voice in this poem reappears in the best of his late poetry, as in the piece often referred to as “Nanas de la cebolla.”

 

By the time his second book was published, Hernández had already gained entry into the literary circles of Madrid, forging strong friendships with future Nobel laureates Neruda and Vicente Aleixandre, and maintaining a prickly camaraderie with García Lorca, then the star of the Madrid culturati. Hernández had also begun to mythologize his background, using his humble origins to set himself apart from the cosmopolitan intellectual elite. He styled himself the Shepherd Poet and became a fixture of the literary scene.

 

El viento del pueblo and El hombre acecha show Hernández maturing into a poet of the people, opposing the evils of fascism and lamenting the bloodshed of the Guerra Civil. His daring surrealist imagery, already violent and passionate in the love sonnets of El rayo que no cesa, only needed to be married to a political stance to create his most enduring persona—that of a raging, melancholy herald of revolution. Already brutalized during a wrongful detention in 1936, he spoke out against fascist injustice and eventually joined the Republican Army.

 

His final book was composed during his three-year imprisonment after the end of the Civil War. He was apprehended after attempting to seek asylum in Portugal and transferred between 12 horrific Franco prisons. During his imprisonment his health deteriorated and he contracted the tuberculosis, pneumonia, and bronchitis that would eventually kill him. He suffered through primitive emergency surgeries (to drain his lungs of fluid) which only weakened him and allowed infections to spread. In letters to his wife he writes of being infested with lice and sleeping amongst rats.

 

El cancionero y romancero de ausencias, while dark and gloomy, is one of hope and peace. Poems end with images of light, love, and the future. The anger that flowed through his two previous books mellows into forgiveness, regret, and acceptance, belying the inhuman living conditions of his imprisonment. In his final poem, “Eterna sombra” the persona calls himself “una cárcel con una ventana” (“a prison cell with one window”) but transforms in the next stanza into “una abierta ventana que escucha” (“a listening open window”) through which life passes darkly. The poem’s last two lines affirm the existence of “un rayo de sol en la lucha / que siempre deja la sombra vencida” (roughly, “a ray of sun in the battle / that always leaves the shadows conquered”).

 

This tension between imprisonment and freedom may have been inspired by Hernández’s hometown, which comprised his physical and psychic universe. Although he lived in Madrid and Alicante as an adult, and traveled abroad to attend conferences, he never strayed far from Orihuela.

 

The city itself is small—a 10-minute walk from end to end. Streets are narrow and intersected by alleyways which allow only pedestrian traffic. The mountain looms in the corner of one's eye, and on the other end of town is the river and the world beyond. This self-enclosed world finds its way repeatedly into Hernández’s poems, and shapes the recurring poetic paradox of freedom-within-confinement.

 

Orihuela grew out of a walled Moorish settlement that was eventually reclaimed for Spain in the eighth century. No less than 33 Catholic churches stand within the perimeters of the old city, presided over by a seminary on a plateau on the mountain that stands behind Orihuela. The seminary was built over the ruins of a Moorish fortress, the crumbling battlements of which still stand on the mountaintop. This seminary was used as a prison during the 1940s, and was one of the last facilities in which Hernández was kept.

 

From the seminary plateau on the mountain behind Orihuela, one can clearly hear the noises of the city, brought by the cool wind. Inside the seminary’s thick walls, the city would be nonexistent, but for the cries of children in schoolyards, church bells tolling the hour, and the hum of distant traffic. It’s from this point as well that one gets a good view of the entire city, fitting neatly into an armspan. Beyond, the Spanish plains and neighboring mountains stretch away to the horizon.

 

From up here, the borders of the world are clearly defined, and yet also mark the beginning of the rest of the universe. On this mountain, perched atop the remains of a glorious but violent past, a young goatherd could believe in a better future for himself and understand that it was within reach. Hernández’s beloved Orihuela, for years the ambit of his life, was merely a fragment of a world that was conquerable. In him was an irrepressible expansiveness, marking him as a son of Spain, whose goal was once nothing less than the entire world.

 

 

Prison Writing