The poet Miguel Hernández highlighted the depth and authenticity of his verses, reflecting his social and political commitment.
Miguel Hernández Poet Spanish
BIOGRAPHY – Miguel Hernández Gilabert was born on 30 October 1910 in the town of Orihuela, near Murcia, in southeastern Spain, to poor parents. His father, Miguel Hernández Sánchez, a herdsman and dealer in sheep and goats, took for granted that his son would soon be hard at work helping with the family business. From a very early age the young Miguel was expected to perform menial tasks around the house and stable. A lengthy, enriched education was out of the question, both for economic and socio-cultural reasons; instead of starting school at the usual age, Hernández was forced for years to shepherd his father’s flock. This grueling, solitary experience had a profound impact on him. His work on the farm led him to establish a special bond with nature, and he later drew on that experience in his poetry.
When Hernández’s passion for reading and writing became evident, his father tried hard to discourage such impractical pursuits. However, Hernández had made a conscious decision to become a poet. Gifted with an ability to versify and a phenomenal memory, he survived a difficult apprenticeship during which, with the help and advice of close friends and mentors, he managed to learn Hispanic literature and culture, particularly the poetry and theater, at the same time mastering a wide variety of styles of poetry from earlier decades and other cultures. Against enormous odds, he broke loose from the severe limitations of his humble beginnings to emerge as one of the greatest and best-loved Spanish poets.
One common thread in the lives of so many of Hernández’s contemporaries is their education, erudition, and worldliness; unlike them, he was rigidly forbidden to indulge in such interests by his father, who saw no use for formal education or for what his son wrote and recited. Throughout most of his youth Hernández was in conflict with his father over his desire to read and study, and later over his ambition to become a poet. Hernández’s early poems were thus shaped and inspired as much by the numbing routine of his pastoral chores as by the poets whose works he read. His day-to-day chores provided a common motif in poems, such as “En cuclillas, ordeño una cabrita y un sueño” (Squatting on My Heels, I Milk My Goat and My Dream, in Obra completa, 1992), a short poem which illustrates his early predilection for creating visual and auditory metaphors out of the down-to-earth scenes of everyday life. In “Aprendiz de Chivo” (The Apprentice Kid, also in Obra completa) Hernández depicts the miracle of birth, the awkward yet splendid first moments of a newborn goat as it slowly awakens to the pleasures of its mother’s milk and the sheer joy of being alive. Although many of Hernández’s early poems probably have not survived, about forty of them were published for the first time in Obra completa, which includes over one hundred previously unpublished works.
In the years immediately after Hernández left school, he befriend the Catholic writer Sijé (Marín Gutierrez) who was drawn to Hernández for his poetry and intellect. Sijé became Hernández’s mentor and guru, suggesting that he study in great depth the sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Spanish poets and dramatists and teaching him to fashion his verse with particular care for allegory, semantics, and symbols. Hernández’s poem, “Pastoril,” which he had written in his beloved orchard, was published in the Pueblo de Orihuela on 13 January 1930; his career as a published poet had begun.
Madrid at the time was the literary and cultural capital of Spain; Hernández naturally was drawn to it and made his first trip in 1931. His enthusiasm was dispelled by the cool reception he met within the Spanish metropolis. The tension caused in Hernández by the differences between big-city and country life was to affect him and pervade his poetry at every stage of his life. The butt of mildly unflattering articles, Hernández returned to Orihuela but not before publishing a poem, “Reloj rústico” (Rustic Clock, now in Obra completa ), in the Gaceta Literaria (1 May 1932). On his way home, however, he was stopped and imprisoned for not having the proper documentation—the first of two such arrests that left indelible impressions on Hernández. He was obliged to contact his family and friends for funds to get him out of jail, where he remained for several days. He felt that his six months in Madrid had been a disaster; help from the cultural powers had not been forthcoming, nor would it be for years to come.
Back in Orihuela, Hernández worked menial jobs and wooed the daughter of an officer of the Guardia Civil, Josefina Manresa. Their long and tumultuous courtship would be an inspiration for much of Hernández’s later love poetry. Sijé’s influence on Hernández also became especially strong following his return in seeming disgrace from Madrid. Hernández was hard at work composing his first book, “Poliedros”—published as Perito en lunas (Lunar Expert, 1933). Although he had absorbed through his reading the styles and techniques of baroque pastoral poetry, his “lunar” Arcadia was far removed from its aristocratic source. Beneath the artifice of his culteranismo (art for the sake of art) conceits, his poetry abounds with regional themes, rustic flavors, and popular images intimately linked with the common elements of life on the land: wells and irrigation systems; trees and vegetation; bulls and roosters; and palms and snakes—proof of Hernández’s deep attachment to the natural world around him, the wellspring of his pantheism.
With the publication of Perito en lunas Hernández had finally proved himself a full-fledged poet. His career took off rapidly from that point, and his work evolved from the hermetic baroque style of Perito en lunas through the sensual love poems and quasi-religious themes of early versions of El silbo vulnerado (The Injured Whistle, posthumously published in 1949), to the crystal clarity and sexual candor of the sonnets in later versions of El silbo vulnerado and Imagen de tu huella (Image of Your Footprint, published in 1963), which were reworked in Hernández’s first major work, El rayo que no cesa (1936; translated as Unceasing Lightning, 1986).
Hernández returned to Madrid in March 1934 where he befriended poets like Frederico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, and Vicente Aleixandre. Drawn deeper and deeper into the circle of poets that favored the Republican government and its socialist views, Hernández moved further away from Orihuela and Sijé’s influence. When Sijé paid him a visit in Madrid, it was clear that, though they remained close friends, irreconcilable changes had drawn a permanent intellectual barrier between them. Hernández remained torn between two worlds, between the artificial, decadent city and the pure, Arcadian countryside. In June 1935 Hernández collaborated on an homage to Neruda which included a warm dedication (collected in Obra completa) and three then-unpublished cantos materiales (material songs) from Residencia en la tierra. His support of Neruda cost him Sijé’s friendship and he returned to Orihuela emotionally drained; however, the loss also occasioned one of his great poems. In late December 1935, Sijé died of pneumonia. Devastated by the news and beset by terrible feelings of guilt, Hernández turned inward to concentrate and distill his sorrow, composing an elegy to Sijé that many critics consider to be one of the finest elegies in the Spanish language. First published in Revista de Occidente on 10 January 1936, the elegy is an earthy evocation of his friendship and love for Sijé and of Sijé’s long-standing influence on Hernández:
(In Orihuela, his town and mine, death has taken from me, as if struck by lightning, Ramón Sijé, with whom I shared so much love.)
I want to be, crying, the peasant
that works the earth you occupy and fertilise,
companion of my soul, so soon.
My grief without instrument feeds
the rains, makes horns and organs sound,
and to the dispirited poppies
I will give your heart as food.
So much pain gathers in my side,
that it even pains me to breathe.
A hard slap, a frozen blow,
an invisible and murderous stroke of the axe,
a brutal shove has brought you down.
There is nothing longer than my wound,
I weep for all my misfortunes
and I feel more for your death than for my own life.
I walk on the stubble of the dead,
and with warmth from no-one and unconsolable,
I make my way from my heart to my daily business.
So soon death has risen up in flight,
so soon dawn has dawned,
so soon you are rolling on the ground.
I cannot forgive that lover, death,
I cannot forgive thoughtless life,
I cannot forgive the earth, nor the void.
In my hands I raise a storm
of strident stones, bolts of lightning and axes,
thirsting and hungering for catastrophes.
I want to scrape at the earth with my teeth,
I want to split the earth apart bit by bit
with dry, hot bites.
I want to mine into the earth until I find you
and kiss your noble skull
and take your shroud from you and bring you back.
You will come back to my garden and my fig tree:
among the high flowery trellises
your soul will flit like a bee in its hive
sewn with the wax of angels.
You will come back to the murmuring
of farm-workers at their beloveds’ windows.
You will cheer up the shadow over my eyebrows,
and from either side your beloved and the bees
will argue over your blood.
Your heart, now wrinkled velvet,
calls my greedy lovers’ voice
to a field of foaming almonds.
I want to be with you under the winged souls
of the roses of the cream-coloured almond tree,
for we have many things to talk of,
companion of my soul, my companion.
10 January 1936
Hernández’s style evolved from a tendency toward traditionalism to greater and greater independence of form and imagery. His early preference for the octava and the sonnet and his penchant for la tropología culterana (culturalist tropology) eventually gave way to the simpler textures and more direct language of the canción (song) and the romance (ballad), revealing his kinship with Machado and Lorca. This coexistence of popular and sophisticated art, common throughout most of Spanish history, was also typical of Spanish literature in the 1930s.
The culmination of Hernández’s enthusiasm for traditional forms can be found in El rayo que no cesa. These poems were composed over a crucial two-year period in Hernández’s career: 1934–1935. As such, El rayo que no cesa is a pivotal work in Hernández’s development as a poet. His discovery of love, in the person of Josefina, caused him to search out a richer, yet more restricted, vocabulary, less excessively decorative and more functional. Hernández still exhibits a love of wordplay, conceits, and occasional verbal and rhetorical excess, but much less so than in earlier works. The influence of the religious eroticism latent in the Song of Songs and de la Cruz’s Cántico Espiritual (Spiritual Canticle, 1584) can be felt throughout, as well as echoes of Neruda’s Residencia en la tierra and Aleixandre’s La destrucción o el amor.
On 18 July 1936 a Spanish military uprising led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco in the North African province of Melilla caused vital Spanish services, such as mail and trains, to come to a stop. Sometime during the next day, Lorca, who ironically had left Madrid to seek the comparative peace and safety of his beloved Andalusia, was captured by the military and killed with some other prisoners near Granada. Such mass executions and other chaotic events threw the country into turmoil and exemplified the wanton death and destruction of the next three years. The Spanish Civil War had a disastrous effect on all aspects of life in the country, particularly those involving culture. Many of the greatest intellectuals and finest artists eventually left the country to live in exile; others, like Lorca, Miguel de Unamuno, and Machado, died at the onset or during the war; and a few others, such as Hernández, died not long afterward as a direct result of that brutal conflict and the subsequent savage reprisals and executions.
Hernández soon enrolled in the well-known Fifth Regiment, part of the Republican forces fighting Franco and the Nationalists; he also joined the First Calvary Company of the Peasants’ Battalion as a cultural-affairs officer, reading his poetry daily on the radio. He traveled extensively throughout the area, organizing cultural events and doing poetry readings for soldiers on the front lines, or even pitching in where necessary to dig a ditch or defend a position. As more and more war poems flowed from his pen, he slowly approached the status of prime poet of the nation during the war years.
Hernández and Josefina were finally married in Orihuela on 9 March 1937 in a no-frills civil ceremony attended by close friends Carlos Fenoll and Jesús Poveda. The atmosphere at the wedding was not entirely happy, but Hernández’s post-marital poetry soon took on new tones and colors, full of sensuality and sexuality seemingly fulfilled. Hernández kept busy working on his poetry during the war, correcting proofs of Viento del pueblo and preparing speeches. When his propaganda unit was shifted to Castuera in Estremadura province, he took time off from his exhausting pace to see Josefina and came down with a severe case of anemia. Hugh Thomas, noted Spanish Civil War historian, mentions the accelerating pace of Hernández’s literary activities during the war years, a pace that inevitably took a heavy toll on the poet’s health and required him to rest and recuperate on several occasions.
During the war, Hernández also took part in the International Writers’ Congress, held in Madrid and Valencia, and the Fifth Festival of Soviet Theater in Moscow. Attending as one of a group of Spanish intellectuals, the Moscow trip influenced Hernández’s burgeoning dramatic style. However, his commitment to a democratic Spain, and his inability to escape into exile after the triumph of Franco’s troops, meant that he faced a life of arrest and imprisonment. Sentenced to death at one point, his term was commuted to 30 years. Years of war and struggle had left him weakened, however, and Miguel Hernández died in prison, of tuberculosis, in 1942.
Ten essential poems by Miguel Hernández
Songbook and ballad of absences
(Cancionero y romancero de ausencias)
I’m leaving the streets
Something that I am collecting:
Pieces of my life
From far away
I’m winged to agony
Dragging me I look
On the threshold, on the bottom
Latent of birth
I call youth
(Llamo a la juventud)
Blood that does not overflow,
Youth who does not dare,
Nor is it blood, nor is it youth,
Neither glitter nor flower.
Bodies that are born defeated,
Defeated and gray die:
Come with the age of a century,
And are old when they come.
Sitting on the dead
(Sentado sobre los muertos)
Sitting on the dead
Which have been silent in two months,
I kiss empty shoes
And I hold my hand
The hand of the heart
And the soul that holds it.
May my voice rise to the mountains
And come down to the ground and thunder,
That asks for my throat
From now and forever.
Painted, not empty:
My house is painted.
Of the color of the large
Passions and misfortunes.
Will return from crying
Where was she taken
With its deserted table,
With its ruinous bed.
Kisses will blossom
On the pillows.
And around the bodies
Raise the sheet
His intense vine
behind the window.
It will be the soft claw.
Leave me hope.
If it is not love the company.
If not the words.
If they do not die of love.
Day laborers that you have collected in lead
Suffering, work and money.
Bodies of subject and high loin:
Spaniards that Spain has won
Carving it between rains and suns.
Rabadanes of hunger and plowing:
This Spain that, never satisfied
To spoil the flower of the tares,
From one crop to another crop:
I wrote in the arenal
(Escribí en el arenal)
I wrote in the arenal
The three names of life:
Life, death, love.
A blast of sea,
So many times gone,
Came and erased them.
The lightning that never stops
(El rayo que no cesa)
Will not this ray that dwells in me
The heart of exasperated beasts
And of wrathful forts and herreras
Where the coolest metal withers?
Will not this stubborn stalactite
To cultivate their hard hair
Like swords and rigid bonfires
To my heart that moans and screams?
Two species of hands face each other in life,
Sprout from the heart, burst through the arms,
They jump, and they empty into the wounded light
To blows, to blows.
The hand is the tool of the soul, its message,
And the body has in it its fighting branch.
Get up, move your hands in a great swell,
Men of my seed.
Winds of the town take me
(Vientos del pueblo me llevan)
If I die, let me die
With very high head.
Dead and twenty times dead,
The mouth against the grass,
I will have my teeth clenched
And decided the beard.
Singing I wait for death,
That there are nightingales who sing
On top of the rifles
And in the midst of battles.
The best of the poems
“Andaluces de Jaén” by Miguel Hernández
Andalusians of Jaén,
proud olive pickers,
tell me from your soul: who,
who raised up the olive trees?
They were not raised up by nothing,
nor by money, nor by the master,
but by the silent earth,
by work and by sweat.
Together with pure water
and together with the planets,
these three gave beauty
to the twisted trunks.
Rise up, silver haired olive tree,
they said at the foot of the wind.
And the olive tree raised
a powerful hand as its foundation.
Andalusians of Jaén,
proud olive pickers,
tell me in your soul: who
suckled the olive trees?
Your blood, your life,
not that of the exploiter
who grew rich on the
generous wound of sweat.
Not that of the landowner
who buried you in poverty,
who trod on your brow,
who made you bow your head.
Trees which your effort
brought into the broad light of day,
provided the bread
eaten only by someone else.
How many centuries of olives,
with your feet and hands kept captive
from sun to sun and moon to moon,
weigh down on your bones!
Andalusians of Jaén,
proud olive pickers,
my soul asks: to whom,
to whom do these olive trees belong?
Jaén, rise up bravely
on your stony, moon-like land,
do not be a slave
along with all your olive groves.
Within the clarity
of the oil and its aromas,
they proclaim your liberty
the liberty of your hillsides.
Poems translated by the poetry of love