Yesterday was the 100th birthday of Spanish poet, Miguel Hernández, born October 30, 1910. I discussed this much loved goatherd-cum-poet in an earlier post featuring one of his poems. For more background, the Poetry Foundation has an excellent biographical essay, including links to English translations of several of his poems.
Hernández is not as widely known outside of Spain as his contemporaries and fellow poets Federico García Lorca, Antonio Machado, Rafael Alberti, who like him, were supporters of the Spanish Republic in the 1930s and victims, in one way or another, of the Franco-led military coup that overthrew the Republic and imposed a 40 year dictatorship. It is no accident that Miguel Hernández is not well known outside Spain. It was meant that way. His life was taken away cruelly soon in 1942 and many of his works were routinely censored until after the dictator’s death in 1975.
The triumphant Franco forces initially condemned him to death for his open and active support for the Republic ('adhesion a la rebelión' read the death sentence), but then commuted his sentence to 30 years imprisonment. The poet did not last more than three, however, and died of tuberculosis in hideous conditions in 1942 at the age of 31. The harrowing tale of his three years in jail, malicious neglect, lack of medicine and adequate medical care is one of the most heartbreaking and infuriating stories in the history of Spanish letters, woefully emblematic of the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War and its long miserable aftermath.
Pablo Neruda was a close friend of Hernandez’s and worked to ensure the man and his poetry would not be forever swallowed up in the dark pit of Francoism. In his words, “Miguel Hernández disappeared in darkness; to remember him and to do so in the full light of day is Spain’s duty, it is a duty of love”.
So in that spirit of dutiful love, I will do a series of posts on Miguel Hernández, largely based on the current centenary exhibition at the National Library of Spain in Madrid. It is the most complete such collection of materials on the poet ever, with scores of manuscripts of his poems, including some of the very earliest, many other documents (from his school report cards to his arrest record, death sentence, death certificate, censorship orders decades after his death), photographs, paintings, testimonials from Neruda and others, and much more. Many of the images in the series are taken from the catalogue for the show, Miguel Hernández: La Sombra Vencida (The Defeated Shadow), published by the Spanish Ministry of Culture.
I am inserting here a photo of what may be the earliest poem for which a manuscript survives, written in 1924 at the age of 13 or 14. It is hard to describe the knotted-throat silence with which most people react to seeing this scrawled manuscript on one of the first walls in the exhibition. I had certainly never seen it before and cannot imagine any one short verse that could tell more about who Miguel Hernández was, his life and his poetry than that very first line written as a schoolchild:
En cuclillas, ordeño
una cabrita y un sueño
(Crouching, I milk
a goat and a dream)
I will close with some more quotes from Pablo Neruda on Miguel (you will please excuse the intimacy here, but that is how he is known in Spain, by his first name, just as his friend Lorca is known simply as Federico). In his Memoirs, Confieso Que He Vivido (I Confess that I Have Lived), Neruda recalls his first impression of the poet from Orihuela. “The young poet Miguel Hernández was one of Federico and Alberti’s friends. I met him when he came up, in espadrilles and the typical corduroy trousers peasants wear, from his native Orihuela”. He describes Miguel as having an “aura of earthiness” with “a face like a clod of earth or a potato that has just been pulled from among the roots and still has its subterranean freshness”.
In a 1966 interview with poet Robert Bly, Neruda recalled a telling incident from a night in 1934 when taking a walk with Miguel in Madrid:
I said to him that I had never heard a nightingale, because no nightingales exist in my country. You see, it is too cold for nightingales in my country; and then he said, “Oh, you’ve never heard …” and he climbed up a tree and he whistled like a nightingale from very high up. Then he climbed down and ran to another tree and climbed up and made another whistle like a nightingale, a different one.This seemingly visceral and spiritual connection to the earth, nightingales, trees and goats projected by Hernández was memorably and movingly recalled by Neruda in another anecdote from his memoirs about this newfound friend:
He would tell me how exciting it was to put your ear against the belly of a sleeping she-goat. You could hear the milk coursing down to the udders, a secret sound no one but the poet of goats has been able to listen to.I’ll close with Estrella Morente singing this beautiful 'Tangos del Chavico' about a certain little goat (un cabrito):
The Neruda quotes are taken from The Selected Poems of Miguel Hernández, Bilingual Edition, edited by Ted Genoways and published by The University of Chicago Press in 2001.