Monday, November 1

Milking a goat and a dream ...

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

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)

And here is a photo of the boy poet taken in the same year as he milked those lines and dreams from his chores as goatherd.

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.


  1. thats pretty cool about the nightengale and hearing the goats milk...nicr piece lorenzo

  2. Yes, I was particularly struck by what Neruda recounts of the goat's milk incident, as was Neruda from the sounds of it. Miguel Hernández's life story and poetic personality are so wound up with the image of him as a goatherd, that I thought this anecdote really revealed much of the man. Even the first line of that earliest poem, has him milking and dreaming a goat.

  3. This feels like such an intimate look at this man, and boy, and goatherd, I really feel blessed and touched by his story. The vision of him climbing the tree and calling as a nightingale is precious and symbolic.

    I've posted a very little bit (compared to this) on Hernández today, and I've updated with a post script leading my readers to this post with its tender details.

  4. Lorenzo - I so appreciate these posts on this amazing poet, Miguel Hernandez, who lived such an abbreviated life. Its a monumental tragedy for the world that he lived only 31 years. Imagine the beauty and inspiration he would have bequeathed to us in an normal life span.

    The great poets all seem to have cultivated a deep intimacy with their subject matter. Your piece here offers us a taste of his love and connection with the earth and its creatures.

    Thank you again - I leave you now to spend time at the links provided in your post.

  5. Hi, Ruth, yes, 'tender' is just the word for these stories that Neruda recalls of Miguel Hernández. My Spanish brother-in-law worked minding his family's sheep as a boy. I remember being moved by his description of often spending entire nights away from home, barely 11 years old, by himself in the sierra with only the stars and sheep for company and an old blanket for warmth. Despite the harsh subsistence life he was describing, I could still here in his recollection notes of nostalgia for simpler times in closer communion with nature.

    In a way, I feel that the sound of the milk coursing under the sleeping she-goat's belly down to her udders is present in everything Miguel Hernández ever wrote.

    I appreciate the links on your fine post today, such a tribute to the power of poetry to breathe hope into us and sustain the human soul even in the most dire of situations.

  6. Good to see you here, Bonnie, and I trust you are healing well from your broken wrist. I am heartened to hear that some of the beauty of Miguel reaches you. I often am at a loss to know how much can make it across the boundaries between different societies, cultures and languages. Future posts in this series will include some of his poems, in Spanish and and English.

  7. This is one of those postings that gets lodged in the heart, Lorenzo. Miguel reminds me of Keats to the extent that he died so young. There is a special place in my heart for any artist who lays down his life in opposition to totalitarianism. Thanks for such a wonderful and informative post.

  8. lorenzo - i so appreciate the passion with which you record your affection for these mind-blowing writers. it's their deep-rooted connectedness to the earth and their lyrical heartfelt expressiveness that astonishes me. i'm immersed in the writing of author jean giono for that very reason. steven

  9. Someone so close to nature and able to express its forces in words is remarkable. Thanks for this post.

  10. What a sweet, sad man. Sweet, to climb a tree to imitate the nightingale his friend Pablo could not know. Sad for what became of Miguel and his family, which I believe I read here once, but which I was told again today by Ruth.
    Love the bit about the goat. That's what it's about, isn't it. To listen, to feel, with such intensity that the coursing of milk inside a she-goat has a sound.

    Thank you for this.

  11. Thanks Lorenzo for this moving story of the great poet and his friends.

    I love the image of the poet's face, like a potato freshly plucked from the earth, the sound of nightingales and the image of the poet as a boy crouched down to listen to the milk course through his goat's belly.

  12. i just read this haunting and lovely post, and now i'm hooked on your blog. i'm a big fan of neruda's poetry and will look forward to reading more of hernandez' work.

    crouching, i milk a goat and a dream.........

    ah the image

  13. I'm not familiar with Miguel Hernández, LLL, but I'm now intrigued. Looking forward to your blog series.

    Lusty and clear from the goatherd's throat heard...Lay ee odl lay ee odl-oo. Now look what you've done. Pesky earworms.

  14. This is a wonderful post, Lorenzo. I enjoyed reading it very much. I had not heard of Hernandez until I came across his name in your blog. Strangely, when I read one of his poems quoted by Ruth in her latest post, Neruda came to mind immediately (something to do with the style and theme) - and now I've learned from you they were friends! There must have been a deep, sympathetic bond and cross-influences between them, I think.

  15. Hi, George, yes, both Miguel and Keats, whose birthday is just one day after the Spanish poet’s, died of TB. I echo your sentiment on the special place we must and do have in our hearts for artists who bravely fight tyranny of any kind. It is almost a duty to remember them and celebrate their works, which is what I want to do with this series.

    You’re so right, Steven, about the passion I feel for writers like Miguel Hernández. I am glad that some of it at least comes across. I appreciate the mention of Jean Giono, who is completely unknown to me but whom I look forward to “meeting” in his literary legacy.

    Hi, Lakeviewer, all of Miguel’s poetry resonates with that attachment to nature you highlight. The extremely daunting challenge is how to convey its force and wonder in translations. I am busy looking for English versions of his poems and trying my own hand at it as well.

    Hello, DS. Those two scenes, the whistling like a nightingale for Neruda and describing the wonder of hearing the goat’s milk find its way to the udder, utterly captivated me as well. In this initial post, I chose not to put his poetry and instead try to capture the essence of the man, something I think these two recollections from Neruda does so well

  16. Hey, Elisabeth, how are you doing? Neruda was fond of calling Miguel Hernández “potato face” and I think this quote communicates the affection with which he did so.

    Welcome, Amanda, to the pillow; it is beautiful to see you here. I have now made my way to your Travels with Persephone and signed up to follow. The “underworld” never seemed so alluring …

    Hello, dear willow. I look forward to your reactions on learning more about Miguel Hernández. He is a fundamental part of the Spanish imagination and poetic landscape, despite his cruel and early death and the efforts to silence his tongue even long after his death. Got you yodeling and everything! Not a bad start for the series ;).

    Hi, Robert (Solitary Walker). There was a deep bond between the two, Hernández and Neruda, and I think they influenced each other. Miguel was often considered a protégé of Pablo’s.

  17. This post made me cry, I think, now, as I type this, that to imagine Miguel climbing a tree to whistle like a nightingale, to put his ear to a goat's side to hear milk coursing through her, that is a poet's life, to live it.

    Thank you, Lorenzo, for this elegant, earthy post. Excuse me while I go and find a Kleenex now and reconsider the life of a poet, one that is so richly lived.

  18. Hi, Terresa. I will soon post more on Miguel Hernández, including some of his poems. The translations are so unsatisfying, though, including and especially my own. This is something that really vexes me. It is just impossible to translate poetry, yet it is necessary and, thankfully, done every day. Indeed, I think someone once defined poetry as "what gets lost in the translation". Since you know Spanish, you have probably confronted this dilemma yourself.

    It is perhaps intensified in me because, I have somewhat internalized that dilemma. I was born in Venezuela and spoke Spanish until the age of five, then moved to the US and learned English. A few years later I had 'completely' forgotten my Spanish and had to relearn it on a few childhood summer stays in Spain. Now, of course, after 25 years in Spain, it is the language I use every day. I sometimes feel that my heart is wired in Spanish and my head in English. And let me tell you, sometimes I could use a good interpreter. A poet perhaps...

  19. Lorenzo:

    This is another one of your heart warming posts. Speak of the heart of the poet, these stories you write about carry with it more then mere translations of their poetry, for we can climb up the tree and see as they see if only for a moment, and listen to the she-goats belly and hear life cruising through her bowls, lest we should ever be ungrateful for our morning milk.


    This is splendid.

  20. haiku attempt
    by Pablo Neruda

    ¿Cómo se reparten el sol
    en el naranjo las naranjas?

    How do you share the sun
    oranges in the orange?


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