Notes on Poetry: Reading Miguel Hernández
An iconic figure in 20th century Spanish literature, Miguel Hernández’s life and works find a home in the international exhibit entitled, Miguel Hernandez, a plena luz. Now on display at the Instituto Cervantes in Intramuros from July 25 to September 16, Filipinos get a chance to rediscover Hernandez and his influential works.
As a young shepherd boy from the province of Orihuela, Spain, Miguel began writing poems about his hometown and the idyllic sights that coloured his day to day life. At an early age, he displayed a sophisticated control of language and ideology, easily observable in one of his early works named, Me. My mother,.
He writes, “Enferma, agotada, empequeñecida por los grandes trabahos, las grandes privaciones y las injusticias grandes, ella me hace exigir y procurer con todas mis fuerzas una justicia, una alegría, una vida nueva para la mujer / Ill, exhausted, made small by great works, the great deprivations and the great injustices, she makes me demand and strive, with all my strength, for justice, for joy, for a new life for women.” Here, he muses upon the hardships of women through his own mother’s experience and what he perceived to be her internal suffering.
This mix of sentimentality, technique, and philosophy is a trait easily found in any of Miguel’s poems. As he progressed as a writer, he explored many topics and themes. From religion, philosophy, romance, and communism — Miguel proved to be a versatile literary force and a promising young writer.
And like any other writer filled with dreams of changing the world through literature, Miguel travelled to Madrid in order to immerse himself in the capital’s poetry circles. True enough, he found some popularity there owing to his book El rayo que no cesa (1936) which was recognised for its experimental and avant-garde technique. It was during this time that he encountered famed writers Federico Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda, the latter of which would help with Miguel's future troubles with the law. Tension between Federico and Miguel was widely recognised in the Spanish writing community due to a difference in ideology. Still, it was Miguel who first wrote an elegy for Federico after his assassination in August 1936.
During the Spanish civil war in the late 1930s, Miguel was not fortunate enough to make it out of Spain after the Republican surrender. He was sentenced to death due to his antifascist sympathies. However, after seeing the uproar caused by Lorca’s death, general-turned-dictator Francisco Franco did not want to create a martyr out of Miguel as well. His death sentence was commuted to thirty years in prison, thanks in part to Neruda's lobbying (the Chilean ambassador to Spain at the time). Sadly, terrible living conditions in Spanish prisons at the time led to Miguel’s untimely death. He passed away at 31 years old due to tuberculosis.
During his time in prison, he produced a few works that were published posthumously. Among these were children stories dedicated to his son which featured animal characters and themes of freedom.
‘The Sun, the Rose, and the Child’
(XII: From ‘Cancionero Y Romancero De Ausencias’; Trans. AS Kline)
The sun, the rose, and the child
were born the flowers of the day.
Things of every day
suns, flowers, new children.
Tomorrow I’ll be no more:
someone else will be real.
I’ll be no more, beyond
those who wish for their memory.
The flower of a day is tallest
at the foot of the smallest thing.
Flower of light, the lightning flash,
and flower of the moment, time.
Between the flowers you went.
Between the flowers I remain.
In this short poem by Miguel, one can easily get a sense of his love for images of nature, a trope found in most of his works. Here, he uses trivial images of the sun, a rose and children as symbolisms of time and being. There is an attempt to muse upon life’s seemingly arbitrary ebb and flow.
By exploring Miguel Hernández and his poems, readers can discover relatable narratives of love and loss and the difficulty of existence. Longing and struggle are universal themes that everyone go through in varying degrees and manifestations. Literature is a good reminder that although our pains are specific, there are stories out there that reflect on similar troubles.
Rekindle or perhaps begin your sojourn into 20th century Spanish literature by visiting a plena luz. Don’t miss out since Manila is the only location in Asia that will host the exhibit with Toulouse and Paris next on the docket.
Miguel Hernández, a plena luz is curated by Juan José Téllez (Director of the Centro Andaluz de las Letras) and is available for viewing at the Instituto Cervantes, Intramuros from July 25, 2019 to September 16, 2019.