The Dream

To sleep perchance to dream. It seems apt after talking about sleep last post, and at a time of year when many of our fellow mammals are deep in hibernation, to post this poem, my own translation of Antonio Machado’s ‘The Dream’. It’s part of the section of ‘Campos de Castilla’ called ‘La Tierra de Alvargonzalez’, dedicated to his fellow poet, Juan Ramon Jiminez .

 

The Dream

 

I

And Alvargonzales saw,

like Jacob, a ladder

that went from earth to sky

and heard a voice that spoke to him.

But the circling spirits,

‘tween white looms

and threads of gold, have spun

a lock of black wool.

 

II

Three boys were playing

at the door of their home;

between the elder two arose

a black-winged crow.

Their watchful mother, sewing,

in a trice smiled and sang.

‘What are you doing, my boys?’ she asked.

 

They saw her and she called

‘Climb the mountain my children,

and ‘fore night falls

make for me a grand fire

with a shoulder of wild roses.’

 

III

Over Alvargonzalez’ hearth

lies the piled up firewood.

The eldest boy wants to light it

but can not kindle a flame.

‘Father, the fire won’t start,

it’s this damp steppe we live on.’

 

His brother comes to help,

casting splinters and branches

over the oaken trunks;

but the embers die.

The youngest comes and helps, lighting

under the black earth

of the kitchen, a fire

that lights up the whole house.

 

IV

Alvargonzalez raises

the youngest in his arms

and sits him on his knees

‘Your hands make fire;

though the last born,

you’re most loved of me.’

 

The two eldest remove themselves

to the corner of the dream.

Between the two fugitives

gleams an iron axe.

 

(a version in Spanish and Willis Barnstone’s translation can be found here)

 

Other parts of ‘Campos de Castilla’ describe the lands of Castille as Machado saw them, its flora and fauna, its landscapes and its inhabitants, but ‘The Dream’ reimagines Castille as a semi-legendary land, much like the lands of Abraham and Jacob in the Old Testament. Abraham and Jacob, if they existed at all, were wandering chieftans who settled in Canaan during periods of immigration there. They are also the legendary founders of Israel itself and the link between the Jewish people and God (Israel is the name Jacob took after successfully wrestling with ‘the angel of God’ and means, ‘He who wrestles with God’). The ladder refers to an episode where Jacob dreamt he saw a ladder, at the top of which was a place where he could converse with God; there God promised him his ancestors would become a mighty people and inherit the lands of Canaan. This wouldn’t, as we know, be an easy process.

Machado’s ‘dream’ reconfigures these details into his own landscape – the unforgiving steppe of Castille. Alvargonzalez is, perhaps, a legendary founder; maybe a large landowner or Caudillo. As Jacob’s family was riven by jealousy, by elder brothers of the prodigious Joseph, so do we here see the stirrings of murderous envy in the hearts of elder brothers. Perhaps Machado was making a very subtle connection between the later strife of Israel and Judah, when prophets railed against greedy leaders and a people that had turned away from God, and contemporary Spain, about to be riven by a bloody civil war.

Mingled with the Biblical overtones, there are other elements at work here. The image of the weaving mother calling children from the mountains, the young child who makes fire with his hands, the centrality of the hearth: all these seem reminiscent of fairy tales, folk tales and folk songs. The image of the golden threads, white loom and black wool are strikingly abstract, an image straight from modernist art.

It’s a beguiling poem, all in all. Now if only I could get those Andrew Lloyd Webber songs out of my head.

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