The Poorhouse

The Poorhouse

It’s the poorhouse, the old provincial poorhouse,

a ruined edifice of blackened tiles,

in which swifts nest in the summer,

and on winter nights the crows caw.

With its north-facing façade between two ancient

fortified towers, this squalid building,

walls cracked and dirty,

is in a corner of eternal shadow. The old poorhouse!

 

-As the January sun casts its weak light,

its sad candlelight over the barren fields,

there appear at windows, as day declines,

pale faces, sickly and stunned

to contemplate the blue mountain ridges;

and from the white skies, as if over a grave,

falls white snow onto the cold earth,

over the frozen earth, silent snow!

By Antonio Machado. Adapted from a translation in ‘The Cambridge Introduction to Spanish Poetry’, ed. Gareth D. Walters

The way the poem starts, it is as if it is a reply to a traveller’s question – ‘Hey, what’s that awful building over there?’ – answering in somewhat more detail than the questioner may have bargained for. Maybe that assumed casualness at the start of the poem is important to the overall effect that the poem has, with its sense of abandonment deepening with each stanza. The ‘poorhouse’ itself is sometimes read as a metaphor for Castille, or Spain itself, but it works just as well as a poem about a more particular plight.

To me, this is a poem like a painting in words – it’s as if the reader can see with his eyes and his heart the poorhouse (or, alternatively translated, the orphanage, or the hospice), the fading light and blue mountains, and the inhabitants of the ‘squalid building’. It evokes a picture as infused with feeling as a Van Gough painting, though depicting a harsher setting than Van Gough chose to paint. There’s something of the paintings of Machado’s countryman Goya in there too, those discombobulated, ‘stunned’ and ‘sickly’ heads at the windows.

There is a great ambiguity in the final images of the poem. Does the bleak winter landscape that the inmates see as they look out appear to them as an extension of their own desolation, or is it a miracle of beauty never before apprehended?

For Spanish-speakers:

EL HOSPICIO

Es el hospicio, el viejo hospicio provinciano,

el caserón ruinoso de ennegrecidas tejas

en donde los vencejos anidan en verano

y graznan en las noches de invierno las cornejas.

Con su frontón al Norte, entre los dos torreones

de antigua fortaleza, el sórdido edificio

de grietados muros y sucios paredones,

es un rincón de sombra eterna. ¡El viejo hospicio!

Mientras el sol de enero su débil luz envía,

su triste luz velada sobre los campos yermos,

a un ventanuco asoman, al declinar el día,

algunos rostros pálidos, atónitos y enfermos,

a contemplar los montes azules de la sierra;

o, de los cielos blancos, como sobre una fosa,

caer la blanca nieve sobre la fría tierra,

¡sobre la tierra fría la nieve silenciosa!…

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