At the time of his execution in 1936, Federico García Lorca was arranging for the publication of a collection of poetry entitled Diván del Tamarit (The Diván at Tamarit). These poems, published in 1940 by a New York journal, take their titles from two traditional Arabic forms, the gacela (ghazal) and the casida (qasida), which tend to deal respectively with love and death. “Gacela de la muerte oscura” (“Gacela of the Dark Death”) is one of the most moving poems in the collection. Its meditation on the intersecting themes of love, life, death, sleep, and sorrow, as well as its subtle resonance with Lorca’s own approaching death, make it of unique brilliance and importance in the poet’s later work.
“Gacela of the Dark Death” is included in complete collections of Lorca’s poetry such as Christopher Maurer’s 1991 Collected Poems, and this edition is perhaps most appropriate because it contains the original text opposite an English translation. To fully appreciate Lorca, a poet whose expression of the visual and auditory rhythms of his language is notoriously difficult to translate, a reader will find the Spanish text vital. The language barrier will not prevent readers or students, however, from becoming immediately immersed in Lorca’s completely unique universe.
The first element of “Gacela of the Dark Death” to notice is its title; a gacela is a poem of Persian origin that has strict technical guidelines, including a very specific metrical pattern and tends to have an erotic theme. Lorca does not follow the technical form of a gacela, but by classifying a work entitled “Gacela of the Dark Death” as a love poem, he introduces a connection between love and death that will become an increasingly important theme. The title also requires the reader to begin to consider the difficulties of translation; because the Spanish title does not necessarily refer to one particular death, “Gacela de la muerte oscura” has also been translated without “the” (“Gacela of Dark Death”), which implies an ambiguity between universal and personal themes. It is also important to note that oscura can mean “obscure” as well as “dark,” and this distinction becomes important when considering how Lorca envisions death.
The first line introduces a speaker desiring “el sue˜no de las manzanas” (the sleep of apples), which is both the image and the exact opposite of death. The symbol of an apple is chiefly related to the Garden of Eden in the Bible, and in one sense the poem is therefore desiring the lost paradise of Adam and Eve. But apples were also the instrument of the fall from Eden, and the sorrowful, darker aspect of the allusion becomes clear in Lorca’s “Casida de los ramos” (“Casida of the Branches”): “At Tamarit there’s an apple tree / with an apple of sobs.”
Line two makes clear that the speaker wishes, in his sleep, to be far away from what he calls the “uproar” of the resting place for dead bodies. This also seems to be a paradox (a self-contradiction), since cemeteries are normally associated with quietness instead of tumult or uproar. But in his book Lorca’s Late Poetry: A Critical Study, Andrew Anderson helps to clarify this duality in Lorca’s idea of death, translating Lorca as follows from the poet’s Alocución al pueblo de Fuente Vaqueros (Address to the Town of Fuente Vaqueros): “there exist millions of men who speak, live, look, eat, but who are dead. More dead than stones and more dead than the true dead who sleep their sleep under the earth, because their soul is dead.” Death and cemeteries, for Lorca, have none of the quiet peacefulness for which the speaker of the poem is longing.
Lines three and four add another dimension to this image of sleep; they express a longing to sleep like a certain child that, at some time in the past, wanted to cut out his heart on the high seas. The image of a child connotes purity, promise, and even the paradise suggested by the sleep of apples, but line four’s violence reinforces the duality of peace and uproar. And there is further ambiguity in this line since the child only “wanted” to cut out its heart, which implies that he did not actually do so and may, on the contrary, simply desire to pour all of his passion into the ocean, which for Lorca is a symbol for regeneration and the womb. Perhaps the most important element introduced in these lines, however, is its implicit erotic connection, since “that boy” might also refer to a lover. Anderson supports this idea by citing a letter in which Lorca calls his lover of this period “aquel ni˜no” (that boy).
In the second stanza, the poem shifts to a meditation on death. The speaker does not want to hear about a variety of images of death, by which he means “death” in Lorca’s sense: a soulless lack of passion. Line five’s image of the dead losing no blood seems...