(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In this second volume of The Poetical Works of Federico García Lorca, Christopher Maurer has brought together the first almost complete edition of Federico García Lorca’s poetry in Spanish and English—thus making perhaps the greatest Spanish poet of our century available to English readers as never before. (The first volume, published in 1988, is a bilingual edition of Lorca’s Poet in New York, the only book of Lorca’s poetry not included in the present collection.)

Publishing a compilation of almost all of Lorca’s poems in Spanish and English is itself an accomplishment—but the real triumph would be to present such a compilation with translations that matched Lorca’s own ideals of poetic inspiration. And so one must turn to Lorca’s own writings about poetry—and particularly to his essay “Play and Theory of the Duende”—before examining Maurer’s Lorca in detail.

In this essay, Lorca himself distinguishes between three possible sources of poetic inspiration: the angel, the muse, and the duende. The angel, he writes, “dazzles, but he flies high over a man’s head, shedding his grace, and the man effortlessly realizes his work.” The poetry of the angel, we may imagine, is of an unearthly spirituality and beauty. The muse, by contrast, “dictates and sometimes prompts.” Poets who are inspired by the muse “hear voices and do not know where they are coming from.” Muse poetry, Lorca suggests, is the poetry of beautiful forms. He tells us that he has himself seen the muse twice, and that she looked “distant and tired.” But neither the angel nor the muse will satisfy Lorca. The poet must “reject the angel,” he writes, and “give the muse a kick in the pants.” It is the duende that calls him. “The true fight,” he writes, “is with the duende.”

The word duende in Spanish means something like the English gremlinor sprite—one can imagine it as a small and sometimes malicious spirit or genius sitting at the poet’s elbow or perched on his shoulder, whispering in his ear the words that will become his poetry. But Lorca sees the duende not so much as a spirit-being (as angels and muses can be considered spirit-beings), but as a spirit-of-intensity (as passion is a spirit-of-intensity). And in evoking this intensity, he makes the duende his own.

What, then, is Lorca’s duende—and is he to be found in this collection of Lorca’s own poems? Lorca’s description of the duende is itself high poetry (or, as he might prefer to say, canto hondo, deep song), and it is worth quoting, to get a clear idea of just what Lorca was working toward.

“All that has black sounds has duende.” Lorca quotes Manuel Torre’s saying with approval, and comments, “there is no greater truth. Those black sounds are the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore, the mire that gives us the very substance of art.” Duende, then, is a matter of depth rather than height, of soulfulness rather than spirituality.

Again, Lorca says the duende “burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass.” This is by no means a definition—indeed, Lorca never seems to even attempt a definition of duende—but it is an evocation. Without knowing how to define or delimit duende, the reader comes to sense the presence that is known by that name. And this sense that the duende has been present, Lorca tells us, is so palpable in Arabic music and in the songs on the south of Spain that it is greeted with cries of “Allah! Allah!” or “Viva Dios!”—“God lives!”—reminiscent of the “Olé!” of the bullfight and the flamenco.

Indeed, the bullfight—which Lorca describes as “an authentic religious drama where, as in the Mass, a God is sacrificed to and adored”—is at the very center of Lorca’s understanding of duende. Duende is always closely related to death: “The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible.” And death itself, for Lorca, is somehow particularly Spanish: “Spain is the only country where death is a national spectacle, the only one where death sounds long trumpet blasts at the coming of spring,” he writes.

The duende is particularly close, then, in the arts of Spain. Not only the bullfight, but also the paintings of El Greco, Velasquez, and Goya, the “flamenco” mysticism of Teresa of Avila, and the writings of John of the Cross, Quevedo, and Cervantes convey the passionate, almost morbid quality of the duende. And what of Lorca’s own poems? How do they strike his readers in the translations that Maurer has chosen, as the work of the angel, the muse—or the duende?

Lorca’s most celebrated poem is perhaps his “Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías,” written in 1934 to commemorate a bullfighter friend who was gored in the ring and died two days later of gangrene. Maurer brings it to the reader in a translation by Alan Trueblood. Some suspension of disbelief is no doubt required before most English speakers can appreciate a poem honoring a bullfighter, for the bullfight is not an English sport: but the music compels the reader into Lorca’s world.

The first section of the poem, “Goring and Death,”...

(The entire section is 2133 words.)