The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 422

Federico García Lorca’s “Fight,” in Robert Havard’s translation, is a short ballad narrating a fatal encounter between rival gypsies in the mountains of southern Spain. As in an ancient Greek tragedy, the story opens in medias res—in the middle of things—in this case, both spatially and temporally, as knives already flash half-way down a ravine. Horses rear in fury, a man named Juan Antonio of Montilla tumbles, his brow pomegranate-red with blood. A magistrate then arrives, accompanied by rural police, called “Civil Guards,” and sums up the event with: “it’s the same old thing again./ Four Romans have died/ and five Carthage men.” The reader has witnessed, it seems, the reenactment of a centuries-old quarrel in which the identities of victims change over time while the plot remains the same.

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The ballad is traditionally a sparse, dramatized narrative. Sometimes long, as in the case of epic ballads, the narrative is nevertheless sparse in the sense of providing few descriptive details and little or no commentary. In “Fight,” García Lorca barely sketches in the events, and one’s initial perspective on them is distant, as if one is in the mountains and suddenly, across a distance, catches the bright flash of metal, hears the scream of horses, sees a man fall, and instantly knows what has happened. The perspective shifts somewhat as the ballad names the dead man and transports the reader to the site of the encounter. These shifts add little to the reader’s knowledge of the actual fight, however, while other information leads the reader to explore the meaning of this “same old story.”

Knives of Albacete, the Spanish city famous for its curved blades, flash as if acting independently. Old women cry atop a tree (lechuza—owl—figuratively means “hag” in Spanish). A bull symbolizes fury as he clambers walls. Angels, in black robes of death, bring ice water and kerchiefs, as if they know in advance that there will be wounded. A burning cross bears away the dead man, and the afternoon itself swoons as if wounded. All the while, it seems, black angels trailing long tresses are flying about.

The spiritual, natural, and historical worlds have symbolically joined forces, each providing its share of participants. Even blood, rather than congealing as silent evidence, takes up the ancient song of the snake, which is feared by so many. The way in which the fight becomes a story and the poetry that makes it meaningful thus take center stage in this narrative.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 563

Western ballads have been transmitted orally, often as songs, since the Middle Ages, when they became known in Spain as “romances,” poems composed in the vernacular, romance tongue. The Spanish ballad, composed in verses eight syllables long, rhymes the same final vowels in every other line. Like most ballads, it incorporates dialogue and refrain. García Lorca adheres closely to this familiar form. “Fight” is also a rich example, however, of the kind of complex imagery that is often thought of as differentiating “high” from popular poetry and lyric from narrative. Fusing these genres was a goal García Lorca set for himself in composing Gypsy Ballads.

This poem tells its tale in a rapid sequence of largely visual images. Much of this poem’s charm in the original is in the complex awareness produced as the regular cadence carries the body along, while unusual images hold the mind’s eye in suspense. Rolfe Humphries’ 1953 translation sensitively recasts lyrical mood and cadence, while Robert Havard’s 1990 translation is more faithful to narrative elements such as verb tense. Two images illustrate the poem’s generally complex manipulation of cultural material and its interweaving of poetic device and narrative.

The fifth verse sets the stage, bathing it in a “hard” light of playing cards. The brightness of sunlight in southern Spain can make it appear hard, while light emanating from a deck of cards might also appear hard, since its source is stiff, its outlines are crisp, and the snap of cards is as sharp as that of knives crossed in anger. In addition, the Spanish deck of cards consists of four suits: gold coins, goblets, swords and clubs. Each contains, among others, the figure of a rider on horseback; therefore, the reference to these cards leads the reader to superimpose on the figures of mounted gypsies those of the riders on the cards.

The gypsy belief that one’s fate has already been written in the cards allows for isolation, through synecdoche, of the abstract concept of destiny that is inherent in the cards. Thus their light may also be “hard” because it is immutable, flooding a now tragic stage for the sake of a story that has already been told.

The twenty-fifth verse, literally “Trickled blood moans/ a mute serpent’s song,” is rendered by Havard as “The silent song of a snake/ in trickling blood groans.” A comparison of this translation with the original reveals significant devices at work in the latter which Havard has unfortunately obscured. It is the blood, not the song, that is personified as groaning: Metonymy has transferred to his trickling blood the groans of the wounded man nearby. When this device is lost in translation, so too is the recollection of the man whose blood provides the song.

In addition, “mute” is not necessarily “silent.” A groan might well be audible yet mute, in the sense of a person being unable to speak in words. Might not the song also be mute because it is a “signing” rather than a “singing”? Ancient legend has it that snakes may sing, and as the blood trickles in curves down the ravine, visually evoking a slithering snake, the mind’s ear may recall that legendary serpent’s song. Humphries’ English version—“The slippery blood gives tongue,/ A dumb and snaky song”—is more satisfactory in this case than Havard’s.

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