Gacela of the Dark Death

by Federico Garcia Lorca
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1521

Line 1
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.

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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 2
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 3–4
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).

Lines 5–8
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 mysterious until grouped with line six, when it becomes clear that the kind of “dead” to which these lines refer are the dead described above, people who are alive but dead in soul and spirit. “Blood,” in this case, ties to line four’s image of a child cutting out his heart, and death is seen not as cutting out one’s heart into the sea, but as keeping blood inside and decomposing from lack of water. Similarly, the water of line six is a somber echo of line four’s regenerative water of the high seas. The speaker seems already to know about the very specific sadness of this stanza, and his plea not to hear or find out about it is unsuccessful as the sadness becomes bleaker in lines seven and eight.

The speaker says he does not want to hear about “grass-given” martyrdoms or the moon which does some kind of “work” just before dawn. Grass, for Lorca, is connected with death and decay, and this association is important when considering the “martirios que da la hierba,” which is literally “martyrdoms that the grass gives,” although martirios can also be translated as “torments.” The “snakemouthed moon” of line eight recalls (like the “sleep of apples”) the Garden of Eden because of the snake of temptation in this story. The moon is a very complex and recurring archetype in Lorca’s work, but here it seems, as in Lorca’s play Blood Wedding, to be a force of death that accomplishes its mysteriously evil deeds in the last hours of darkness.

Lines 9–14
The speaker returns in the third stanza to what he does want, and lines ten and eleven express his desire to sleep some fixed amount of time, a moment or perhaps a century. In Spanish they are listed: “un rato / un rato, un minuto, un siglo,” which gives a sense, paradoxically, both of passing time and of timelessness.

Line eleven marks the turning point in the poem, signaled by the word “pero” (but). The speaker wants everyone to know that he has not died, that he is sleeping but not dead, and he elaborates the chief characteristics of this state with three lines describing what he wants everyone to know about his sleep of apples. It is an important, and somewhat curious, demonstration of self-consciousness that the speaker needs for “todos” (everyone) to know about this sleep, and it is helpful to note that this is the first place in the poem where Lorca is drawing attention to the process of expression and point of view.

The first of these characteristics of the speaker’s desired sleep is “un establo de oro” (a stable of gold) in the speaker’s lips. This may be a reference to Jesus’s birthplace, called the Nativity, but like most images in the poem it is paradoxical and also implies the wildness of horses and the perfection of gold. Line thirteen’s “peque˜no amigo del viento Oeste” (little friend of the West Wind) reminds the reader of the young boy of the first stanza, especially since the West Wind is associated with spring and rebirth. And the darker side of the sleep of apples that is perhaps closest to the title’s idea of “muerte oscura” (dark death) comes in line fourteen, since the image of the speaker as a shadow of his tears reflects the fleeting and shadowy qualities of living sleep.

Lines 15–18
Stanza four then changes to the speaker’s request to be wrapped in a veil that will protect him from dawn’s fistfuls of ants, and sprinkled with “agua dura” (hard water) to protect him from dawn’s “scorpion’s sting.” This imagery is particularly mysterious, since it is difficult to see how a veil will protect the speaker from ants or how water will protect him from a scorpion. It is significant that dawn seems to be the force of evil here; this refers back to the “snake-mouthed moon” of line eight that “works before dawn.” This also may be one of the stanza’s subtle references to death; a veil connotes a burial shroud, while ants and scorpions evoke decomposition and burial. Also, shoes are a typical symbol for death in Lorca’s poetry, although it is unclear what “hard water” signifies or why it is sprinkled on them.

Lines 19–22
The final stanza, which strongly echoes the first, begins with the refrain “Porque quiero dormir el sue˜no de las manzanas” (Because I want to sleep the sleep of apples). Its repetition, like the repetition of words for sleep, “dormir” and “sue˜no,” characterizes the “lament” of the next line, which must cleanse him of the earth (or soulless death) and bring him to the place of peaceful sleep and “life.”

The last lines echo lines three and four except for two important qualifications. The speaker wants to “vivir” (live) with the child that is now “oscuro” (dark or obscure) and, as in the first lines, “wanted to cut his heart out on the sea.” While expressing the paradoxical and mysterious darkness of his sleep, this image also adds an important lift to the poem. With his use of the key verb “vivir,” Lorca underscores that in sleeping the “sleep of apples,” the speaker is full of life.

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