Castro was conventionally religious; she needed God and sought him everywhere, and she fought herself for her faith, as Unamuno did. There are biblical references in her poetry, as well as her marginally Christian sombras (shades), the souls of persons no longer living whom Castro “invokes” from time to time and who respond by intervening in the lives of the living. She also draws on Galician lore concerning the supernatural world. Witches (meigas, lurpias), warlocks (meigos), and elves (trasgos) inhabit her forests, and the safety of the unwary nocturnal traveler may be jeopardized by the Host of Souls in Torment. In “Dios bendiga todo, nena” (“God Blesses Everything, Child,” from Cantares gallegos), an old woman warns a young girl of the dangers of the world, whereupon the girl declares her intention never to leave her village without scapularies, holy medals, and amulets to protect her from witches. The fine line between religion and superstition is typified in “Soberba” (“Foolish Pride”) in Follas novas, where a family frightened by a storm tries to placate God with candles, olive leaves, and prayers, and by scouring from their personal slates offenses that might have incurred his wrath. Nor is the imagery of the supernatural always to be taken literally. In an aubade, Castro has the heroine address her lover affectionately as “warlock” while he prepares to leave her bed, and elsewhere employs the same word to create a metaphor for sorrow: “N’ hay peor meiga que un-ha gran pena” (there is no worse demon than a great sorrow).
Castro’s first important book of poems was Cantares gallegos. In the prologue to this volume, she acknowledges the inspiration of El libro de los cantares by Antonio de Trueba, published the previous year, and apologizes for her shortcomings as a poet, claiming that her only schooling was that of “our poor country folk.” The poems are dedicated to Fernan Caballero (Cecilia Böhl de Faber), the pioneer of the realistic novel in Spain, who won Castro’s appreciation with her unprejudiced portrayal of Galicians. Working without a grammar, Castro apologizes for her Galician; indeed, it is not a pure dialect unaffected by Castilian influence, and lexical and orthographic inconsistencies abound. She attempted to imitate modern Portuguese in her use of diacritical marks, contractions, and elisions, and included a short glossary of Galician words for the sake of her Castilian readers.
Castro’s usual procedure was to begin her poems with a popular couplet and then to elaborate it into a ballad. Her masterpiece is perhaps “Airiños, airiños, aires” (“Breezes, Breezes, Little Breezes”) in which she portrays the nostalgia of a Galician emigrant, playing upon the dual meaning of airiños as “little breezes” and “little songs.” Everywhere this unfortunate emigrant turns in the strange country of her destination, people peer curiously at her, and she longs for the sweet breezes of home, those “quitadoiriños de penas” (takers-away of sorrow) that enchant the woods and caress the land. Similarly as Galician poetry inspired the Castilian lyric of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, this poem influenced the revival of Spanish poetry that began thirty years after Castro’s death. The Romancero gitano (1928; Gypsy Ballads, 1951, 1953) of Federico García Lorca, for example, with its themes and repetitions derived from folk tradition, owes much to this poem.
In “Pasa rio, pasa rio” (“Pass by, River, Pass By”), a disconsolate lover weeps tears into the ocean in hope that they may reach her beloved in Brazil, where he has had to emigrate. The plight of the Galician emigrant forced to leave his homeland because of economic necessity troubled Castro deeply. There are many poems of praise for Galicia, such as “Cómo chove mihudiño” (“How the Rain Is Falling Lightly”), in which she describes Padrón, lulled by the river where the trees are shady, and reminisces about the great house owned by her humanitarian grandfather. She dares to ask the Sun of Italy if it has seen “more green, more roses,/ bluer sky or softer colors/ where foam stripes your gulfs with whiteness”; and is reminded by a wandering cloud of the sad shade of her mother wandering lonely in the spheres before she goes to glory.
The poems of Follas novas are meant to be read and reflected upon, as opposed to the folk poems of Cantares gallegos with their marked oral quality. The 139 poems of Follas novas are more subjective and personal and bleaker than...