The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Despite the poet’s declaration that he himself did not know what was going on in the poem, “Somnambule Ballad,” Federico García Lorca’s supreme dream poem, readily yields most of its secrets to the patient reader. It narrates the plight of a wounded gypsy smuggler seeking refuge from the Guardia Civil (Civil Guards, the rural Spanish police force, at one time noted for its harshness) in the house where his sweetheart lived. Incantatory phrases, haunting images, and a confusion of the real and dream worlds form the background against which this ballad’s action takes place.

A strong sense of Andalusia, a province in southern Spain, pervades the poem. Country houses there typically have verandas on their roofs to allow the inhabitants to appreciate the cool evening breezes, and a cistern or water tank can be found in most Andalusian patios.

The poem opens by invoking the allure of the color green, makes a reference to the smuggler’s means of transport (ship and horse), and then describes a mysterious girl transfixed on a veranda. Her hair and eyes reflect the moonlight; while under its spell, she is surrounded by things that see her but that she herself cannot see. This is the first of many instances in which the characters in this dream ballad seem impotent, unable to move and to answer for themselves.

The narrator hears someone coming, and a dialogue occurs between two men—one of them the smuggler, the other his...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

García Lorca closely copied the classical Spanish ballad in both form and technique as he composed his modern versions. An indeterminate number of eight-syllable lines rhyming in assonance (vowels) in even-numbered lines is the set pattern for these lyrics. They also make use of dramatic dialogue and are given to exaggeration. Three hundred ladies-in-waiting accompany Roland’s wife in the sixteenth century ballad “Doña Alda,” and three hundred roses (splotches of blood) stain the smuggler’s shirt in García Lorca’s ballad. Spanish ballads frequently close on a note of impending doom: an unanswered question, an intruder knocking at the door. The listener or reader must supply the ominous details. García Lorca uses this device when he has the narrative line of the poem cease as the drunken Civil Guards pound on the door of the house where the smuggler has taken refuge. Part of the attraction of García Lorca’s gypsy ballads is in their blend of a very traditional and popular form of literature with modernism.

The same mysterious, singsong lines open and close the poem. Green suggests nature, growth, and vegetation; it also introduces the color of the moon (the moon is made of green cheese, goes an old children’s saying in English) that tinges the face of the gypsy girl. In Spanish, verde has an additional connotation of “off-color, dirty,” a sexual association that no English translation can bring out. After the first two lines...

(The entire section is 539 words.)