The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

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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 “compadre,” who is possibly also the father of the bewitched girl on the veranda. The young and wounded smuggler wants to exchange his horse, saddle, and dagger for the domestic comforts of the compadre’s house in order to die decently in a bed with fine linen instead of ignominiously by the side of the road. His friend, however, with the impotence common to dreams, and perhaps under the same spell as the green-haired girl on the veranda, says that he is no longer master of himself nor of his house; despite the smuggler’s gaping wound, he cannot help.

The young man begs permission at least to climb to the veranda to see the girl. Leaving a trail of blood and tears, the two friends make their way to the roof. The smuggler cries out for the girl, and his friend retorts that for many a night, free of the moon’s spell, with fresh face and black hair she waited for the young man.

In a sudden shift of scene, the narrator describes the girl as sustained on a shaft of moonlight as she rocks back and forth on the top of the cistern. The sound of the drunken Civil Guards beating on the door seals the young man’s fate, and the poem closes with the lines with which it began.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

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 chant about the magic of the color green, they are followed by two lines that state simply the existence of objects of reality in their logical and natural surroundings: the ship on the sea, the horse on the mountain. Thus the poem at once establishes its characteristic play between dreams and reality.

García Lorca also makes use of images that have more prescribed meanings. Wounded in the mountain pass of Cabra and losing a considerable amount of blood, the smuggler speaks in metonymies. Horse, saddle, and dagger represent the active, adventurous, masculine life of the smuggler; house, mirror, blanket stand for the safe, domestic, and feminine aspects of shelter.

García Lorca is celebrated for his flair for metaphor, and this poem has many examples. When he writes that the fig tree rubs the wind with the sandpaper of its branches, he is employing one of his favorite devices: the reversal of normal roles. It would be natural for the wind to rustle against the harsh branches of the fig tree, not for the leaves to sand the wind. The metaphors often make extravagant or unusual associations. The outline of a mountain against the sky can be compared to the arched back of a cat, whose hairs stand on end like the century plant (agave). From the veranda, the tin plate lanterns turn into glass tambourines, whose sound (glare) clashes with the light of dawn.

Most of the metaphors present startling ways to look at the reality of nature. They are not only for decoration, however; they contribute to the theme. The gypsies are pursued by the forces of society (the Civil Guards), and whenever this takes place, elements of nature react in consternation: the wind blows, the mountain bristles, the moon intrudes.