Imagination Ablaze

Federico García Lorca's Gypsy Ballads and Poetic Allusion

Mario Murgia

Para Coque

Tú sabes, Federico García Lorca,
que soy de los que gozan una muerte diaria.
                             Miguel Hernández, "Elegía Primera"
. . . . And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
                             Wallace Stevens, "The Snowman"

The figure of Federico García Lorca is, at this point and for the most part, a product of collective imagination. Despite the abundance of historical, biographical, and critical data and evidence, García Lorca's image as both a poet (whether lyric or dramatic) and individual is charged with post-Romantic assumptions and allusions regarding his artistic tendencies, his amorous affiliations, and his fate as a heroic ideal. For, in the Spanish-speaking world, the name Lorca —yes, it is his maternal surname that identifies his artistic persona— is synonymous with contemporary poetical achievement and inexorable martyrdom. Federico, in popular imagination at least, incarnates a figural trinity that accounts for his enormous fame in Spain and elsewhere: he is at once a bard, a hero, and a personage. He has been elevated, for many decades now, to the level of a vates, a prophet-poet of death, sensuousness, and modern non-conformity. For instance, in Mexico, where Spain is often evoked as the Old Country, or the Motherland, his name is referred to, much more so than that of any other member of the so-called Generation of '27, on a regular basis. Understandably, his name has come to be the incarnation of artistic rebelliousness in the face of injustice, repression, and dictatorship. To this day, in private Mexican schools founded by Spanish republicans, the grand-children of exiled revolutionaries are required to memorise Lorca's lines as mementoes of a gruelling Civil War, the consequences of which are still felt and dreaded in Spain and those countries where her Republican children found political protection and intellectual nurturing.

Imagination and allusion, thus, determine the various facets of Lorca as conceived both in his mother tongue and in other linguistic and poetic traditions around the world, particularly in the United States and the rest of the Anglosphere. But how do these two instances, inherent as they are in all kinds of creative processes, influence the reading of Lorca's work to the point of rendering it a modern masterpiece of myth-making? More specifically: how did Lorca's voluptuous imagination, through the powers of allusion and implication, shape the uncommon imagery of Gypsy Ballads, the project that first catapulted Lorca into widespread artistic fame, controversy, and the imagined universe of major poetry? How does the world of Andalusian Gypsies become, in Lorca's poetry, a theme that prefigures death as the dominating force of life, and therefore, of poetic creativity? These questions can only be approached, I believe, if first we take into consideration the fact that in Lorca's poetry death is not the result or the end of living but, like sex, an act in itself, almost in the theatrical or spectacular sense of the term. And it is only in Spain, as Lorca stated once in his famous text on the theory of the duende, that death is dramatised to the point of becoming not exactly something that can be witnessed or seen, but a feeling, a realisation to which one can come by means of artistic or poetic allusion. Says Lorca in "Theory and Play of the Duende":

In every other country death is an ending. It appears and they close the curtains. Not in Spain. In Spain they open them. Many Spaniards live indoors till the day they die and are carried into the sun. A dead man in Spain is more alive when dead than anywhere else on earth: his profile cuts like the edge of a barber's razor. Tales of death and the silent contemplation of it are familiar to Spaniards.[1]

Notice the allusion to the theatre here, as well as to the notion of death as determinant of life, as an instance that causes impressions and expressions, almost at once. It is there, in the face of death, that the duende appears—it is the most capricious, most powerful force of creation and artistic passion, exclusive, of course, to Spain and her poetry:

The magic power of a poem consists in it always being filled with duende, in its baptising all who gaze at it with dark water, since with duende it is easier to love, to understand, and be certain of being loved, and being understood, and this struggle for expression and the communication of that expression in poetry sometimes acquires a fatal character.

Here, Lorca refers to love and understanding in the romantic (or perhaps more accurately, romanticised) context of affection between to individuals. But the poet also alludes to the physicality that eroticism and sex imply as constituents of human communion and, therefore, of mutual understanding. The poem is, thus, one of the natural dwellings of duende since its power depends on a constant allusion to love and death, on the tension that arises from their encounter, and the creative (often fatal) force that originates from the inevitable clash. In this sense, and as opposed to what generally happens in (major) poetry, pain and sex are not symbolic of death and the inevitable sense of ending it brings about. Neither are they metaphoric or metonymic with regard to the traditional creation-destruction dichotomy of verbal art. They are, once again, allusive to the process of dying, as well as to its creative reverberations. In Gypsy Ballads, the drama of death is the result of imaginative poetic allusion, which works through the accumulation of surprising images that evoke pain and erotically charge Lorca's lines and their formal precision.

It would be fair to say that all poetry is allusive in one way or another, for as William Irwin states in his famous essay "What Is Allusion?," to allude is to make "a reference that is indirect in the sense that it calls for associations that go beyond mere substitution of a referent. Allusions often draw on information not readily available to every member of a cultural and linguistic community, are typically but not necessarily brief, and may or may not be literary in nature." (289) Allusion is the negation of an actual presence, of what can be seen. It entails the possibility, not of verbal recreation of that which is not there, but the imagistic summoning of unapprehended meanings and forms, the evoking of unlived experiences, and the imaginative expansion of the rhetorical possibilities of metaphors. When a poem alludes, it makes a line, an image, intelligible, even if it is not understood or visually grasped. And still, even if much poetry is essentially allusive, very few poems are themselves poems of allusion. One might as well state that overtly allegorical poems are actually full-fledged poems of allusion since their very structures and rhetorical components call for a purposeful retrieval of semantic units that exist outside the poem. But the formation of allegories in literature and particularly poetry depend on evocation determined by visuality. A poem of allusion does not rely exclusively on the interpretation of such visual resources to exact meanings from words. A poem that functions as allusion is self-contained in the sense that it generates its own meaning(s) upon the basis of its rhetoricity, which in time may produce figures or meanings that cannot be grasped sensorially. Then, it is only once these meanings have been realised within the scope of the poem itself that the connotations of the piece are sensed by the reader. This occurs simply because, in this kind of poem, a meaning (or referent) is only secondary to what the poem does in itself by means of words. A poem of allusion is, out of need, highly metaphorical and visionary. In English, Donne and Marvell are unparalleled in the composition of poetic allusion. Keats follows them in terms of allusive prowess. It is my true belief that Góngora, in the Spanish tradition, can only be equalled by Lorca in this regard.

Let us consider, firstly, one of Lorca's most famous poems, "The Ballad of the Sleepwaker," included in Gypsy Ballads and translated here by Langston Hughes:

Ya suben los dos compadres
hacia las altas barandas.
Dejando un rastro de sangre.
Dejando un rastro de lágrimas.
Temblaban en los tejados
farolillos de hojalata.
Mil panderos de cristal,
herían la madrugada.

The two friends go up,
Up towards the highest railing,
Leaving a trail of blood,
Leaving a trail of tears.
Little tin-plate lanterns
Tremble on the roof-tops.
A thousand tambourines of crystal
Wound the early dawn.
(ll. 54-61)

The poem deals with the courtship and conquest of a Gypsy girl, who languidly fantasises on a high railing while her father and the wounded bandit who woos her try to reach her. Their effort and pain, vividly portrayed in the opening lines of the stanza, soon lead into a figure that stands out in the whole of poem due to its apparently cryptic, even senseless nature: the thousand tambourines of crystal wounding the early dawn. I do not term it an image because the crystal tambourines simply cannot be seen—they can only be sensed, even in the decidedly visual context of, say, the train of blood and the much more graspable "little tin-plate lanterns." What are, one may ask, "tambourines of crystal" after all? And perhaps more interestingly, how can they "wound the early dawn"? In addressing the difficulties of the last two lines in this stanza, Lorca is recorded to have stated the following:

If you ask me why I say:

           A thousand tambourines of crystal
           Wound the early dawn.

I will tell you that I have seen them in the hands of angels and of trees. But I cannot tell you anymore, or explain what they mean. And that is all right. Man quickly approaches, through poetry, that cliff upon which philosophers and mathematicians readily will turn their backs in silence. (I, 1087)[2]

Lorca's apparent explanation is almost as cryptic as his two lines. Interestingly enough, his statement makes it clear that the figure is the result of a sensorial experience: the poet has, in his own words, seen the tambourines. Nevertheless, the supposed visuality of the revelation is soon disregarded in favour of a more metaphysical instance of appreciation: Lorca has "seen" these elusive, yet visually impressive, objects in the "hands of angels and of trees." Having been brought up a Catholic, no doubt Lorca believed in angels, but their physicality (which evidently includes their hands) is necessarily the result of a poetic need to imbue the unperceivable world of spirituality with a concreteness that will eventually make up for the lack of actual meaning in the lines. Virtually the same can be said of the "hands of trees"—even if, unlike the angels, these trees are physical beings, they are subjected to a sudden yet emotionally charged personification that conjures up a kind of nature that moves, breathes, and humanly lives. The nature of both angels and trees is only allusive, and that which they allude to escapes the reasoning of the poet himself.

In this sense, and going back to the poem (which, in the very structure of its lines requires no formal reasoning at all to function poetically), if we were to treat the "thousand tambourines of crystal" as a metaphor, as have countless critics, we could very well interpret them as being the representation of a starry sky against the background of the dim light of early dawn. But here the substitution implied in metaphorical imaging is impaired by the contorted juxtaposition of a music-related term (tambourines) with an object that is best regarded through sight (crystal). Any possible transference between this rhetorical hybrid and the concreteness of the stars would be a matter of sheer speculative inference. The operative terms of the "metaphor," then, are so unrepresentative of one another that any kind of correspondence between a possible tenor and a potential vehicle is semantically overridden here. These lines, therefore, as almost every line in the poem and, by extension, in Gypsy Ballads, function not on the level of semantic transference, but on that of imaginative intuition. They are markedly allusive. To exemplify this process in further detail, let us consider the following lines from "San Miguel (Granada)":

El mar baila por la playa,
un poema de balcones.
Las orillas de la luna
pierden juncos, ganan voces.

On the beach the sea
dances a poem made of balconies.
And the banks of the moon
lose their rushes, gain in voices.

The allusive implications of these lines begin, once again, with a figure of thought that Lorca masters like no other poem in modern Spanish literature—personification. Here the sea is a dancer and, therefore, a possessor of that duende which Lorca so often finds in flamenco artists. The "poem made of balconies," as Langston Hughes has put it in his explanatory translation, may be read either as the object of the sea's dance or as an epithet of the sea itself (an ambivalent effect that is completely lost in Hughes's rendition of the lines). Also, the moon, one of the protagonists of the whole of Gypsy Ballads, is only half-perceived in a synecdoche of sorts: it is her banks—her edges, perhaps?—that begin to be peopled by sounds as she is separated from the reeds that she apparently possesses. Once again, any kind of metaphorical interpretation is doomed here to speculation. While it may be possible to identify the imagistic basis of the initial personification as the ebb and flow of the tide, the "poema de balcones" is flabbergasting in that its referential implications are almost unlimited in semantic terms. Is it the waves breaking on the shore? Or is it a possible allusion to the constant tension the reader can find in the ballads between the high and the low, the lofty and the earthly? The factual possibilities of the lines are inapprehensible in figurative terms. Nevertheless, in the context of the poem as a whole, the echoes of these lines point at an allusion to the festivity implied in the piece. Nature may be regarded here as a participant of a festival that is partly related with pious reverence and sacrifice. But more importantly, and as opposed to what happens in other pieces of the cycle, the presence of nature in the poem is linked with the din and colour of a street festival. And yet, this explanation can only be articulated on the basis of a largely intuitive reading, for this "natural participation" is only alluded to through personification. As Carmela Perri puts it,

[...] 'allusion' means the marker in the alluding text, the sign—simple or complex—that points to a referent by echoing it in some way. It is also generally assumed that allusion markers are possible to recognize, an assumption which entails that the echo be sufficiently overt to be understood. But it is unclear what the referent of an allusion is. (290)

It is precisely this lack of clarity with regard to referent what is at play in a poem like "San Miguel." The figure of the Archangel, even if referential and personified in its statuesque, effeminate description, is subjected to allusive comments that escape the possibility of establishing an objective signifier. Take these lines, for instance:

Arcángel domesticado
en el gesto de las doce,
finge una cólera dulce
de plumas y ruiseñores.
San Miguel canta en los vidrios;
efebo de tres mil noches ,
fragante de agua colonia
y lejano de las flores.

Archangel domesticated
at the stroke of twelve,
pretending sweet anger
of plumes and nightingales.
San Miguel sings at his window,
a youth of three thousand evenings,
fragrant with eau-de-cologne
far from the breath of flowers.
(ll. 21-28)

Clearly, the description immediately would fall into perspective if one saw the baroque statue standing on the altar in the Granadian church to which the poem refers. (Un)fortunately, most readers can only count on the poem's allusion markers—as Perri terms them—that characterise the Archangel to elaborate on the stern yet flared appearance of the "youth of three thousand evenings." This octosyllable constitutes an epithet which, in the original Spanish at least, evokes an oriental, and therefore gipsy-like, kind of sensuousness and eroticism that Hughes's plain "youth," however, fails to convey. Along the same lines, the reference to the "stroke of twelve" can only be explained if one imagines, with the help of some factual information, that the statue stands pointing upwards with one of its hands—actually, the right one. And yet in the lines themselves, and without the aid of direct signifiers, the saint comes to life by "pretending" and "singing" in a poetical context that clearly goes beyond the mere reference to a minor piece of devotional art and its figurative peculiarities. The description lodges itself in a realm of traditional celebration, sensual drama, and veiled irony[3], which culminate in "the Berber arabesques / of balconies and cheers" rounding up this particular ballad. After all, and as the renowned Catalan poet and critic Ramón Xirau has pointed out, "No-one but García Lorca can, like Lope [de Vega], take from the people, and then return to the people, the summery warmth of their songs and dances." (49) "San Miguel," along with the other two ballads dedicated to the Archangels, belong in this colourful, yet dolorous, folkloric ambiance. The echoes of these angelic figures are clear enough to be understood, but that which they allude to (the baroque sophistication, flamboyance, and pathos of the Gipsy world in Andalusia) remains for most readers to be elucidated, if possible, by means of imaginative association.[4]

Perri's argument on the possibilities of allusion is based on a semantic and pragmatic approach to the phenomenon, as she herself points out (290). She develops her theory taking literature as a starting point; then she proceeds to a discussion on ordinary language in order to throw light on the implications of tacitness in allusion. Many of her examples are obtained from poetry, and she makes a good case of literary allusion when she claims that "the language that any author uses is 'borrowed' from the actual world, and are imported into the imagined possible world of the literary text where they exist subject to none of the of the laws of possibility of the actual world." (294) The key word here is evidently "imagined," for the language of literature, we may assert, is extra-ordinary in its creative, aesthetic, and emotional implications. It is extra-ordinary in the sense that it is not only imagined but imaginative—it entails an abstraction from the surrounding concreteness of reality, or ordinariness. In Lorquian terms, it is precisely a high degree of detachment or abstraction from the real world that determines the duende. And such abstraction cannot be but inexplicable, indefinable, dark in its utmost sensitive implications:

And Manuel Torre, a man who had more culture in his veins than anyone I've known, on hearing Falla play his own Nocturno del Generalife spoke this splendid sentence: 'All that has dark sounds has duende.' And there's no deeper truth than that.
Those dark sounds are the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which comes the very substance of art. 'Dark sounds' said the man of the Spanish people, agreeing with Goethe, who in speaking of Paganini hit on a definition of the duende: 'A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.'
So, then, the duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: 'The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.' Meaning, it's not a question of skill, but of a style that's truly alive: meaning, it's in the veins: meaning, it's of the most ancient culture of immediate creation.

And of course, the "mysterious force" of a poem lies in its language, which is not only literary, but also extra-ordinary, even in the realm of literariness. No other poet of the Generation of '27 was more aware of this fact than Lorca himself. Octavio Paz once wrote that "the poetic creation begins as violence against language. The first act in this process consists of the uprooting of words. The poet tears them from their connections and habitual functions: separated from the shapeless world of speech, words become unique, as though they had just been born." (65) In Lorca's poetry in general, and particularly in Gypsy Ballads, nothing determines the uniqueness of his register like an overarching sense of violence, a distorting poetical force that, duende-like, strains the limited possibilities of literal meaning. Line after line, the evoking energy of Lorca's allusiveness overflows the strictness of meter, which cannot—and will not—contain the drama of the poet's imagination. And this is perhaps most evident in "Ballad of the Spanish Civil Guard," the last of the Gypsy Ballads.

It is in the historical antagonism between the Spanish Gypsies and Spain's Civil Guard that Lorca finds a poetic motive for anguish, death, heroism, and ultimately, myth creation and re-creation. This is true of "Arrest of Antoñito el Camborio," where knives, a typical referent of death in Lorca's verse, "are shivering in the dust." Also, in "Death of Antoñito el Camborio," where "three spurts [golpes, or 'blows,' in Spanish] of blood" cause the death of the Gypsy martyr Antonio Torres Heredia. In the ballad that closes up Lorca's cycle of Gypsy-inspired poems, on the other hand, the tragic fate of a whole town is sealed in the midst of folklore and celebration. Also, the embodiment of violence, the civil guards, finds a sort of representational apex by means of circumlocutory allusion. In the opening lines of the piece, a troop of figures rides on horseback towards a shady destination:

Los caballos negros son.
Las herraduras son negras.
Sobre las capas relucen
manchas de tinta y de cera.
Tienen, por eso no lloran,
de plomo las calaveras.
Con el alma de charol
vienen por la carretera.

Their horses are black.
Black are their iron shoes.
On their capes shimmer
stains of ink and wax.
They never weep because
their skulls are of lead.
With their patent leather souls
they ride down the road.
(ll. 1-9)

Even if Lorca resorts to the somewhat clichéd commonplace of ominous blackness to announce a tragic and violent event, the lines still resonate with what María Andueza has called "prodigious poetic images," (16) of which "patent leather souls" is a clear example. It is true—what we can find in the opening of the poem is an actual concatenation of images. Yet, what stands out here is that these images are overtly allusive, though not referentially detailed, in their featureless description of the guards. Their eerie uniforms precede the appearance of their blackened, vicious souls; they are faceless, only characterised by their oblique intentionality. The guards march on an unidentified city, which is only recognizable in its gypsiness, in the mixture of suffering, exoticism, and sensuality. It is precisely this voluptuous complexity that prefigures the Gypsies' tragic destiny in the hands of embodied sternness and cruelty:

¡Oh ciudad de los gitanos!
¿Quién te vio y no te recuerda?
Ciudad de dolor y almizcle
con las torres de canela.

Oh, city of the gypsies!
Who could see you and not remember you?
City of grief and of musk
with towers of cinnamon.
(ll. 21-24)

Apart from the much-discussed issue of Lorca's mythification of the Gypsies, what is noticeable in this ballad is the poet's interest in providing the character of these people with a collective aura of sacrificial fatality. In this respect, the city, in its metonymical implications, becomes the greatest, the most plural, of Gypsies, a singular representative of the whole Andalusian race. Moreover, the city, faceless like the guards and a place of pain and sensuousness, becomes in ensuing lines a sort of giant Christmas manger, where the alluded myth of divine birth is soon metamorphosed into a moving rite of violence and blood.

En el portal de Belén
los gitanos se congregan.
San José, lleno de heridas,
amortaja a una doncella.
Tercos fusiles agudos
por toda la noche suenan.
La Virgen cura a los niños
con salivilla de estrella.
Pero la Guardia Civil
avanza sembrando hogueras
donde joven y desnuda
la imaginación se quema.
Rosa la de los Camborios
gime sentada en su puerta
con sus dos pechos cortados
puestos en una bandeja.

At Bethlehem's manger
the gypsies gather.
Saint Joseph, covered with wounds,
shrouds a young maiden.
All through the night
stubborn guns sound sharply.
The Virgin heals the children
with star-drop saliva.
But the Civil Guard
advances sowing sparks
that set fire to imagination,
young and naked.
Rosa de los Camborios
sobs on her doorstep,
her two breasts cut away
and put on a platter.
(ll. 93-108)

Despite the poignant vividness of Gypsies-turned-saints-and-martyrs (Saint Joseph and a clear allusion to Saint Agatha and her severed breasts), the central figure in these lines is the personification of imagination. Here, the whole of the Gypsy people is alluded to by means of a multi-faceted metaphor: imagination ablaze. It is multifaceted because its allusive nature allows for at least three interpretative readings. Firstly, the notion of a martyred imagination points at a possible sublimation of the idea of the duende, which is constructed upon the typically Lorquian dichotomy of creation and death. Secondly, death by fire here becomes symbolical of spiritual purification, whereby the artistic munificence of the Gypsies is elevated to mythical heights. And finally, and as the highest allusive and rhetorical point of Gypsy Ballads, Lorca concentrates in these lines one of his main aesthetic concerns, i.e., the tension between the unbounded force of sensuous imagination—represented by and representative of the Gypsies—and the constraints of form, constantly alluded to in the figure of the Civil Guard. Bluntly put, the gypsy, even if a mere topic, as Lorca himself one stated, is an active allusion to the extraordinariness of poetic art and, by extension, to the active power of imagination, or the duende. On the other hand, the civil guard is an allusion to forms, which oppose the process of imagining, or the driving force that is the duende, inexplicable as it may be.

As a final consideration, it is worthwhile remembering that in Lorca's Gypsy pieces, poetic allusions (which inevitably lead to the formation of metaphors and symbols of countless sorts) "overflow" the form of the ballad in such a way that the resulting images cannot and should not be understood but only responded to through emotion. In this sense, the musicality of the ballad and its octosyllables functions as a sensorial component that potentialises the allusiveness of images and lines in their metaphorical reverberation. In these sense, the closing lines—given below only in Spanish for purposes of sheer poetical rapture—speak for themselves:

¡Oh, ciudad de los gitanos!
¿Quién te vio y no te recuerda?
Que te busquen en mi frente.
Juego de luna y arena.


  1. "Teoría y juego del duende" (1933), translated by A.S. Kline (2007). It may be argued that death is given a similar treatment in Mexico, where it is constantly celebrated in popular culture and the arts, not as a definite ending but as a continuation of life. Nevertheless, in modern Mexico death is very often the subject of comedy rather than of "contemplation" through dramatisation, as Lorca explains is the case in Spain.   // back
  2. My translation.  // back
  3. Josephs and Caballero have stated that lines 25-28 of the poem contain a certain amount of irony directed to the "bad taste" of the statue (see 2009, 247).   // back
  4. For this, Langston Hughes resorted to the help of poets like Rafael Alberti and Manuel Altoaguirre. The American poet's understanding of the texts, as well as his translations, also benefitted from the input of Francisco García Lorca, Federico's brother, who was a professor at Columbia University at the time.  // back

Works Cited

  • Andueza, María (2006). Génesis y evolución del Romancero gitano de Federico García Lorca. México: Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, UNAM. Cuadernos de la Biblioteca Crítica Abierta. Serie Letras 3.
  • García Lorca, Federico (2009). Poema del Cante Jondo/Romancero gitano. Ed. by Allen Josephs and Juan Caballero. Madrid: Cátedra. Mil Letras.
  • ——— (Fall 1951). "Gypsy Ballads" in The Beloit Poetry Journal, vol. 2, no. 1. Trans. by Langston Hughes, Intro. by Robert H. Glauber. Farmington, ME: BPJ.
  • Irwin, William (Summer 2001). "What Is an Allusion" in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 59, No. 3.
  • Martínez Nadal, Rafael (1975). Federico García Lorca. Autógrafos I: poemas y prosas. Oxford: The Dolphin Book Company, Ltd.
  • Paz, Octavio (2003). La casa de la presencia. Poesía e historia. Obras completas, edición del autor, vol. I. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
  • Perri, Carmela (September 1978). "On Alluding" in Poetics, vol. 7, no. 3. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company.
  • Xirau, Ramón (2004). Entre la poesía y el conocimiento. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica. Tierra firme.

MARIO MURGIA (Mexico City, 1973) is a full-time professor of English literature at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He also translates and writes verse on the side. Murgia prides himself on being an excellent (if somewhat reckless) urban cyclist. Can't skate, but would love to learn.