Opinion

Catalonia and the poet Antonio Machado

Far from being anti-Catalan, the poet called Madrid a mere “capital” and Barcelona a “real city”

I learned in EL PAÍS that Sabadell, an industrial town in Catalonia, is home to a certain Josep Abad, a condescending, pro-independence “local historian” who was recently asked to carry out a report by the local council: a report calling for the removal of street names that honor certain people suspected of harboring hostile feelings towards Catalonia, the northeastern region in Spain currently pushing for secession.

Antonio Machado on the terrace of his home in Rocafort.
Antonio Machado on the terrace of his home in Rocafort.

On the list is the poet Antonio Machado – a member of the Spanish literary group referred to the ‘Generation of 1898’ – and – good heavens! – the painter Francisco Goya, and 17th century writers Miguel de Quevedo and Félix Lope de Vega. Abad goes as far as accusing these figures of being “Francoist” (and there was foolish me thinking they had left us long before 1936 and the mutiny of the treacherous generals).

Abad has discovered that, when it comes to Machado, “under the republican and progressive aura that he’s been dressed up in [sic], there are centralist and anti-Catalan tendencies.” Both Machado and Quevedo are “hostile to the Catalan language, culture and nation.” This was jaw dropping… and painful.

Responding to the ensuing media furor, the mayor of Sabadell, Maties Serracant, with the pro-independence, left-wing CUP party, denied that Machado’s name would be removed from the square honoring him. He said the report simply contained non-binding proposals. “Machado stays,” he told this newspaper. “What we need to do is remove the names of fascists.”

What we need to do is remove the names of fascists Maties Serracant, Mayor of Sabadell

Machado stays… but so do the words of the local historian who penned the report. Somebody, we must assume, who is very grateful to the people who lead the town council.

It behooves me to note that Machado, far from being an enemy of Catalonia, greatly appreciated the region’s culture. In 1928, shortly after the publication of his Poesías completas (Complete poems), he was in Barcelona with his brother Manuel for the premier of Las adelfas (The Oleanders) a play they had written togehter. It was Machado’s first visit to the Catalan capital.

“It’s a magnificent city,” Machado said in an interview with Jose Maria Planas, “the best in Spain, without a doubt. I have also noticed an interesting thing: that Barcelona is much more like Paris or Seville than it is Madrid.”

He continued: “one could say that Madrid is a capital, while Barcelona is a real city.” Planas wanted to know what he knew about Catalan poets. Machado did not deny he was unfamiliar with the current generation, but assured his interviewer that he had read a great many of the older authors from the region, such as Jacint Verdaguer, Joan Maragall, Joan Alcover, Josep Carner, and Josep Maria López Picó, most of whose work was produced in the 19th century.

One could say that Madrid is a capital, while Barcelona is a real city
Antonio Machado

Interestingly enough, Spain's ABC newspaper chose to leave these statements out of the article it published based on the interview, perhaps believing they constituted a lack of respect for the capital and the royal court.

Eight years later, toward the end of the Civil War, the Republican authorities house Machado and his family in the small Castañer palace on the outskirts of Barcelona, where they stay for eight months before leaving for France. The poet receives few visitors and feels increasingly old, unwell, and worse for wear. In the palace, he begins to write for Catalonia’s La Vanguardia newspaper. He discusses his feelings about the non-intervention pact, which kept foreign countries from interfering in the Spanish Civil War, and about the cowardly and fatal policy of appeasement Great Britain and France applied toward Germany. He also rereads some of his favorite authors, this time not forgetting the new poets from Catalonia. There are also special mentions of the “giant” 13th century Mallorcan writer and philosopher Ramon Llull and the Valencian medieval poet Ausiàs March.

It is true that Machado lacked a profound knowledge of the Catalan language, but this did not prevent him from taking pleasure in its reading. He has inherited the gift of language from his people: his grandfather was from Cadiz, while he was a teacher of French. “It’s like looking through a colored glass, not quite transparent to me,” he writes. “The Catalan language, where I can feel the mountains, the countryside and the sea, allows me to see some of these enlightened minds, these fiery hearts of our Iberia.”

This seems to me to be a beautiful tribute to the language Franco and his supporters hated to death.

Machado wrote a beautiful tribute to Catalan, a language Franco’s supporters hated

On January 6, 1939 Machado publishes what will be his last article in La Vanguardia. His usual indignation is there as he rails against fascist-friendly France and Great Britain.

As the Civil War approaches its conclusion, in the early hours of January 23, Machado begins his journey to France, part of a caravan of Catalan intellectural, among them one of his admirers, the writer Carles Riba. According to philosopher Joaquim Xirau, Machado said that during the slow journey, taking in the Catalan countryside was his “greatest pleasure” at that time; he “caressed it with his gaze.”

On January 26 1939, the news comes through of the fall of Barcelona, a critical event in the eventual defeat of the forces fighting Franco. Castilians and Catalans “shared the same, common grief,” according to the doctor Enrique Rioja.

A few days later, after the horror of the border, a few days later he begins his exile in Collioure. The poet passes away on February 22.

And just for the record, nobody has sung about that painful final odyssey better than Catalan singer Joan Manuel Serrat, who dedicated an entire album to Machado in 1969.

English version by Debora Almeida.

More information