Here’s another track from my trail playlist (just click on the song title to watch a live performance). The Spanish-to-English translations that feature in this post are my original work. If you want to use or quote them elsewhere, please include a link to my blog. Thanks.
Cantares: Joan Manual Serrat
The career of the Catalan singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat spans more than four decades, and his songs form part of the cultural life of generations across the Spanish-speaking world. This song, Cantares, dates back to 1969 and to Serrat’s second vinyl release: Dedicado a Antonio Machado, poeta.
The Spanish poet Antonio Machado was born in Seville in 1875, although by the age of eight he had moved with his extended family to Madrid. This proved to be the first of many journeys he would make during the 63 years of his life. He remained in the Spanish capital throughout his adolescence and early adulthood, although he also made two lengthy visits to Paris during his twenties. This experience not only contributed to his artistic development but also enabled him, once back in Spain, to earn a living as a schoolteacher of French while he worked on his poetry. In 1907, having already published his first two collectons of poems, he took up a permanent teaching position in Soria, a city around 200 km to the north of the Spanish capital. This period of his life culminated in the publication of a new collection of poems entitled Campos de Castilla [Fields of Castile]. However, it also ended in tragedy, for in 1912 his young wife, Leonor, died from tuberculosis. Distraught, Machado requested a transfer back to Madrid so as to be closer to his family, but he would have to wait nineteen years to achieve this goal: only in October 1931 was this lifelong supporter of Republican ideals awarded a permanent teaching post in the capital by the new government of the Second Spanish Republic. Further tragedy was, of course, on the horizon, and following the military coup of 1936, Machado, due to his age and public prominence, was advised to leave Madrid. He spent the next two years in the province of Valencia, from where he continued to write and speak publicly in support of the Republic. However, as the Nationalist forces took control of an ever increasing area of Spain, Machado and his family moved further north, to Barcelona. By the time of his arrival in the Catalan capital in April 1938, his health was failing, and conditions in the city were bleak.
On 22 January 1939, four days before Franco’s troops finally entered Barcelona, Machado embarked on what would be his final journey, one that would take him once more across the border into France. After a tortuous trip that lasted six days, he and his party reached Collioure, a small coastal town that lies some 30 km north of the Pyrenees. Had he been able to continue as far as Perpignan he may have been able to receive the medical care he needed. But it was not to be. In 1939 Ash Wednesday fell on February 22, and it was on this day, in a room of the Hotel Bougnol-Quintana in Collioure, that Machado died. His simple grave in the town cemetery might easily be overlooked were it not for the fact that it is forever adorned with words and flowers left by those who continue to this day to visit his place of rest. The words carved into the tombstone, however, belong to the poet himself:
Cuando llegue el día del último viaje, y esté al partir la nave que nunca ha de tornar, me encontraréis a bordo, ligero de equipaje, casi desnudo, como los hijos de la mar.
[When the day arrives to make the final journey, and the ship that will never return is about to depart, you will find me aboard, travelling light, almost naked, like the children of the sea.]
This image of a journey that can never be repeated is echoed elsewhere in Machado’s work. Among the poems that make up the aforementioned Campos de Castilla is a series of Proverbios y Cantares (Proverbs and Songs), and it is here, in the last of these short verses, that we find what are perhaps the most famous words of this poet who was also a walker:
Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.
[Traveller, there is no road, the road is made by walking.]
These are the words that serve as the inspiration for Joan Manuel Serrat’s homage to the poet. The song Cantares begins with three verses from Machado’s Proverbs and Songs, the first two of which Serrat sets to music. The third – and most famous – verse is then recited. In the opening verse we are invited to reflect on whether the paths we follow in life have as solid a grounding as we often assume them to have:
Todo pasa y todo queda, pero el nuestro es pasar, pasar haciendo caminos, caminos sobre el mar.
[Everything comes to an end, and everything remains. To live is to go on, to go on making roads, roads upon the sea.]
This theme is then developed in the third verse, where we find Machado reflecting further on the fleeting and invented nature of our life’s journey:
Caminante, son tus huellas el camino y nada más; caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Al andar se hace camino, y al volver la vista atrás se ve la senda que nunca se ha de volver a pisar. Caminante, no hay camino, sino estelas en la mar.
[Traveller, the road is what’s left of your passing, nothing more. Traveller, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking you open a road, and when you glance behind you see the path never again to be trodden. Traveller, there is no road, only a wake upon the sea.]
This spoken third verse provides the bridge into the second half of the song, in which Serrat offers three verses of his own that stand as if in dialogue with the poet and his fate:
Hace algún tiempo en ese lugar, donde hoy los bosques se visten de espinos, se oyó la voz de un poeta gritar: Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Golpe a golpe, verso a verso…
[Some time ago, in this place where now the forests are draped in thorns, the voice of a poet was heard to call out: Traveller, there is no road, the road is made by walking. Step by step, verse by verse…]
Murió el poeta lejos del hogar, le cubre el polvo de un pais vecino. Al alejarse le vieron llorar: Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Golpe a golpe, verso a verso…
[Far from home the poet died, and there he lies, beneath the earth of a neighbouring land. Along the way he was heard to cry out: Traveller, there is no road, the road is made by walking. Step by step, verse by verse…
Cuando el jilguero no puede cantar, cuando el poeta es un peregrino, cuando de nada nos sirve rezar: Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Golpe a golpe, verso a verso…
[When the goldfinch has lost its song, when the poet is a pilgrim, when our prayers are said in vain: Traveller, there is no road, the road is made by walking. Step by step, verse by verse…
My own route across the Pyrenees and into France this summer veered west before reaching Machado’s resting place in Collioure. However, the words of the poet, and those of Serrat, were ever present as I followed a mountain trail that had once been a conduit of hope for those fleeing oppression. As I climbed to the high pass on that early June day the only oppression I encountered was as a result of the heat. No-one asked for my identity papers, and my safe passage into France was never in question. The border was as fluid as the sea below me to the east. These are the freedoms that people of my generation have been granted as a result of the struggle and sacrifice of others, most of whom are either forgotten or remembered only by their living relatives. So in remembering Antonio Machado, let us also remember the words of the German-Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin, himself an exile whose mortal remains lie elsewhere across a Pyrenean border: It is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.