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  • Natalie Taylor


In August of 1936, one of the greatest Spanish poets and playwrights of the 20th century, died an ignominious death at the hands of the nascent fascist government of Spain. He was only 38 years old. Sadly, we don’t even know the exact date of his death, only that it occurred sometime between the 18th and 19th of August, and that his body was thrown into a mass grave. We commemorated the 86th anniversary of his death this year.

Federico Garcia Lorca was born in the province of Granada, Spain on June 5, 1898. His father was a wealthy landowner, and his mother a schoolteacher, and Federico grew up in a rural setting which influenced the imagery and content of his later poems and plays. He studied at the University of Granada but was considered a poor student, spending so much time at the piano and daydreaming, that it took him nine years to complete his bachelor’s degree. His early poetry and prose were filled with intense spiritual and sexual malaise, and were heavily influenced by the works of Shakespeare, Goethe, Antonio Machado, and Ruben Dario.

In 1919 he moved to Madrid, and joined a circle of poets. He also became involved with major artists of the day—filmmaker Luis Buñuel, and the artist Salvador Dalí, with whom he had a passionate relationship for many years. Lorca’s poems, plays, and prose often evoke popular forms of music, art, and literature. Instead of seeking publication, Lorca preferred to perform his poems and plays, and his histrionic recitations drew innumerable admirers. In 1928, with Dalí’s encouragement, Lorca publicly exhibited his drawings, which demonstrated he was a gifted draughtsman with startling visual imagination.

Federico Garcia Lorca and Salvador Dali

Lorca wrote a prodigious series of brief poems arranged in thematic “suites,” inspired by Spanish folk song, Japanese haiku, and contemporary avant-garde poetics. His poems, based on the Spanish Gypsies, were a collaboration with the eminent Andalusian composer Manuel de Falla, and signaled Lorca’s emergence as a mature poet.

In 1929 Lorca traveled to New York and Cuba, which resulted in Poet in New York, published posthumously. It is a collection of poems in which he expresses his obsession with urban decay and social injustice, and pays homage to Walt Whitman.

Dawn in New York has

Four columns of mire,

And a hurricane of black pigeons

Splashing in the putrid waters.

Dawn in New York groans

On enormous fire escapes

Searching between the angles

For spikenards of drafted anguish.

He also visited Buenos Aires in 1933, where he was extremely well received. These trips boosted his popularity in the Spanish speaking world. In 1934 Lorca responded to the goring and death of a bullfighter friend with the majestic Lament for a Bullfighter. The poem, his longest, confirms Lorca as the greatest of Spain’s elegiac poets.

A boy brought the white sheet

At five in the afternoon.

A frail of lime ready preserved

At five in the afternoon.

The rest was death, and death alone

At five in the afternoon.

Mexico was one place that Lorca had always dreamt of visiting. In an interview he spoke of the strong kinship with Mexico he always felt, because they shared a reverence for the cult of death. He had also developed friendships with many renowned Mexican artists, including David Alfaro Siqueiros and Rufino Tamayo. They all urged him to come for a visit. In 1936 he received an invitation from UNAM—the University of Mexico, to give a series of lectures about theater and poetry, and the idea of going to Mexico became a real possibility. He even purchased a ticket on a ship on its way to Mexico, ready to depart just a few days before his arrest. But there was something else going on in his life that complicated the impending journey. Lorca had fallen deeply in love with 19 year-old student—Juan Ramirez de Lucas, and wanted to be sure the young man would travel with him.

The two discussed leaving for Mexico together, and both returned to their respective families to make that announcement, oblivious of the dangers of the impending Spanish Civil War.

While at his parents’ home in Granada, Lorca was arrested on August 16, 1936 by Nationalist forces, who abhorred his homosexuality and his liberal views.

On the night of August 18 or 19 he was driven to a remote hill, outside town, and shot. His body was thrown into an unmarked grave; his dream of going to Mexico buried there as well.

Cordova, far and lonely,

Black pony, full moon,

And olives in my pocket:

Although I know the roads,

I’ll never reach Cordova.

For the plain, for the wind,

Black pony, red moon,

And death is watching for me,

Beside Cordova’s towers.

Alas! The long, long highway,

Alas! My valiant pony,

Alas, that death is waiting

Before I reach Cordova.

Cordova, far and lonely.

In 1986 a monument was erected on the site of his murder to mark the 50th anniversary of Lorca’s death. It bears witness to a great Spanish poet and playwright, a man whose work continues to influence writers and artists throughout the world. His writings speak to what is most central to the human condition—love, death, and eternity.

The round silence of night,

One note on the stave

Of the infinite…

A thousand butterfly skeletons

Sleep within my walls

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