Spanish Darkness: Lorca's Duende
Published on the hundredth year anniversary of his birth, In Search of Duende
is a window into the work of Spains most famous modern poet, Federico García Lorca.
In Search of Duende gathers together Lorcas writings about the Duende,
the idea that became the cornerstone of his philosophy on art and his view of the Spanish
tradition. The book includes a seminal essay on Lorcas conception of the Duende,
and other essays on Spanish arts where Lorca saw the Duende expressed. Of
course, there is also a sampling of Lorcas poetry, where the reader can glimpse
Lorcas efforts at bringing the Duende into his own work.
The prose pieces including essays on flamenco music and the bullfight
will probably be new to many of Lorcas fans. However, though dramatic and a delight
to read, the essays are uneven. At places, Lorca is insightful and poetic, and at other
points he is naïve and sentimental.
In the linchpin essay, "Play and Theory of the Duende," Lorca articulates his
conception of the creative energy of Spain. Historically in Andalusia, the Duende
was a household goblin-like spirit responsible for causing mischief. But the word was also
used by Andalusians to describe artists whose music or dance was especially inspired:
"This has much Duende."
Lorca begins to describe Duende by borrowing Goethes allusion to the
"mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains." The Duende
is a force that is irrational and intuitive; spiritually connected to the earth and
pantheistic; and quintessentially Spanish aware of death. "All that has
black sounds has Duende," wrote Andalusian cantaor Manuel Torre. These popular verses
Out in the sea
was a stone.
My girl sat down
to tell it her pains.
My love will end,
my tears will end,
my grief will end,
and all will end.
Interestingly, Lorca argues that the Duende is not simply what we call the
muse, nor what he calls the "angel," religious inspiration. The Duendes
obsessions with death and so forth make it a unique force animating the artist. Lorca is
unconvincing. The forces at work inside a creative artist are too intangible, indistinct,
and intertwined to be split into three discrete types, and it seems like he is splitting
The other major essay in the volume, "Deep Song," introduces the reader to
cante jondo literally "deep song" the more rustic form of flamenco
music sung in the countryside. Lorcas understanding of art, and Spanish art in
particular, is displayed strongly here. He describes flamenco vocals as a "wavering
emission," and likens them to the "trilling of birds." In an astute
observation, he says there is no middle ground in deep song lyrics: only matters of life
and death are worthy. For instance, one verse preaches:
It doesnt matter to me
if a bird in the poplar grove
skips from tree to tree.
Beyond this, however, Lorcas views get muddled. He makes "a special
distinction" between commercial flamenco music and the more rural in his view,
more authentic deep song. Lorca writes that commercial flamenco "suggests
immoral things, the tavern, the late-night orgy, the dance floors of flamenco cafés,
ridiculous whining in short, all that is typically Spanish!." It
is difficult to know what to make of Lorcas distinction. Is he simply making the
same distinction as people do today about, say, the "real" country music of
yesteryear versus the commercial rubbish of today? The editor of the book, Christopher
Maurer, points out that scholars today dont make a hard distinction between flamenco
and deep song, and Lorca himself later abandoned this view and focused more on the role of
There are a few shorter pieces in the volume, and one of them, "Poem of the
Bull," is absolutely beautiful. Lorca speaks of bullfighting not as a sport, but as
an art form: a way of meditating (as art often is). Lorca writes: "They say that the
torero goes to the ring to earn money, prestige, glory, applause
but this is not
true. He goes to the ring to be alone with the bull, an animal he both fears and adores,
and to whom he has much to say."
In a second evocative passage, Lorca writes:
Children know that France is shaped like an espresso pot, and Italy, a riding boot.
They can see the elephants trunk of India giving a gentle push to Ceylon, and they
know that Sweden and Norway are a curly-haired dog swimming in a sea of cold
Perhaps little children cannot imagine the shape of Spain, but we adults know our
teachers told us so that Spain stretches out like a bulls hide
the shape of an animal hide, and a sacrificial animal at that. In this geographical symbol
lies the deepest, most dazzling and complex part of the Spanish character.
As much as bullfighting, Lorcas poetry has evoked this "deepest, most
dazzling and complex part of the Spanish character." The poems of his oeuvre closest
to the Spanish tradition are highlighted in this volume. "The Guitar," the
opening poem, feels like a flamenco song:
begins its weeping.
The wineglasses of dawn
begins its weeping.
It is useless
to hush it.
to hush it.
Though many of the poems of In Search of Duende are enjoyable,
Lorcas best work is not here. Because the editor limited the poems to those closest
to the Spanish tradition, Lorcas more experimental work is not included. This is
unfortunate poems like "New York," "Little Infinite Poem," and
"Rundown Church," though non-traditional, are nevertheless drenched in Duende.
I think Lorca would have wanted them side by side with his essays on the Duende.
The opening lines of "Rundown Church (Ballad of the First World War)" are
evocative of death and are grown from rich Duende soil:
I had a son and his name was John.
I had a son.
He disappeared into the vaulted darkness one Friday of All Souls.
Translation by Robert Bly (from The Rag and Bone Shop
of the Heart: Poems for Men, edited by Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael
The less than generous offering of poetry, coupled with the omission of his best work,
makes In Search of Duende a poor introduction to Lorcas poetry. The
essays, however, will certainly interest Lorca lovers, and will provide a good addition to
their library. Though not outstanding, In Search of Duende is a welcome
reminder on the centenary of his birth, and a cause to return to (or to taste for the
first time) the poetry of Lorca.