A Poem for Our Time by the Great Spanish Poet Antonio Machado – Walker, There Is No Road, The Road is Made by Walking

Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

from Proverbs and Songs


Walker, your footsteps
are the road, and nothing more.
Walker, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
Walking you make the road,
and turning to look behind
you see the path you never
again will step upon.
Walker, there is no road,
only foam trails on the sea.

Antonio Machado, trans. Willis Barnstone from Antonio Machado, Border of a Dream: Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2004

This celebrated poem by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875- 1939) first came to my attention through American poet Robert Bly in his seminal anthology, The Soul Is Here For Its Own Joy. Then it got a lot more personal when my beloved partner and wife Somae quoted it to me in day three of us getting together. I was getting all focused on the future and she gently reminded me, through this poem,  one day at time, Richard. One day at a time! Now I look back on more than four thousand three hundred and eighty of them!

And how relevant is this poem today. Its emphasis on one step at a time. Each step based on today. Only looking back will we know the path! It reminds me of the great line by David Whyte: what we can plan is too small for us to live.

And this huge little poem rings so true especially now during the pandemic when worry about the future looks like is running amok like a virus. What businesses will never reopen. The long term impact on investment portfolios, pensions, our standard of living. Instead this huge little poem says one step today, Another tomorrow. And trust that the step tomorrow may not be part of anything you planned.

And those last two lines: how they haunt me:

Walker (Caminante) there is no road
only foam trails on the sea.

We know how foam trails disappear. How they can hold nothing! I like the image I have of someone coming up behind me with a flagstone to jam under my foot as I take the next step! And then another. Making the path by walking! But this image doesn’t quite jibe with Machado is some other small poems in Proverb and Songs, especially this one, #44,  translated by Bly:

All things die and all things live forever,
but our task is to die,
to die making roads,
roads over the sea.

This idea of our impermanence. That we can keep nothing. That even if we look back to see where we have come from we can’t go back especially if the path is a foam trail on the sea. Be in the moment, be in the moment!

My reason for featuring Machado’s poem # 29 comes from a poem a good friend sent me yesterday that he thought was by Machado. And the poem comes from an article someone posted in early 2018. I was shocked because I had not seen the poem before. It included # 29 but had many more stanzas.

Seeing the poem my friend sent which clearly had lines I recognized I thought I had missed something so I scoured my books of Machado’s poems and could not find the poem. Then thanks to a newsletter published in 2012 by Marcello D’Agostino I discovered that my friend’s poem was the lyrics to a song Wayfarers, released in 1969 by Jean Manuel Serrat. Serrat deicated the song and his album to  Machado and the song includes three of Machado’s poems from Proverbs and Songs and another three or so stanzas written by the singer which refer to Machado and the sad fact he died in exile in France a few days after fleeing his beloved Spain in 1939,

Here’s Serrat’s lyrics as translated by Nadine JL in the 2018 article. You can see Machado’s poem #1 from Proverbs and Songs in stanzas two and three and poem #44 in stanza one. The other stanzas which include lines from Machado are by Serrat. It’s a lovely set of lyrics but it is not Machado’s poem!

Wanderer, the way is made by walking

Everything passes and all remains,
But our task is to pass,
pass by making paths,
paths on the sea.

I never pursued glory,
nor sought to leave in the memories
of men my song;
I love the subtle worlds,
weightless and gentle,
like bubbles; funerals floating along.

I like to see them painted,
with sun and cochineal, fly
under the blue sky, tremble
suddenly and break…

I never pursued glory.

Wayfarer, your footsteps are the way and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no way;
the way is made by walking.
While walking, the way is made;

and while turning back to see the view behind,
the footpath is seen, that needs never
be tread again.

Wanderer, there is no way
but stelae on the sea…

Some time ago in that place
where today the forests are dressed with thorns
there was the voice of a poet shouting
“Wanderer, there is no way,
the way is made by walking…”

Blow by blow, verse by verse…

The poet died far from home.
Was covered with the dust of a neighbouring country.
When receding, they saw him mourn.
“Wanderer, there is no way,
the way is made by walking…”

Blow by blow, verse by verse…

When the goldfinch can not sing.
When the poet is a pilgrim,
when praying is of no use to us.
“Wanderer, there is no way,
the way is made by walking…”

Blow by blow, verse by verse…

I must say that I do like serrat’s last stanza which incorporates Machado. It feels to be like a wonderful call out for today. For these pandemic times:

When the goldfinch can not sing.
When the poet is a pilgrim,
when praying is of no use to us.
“Wanderer, there is no way,
the way is made by walking…”

I know there are people out there wondering if in some way the goldfinch of our lives has stopped singing; if prayer has become useless as more and more die. And I love Serrat’s answer of how when we feel this way we must remember Machado:

“Wanderer, there is no way,
the way is made by walking…”

My prayer for all of us in this time as we make our path through the unknowns of the pandemic one footstep at a time. And in a sense that we trust where are feet take us. It might be a lot more interesting and growth ful than if we had choosen our own way!

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