An Alphabet of Poets – U is for Unamuno

Throw Yourself Like Seed

Shake off this sadness, and recover your spirit;
sluggish you will never see the wheel of fate
that brushes your heel as it turns going by,
the man who wants to live is the man in whom life is

Now you are only giving food to that final pain
which is slowly winding you in the nets of death,
but to live is to work, and the only thing which lasts
is the work; start then, turn to the work.

Throw yourself like seed as you walk, and into your own field,
don’t turn your face for that would be to turn it to death,
and do not let the past weigh down your motion.

Leave what’s alive in the furrow, what’s dead in yourself,
for life does not move in the same way as a group of clouds;
from your work you will be able one day to gather yourself.

Miguel De Unamuno (1864-1936) translated by Robert Bly from The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, edited by Robert Bly, James Hillman, Michael Meade, HarperCollins Publishers, 1992

This was a man! Born in Balboa,Spain, De Unamuno was man at odds with rigid orthodoxies, especially political ones, for most of his life. He threw himself like seed into his life, his work: his poems, his essays, his plays, his philosophy and his university teaching. And he managed somehow, in between, to master fourteen languages. But above all it appears from my brief research that he was a man of uncommon greatness. One of life’s giants. It’s a shame we seem to hear so little of him on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Please try and read, at the end of this blog, the excerpt from a political speech, one that might have led to his death weeks later. It is astonishing. Utterly important and memorable!

De Unamuno is not nearly as well known today in North Americaas his Spanish poetic contemporaries or near contemporaries, Jimenez, Machado, Lorca,  and Mistral but his well-known and much-loved poem, Throw Yourself Like Seed, has been enough to ensure his literary immortality here. Thank god! This one seed, its exquisite harvest, brings him back to life. And what a large, larger-than-life life!

A man haunted by death, he saw life as the only answer, not a half-life but a full life, fully engaged with one’s life’s work. That work he saw as our only immortality. …the only thing that lasts is the work.

This poem, Throw Yourself Like Seed so challenges its readers to examine their life, their purpose, their work. But first, I think it was a goad for him to shake off his own sadness, his haunting sadness caused by reason’s inability to get to the source of life’s mysteries, especially death. Here is another poem I found on the AmericanAcademy ofPoets website: it evokes that sadness, a sadness wrapped in falling snow, its own kind of death:

The Snowfall Is So Silent

The snowfall is so silent,
so slow,
bit by bit, with delicacy
it settles down on the earth
and covers over the fields.
The silent snow comes down
white and weightless;
snowfall makes no noise,
falls as forgetting falls,
flake after flake.
It covers the fields gently
while frost attacks them
with its sudden flashes of white;
covers everything with its pure
and silent covering;
not one thing on the ground
anywhere escapes it.
And wherever it falls it stays,
content and gay,
for snow does not slip off
as rain does,
but it stays and sinks in.
The flakes are skyflowers,
pale lilies from the clouds,
that wither on earth.
They come down blossoming
but then so quickly
they are gone;
they bloom only on the peak,
above the mountains,
and make the earth feel heavier
when they die inside.
Snow, delicate snow,
that falls with such lightness
on the head,
on the feelings,
come and cover over the sadness
that lies always in my reason.

from Roots and Wings, translated by Robert Bly and edited by Hardie St.  Martin, HarperCollins Publishers, 1976

De Unamuno was a man of towering moral authority and a predecessor in his philosophy to the existentialists. It also appears that through his essays and other writings he became the moral conscience of Spain regardless of who was in power.

And in a delicious irony, this man so haunted by death and the void of non-being was never afraid to risk his life for what he believed. He was exiled in 1924 to the Canary Islands in 1924 by the military dictator of Spainat the time and then fled to Pariswhere his international reputation became established. When the Spanish King came to power in 1930, he returned, only to eventually publically oppose General Franco in dramatic fashion in 1936. He narrowly avoided execution, was stripped of his rectorship of the University of Salamanca (a post he had held intermittently from 1891 depending on his political fortunes) was placed under house arrest and died ten weeks later.

Imagine this.Spain is in political turmoil, in the early days of the civil war. Unamuno is presiding at a major public event being held at his University in fascist-controlled Salamanca. The crowd, full of fascist sympathizers, including Franco’s wife, is chanting the unofficial slogan “Viva La Muerte” (Long Live Death) of the Spanish Foreign Legion with the vocal encouragement of the Legion’s founder, the notorious and brutal General, Milan-Astray, who lost his left arm and right eye to military action in Morocco. De Unamuno, in an act of singular courage interrupts the chaos with this astonishing speech:

You are waiting for my words. You know me well, and know I cannot remain silent for long. Sometimes, to remain silent is to lie, since silence can be interpreted as assent….. But now I have heard this insensible and necrophilous oath, “Viva la Muerte!”, and I, having spent my life writing paradoxes that have provoked the ire of those who do not understand what I have written, and being an expert in this matter, find this ridiculous paradox repellent. General Millán-Astray is an invalid. There is no need for us to say this with whispered tones. He is an invalid of war. So was Cervantes. But unfortunately, Spain today has too many invalids. And, if God does not help us, soon it will have very many more. It torments me to think that General Millán-Astray could dictate the norms of the psychology of the masses. An invalid, who lacks the spiritual greatness of Cervantes, hopes to find relief by adding to the number of invalids around him.”

After an interruption by Milan-Astray, De Unamuno concluded:

This is the temple of intelligence, and I am its high priest. You are profaning its sacred domain. You will win [venceréis], because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince [pero no convenceréis]. In order to convince it is necessary to persuade, and to persuade you will need something that you lack: reason and right in the struggle. I see it is useless to ask you to think of Spain. I have spoken.

This was a man! A man who whose words are timeless as the words of the best writers and speakers always are. What a simple condemnation composed on the spot: An invalid, who lacks the spiritual greatness of Cervantes, hopes to find relief by adding to the number of invalids around him. Ironically Unamuno left that assembly on the arm of Franco’s wife. Franco wanted him dead but international outcry prevented that. He died of a stroke some ten weeks later.

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