by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Federico Garcia Lorca’s casidas are free adaptations of the Andalusi-Arabic qasidas, which he had read in Spanish. In Robert Bly’s English rendition of Lorca’s casidas, the flavor of the classical Arabic qasida form has been preserved to a considerable extent, even though it reaches us through various levels of distillation: first, the Andalusi version that Lorca designed his casidas after, then the modern English translation. The question relevant to the purpose of this annotation is: Why did Lorca choose the medieval Hispano-Arabic (Andalusi) form to write his twentieth century poems? The obvious answer lies in Lorca’s letters, drawings, plays and other poems that show how deeply he cherished his identity as an Andalucian, having grown up in Granada— a city still haunted by its near-millennium of Andalusi (or “Muslim-Spanish”) history. But attachment to Andalucia aside, what were the artistic reasons for this choice of the qasida form? Bly, in his commentary on Lorca, states that the defining feature of Lorca’s literary work is his “desire-energy” (or “duende”), which “passes through Lorca’s poems as if the lines were clear arteries created for it.” Lorca’s work was produced at a time, when, according to a contemporary of Lorca’s, Europe was “suffering from a withering of the ability to desire.” A recurrent word in Lorca’s poetry is “quiero” or “I desire.” Did he find, in the qasida form, an adequate vehicle to express desire?
In Bly’s words, Lorca “adopted old Arab forms to help entangle that union of desire and darkness, which the ancient Arabs loved so much.” Bly does not elaborate on this statement. We are left to surmise what the union of darkness and desire might mean in the context of the Arabic qasida, though, in the context of Lorca’s poetry, we can chart a general tendency towards “darkness” in his writings about death and such, as if he were going through a personal “dark” period during the tumultuous times of the Spanish civil war, just before he was killed by an impromptu firing squad of the Nationalists.
The qasida can certainly be seen as a poetic tradition with desire as its central theme. The classical Arabic qasida has fifty to a hundred lines with a fixed rhyming pattern. It is divided into three main thematic components and further divided into smaller units of certain fixed metaphors, which find nuances in the hands of the particular poet using the form. The primary metaphor that constitutes the qasida is that of being lost in the desert in the pursuit of the loved one, whose caravan always eludes the speaker. The journey is an all-important subject of the qasida, and journey stands for desire. The different movements in the poem signify specific places along the journey that co-relate to the poet’s emotional journey: the origins of his desire, nostalgia for past camp-sites, the particularities of the pursuit of the loved one, the larger map of life, the pride he takes in his tribe/caravan, how he relates to the tribe of the loved one, so on. The tone of the poem could be laudatory, melancholy or romantic, even light-hearted and humorous in one of the sub-sections. The imagery often tends to be abstract or symbolic, relying on the traditional, complex network of metaphors. As the ancient form of qasida developed through the centuries and across cultures, poets adapted it to suit concerns relevant to them, as in the case of the Andalusi poets that Lorca emulates.
Considering the elaborate technical structure of the classical qasida, Lorca seems to have borrowed only a few elements, namely, the division into separate “movements,” the use of a refrain and a rhyming pattern. But in Bly’s translation of the “Casida of the Rose,” we can appreciate the expertise with which Lorca captures the mood of the qasida.
In “Casida of the Rose,” Lorca repeats the first and the last line in every stanza (which rhyme in Spanish, with “rosa” and “cosa” appearing at the end of the line) building a haunting refrain, a kind of rhythm that emphasizes the declarative quality of the lines:
The Casida of the Rose
was not searching for the sunrise:
almost eternal on its branch,
it was searching for something else.
was not searching for darkness or science:
Borderline of flesh and dream,
It was searching for some thing else.
was not searching for the rose.
Motionless in the sky
it was searching for something else.
There is a sense of desire inherent in the abstract image of the searching rose, which, in its abstraction as well as in the restless act of searching, reflects the mood typical of the qasida. The sensual “s” sounds in “searching,” “darkness,” “science,” “some thing else,” “motionless” and “sky” in Bly’s English translation reinforce the very active desire in the speaker’s voice. Images such as “borderline of flesh and dream,” “sunrise:/almost eternal on its branch,” due to their subterranean, intimate and active nature, evoke a sense of desire-energy running through the poem. The cryptic phrase “some thing else” also falls into desire’s embrace; as it is repeated, it makes the search, and the desire behind it, ever more pronounced. The three stanzas of the poem are not similar to the typical “movements” of the qasida in terms of the vast shifts that takes place in the qasida, but the single metaphor of the searching rose is presented in a nuanced way in every stanza, which is a “movement” of sorts. While it may be true for other casidas and gacelas (ghazals) that Lorca wrote, the “Casida of the Rose” does not seem “to entangle the union of darkness and desire” as Bly puts it. Rather, Lorca’s rose is “not searching for darkness” but “some thing else.”
The most remarkable feature of Lorca’s “Casida of the Rose” as a qasida, is its strong sense of rhythm. The rhythm produced by the use of the refrains, combined with the various ways in which a single metaphor is treated in different “movements” of the poem, and imagery that suggests a sustained mystique, contribute to making the “Casida of the Rose” a poem that utilizes the elements of the classical qasida as a vehicle of desire.