Photo: Statue of Antonio Machado in Soria, Spain
The poet Antonio Machado was born in Seville in the south of Spain.
‘My childhood is a memory of a courtyard in Seville
And a sunlit garden where the lemon tree grows.’
In his early 30s Machado went to teach French in Soria, a city in the north of Spain, halfway between Madrid and the Pyrenees. It is a lonely place, famous for long cold winters and short blazing summers. The people of Soria say they have ‘Nueve meses de invierno y tres meses de infierno’ (‘Nine months of winter and three months of hell’, a translation which gives the right idea though in English the Spanish rhyme is lost.) In Soria Machado met Leonor, who was just 16 when they married in 1909, but she died three years later. If you go up to the church of Nuestra Señora del Espino in Soria, you can see where she is buried. You can also see an old elm tree by the wall of the churchyard. Read Machado’s poem ‘A un olmo seco’, ‘To a Dried Elm Tree’. The poet and the elm tree are lifeless, but the tree has one small green branch which may still live. And the poet?
There is a hotel, the ‘Antonio Machado’, on the hill overlooking the River Duero. Walk from the old bridge along the river to San Saturio, a hermitage built in the rock above the river. Machado and Leonor walked there many times, though the initials of other lovers are carved in the bark of the trees today. There is another hotel, the ‘Leonor’, on a hill near the Virgen del Miron. The two hotels, the ‘Antonio’ and the ‘Leonor’ look at each other across the valley.
Machado left Soria after Leonor’s death and never returned. He escaped from Spain in the Civil War and is buried in Collioure, a small town just over the border in France. There are always flowers on his grave. Go and see.
When hounded out of grey Castille,
With Franco’s soldiers at his heel,
He and his mother and a case of poems
Came to rest in French Collioure,
Where he died.
Hence the flowers.
For there they say that every day
Fresh flowers lie on the stony grave.
The whole year round, the flowers bloom.
Who goes there so often to take him roses?
Family from Seville?
Or young students from Soria?
Or just lovers of poetry passing by?
Or some old French woman now frail and slow
Who remembers him from years ago?
Today a poet breaks no news.
And who takes notice nowadays
Of any poet’s views?
A poem matters little
As this world goes,
But what banker or lawyer is given a rose?
On my friends’ shoulders many honours fall,
But a poet has fresh flowers,