Miguel Hernández: the power and emotion of Alicante’s Civil War poet

Miguel Hernández was one of the greatest poets of Spain in the twentieth century, yet his work is scarcely known in the English-speaking world. But his verses can break your heart…in both languages.

His was a remarkable story of a childhood spent in poverty,  followed by the flowering of a uniquely creative talent in the years before and during the Spanish Civil War. Then came the tragedy of his imprisonment and death, aged only 31.

Just like his more famous fellow poets, Lorca and Machado,  Miguel Hernández was crushed by the pitiless dictatorship of General Franco. But his legacy remains in his verse, which has an emotional power like few others.

The poet Miguel Hernández, one of Spain’s greatest poets of the 20th century. Picture: Wikimedia via Creative Commons

Miguel was from Orihuela, a short drive from Alicante. His family was poor and his education rudimentary. His father did not approve of Miguel’s bookishness, took him out of school aged 14 and sent him to tend the family’s goats.

His family home, where he lived from the age of four, is now a museum on (appropriately enough) Calle Miguel Hernández, right in the centre of Orihuela old town.

Casa museo Miguel Hernández
Miguel’s home in the centre of Orihuela, now a museum

In the room he shared with his brother Vicente, Miguel wrote secretly at night to avoid his father’s disapproval.

His talent would not be denied however, and in part thanks to his childhood friend Ramón Sijé, who lent him books, writing was to become Miguel’s life. He paid a moving tribute to Ramón with one of his best-known poems, Elegia (Elegy), written after Ramón’s premature death in 1936.

‘Siento mas tu muerte que mi vida’ – I feel your death more than my life.

But for me, the most remarkable memorial to Miguel Hernández is not this humble family home in the centre of Orihuela. Take a drive out to the edge of town, to the unassuming working class suburb of San Isidro, a long way from the conventional tourist trail.

Here you’ll find the Murales (Murals) de San Isidro. They’re really quite something. Across half a dozen narrow hillside streets, on walls, on the sides of houses, on pretty much any available space, are scattered a couple of hundred murals, all inspired by the poetry of Miguel Hernández

Murales de San Isidro
Murales de San Isidro, on the outskirts of Orihuela, a remarkable street-art homage to Miguel Hernández in his home town

Artists started coming here to paint tributes in 1976, the year after the death of his old persecutor, General Franco. They’ve been coming back from time to time ever since, restoring the old murals and painting new ones.

Many quote Miguel’s poetry, alongside images inspired by his work. As a living example of the power of poetry, these murals take some beating.

Why else would artists from all over Spain come to this obscure country town to remember a dead poet, more than seventy years on?

From “El Canción del Antiavionista” – The Song of the Anti-Aircraft Gunner: ‘They come, they come, they come. Slowly, slowly, slowly’
From “El Niño Yuntero” – the Young Ploughboy.
“Made strong by repeated blows
Burnished by the sun”
San Isidro: an ordinary working-class suburb, with murals honouring Miguel Hernández on every wall. Astonishing!

Part of the answer, I think, is in the sheer intensity of the poems he wrote during and after the Civil War.

Miguel’s first poetry had been published in Orihuela, but in 1934, he moved to Madrid,  where he achieved a certain fame as the ‘shepherd poet’ -a rather condescending nickname which he didn’t like much – and rubbed shoulders with literary giants like Pablo Neruda. who was to win the Nobel Prize for Literature nearly 40 years later.

By the time the Civil War broke out in July 1936, Miguel was a rising star in an unparalleled generation of Spanish poets. Like most creative artists of the time, he was a Republican and he threw himself into the struggle against the Fascist uprising of General Franco, enlisting in the Fifth Regiment. He was even sent to Russia during the conflict as a cultural emissary.

Miguel Hernández (centre) with fellow poets Antonio Aparicio (right) and Juan Arroyo, 1937

Some of his war poetry is among his finest work, including El Tren de los Heridos (Train of the Wounded):

El tren lluvioso de la sangre suelta,
el fragil tren de lo que se desangran
el siliencioso, el dolorso, el pálido,
el tren callado de los sufrimentos

The train wet with flowing blood,
the fragile train of those who bleed,
the silent, the painful, the pale,
the train hushed with suffering

In 1937 he married Josefina Manresa, from his home town of Orihuela, and their first son Miguel was born the following year. Tragically, the little boy died aged just ten months, and is forever remembered in Miguel’s poem ‘A mi Hijo.’ (To my son)

Ausente, ausente, ausente como la golondrina,
ave estival que esquiva vivir al pie del hielo

Gone, gone, gone like the swallow,
bird of summer that escapes to live with the frost at its heels

By March 1939, with the Civil War lost, there’s some evidence that Miguel headed for Alicante, the last port left in Republican hands, to try to get a ship into exile (see my post here about the last days of the Republic in Alicante).

He didn’t make it and headed for Portugal instead. He managed to cross the border, but was arrested (this was the Portugal of Salazar, himself a pretty nasty right-wing dictator in his own right) and handed back.

In prison, initially in Madrid, Miguel wrote some of his best-known work. Josefina told him in a letter that she and their second son, Manuel Miguel, had only bread and onion to eat. Miguel wrote Nanas de la Cebolla , (Lullabies of the Onion) in response. It became one of his best-known poems.

En la cuna del hambre
mi niño estaba
Con sangre de cebolla
Se amamantaba

In the cradle of hunger
lay my son
With the blood of the onion
he was suckled

Mural in San Isidro inspired by Nanas de la Cebolla

Astonishingly, Miguel was actually released from prison, thanks to some arm twisting by friends, including Neruda, who was Chilean consul in Madrid. But he made the mistake of returning to his home town of Orihuela, where he was arrested once again. He would never be released.

Condemned initially to death, his sentence was commuted to 30 years. Maybe Franco’s Nationalists, having first shot Lorca and then forced Machado into an early grave, didn’t want to execute another poet.

In prison, he contracted the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him, but still he continued to write. Some of his poems survived on toilet paper, others in letters to his wife, all later collected as Cancionero y romancero de ausencia (Song and Ballad of Absence).

One of the best known is Llegó con Tres Heridas, just three short stanzas, simple and powerful.

Llegó con tres heridas
La del amor
La de la muerte
La de la vida

Con tres heridas viene
La de la vida
La del amor
La de la muerte                                                                                                              

Con tres heridas, yo
La de la vida
La de la muerte
La del amor

He came with three wounds
One of love
One of death
One of life                                                                                                                 

With three wounds he comes,
One of life
One of love
One of death                                                                                                                

With three wounds, I
One of life
One of death
One of love                                                                                          

The poem reached a much wider audience after it, and other works by Miguel Hernández, were set to music by Catalan singer Joan Manuel Serrat.  Quite a brave thing to do, considering Franco was still alive at the time (1972) and the old tyrant was not at all sympathetic to either Catalans or dead Republican poets.

For me though, the best version is by Joan Baez. Listen here. Simple, yet beautiful, just like the original verses – I defy anyone not to be moved by it. The poem is on Miguel’s gravestone.

By now Miguel had been moved to prison in Alicante, not far from Orihuela. But the tuberculosis was by then incurable and he died on March 28, 1942. He was 31 years old. On the wall of the prison hospital, next to his cot, he had written:

Adios hermanos, camaradas, amigos,
Despedidme al sol y los trigos

Goodbye, brothers, comrades, friends,
Say farewell for me to the sun and the wheatfields

The elegant memorial to Miguel Hernández, outside the Palacio de Justicia in Alicante. The building was formerly the prison in which the poet died in 1942.

His body lies in Alicante cemetery, alongside his wife Josefina and second son, surrounded by verses from some of his most famous poems.

The grave of Miguel Hernandez in Alicante cemetery, garlanded with flowers on the anniversary of his death, 2019. A verse from his poem “Llegó con tres heridas” is on the right.

If you’d like to know more about the poetry of Miguel Hernández, even if Spanish is not your first language, I’d suggest a bilingual Spanish-English book of his poems – try ‘I Have Lots of Heart’, translated by Don Share.

For me, reading Miguel’s poems in the language in which they were written brings out the emotion and power of his words in a way that a translation just can’t match. But an English version is very helpful!

© Guy Pelham 2019

If you’d like to know more about the Civil War in Alicante, try these posts:

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