We like the translation we've used by William Logan. Really, we do. But, frankly, like a lot of translations, it pales in comparison to the original, especially in terms of the poem's sound. Sorry, Willy, but it's true.
Just compare, "Green, how I want you green" to "Verde que te quiero verde" (1). There's just a much more pleasing sound in the Spanish version. The repeated v's roll smoothly through the line, and the "que te" ("kay-tay") quick rhyme is followed right up with another q sound ("KEE-air-oh"). Lorca really paid attention to the way his lines sounded to the ear, and the English translation just can't do this justice.
To his credit, Logan does try to capture the some of Lorca's alliteration, as with "the forest, cunning cat, / bristles its brittle fibers" (19-20). Here, Logan is able to capture a sense of the repeated beginning sounds, as well as the internal consonance (the consonant sounds of the s's, b's, l's, and the t's in "forest," "bristles," "brittle," and "fibers"). We see this same kind of sound-play in the original lines: "gato garduño, / eriza sus pitas agrias." In the Spanish version, though, there are more repeated vowel sounds here, or assonance, as in line 20: "air-EE-za soo PEE-ahs a-GREE-ahs." All in all, Logan gives a good effort, but English just can't duplicate the intricacies of the original Spanish version.
To be fair to Logan, though, every poem in translation is going to fall short of the original in some way. Language is so subtle and rich that even the best translators can usually only come close to the complexities of the original, rarely duplicating them. Much like the speaker, climbing to his gypsy love, Logan (like all translators) is on a journey that's destined not to be fulfilled.
The title? It's "Romance Sonambulo." 'Nuf said, right? Ah, we can see by the looks on your faces, Shmoopers, that perhaps that's not enough at all.
Never fear. Shmoop's got your back. First of all, the title is in Spanish, so that's something to keep in mind. The English translation of the title typically is "Somnambulist Ballad," which is, we're guessing, not exactly all that much clearer. So, let's start with the "Romance," or "Ballad" part first. That's pretty clear. This poem is a ballad, and so the title lets us know that. Thanks, Lorca. Very helpful of you. (For more on what's involved in a ballad, check out "Form and Meter," then click back here.)
Now for the tricky part. "Sonambulo," or the English translation, "Somnambulist," refers to someone who sleepwalks. Now, go write that word down, Shmoopers, and use it tomorrow in casual conversation to blow your friends and neighbors away with your wild vocab skills. So, more directly, we might call this poem "The Ballad of the Sleepwalker." Is it getting clearer?
Certainly, after you read all the dreamy images here, you'll see what Lorca is getting at. This is actually a very old form of poetry (a ballad) that's told through a very cutting edge (at the time) approach to art, namely surrealism. Surrealists drew on the imagery and disconnection of dreams as an innovative way to express themselves (check out "Calling Card" for more on Lorca's surrealism). So, the title just lets us know that we're in for: a dream-like trip, taken in an old-timey vehicle.
This poem takes place in a variety of settings: on the sea, on a mountain, on the moon, under a balcony, and on an interstellar climbing expedition. If that sounds confusing, that's because, well, it is—a bit. Still, what do all of these places have in common? Well, one way to think about this poem's setting is that it takes place entirely in the imagination of the speaker himself. In other words, he imagines the "ship out on the sea," "the horse on the mountain," and the green gypsy girl "still on her balcony." More importantly, the speaker imagines them for us, the audience, for a particular reason.
Why do we get these often abstract and inconsistent places? Because each place that the speaker identifies for us packs a particular emotional punch. When we think of the ship, or the horse, we feel sorry for them; they seem lonely and isolated. Of course, so is our speaker. When we're told about the balcony, the important part is not the balcony itself, but the distance at which this balcony is from the speaker. Again, the place takes a backseat to the idea being communicated by the place.
Still not convinced? Well, what about that forest that "bristles its brittle fibers" like a "cunning cat"? Is the speaker literally in a forest that reminds him of a scared or angry cat? Maybe. But we think that the scared, angry part is what counts. The setting carries a particular emotional tone that changes as the speaker's experience changes.
Consider that last climb up "to the high balconies." Sure, you can think that these friends are literally leaving a trail of blood and tears as they pass bells on the rooftops. Or, you can think about how the struggle to reach any goal, to climb to any height, is something that is both costly (in tears and blood), while also beautiful (hence the bells). So, the setting is not entirely a solid place, but it's not meant to be. This poem takes place, not in any actual, physical place, but in the speaker's emotional imagination.
Really, we can sum up our speaker in one word: frustrated. He wants something he just can't have. (Again, it's important to note that the poem only ever identifies our speaker as an "I," so we're just using "he" since Lorca, a man, is our poet.) So, what's he after? Well, let's take a look at his list, shall we?
That's quite a list. And how many things has the speaker crossed off it once we reach the end of the poem? Let's see here… carry the one… take away seven… Oh, right. Zip. Zero. Zilch. The speaker never really gets anything he wants in this poem. Towards the end of the last section, he almost, almost makes it to the girl's balcony. We sense his closeness when he says, "The night became intimate / like a little plaza" (79-80), but then bam! Drunken cops are at the door, and the speaker's back in harsh, cold, lonely reality.
Still, this is a question to consider: is the speaker unhappy? Clearly, his role in this poem is as the Frustrated Desirer. He wants stuff, but he can't get it. Between the wanting and the getting, though, there is the pursuit. You know those cheesy posters with pictures of mountains or waterfalls on them that say, "Life is a journey, not a destination"? Well, maybe this poem is a very sophisticated way of saying something similar.
Consider, for example, the speaker's experience once he starts to climb up toward the high balconies: "The stiff wind left / in their mouths, a strange taste / of bile, of mint, of basil" (64-66). Parts of that taste (bile) are unpleasant, but other parts (the mint, heck, even the basil) are not. Isn't that life, though? As the speaker climbs toward the object of his desire, he experiences a full spectrum of sensation. We might say that, in this moment of pursuit, regardless of whether he achieves his goal, he is most fully alive.
Really, there are two ways to see our speaker, and it all boils down to a glass half-empty/half-full approach. On the one hand, he's a tragic figure whose dreams are tantalizingly close, yet cruelly thwarted at the last minute. Life sucks and then the Guardia Civil shows up drunk at your door. Or, there's the glass half-full view: the speaker is called to his life in the fullest possible sense by pursuing his desire. In that way, he has already gotten everything he will ever need. So, which way do you see it?
While the language (of this translation) is pretty straightforward, "Romance Sonambulo" can be almost deceptively simple. One minute it looks like smooth sailing, and the next you find yourself hiking up a steep ravine. That's because Lorca uses a lot of discrete, disconnected images that don't necessarily make literal sense. That's part of the fun, though. For example, what would it feel like to swing from a moon icicle? Trying to track with the wildly imaginative leaps in this poem might be closest thing to that.
"Romance Sonambulo" is a quintessentially Lorca poem. It has all of the things his writing was known for. Let's break out the old checklist:
Lorca celebrated many aspects of his country in his work, and not the least of these is Spain's long-standing literary tradition. "Romance Sonambulo," then, uses a very, very old form of poem called the "romance" in Spanish (row-MAN-say), or "ballad" in English. This form stretched back to the Middle Ages in Spain, and was very regular both in terms of form and meter. See, it was passed down largely orally, as very few people could read back then. So it was easier to remember things if they were put to a regular rhyme and rhythm.
The conventional Spanish romance consists of eight-syllable lines, with every other line having an assonant, or vowel, rhyme. In this way, the rhymes of a romance are more casual than exact.
Check it out: in the Spanish version of the poem, Lorca writes "Verdes ramas" (VER-dehs RAH-mahs) and then the next rhyming line ends with "en la montaña" (mon-TAH-nyah). So, just reading that out loud will tell you that the "ah" vowel sound is the same, but the rhyme is not exact, the way "damas" (DAH-mahs) would rhyme with "ramas" for example.
Lorca's choice of form was no accident. He wanted to celebrate a form of poetry that was uniquely Spanish, all tied up with the country's history. At the same time, though, he wanted to put his own stamp on the form. By using dream-like imagery to talk about a gypsy girl, Lorca was really breaking with the historical conventions of the form. Most romances tended to deal with national, historical events, not marginalized people like gypsies, and certainly not in the surrealist way that Lorca does in this poem. "Romance Sonambulo" turns the Spanish romance on its head, honoring the past, ushering in the future.
Adding another layer to all of this, of course, is the fact that we're reading this poem in translation. For more on that, and how the translator's choices can affect the form, rhythm, and sound of the poem, go check out "Sound Check."
Despite what Kermit had to say about it, the speaker of "Romance Sonambulo" is a big fan of green. He sees it everywhere, and always seems to be longing for it. The speaker is so intent on this color, in fact, that it becomes a powerful symbol of desire itself. Everything that's green in this poem is an object of the speaker's attraction, which also means that the speaker won't be attaining it any time soon. Green is both a sign of the speaker's longing, as well as a sign that this longing will not be fulfilled.
Ah yes, the girl. Isn't it always about a girl? In this case, she's more of a green gypsy girl, but she still becomes a powerful symbol in "Romance Sonambulo." She functions in much the same way as the color green does, although she embodies the concept of desire in a much more specific way. Like many women in poetry, she's the symbol of conventional romantic love, but she's more than that, too. She's green. She's She-Hulk! No, wait. She's just a green girl who is colored by the speaker's desire. She's the object of his affection and seems to have an unshakable effect on him, and the poem generally.
Like the color green, and the girl, the balcony is used as a symbol of desire in "Romance Sonambulo." We're reminded of that scene in Romeo and Juliet when Juliet comes to the balcony and Romeo shouts up to her. It's a famous scene, and the way it relates here is that, in both cases, the balcony separates the lovers. It prevents fulfillment by keeping them apart. Stupid balcony, always getting in the way of love and desire and such.
The gypsy element is a super-big deal to Lorca's writing in general, and to "Romance Sonambulo" specifically. "Gypsy" is a term that gets thrown around a lot to describe people from Eastern Europe, Spain, and even Ireland. For our purposes here, it's important to know that Lorca was thinking of the local population of gypsies who lived near his home in southern Spain. They fostered the flamenco culture and, to Lorca, were an inspiring group that embraced life with passionate abandon. He wanted to celebrate them, and their philosophy, in his poems.
We like the moon. Really. It's pretty, it lights up the dark night, it looks peaceful, and it provides inspiration. It also has an undeniable effect on us. Just look up the relationship between a full moon and crime statistics. We mean, the moon really puts the "luna" in lunatic. In "Romance Sonambulo," the moon affects the speaker powerfully, but is also a symbol of distance, presiding from high above over the speaker's frustrated attempts to fulfill his desire. The moon, for all its beauty, is out of reach, reminding the speaker how far he truly is from attaining his wishes.
For a poem that's all about frustrated desire, there's very little sexiness going on here. Of course, that's where the frustration part comes in. Still, the speaker's motivations are not overtly physical in nature. Nope, this green gypsy girl of his dreamscape is more of an abstract object of desire.