Sleepwalking Ballad

Federico García Lorca

June 5th was the 120th anniversary of renowned Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca’s birth. Lorca was born in 1898 in Fuente Vaqueros, a few miles outside Granada in the region of Andalusia in southern Spain. From an early age he was fascinated by Spain’s mixed heritage, adapting its ancient folk songs, ballads, lullabies, and flamenco music into poems and plays. He was a charismatic and complicated figure and was often referred to as a “creative force” of almost “cosmic” dimensions. By the age of thirty, he had published five books of poetry, culminating in 1928 with Gypsy Ballads, which brought him widespread fame. In 1929-1930 he traveled to New York City, which inspired new poetic styles and a new focus on social justice. In 1936, at the outset of the Spanish Civil War, he was tragically shot to death by anti-Republican rebels in Franco’s army, and his books were banned and destroyed. Lorca then took on martyr status and his poems became rallying cries for justice and freedom of expression. His voice was lost too soon, but today his poems still hold great power over readers and he has become a global icon. His one of a kind lyricism and unexpected uses of language “lead us urgently and directly to the central mysteries of human existence.”

What follows is one of Lorca’s most celebrated poems from Gypsy Ballads, “Sleepwalking Ballad” (“Romance sonámbulo”). Lorca himself was willfully enigmatic about the poem, calling it “one of the most mysterious in the book.” It is thought by many to express Granada’s longing for the sea and the anguish of a city that cannot hear the waves, but Lorca also referred to it as “a pure poetic event,” inspired by what he saw and heard in Andalusia. Lorca said the poem would “always have changing lights, even for me, the man who communicated it.”

(Condensed and edited from Christopher Maurer’s Introduction to Collected Poems)

“Sleepwalking Ballad” by Federico García Lorca
Translated by Will Kirkland and Christopher Maurer
From The Gypsy Ballads (1924-1927), Collected Poems

Green I want you green.
Green wind, green boughs.
Ship on the sea
and horse on the mountain.
With shadow at her waist
she dreams at her railing,
green flesh, green hair,
and eyes of cold silver.
Green I want you green.
Under the gypsy moon
things are looking at her,
and she cannot return their gaze.

Green I want you green.
Great stars of frost
come with the shadow-fish
that opens the road for dawn.
The fig tree rubs its wind
on the sandpaper of its boughs,
and the hill, a wildcat,
bristles with maguey spears.
But who will come? From where?
She stays at her railing,
green flesh, green hair,
dreaming of the bitter sea.

“Compadre, I want to trade
my horse for your house,
my saddle for your mirror,
my knife for your blanket.
Compadre, I’ve come here bleeding
from the passes of Cabra.”
“If I could, young man,
I’d make that deal with you.
But I am no longer I,
and my house is no longer mine.”
“Compadre, I want to die
decently in bed.
A steel one, if possible,
with real linen sheets.
Don’t you see this wound
from my chest to my throat?”
“Three hundred brown roses
cover your white shirt.
Your blood oozes and smells
around your sash.
But I am no longer I,
and my house is no longer mine.”
“Let me climb, at least,
up to the high railings.
Let me climb! Let me,
up to the green rails!
Big railings of the moon
where the water roars.”

Up the two compadres climb,
up to the high rails,
leaving a trail of blood,
leaving a trail of tears.
Little tin-leaf lanterns
tremble on the roofs.
A thousand crystal tambourines
were wounding the early hours.

Green I want you green,
green wind, green boughs.
Up the two compadres climbed.
The long wind was leaving
a strange taste in their mouth
of basil, gall and mint.
“Compadre, where is she?
Where is your bitter girl?”
“How often she awaited you,
how often did she wait,
fresh face, black hair,
on this rail of green.”

The gypsy girl was rocking
on the rain-well’s face.
Green flesh, green hair
and eyes of cold silver.
An icicle of the moon
holds her over the water.
The night became as intimate
as a village square.
Drunken Civil Guards
were pounding on the door.
Green I want you green.
Green wind. Green boughs.
Ship on the sea
and horse on the mountain.

Christopher Maurer, the editor of García Lorca’s Selected Verse, Poet in New York, and other works, is the author of numerous books and articles on Spanish poetry. He is head of the Department of Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese at the University of Illinois in Chicago.