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Luis Cernuda (1902–1963)

Luis Cernuda (1902–1963), a Spanish poet, did not live in Headington for very long, but while he was here wrote two poems about the area. His general biography can be found in Wikipedia.

Bill Clennell writes specifically below about Cernuda’s time in Headington and one of his poems. More information about his other Headington poem Vereda del Cuco, inspired by Cuckoo Lane, can be found here (in Spanish).

A poem about St Andrew’s churchyard

During the summer vacation of 1941, the poet Luis Cernuda (1902–1963), one of the most important Spanish writers of the twentieth century, was resident in Old Headington, renting rooms from Mrs Mattock at 1 St Andrew’s Lane (then Church Lane). At the time he was teaching in Glasgow, which he experienced as grim exile, and was found this summer place through his friendship with the family of Don Salvador de Madariaga, then living at 3 St Andrew’s Road.

His stay resulted in two poems of local interest, one about Cuckoo Lane, Vereda del Cuco, the other, Otro Cementerio, about St Andrew’s churchyard. It is the last of a group of four poems he wrote on the subject, beginning in 1935 with a translation from Hölderlin. As a scholar of English literature, he would have known works of Wordsworth on the subject, and no doubt Gray’s Elegy also.

Graves at St Andrew's churchyard

At first Cernuda reacted with horror at the prospect of literally overlooking a graveyard (above) from his window, and exclaimed to that effect when first shown the room in company with Emilia Rauman, Don Salvador’s second wife. “Mimi, you surely wouldn’t expect me to come and live here, only to see every day and feel every night this cemetery at my feet.” This is perhaps understandable in view of the fact that a preceding poem in the group expresses a sense of alienation and despair brought on by the prospect of a municipal cemetery in Glasgow. However, in the tranquil setting of Old Headington he seems to have become reconciled to the idea, and the tone of Otro Cementerio is very different. This is a place of everyday life as well as of death, a reconciliation of the two communities, a place where children may play, instead of being excluded as they were in his Glasgow poem.

It is reproduced below in the original, with a translation, for which I am extremely grateful, by Professor Peter Dunn. I am also greatly indebted to Mr John Wainwright, of the Taylor Institution Library, who first drew my attention to the poem and the circumstances of its composition.

Bill Clennell

Otro Cementerio

Tras de la iglesia, en este campo santo
Que jard ín es y es camino,
A cuyas losas grises
Arboles velan y circunda hierba,
El sol de mediod ía, entre dos nubes,
Desciende para al hombre vivo o muerto.

Remanso te aparece verde y sosegado,
No lugar que se evita, mas retiro
Donde acudan los vivos a sentarse,
Igual que tú, como descanso en las tareas;
Donde jueguen los ni ños, con costumbre
Del paraje final en nuestra muerte.

La prueba de una tierra
Y la prueba de un hombre
Quieres buscarla, no en las grandes
Acciones, gestos desmesurados,
Sino en ésas humildes
En ésos recogidos

Toda una historia, un alma se te muestran
Ah í, y las piensas hermosas,
Hechas de recatada confianza en lo sabido,
De respeto sin miedo en lo ignorado,
Viendo tratar as í los pobres muertos
Que recuerdo impotente son tan sólo.

Another Cemetery

Behind the church, in this hallowed ground
that is both a garden and a path,
whose grey stones are watched over
by trees and bounded by grass,
between two clouds the midday sun
descends for both the living and the dead.

It reveals itself as a haven, green and restful,
not a place to avoid, but a retreat
where the living, just like you, may come to sit,
a place to rest from toil,
where children habitually play,
at death’s final destination.

The proof of a place
And the proof of a man
you must seek not in great deeds
or grandiose testures,
but in acts that are humble,
in gestures that are modest.

Here an entire history and a soul are disclosed,
and you believe them lovely,
made of unassuming trust in the known,
of unfearing respect for the unknown,
seeing how the poor dead are thus treated,
nothing more than a feeble memory.

St Andrew's Lane1 St Andrew's Lane, the house in Headington where Cernuda stayed

© Stephanie Jenkins

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