The 19th Century in the 21st: Rosalía de Castro in English

cover of Rosalía de Castro's Galician Songs
to appear in February 2013 from Small Stations Press and the Xunta de Galicia

Rosalía de Castro (1837-1885) attends her ear to the smallest of musics: rhythms of words and how they operate in transporting song and conversation into the page. How line-breaks work. Rhyme. How a copla or popular ditty might function as a break or cut, a secession, as Chus Pato might say. In translating her Cantares Gallegos (1863), her Galician Songs, I follow her with my ear, my eye, opening to the textures and rhythms.

The 1872 edition of Cantares Gallegos [1] is my favourite, with its delicate textures and textility of the page. Often, the verses are separated, allowing them to stand on their own as well as exist inside their poem. In a sense they appear as popular songs were once sung, when each listener was also a singer and could raise a voice to add a stanza to embellish or move forward the stanza of the previous one.

In English, it is with the words ditties (from French, dite, a thing spoken) and doggerel (botched verse) that high literary culture takes its distance from popular verses, chants, ditties, proverbs and sayings. Rosalía de Castro, radical, dares to treat popular tradition as worthy of exploring as contemporary poetry. She doesn’t merely present readers with recuperated songs; she listens acutely and writes her own in a kind of transmission-loop that belies any notion of “original.” In their textures and complexities, their varied ways of revealing their content and object, her poems glint, echo, coil, uncoil, move, refract. She pulls on all the strengths of popular culture to create occasions for the glint of ambivalence that keeps us alive, for double meanings, for social criticism, and to create social space, a commons. We are original, she knows, because we copy, we echo, we repurpose texts and so renew them, originally. As she does so, Rosalía de Castro honours the orality and transmission not of one but of a great number of forms, and she does it—most critically—in the language of her own space/time continuum that was not thought to be truly literary: Galician.

In Malaise dans l’esthétique, Jacques Rancière views the relation between art and politics in a way that helps me understand the common denigration of popular culture, Rosalía’s revolutionary use of it, and how and why her work is useful to us today. “Always,” says Rancière, “the refusal to consider certain categories of people as political beings starts with the refusal to understand the sounds coming from their mouths as discourse.” He continues, more hopefully: “Politics exists when those who “don’t have” time [artisans, workers] take this time required to position themselves as inhabitants of common space and to demonstrate that their mouths indeed emit speech that enunciates the commons and not just singular voices that signal pain. This distribution and redistribution of places and identities, this division and redivision of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of noise and speech constitutes what I call the distribution of the sensible.”

Rosalía enacts a redistribution of space and time. In her poems, Galician villagers perhaps do not yet occupy the Rancièrean space of the commons, but we hear its gentle crescendo, and not just the voice of pain. Though politics had not arrived for ordinary working Galicians in her time, Rosalía’s work acknowledges the agency of their discourse. In this, she’s exemplary not in the Western European literature of her day. Rosalía’s could be considered a feminist move, as well, one that had to await the feminist arguments of twentieth-century literature to assume its place.

It is the voice of a Galician Spring, murmured: an Occupy Galicia. Even in the poems identified by critics as autobiographical, the lyric “I” is not just Rosalía’s “I,” but an “I” played in an open key. It is a folding, in which Rosalía iterates her own immersion among the Galician speakers of whom she sings. The poems can’t simply be defined as rural songs, explorations of identity and home, works on the economic and social condition of women, and of men. The poems are complex rhythmic and sound gestures, movements which, in their material condition as language, speak to us even when translated, as users of our own language, English, today.

I've learned so much from translating it! And am honoured by what this small book has given me.

[1] In the public domain, free as a pdf at