A un olmo seco
Al olmo viejo, hendido por el rayo
y en su mitad podrido,
con las lluvias de abril y el sol de mayo
algunas hojas verdes le han salido.
¡El olmo centenario en la colina
que lame el Duero! Un musgo amarillento
le mancha la corteza blanquecina
al tronco carcomido y polvoriento.
No será, cual los álamos cantores
que guardan el camino y la ribera,
habitado de pardos ruiseñores.
Ejército de hormigas en hilera
va trepando por él, y en sus entrañas
urden sus telas grises las arañas.
Antes que te derribe (1) , olmo del Duero,
con su hacha el leñador, y el carpintero
te convierta en melena de campana,
lanza de carro o yugo de carreta(2);
antes que rojo en el hogar, mañana,
ardas (1) en alguna mísera caseta,
al borde de un camino;
antes que te descuaje (3) un torbellino
y tronche (4) el soplo de las sierras blancas;
antes que el río hasta la mar te empuje (5)
por valles y barrancas,
olmo(6), quiero anotar en mi cartera
la gracia de tu rama verdecida.
Mi corazón espera
también, hacia la luz y hacia la vida,
otro milagro (7) de la primavera.
"Campos de Castilla" 1912
Antonio Machado is the poet of the Spanish literary movement known as Generación 98. He’s not the only poet of his generation but he is the most significant.
This poem must be framed in its historical context to be able to fully understand it. In May 1912, Antonio and his young wife Leonor leave Paris and go to Soria, Spain, where the pure air may serve as a fundamental antidote for the hemoptysis she is suffering.
One day an elm tree affected by Dutch elm disease caught the poet’s attention and inspired him to create this beautiful poem, a metaphor for the painful situation of his beloved wife Leonor.
Let’s take a look at this poem stanza by stanza.
It starts off with four verses in which Machado describes what can be seen observing the old tree:
The tree, broken by lightning and left nearly for dead, has new green leaves. It’s covered in moss, like an old man’s beard, and it looks almost like a dead tree that wouldn’t even serve to hold a bird’s nest. Only ants and spiders use it as a home.
The final stanza of the poem, the longest, is a song of hope just before the inevitable death of the elm. The poet repeats the structure antes de que + subjunctive as a likely prediction or a hypothetic future (the preposition DE is eliminated to adjust it to the meter of the poem, in other words Machado is taking certain poetic license here). In the first 11 versus of this final stanza, all the verbs appear in the subjunctive, highlighting their hypothetic nature: there are several possibilities as to the future of the dead tree: it could be used for firewood (1), as wood that a carpenter could use to make everyday objects (2), or it could simply be the victim of elements that pull it out of the ground (3) or break it (4) and end up dragging it to the sea (5).
The last five verses start with a vocative (6) which the poet directs to the tree, taking a joyful and surprisingly lively tone which expresses the energy of this little green branch that resists death, just as the poet hopes that his wife will get over her illness. This we can clearly see in the last three verses, in which his most intimate desire is expressed: that just like the elm resists death, his beloved wife will get well with Soria’s spring weather. That’s why he talks about another miracle (7).
Sadly, Leonor died on August 12, 1912, although before she passed away she was able to hold in her hands the first edition of Campos de Castilla, the book that includes this gorgeous poem, which appeared in April of the same year.