Federico García Lorca dedicated a series of poem called “Seis Caprichos (Six Caprices)”, suggesting the six strings of the guitar, to his guitarist friend Regino Sáinz de la Maza.
I’d like to present the first poem of the series, “Adivinanza de la guitarra (Riddle of the guitar)”. It is well known that “El Polifemo de Oro (Polyphemus of gold)”, a fantastic work of a British composer Reginald Smith Brindle was inspired by this poem.
Riddle of the guitar
At the round
Three of flesh,
three of silver.
The dreams of yesterday search for them,
but they are held embraced
by a Polyphemus of gold.
Lorca sought the inspiration from a classical mythology, which is one of the most popular themes for many poets, from Ovid (43 BC) to Luís de Góngora, to depict the essence of the guitar.
We can observe the “duality” contrasting: the apparent simplicity with the meticulous refinement through the metaphors, the visual allusion with inward meaning of the guitar, the apparent innocence of a riddle with the anxiety and strong emotions of the expression. This aesthetic is probably an influence of ”Tenebrism”, a pictorial tendency in the Baroque period, epitomised by Caravaggio, of strong contrasts of light and dark. The darkness usually dominates the lightness.
As the title suggests, this poem has the form of a riddle. The fabulous contradiction of the ’round’ and the ‘crossroads’ indicates the place where the ‘sound hole’ and the ‘strings’ of the guitar meet each other, meaning, the area where the fingers usually strum or pluck the strings. The vibration of the six strings evokes the scene where ‘six maidens dance’. They are ‘three of flesh’, three treble strings made of gut and ‘three of silver’, three bass strings of silver.
Polyphemus is one of the Cyclopes (the gigantic one-eyed son of Poseidon and Thoosa) in Greek mythology. Lorca compares one-eyed Polyphemus with the guitar’s sound hole. Polyphemus holds the maidens as well as the body of the guitar supports the strings. The colour of Polyphemus is gold because the colour of the (flamenco) guitar is yellowish, and gold is a variant of yellow.
Lorca used the Polyphemus to describe the shape of the guitar in a visual sense; however, to explore the emotional side of this poem, we may need to have a quick look at a summary of Góngora’s version of this mythology, from his “Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea (The Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea)”.
The Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea
- Polyphemus: an ugly and brutal Cyclops, son of Poseidon (Deity of ses) who lives in a cave
- Galatea: a beauty nymph, daoughter of Doris (Oceanid, Deity of sea) who lives in a mountain of Sicilia
- Acis: a young Sicilian shepherd, good looking and admired
Polyphemus is profoundly in love with Galatea. His deep love made him to try to abandon his brutal nature of eating human flesh. He climbs up a rock and sings dramatic and delicate songs, with his horrible voice, expressing his passionate and true love for the nymph. Despite his virtue of being a hardworking shepherd who understands art and speaks in a delicate manner, Galatea has no interest in him because he is just ugly.
However, Galatea and Acis fall in love with each other at first sight. Acis because of her beauty, and Galatea because of his elegance and gallant behaviour that she has never received from anybody on the island (she used to be harassed).
Polyphemus finds out, by accident, that Galatea and Acis are lovers. In a fit of jealousy and rage, Polyphemus throws a huge rock towards Acis who is trying to escape, and kills him.
Galatea, desperate, ’with tears’ makes a plea for help to the deities of the sea. Unfortunately, the only thing they could do for her was to convert the blood of Acis into pure water. Thus, the river Acis was born in Sicilia. The water of the river (Acis) reaches the sea, and Doris (the mother of Galatea and deity of the sea) treats him as son-in-law (denying the cruel reality that the lover of her daughter is dead) with a devotional weeping.
We can observe a wide variety of strong emotions, of love, frustration, and loneliness of each character.
The loneliness of Polyphemus who lives in a cave, suffering from the conflict between his nature as beast and his Platonic love with Galatesa. And Galatea, being a daughter of the sea God who lives on land where she is often harassed and, therefore, incapable of loving anybody. Once in a lifetime, she finds somebody who does know how to treat her with such kindness, whom she can love, but she loses him forever.
The Polyphemus is usually represented as an evil, hairy, ridiculous, and ugly one-eyed giant. Incredibly, the baroque poet Góngora portrays him as an ill-fated character by humanising him with a slight sense of Romanticism.
I can’t stop thinking of the possibility that Lorca might have identified himself as the Polyphemus, in the sense of love, frustration, and loneliness.
And probably, Lorca might have looked inside the sound hole of the guitar: the deep and dark cave where profound emotions of human being reside. The guitar is the most ideal and capable instrument that makes those emotions visible!
Reginald Smith Brindle: El Polifemo de Oro
Quattro frammenti per chitarra (1949)
1. Ben adagio
4. Ritmico e vivo
This work was composed mainly using the twelve-note composition. It is possible that each of four fragments corresponds to a part of the poem.
Image: Polifemo and Galatea, Annibale Carracci (Palazzo Farnese, Roma,1597-1605).
Carenas, Francisco. “El Lenguaje, ese oscuro y enigmatico objeto: El Caso de El Polifemo de Gongora.”
McCaw, John R. “Turning a Blind Eye: Sexual Competition, Self-Contradiction, and the Importance of Pastoral in Góngora’s ‘Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea’.”