In his occasional column for CPD Interactive, Melbourne writer PAUL BATEMAN profiles just some of the many writers and artists who also have a law degree – including Spanish playwright and poet, Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936).
There is in every year of every law class the one student who could do anything: the passionate polymath with a flair for any intellectual pursuit; the intense individual with a restless mind and abundant energy; the person blessed with inspiration yet burdened, too, by some strange, abiding loneliness.
Such was Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet and playwright, born in June 1898 to middle-class parents in a small rural town in the south of Spain.
Lorca was 17 when he enrolled to study law, literature and philosophy at Spain’s Sacred Heart University. He read widely and often, and absorbed himself in theatre, music and art – almost any book or subject unrelated to his actual degree.
Half-way through law school, Lorca dropped out. Ten years later – without explanation and to the bemusement of his friends – he returned to complete the degree (though he never subsequently practiced law).
In the intervening years, Lorca wrote poetry, prose and plays. His first book of poems, published in 1921, explored themes of faith, isolation and nature, and stressed the importance of the natural world.
He published another book of poetry in 1928 that exalted the cultural heritage of the Spanish countryside. Romancero Gitano (translated as Gypsy Ballads) made Lorca famous across Spain and the Hispanic world – but fame brought him only anguish.
Success meant recognition and literary expectations which Lorca strongly resisted. He wrote of feeling trapped. The gulf between his public persona and private self was a source of intense anguish and despair, a situation exacerbated by his homosexuality.
Lorca’s contemporaries and lovers included the Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali and the sculptor Emilio Soriano Aladrén. As Lorca’s reputation increased, he became estranged from Dali. When Aladrén, too, rejected Lorca, the poet’s health and happiness collapsed.
In June 1929, assisted by friends and family, Lorca left Spain for the United States of America to live for nine months in New York and to study English at Columbia University. Later, he would remember his stay as “one of the most useful experiences” of his life – as a period that radically changed his vision of himself and of his art.
He wrote a collection of poems which was published posthumously in 1942 as Poeta en Nueva York (A poet in New York). The poems are dark, dramatic, complex and arresting: their imagery confronting; their form experimental, even graphic.
A poet – not Lorca, but some unnamed first-person subject – wanders among the vast, towering sweep of Manhattan, a desperate figure in a sleepless and spiritually bereft city. The poems condemn urban civilisation but, according to one critic, amount to more than that: they are a “dark cry of metaphysical loneliness…the vigil of modern man in quest of the cosmic meaning of so much suffering.”
Today, this extraordinary collection of poems is widely regarded as one of the most powerful and influential works of 20th-century verse. It is certainly Lorca’s best-known work outside of Spain, and the work that most swiftly did away with his reputation as a mere “gypsy poet”.
In 1930, Lorca returned to Spain. He was appointed director of a small theatre company and, while touring, wrote some of his (now) best-known plays, all of which rebelled against the norms of bourgeois Spanish society. He was living and writing with a clear sense of purpose and direction – with real self-confidence and a potent efficiency.
However, the Spain to which Lorca had returned was tearing itself apart in a conflict of radically opposed forces. In July 1936, when the Spanish Civil War began, Lorca knew that he would be suspect to the rising right wing for his outspoken liberal views.
“Great art,” he wrote, “depends upon a vivid awareness of death, connection with a nation’s soil, and an acknowledgment of the limitations of reason.”
A month later, Lorca was shot and killed by Nationalist militia, on a roadside in the Spanish countryside. His body has never been found.