Joan Maragall is a name you’re unlikely to be familiar with if you’re not Catalan. Yet read on just a little, and I think in this century-old Catalan poet, you might find some familiar traits and recognisable desires.
Barcelona, 1860, and Joan Maragall i Gorina is born into a family of wealthy textile merchants. He grows and quickly becomes initiated into the life and customs of the Barcelona bourgeoisie, the powerful, the wealthy, the cultured strata of Catalan society. His privileged position frees him to foster and pursue a growing passion for writing. Is this still the case today, or has capitalism democratised culture and creativity? Hmm, discuss!
Maragall’s bourgeois upbringing is critical in developing his writing style, for a simple reason: he finds it lacking. Surrounded by safety, by comfort and an unimaginative, conservative conformity, Maragall feels stifled and smothered by the stultifying stew of ‘high society’. Though later in life he will turn and point an accusing finger at the privileged classes, initially he sees himself as an inner agitator, stirring to life a somnambulant and indifferent goliath toward a dynamic, cosmopolitan ideology.
All through his life Maragall will feel proud of his homeland, and identify with Catalan nationalism. Having studied law at University it is only to be expected that this wealthy, educated nationalist will accept calls to join the Catalan parliament, the Generalitat. But he doesn’t (incidentally his grandson, Pasqual Maragall, did enter politics, becoming President of the Generalitat from 2003-2006). For Maragall, there is another way of changing the current order of things, and it lies not in the cold, hard power of politics, but in the more subtle and personal – but no less powerful – form of the ‘living word’.
Words, claims Maragall, have a life force. They are not merely marks on paper (or type on tablets, in 21st century speak, sigh…) but are linguistic expressions of an individual’s being. Therefore the more fervently the poet, the novelist or the journalist expends themselves in their writing the greater punch their words will pack. You might call it ‘writing from the heart’. But what message is Maragall trying to get across? Take a look at what he says here in these quotes, then have a read of one of his poems on Project Poesia (see sidebar):
“I believe that the word is the most marvellous thing in this world, because in her are embraced and entangled all corporeal wonder and all spiritual wonder of our nature. It seems that the earth expends all its efforts in leading mankind to a higher sense of itself; and mankind expends all the strength of his being in producing the word.”
– From Elogi de la paraula (Praise of the word), 1903
What do you think? Personally I think his poems are beautifully in-sync with what he wrote above. The words of Pirinenques and La Fageda d’en Jordà are infused, even saturated, with the spiritual. Not the ‘religious’, I hasten to add, but filled with a hunger for and awareness of a transcendental reality, of something ‘more’ beyond.
Tantalizingly close, but ever just beyond our reach, in Maragall’s poems it is in Nature that we come closest to this other reality. In the natural, the wild and the wondrous places we find a beauty, a purity and a stillness that stirs us to feel as close as we can to that something other. Feeling is key for Maragall. Introspection can only take us so far towards true self-recognition. For this, we need experience, we need to go out there and experience sublime nature with all five senses (and maybe some others we don’t have names for).
When we experience this – and describing what ‘this’ is, is the fuel for myriad poems – we are spoken to in something other than mere physical sensation. Seek that! – Maragall cries through all his living words of poetry – Hold on to that unexplainable life society tells you is imagined, that inexplicable voice they say is just in your head…
It could just be the most real thing you ever know.
Click here to see a more detailed biography of Maragall (in Catalan) and some beautiful old photographs of the man himself.