Spanish Ballad. Encima del duro suelo. Analysis.

Romances / Ballads: Encima del duro suelo/ tendido de largo a largo 3.18

Encima del duro suelo,/   tendido de largo a largo,
muerto yaze el rey don Pedro,/   que le matara su hermano.
Nadie lo osa alçar del suelo,/   nadie quiere sepultallo;
antes la gente plebeya/   querían despedaçallo
por ser hombre tan cruel/   y tan mal complesionado.
Ninguno llora por él,/    nadie haze por él llanto,
todos lo tienen por bien,/    huelgan de velle finado;
bendizan a don Enrique,/   que es el que lo havía matado.
Todos dezían a una:/  –!O buen rey Enrique, honrado,
Dios te dará galardón,/   por el bien que has causado
en apartar de este mundo,/   a un tan cruel tirano!–

Translation: Stretched out on the hard ground,/ King Pedro lies dead, killed by his brother./ No one dares raise him from the ground, no one wants to bury him;/ rather the ordinary people want to tear him to pieces/ for being such a cruel and evil tempered man./ No one sheds tears for him, no one weeps for him,/ everyone thinks what happened is good, they are delighted to see him dead;/ they call on blessings for don Enrique, for it is he who killed him./ All say with one voice: “Oh good and honourable King Henry,/ God will reward you for the good that you have done/ in removing from the world such a cruel tyrant!”

Historical Background: This cycle is relatively short but is a good example of one of the uses to which the romances have been put: that of propaganda (even in the 20th century, for example, during the Civil War). Soon after the death of his father, Alfonso XI of Castile in 1350, Pedro appears to have engineered the death of Alfonso’s mistress, Leonor de Guzmán, which in turn ensured the enmity of her sons, i.e. his half brothers. 

The romances focus on the struggle for the throne between one of those sons, Enrique, who eventually killed Pedro with his own hands. During the protracted struggle both sides resorted to what we now call a “dirty propaganda war”, but those ballads that have survived are the anti-Pedro ones, with the result that he has passed into history as Pedro el Cruel

Indeed, he was a ruthless character, who not only was responsible for Leonor de Guzmán’s death and that of many of his half-siblings, but he was also notorious for having abandoned his young French-born wife, Blanca of Borbón for his mistress Maria de Padilla after three days of marriage.  It does not stop there: some years later, Blanca de Borbón also died under mysterious circumstances. 

Historians still do not know how Blanca died, but the romances have no doubt that she was executed at Pedro’s command, proclaiming her innocence and her virginity.

Metre and rhyme: This romance consists of 22 octosyllabic lines with an assonance rhyme of a-o on the even lines (for practical reasons of space, the romances are often written in lines of 16 syllables –as here– with a break at the end of the eighth, so that here, for example, Encima del duro suelo is line 1, and tendido de largo a largo is line 2).

The syllable count is as follows: Line 1: En(1)/ ci(2)/ ma(3)/ del (4)/ du(5)/ ro(6)/ sue(7)/ lo(8), Line 2: ten(1)/ di(2)/ do(3)/ de(4)/ lar(5)/ go a(6)/ lar(7)/ go(8)/.

A note about verb tenses. In the ballads or popular song or verse, verb tenses can be irregular or flexible, often obeying the requirements of rhyme or metre. For example, in line 8, querían despedaçallo, the tense has changed from the present in lines 5 and 6 (osa, quiere) to the imperfect (querían) to accommodate the metre. The imperfect tense adds an extra syllable over quiere(n) which has two syllables: quie (1) re(n) (2) as opposed to quer (1) í (2) an (3). A little complicated, but it helps explain what might otherwise be puzzling.

Encima del duro suelo reports in a matter of fact manner the death of the King at the hands of his brother, and the reaction of the people. The romance immediately establishes a visual image of the dead Pedro stretched out on the hard ground. But there is no lament only joy. 

Pedro is isolated by his cruelty and his brother blessed not only for the good he has brought by ridding the kingdom of a cruel monarch but also by God who will reward him.

It is not a great poem but it gets the point across by rapid and emphatic exaggeration and contrast: Pedro was evil and hated by the people, Enrique was good and praised by his subjects. The impact is conveyed by the negative nadie (used three times) plus ninguno (both meaning “no-one”) and the opposite todos (used twice).

The appeal is simple, direct and visceral (despedaçallo “to tear to pieces”). There is no ambivalence: Pedro is hombre tan cruel, evil tempered (mal complesionado) or tan cruel tirano whereas Enrique is bueno, honrado. It is the voice of the public that ends the poem, confirming and legitimising what was in fact regicide.

Propaganda thrives on creating contrast and on exaggerating the defects etc. of the enemy. From this poem, Pedro was not only Enrique’s enemy but also of the people, and populist appeal went a long way to getting widespread support (and still does!).

A final comment that bears keeping in mind when reading these ballads: they were recited or sung by minstrels (juglares) whose success and livelihood depended on convincing delivery, i. e. attracting and retaining the attention of their audience. In what was essentially an oral society, the juglares undoubtedly adopted voice modulation and used body language, such as eye engagement, pointing etc. to engage and move their listeners. (Good communicators still employ these “tricks of the trade” nowadays.)

And, as is common with popular songs, many listeners with good memories would repeat these songs with friends or family, often adding or subtracting details in what we know as oral transmission. It’s still with us in our technological age.

For another analysis, see En Burgos está el buen rey.