‘Spanish Johnny’ by Willa Cather is a three stanza poem that is separated out into sets of eight lines, known as octaves. The lines follow a pattern of ABCBDEFE. While they do not all rhyme, the second and fourth do, as well as the sixth and eighth. This creates a through line of rhyme that benefits the overall rhythm of the poem.
Additionally, a reader should take note of how Cather ends the sixth line of all three stanzas, as well as the eighth of each, with the same words, “in” and “mandolin”. In fact, the eighth line of each stanza is identical. There are other moments of repetition as well, such as in line one. The opening lines of all three stanzas are split in half, creating two separate, connected phrases. For example, the third stanza begins with “the gold songs, the gold stars”.
Another technique that Cather makes use of is alliteration. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “swung” and “sang” in the third stanza or “sang” and “song” in the second stanza.
The third line of the third stanza presents a reader with another interesting example of enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. This line is particularly impactful as the transition down to the third is the first time a reader is presented with the very dark events associated with Johnny.
Summary of Spanish Johnny
The poem begins with the speaker describing the setting. She is going to be telling a story of the old west that took place among the “red, red grass”. The main character is a Spanish man named Johnny who spent his days taking care of his herd and playing his mandolin.
He didn’t speak to those around him, instead, he sang the “songs of Spain”. Because of his difference, and the fact that he spoke a language different than what was common, people began to think poorly of him. They said that his words were sin if they were heard aloud. Then eventually, that he killed many people long ago. Unfortunately for Johnny, this led to his death by hanging.
Analysis of Spanish Johnny
The old West, the old time,
The old wind singing through
The red, red grass a thousand miles —
And Spanish Johnny, you!
He’d sit beside the water ditch
When all his herd was in,
And never mind a child, but sing
To his mandolin.
In the first stanza of ‘Spanish Johnny’ the speaker begins by making use of the word “old” three times. Through this repetition she emphasizes the importance of time, particularly the past. In this setting there is a man, “Spanish Johnny”. He is living in a plain-like landscape that is in this particular stanza playing host to his “herd”.
The speaker describes how he was within the “red, red grass a thousand miles” with his mandolin. Johnny would sing there, once he rounded up his herd (perhaps sheep or cows) and sing. So far, Cather has depicted Johnny as a simple man trying to make the best of his life. From the first details a reader can infer that he likely lives off the land, is originally from Spain, enjoys music and time by himself.
The big stars, the blue night,
The moon-enchanted lane;
The olive man who never spoke,
But sang the songs of Spain.
His speech with men was wicked talk —
To hear it was a sin;
But those were golden things he said
To his mandolin.
With a continued focus on natural imagery, Cather’s speaker describes how Johnny’s world was made of “big stars” and the “blue” night sky. He walked on “The moon-enchanted lane” and never spoke. There is a magical quality to the landscape that is often present within Cather’s works. She is able to describe the countryside easily and poignantly. There is also an emphasis on colour in this stanza. Johnny’s skin is distinct in its olive color, so much so, that he loses his name and becomes “The olive man”.
The speaker tells the reader that Johnny walked and sang songs of his homeland, Spain. But, he never spoke. Perhaps this is because he didn’t want to, or maybe he didn’t know the language of his neighbours as a non-native resident of the area.
In the next lines of ‘Spanish Johnny’ Cather alludes to something darker in Johnny’s character, or at least a perceived darkness. It is said that his “speech with men was wicked talk” and that if one heard it, it would be like committing a sin. This says more about those around Johnny than Johnny himself. He stood out among his neighbours and this difference didn’t go unnoticed.
The last line goes back again to Johnny’s mandolin and reminds the reader that he said “golden things” to it.
The gold songs, the gold stars,
The world so golden then;
And the hand so tender to a child —
Had killed so many men.
He died a hard death long ago
Before the Road came in —
The night before he swung, he sang
To his mandolin.
In the third stanza of ‘Spanish Johnny’ the speaker reminds the reader that she is telling a story about the past. This man is no longer alive, nor is the world he lived in present. It was “golden” in the past, just like the songs he sang and the stars that rested over his head. But this goldenness is juxtaposed with the deeds of Johnny’s deeper past.
He had “killed so many men” long ago and therefore was convicted to die himself. The sparse details in these lines about the veracity of the deaths and Johnny’s guilt make it easy to doubt the authenticity of the accusation. There is also the insurmountable distance between the reader’s present, the speaker’s present, and Johnny’s past.
Another interesting part of this stanza is in line six when the speaker says that Johnny was hanged “Before the Road came in”. The fact that Cather chose to capitalize “Road” gives it greater agency. A reader should consider what a road brings to an isolated town.
The poem ends soberly with the refrain once more informing the reader that Johnny played his violin. This time, the “night before he swung”.