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by Reynaldo González
From the Academy of Cuban Language
Cigars have left a considerable mark on art and literature. Poets and artists have adopted them and there was even a children’s puzzle in Cuba in the 19th century asking: Who is so unfortunate / as to never take off his cape (capa), / covering up his innards (tripa) with it / and always dying burned?
One of the first lyrical pieces on the subject of cigars was composed by the archpriest Girolamo Baruffaldi, alternating sacred music with anacreontic songs. Among twenty-six dithyrambs published in Ferrara , his Tabacheide had two thousand verses in various meters; he said that they were written “in hours of melancholy and in need of consolation, the cigar relieved me of my woes.” No doubt this would be also accompanied by extensive ribbons of aromatic smoke.
In Spain, which was the chief beneficiary of Cuban cigar production, playwright Tirso de Molina welcomed the arrival of tobacco and other American fruits in La villana de Vallecas, at the close of which he provides us with a magnificent dinner: “and at the end he took out / a tubano of tobacco / in the manner of a blessing.” Even today, smokers still have the custom of lighting up after dessert.
During the prolonged reign of Louis XIV, theatrical folk liked to delight in the company of cigars. The provocative Moliére had his Don Juan proclaim in front of His Majesty, a passionate anti-smoking militant, that “tobacco is divine, there is nothing like it.” He added: “Whoever can live without tobacco is not worthy of living because tobacco inspires the sentiments of honor and virtue and it is the great passion of the honorable.” Such a statement took a stand to counter the stubbornness of the French monarch, eclipsed by his bitterness towards cigar smoke.
We certainly cannot overlook the wit of Bretón de los Herreros in his grandiloquence: Although ragged, motley and ugly / Spanish soldiers go to war / and they exist by prowling/ and sleeping on the hard ground, / defeating their enemies / never going without their gunpowder and tobacco….Oh, so well said, / whether by Pedro or Juan, Diego or Ciriaco,/ the man who said: “Against all ills, smoke a cigar.”
Joseph Warren was desolate at leaving Cuba where he had discovered the pleasures of smoking: I saw other lands later / and other dreams have beckoned, / but there was never such affliction / to dash my hopes / as when in the mist there remained / the land we so love / and I realized I had lost it / along with the last cigar. Henry James launched into magnificent prose when singing the praises of cigars: Herb from a strange flower, empress of smoke, / come you with the night or the day / at the moment of pain or joy, / you are always welcome.
Lord Byron, to whom Cuban cigars have paid just tribute on marvelous cigar bands, was perhaps the most exalted writer to extol cigars: Neither subtle perfumes nor adorned papers, / nor costly cases fashioned from leather / of all such temptations I desire: / divest me of such things, grant me a cigar.
That famous soldier of fortune Walter Raleigh, who has been attributed with bringing tobacco to the English Court, had to deal with the ill will of King James I who defeated him with regal rigor. On a foggy morning on October 29, 1618, facing a firing squad, he demanded his last wish: a puff of a genuine cigar.
Poet Joseph Knight made reference to that dispute between buccaneer and monarch: ¡Oh! Sir Walter Raleigh, of clear and significant name, / how sweet it would have been to know that the insolent / King James, who never once smoked, / would perish in that eternal smoky Hell.
Our own humble poet Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés (Plácido) sanctified the planting of tobacco in the midst of an ideal landscape: Where the leaves unfurl / the plant reaches out / to the far ends of the precious world, / there I had a tobacco plantation / and in it, a garden.
Sir Cigar does not settle for his unequaled quality, he requires bards to sing his praises. His ears are delighted by florid musical productions, ranging from guarachas, to tangos and boleros, even to august operatic registers. In fact there was a “between-operas-cigar” designed to be puffed during intermissions, accompanied by champagne flutes and commentary about the show, and then that the cigar made its stage entrance. El secreto de Susana, written by Enrico Colisciano, with music by Wolf Ferrari, had its premiere on December 4, 1909 and arrived at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1911. The comic opera Fábrica de tabaco de Sevilla musicalized the manufacturing of cigars; it premiered in Madrid in 1848, with the music of Soriano Fuentes.
Music-loving smokers (or smoking music-lovers) also have George Bizet’s Carmen for their pleasure, based on Próspero Merimée’s novella, a “cigar-opera” par excellence. And let us not forget El pequeño marinero o El marido inoportuno, the one-act comedy written by Pigault Lebran with music composed by Caveaux; some think that this represents the first incursion into the world of cigars within this sphere. It appeared on the French stage in 1796, and served as an excuse for the celebrated singer Madame Scio to sing while puffing clouds of smoke and dressed as a man, much to the consternation of the audiences who had never before seen anything like it. The ever pioneering cigar had arrived in the transvestite world.
Cigar-loving productions finally turned to popular music on several occasions. The most notorious of these was Garzo-Villadomat’s tango which described the “brilliant, sensual pleasure”, and you just have to see Doña Sara Montiel smoking her cigar and crisscrossing the stage in feline fashion: Give me the smoke from your mouth, / see how it drives me crazy, / see how I want to go crazy with pleasure / feeling that heat / of intoxicating smoke / that ends up melting / the burning flame of love.
The romantic Sir Cigar, in poetry and music, from the most refined to the popular, lives on every time anyone lights up a cigar and with its ancient aroma takes on his mysteries.