The Master of Modernismo
In Spanish, there is poetry before and after Rubén Darío. The Nicaraguan (1867-1916) was the first major poet in the language since the seventeenth century, the end of the Golden Age whose masters included Garcilaso, Saint John of the Cross, Fray Luis, Góngora, Quevedo and Sor Juana. And despite an abundance of great poets in the twentieth century on both sides of the Atlantic--García Lorca, Alberti, Salinas, Cernuda, Neruda, Vallejo, Paz, Palés Matos, Lezama Lima, to name a few--his stature remains unequaled. The poetic revolution led by Darío spread across the Spanish-speaking world and extended to all of literature, not just poetry. He ushered Spanish-language poetry into the modern era by incorporating the aesthetic ideals and modern anxieties of Parnassianism and Symbolism, as Garcilaso had infused Castilian verse with Italianate forms and spirit in the sixteenth century, transforming it forever. Darío and Garcilaso led the two most profound poetic revolutions in Spanish, yet neither is known abroad, except by Hispanists. They have not traveled well, particularly in English-speaking countries, where they are all but unknown.
Darío's case is the most baffling because he is nearly our contemporary, whereas Garcilaso, who lived from 1501 to 1536, can today be safely left on library shelves along with Petrarch, Ronsard and Spenser. Besides, Garcilaso has by now been so thoroughly assimilated into Spanish poetic discourse that it is easy to overlook his presence in the poetry of Neruda and Paz. Darío's innovations, style and even manner are still contemporary, however, as are the polemics that his poetry provoked among other poets, professors and critics. What is more, his influence penetrated all levels of Latin American and Spanish society, where his voice is still audible in the lyrics of popular love songs; the artistic movement that he founded, Modernismo, had a tremendous impact on everything from ornaments to interior design, from furniture to fashion. Darío, more than a Nicaraguan poet or a Latin American poet, was a poet of the Spanish language--and its first literary celebrity, embraced throughout Latin America and Spain as the most original and modern of poetic voices.
Darío published his first major collection of poems, Azul..., in 1888. He was 21 and living in Valparaíso, Chile, where he had moved two years earlier in search of a broader horizon than that offered by Central America. Azul..., a slender book of 134 pages, was to become a turning point in Spanish-language literature, not only for poetry but for prose. Its success is proof of the serendipity at work in literary history. Here was a privately printed book of poetry, written by a virtual unknown, published in a port city that was vibrant and cultured but far from the centers of literary activity in Latin America and Spain: Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Madrid and... Paris. As Walter Benjamin famously said, Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, and this was no less true for the poets, intellectuals, diplomats and exiles of Latin America's fragmented world, which had great cities but no natural center, as New York was for the United States or Paris itself for the French. True, the first anthology of Latin American poetry, América poética, was published in Valparaíso by the Argentine Juan María Gutiérrez in 1846, but the Chilean port was no Paris--it wasn't even Madrid.
The initial reactions to Darío were hostile. The great thinker and poet Miguel de Unamuno first said that a feather stuck out from under Darío's hat, a derogatory reference to his Indian background, while Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo--the most influential critic and scholar ever in Spanish--stopped his history of Latin American poetry (the first written) in the 1880s, exactly at the point when Darío and Modernismo began to make their mark. A Francophobe, Menéndez y Pelayo frowned upon Darío's love of French poetry and culture. Fortunately, Darío had the audacity to send Azul... to the powerful Spanish critic Juan Valera. Valera wielded his considerable influence as an author, critic and member of the Royal Spanish Academy of the Language to launch the young poet's career with two "letters" about the book, which were printed as prologue in later editions of Azul.... Brilliant and probing, Valera's letters touch upon everything that is relevant about Azul..., and all subsequent commentary on Darío's work is, in some way, a gloss of them. Though also critical of Darío's adoption of French ways, Valera recognized his genius and predicted a bright future for the Nicaraguan--a priceless endorsement by an established personality in the world of Spanish letters.
Another factor that contributed to Darío's sudden celebrity and his itinerant career as ambassador of the new poetry all over the Spanish-speaking world was a new feature of modern life that his poetry reflected: communications. Steam navigation, the transatlantic cable and the proliferation of newspapers--some of them, like Chile's El Mercurio, of the highest quality and influence--disseminated literature with a speed never seen before. And it brought together writers from all corners of the Hispanic world with an ease that was also unprecedented. All of them could meet in Paris and become conscious of belonging to a continental literature that transcended individual countries because of the more capacious and swifter ships propelled by steam and by the increased commerce among Latin American nations and between those nations and the rest of the world. Darío's travels and the circulation of his books owed a great deal to these developments, as did his immersion in French literature, something he shared with Latin American artists and intellectuals then and now. Azul... was published in a small place, but it appeared at a moment when the world was becoming smaller.
Rubén Darío was born in the Nicaraguan town of Metapa, now Ciudad Darío. His parents named him Félix Rubén García Sarmiento, and, as he himself boldly admitted, Indian and African blood coursed through his veins. (He later changed his name to the briefer, euphonious Rubén Darío, incorporating a patronymic that his father's family had used; it also has, of course, classical connotations.) Raised in the politically and intellectually active city of León, he acquired there a vast and deep cultural education during childhood and adolescence. He also became thoroughly familiar with contemporary French poets both great and minor. In the process he learned enough French to write passably good poems in it. As for his knowledge of Spanish poetry, it was that of a prodigy, a Mozart of poetry. Tomás Navarro Tomás, the most accomplished expert on Spanish versification in modern times, offered the following statistic after having surveyed the corpus of Darío's poetry: He used thirty-seven different metrical lines and 136 different stanza forms! Some of the metrical and rhyme schemes were of his own invention.
The possibility of becoming so well read in the periphery of the Spanish-speaking world is due to the uniformity of language and culture imposed on their empire by the Catholic monarchs and their successors as well as by advances in commerce and communications. The Spanish empire, organized as a vast bureaucracy, favored writing and learning to promote and conserve cultural and religious orthodoxy. While the cost was high, the benefits were also considerable, one being that a subject could feel connected through writing to the centers of power and learning, both to the viceroyalties in Mexico and Peru, and to Spain itself. Communications and trade resulting from interest in the region by the modern European imperial powers brought to Latin American ports the latest goods, including books, without the restrictions imposed before independence. Darío began to write and publish verse by the age of 12, but his career took off when he moved down the Pacific coast to Chile, a thriving country with a lively artistic and intellectual elite that immediately recognized and rewarded his talents.