The Master of Modernismo
What made Azul... so influential? It was a mix of poetry and prose (brief stories) in a precious style evoking a timeless, mythic world of fairies, princesses and artists in pursuit of an aesthetic ideal, an ideal of beauty that would restore to the world its lost unity and harmony. This is art's highest mission, and Darío espoused it with religious fervor. (He was a Catholic, but he delved into the occult and other fin de siècle fads, as Cathy Jrade has detailed in an essential book, Rubén Darío and the Romantic Search for Unity: The Modernist Recourse to Esoteric Tradition.) The artists in Azul... are constantly frustrated in their efforts by mindless, decadent aristocrats. There is thus a rift between the ideal pursued and the possibility of its attainment, a constant in Darío's work that accounts for its melancholic undertones. But there are no fissures in the execution of the poems or prose pieces, which seem to have purged from the language anything vulgar or worn out, and to have distilled poetic forms to levels of unimaginable perfection. Spanish had never been written like this. But in all this perfection there is always a sense of longing, of wonder and even self-doubt. This is why Darío chose the swan as the emblem of his poetics: The animal combined artistic purity in his shape and white feathers with the wistful question mark of his curved, elegant neck. Darío drew heavily from classical mythology as well as pre-Columbian American myths and the whole spectrum of Western history and culture. Indeed, culture is always Darío's point of departure, rather than reality, whether his own inner reality or that of the external world.
If all this seems dated, consider a García Márquez story such as "La Prodigiosa Tarde de Baltazar" ("Balthazar's Marvelous Afternoon"), in which a craftsman builds a beautiful birdcage at the request of a child, only to have his parents refuse to pay for it. He winds up drunk, stretched out on the road. It is the same predicament of the artists in Azul.... In the story "El Rey Burgués," for example, a poet is left to freeze in the garden cranking a music box for the amusement of his rich patrons. The self-contained temporal scheme and elaborate system of inner correspondences in One Hundred Years of Solitude are both remnants of the Modernista aesthetics pioneered by Darío, as is the baroque prose of the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier, not to mention Borges's exquisite craft as a storyteller. And one would be hard pressed to find a poet writing in Spanish who was not influenced by Darío.
Darío's poetic career unfolded in two halves. The first, the aestheticist Darío, turned into its convex mirror image in the second, the more reflexive and reflective Darío--the deep Darío, as the cliché used to go. The break between the two was announced, according to an earlier school of Darío readers, by the opening line of his 1905 work Cantos de vida y esperanza: yo soy aquel que ayer no más decía--"I am the one who would only yesterday say." (In Spanish, this line has become a wistful way of saying you're no longer what you used to be.) The self-critical stance of the Cantos led many to speak of two Daríos, one enthralled by empty verbal pyrotechnics and another beset by profound personal and poetic anxieties.
This position is no longer held by authoritative critics. While it is true that Darío was burdened by his own poetry and poetic persona, which had created an entire artistic movement, he was merely making explicit what was implicit in his early books: the futility of the search for an aesthetic ideal coupled with the need to relentlessly continue it; the anguish he felt at the meaninglessness of the universe, the illusory and deceptive nature of language and his sense of emptiness; the ultimate disappointment of erotic pursuits. The two Daríos are, in fact, the same Darío using different poetic conventions to express the same things. A new Darío did emerge in his later poetry, as his work took on a more political tone, reflecting his feeling that his stature entitled him to speak for the Spanish world. This is evident in "Canto a la Argentina," which presages Neruda's Canto general. But Darío's politics are at this stage an extension of his earlier ideas about language and art, not a new ideology.
It was in 1898, with the Spanish-American War, that Darío's and Modernismo's politics jelled. While he and other Latin Americans applauded the liberation of Cuba, Puerto Rico and other colonies from the crumbling Spanish empire, they became keenly concerned about the emergence of the United States as a new imperial power. The United States had not only crushed the Spanish army but also, by casting aside the Cuban liberation army, stunted the island's potential political growth and freedom. To Darío and the Modernistas, the Spanish world seemed helpless in the face of American expansionism, not only in politics but, even more important, in culture. Countries that traced their cultural and religious roots back to Rome would now be taken over by a colonial power that was Anglo-Saxon and Protestant and that espoused a pragmatic approach to material progress that was dangerously at odds with their culture. It was José Enrique Rodó, not Darío, who forcefully articulated this widely shared anxiety in "Ariel" (1900), the most influential essay ever written in Latin America. Rodó, an Uruguayan Modernista and an admirer of Darío, argued that the Latin countries ought to remain faithful to their common culture, a civilization of the spirit (hence "Ariel") that, in contrast to the United States, valued art and good taste rather than economic growth and consumer products. Darío echoed this position in rousing poems such as "A Roosevelt," where he speaks on behalf of an America that "still prays to Jesus Christ and still speaks the Spanish tongue." The "still" shows Darío's fear for the future of Latin America: He calls the United States in this poem "el futuro invasor," the future invader.
The Spanish-language poets who came after him and favored the conventionalities of presumably more "natural" poetry in language and prosody rejected the first Darío and embraced the second. But eventually most realized their error. No matter how much they struggled with the musical Darío of "Sonatina," they had to surrender to him. No Spanish-language poet has been the subject of so much writing by other poets. Major poets like Luis Cernuda (1902-63) and Gastón Baquero (1918-97), for instance, mocked the early Darío, yet they granted him so much credit that they ended up helping to reinforce his reputation. Baquero, a Cuban and a "pure poet," had to concede that with Darío "there emerged a sense of the aesthetic dignity of the poem in itself as a careful construction, full of self-respect, that no one has been able to abolish." In spite of all that is ephemeral in Darío, he also proclaims that "everything creative, the whole future of literature, is latent in him." His body can be stripped of all its flesh by his critics, he says, "but the bones will be found to be made of diamond." Cernuda, a Spaniard, said that Darío, like his distant ancestors, the natives of the New World, allowed himself to be duped by the Europeans by trading his gold for a handful of shining trinkets. Darío, he claimed, had picked up from the French a tendency to assess the worth of things not in themselves but because they had been valued earlier and often by others. Still, Cernuda could not stop himself from devoting a brainy essay to Darío, if only as a kind of exorcism. Pedro Salinas (1891-1951), another major Spanish poet, wrote an entire book on Darío, as did his countryman, the Nobel Prize winner Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958). And the Mexican poet Octavio Paz (1914-1998) wrote one of his most beautiful and probing essays about the Nicaraguan. Darío's stature as a classic writer seems now beyond dispute. But only in Spanish.