The Master of Modernismo

The Master of Modernismo

Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío, all but unknown in English-speaking countries, had a global impact on literature, ushering Spanish poetry into the modern era.


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.

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.

Darío’s circulation and reputation in English will not be helped by the publication of this carelessly conceived and executed anthology of his prose and verse. The selection of the poetry is particularly poor, leaving out some of Darío’s most important poems. Edited and introduced by Ilan Stavans, a professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, Rubén Darío: Selected Writings includes few of his long poems in their entirety and organizes the collection in a manner that is more confusing than enlightening. The arrangement of the poems, which tries to follow a thematic division made by Darío toward the end of his life, is not chronological. Hence there is no sense of Darío’s poetic evolution, as if his work were created in a timeless void. The subdivisions draw their headings from the lines of a poem whose translation is particularly appalling. Greg Simon and Steven White’s poetry translations are not only awkward; they make basic errors that are beyond the usual disputes about word choice. For instance, where Darío describes himself in his former poetic state as “muy siglo diez y ocho” (meaning that he was very “eighteenth century” in taste), the translation inexplicably reads “and those that come from the eighteenth century.” A different kind of error is found in the translation of the line from “Coloquio de los centauros” (a major long poem from which only a stanza is excerpted here) that reads “cada hoja de cada árbol canta un propio cantar,” rendered as “Each leaf on the trees sings with its own goal.” Leaves with goals? This terrible assemblage of words not only completely misses the rhythm created by the repetition of sounds; worse, it hardly conveys what the Spanish says, which is more like “On every tree each leaf sings its own song.” It would be embarrassing and painful to compile such mistranslations.

The English renditions are simply not poetic, which is the worst thing a translator can do to a Darío poem. And contrary to Stavans’s assertion in the introduction that this anthology is “the most ambitious attempt ever to make the Nicaraguan poet comfortable in English,” there are others that are better, one as recent as 2004. In 1965 Lysander Kemp, a truly accomplished translator, brought out Selected Poems of Rubén Darío, with Paz’s powerful essay as prologue (the book came out in paperback in 1988). For the poetry, the reader would be much better served by going to those books. Andrew Hurley’s translation of the prose is better, but not brilliant (as Darío nearly always is), and it may be the only valuable contribution this book makes. Hurley is no Gregory Rabassa, Edith Grossman, Margaret Sayers Peden, Esther Allen or Sarah Arvio, the leading translators of Spanish into English, but he is reliable and workmanlike.

Stavans’s introduction lacks scholarly credibility or academic reliability. It is riddled with clichés (Darío is a “man for all seasons”), lacks a single new idea worth considering and does no justice to the considerable body of Darío criticism. Like the translations, it contains elementary mistakes, some laughable. For instance, Stavans attributes the famous line encouraging poets to reject Darío by twisting the swan’s neck to the Mexican Modernista Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera, when it was written by his compatriot Enrique González Martínez. He also blithely declares that “Latin America never had a Romantic movement per se,” an elementary error that he could have avoided by reading any history of Latin American literature or one of those academic critics Stavans derides with unearned, comic self-assurance. Stavans even writes that Darío’s “health deteriorated rapidly in the years following World War I,” when the poet had been dead for two years at war’s end in 1918. His health could hardly have gotten worse.

There are poets condemned to remain within their own language. Because of its many failings, this anthology cannot possibly help Darío overcome this fate.

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