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.