Through a poetry that is at times deliberately crude and prosaic, Gabriela Mistral distinguished herself as an artist of tenderness and compassion. Her themes are nourished by her personal sorrow, which she ably elevates to the realm of the universal. Maternity, children, love, God, the fight against instinct, the soul of things, are voiced in anguish and in reverence by this most feminine of poets, whose vigor belies her femininity and whose high concept of morality is always present but never militant.
Mistral’s three major collections of poems, Desolación, Tala, and Lagar, were published at sixteen-year intervals. They contain a selection of poems from among the many that the poet produced in newspapers during the intervening years. Each volume comprises material that was written at different times and under changing circumstances; thus, a strict topical unity is not to be expected. Each volume was published in response to an external stimulus that affected the life of the poet.
Desolación was compiled through the initiative of Federico de Onís, professor of Spanish at Columbia University and founder of the Hispanic Institute. Onís had selected the poet’s work as the theme for a lecture that he gave at the institute in 1921. The participants, primarily Spanish teachers from the United States, were deeply impressed by the depth and beauty of this vigorous new voice in Hispanic American poetry, and when they discovered that the poet had not yet published a book, Onís insisted on publishing the collection under the auspices of the Hispanic Institute.
The unity of the book is the body of moving, impassioned poems that were inspired by two painful experiences in the life of the youthful poet. While a teacher in La Cantera, Mistral became romantically involved with an employee of the railroad company, but because of bitter differences, they ended the relationship. When the young man later committed suicide for reasons unrelated to his association with the poet, Mistral was deeply affected. Several years later, she met a young poet from Santiago with whom she fell passionately in love. When he rejected her in favor of someone from Santiago’s wealthy elite, Mistral was crushed. Shortly thereafter, she requested a transfer to Punta Arenas in Chile’s inhospitable southland.
Inasmuch as the poems inspired by these devastating episodes do not appear in chronological order, one reads them as if the poet were relating the history of a single painful love. With great lyrical strength, she expresses the awakening of love, the joy and self-consciousness, the boldness, timidity, hope, humiliation, and jealousy. The poems that deal with suicide of the beloved reveal the poet’s anguish and her petition to God concerning his salvation. She wonders about his afterlife and expresses her loneliness, remorse, and obsession to be with him still. The poet is pained and in torment, yet in her vigor, she displays jealousy, revenge, and hate, all of which are employed to combat the demanding powers of an enslaving, fateful love. God is petitioned in her own behalf as well. The agony is tempered at intervals by tenderness, her disillusionment nurtured by hope, her pain anointed with pleasure, and the hunger for death soothed by a reverence for life. In her moments of rapture, there is sorrow and loneliness, identified with the agony of Christ, from whom the poet seeks rest and peace in his presence.
The language of these poems is natural, simple, and direct. It is the realism of one who has lived close to the earth, who eschews delicate subtleties in favor of frankness. Mistral’s love is expressed with passion and wrath; her words are coarse, bordering on crudity. This is chaste poetry, nevertheless, inasmuch as its fundamental longing for motherhood and the spiritual yearning for God reject the possibility of eroticism or immodesty.
Mistral lifts her spirit up though it is weighed down in anguish. It is suffering that does not destroy, but brings the spirit to life. The lyrical roots of Desolación are not a product of imagination: They are a lived tragedy. When Mistral begins to regard her lost youth, foreseeing the seal of fate in her sterility, condemned to perpetual loneliness, she raises a prolonged, sharp moan. Her entire being protests, argues, and begs at the same time. Overcome, the poet mourns her desolation, her martyrdom in not being able to be the mother of a child from the man she loved. This maternal yearning is not simply the impulse toward the preservation of the race. It is the tender cry of one who loves, who lives in agony over the loss of that which is closest to the ultimate joy of her soul.
Mistral’s poetry employs a great variety of verse forms. She freely used sonnets, tercets, quatrains, the five-line stanza, sextains, ballads, and other forms, with little regard for the conventional patterns. She favored the Alexandrine, the hendecasyllabic line, and the nine-syllable line, which gradually became her preferred form; the latter seems to blend well with the slow pace of much of her poetry. The poems in Desolación do not follow classical models. Mistral toys with new rhymes, in which her consonants are imperfect or are interspersed with assonances. The artist has been accused of an inability to deal properly with metric forms. It is true that she lacked a musical sense. Her images, too, are frequently grotesque, too close to death and violence. Together with poems of rough, unpolished form in Desolación, there are others that are flawless in construction. Mistral reworked many of her poems repeatedly, the result generally being a refinement,...
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