Juan Ramón Jiménez (Critical Survey of Poetry)
Other Literary Forms
Somewhat ironically perhaps, Juan Ramón Jiménez is probably best known for his Platero y yo (1914, enlarged 1917; Platero and I, 1956), a collection of sketches in prose largely about his native Moguer. As always in Jiménez’ noncritical work, however, his poetic vision and lyric expression are most apparent.
In 1903, Juan Ramón Jiménez revealed himself as a prolific poet, and by 1916 no one could surpass Jiménez’ position and influence as a poet in the Hispanic world. His twenty-two years spent in the United States, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and South America from 1936 to his death, indicated no overall diminution of his creativity as a writer or of his authority as a critic. Appropriately, both for the excellence of his work and the half century devoted to it, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1956, the first Spaniard to win it since 1920.
Juan Ramón Jiménez was born in Moguer, a typical town in Andalusia, steeped in tradition, colorful but slow-moving. His father, Victor, had come from north-central Spain to make his fortune in viniculture, acquiring extensive vineyards and numerous wineries in Moguer. Purificación, Jiménez’ mother, was a native Andalusian and a very good mother, although perhaps too indulgent toward her youngest child, Juan Ramón. The future poet had a comfortable and happy early childhood in the family’s new home on the Calle Nueva. Later, he learned to ride and, on horse or donkey, developed his love of nature in the beautiful countryside, which offered some compensation for the scant cultural stimulation of the town. After four or five years of elementary education in Moguer, Jiménez, then eleven years old, was sent with his brother to a Jesuit school near Cádiz, where he completed his secondary studies at age fifteen.
The colegio offered the best education available in the region, and Jiménez was a good, well-behaved student. Although somewhat homesick and averse to the school’s regimentation, he was alert, imaginative, and intellectually curious, enjoying a variety of subjects, especially drawing and literature. His meditative mind and love of nature inclined him to religion and, despite later aversion to the Church, among the six schoolbooks that he kept permanently were the Bible and Thomas à Kempis’s Imitatio Christi (c. 1427; The Imitation of Christ, c. 1460-1530). Upon graduation, Jiménez went to Seville to study painting and to develop his passion for poetry. His father had wanted him to study law at the university, but he had no interest in prelaw studies and neglected them for the arts. The family’s prosperity made it possible for Jiménez to indulge himself and choose between two financially unpromising careers. Some early paintings show that he might have become a fine painter, but the publication of his first poems, evoking favorable criticism, turned him to poetry.
Fatigue and emotional strain in Seville put Jiménez under the care of doctors in Moguer, yet he continued to write feverishly, sending poems to magazines in Madrid and establishing contacts with poets there. Somewhat capricious and unreasonable, he shunned social events in Moguer and, despite two or more youthful love affairs, preferred to be alone. The poems sent by Jiménez to Vida nueva met with such favor that the magazine’s editor, Francisco Villaespesa, and Rubén Darío, the Nicaraguan poet and leader of Modernismo who had been in Spain since 1899, invited the young poet to visit Madrid to help them reform Spanish poetry. Life in Madrid was exciting. Jiménez became close friends with Darío and other contemporary poets, and despite some excesses criticized by the academicians, his first collections were hailed as the work of a promising newcomer. His father’s sudden fatal heart attack in 1900 caused Jiménez’ nervous illness, which had recurred during the stimulating sojourn in Madrid, to worsen to the point that he required care in a sanatorium in Bordeaux.
In France, Jiménez read Charles Baudelaire and the Symbolist poets and continued to write, expressing his grief, sometimes in the excessively sentimental manner of the nineteenth century, sometimes in a more dignified, authentic style. Returning to Madrid rather than Moguer in 1901, the young poet continued his sheltered, privileged life in the Sanatorio del Rosario. Surrounded by tranquillity and beauty, Jiménez often entertained friends and relatives, more than ever before, and his retreat became a literary salon and social center. His work soon became known in the New World, and his popularity and influence grew with each volume. In 1903, Jiménez and a number of other young poets began to publish the literary journal Helios, the eleven issues of which exercised great influence—so much so that Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, certainly not identified with Modernismo, was willing to be a contributor. While Darío gave Spanish poetry new subtlety, beauty, and music, Unamuno’s influence deepened and intensified it. Later in 1903, Jiménez went to live with his physician and friend, Dr. Luís Simarra, with whom he remained for two years. With Simarra’s encouragement and that of other scholars, Jiménez expanded his knowledge in several fields by reading and attending lectures at the Institución Libre de Enseñanza. The liberal views at this institution further eroded Jiménez’ already weakened traditional religious convictions.
Unlike most of his colleagues, Jiménez felt less comfortable in Madrid than in a more rural setting. In 1905, ill again and homesick, he returned to Moguer, where he remained for six years, not with his family but in a house at Fuentepiña owned by them. There he rested and wrote, avoiding society for the most part. In 1910, at the age of twenty-eight, Jiménez was elected to the Royal Spanish Academy, but he declined membership, not only then but also on two subsequent occasions under different political regimes. With his sisters’ marriages and other changes, including financial ones, the family’s situation declined. Although Jiménez preferred solitude and nature, there were periods of tedium and depression for him, especially as he continued to suffer sporadically from ill health. Occasional amorous interludes were followed by disenchantment, bitterness, and remorse. In 1912, it seemed time to return to Madrid, where, except for brief visits to Moguer, the poet remained until 1936.
In four years at the Residencia de Estudiantes, the heart of intellectual and literary activity in Madrid, in the company of celebrated thinkers and writers, Jiménez completed two volumes of poetry and his prose masterpiece, Platero and I. His experimentation in content and form continued, and he gave evidence of increasing maturity in every way. In 1912, too, Jiménez had met Zenobia Camprubí Aymar; they soon became engaged and were married in 1916. Zenobia, who was part American, was lovely—as had been other women in the poet’s life—and intelligent, interested in the same things that interested Jiménez. Above all, Zenobia was lively, a quality that proved very helpful for the sober, moody Jiménez. After a trip to New York and his wedding, Jiménez published his Diario de un poeta recién casado (diary of a newly married poet), a work marking his entrance to full maturity and long considered his best by the critics and author alike. He continued to grow in all respects, producing more significant poetry in the years from 1916 to 1923 than during any other period in his life, and might have become the “grand old man” of poetry had his temperament permitted.
Like so many other Spanish refugees from the Civil War, Jiménez headed for the United States in 1936, first visiting Washington, D.C., briefly as a cultural emissary of the Spanish Republic, then visiting Puerto Rico and Cuba for three years, finally settling for six years in Coral Gables, Florida, and later in Washington, D.C. His fame as a poet and critic was great, especially in Hispanic circles, and he lectured, read his poetry, and wrote numerous critical essays but produced no new poetic works for a time. Between 1942 and 1951, however, he published four major works and began a fifth that he was not to complete. Despite numerous invitations, Jiménez and his wife rarely left the United States. In 1956, Jiménez won the Nobel Prize for Literature, two days before Zenobia’s death from cancer. He died in 1958 and is buried in Moguer with his wife.
The Spanish intellectuals and writers of the generación del 98, or Generation of ’98, saw the need to arouse the national conscience and envisioned a vigorous, creative Spain in every aspect of life. The presence of Rubén Darío in Madrid had drawn many to the city and to Modernismo, the literary movement of which he was the chief exponent. Both the French Symbolists, who had largely inspired Modernismo, and Darío himself strongly influenced Juan Ramón Jiménez’ poetry for more than a decade. In 1903, he published a collection of lyric poems, Arias tristes (sad airs), which revealed that he had abandoned the excessive sentimentality and random experimentation and imitation of his earlier collections for a more mature position based on firmer understanding of his talents.
Arias tristes is divided into three “movements,” each prefaced by the score of a Lied by Franz Schubert and dedicated to a friend. In addition, the second part has an epigraph taken from Paul Verlaine, and the third, one from Alfred de Musset. The second part is further prefaced by Jiménez’ commentary on his own work, which is “monotonous, full of moonlight and sadness,” and concludes with an evocation of Heinrich Heine and Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer as well as of Verlaine and Musset and an entreaty to all kindred spirits to weep for those who never weep. A vague, subdued sadness prevails here as in much Symbolist poetry. Avoiding novelty for the sake of novelty, Jiménez employs the verse of the romance exclusively and with a versatility that remains unmatched. Seemingly artless in its simplicity, the verse reveals great mastery in the use of enjambment, to give it fluency and grace, and in its diction, chosen for maximum musicality as well as meaning. Among the best poems in the collection are those that capture...
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