Study Guide

A Longing for the Light

by Vicente Aleixandre

A Longing for the Light Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The poetry of Vicente Aleixandre, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1977, became more accessible to English-speaking readers with the publication of A Longing for the Light, a collection of translations from the Spanish by editor Lewis Hyde and fourteen other hands. Most of the poems in the English-language collection were initially selected by Aleixandre, and they exemplify some of the best and most representative works of Aleixandre’s career to 1979. The title is a translation of a phrase that Aleixandre used to characterize his poetry. Aleixandre used the metaphor of differing lights to describe his belief that poetry is both composed and read in differing circumstances. He advised his readers that his poems may be read in terms of “rainbow light,” understanding that he may have composed them in other lights, such as the “black light” with which he says he wrote his very early poems. In a sense, then, A Longing for the Light traces Aleixandre’s journey through various densities of light, exploring the relative solitude and connectedness possible to the human condition as well as the possibilities of the artistic vision and artistic creation to communicate.

His first published work, Ámbito (1928), shows the influence of Juan Ramón Jiménez and displays Aleixandre’s affinities with other members of the Generation of ’27, such as Jorge Guillén. Unlike Guillén, who believed that the poetic experience is a heightening of reality, Aleixandre believed that it is a means of tapping into the subconscious mind at the level where people are connected to the universe. Selections from Ámbito in A Longing for the Light are “Closed,” “Sea and Sunrise,” and “Sea and Night.” In these, as in the rest of the collection, night is a major player, “famous” and “quiet”: “Mouth—sea—all of it pleads for night.” It is an essentially sensual collection: “Either flesh or the light of flesh,/ deep,” he writes. In Ámbito, Aleixandre begins to develop a view of the universe that would unfold in his poetic career: The sea and the sun and the night all exist in a cycle of absorption, destruction, and rebirth.

His critics generally divide Aleixandre’s work into three major groups, the first of which, his Surrealist group, includes Espadas como labios (1932; swords like lips), La destrucción o el amor (1935; Destruction or Love, 1976), Pasión de la tierra (1935; the earth’s passion), Sombra del paraíso (1944, written earlier; Shadow of Paradise, 1987), and Mundo a solas (1950, written earlier; World Alone, 1982). He described his work beginning in 1928 as “a gradual emergence into light.” It seems that his way into the light was a path through the darkness of the subconscious, for in 1928, he read and became profoundly influenced by the psychoanalytic work of Sigmund Freud. His poetry thereafter self-consciously deals with many issues raised by Freud, most especially that of the existence of a subconscious mind, of dreams, of the ground of consciousness, of the libido, of the tension between love and death.

Aleixandre stated that the themes of his first period concerned creation and the possibility of the poet losing his own identity and fusing with the cosmos through an escape from the bounds of rational consciousness. Works of this phase explore the themes of love and death, the ability of the mind as well as of the universe to create and to destroy, and the power of the mind to connect with cosmic forces. These works are well characterized by a statement of Aleixandre’s translator Lewis Hyde, who notes that they represent “the reflective mind trying to think its way out of coherence and precision.”

Pasión de la tierra, included in A Longing for the Light, explores the poetic possibilities of Freudian dream imagery. Much of Aleixandre’s work relies on the kind of associative movement that one finds in dreams, and most of his poems ought to be read for their connections in this manner; coherence comes through associative links rather than through linear narrative progression. The prose poems of Pasión de la tierra represent Aleixandre’s poetic compositions most closely associated with the Surrealist movement. This collection is characterized by erratic and irrational images of turbulence and upheaval, of “torrential silence and lava,” of a speaker who is often threatened by death when isolated from love. It displays the author’s penchant for the macabre and even the gothic as it translates into a twentieth century idiom, to be developed further in Espadas como labios. This collection, represented by “Death or the Waiting Room,” “Silence,” and “Flying Fugue on a Horse,” has been called one of the most unfathomable works of twentieth century Spanish poetry. The prose poems express what Aleixandre terms the conciencia sin funda, or “consciousness without limitations,” and he notes that this is his most difficult book. His declared aesthetic intent is to utilize all of language, even the ugly and inharmonious, to reach that profound plane of consciousness. He states: “I shall not avoid even one word.”

Included in the second major group of A Longing for the Light, “Poems with Red Light,” are selections dealing with love and the physical world. In...

(The entire section is 2230 words.)

A Longing for the Light Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Aleixandre, Vicente. A Longing for the Light: Selected Poems of Vicente Aleixandre. Edited and translated by Lewis Hyde. 2d ed. Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 2007. Includes an informative introduction by Hyde as well as a descriptive bibliography that features Aleixandre’s own brief critical summaries of his individual books.

Cobb, Carl W. “Poets Uprooted and Rebellious: Lorca, Alberti, Aleixandre, Cernuda.” In Contemporary Spanish Poetry, 1898-1963, edited by Carl W. Cobb. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Discusses the significant characteristics of works by writers collectively known as the Generation of ’27. Includes an accessible explanation of the aesthetic and thematic significance of each of Aleixandre’s works.

Daydi-Tolson, Santiago, ed. Vicente Aleixandre: A Critical Appraisal. Ypsilanti, Mich.: Bilingual Press, 1981. Contains several chapters in English on Aleixandre as well as the poet’s Nobel Prize lecture and an English translation of an article on Aleixandre’s work by Carlos Bousoño.

Harris, Derek. “Prophet, Medium, Babbler: Voice and Identity in Vicente Aleixandre’s Surrealist Poetry.” In Companion to Spanish Surrealism, edited by Robert Havard. Rochester, N.Y.: Tamesis, 2004. Places Aleixandre’s poetry within the context of the evolution of the important Surrealist artistic movement in Spain.

Morris, C. B. A Generation of Spanish Poets, 1920-1936. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Places Aleixandre with his contemporaries, showing generational affinities among the poets and examining them as links in the greater Spanish literary tradition.

Murphy, Daniel. Vicente Aleixandre’s Stream of Lyric Consciousness. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2001. Provides a detailed analysis of the Surrealist nature of Aleixandre’s poetry, focusing on Destruction or Love. Examines the role of Sigmund Freud in Aleixandre’s work, his poems’ narrative structure, and how his poetry was influenced by earlier writers.

Schwartz, Kessel. Vicente Aleixandre. New York: Twayne, 1970. A Freudian critic offers an accessible introduction to Aleixandre’s work.

Soufas, C. Christopher. The Subject in Question: Early Contemporary Spanish Literature and Modernism. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007. Examines a number of works of drama, fiction, and poetry—including Aleixandre’s—from late nineteenth and early twentieth century Spain, focusing on their modernist characteristics.