Rafael Alberti Essay - Alberti, Rafael

Alberti, Rafael

Alberti, Rafael 1902–

A virtuoso Spanish poet and playwright now living in Italy, Alberti was already noted as a painter when he received the National Prize for Literature for his first collection of poems, the traditional Marinero en tierra, in 1925. In 1929 he published the masterful surrealistic Sobre los ángeles which reflected his personal turmoil. His work became overtly political and he has been called "a poet of the proletariat."

At first sight Alberti presents certain obvious points of similarity to Lorca…. [He] too began by writing songs, not indeed so delicate or diaphanous as Lorca's but composed with a sure insight into the use of traditional measures for a modern sensibility…. Alberti was from the start more intellectual than Lorca…. While Lorca was content to live on his sensibility and to lose himself in the lives of other men, Alberti found his subjects more and more in himself, in his own struggles and contradictions and problems. With his keen intellect he watched and analysed his emotions, tried to find what they meant, and adapted his technique to his discoveries. He lacked Lorca's instinctive joy and instinctive melancholy: his gifts were more varied and more conflicting. (p. 220)

Alberti's chief problem in these first years seems to have been to find an art which should express the whole of himself. The conflicting elements in his character refused to cohere into a single form…. In odes, sonnets, madrigals, terza rima and romances he tried to combine a formal elegance with a modern temper and sensibility and to impose a special kind of external order on his conflicting and often turbulent emotions. His accomplishment is astonishing…. But such experiments were not entirely satisfactory. No doubt Alberti saw that this traditional formality was ultimately hostile to some things that he had to say, that it restricted his scope and gave the wrong intonation to his emotions. So, always adventurous, he tried something much more modern and in poems like A Miss X and Platko used free verse and an almost jaunty manner to create a realistic, ironical, astringent poetry of actual life. Although Alberti succeeded remarkably in each kind of poetry that he attempted, and we cannot but admire his dexterity and sincerity, it is clear that his creative gifts had not reached a final means of expression and that a division of his powers between quite different kinds of poetry was really a confession of his inability to find the ultimate single form which he needed. (p. 221)

The answer … came with Sobre los Ángeles. Into it Alberti put the whole of himself and found a medium entirely appropriate to what he had to say…. He has … written much excellent poetry since the publication of Sobre los Ángeles, but no book with quite its finality and completeness…. In a general picture of European poetry in this century Sobre los Ángeles has a special place through the intensity of vision with which it presents the crisis of an imaginative spirit and through the extraordinary degree of precision with which it portrays dark movements and situations in the soul.

Sobre los Ángeles is concerned with a terrible crisis in which Alberti finds that for no explicable reason he has lost his trust in himself and his hold on existence, that things which have hitherto meant much to him and guided and sustained him have suddenly left him, that he has been robbed not merely of his dreams and visions but of everything which gives savour and significance to life, and he does not know what to think or what to do. Other men have gone through crises not entirely dissimilar. The mood which Coleridge sets out so poignantly in Dejection, the torturing doubts which Tolstoy felt after the publication of Anna Karenina, the collapse of confidence and zest of which Mill speaks in his Autobiography, are a few among many examples of the dangers which threaten a man who gives all his powers to his work only to find that he has lost something of inestimable value…. It is not surprising that in the first poem of Sobre los Ángeles Alberti laments his loss of a Paradise which he has known and loved, his home and his inspiration…. It is the agony of this loss which inspires Alberti's book. What is for him a terrible personal disaster becomes the poetry of all such disasters in whatever forms they come to others, and so nobly does he tell of it that his voice is not only that of an individual who has lost a most precious possession but of a generation which fears that it has lost its way in the world. (pp. 222-24)

In the third section Alberti slowly and laboriously picks up the broken pieces of himself and sees what remains after the catastrophe and what lessons he has learned from it. He recognises that his paradise, his confident youth, is lost for ever, but from the present there is after all something to be gained, in unexpected corners of experience, even in ugliness and suffering. His task is to make the most of this, and he closes, if not with any lively hope, at least with a determination to take what reality has to offer. The end of Sobre los Ángeles is not a despairing confession of defeat like that of The Waste Land, though the experience through which the poet has passed is no less disturbing and destructive. (p. 225)

Alberti is so accomplished a craftsman of verse and so well trained in its different forms that he has no difficulty in finding the right measures for his different moods. His first section is on the whole composed in short lines: in the second section the lines become longer, and in the third they develop the wide sweep which Apollinaire gives to some of his poems about war. This variation is clearly deliberate. In the first section Alberti's exhaustion and emptiness forbid extended rhythms because they would be inappropriate to his mood, but as he faces the new issues of the second and third sections, and his imagination begins to work more adventurously, the lines respond to his efforts and carry a greater weight of words. And as the lines become longer, so do the sentences. (p. 226)

Alberti's technique has finer subtleties than in his use of short and long lines. He had, after all, practised with great skill the traditional Spanish art of song and used it for new purposes, and there are occasions in Sobre los Ángeles when he makes use of this experience and gives even to his disordered emotions a certain ordered elegance, as if he were trying to subdue his crisis by giving it a shape. (p. 227)

If the versification of Sobre los Ángeles shows Alberti's mastery of a modern technique, the same can be said of his imagery. Since he deals almost exclusively with psychological states, he uses imagery all the time. Indeed he hardly ever uses plain descriptive statement, but plunges into imagery without introduction or explanation. In this he may be compared with Eliot, who does not explain what his images mean, but trusts that they will force themselves on us, and make us see their significance. Again, just as Eliot gives a certain order and homogeneity to his images through his use of the Grail legend and its figures but diversifies this with images from quite different and disparate sources, so Alberti gives a dominating pattern to his book by the imagery of angels but diversifies this by a great variety of images which have no essential or obvious connection with angels. But his angels give a greater consistency and coherence to his book than Eliot's anthropological figures give to The Waste Land. For they have a more immediate appeal and gain through the simplicity of their outlines and characters. We pick up their meaning at once, and since they are seldom far away, they give a shape and direction to the whole book. Alberti has found a mythology which is full of imaginative possibilities and calls for no erudition to understand it. Sobre los Ángeles is a single book and not a collection of separate pieces, largely because the dominating imagery has this unity.

In his use of angels Alberti suggests comparisons with other poets and especially with Rilke, who in his Duino Elegies gives angels a predominant part and supplements their symbolism with symbols drawn from quite different quarters. But the difference between Rilke and Alberti lies in the significance which they give to their angels. For Rilke the angel is the absolute of inspiration, the symbol of the uninhibited activity which he sought to secure and express. Alberti's angels are powers of the spirit in all its range, not in themselves good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. They are not even habits of thought or emotions, but simply powers which any man may recognise in himself, forces of the spirit or flesh which give meaning to what he feels or does. He may welcome them or resist them, but they exist, and their strength is not to be denied. Even their origin is obscure. They have been connected with the angels depicted in primitive Catalan art, but they have no specifically Christian qualities, and their activities are not such as we associate with angels good or bad. But we can see why Alberti uses them. They are symbols of powers outside the control of man but connected with the secret springs of his nature. Just as he regards his crisis as a spiritual event which involves fundamental issues in the value of life and the stricken state of man, so he introduces angels because they embody his sense of powers not himself which come from unknown regions and determine the course of his life and personality. They are both alien and extremely intimate, and he is fully entitled to make use of them because the violent nature of his crisis raises questions so fundamental and so searching that his work has inevitably something like a religious character. (p. 232)

C. M. Bowra, "Rafael Alberti, 'Sobre los Ángeles'," in his The Creative Experiment (reprinted by permission of Macmillan, London and Basingstoke), Macmillan, 1949, pp. 220-54.

It would appear that, with his very first book, Alberti was already a craftsman in total command of his medium, writing with effortless grace and impeccable versification, in brilliant and controlled imagery: a poet at the peak of his form. There is not a false note or a wavering line in the whole of Marinero en tierra (1925)—as though, literally born to the art, he was incapable of poetical error. What is admirable, among other things, is the extent to which a youth of limited formal education, appears to have pondered and assimilated the great lyric tradition of his country, the popular along with the learned. Here was the spectacle of a twenty-two-year-old sufficiently schooled in the poets most admired by a generation before him—Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, D'Annunzio, Darío—to profit by their example and supersede it; of a provincial intelligence drenched in the dialect of West Andalusia, commanding a lexicon that would ravish the heart of a purist. (pp. 13-14)

Leafing through the poems of Marinero en tierra, La amante, and El alba del alhelí, one could compile an impressive repertory of compositions using more or less intact lines, phrases, or paradigms taken from the songbooks of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. It was the purpose of such cancioneros and romanceros (song and ballad books), in their turn, to collect and preserve examples of that anonymous folk poetry, traditionally a sung poetry, whose origins are rooted in the Middle Ages: a poetry of record since the eleventh and twelfth centuries, with elements even earlier in origin, as the study of Mozarabic jarchyas (jarŷas) in Hispano-Hebraic and Hispano-Arabic literature has shown. It is equally clear that poets of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries employed these traditional materials for highly sophisticated ends, turning folk song into art poetry, traditional ballad into art ballad. Lope de Vega, for one, was a consummate master of the genre. And it is the special delight of Alberti in the twentieth century to use analogous materials exactly to the same purpose, given the fact that the fusion of the traditional and popular with the art poem remains constant in Spanish poetry, and is one of its most salient and distinctive characteristics.

Shall we say, then, that Alberti merely reworked a vein of the traditional verse of his country? Not at all. Rather, his way was to appropriate certain formulas, certain old poems remembered and sung by the people of Spain to this day, or gathered in songbooks which modern scholarship has made accessible, and incorporate them in poems that embody his private sensibility as a poet. Far from being a prisoner of tradition, he has put tradition at the service of the poet, as a tool of individual expression. It is a notion of Alberti's that the old poems had authors now forgotten by the people that sing and perpetuate them; in the course of generations, he explains, repetition has altered the originals, augmenting, deleting, reworking the models with what he happily calls a "kind of memory in motion." In the spirit of this conviction he has taxed himself as a poet to be a part of that memory in motion, bringing to his poems a rhythm, a paradigm, a poetical phrase from the past, modifying them all at will, building them into his medium, aligning himself with a lyric continuum that flows from authors now unknown to the oral revision of poetic materials, and from popular and traditional variants back to the pen of a later individual, in this case, Alberti himself. (pp. 16-17)

He goes on with the tasks appointed to him as a poet: survival and song. His poetry continues its labor of purifying for all our sense of ourselves, interpreting ourselves to ourselves, in the inchoate music of our times. His is the triumph of the largest of talents that bear self-knowledge to all, toiling "without haste and without pause, like the stars." (pp. 33-4)

Luis Monguió, "The Poetry of Rafael Alberti: An Introduction," in Rafael Alberti: Selected Poems, edited and translated by Ben Belitt (copyright © 1966 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), University of California Press, 1966, pp. 1-34.

The differences between Sobre los ángeles and Alberti's previous works are as great as those dividing Lorca's Romancero gitano from his denunciation of New York…. Alberti's detached admiration of material objects, which made him ennoble and beautify them in elegantly sculptured and contrived images, has given way to an emotional involvement that directs our attention not to the object itself, but to the poet's attitude to and use of the object. (pp. 9-10)

In Sobre los ángeles he is no longer interested in using an inflated vocabulary, in spinning elaborate patterns of words, in coining images for their own sake, or in emulating someone else's styles and tricks. The only syntactic licence he allows himself is occasionally in his short lines to suppress a verb in order to create a staccato, urgent rhythm….

In Sobre los ángeles Alberti is his own theme; he himself is the object of his attention. Previously he was not interested in introspection. (p. 11)

Alberti's angels are both an escape and a refuge; because they are—to use Alberti's own significant word—moldeables, their widely differing natures and actions reflect the turmoil within him. Alberti's inspired creation of his highly personal angelology allows him to embody his feelings of rage in creatures like el ángel de la ira and los ángeles rabiosos; the conflict within him is summarized and simplified in the fight between los dos ángeles; and his alienation from the people around him is enacted by los ángeles mudos. Once the poet had invented this poetic code, which readers have to decipher for themselves, there was no limit to the numbers of angels he could create. That there are so many different angels in Sobre los ángeles reveals the complexity of Alberti's crisis. (p. 13)

[In] his succinct summary of 1928 in the Indice autobiográfico of his Poesías completas [Alberti names the four dominant motifs out of which he has created his poetic fictions]: "1928 Amor [1]. Ira. Cólera. Rabia [2]. Fracaso [3]. Desconcierto [4]. Sobre los ángeles". (p. 15)

With [the] three emphatic nouns—"Ira. Cólera. Rabia"—Alberti summarizes the anguish and seething anger which preceded and surged into Sobre los ángeles. The rage which he describes in this work is an important and destructive part of his emotional experience, of his malestar. La arboleda perdida makes it clear that Alberti did not know precisely why he was angry; we should not therefore try to probe the reasons for his anger, but examine and assess the poetry which he has written out of the disturbing experience of rage. (p. 29)

Although Alberti's dominion over the form and music of his poems is striking, what impresses most in Sobre los ángeles is their strongly visual character. This work is a kind of theatre in which Alberti uses his imagination to create scenes, situations, settings, and images that depict and act out his emotions; that there are so many images and so many fictions is due to the complexity of his feelings. (p. 74)

C. B. Morris, in Rafael Alberti's 'Sobre los ángeles': Four Major Themes (© The University of Hull 1966), University of Hull, 1966.

That Alberti discovered like Quevedo the delights of distortion is apparent in Cal y canto, where he cultivated the absurd and the grotesque with a tenseness which replaced the ease and affability of Marinero en tierra and La amante. (p. 106)

The emotional and physical stresses which exploded in Sobre los ángeles put on Alberti's sense of humour a hard edge which increased his isolation, exacerbated his bitterness and sharpened his desire to 'take revenge on everyone and place real bombs'….

In Yo era un tonto … Alberti employed the shock-tactics he adopted in his increasingly pungent assault on people's sensibilities. (p. 107)

In Sobre los ángeles Alberti is suspended without hope between the menace of an empty future and memories of a blissful past untroubled by thoughts of time and death…. His interest in himself, heralded by the autobiographic 'Carta abierta' of Cal y canto, was a painful but poetically hygienic liberation of skills trapped in the splendid craftsmanship of Cal y canto; the volcanic emotional and spiritual crises which led to and are recorded in Sobre los ángeles have given him, as he focused all his attention on himself, full and independent possession of his own genius, annexed for so long by the poets and poetry he admired and eagerly emulated. (pp. 201-02)

Although Sobre los ángeles is an intricate web of motifs and impulses, Alberti did not surrender his imagination to the wayward fancies of psychic dictation; the images procreated by his rich and energetic fantasy were a poet's escape from total silence and complete incoherence. To represent his thoughts and feelings Alberti now incorporated into his poems images he found striking and drew with words the pictures he once made—and still makes—with a brush. His statement that 'Sobre los ángeles marks in my work very different affinities: the biblical poets Ezekiel, Isaiah and St John; Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Bécquer' is not an invitation to track down sources but an avowal of spiritual kinship with writers whose experiences paralleled his own and whose words at times graphically expressed similar feelings. Less important than the discovery and identification of a source or reminiscence is the question why, for example, Alberti shared Rimbaud's revulsion against life and obsession with hell, or why he saw in Quevedo's vision of the body and soul as empty dwellings a visually attractive motif. (p. 203)

The abysses, caves, mines, tunnels, vaults and wells which form part of the scenery of Sobre los ángeles illustrate the belief Alberti shared with Rimbaud that 'Theology is serious, hell is certainly below—and heaven above.' (p. 207)

While in Sobre los ángeles Alberti was concerned to record a complex experience in all its confused rawness and heat, in Sermones y moradas he attempted to justify his experience with an ardour more simulated than authentic. (p. 214)

Unfortunately for the poetic success of Sermones y moradas, the shock-tactics Alberti employed repel rather than stun the reader, who is put in mind of Cal y canto by Alberti's determination to mystify and astound and by his indiscriminate enjoyment of the imaginative richness which in Sobre los ángeles he mined deeply and controlled expertly. Whereas in Sobre los ángeles his dignity and measure invited us to recognize in his loss of faith a great personal tragedy, in Sermones y moradas he forfeits our sympathy by souring his faithlessness with an irreverence as distasteful as his vision of the Holy Spirit submerging bodies [in the sulphur of the volcanoes]….

In Sermones y moradas the deep disturbances which motivated and were documented in Sobre los ángeles upset Alberti's poetic balance and blurred the dividing line between freedom and anarchy, authentic bewilderment and the cultivated perplexity he displayed in many questions, some of which are so eccentric and protracted as to be unanswerable. (p. 216)

The rhetorical extravaganzas of Sermones y moradas were a desperate attempt to maintain the emotional impetus and surpass the imaginative suppleness of Sobre los ángeles; but having once made his angels enact and frame his anguish, Alberti's redeployment of his despair without the cohesion of such an energetic cast was an anti-climactic exercise in fantasy and parade of bitterness. Although Sobre los ángeles was necessary for Alberti's mental and poetic health, it did not cure him of the ills which he exhibited in Sermones y moradas with a defiant and acrimonious independence; giving his cry of pain the sharp edge of denunciation, he offered us instead of the emotional tautness and imaginative control of Sobre los ángeles a supercharged tension, which, although clearly symptomatic of his deep-seated malaise, his bewilderment and his isolation in a world whose values he no longer respected, can only disappoint those who find supremely exemplified in Sobre los ángeles a visually appealing expression of a complex spiritual and emotional crisis. (pp. 216-17)

C. B. Morris, in A Generation of Spanish Poets 1920–1936 (© Cambridge University Press 1969), Cambridge University Press, 1969.

The Owl's Insomnia, Mark Strand's translations of some fifty poems selected from the voluminous corpus of Rafael Alberti's verse, demonstrates clearly that, prior to this volume, Alberti has been inexcusably neglected by translators into English. He is one of the four greatest contemporary poets of the Spanish language. In most poems of the present selection, an eloquent voice of tenderness emerges. Words must be tender to air, to leaves, to windowpanes—even to numbers chalked, then rudely unchalked, from blackboards…. To recognize fragility, defenselessness, vulnerability, a capacity to feel pain even in air, skies, stars, moons, snows is not to personify falsely the inanimate universe with human traits; rather, it is to recognize and acknowledge levels of kinship—in the spirit, the human is sensitively akin to the non-human. Sensitivity and caring are not so much anthropomorphically projected into the elements, stars, planets, satellites, as discovered to be properties inherent in them, too. (pp. 289-91)

Are the poems true? Or does Alberti dissemble reality? His poems train our sensibilities to feel our way into his beautiful strangeness. His feelings are unique, and we become attuned to their strangely luminous intimacy and grace by relaxedly entertaining his elegies as one of the real worlds, adjacent to our own but tilted slightly, and mirroring at an angled perspective our subtlest feelings of quiet tenderness, which take on a more durable and everlasting character when inspected as entities in themselves, apart from human relationships.

The newly dead and newly alive are brought into close proximity. Coming into life, coming into death, both are births, both initiations into a heightened being. How beautifully the dead resume their lives and survive in Alberti's fostering and nurturing memory…. Alberti is a new kind of elegist. His befriending ardor improves the ghost-personae of his elegies. They grow mellower in death. Their radiance survives as their human stains and tarnishes fade away. (p. 291)

Laurence Lieberman, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1974.

Lorca was certainly the first Spaniard of his generation, but there was Rafael Alberti, much too good to be peacefully a third or fourth and good enough to be first if it had not been for Lorca. (p. 51)

Alberti began his career as a painter … and his ancestry is in part Italian, as the family name indicates. His Italian streak is so classical, so Raphaelite, that he wrote some fine poems to The Golden Section and to Perspective, and subtitled his series To Painting, A Poem of Color and Line. His sense of line, of geometry, number, and proportion, is acute, and maintained with an Italian confidence in such things. (p. 52)

His form, in the course of a long life, has … been varied. He has gongorized a little, surrealized more than a little; written prose poems and free verse; worked with the small, concentrated forms of Jiménez and Machado, songs and poetic aphorisms; and, in addition to the poems on painting and painters, has written an exquisite series of poems to accompany various composers and periods of music from the fourteenth century on. Then there are plays, in prose and verse, and something he calls "stage poems," short monologues or dialogues in verse, lyric sainetes as it were, which ought to go beautifully in night-clubs. But through all this range, where you might expect the stunts of a virtuoso and a good deal of flourish, he maintains—at least so far as I can tell from sampling—an apparent simplicity of thought and execution, a grace of procedure that looks very easy. It is, unlike Lorca, temperate. He recommends that his stage poems be performed "soberly, without a shadow of declamation."

I would say that Alberti has good taste. I have never been quite sure what good taste is in Spain, but I am fairly sure that where it ends the duende begins, and Lorca. A Spanish formulation of good taste in dress is "never call attention to yourself but make everybody stare." Which is funny, but indicates that a very quiet perfection can be as impressive in Spain as the gaudier manner which strikes us more. At any rate, some are so impressed with Alberti's formal clarity and perfection that they think and say there is no emotion in his poetry. (p. 53)

The trouble with Alberti—and it would be no trouble at all if he were not associated with Lorca—is that he is a perfectly civilized poet, exquisitely cultivated, a man of the city, including the museums. Not that Lorca was a peasant, but his work stays pretty close to the land, to rudimentary passions, folklore, and balladry…. It distinguishes him sharply from Alberti who, though he had a maritime childhood, makes much of wind and water, and has a fine painter's eye for landscape, is essentially a man of the city and a cosmopolitan. (p. 56)

Donald Sutherland, "The Second Spaniard," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall/Winter, 1974, pp. 51-7.

Rafael Alberti, still writing at 71 and now exiled in Italy, belongs to the so-called "generation of '27." This was the spectacularly talented group of Spanish poets which was to be decimated and scattered over the world by the Spanish Civil War. García Lorca's name is the best known here, not only for his accomplishments but also because of the political publicity surrounding his violent death. Alberti, however, ranks with García Lorca and Jorge Guillén as one of the group's three principal luminaries…. Alberti … [is] not only an important modern poet but the one figure out of that group which—for all their considerable differences—might fairly be called their representative man.

Unlike no other group I can think of, it seemed to be made up entirely of exuberant virtuosos. None seemed more of one than Alberti, even when it came to displaying facility with both the learned baroque modes and the oral popular traditions which Alberti and García Lorca managed to revive so brilliantly and turn into a valid modern idiom. Like Alberti, they all took to their craft with a kind of Adamic ebullience, as if poetry had just been invented, or at least rediscovered—to the irritation of their elders. They took to experimenting with images, metaphors (especially metaphors), levels of diction, subjects, even entire traditions, often, it seemed, just for the pleasure of making them stand on edge, to be played with most untraditionally. The result was that they were accused of cold intellectualism and mere mannerist professionalism, just as Dali and Buñuel, who were also part of their group, would be. The charge was not true of the poets, to be sure. (pp. 22, 24)

[Ugliness] was for Alberti something which had entered modern poetry both triumphantly and necessarily with Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil. (p. 24)

García Lorca and Alberti [were able] to mix what has a strong kinship to Surrealism with oral, medieval traditions and come out with a genuine, lively idiom that was and is absolutely modern in its expression, and legitimately so.

Like García Lorca, Alberti is a fish in water within the idiomatic ambit of popular poetry and in what is most alive in his contemporary language and its traditional presentations of reality. And, like García Lorca, he is very much a child of this century. It was not for nothing that he once said, describing himself, "I was, please respect me, born with the movies." (p. 26)

J. M. Alonso, "Rehumanization of Art," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), January 11, 1975, pp. 22, 24, 26.