Rubén Darío is remembered as one of the first poetic voices of postcolonial Latin America, enormously influential as a founder of Modernismo. His work, however, underwent constant change, and no single school can claim him. He was acclaimed a Prometheus who brought modern trends of European art to newly independent Latin America; at the same time, he was an innovator in poetic form who exercised a major influence on the poetry of twentieth century Spain. In his later years, Darío retreated from the exotic imagery of Modernismo and returned to more traditional Latin American themes, including patriotism and religion.
The birth of Modernismo in Latin America coincided with South America’s transition from colonialism to independence. The declining influence of Spanish culture made way for new literary sources. Latin American intellectuals had long recognized French culture as the navigational star for their society, which was throwing off the control of monarchies. Thus, in the late nineteenth century, with much of Latin America freed from the cultural sway of Spain, the influence of France was everywhere ascendant, particularly in the universities and in the world of the arts. Darío’s work in particular and Modernismo in general derived primarily from the interplay between French and Spanish culture, with a rich diversity of other foreign influences.
At its heart, Modernismo was an assertion of artistic freedom—the manifesto of those whom Darío described as a “new generation of American writers [with] an immense thirst for progress and a lively enthusiasm.” The Modernistas idealized art, seeking to range freely for symbolic images in the worlds of the fantastic, the mysterious, and the spiritual. Emphasizing the eclectic internationalism that characterized the movement, Darío spoke of a “close material and spiritual commerce with the different nations of the world.”
Darío’s work spanned thirty-five years. It consists of thousands of poems, most of them short and many of them in sonnet form. Darío’s best-known works also include longer pieces, and his shorter works are sometimes grouped as suites of poems with common themes.
The most common subjects of Darío’s poetry are the members of his international family of friends, his romantic loves, and the world of nature. In the tradition of French Parnassianism, he portrayed his subjects through dramatic ideals, using lavish symbolic imagery. Whatever the subject, Darío’s portraits are rich in exotic imagery and symbolism. The world of his images is European as much as it is American. In places real and imagined, the reader finds unusual animals and woodland flora, and characters plucked from myth and history. Darío’s poetry abounds in allusion, and he often arrays his poetic portraits of the most commonplace themes with the exotic trim of myth and history.
“A Víctor Hugo”
Early evidence of Darío’s debt to French art and literature appears in the 1884 poem “A Víctor Hugo” (to Victor Hugo), a paean directed not only to the French master but also to an enumerated multitude of figures who inspired the seventeen-year-old Darío: authors, scientists, and philosophers from Europe and the United States as well as figures from mythology and the Bible. The poem describes the explosion that Hugo touched off in the heart of the self-proclaimed “sad troubadour from the New World.” Throughout the work, Darío blends his pious attention to the noise and movement of nature with the voices of myth and history. The influential Spanish critic Juan Valera acknowledged the obvious: The poetry of the young Darío was marked by an immersion in the images and ideas of centuries of Western civilization. Throughout his literary life, Darío wore his new religion proudly.
“A Víctor Hugo” explodes with pithy tributes to Darío’s Olympus of heroes. Venus smiles. Apollo discourses with Erato, the Muse of love poetry, and with her sister Muses. Christ preaches and dies. Galileo utters his apocryphal words of defiance (“And still, I say, it moves”). Benjamin Franklin, Robert Fulton, and Ferdinand de Lesseps move Earth with their inspired plans.
International recognition did not immediately follow the publication of “A Víctor Hugo,” but the work heralded Darío’s fame. In it, he affirmed his proud association with the artist. His profusion of references to the geniuses of Western civilization, too, reflected his captivation by European art and writing. Finally, his portrait of the world was of an extraordinary setting, a site of spectacular animation, anticipating explicitly Modernista works. Although emotional and sincere, his descriptions were not so much true to life as true to an ideal.
At the close of “A Víctor Hugo,” the New World’s sad but well-read troubadour echoes a famous theme of Spain’s first poet of the modern era, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer: the yearning to give voice to the transcendent and the frustration at the limits of language. Darío unconvincingly gasps: “Oh, but I am left breathless at my lyre/ And unable to continue...
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