Villaurrutia, Xavier 1903-1950
Mexican poet, dramatist, essayist, critic, and novelist.
Xavier Villaurrutia was among the most significant figures in Mexican literature during the first half of the twentieth century. As co-founder and editor of the journals Ulises and Los Contemporáneos, and as a leading figure of the literary groups associated with each, he was a powerful force in Mexican letters during the 1920s and 1930s. Villaurrutia's published only three collections and a fourth volume of previously uncollected poetry; nonetheless his verse, particularly that found in Nostalgia de la muerte (1938; Nostalgia of Death), is highly acclaimed. Villaurrutia's output as a playwright was larger, and of his plays Invitación a la muerte (1943; Invitation to Death) is the most notable. As is evident from the titles of both works, death was a subject of interest to Villaurrutia, and much of his poetry likewise revolves around imagery of nighttime and darkness; however, his later work shows increasing attention to themes of love and rebirth.
Villaurrutia was born in Mexico City in 1903, the son of a commissions agent and the nephew of Jésus Valenzuela, a figure of minor stature in the Modernist movement within Mexican literature. Villaurrutia attended the French High School of Mexico, and later the Escuela Preparatoria Nacional, where he met other future literary notables such as Salvador Novo, Jaime Torres Bodet, and Jorge Cuesta. Following a short stint in law school, he left his studies to write full-time. Villaurrutia's first poems appeared in 1919, and at this point his work showed the influence of French Symbolists including Francis Jammes, as well as Mexican Modernists including González Martinez and Juan Ramón Jiménez. With Bodet and Bernardo Ortiz de Montellano, he founded the journal La Falange in 1922. During the next years, he published his poems in several literary magazines, and after La Falange ceased operation in 1923, he and Novo founded another magazine, Ulises, in 1927. Short-lived but highly influential, Ulises was followed by yet another publication, Contemporáneos. These journals, through the circles of writers that they spawned, set the tone of the Mexican avant-garde for decades to come, though their universalism would invoke the ire of nationalists such as the left-wing painter Diego Rivera, who created a mural depicting the "Contemporáneos" (as Villaurrutia's circle was called) as traitors to their people. Villaurrutia had meanwhile published his first volume of poetry, Reflejos (1926; Reflections), and through his association with the Contemporáneos, became involved in drama.
The latter put on plays in the home of a wealthy patron, presenting works by Eugene O'Neill, Lord Edward Dunsany, Jean Cocteau, and others. This, too, was an affront to the prevailing mood in Mexican letters, which favored imitations of Spanish plays. During this period of the early 1930s, Villaurrutia began to write plays in earnest, and he further expanded his knowledge of drama when, in 1935 and 1936, he attended Yale University on a Rockefeller scholarship. Returning to his homeland, he accepted a teaching position at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM) and became involved in productions by the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA). As such he continued to present plays by foreign writers, helping to bring about a revolution in the Mexican theatre. At some point Villaurrutia, a homosexual, became involved with the painter Agustín Lazo. The two would later collaborate in the writing of La mulata de Córdoba (1939; The Mulatto Woman from Cordoba). The late 1930s and 1940s saw the production of numerous plays by Villaurrutia, including Invitation to Death and the critically acclaimed Autos profanos (1943; Popular Allegories). In 1943, he formed another magazine, El Hijo Pródigo, with Octavio Barreda, and during the 1940s wrote a string of successful plays. Villaurrutia died in 1950, and after his death a Xavier Villaurrutia Prize for literary excellence was established.
Villaurrutia's first significant publication was Reflections in 1926, a book of poems in which he first developed his signature themes of solitude, quiet, and loneliness—conveyed in part through the physical imagery of night and darkness. The book was also marked by a strong use of metaphor, perhaps a product of his past interest in the Symbolists. His next volume of poetry came twelve years later, in 1938, with Nostalgia of Death. In this, considered by many critics to be his finest work, Villaurrutia pursues the death theme with even greater intensity than he had in Reflections, and explores the idea of an inner reality that is more firmly rooted in his persona's consciousness than is the external world. With Canto a la primavera (1948; Song to Spring), his third and last major poetic work, he made a sharp departure from earlier thematic preoccupations: the principal concerns of Spring are sensuality and beauty. In the area of drama, Villaurrutia's Popular Allegories are notable for their experimental quality. Far removed from reality, these five short plays present a negatively idealized world in which human beings are mere automatons or puppets. Invitation to Death attempted a Mexican interpretation of Hamlet, with a troubled character whose existence is rooted in contemporary Mexico. Villaurrutia, who began his career as a playwright with one-act dramas intended only for a very small audience, later wrote a string of popular threeact plays in which he developed his ideas about theatre within a highly accessible format. He also wrote, early in his career, a single novel, Dama de corazones (1928; Queen of Hearts.)
Reflejos [Reflections] (poetry) 1926
Dama de corazones [Queen of Hearts] (novel) 1928
Nocturnos [Nocturnes] (poetry) 1933
Parece mentira [It Seems Untrue] (drama) 1934
¿En qué piensas¿ [What Are You Thinking About?] (drama) 1938
Nostalgia de la muerte [Nostalgia of Death] (poetry) 1938
La mulata de Córdoba [The Mulatto Woman from Cordoba] [with Agustín Lazo] (drama) 1939
Textos y pretextos [Texts and Pretexts] (essays) 1940
Décima muerte y otros poemas no coleccionados [Death in Tenths and Other Uncollected Poems] (poetry) 1941
Autos profanos [Popular Allegories] (drama) 1943 Invitación a la muerte [Invitation to Death] (drama) 1943
La mujer legítima [The Legitimate Wife] (drama) 1943 Canto a la primavera y otros poemas [Song to Spring and Other Poems] (poetry) 1948
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SOURCE: "Xavier Villaurrutia and The Modern Mexican Theatre," in Modern Language Forum, Vol. XXXIX, No. 2, December, 1954, pp. 108-14.
[In the following essay, Lamb offers a brief overview of Villaurrutia's career, with emphasis on his dramatic work.]
Xavier Villaurrutia appears in Mexican letters among the young men who formed the group known as "Contemporáneos," which soon became by its own efforts a literary generation.1 A poet above all, Xavier Villaurrutia has not failed to utilize the other disciplines of letters, and he has demonstrated his ability and his technical strength in the theatre and in critical writing.2
According to Villaurrutia himself the most important mission of the "Contemporáneos" group was to put Mexico in touch with the universal. "We tried to make known the contemporary manifestations of art, to open the way for a knowledge of foreign literatures .. . It can be said that the most important group of modern painters was formed with us. On the other hand, we are the only ones who have occupied ourselves seriously with the most authentic modern theatre and with its diffusion and expression in Mexico."3 He goes on to say, "Some time ago we made attempts to make it known in the theatrical groups of Ulysses and Orientation, and we have also been occupied with the study of theatricaltechnique in the centers where it is best...
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SOURCE: "A Commentary on Villaurrutia's "Décima Muerte '," in Kentucky Foreign Language Quarterly, Vol. II, No. 4, 1955, pp. 160-5.
[In the following essay, Dauster closely examines the ten verses that make up "Décima muerte."]
Although the poetic production of Xavier Villaurrutia is comparatively restricted, consisting of three brief volumes—Reflejos (1926), Nostalgia de la Muerte (second and definitive edition, 1946), and Canto a la Primavera y Otros Poemas (1948)—it represents one of the major achievements of contemporary Latin American poetry. His phantasmagoric world of specters and dream-fantasy, expressed in a taut, opaque style classical in its economy and concision, is a remarkable esthetic achievement.
His work illustrates a major tendency in modern poetry: the preoccupation with the problem of death. "Décima Muerte," his finest single poem, investigates this problem in its relation to his personal situation: a personality which was unable to burst through the confines of solipsism, and the knowledge that he suffered from a cardiac condition which could end his life at any moment.
"Décima Muerte" is rooted in the Renaissance tradition of the Petrarchan love poem. On this framework of the poet and his beloved, Villaurrutia constructed a double symbolism: his own imminent end, and his concept of a personalized death. These two...
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SOURCE: "Villaurrutia and Baudelaire," in Hispania, Vol. XLIII, No. 2, May, 1960, pp. 205-8.
[In the following essay, Nugent draws parallels between the poetry of Villaurrutia and that of Charles Baudelaire, and points out areas of divergence as well. ]
The influence of various French authors on Villaurrutia has already been noted: Alí Chumacera in his introduction to the complete works of Villaurrutia1 has pointed out (p. xxii) the importance of Proust, Cocteau, Supervielle, Giraudoux, the surrealists, the intellectual example of Gide, for the Mexican poet. Behind them all, however, stands the figure of Baudelaire, whose work forms the beginning of modern French poetic theory and attitudes. The present paper is an attempt to indicate some relationships between the author of the Fleurs du mal and the Mexican contemporáneo, not so much in the way of direct imitation but more in the way of comparisons which seem significant. These relationships center about those themes of death, night, and dream, usually present in a discussion of Villaurrutia's poetry.
The theme of death is an important one for both Baudelaire and Villaurrutia. The Fleurs du mal has a section of six poems entitled "La Mort." In the first of these poems, "La Mort des amants,"2 we find a note of a certain exaltation, the angel who "entre "ouvrant les portes,/Viendra ranimer,...
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SOURCE: "Xavier Villaurrutia: The Development of His Theater," in Hispania, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, December, 1960, pp. 508-14.
[In the following essay, Moreno chronicles Villaurrutia's career as a playwright, and examines some of his principal themes.]
Rafael Solana, an outstanding contemporary Mexican dramatist and critic, remarked shortly after Villaurrutia's death that the Sociedad de Autores and whoever else loved the man should do something to perpetuate his name. As one who admired him, I wish to contribute this appraisal of his dramatic works to that end.
According to the surviving members of his family, Villaurrutia was a precocious child, who learned to read at the age of three, and at an early age entertained his brothers and sisters with puppet shows for which he himself wrote the scripts, handled the marionettes, and painted the scenery.1 During his very active membership in the group known as the Contemporáneous he contributed endless hours to the publication of a periodical which was issued regularly under the same name as that of the organization. Then, because of his conscientious dedication to writing, and a display of outstanding talents in several fields of literature, he was rewarded with a scholarship by the Rockefeller Foundation which enabled him to spend one year in the United States for the study ofdramatic technique. Immediately after his...
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SOURCE: "The Contemporary Cultural Revolution in Latin America as Reflected in the Theater of Xavier Villaurrutia," in Topic, Vol. II, No. 4, Fall, 1962, pp. 30-38.
[In the following essay, Moreno posits the coming of a social and cultural revolution in Latin America, and notes evidence of this shift in Villaurrutia's work.]
The political and economic development of the Latin American republics from their independence to the twentieth century had been so gradual as to be scarcely discernible. The masses had been contained in a strait jacket of paternalism and had not been permitted to plan or direct their own lives, to participate in the affairs of their villages, or even to think for themselves. The precedent for such a wretched lot had been established during the wars of independence in which their role had been as inactive as it has been in the political upheavals since. The leitmotif or common denominator of all these revolutions has been simply a change of personnel in the upper echelons with no real concern for the broad base or mass. The twentieth century, however, has been nourishing a political and economic emergence which has been moving at a very active pace, and which has been accompanied by mounting revolutionary changes in the cultural atmosphere.
There has been a rapid broadening of the audience resulting from the increasing participation of the masses in the...
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SOURCE: "The Influence of the French Theatre in the Plays of Xavier Villaurrutia," in Latin American Theatre Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall, 1969, pp. 9-15.
[In the following essay, Cypess closely examines the influence of French playwrights, particularly Henri-René Lenormand, on Villaurrutia's dramatic work.]
Before Xavier Villaurrutia became involved with the Mexican theatre, he had already gained fame as a poet and was associated with the avant-garde literary group Los Contemporáneos. Before he produced his first play in 1933, he had been intimately connected with a new trend in the Mexican theatre, the experimental movement. For Villaurrutia the experimental theatres provided first a learning experience and then a testing ground for his theatrical ideas. Villaurrutia acknowledges the importance of this experience, admitting, "I . . . would very likely never have written plays without the Ulises experience."1 His apprenticeship as a playwright took him through the roles of actor, director, and translator of many of the contemporary foreign plays admired by the avant-garde. Thus, when critics refer to the influences which played a role in the formation of the theatre of Xavier Villaurrutia, the most common procedure has been to link Villaurrutia's name with the dramatists whose works he translated and leave it at that. For example, Rafael Solana, in discussing "Villaurrutia,...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry," in Xavier Villaurrutia, Twayne Publishers, 1971, pp. 31-68.
[In the following excerpt, Dauster chronicles the development of Villaurrutia's poetic style from Reflections and his earliest work to Song to Spring and the later poems.]
Xavier Villaurrutia's poetic production was quantitatively slight: the "early poems" included in the collected works, Reflections (1926), the definitive edition of Nostalgia of Death (1946), and Song to Spring (1948). This restricted production was due to the fact that Villaurrutia was not, in spite of the verbal facility which characterizes much of his work, a facile poet. Writing was, for Villaurrutia, a long process of maturation of his thought until the moment of actual creation over which he had little control; he wrote, as he himself said, inevitably:
It is not possible for me to tell myself: I am going to start writing!, it is necessary to abandon myself for a long time during which I go on maturing, crystallizing .. . an idea, until a moment arrives over which I have no control and I can say to myself: Now I know that I am going to write. That is, I write inevitably, that is the exact word!1
This is perfectly consistent with Villaurrutia's intellectual concept of poetry, a concept which has been radically misunderstood by...
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SOURCE: "The Function of Myth in the Plays of Xavier Villaurrutia," in Hispania, Vol. 55, No. 2, May, 1972, pp. 256-63.
[In the following essay, Cypess explores the classical roots of the imagery employed by Villaurrutia in his dramatic works.]
As a dramatist, Xavier Villaurrutia has been classified universalista and afrancesado but rarely mexicano, despite the fact that his efforts were directed toward the creation of a Mexican theatrical tradition.1 It is true that in the plays of his first period—one-acters all given as part of the experimental theater movements of the thirties—he made no attempt to represent scenes from contemporary or historical Mexico. These plays did not allude to historical or literary figures or typical Mexican characters with whom the audience could identify. Instead, Villaurrutia was involved in making general statements on the themes of love, truth, illusion and reality, and in practicing the techniques he had learned from the dramatists of the avant-garde movements outside Mexico.2
The Villaurrutia of this first period was not a popular playwright; his works were not attuned to the preferences of the commercial theater.3 Also, there were those who criticized his plays for their "anti-nationalist" flavor. In his second period—the plays of the forties which were three-act works—Villaurrutia appeared...
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SOURCE: "Themes," in Fire and Ice: The Poetry of Xavier Villaurrutia, U.N.C. Dept. of Romance Languages, 1976, pp. 105-54.
[In the following excerpt, Foster provides an overview of major and minor themes—including solitude, love, death, and others—in Villaurrutia's poetry.]
Villaurrutia's poetry turns on three obsessions which find expression as the three principal themes: 1) human beings live separated one from another in inevitable and anguished solitude; 2) love, when it exists, is incomplete, secret, impossible, and at times illicit; 3) death is a constant presence in an empty and solitary existence. In the first section of this chapter, I shall examine these three thematic groupings as exemplified in a number of important poems.
In addition to the three main themes, there are several smaller complexes of meaning which will be discussed in the second part: poetry and the poetic muse, nature and the peaceful life, religious experience, and recollection of childhood.
An essential awareness of separation and solitude is developed with increasingintensity in the poet's four collections. In Primeros poemas, for example, solitude is implied in the scenes of silent nature found in many of the poems, and anguished separation is sharply...
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SOURCE: A review of Nostalgia for Death and Hieroglyphs of Desire, by Xavier Villaurrutia and Octavio Paz, in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 22, No. 44, July-December, 1994, pp. 90-92.
[In the following review of Nostalgia for Death and Hieroglyphs of Desire, Kirkpatrick offers an assessment of Villaurrutia's work nearly fifty years after his death.]
The publication of Xavier Villaurrutia's Nostalgia for Death is an important contribution to the English-speaking world's knowledge of Mexican literature and of poetry in Spanish. It is, in a sense, a curiously belated translation, both of Villaurrutia's poetry, here beautifully translated by Eliot Weinberger, and of Octavio Paz's accompanying essay, "Hieroglyphs of Desire" (1978), translated by Esther Allen. Villaurrutia began publishing these poems in the late 1920s and published the definitive collected edition in 1946. Villaurrutia's poetry occupies a strong place in the canons of Mexican poetry; he was also a dramatist and critic. He and his work, however, have been difficult to place within an overall vision of Latin American literature. Ahistorical, not quite in step with the most recognized vanguard poets of his time, Villaurrutia belonged to that literary group known as the "Contemporáneos," important in the thirties and forties, whose history stands somewhat apart from the currents we most associate often with...
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Bedoya, Roberta. "To Speak of Desire." Hungry Mind Review, No. 27 (Fall 1993): 28-29.
Review of Villaurrutia's and Octavio Paz's Nostalgia for Death/Hieroglyphs of Desire: A Critical Study of Villaurrutia which treats Villaurrutia's work as a positive embodiment of a gay social agenda.
Merrill, Christopher. "Streets That Flow Sweetly through the L.A. Night." Los Angeles Times Book Review (June 13, 1993): 10.
Positive review of Nostalgia for Death/Hieroglyphs of Desire as part of a long tradition of night or sleep literature.
Mojica, Rafael H. Review of Nostalgia for Death/ Hieroglyphs of Desire: A Critical Study of Villaurrutia, edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger and Esther Allen. World Literature Today 69, No. 1 (Winter 1995): 111.
Provides historical background regarding Villaurrutia's friendship with Paz, and faults Weinberger's attempt to enlist Villaurrutia in "today's culture wars" simply because he was gay.
The following source published by Gale contains further coverage of Villaurrutia's life and career: Hispanic Writers.
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