Dámaso Alonso Andrew P. Debicki - Essay

Andrew P. Debicki

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dámaso Alonso is generally recognized as a major literary critic of contemporary Spain, and as the founder of a whole school of stylistic analysis. At the same time he is considered an important poet who, having started his career by writing "pure" and somewhat abstract verse, changes his style after the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939 and takes the lead in a movement toward a direct and anguished "human" poetry.

This characterization of Alonso as a poet of two styles, though in many respects correct, does not take into account the fundamental cohesiveness of his literary production. If we examine all of his verse, for example, we can see that in spite of certain external differences between his early and his late books of poetry, all of them deal with the same general themes and make use of similar devices. All of them, for example, offer a dual perspective on reality, artistically embodied in certain techniques of imagery and point of view. Likewise, if we study Alonso's criticism, we find certain ideas which pervade and link his stylistic analyses and his more general essays, his earlier works and his later ones. Alonso's views, for example, on the relationship between analysis and intuition, on the ways in which a poem infuses new values into traditional themes and techniques, and on the connections between form and meaning, exemplify such constant points in his criticism. In addition, if we consider Alonso's verse and his criticism in relation to each other, we are able to see some viewpoints and concerns which underlie and shed light on both genres. In both, for instance, Alonso strives to reconcile personal intuitions with objective visions; in both he bases his work on his attitude toward literary form as a unique way of embodying complex essential meanings which cannot be seized in any other way. (p. 7)

[There is] a constant duality in Alonso's work, a shift between the precise and the affective, the learned and the immediate, which can be discerned both in his verse and in his criticism. This seems to be in Alonso's case a particular form of the conflict between the conceptual critic and the poet who seeks meanings intuitively. Alonso, on the one hand, is constantly delving as deeply as possible into the nature and the meaning of phenomena in general and of literature in particular, using his tremendous philological and critical knowledge and acumen to obtain the fullest insights possible. But at the same time he comes to feel the limitations and the imperfections of human intelligence and of humanity, to have an affective awareness of Man's plight and tragedies, and to embody vividly this plight and these tragedies. Alonso's great triumph is that he manages to fuse and combine his two attitudes and his two quests. He does so largely thanks to his sense of what is personally crucial for Man: in his criticism he always asks the question that yields insights as to the works' value for the reader, in his verse he focuses on themes of key import to Man's life. He does this also because of his sense of the creative power of language: in all his writing … Alonso combines and orders words so as to pull out of them a wide range of meaning, conceptual as well as affective. (p. 23)

The conflict between an idealized view of life and a harshly realistic one, a conflict which is central to Poemas puros, prefigures the clash between a religious outlook and an existential one, and this clash is central to Alonso's later verse. The protagonist who must choose between the poetic and the trivial in Poemas puros is an earlier version of the anguished seeker of Hijos de la ira. The use of images which combine symbolic and metaphoric values can be seen throughout all of Alonso's poetry: the use of a prosaic vocabulary for poetic effects can be discerned in Poemas puros and becomes dominant in Hijos de la ira. All this suggests that the poetry of Dámaso Alonso constitutes a single path: his early poems already reveal human, philosophic, and poetic concerns which blossom fully in his later books, and which enable him to become a leader in the poetic renewal which follows the Civil War. (pp. 33-4)

Much of the poetic value of Poemas puros is due to the way in which symbols give dramatic precision and concreteness to the otherwise ethereal theme of a common outlook in conflict with an elevated one. At times, indeed, the work might seem too exact in its use of natural and human symbols. But the paradoxical nature of the speaker … and the use of detailed tangible images … keep the book from falling into an inhuman neatness; while concern with the issue of time relates the work and its theme of a dual reality to a basic question facing Man.

The most successful images that appear in the book seem therefore to possess a dualistic nature. On the one hand they fulfill the traditional role of symbols: that of representing, conceptually and completely, certain meanings outside of themselves. (Thus the speaker embodies the search for ideals, the beloved is an ideal, etc.) In this fashion they pin down exactly the conflict between two points of view. On the other hand, however, these same images add complexity to several poems, and in this fashion operate more like metaphors. (p. 38)

Oscura noticia, like Alonso's earlier poetry, is centered on the conflict between an idealistic attitude and a prosaic one. But now Alonso relates this conflict even more explicitly to the particular issues and problems of human life, to time, death, love. As a result, it becomes less an absolute contrast between the elevated and the ordinary; and more the very immediate struggle which Man faces between his desire to reach various types of perfection (the perfect love, the perfect work of art, timelessness) on the one hand, and the forces which pull him to egoism, which limit him, and which make him susceptible to death on the other. And as the theme of the duality of life is brought closer to our immediate existence, so the techniques of the work place greater stress on the complexities and the shadings to be found in reality. By developing and stressing the role of the protagonist, by using bisemic symbols, and by using details with greater complexity, Alonso incorporates into his poems more of the aspects and the elements related to the dualities actually present in our world.

Possibly the most obvious feature of Hijos de la ira is the anguish which it expresses by means of its images of horror, its free verse, its seemingly direct style, and its ordinary and at times prosaic language…. [But] this negative picture of the world is balanced by a hopeful view of God, of beauty, and even of certain aspects of Man…. Hijos de la ira marks the culmination of the conflict between the ordinary and the elevated which we have noted all along in Alonso's creative work. This conflict, however, becomes even more related to the basic problems of immediate human existence. As a result, what was a somewhat abstract contrast between the prosaic and the poetic in Poemas puros, and turned into the struggle between the desire for perfection and the limitations of Man in Oscura noticia, now becomes an even more vital and individualized conflict between Man's search for religious and personal transcendence on the one hand, and his temptation to egotism, pettiness and destruction on the other. (Now the poet looks at the destructive elements more closely, finding them harder to overcome.)

The book reveals a continued use of the techniques observed in Alonso's earlier verse, but now developed and enriched even further to meet the requirements of the work's more vital nature. Alonso makes use of the protagonist, of a combination of symbol and metaphor, and of a variety of subordinate images and figures; more than in previous books, he forms these elements, and the different poems of the volume, into a tightly knit and unified vision. (pp. 51-2)

The main protagonist of Hijos de la ira sees himself negatively more often than not, but this must be interpreted in the context of the book as a whole. Several times we notice that the condemnation which this protagonist heaps on himself becomes, paradoxically, his very means of salvation…. [It appears] that it is a confession of his own inadequacy which allows Man to transcend the limitations of the common and the material, and to achieve an elevated attitude. This view becomes, indeed, a major theme of Hijos de la ira. (p. 53)

[Hijos de la ira takes] us dramatically from acceptance to rejection to renewed acceptance. Thus it has involved us in the path followed by the protagonist, and has embodied forcefully the theme of selflessness as a prerequisite to insight and to a higher outlook.

Although in the context of the book the protagonist symbolizes Man, it is as a particular being who draws shifting attitudes from the reader that he gives the poem its forcefulness. A clear initial identification between this speaker and Everyman would weaken the dramatic effect, and therefore the final paradox: only in renunciation does Man acquire acceptance and dignity. The particular characterization of this man serves, as some of the metaphors seen previously, to give vitality and concreteness to the work, and to prevent us from reducing it to a neat scheme. Yet the symbolic level of the poem is also indispensable. (This level is stressed by allusions in the poem, by the picture of the speaker as a man praying to God, by the context of the book.) Without this symbolic level, the speaker's plight would be trivial—the mere sufferings of an emotionally unstable man. This poem, therefore, reveals a perfect blend of two levels: the descriptive or metaphoric, which focuses on a particular being and makes us feel the immediacy of a particular reality; and the symbolic, which points to a more universal theme. This combination allows the poem to treat its theme both richly and significantly. (pp. 56-7)

The protagonist of Hijos de la ira is … the cornerstone of the general pattern of the book. Representing Man as he travels through life, he must choose between a selfish, limited outlook on the one hand, and a selfless, wider, and more poetic one on the other. Whatever connections he might have with Dámaso Alonso himself, this protagonist is primarily a literary device embodying a dramatic and complex battle going on within Man. Endowed with both symbolic and metaphoric value, he embodies the basic scheme of the work and is the major factor in its unity. (p. 59)

Without resolving the ultimate problems of religious truth, Hijos de la ira [offers] a coherent attitude which Man—be he an orthodox Christian or not—can take in the light of the problems of existence. The protagonist's belief in the order of the universe, his acceptance of a pattern wider than his own whims, and his desire to curb and transcend these whims underlie the whole book. They forcefully represent a way of standing against all that is petty and chaotic in our world, and of asserting the higher dignity and possibilities of Man. They are, indeed, an existential and philosophic attitude which can be asserted by men of widely differing religious creeds. And the dramatic and patterned nature of the book makes it clear that the protagonist's "story" is important as one version, one example of Man's quest for elevation, not as a way of telling us what we should believe.

It is true, of course, that the work accepts the existence of a divine force; and that it leaves the detailed characteristics of this divine force undefined. (God will become more enigmatic in Alonso's later poetry.) Both these attitudes are again, however, quite wide in scope, and could be held by practicing Catholics as well as by skeptics…. While operating within his Catholic tradition, Alonso does not limit Hijos de la ira to any particular religious view…. [He is] constructing a poetic work rather than presenting his own beliefs. (pp. 64-5)

Hijos de la ira, though deeply concerned with basic philosophic questions, treats them in a human and poetic, rather than in a theological or systematic, fashion. The book embodies, vividly and dramatically, Man's struggle for value in his life, his opposition to the chaos and the meaninglessness which surrounds him, and his renunciation of a petty view in favor of a wider one. It offers one version, one compelling example of Man's battle to affirm his dignity; in that it holds meaning for all men of our time—and of all times.

What I have just said about Hijos de la ira is also applicable to Alonso's later books, Hombre y Dios and Gozos de la vista. There too we will find a protagonist struggling against the limitations of his pettiness, of the world, of time, of death. There too we will find the embodiment of a significant human attitude in the face of the philosophic and existential dilemmas facing us. (p. 65)

The choice between viewpoints which [Hijos de la ira] presents is a clear outgrowth of the theme of the ordinary versus the elevated which we have been observing since Poemas puros. The conflict between Man's search for religious transcendence and his temptation to egotism is but a more personal, more immediate, and at the same time more essentially human version of that constant theme…. And the whole theme of a conflict between Man's desire to elevate himself and his awareness of the concrete problems and limitations of existence could perhaps be linked in some way to the duality observable in Dámaso Alonso's own outlook, to the tension between the search for precise and exact insights and the feeling for affective human problems and limitations.

Hijos de la ira also represents a continuation and a development of the techniques already seen in Alonso's earlier work. The book still explores its meanings through symbols which both point beyond themselves to wider issues and retain concrete and metaphoric values. These symbols now reveal greater concreteness, greater wealth of allusion, greater connection with our present era; their metaphoric aspect is more apparent. Most important among these symbols is the protagonist … who has constantly helped portray, concretely yet precisely, Alonso's view of the basic conflict faced by Man. All this confirms the feeling that Hijos de la ira, for all its directness, is above all an artistic embodiment of its theme. (p. 66)

The central subject of Dámaso Alonso's Hombre y Dios (Man and God) is clearly a religious one: the presence of God and Man's relationship to Him. This fact, and the seemingly...

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