Dámaso Alonso

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Gonzalo Sobejano

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1865

[What] best defines Alonso the critic is precisely his art of definition, his extraordinary ability to see and express the essential features of a literary object….

The principal mission, although not the only one, which he set for himself and which has guided his steps and enabled him to reach goals which no one before had achieved, was, from the historical point of view, a new understanding and evaluation of Spanish lyric poetry of the Golden Age in its embodiment of universal qualities; and from the critical point of view, the study of the literary work as a work of art in language. (p. 255)

[In] no other contemporary Spanish critic … have I ever found, to such a high degree and with such revealing fidelity, the desire and gift to define briefly and distinctly, in the way a definition should be made, the nature and essential traits of one literature, period style, literary movement, generation, genre—especially of one writer, one work, and one or another technique of expression. This is what best sets Alonso apart from the critics of his time and country and what best distinguishes him personally, because this exercise of defining is in him principle, constant dedication and major goal. Singularly and repeatedly. And because the arena in which he works unceasingly is language….

Dámaso Alonso's art of definition is not aprioristic, deductive or generalistic, but intuitive, inductive and, in its ultimate form, psychological and physiognomical. (p. 256)

The study of Góngora [one of the outstanding poets of the Golden Age of Spanish poetry] soon brought him to a new interpretation of Spanish literature; not only is it realistic, regionalistic and popular, but also idealistic and universal, constantly straining between opposite extremes which at times confront one another, at times blend in a single text or in a single poet. This definition of the peculiar nature of Spanish literature emerges in opposition to the unilateral definition dominant until that time, not as abstraction or theory but based on his scrupulous examination of the work of Góngora. (p. 257)

Poets such as Garcilaso, Fray Luis de León, Medrano and Jorge Guillén have led him to reflect on classicism and to arrive at a very delicate extraction of its essence: "Classicism is modesty of expression, voluntary limitation,"… "the classic gift of knowing when to be silent,"… "a sense of containment, of sobriety, of well-timed silence." Classicism in art is "that which responds to a desire or a permanent longing of Humanity." He uses no fixed notion of classicism to describe such poets: the style of each of them, when studied with penetration, inspires in the interpreter the definition of one or another kind of classicism….

Alonso avoids facile generalizations about periods and cultures with a healthy sense of caution…. Each definition [Alonso uses in his work] depends on the perspective from which the critic views different subjects: one does not invalidate the other; they all are similar but each one contributes a different nuance or contains a particular purpose. (p. 258)

There are a few other instances in which Alonso has made fortunate use of classifying concepts: the highly animated revelation, rooted in solid erudition, of a whole area of Mexican and Spanish internal history in the study on "El Fabio de la Epístola moral "; the recognition of a sort of neo-mannerism in Calderón, who submitted baroque exuberance to serene order by stylizing, cataloguing and regulating it …; the recognition, in the period between the wars, of a "hyperrealism" or realism raised to the second power, a term applicable both to science and art, and more apt...

(This entire section contains 1865 words.)

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than the overused term of "surrealism" …; or the differentiation between rooted and uprooted poetry, essential for the understanding of postwar Spanish poetry….

Alonso's stylistics finds its most fitting subject in that area where individuality appears as a unitarian whole: in the poet, in the poem. (p. 259)

Alonso has barely concerned himself at all with literary genres abstractly, but when he has done so in relation with this or that concrete commentary, his thought has crystallized with prodigious precision. A poet himself, his preference has been the interpretation of lyrical poetry, from the early ripples of the jarchas to the visionary floods of Aleixandre: he is enamored of both learned and traditional poetry, of the well-carved ode and the rustic villancico, of the sculptured sonnet and the fluid couplet. The objective of poetry, he has written, "is not beauty, although it often seeks and strives for beauty, but feeling."… He has also written, however, "Poetry is nothing more than one of the most effective and rapid ways which man has to rise above the accidental to the absolute."… The fundamental theme of poetry in his view is "man in his totality."… (p. 260)

Alonso has not turned his back on the theater, which is demonstrated by his thoughtful analysis of the structure of Calderón's comedies and his lucid interpretation of the pure dramatic poetry of Gil Vicente. Pointing to possible methods for dramatizing a non-theatrical work (transposition, germinative development and reductive projection), he has correctly identified the first essential law of the stage: the "law of velocity."… But Alonso's greatest brilliance in the art of definition has been achieved in the analysis of the components of expression: structure, rhetoric, syntax, imagery and symbolism, vocabulary, versification.

Today when everything is structure and the earth appears to be inhabited, as they say, by structural man, we may be surprised to see structure defined as "beginning, union, transition, variation, end,"… i.e., the disposition and articulation of the most wide-ranging signifiers. (pp. 260-61)

The stylistic focusing of syntax is indebted to Alonso for such fertile distinctions as the one made between "progressive and non-progressive" syntagma, the various types of hyperbaton, and the unusual formulas used by Góngora to give an ingenious personal stamp to his learned phraseology….

And finally, he, a great poet, has uncovered and made known the nature and effects of Spanish versification: the brilliance of words placed at the peak of rhythmic intensity in the Gongorine endecasyllable, the ambiguous instability of secondary accents in the modernist alexandrine, the material enrichment of a verse with an emphatic synaloepha and the expressive contraction produced by synaeresis, the different acoustical and symbolic impressions caused by the "soft" and "abrupt" enjambment (a nomenclature coined by Alonso which is in wide use today), the "restless freedom of the assonant,"… the propensity of the lira to "swell at the end,"… the unfading excellence of the sonnet and many other statements on poetic form which remain imprinted in the memory of the attentive reader.

In a few circumstantial pages, barely five, which Alonso has written in "Praise of the Endecasyllable," his art of defining verses and poets reaches a level of transparent understanding as has rarely or never been found in Spanish criticism. (p. 261)

To define is to explain briefly, clearly and distinctly the essence of something, and it is logical that this be considered basic by someone who has put his greatest effort into the study of style: "Style is everything that individualizes a literary object, be it a work, an epoch, or a whole literature."… Like the hen and the egg, the problem of whether Alonso was led to stylistics by his personal gifts for defining individual essence, or whether he owes this ability to his assiduous work on stylistic method, seems to have no solution. I, however, would begin by emphasizing Alonso's dual vocation as mathematician and poet (an innate combination of precision and fervent clarity), keeping in mind the conforming imprint of two simultaneous factors: on the one hand, his spiritual education in a climate of intuitionism, phenomenology, the theory of expectation and perspective, the cubist predominance of abstract figuration, and critical formalism at its height; and, on the other hand, his continuous cultivation of a stylistics of language which began with his own direct dealings with Góngora's commentators and links up maintaining his own personal criteria…. (p. 262)

[Synonyms] or related terms, which are symptomatic of Alonso's interpretative language, accompany and modulate his preference for "transparency." It is true that we frequently find in his pages signs of bewilderment (elusive, bitter, sour, tremulous, panting, dart-like, wooded, stormy, confused, wind, mist, passion) and the attributes of darkness (dark, blind, lost, secret, ineffable, magical, astonishment, monster, portent, mystery). But these signs and attributes form the background against which the verbal indices of purity stand out (unripe, bittersweet, slender, silken, lean, narrow, untilled, thin, delicate, subtle, unblemished, virginal, intangible, immutable) and the splendid signs of clarity (neat, clear, exact, mathematical, transparent, crystalline, diaphanous, luminous, radiant, perfect). As forgetfulness makes remembrance memorable, as empty space makes objects visible, as silence makes words audible, so disorder and darkness are the elements in which this desire for integrity and transparency prosper. (p. 264)

Alonso invokes intuition as the point of departure and as the final boundary of his interpretative exercise. Intuition as the beginning of knowledge is necessary for him and for all of us in dealing with men, nature and art. To limit the use of reason in a final act of respect toward the unattainable may serve as a brake on the arrogance of reason and, in any case, is a gesture of quite noble humility. Alonso always pursues clarity through his unique art of definition, determined to limit the difficulty, eliminate confusion and propose a reason of love. He first intuits the essence of the text, allowing the text to inscribe its impression on the "clean slate" of his sensibility as an innocent reader. A detail or two, captured by that purposely unprejudiced sensibility, causes a perception which is opportune and can lead him on from there. Analytical penetration follows at once, from the signifier to the signified or vice-versa; a detailed, minute study of interior and exterior form, which makes a step-by-step delimitation of expressive techniques and groups the main or constant features in provisional synthesis. Just as ripe fruit falls from a tree, so at this moment the definition is born, either in a term, a short sentence, a summarizing conclusion, a title, a subtitle—a definition which expresses the substance of the object without simplifying it, gathering it in the semblance of its concrete and living oneness. After the definition, which has so enriched the pre-critical intuition, the interpreter looks back with excitement to the boundary which he believed impassable. That boundary, however, has been pushed forward considerably, widening the passage of light.

Alonso's art of definition, triumphing over the inertia of pure impressionism, ripping away stereotypes by the rational illumination of unique nuclei, approaching those nuclei with the deep sympathy with which one seeks the truth of a friend's soul, satisfies the intellect, awakens the imagination, nourishes the memory, and moves the will to a love of poetry. If he defined poetry as fervor and clarity, we might well say that his poetical criticism is an eternal witness to a will for unification and intense understanding: a model of fervent clarity. (pp. 264-65)

Gonzalo Sobejano, "On the Interpretative Style of Dámaso Alonso: The Art of Definition," translated by Barbara Huntley, in Books Abroad (copyright 1974 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 48, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 255-65.


Andrew P. Debicki


Philip Silver