Dámaso Alonso

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Gustavo PéRez Firmat

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            The Cosmos coheres all right             Even if my notes do not cohere.                     Ezra Pound

The epigraph that introduces this paper singles out two terms and establishes their relationship. The terms: cosmos and notes; the relationship: dissimilarity. Pound's notes, unlike the cosmos, do not cohere. I would like to borrow this formula and apply it to the study of the poetry of Dámaso Alonso, but with the following twist: the relationship will remain intact, but the terms will exchange attributes. In Alonso's view of things, it is the cosmos that suffers from incoherence; the cosmological model he adopts is the "exploding universe" of Georges Lemaître, perpetually expanding, perpetually falling apart. His poems, on the other hand, make perfectly coherent use of this hypothesis, incorporating it as one more element in a unified poetic whole. In particular, the two-part poem "Sueño de las dos ciervas" offers a striking illustration of the poetic uses of modern cosmology. (p. 147)

In the poetry of Alonso the motif of the exploding universe achieves its most interesting incarnations when it is used figuratively. By virtue of the kind of universe they depict, relativistic models conform well to the world-view espoused in collections like Hijos de la ira and Oscura noticia and, therefore, provide a fertile source for metaphor and symbol…. Throughout the poetry of Alonso, man is repeatedly situated not only among other men, in a particular city or country, but also in a larger cosmic setting…. Technically, this entails a radical distancing of the narrator from the narrated material. (pp. 149-50)

More pertinent to our purposes than the mechanisms of the cosmic perspective are the situations in which it appears. In almost every instance it coincides with passages of high-pitched emotion or acute insight…. The intrusion of the cosmic perspective at these privileged moments is significant. From the solemnity of the occasion we can infer the importance of the scenario. Interstellar space becomes the appropriate backdrop for the dramatization of the crucial episodes in an individual's life. (p. 151)

It is not difficult to see why the exploding universe readily lends itself to metaphorization by a poet whose outlook has generally been termed "existential," and who is thus concerned with such questions as alienation, loss of identity, fragmentation of the self, and nothingness. Relativistic cosmologies can be used to represent such an outlook both as it applies to the individual and to society. On the individual scale the disintegration of the primeval nebula images the fragmentation of the individual's identity…. In this respect the best gloss for this section is provided by another of Alonso's poems, "En el día de los difuntos":

   Yo me muero, me muero a cada instante,    perdido de mí mismo,    ausente de mí mismo,    lejano de mí mismo,    cada vez más perdido, más lejano, más ausente….

In these lines discursive language serves to articulate the attitude that is expressed figuratively in [another poem,] "A Pizca"—the agony of aging accompanied by an increasing fracture of the self. Like the galaxies, the fragments of personality drift farther and farther apart with no indication that the pattern can be reversed. At the same time, the dissolution of being can be seen on a larger scale as symbolic of the condition of society…. With each of its individual members moving away from each other, the social body also disintegrates. Communication and contact become progressively more precarious as the physical distance is exacerbated by a perceptual distance (the extinction of light). Ultimately, men will not only be separated from each other, they will have become invisible to each other. Moreover, the comparison implies...

(This entire section contains 1678 words.)

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that man has no control over his destiny. He is thrust out into space and cannot arrest his movement or alter its direction.

The Big-Bang metaphor also adds a new twist to the old topic of life as a journey. Traditionally man has travelled from a point of departure, A, to a point of arrival, B. The nature of B, of course, has varied according to the dominant world-view. Until the Enlightenment the kind of afterlife envisioned in Christian eschatology was almost invariably accepted. In the Christian concept of the homo viator, the natural culmination of life's journey is union with God…. If one adopts the model of the exploding universe as representative of human life, B vanishes. Man's itinerary loses its terminus. (pp. 155-56)

["Sueño de las dos ciervas"] picks up and ties together the different threads in Alonso's adaptation of the Big-Bang concept. (p. 161)

Although the poem does not contain any overt allusions to the motif of the exploding universe, we can readily situate several of its images within the Big-Bang complex…. The central image of the poem is the familiar one of deer fleeing toward a fountain. Because they are presented as symbols of light and darkness, it is easy to interpret their movement again as imaging the recession of the stars…. After having ascertained that the fountain is also fleeing …, the speaker asks, "¿Por qué nos huyes, Dios, por qué nos huyes?" His abrupt intromission (the preceding stanzas had been narrated in the third person) as a spokesman for mankind makes evident that just as the fountain represents God, the deer represent man. (p. 162)

In the first part of "Sueño" the dream of the sleeper revolves around three images: the deer running toward the fountain, arrows heading toward a target, and a tree. Considered in isolation, the choice and ordering of images is not without method. By analogy of motion, the arrows are explicitly linked with the deer; since the arrows are probably wooden, we can supply the missing link by associating them synecdochically with the tree. If one then accepts the opinion that the deer symbolize time (light and darkness = day and night) and that the tree symbolizes space, we can conclude that the arrows function as a textual hinge that joins the two in order to form our four-dimensional timespace continuum. (p. 164)

We have in the poem all of the components of a literary topic, but disjointed. It is as if the pieces of a well-known puzzle had been forced together into a novel and strange configuration. Something has upset the traditional coherence and predictability of the scene. I believe that the disorder originates in the fact that the diachronic signification of the images conflicts with their synchronic signification. In other words, the ciervas, as symbols, stride in different directions. On the one hand, they are associated with modern cosmology and the world-view it implies; on the other, they participate in a literary tradition whose locus is a previous, completely different, intellectual environment. It is, in fact, the environment of sixteenth-century Spanish mysticism. The central imagery of "Sueño de las dos ciervas" can be directly traced back to the poetry of San Juan, and, in particular, to one of his lesser known poems ["La fonte"]. Alonso's poem derives its meaning from the collision of the diachronic and synchronic planes of symbolism and the subsequent disarticulation of the former. San Juan runs into Lemaítre and comes out the worst for wear. (p. 165)

The two poems differ precisely because in San Juan the search is not incessant. From the outset there exists an absolute certainty of reaching the fountain …, and the certainty is justified when, in the last stanza, the seeker finds the fountain in Christ, the bread of life ("Aquesta viva fuente que deseo, / en este pan de vida yo la veo"). In "Sueño," on the other hand, the goal is unattainable ("Ay, nunca formas llegarán a esencia, / nunca ciervas a fuente fugitiva"). The poems, starting from the same point, arrive at opposite conclusions. (p. 168)

["Sueño" depicts a] passage from dream to nightmare, from the stable, well-organized cosmos of San Juan to the exploding universe of Big-Bang theories, from illusion to reality. (p. 169)

The complexities of "Sueño de las dos ciervas" in particular and of the motif of the exploding universe in general can be reduced to one unitary thought: man is doomed to incompleteness; he cannot help but live in the imperfective aspect, always yearning for a stasis and never achieving it. The Big-Bang conception and its metamorphoses furnish so many ways of visualizing this condition, whose cause, as "Sueño" makes clear, is theological in nature. Accepting Catholic teaching, Alonso assumes that man is not whole until he rests in the Lord. For this reason the insertion of mystical symbolism in the poem is pertinent and poignant; the writings of San Juan illustrate paradigmatically the feasibility of the union of God and man. With the dismantlement of the world-view that makes possible this union, man is left wandering aimlessly in space…. (p. 170)

[In Alonso's poetry] we find the motif of the unanswered question repeatedly imbricated with the Big-Bang…. "Sueño" builds toward a series of increasingly strident questions. The interlacing of motifs is logical, for an unanswered question is an abortive attempt at conversation, a mutilated dialogue, and as such, manifests also a kind of incompleteness. This device relates the rhetoric of the poems to their metaphorical and philosophical content. The question is to the answer as the deer are to the fountain as man is to God. And neither God nor the fountain nor the answer is to be had.

The encompassing theme of imperfection (understanding the word in its etymological and grammatical acceptation) explains one last feature of "Sueño," the division into parts. The fact that the poem does not end where it first appears to end, points to the error of thinking that anything comes to a stop. Unexpectedly, as the reader reaches the end of "Oscura noticia," he discovers that the initial poem continues. But one can go further. The "Continuación" also continues. "Oscura noticia" contains an additional poem, "Copla," which states (what else?) that nothing is ever consummated, that conclusions do not exist…. (p. 171)

Gustavo Pérez Firmat, "Cosmology and the Poem: Dámaso Alonso's 'Sueño de las dos ciervas'," in Hispanic Review, Vol, 46, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 147-71.


Philip Silver