Dámaso Alonso

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Philip Silver

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2578

Too much has been made, I think, of the revolutionary quality of Hijos de la ira…. Instead of an act of revolt it is rather a book that protects itself too well. Like that other milestone of post-Civil War literature, La familia de Pascual Duarte, it demands that we accept it on its own terms or not at all. Both the Death of God theology of the one and the criminal insanity of the other provide a literary redoubt with which the authors insulate themselves from the historical moment. In addition, Alonso's poetry, like most modernist Spanish literature is not self-generating but builds on, lives off, previous Spanish literature. It is a high example of the art of literary pastiche, and consciously so. And this too protects it from attack, makes it strangely hermetic and aloof. Also, there is a miscellaneous quality about the way it is arranged, the books are anthologistic, discontinuous and so demand a special kind of indulgence. And finally, the speaker of the poems, that curious and terrifying younger brother of the child-speaker of César Vallejo's poems, is so abject in his self-denigration that we can only wish him better days.

At first glance, Hijos de la ira may seem an act of contestation, but when we take a second look from the perspective of thirty years, it seems almost willfully self-indulgent. If this sounds an outrageous, even an irreverent thing to say, recall for a moment the historical reality of Madrid in 1944 and then measure the import of a single religious crisis against that ground. (pp. 286-87)

[In] an earlier article on Hijos de la ira, [I stressed] the degree to which that book is permeated with the commonplaces of mystical and ascetic imagery. At the time I attributed the submerged quality of that imagery to a species of ascetic humility. It seemed to me that in doing this I was taking the manifest content of the work as far as it would go. But at the same time the root experience of the work seemed to me to be an overbearing sense of man as the single flawed creature, while the rest of creation was a dense compound with no ontological fissures. And I used this critical perception to justify the religious "content" of the poetry. (God was man's essential Other, his necessary counter-pressure.)

After subsequent readings of the poetry I am still convinced that a variation of what I called the root experience underlies the work, but I can no longer take the religious "content" of the poetry at face value. Instead it now seems to me to be one of several generative systems of motivation—perhaps the most obvious—which disguise and distract us from a more elemental, more concrete, satisfaction that the poet finds in his craft. (p. 288)

Thus, while it is useless to criticize Alonso's poetry because it does not directly reflect the socio-economic realities of Spain in the early 40s, I believe it can be shown that the poetry does in fact reenter the historical post-War world in a special way….

[The] difficulty of the reader-critic—at least this reader-critic—in entering Alonso's creations, as for what I have called the reticence of those creations, is that the basic experience of the poetry is both censored out … and at the same time over-determined by succeeding levels of "manifest" content which are themselves incompletely explored by the poet….

To my mind the basic experience underlying the poetry of Alonso, the one that is both masked and over-determined by the various levels in the work, is the creation and...

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the writing of a species of long, flowing, yet controlled verse-line which when exercised brings the poet a sense of gratification that enhances his own feeling of personal integration and continuity. (p. 289)

It will be noticed that although with the assembling of the volumes Oscura noticia and Hijos de la ira in 1943 and 1944, Alonso's poetry discovers its identity, and this discovery seems to have been triggered by the writing of La poesía de San Juan de la Cruz in the spring of 1942, this creative struggle of continuity-discontinuity had already become a subject of thematic concern as early as 1924, the probable date of "Copla" ("La copla quedó partida. / No la pude concluir. / Y era la copla mi vida.") Here as in the later "Dedicatoria final (las alas)" an analogy is made between the continuity of the poetry and the life, as if to speak of the one were to allude to the other…. Human life is an anguish because its continuity is illusory. The continuity of the poetry, then, assuages a desire for that "continuity" which humans achieve only in death…. [The] preferred term of comparison for … life is organic nature, to which the poet attributes the equally desirable qualities of controlled fluidity and density, like the "instress" of which Hopkins spoke. Nature wells up, bursts forth, branches out. It is matched, mated, continuous, like waves breaking on a beach, or frogs jumping into the water, forming "un hilo continuo de ranas verdes." The analogy between this ideal in nature and Alonso's most characteristic verse-line is obvious. It is a long, flowing yet controlled line that generates one metaphor out of another like a budding plant. This species of verse-line is as continuous as poetry itself, described by the poet as perfume, music or light, and it is perfectly designed to convey feeling-states that are also diffuse and continuous like sadness, tenderness, fear or pain. In the fluidity of this verse-line and in the poems it generates the poet is relieved of the burden of discontinuous selfhood which is exchanged for a feeling of plenitude that is coextensive with the poem. (pp. 290-91)

But if Alonso sees an ideal of "instress" in nature, he also sees "inscape," structure and patterning. The impulse to pattern predominates until the explosion of instress in Hijos de la ira, it reappears in strength in Hombre y Dios, and with "Gozos de la vista" a synthesis of the two principles is achieved, a plenitude possible because the dense instress of Hijos de la ira has been clarified, made transparent, in the pattern. A plenitude and a point of rest has been achieved because the long flowing line finds containment in a new form. Thus it seems to me that Alonso's descriptions of his early poetry in "Dedicatoria final (las alas)"—"se quedaba flotando la música, / y flotando, se cuajaba en canción," and "yo vertí mi ternura / en el librito aquel, igual / que en una copa de cristal diáfano"—will also serve to describe the new integration of the two impulses in "Gozos de la vista." In this way the last poems approximate the natural ideal of the dense, clear air in the poet's garden, which he terms "una piscina de amarilla tersura."

On the level of personal style, then, there is a dialectical progression of control and freedom, form and content; the verse-line expands to assimilate the inchoate material of Hijos de la ira, to overcome it and to establish a continuous rhythm whose invention and control are perfectly integrated, and a kind of stasis is achieved. In short, the existential discontinuity finds compensation in a controlled, continuous verse-line.

On the next level, that of the thematics of vision, a similar progression can be observed…. The core symbolism of the thematics of vision [in Alonso's poetry] seems drawn from a sector of experience that antedates the religious theme…. If clarity and innocence of vision are [originally] equated with childhood there comes at a later point a clouding of that vision. The humors that burst forth in Hijos de la ira destroy the sense of continuity with the created world and isolate the poet; they are terrors that come from within, but because they darken vision and threaten his existence they are assimilated to a private symbolism of night-terrors and insomnia that can only be exorcised, as in the beginning of "Invisible presencia," by turning on artificial light. Sight then means continuity with creation and darkness means existential anguish at possible destruction…. Once however the furor, which in Hijos de la ira has a blinding effect, subsides, sight returns. In Hombre y Dios human vision becomes the justification of human existence and a species of counter in the struggle between man and God. And in "Gozos de la vista" the glories of sight become the dominant theme altogether. In these last two books it is as though sight had been menaced by blindness, as though a punishment had been averted by some victory in Hijos de la ira, so that now with the penalty lifted, in "Gozos de la vista" jubilation, even humor, are possible again. (pp. 291-93)

Thus it seems that on the level of the thematics of vision there is a movement from a childlike candor of vision through darkness and the threat of blindness to a new more complete simplicity and enjoyment of vision, held in such high esteem in the end not because man sees humanly for God, but because by virtue of his eyes man is a participant in the Platonic sea of light that is the world, and which sustains him and nourishes him, reinforcing his sense of self.

The next level, that of the thematics of what I have called the death of God theology of Alonso's poetry cannot, I believe, be said to be important before the composition of his critical study of St. John of the Cross in 1942…. [The] intimations of the Godhead that emerge in the course of the book, Hijos de la ira, are unclear and even contradictory…. What is clear in Hijos de la ira, however, is that the poet has chosen to hypostatize a terrifying night-vision, to name it God, and to risk destruction by confronting it. This wrathful God is most easily described by what it is not. It belongs to a world, it has the qualities, that are the antithesis of those qualities and that world associated with love and tenderness, with the world of mother and child. In fact the drama that is played out in Hijos de la ira takes the form of a struggle in the poet between series of opposing elements, between violence and love, apocalypse and pastoral, hate and tenderness, insomnia and sleep, semen and tears, cold stars and warm sun. As in the case of troubled vision, here too the poet is forced to abandon the maternal world of light and peace, to enter and pass through a dark, threatening foreign area of the self, to discover there within hate and anger, fear and corruption, and ultimately, death…. Thus it seems to me that Hijos de la ira describes not so much a religious quest in the usual sense as it does a rite of passage cast in a religious mold in which the principal actors within the subject's consciousness are Father, Mother and Child, or in this case, Son. (pp. 293-94)

It is finally necessary to speak, I believe, of a level of psychological motivation in Alonso's work because of the peculiar way in which the three principles mentioned above are weighted in his poetry. The "maternal matrix" and the "pure self" are extremely powerful and vividly portrayed, but the "paternal voice" is never more than a shadowy figure, a frightening absence, a true "Invisible presencia," or else, as in Hombre y Dios, an intellectualized creation. The Virgin Mary can be vividly described in terms of the earthly mother, but for God there is no earthly model and it is this very imprecision, this freedom, which makes possible the extraordinarily original hypostatization of the poet's own night-terrors. But even here there is progression of a kind, for the poet leaves the domain of the mother, risks blindness, confronts in Hijos de la ira the absence of the father (and the father in himself) and in "Gozos de la vista," in "Invisible presencia," integrates paternal and maternal principles so as to be able to write: "Te llamo 'Dios,' oh Padre, oh madre, oh benefactor que me nutres."…

Given the peculiar personal resonances of Alonso's religious poetry, it is difficult to speak of the last two as separate thematic levels—theological and psychological—for each seems to shade off into the other…. [The] writing of Hijos de la ira signaled in the poet's life not necessarily a religious crisis—or not primarily a religious one—but rather a point at which the poet became able to translate psychological material that was always there into poetry. The fact that the same terrors, the same interior demons, are still waiting in the wings to be summoned forth again is attested to in the splendid elegy to Leopoldo Panero, written in 1962, sixteen years after the publication of Hijos de la ira. And this fact, it seems to me, confirms the initial hypothesis that, instead of being the central core of the poetry, the religious theme is but another pretext for a stylistic breakthrough, like the thematics of vision and the submerged psychological content. None of these three levels of content seems to me the dominant one, none seems to present a greater coherence than the others. So that we seem justified in viewing each as a manifest content that enables the poet to pursue the expressive possibilities of his characteristic verse-line, as discovered in Hijos de la ira and perfected in "Gozos de la vista." This verse-line is a highly mannered, highly literary one, capable of violence and tenderness, imprecation and praise, pure invention and minute description. For the poet it is a necessary appendage inasmuch as its exercise represents a difficult personal integration, a sense of continuous selfhood. (p. 295)

And finally, in closing, we must inquire into the reasons why the exercise of this peculiar, personally integrative style should be so important to Alonso the poet…. Alonso is thus very much a member of the Generation of 27, to the extent that the pastoral mode is present in his poetry. But there is one curious note in his depiction of nature that must be mentioned. What I have called its lack of ontological fissures, its continuity can also be a source of fear and disgust. One blue-bottle fly is lovely to observe, but a swarm of insects is a frightening menace. And the same holds true in Alonso's depiction of social relations. There is something horrible about the anonymous sameness of his fellow humans, seen not as individuals but as mass consumers…. Human relations, in other words, are characterized by that type of relationship which Sartre calls seriality, according to which a consciousness of the statistical sameness of everyone overshadows and subverts the individual's sense of himself as a center of action. Would it be too farfetched to suggest that Alonso's sense of radical discontinuity is a magnification of the seriality of modern industrial society, and to suggest, moreover, that the menacing but invisible presence that threatens him with extinction is a hypostatization of this serialized Other? If both these things are true then we should have no trouble seeing that the deepest satisfaction of his style is the practice against all obstacles of a nonalienated kind of work. And to me, at least, this kind of explanation seems as valuable as any other. (pp. 295-96)

Philip Silver, "On Entering Creation: A Second Look at 'Hijos de la ira'," in Books Abroad (copyright 1974 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 48, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 286-96.


Gonzalo Sobejano


Gustavo PéRez Firmat