Placing Enrique González Martínez in the global picture of the movements and tendencies of Hispanic literature is not an easy task. Among the factors contributing to this difficulty is the fact that the poet was active for more than a half century, during which time many styles and techniques succeeded one another. Nevertheless, although González Martínez was influenced by many poets, both from his own epoch and from other eras, he never permitted another poet’s idiom to smother his own voice.
González Martínez began to write when the poetic environment in the Hispanic world was dominated by Modernismo. The great Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío had succeeded in imposing his peculiar modality on this movement not only in Latin America but also in Spain. Modernista poetry was greatly influenced by the Parnassian and Symbolist schools of French origin, often featuring landscapes of ancient Greece or of eighteenth century France and including all kinds of exotic plants and flowers. The preferred fauna were animals known for their beauty, such as the peacock and the swan—especially the latter, which became a symbol of the movement. Metals and precious stones were used constantly as poetic motifs. The language of the Modernistas was musical and richly textured; adjectives were used profusely, and the imagery evoked strange impressions and sensations, synesthesia appearing with extraordinary frequency.
It was only natural that a movement so generalized and powerful as Modernismo had an influence on a young poet such as González Martínez, who had an expansive concept of poetry and who was well equipped for artistic creation to the most refined degree. In his poetry can be found Parnassian and Symbolist notes, satyrs and beautiful animals, musically elegant adjectives and synesthesia—everything with the clear desire to produce a refined artistic creation. For these reasons, many would consider González Martínez a member of the Modernismo movement.
Nevertheless, González Martínez was never a Modernista in the style of Darío. His satyrs and nymphs suffer from a lack of realism, and his fowls and stones—they are not always precious—do not function as mere ornaments in his poetry but contribute to the development of its ideas as well as communicate emotion. Closer connections could be found between González Martínez and Modernistas with the tendencies of the Cuban José Martí and the Colombian José Asunción Silva or with Darío in his later years, when his poetry was richer in insight and profundity. In González Martínez, interior concentration, simplicity of expression, and directness of communication are dominant characteristics.
“Wring the Swan’s Neck”
For these reasons, González Martínez fits better as a postmodernist. It is true that he was only four years younger than Darío and that he was several years older than the Modernistas Leopoldo Lugones, from Argentina, and Julio Herrera y Reissig, from Uruguay. Nevertheless, it must be considered that González Martínez published his first book of poetry in 1903, when he was already thirty-two years old, and that he reached his peak when Modernismo was fading and postmodernism was at its apex. In this connection, the sonnet “Tuércele el cuello al cisne” should be mentioned.
This is the famous poem in which González Martínez recommended the death of the swan, the symbol of Modernismo, and its replacement by the owl as less ornamental but more wise and thoughtful. The poet himself said that his sonnet was not intended as an attack on Darío and the other first-class Modernistas; rather, it was directed against Darío’s epigones. Nevertheless, González Martínez’s poem was widely regarded as the death blow to Modernismo and the beginning of postmodernism. In any case, González Martínez’s aesthetic was fundamentally different from that of the Modernistas: He was inclined toward meditation and the patient study of the mysteries of life rather than toward verbal brilliance for its own sake.
When González Martínez published his first book of poems, he was already an experienced poet, with perfect technical control. In each poem of his first book, Preludios, the formal perfection of a master craftsperson can be observed, although the poet still had not found his direction. In Preludios, many different influences can be noted. The strongest is that of the Modernistas, which came to the poet through his compatriots Manuel Guitérrez Nájera and Salvador Días Mirón. Other influences were those of Latin poets, such as Horace, and of Mexican traditional poets, such as Manuel José Othon. Some of González Martínez’s phrases have all the brilliance and elegance characteristic of Modernismo, as in “Ríe” (laugh)—“over the warm ermine of your shoulders,/ your laugh, fair blond, come forth/ as rainy gold”—or in “Baño” (bath), in which he says that the sculptural nude body of a girl is a “volcano of snow in an eruption of roses.” His descriptions of nature, and of the love scenes that take place in it, have all the charm and delicacy of the classical or the national poets, as can be seen in the series of sonnets grouped under the title of “Rústica” (rustic).
The presence of these diverse influences and orientations clearly indicates that in Preludios the poet was still trying to find his voice and a more profound source of inspiration. The distinctive voice that would later be characteristic of the best of González Martínez’s production is heard in only a few poems in Preludios, as when in “A una poeta” (to a poet) he exhorts a fictitious colleague to go to nature in search of “an ideal for your longings,” telling him: “See the country, look at the sea, contemplate...
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