Ernesto Cardenal Cardenal, Ernesto (Vol. 161) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ernesto Cardenal 1925-

Nicaraguan poet, translator, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Cardenal's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 31.

Noted as a major contemporary Latin-American poet and literary spokesperson for the political struggles of the Nicaraguan people, Cardenal, an ordained Catholic priest, is known for the unique fusion of Christian theology and Marxist political philosophy in his works. Cardenal's poetry often focuses on Latin-American history and comments on contemporary society, culture, and politics. His poetry incorporates a montage style, juxtaposing disparate voices from history, biblical lore, and contemporary popular culture, as well as interweaving lyrical passages with prosaic lines of verse. His most celebrated works include Hora 0 (1960; Zero Hour), Salmos (1967; The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation), and Homenaje a los indios americanos (1969; Homage to the American Indians). Cardenal's poetry has often been compared to the works of poets Pablo Neruda and Ezra Pound.

Biographical Information

Cardenal was born January 20, 1925, in Granada, Nicaragua. He attended the University of New Mexico, where he studied literature and philosophy from 1944 to 1948, and Columbia University in New York City from 1948 to 1949. His first volume of poetry, Ansias lengua de la poesia nueva nicaraguense, was published in 1948. Cardenal returned to Nicaragua in the early 1950s, where he became involved in political activism in opposition to Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza. In 1956 Cardenal converted to Catholicism and enrolled in the seminary at the Trappist Monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky. Studying under the renowned monk, scholar, and poet Thomas Merton, Cardenal developed a commitment to nonviolence. Due to health problems, Cardenal left Kentucky before completing his course of study, but continued his studies in Mexico and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1965. He subsequently founded his own commune in Solentiname on an island in Lake Nicaragua where he could promote his unique synthesis of religious vision and commitment to social justice. During the 1960s, Cardenal published over ten volumes of poetry. In 1970, he visited Cuba, where he experienced what he called a “second conversion” and developed a philosophy of Christian Marxism that synthesized his religious and political convictions. The escalating political oppression in Nicaragua contributed to Cardenal's renouncement of his former commitment to nonviolence and his embracement of revolutionary struggle. During the 1970s, Cardenal published over twenty volumes of poetry and gave readings of his work during tours throughout the United States. In 1977 he became a chaplain for the revolutionary Sandinista Liberation Front. The Nicaraguan government responded to Cardenal's political activities by destroying his commune at Solentiname and sending him into exile in Costa Rica. In 1979 when the Sandinista revolution overthrew Somoza, Cardenal returned to Nicaragua and was appointed Minister of Culture. He eventually resigned from this post, however, in disagreement over human rights abuses committed by the new government. During the 1980s, Cardenal was criticized for his liberation theology by Pope John Paul II, who considered the poet-priest's politics to be at odds with the philosophy of the Catholic Church. During the 1980s and 1990s, Cardenal published over twenty-five volumes of poetry.

Major Works

Cardenal's dominant themes throughout his four decades of writing poetry have included religious prophecy, Marxism, and political struggle. Cardenal's poetry often explores Latin-American history, from the pre-Colombian native cultures to the era of colonialism, focusing strongly on the latter's relationship to the problems of contemporary governments and modern culture. His early poem “With Walker in Nicaragua” is set during the nineteenth century when an expedition from the United States attempted to make Nicaragua a colony of the Southern Confederacy. Cardenal relates the story of one of his ancestors, a Nicaraguan woman who married a white man from the expedition. The poem is largely devoted to examining the perspective of the white man who renounces the stated mission of his countrymen. “Zero Hour” concerns the assassination of Cesar Augusto Sandino, a Nicaraguan revolutionary leader, in 1933. Sandino, the hero of the poem, employs guerilla tactics in an attempt to expel the United States Marines from Nicaragua. Through Cardenal's portrayal of this historical figure, the poet addresses themes of political resistance and Nicaraguan nationalism from the perspective of both biblical prophecy and Marxist political theory. The volume Gethsemani, Ky (1960) is comprised of a series of short poems based on Cardenal's notes taken while studying for the priesthood in Gethsemani, Kentucky. His poem “Oracion por Marilyn Monroe” (“Prayer to Marilyn Monroe”) is a commentary on modern commercialism as a corrupting cultural influence. The works collected in El estrecho dudoso (1966; The Doubtful Strait) make extensive use of biblical references and the colonial history of Latin America to comment on modern political struggles. Continuing Cardenal's use of biblical allusions, the poems in The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation take the form of Old Testament psalms to express outrage at the social oppression inflicted by modern governments on their constituents. In Homage to the American Indians, Cardenal contrasts the oppression and commercialism found in many modern societies with the spiritual wholeness and pacifism of the pre-Colombian cultures of the Mayan, Incan, and Nahuatl Indians. Golden UFOs (1992), a collection of Cardenal's previously published poetry, further examines the native cultures of the South, North, and Central Americas, once again viewed through the poet's Christian-Marxist perspective. Cosmic Canticle (1993) brings together thirty years of Cardenal's canto poetry in one long, epic poem. The volume covers historical events in Nicaragua and throughout the world, spanning from the origins of the universe to the present day. In these poems, Cardenal contemplates the role of political leaders, oppressed peoples, capitalism, and the Nicaraguan Revolution, among other topics.

Critical Reception

Critics have consistently commented on Cardenal's mixture of Christianity and Marxism in his poetry. However, many reviewers have argued that Cardenal manages to avoid the strident tones and didacticism of other political poets, although his political views are increasingly explicit in his later works. Cardenal has been praised for effectively commenting on contemporary society and politics through his writings placed in pre-Colombian and early colonial Latin-American settings. Critics have also observed that, despite his focus on oppression and human suffering, Cardenal has maintained a strong sense of hopefulness and idealism, as evidenced by his frequent expressions of a utopian vision of the future. Critical response to Cardenal's poetry has often focused on the unique theological perspective of his works. Commentators have frequently discussed the elements of biblical prophesy in his poetry, noting his use of biblical references in his verse which also utilizes contemporary language to comment on history and modern society. Stylistically, Cardenal has been praised for his lyricism, experimental use of form, and well-crafted poetry, particularly his use of the canto form invented by Pound and later employed by Neruda. Cardenal has also been lauded for his montage style of writing, and his ability to juxtapose a variety of voices, including historical documents, colloquial Spanish, pop culture references, and biblical passages to create a decidedly individual poetic form.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ansias lengua de la poesia nueva nicaraguense (poetry) 1948

Gethsemani, Ky (poetry) 1960

Hora 0 [Zero Hour] (poetry) 1960

Epigramas: Poemas (poetry) 1961

Oracion por Marilyn Monroe, y otros poemas [Marilyn Monroe and Other Poems] (poetry) 1965

El estrecho dudoso [The Doubtful Strait] (poetry) 1966

Salmos [The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation] (poetry) 1967

Mayapan (poetry) 1968

Homenaje a los indios americanos [Homage to the American Indians] (poetry) 1969

La hora cero y otros poemas [Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems] (poetry) 1971

En Cuba [In Cuba] (nonfiction) 1972

Epigramas (poetry) 1972

Canto nacional (poetry) 1973

Oraculo sobre Managua (poetry) 1973

La santidad de la revolucion [The Sanctity of the Revolution] (poetry) 1976

Poesia cubana de la revolucion (poetry) 1976

Apocalypse, and Other Poems (poetry) 1977

Epigramas (poetry) 1978

Tocar el cielo (poetry) 1981

Wasala: Poems (poetry) 1983

Vuelos de victoria [Flights of Victory: Songs in Celebration of the Nicaraguan Revolution] (poetry) 1984

With Walker in Nicaragua and Other Early Poems, 1949–1954 (poetry) 1985

From Nicaragua with Love: Poems 1979–1986 (poetry) 1986

Golden UFOs: The Indian Poems/Los Ovnis de oro: poemas indios (poetry) 1992

Cosmic Canticle (poetry) 1993

Henry Cohen (essay date summer 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cohen, Henry. “The Image of the United States in the Poetry of René Depestre and Ernesto Cardenal.” Revista Review Interamericana 11, no. 2 (summer 1981): 220–30.

[In the following essay, Cohen compares representations of the United States in the poetry of Cardenal and of the Haitian poet René Depestre.]

It is especially important at this particular time for students of interamerican affairs to know how the Haitian René Depestre and the Nicaraguan Ernesto Cardenal have portrayed the United States in their poetry of the past quarter century. First of all, by virtue of their extraordinary political status they are opinion leaders, respectively, in Cuba...

(The entire section is 4710 words.)

Henry Cohen (essay date November 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cohen, Henry. “Daniel Boone, Moses and the Indians: Ernesto Cardenal's Evolution from Alienation to Social Commitment.” Chasqui: Revista de Literatura-Latinamericana 11, no. 1 (November 1981): 21–32.

[In the following essay, Cohen explores the development of Cardenal's sense of social commitment as expressed through his poetry.]

Jose Luis Gonzalez-Balado has stressed the importance of the Poundian element of el exteriorismo in the poetry of Ernesto Cardenal. As a student at Columbia University in New York during the period 1947–49, the critic writes, the Nicaraguan adopted as one of his prime models Ezra Pound, whose influence is most obvious in...

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Jorge H. Valdés (essay date fall–winter 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Valdés, Jorge H. “The Evolution of Cardenal's Prophetic Poetry.” Latin American Literary Review 11, no. 23 (fall–winter 1983): 25–40.

[In the following essay, Valdés examines the development of the theme of prophesy throughout Cardenal's poetry.]

In a frequently-cited interview with Ronald Christ in 1974, Ernesto Cardenal, when asked about his guiding esthetic, maintained that his later poetry, «is above all prophecy in the Biblical sense of guidance.»1 Guidance, he added, is based on «‘wisdom’—in the Biblical sense of wisdom, in the sense the prophets gave to the word.»2 Although he does not say so, Cardenal's...

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Edward Elias (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Elias, Edward. “Prophecy of Liberation: The Poetry of Ernesto Cardenal.” In Poetic Prophecy in Western Literature, edited by Jan Wojcik and Raymond-Jean Frontain, pp. 174–85. London: Associated University Presses, 1984.

[In the following essay, Elias discusses the themes of religion and political struggle as expressed through Cardenal's focus on prophecy and Latin-American history in his poetry.]

Ernesto Cardenal, poet and priest born in Nicaragua in 1925, has used his art to speak for the liberation of politically and economically oppressed peoples of the world, particularly those of Latin America. During his entire adult life, Cardenal has been...

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Claudia Schaefer-Rodriguez (essay date July 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schaefer-Rodriquez, Claudia. “Peace, Poetry, and Popular Culture: Ernesto Cardenal and the Nicaraguan Revolution.” Latin American Literary Review 13, no. 26 (July 1985): 7–18.

[In the following essay, Schaefer-Rodriguez analyzes Cardenal's response to the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979 as it is expressed through his poetry.]

The events occurring in Nicaragua in the decade of the 1970's, particularly the revolution which finally ousted the government of Anastasio Somoza in July of 1979, attracted the attention of many, from multiple points of view. Among the various aspects which stimulated interest was that of what the response—literary and...

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Ernesto Cardenal and Margaret Randall (interview date summer/fall 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cardenal, Ernesto, and Margaret Randall. “Talking with Ernesto Cardenal.” Fiction International 16, no. 2 (summer/fall 1986): 47–60.

[In the following interview, Cardenal discusses his literary influences, his religious conversion, and his views on Nicaraguan politics.]

Ernesto Cardenal has become a legend in his lifetime. More important, he has been a prophet in his land: the first Nicaraguan priest to join the struggle of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), back in the late sixties.

The second son of a wealthy family in the conservative city of Granada, he took part in an attempt to overthrow Somoza García, in 1954. A...

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Reginald Gibbons (essay date spring 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gibbons, Reginald. “Political Poetry and the Example of Ernesto Cardenal.” Critical Inquiry 13, no. 3 (spring 1987): 648–71.

[In the following essay, Gibbons critically examines Cardenal's expression of his political views through his poetry.]

Perhaps the subject of political poetry is so inextricable from specific poems and poets at particular historical moments that one can discuss only examples. Ernesto Cardenal is an interesting one, not least because the cause for which he long spoke, the release of the Nicaraguan peasantry from the oppressive burdens of economic exploitation and arbitrary rule by force, was victorious; the Sandinista victory gave...

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Ernesto Cardenal and Michael T. Martin (interview date spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cardenal, Ernesto, and Michael T. Martin. “On Culture, Politics, and the State in Nicaragua: An Interview with Padre Ernesto Cardenal, Minister of Culture.” Latin American Perspectives 16, no. 2 (spring 1989): 124–33.

[In the following interview, Cardenal discusses his role as minister of culture in Nicaraguan politics and his opinions on popular culture.]

In this modern day it's a vulgarity to call yourself a modern man or woman if you are not a revolutionary.

[June Beer, in LaDuke, 1986: 39]

Before the triumph on July 19, 1979, of the popular Sandinista revolution,...

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Terry DeHay (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: DeHay, Terry. “The Kingdom of God on Earth: Ernesto Cardenal's Salmos.” In Postcolonial Literature and the Biblical Call for Justice, edited by Susan VanZanten Gallagher, pp. 48–59. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

[In the following essay, DeHay assesses Cardenal's synthesis of Christianity and Marxism as expressed in the poetry in Salmos.]

The Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, a Catholic priest and a political and social activist, served as minister of culture in Nicaragua's Sandinista government after the success of the revolution in 1979. His life and poetry reflect his commitment both to active political reform and to...

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Juan Carlos Galeano (review date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Galeano, Juan Carlos. Review of The Doubtful Strait, by Ernesto Cardenal. Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 21, no. 2 (summer 1997): 512–15.

[In the following review, Galeano describes The Doubtful Strait as an epic poem of Latin America's early colonial history that offers a moral lesson regarding contemporary social struggles.]

The English speaking public, especially Americans, have been informed through TV and newspapers of the political events in Nicaragua and its neighbors without knowing much about the countries' past, particularly about the first years of the Spanish presence in Central America. Cardenal, a Nicaraguan poet, now...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Smith, Janet Lynne. Annotated Bibliography of and about Ernesto Cardenal. Tempe: Center for Latin American Studies, Arizona State University, 1979, 61 p.

Smith presents a bibliography of works by and about Cardenal through 1979.


Arguello, Jose. “Cardenal's Theo-Poetry.” Christianity and Crisis 45, no. 6 (15 April 1985): 141–43.

Arguello discusses Cardenal's conception of God in relation to political struggle as expressed through his poetry.

Barrow, Geoffrey R. “Tradition and Originality in the Denunciatory Salmos of Ernesto...

(The entire section is 235 words.)