Gabriela Mistral

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Gabriela Mistral Poetry: World Poets Analysis

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Through a poetry that is at times deliberately crude and prosaic, Gabriela Mistral distinguished herself as an artist of tenderness and compassion. Her themes are nourished by her personal sorrow, which she ably elevates to the realm of the universal. Maternity, children, love, God, the fight against instinct, the soul of things, are voiced in anguish and in reverence by this most feminine of poets, whose vigor belies her femininity and whose high concept of morality is always present but never militant.

Mistral’s three major collections of poems, Desolación, Tala, and Lagar, were published at sixteen-year intervals. They contain a selection of poems from among the many that the poet produced in newspapers during the intervening years. Each volume comprises material that was written at different times and under changing circumstances; thus, a strict topical unity is not to be expected. Each volume was published in response to an external stimulus that affected the life of the poet.


Desolación was compiled through the initiative of Federico de Onís, professor of Spanish at Columbia University and founder of the Hispanic Institute. Onís had selected the poet’s work as the theme for a lecture that he gave at the institute in 1921. The participants, primarily Spanish teachers from the United States, were deeply impressed by the depth and beauty of this vigorous new voice in Hispanic American poetry, and when they discovered that the poet had not yet published a book, Onís insisted on publishing the collection under the auspices of the Hispanic Institute.

The unity of the book is the body of moving, impassioned poems that were inspired by two painful experiences in the life of the youthful poet. While a teacher in La Cantera, Mistral became romantically involved with an employee of the railroad company, but because of bitter differences, they ended the relationship. When the young man later committed suicide for reasons unrelated to his association with the poet, Mistral was deeply affected. Several years later, she met a young poet from Santiago with whom she fell passionately in love. When he rejected her in favor of someone from Santiago’s wealthy elite, Mistral was crushed. Shortly thereafter, she requested a transfer to Punta Arenas in Chile’s inhospitable southland.

Inasmuch as the poems inspired by these devastating episodes do not appear in chronological order, one reads them as if the poet were relating the history of a single painful love. With great lyrical strength, she expresses the awakening of love, the joy and self-consciousness, the boldness, timidity, hope, humiliation, and jealousy. The poems that deal with suicide of the beloved reveal the poet’s anguish and her petition to God concerning his salvation. She wonders about his afterlife and expresses her loneliness, remorse, and obsession to be with him still. The poet is pained and in torment, yet in her vigor, she displays jealousy, revenge, and hate, all of which are employed to combat the demanding powers of an enslaving, fateful love. God is petitioned in her own behalf as well. The agony is tempered at intervals by tenderness, her disillusionment nurtured by hope, her pain anointed with pleasure, and the hunger for death soothed by a reverence for life. In her moments of rapture, there is sorrow and loneliness, identified with the agony of Christ, from whom the poet seeks rest and peace in his presence.

The language of these poems is natural, simple, and direct. It is the realism of one who has lived close to the earth, who eschews delicate subtleties in favor of frankness. Mistral’s love is expressed with passion and wrath; her...

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words are coarse, bordering on crudity. This is chaste poetry, nevertheless, inasmuch as its fundamental longing for motherhood and the spiritual yearning for God reject the possibility of eroticism or immodesty.

Mistral lifts her spirit up though it is weighed down in anguish. It is suffering that does not destroy, but brings the spirit to life. The lyrical roots of Desolación are not a product of imagination: They are a lived tragedy. When Mistral begins to regard her lost youth, foreseeing the seal of fate in her sterility, condemned to perpetual loneliness, she raises a prolonged, sharp moan. Her entire being protests, argues, and begs at the same time. Overcome, the poet mourns her desolation, her martyrdom in not being able to be the mother of a child from the man she loved. This maternal yearning is not simply the impulse toward the preservation of the race. It is the tender cry of one who loves, who lives in agony over the loss of that which is closest to the ultimate joy of her soul.

Mistral’s poetry employs a great variety of verse forms. She freely used sonnets, tercets, quatrains, the five-line stanza, sextains, ballads, and other forms, with little regard for the conventional patterns. She favored the Alexandrine, the hendecasyllabic line, and the nine-syllable line, which gradually became her preferred form; the latter seems to blend well with the slow pace of much of her poetry. The poems in Desolación do not follow classical models. Mistral toys with new rhymes, in which her consonants are imperfect or are interspersed with assonances. The artist has been accused of an inability to deal properly with metric forms. It is true that she lacked a musical sense. Her images, too, are frequently grotesque, too close to death and violence. Together with poems of rough, unpolished form in Desolación, there are others that are flawless in construction. Mistral reworked many of her poems repeatedly, the result generally being a refinement, although at times it was a disappointment. Her major objective was the power of the word rather than the meter of the lines.

Mistral concludes Desolación with the request that God forgive her for this bitter book, imploring men who consider life as sweetness to pardon her also. She promises in the future to leave her pain behind and to sing words of hope and love for others.


Tala fulfilled this promise sixteen years later. She compiled these poems as a concrete gesture to relieve the suffering of the children of Spain who had been uprooted from their homes during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Mistral was disappointed and ashamed that Latin America had not appeared to share her grief for the plight of these homeless children, and the proceeds from the sale of this volume alleviated the difficulties in the children’s camps. The title of the book refers to the felling of trees and applies to both the poems themselves and the purpose for which the author compiled them. The limbs are cut from the living trunk and offered as a gift, a part of oneself, a creation. From within the poet who has made her offering, there remains the assumption of the growth of a new forest. Tala has its pain (with allusions to the death of the poet’s mother), but this volume is more serene than its predecessor. Mistral controls her emotions to a degree, and happiness, hope, and peace flow in her songs. Tala speaks of the beauties of America, as the poet humanizes, spiritualizes, and orders the creatures of the continent around the presence of humankind. Mistral gathers all things together, animate and inanimate, nourishes them like children, and sings of them in love, wonder, thanksgiving, and happiness. Far from America, she has felt the nostalgia of the foreigner for home, and she desires to stimulate the youth of her native soil to complete the tasks that are ahead.

Mistral sees Hispanic America as one great people. She employs the sun and the Andes Mountains as elements that bind the nations geographically, and she calls for a similar spiritual kinship. She believed that governments should be born of the needs of nations; they should emphasize education, love, respect for manual labor, and identification with the lower classes. Like José Vasconcelos, she believed that American man has a mission to discover new zones of the spirit that harmonize with the new civilization in which he lives. The poet treats this subject with great enthusiasm, declaring also that there is much in the indigenous past that merits inclusion in the present. She invokes the pre-Columbian past with nostalgia, feeling remorse for the loss of the Indian’s inheritance and his acceptance of destiny.

The maternal longing of the poet is the mainspring of Mistral’s many lullabies and verses for children that appear in this and other volumes. The other constant, implicitly present in all the poems of Tala, is God. She approaches God along paths of suffering, self-discipline, and a deep understanding of the needs of her fellow people. In God, she seeks peace from her suffering, comfort in her loneliness, and perfection. Her ability to humanize all things grows from her desire to find God everywhere. Thus these objects and the wonder derived from them infuse the religious into the poet’s creation. Her metaphors and images derive from the contemplation of nature and its relationship with the divine. More objective than the poetry of Desolación, this work retains its personal, lyrical quality.


Ternura (tenderness) is a collection of Mistral’s children’s poems. First published in 1924, it consisted of the children’s verses that had appeared in Desolación. The 1945 edition added more poems for children that the author had written up to that date. The principal emotion is depicted in the title. The poet sings lullabies, rounds, and games, following traditional Spanish verse forms, especially the ballad. The poems generally teach a moral lesson, such as love and respect for others, development of one’s sense of right and beauty, reverence for nature, country, and the creations of God. In Mistral’s later children’s verses, she sought to create a distinctly American atmosphere. Her vocabulary and background reflect regional and local material, drawing generously from Indian culture and beliefs.

The unique relationship between mother and child is felt in Mistral’s soft, unhurried lullabies, in which the mother tenderly gives herself to the peace of her offspring, softly engendering in the child a reverence for Earth and all its creatures. She expresses the inner wounds of her heart, but in a tender fashion that does not disturb her baby. The only father in these verses is God, who becomes the source toward whom the yearning mother directs the child.


Lagar (wine press) was published less than three years before Mistral’s death. Together with the lack of world peace, the years brought new personal tragedies in the suicide of two of Mistral’s closest friends and the devastating suicide of her nephew, Juan Miguel Godoy, whom she had reared like a son. Her health declined, and she became preoccupied with thoughts of death. Restless, Mistral moved frequently during this period. Lagar tells of the imprint of these experiences on her soul. The wine press of life and death, ever draining her heart, has left her weak and exhausted. In theme, Lagar refers back to Desolación, though Mistral no longer regards death with the anger of her frustrated youth. She bids it come in silence in its own due time. She is more confident of herself, eliminating the prose glosses that accompanied earlier collections. Her simple, prosaic verses are austere and purified. They beckon to the world beyond the grave in a poetic atmosphere that is as spiritual as it is concrete. Fantasy, hallucination, and dreams all contribute to an ethereal environment governed by imagination and memory.

Like Mistral’s other published collections, Lagar lacks topical harmony. Mistral delights the reader with playful songs, revels in her creativity, and feels at one with God; yet the pain and weariness of the ever-draining wine press constitute the dominant mood.

The suicide of her nephew, at seventeen, again brought to Mistral’s poetry the agony, the terrible emptiness, and the liberation available only when one has renounced earthly life. The young Juan Miguel had been the poet’s constant companion, sensitive and helping, the strongest motive for Mistral’s own bond with life. With the passing of this last close relative, the poet’s will to live became associated more with life beyond the grave than with earthly cares.

Other verses demonstrate the poet’s concern with the effects of war. Mistral protests against injustice and identifies with those who suffer through no fault of their own. Religion, not according to a prescribed dogma but rather in a sense of spiritual communication between the living and the dead, along with the ever-present identification with nature, continues as an important theme. In Lagar, the fusion of these two motifs is more complete than in the poet’s earlier work. Nature is viewed in a spiritual sense. There appears a need to be in contact with the earth and the simplicity of its teaching to maintain spiritual harmony with the divine. This thought comforts the poet, who searches for a spiritual state of knowledge and intelligence. By preceding her nouns with the first-person possessive, she assumes a personal stance not found in her work before, as if she were participating more completely in the process of creation. Indeed, she begins to overuse the adjective, not so much to describe physical attributes as to personify the inanimate and to engender a mood. The mood thus created generally drains or destroys. Past participles used as adjectives (burned, crushed, pierced) fortify this effort, thus strengthening the theme of the title and suggesting the travail of life on Earth as parallel to the crushing of grapes in the wine press.

Poema de Chile

During her last years, Mistral worked intensely on correcting and organizing her numerous unedited and incomplete compositions. Her posthumous Poema de Chile is a collection of poems united by one theme, her native country, in which she carries on an imaginary dialogue with a child, “my little one,” showing him the geography and the flora and fauna of Chile as they travel together.


Gabriela Mistral World Literature Analysis