Gabriela Mistral

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Gabriela Mistral World Literature Analysis

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The pseudonym Gabriela Mistral chose for herself reveals the two primary sources of her poetic themes and techniques. Gabriela is from the archangel Gabriel, who will sound the trumpet raising the dead on Judgment Day. Mistral is the name of a strong Mediterranean wind that blows through the south of France. Thus, in Mistral’s poems her redeeming Christian faith is united with nature to create a unique vision of human experience. The establishment of unifying relationships between different, often contradictory levels of existence lies at the heart of all her poetry. She spiritualizes the most mundane events of the life and, in turn, expresses moments of transcendence in the most homely and familiar of images. The power that achieves such unity, in poetry and in life, is love.

Mistral’s development as a poet closely parallels the publication of her four volumes of poetry. Desolación, her first book, demonstrates the variety of subject matter and the intensity of feeling that is characteristic of all her work. The collection is divided into sections, including “Life,” “The School,” and “Nature.” The love poems of the “Grief” section are the most strikingly original and the most frequently read. These frank celebrations of physical love, with their heights of passion and depths of sorrow and, above all, the absolute, uncompromising honesty of their feeling, establish the distinctive characteristics of Mistral’s lyric voice. In poems such as “Ecstasy” and “Intimacy,” the lover refines her physical experience to a point at which, having reached its bodily limit, it is transformed into a spiritual encounter. Such extremes of passion are continually accompanied by fears that either the young man or love itself will prove weak and, finally, false. When these fears are realized (her lover betrays her by dying), the poet explores, in poems filled with bitterness and rape, the emotional effects of loneliness and abandonment. Throughout her work, loneliness and the fragility of human feeling remain the chief threats to love, happiness, and fulfillment.

Mistral’s next book, Ternura, is a collection of lullabies and children’s songs. Its simple, innocent verses, meant to be sung to and by children, seem far removed from the fierce and complex love poems of Desolación. Instead of a harmony between man and woman, these songs strive for a similar spiritual harmony between a mother and her child. A lullaby in Ternura may, for instance, build correspondences among the sea rocking its waves, the night wind rocking the wheat, God the Father rocking his thousands of worlds, and a mother rocking her infant to sleep. The motion of rocking and the love that inspires it unite the human, natural, and divine levels of existence, assuring the safety of the child and the dignity of the mother’s vocation.

Mistral’s final two books, Tala and Lagar, are less accessible and therefore less popular than either Desolación or Ternura . They contain the poems most admired by literary critics and by her fellow poets. In many of the poems of her later books, Mistral extends her lyric voice to dramatize the plight of those people, particularly women, whom the modern world ignores or forgets. Exiled from their native lands, destined by an inscrutable fate to outlive all their loved ones, these women must endure a succession of empty, lonely years. They perform for no one the daily rituals of planting, cleaning, and cooking and can only look forward to a death among indifferent strangers. These are not happy poems, but they fulfill Mistral’s promise to give a voice to the millions of people throughout the world who suffer in silence. She once...

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said that “love without words is a knot that strangles.” It was to undo such a knot that Mistral focused upon the outcast and the abandoned. By giving them words, she hoped to bring them once more into a human community united by love.

In her later work, Mistral also attains a full and remarkable mastery of natural imagery. She isolates a single natural object and, by tracing the stages of its organic life, figuratively presents the subtle shifts in her own emotional life. Mistral successfully transforms the world of nature into a symbolic language that gives shape and substance to her emotional and spiritual experiences. Mistral once advised her fellow poets that it was their obligation as artists to mirror in their works the beauty of nature. In this way they would be certain to extend and affirm the creative activity of God, the model for all artists. In her later poetry Mistral frequently comes as close as possible to following her own advice.

“Sonnets of Death”

First published: “Sonetos de la muerte,” 1914 (collected in A Gabriela Mistral Reader, 1993)

Type of work: Poem

The poems trace Mistral’s attempt to overcome the grief and guilt caused by her first failed love affair.

The “Sonnets of Death” are Mistral’s most famous poems. They are also the poems that established her reputation in her native Chile. In 1914, she submitted them to a national poetry contest and won first prize. She was forced out of anonymity and into the literary life of her country.

The poems grew out of Mistral’s love affair with Romelio Ureta, a young man she met in her early years as a rural schoolteacher. The relationship broke off when Ureta became engaged to another woman. Before the marriage, however, he took his own life. The three sonnets trace Mistral’s attempt to sort out and reconcile the grief, remorse, disappointment, anger, and guilt that Ureta’s abandonment and death raised in her.

The sonnets contain the intense, direct feelings, the natural imagery, and the search for some permanent state of harmony that are the distinctive characteristics of Mistral’s poetry. In the first sonnet, for instance, the poet imagines visiting the cemetery and taking from a frozen niche the burial urn containing the ashes of her lover. Rather than causing sadness, however, the occasion elicits a gleeful sense of triumph. She will scatter rose dust over the dead man’s remains, and she will leave the graveyard singing songs of beautiful vengeance. The source of this unexpected happiness is revealed in the final two lines of the poem. The poet now is certain of the constancy of her lover, for she is sure the rival woman will not quarrel with her for possession of the “handful of bones,” which is all that remains of him.

In the second sonnet, the poet imagines an almost macabre afterlife for her lover and herself. When she has died and has been buried beside him, she anticipates an eternal and intimate conversation between them, carried on beneath the ground in the “quiet city” of the dead.

In the final sonnet, the poet begins to glimpse a truly plausible and satisfying resolution to her dilemma. This resolution is typical of those Mistral would reach in many of her later poems. She shifts the perspective in the poem from the human to the divine level by calling on Christ to act as protector and guide for her dead lover. She asks Christ in the closing couplet to verify and approve the sincerity, constancy, and holiness of her love. Only Christ, who is to judge her in the next life, can fully understand the depth of her feeling in her present human life. These lines attain a short but hard-won moment of peace within the imagined presence of Christ, and they bring to a close the most extreme and bitter period of Mistral’s mourning. The process of writing poetry becomes her means of experiencing a temporary redemption.

“We Were All to Be Queens”

First published: “Todas íbamos a ser reinas,” 1938 (collected in Women’s Writing in Latin America: An Anthology, 1991)

Type of work: Poem

Mistral recalls, from an adult perspective, the lost innocence and unrealized possibility of her childhood.

In “We Were All to Be Queens,” Mistral follows the dreams and hopes of childhood as they are thwarted and destroyed by the realities of adult life. The opening stanzas recount the dream shared by four young girls, the poet among them, who expect to marry kings as powerful and gifted as the biblical King David and to reign over distant kingdoms. These faraway lands are to be fruitful, filled with “trees of milk” and “trees of bread.” Most importantly—in an image repeated throughout the poem—the kingdoms will border the mysterious and magical sea. The girls, sequestered for years behind the tall mountains of the Andes, will at last have their dreams fulfilled when, as queens, they see and touch the ocean. They will be liberated and transformed by contemplating the broad expanse of water and the distant horizon.

The second half of the poem tells the sad fate of the girls’ dreams as each girl grows to adulthood. Rosalie is the only one of the four to kiss a genuine sailor. Ironically, the real sea, not the sea of her fantasies, devours her lover in a storm. Soledad raises seven brothers and leaves her “life-blood in the bread” she bakes. Her eyes remain “forever black/ for never having looked on the sea.” Efigenia follows a stranger, but he does not lead her to the sea. Lucila, who is Mistral as a child, alone receives her kingdom; but it is an entirely imaginary place where the future poetess counts her sons among the clouds and sees her husbands in the rivers. Such, in fact, was to be Mistral’s fate; she never married or had children of her own. Her poetry and her students were to be her only children.

The poem ends with a vision of the future generations of young girls who will continue the cycle of dreaming and disappointment, longing from their remote valley for a glimpse of the mythical sea, without ever achieving it. This is not a bitter ending, nor is the poem simply pessimistic. The poem is a part of the insulated, innocent world of the girls and of the larger adult world beyond it. By blending these two perspectives, Mistral attains the kind of harmony that characterizes much of her poetry. The result in this poem is a sweet sadness in which the naïve hopes of the young girls are preserved and cherished even as their inevitable disappointment is acknowledged. Such a subtle and difficult balance demonstrates Mistral’s ability to hold two contradictory, often mutually destructive human experiences in a creative tension. In “We Were All To Be Queens,” an acceptance of an unimaginatively literal adult reality makes the dreams of childhood all the more precious and necessary. In the space of memory between these two conflicting poles of experience, Mistral creates her poem.

“Final Tree”

First published: “Último árbol,” 1954 (English translation, 1971; collected in Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology, 1996)

Type of work: Poem

Mistral represents her approaching death as the act of bequeathing her body, with its history of joys and sufferings, “to the last of my trees.”

Mistral chose “Final Tree” as the epilogue for her last book, Lagar, and ever since it has been printed as the closing poem in collections of her work. This placement is fitting not only because of the poem’s subject matter but also because it is one among many of the later poems that demonstrate the furthest refinement of Mistral’s ability to express her inner life through natural imagery.

The speaker of the poem is anticipating her own death. She represents the event figuratively as the act of returning her body, fulfilled and completed like a piece of “fretwork,” to the last of her trees. She fears that, in what she calls her “second life,” she will lack the “solace/ of freshness and silence” the tree offers her and that all she has learned and experienced will have been taken from her. To prevent such a wasteful forgetting, the speaker bequeaths to her final tree, for safekeeping, the experiences that have matured her body and educated her spirit. Among these are her times of mourning and her times of joy, her moments of silence and her moments of song, and the solitudes she has brought upon herself and those forced upon her by the betrayal or absence of others.

It is not inappropriate to see in this list of leave-takings a final tribute to Mistral’s art. It is entirely fitting that the poet who, as a girl, spent hours in her father’s garden talking to flowers and birds should choose a tree as the symbol of her poetry. To this last and most faithful companion, the sole survivor of a now vanished forest of friends, she entrusts her most precious memories before she departs this life. In this way she guarantees that the essence of what she has lived and learned will be preserved by the protective final tree in case she passes again through the world and needs a comforting place to rest.

Such a reading of the poem also helps to explain the unexpected turn it takes in its final three stanzas. In these stanzas, the poet slips into a dreamy confusion. She wonders if she may already have died without realizing it and is now singing her song in death from beneath the restful shade of her final tree. If this magical tree represents Mistral’s poetry, the otherworldly dream she enjoys within its sheltering foliage may be the figurative equivalent of the creative process itself. Only within this privileged space, where the distinctions and separations of daily existence are dissolved, can the poet create new harmonies and achieve a mystical consciousness that blends present and future time, natural and transcendent experience.

It is understandable that Mistral should close her last book of poems with this grateful memorial to her art. “Final Tree” celebrates the transforming processes out of which she created her poetry.

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