Gabriela Mistral World Literature Analysis - Essay

Gabriela Mistral World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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 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,...

(The entire section is 2314 words.)