Gabriela Mistral Mistral, Gabriela - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Gabriela Mistral 1889-1957

(Born Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga) Chilean poet, educator, and diplomat.

During the first half of the twentieth century, throughout Latin America, Mistral achieved iconic status as mystic, mother, and teacher. She fashioned a poetry that expresses a betrayed and abandoned woman's angry longing for love and children. Mistral was dedicated to restoring meaning and identity to the economically and politically oppressed. Her vision of the anguish, the need, of a South American people pillaged and impoverished—spiritually as well as materially—by European exploitation and denigration was balanced by hope achieved through the Christian assumption of self-sacrifice in the service of liberating others from ignorance and suffering.

Biographical Information

Of Spanish, Basque, and Indian descent, Mistral was born Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga on April 7, 1889, to an educated but poor family in Chile. In 1891, when she was two years old, her father, a schoolteacher and poet, abandoned the family, to return ten years later. At fifteen, Lucila began to teach school. During the next decade, she went from being an elementary school teacher to a secondary school professor to an inspector general of schools to principal of the Liceo de Senoritas from 1910 to 1922. In 1922, she served as an advisor on rural education to the Mexican Minister of Education. She also was a visiting professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, Barnard College in Manhattan, and the University of Puerto Rico. Following heartbreak, and the suicide of her beloved in the early 1900s, she began composing a series of melancholy “Sonetos de la muerte (“Sonnets on Death”), which she entered in a Santiago writing contest in 1914 under the pseudonym Gabriela Mistral. She won the contest and national fame, and her celebrity spread quickly throughout the Americas. The cost of her first book, published in the United States in Spanish, was defrayed by a group of Spanish teachers who heard her poetry read at Columbia University. The concern in her verse for outcasts, downtrodden and impoverished people, and her active support of children, exemplified by her donation of the profits from her poetry to Basque orphans of the Spanish Civil War, brought her a reputation for humanitarianism and saintliness. She served as the Chilean delegate to the League of Nations, the Institute of Intellectual Cooperation, and the United Nations, and as consul for Chile to Italy, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, and the United States. In 1945, the Swedish Academy awarded her the Nobel Prize for Literature. She died of cancer in the United States in 1957.

Major Works

In each of her four volumes of poetry Desolation, Tenderness, Felling, and Wine Press, Mistral's work reflects a melancholy acceptance of the suffering life entails, and of the sacrifice required to alleviate that pain. Her works also show a transition from romantic, expressionist self-involvement with internal anguish and despair to a teacher's and a stateswoman's efforts to inspire in her readers curiosity and knowledge about the natural world, love for its beauty, communion with the spirit, and humane concern for each other.

Critical Reception

The success of Mistral's poetry was immediate when the “Sonetos del muerte” won the Juegos Florales laurel crown and gold medal from the city of Santiago, Chile. In 1922, Desolacion was published in New York. American poet, Langston Hughes, in the preface to his translation of some of her poems, calls her language “simple and direct.” H. J. Gullberg, when awarding Mistral the Nobel Prze for Literature, said, “... this poet offers us her potion, which has the savor of earth and which quenches the thirst of the heart.” However, critics usually interpret Mistral's poetry as a direct expression of a personality they conceive to be similar to that of the Virgin Mary, and, in most critical discussions of her poetry, that personality is as much the subject of admiration and even devotion as the work itself.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Sonetos de la muerte [Sonnets on Death] (poetry) 1914

Desolacion [Desolation] (poetry) 1922

Ternura (poetry) 1924

Tala (poetry) 1938

Lagar (poetry) 1954

Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral [translations by Langston Hughes] (poetry) 1957

Poema de Chile [revisions by Doris Dana] 1967

Clarence Finlayson (essay date 1941)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Spanish-American Poet: The Life and Ideas of Gabriela Mistral,” in Commonweal, Vol. 35, No. 7, December 5, 1941, pp. 160–63.

[In the following essay, Finlayson introduces Mistral to North American readers as a poet of sadness, an advocate for the downtrodden, and as a Christian evangelist of Democracy.]

In 1889 there was born in Vicuña, a small town in northern Chile, an infant who in the course of years was destined to be one of the most famous women of our time. Lucila Godoy was of humble parentage. Her family gained its living working in the fields, as did the majority of the neighbors in that agricultural region. Her earliest years were thus spent in the country. At the age of 15 she began her calling as a teacher in a small rural school. For several years, years which were decisive in her development, Lucila Godoy was dealing with children and with the very poorest children in her native land. When she was about 20 years old she went from elementary to secondary school teaching. She remained as a teacher and then as director of a school for 15 years. Throughout that period she visited many of the educational institutions in Chile, teaching at Traiguen, Antofagasta, Andes, Punta Areñas, Temuco and Santiago. Her idealistic and apostolic temperament exercised a strong influence on young people. But no one, or hardly anyone, knew then of her daily labor, heroic, hidden, and most fruitful for the invisible domains of the human soul.

When she was a teacher at Andes, a village near the mountains, she became known throughout her native land through a literary gathering that took place at Santiago, the capital, and was sponsored by the writers' society of that city. Carried away by her admiration for two European poets, Gabriel D'Annunzio and Frederic Mistral, she had submitted to the conference some remarkably beautiful poems entitled “Soñetos de la Muerte” (“Sonnets on Death”). She presented them under the pseudonym of Gabriela Mistral that was to be famous all over the world and bury her real name forever. They were published in Chile in 1922. Immediately there was the greatest enthusiasm for her poetic talents, seldom found in South America in so striking, so appealing, so profound a form. Her lyrical talent was recognized as among the very highest in all Spanish literature.

In Chile as in other Spanish-American countries it is the custom to give great writers commissions or consular posts in foreign lands in order to supply them with the necessary surroundings to develop their talents and thus brilliantly represent their country. It must be borne in mind that the Latin race has great esteem for literature. Especially in South America the leading poets attain a fame often wider and more popular than that of the most noted statesmen. Pablo Neruda, another of our greatest Chilean poets, has read his poems out of doors in public parks before thousands of people. In this way poetry takes on educative values, promoting esthetic sentiments.

In 1922 the Chilean Government gave Gabriela Mistral a commission to go to Mexico to study the founding and organization of libraries. The same year her complete poems were published in a volume entitled Desolación. The first edition was published in New York under the auspices of the Spanish Institute, whose president, Federico de Onis, was professor of Spanish Literature at Columbia University.

In Mexico Gabriela Mistral became associated with the educational work of José Vasconcelos and took the greatest interest in the problem of the Indian. At times her desire to express the sadness found in those original inhabitants of our America appears in her poetry.

Her educational and poetical endeavors were so successful that in 1926 she was appointed the cultural representative of Spanish-America at the League of Nations at Geneva. In Europe she filled the post of Secretary of the Institute for Intellectual Cooperation with its residence in Paris at the Palais Royal. In 1928 she represented Chile and Ecuador at the International University Conference at Madrid. The year before she had been the delegate of the Teachers' Association of Chile at Locarno. From then on Gabriela Mistral belonged to the consular service of Chile and has been Chilean consul at Madrid, Lisbon, Nice and elsewhere. At present she is Chilean consul at Nictheroy, Brazil. Changes in political parties in Chile, when new presidents come in and the whole diplomatic corps is supplanted, have not affected her. So great is her reputation that each successive government feels honored to have Gabriela as its representative abroad.


Although her poetry is little known in the English language, it enjoys universal favor among our peoples. Some of her compositions have been translated into French, English, etc., but they have not reached the general public. From here on I shall endeavor to say something about several of her poems. In all of them there is a unique delicacy, gentle resignation and an inclination that is spontaneously ethical. Her principal influences are the Bible, Tagore, the Mexican poet, Amado Nervo, and the outstanding Spanish-American poet, Rubén Darío.

“Decalogue of the Artist,” a kind of “Ars Poetica,” is one of her most famous compositions. Its force is so great that this literary jewel might have appeared over the signature of Paul Claudel. Its religious character makes it particularly profound. Here are these ten commandments:

“Decalogue of the Artist”

1. Thou shalt love beauty which is the shadow of God over the universe.

2. There is no art that is atheistic. Even though thou dost not love the Creator, thou wilt affirm His existence by creating in His likeness.

3. Thou shalt not use Beauty as fodder for the feelings, but as the natural food of the soul.

4. It shall not serve as a pretext for luxury or vanity but only as a spiritual exercise.

5. Thou shalt not seek it in the market place nor put thy talents at the service of the vulgar, for Beauty is virginal and what is found in the market place is not beauty.

6. Beauty will rise from thine heart to thy poem and thou shalt first be cleansed.

7. Beauty shall also bear the name of Pity and will console the hearts of men.

8. Thou shalt bring forth thy work as a child is born, staunching the blood of thine heart.

9. Beauty shall not be for thee an opiate that lulls thee to sleep, but a generative...

(The entire section is 2886 words.)

H. J. Gullberg (essay date 1945)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nobel Prize Citation,” in Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated by Langston Hughes, Indiana University Press, 1957, pp. 13–16.

[Gullberg addresses a tribute to Mistral in the following citation from the Swedish Academy, awarding her the Nobel Prize for Literature.]

The tears of a mother once caused an entire language disdained by polite society to retrieve its nobility and come into its glory through the power of poetry. It is said that the first of two poets to bear the name of the wind of the Mediterranean, Mistral, while still a student, by having written his first verses in French, caused his mother to weep a flood of tears. She was an...

(The entire section is 1210 words.)

Sidonia Carmen Rosenbaum (essay date 1945)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gabriela Mistral,” in Modern Women Poets of Spanish America, Hispanic Institute in the United States, 1945, pp. 171–203.

[In the following essay, Rosenbaum examines the appearance and development of such characteristic themes as passion, violence, asceticism, materialism, and pan-Americanism in Mistral's poetry.]

The year that so tragically cut short the career of Delmira Agustini—1914—was to introduce to the Spanish American world of letters another poetess of first rank: the Chilean, Gabriela Mistral. Her best known poems, sprung, most of them, from a common fount of pain (the death, by suicide, of her lover), of Desolation—as her first...

(The entire section is 13172 words.)

Langston Hughes (essay date 1957)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated by Langston Hughes, Indiana University Press, 1957, pp. 9–12.

[In the following introduction to his translations of her poetry, Hughes pays tribute to Mistral as a poet and as a person.]

She did not sign her poetry with her own name, Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga, because as a young teacher she feared, if it became known that she wrote such emotionally outspoken verses, she might lose her job. Instead she created for herself another name—taking from the archangel Gabriel her first name, and from a sea wind the second. When the poems that were quickly to make her famous, Sonetos de la Muerte,...

(The entire section is 1274 words.)

Margaret Bates (essay date 1961)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gabriela Mistral's Poema de Chile,” in The Americas, Vol. XVII, No. 3, January, 1961, pp. 261–76.

[In the following essay, Bates retraces the poetic journey through Chile Mistral undertook in her unfinished Poema de Chile.]

The distinguished Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1945, died in Hempstead, Long Island, on January 10, 1957, of cancer. In the numerous articles that appeared in newspapers and magazines after her death the factual mistakes about her life and writings were endless. Although her critics have not been careful to separate myths from facts, most of these errors can be corrected by...

(The entire section is 6178 words.)

Margot Arce de Vasquez (essay date 1964)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Poetry,” in Gabriela Mistral: The Poet and Her Work, translated by Helene Masslo Anderson, New York University Press, 1964, pp. 21–93.

[In the following excerpt, Arce de Vasquez offers a broad survey of Mistral's poetry ranging from the beginning to the end of her career, and an in-depth explication of selected works.]

Gabriela Mistral's poetry stands as a reaction to the Modernism of the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darió (rubendarismo): a poetry without ornate form, without linguistic virtuosity, without evocations of gallant or aristocratic eras; it is the poetry of a rustic soul, as primitive and strong as the earth, of pure accents without the...

(The entire section is 14141 words.)

Margot Arce de Vasquez (essay date 1964)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nocturne (Nocturno),” in Gabriela Mistral: The Poet and Her Work, translated by Helene Masslo Anderson, New York University Press, 1964, pp. 113–22.

[In the following essay, Arce de Vasquez offers an explication of Mistral's “Nocturne”, arguing that the poem traces a course from the bitterness of betrayed passion to resignation and an ascetic focus on the predominance of death.]

An analysis of Gabriela Mistral's work will always present serious difficulties to anyone who attempts to study it rigorously. The one who undertakes such a task will not be able to ignore the intimate relationship between the themes of the poetry and the life...

(The entire section is 3069 words.)

Carmelo Virgilio (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Woman as Metaphorical System: An Analysis of Gabriela Mistral's Poem ‘Fruta,’” in Woman as Myth and Metaphor in Latin American Literature, edited by Carmelo Virgillo and Naomi Lindstrom, University of Missouri Press, 1985, pp. 137–50.

[In the following essay, Virgilio advances a metaphorical understanding of Mistral's use of the conventional image of women and of women's roles in her poetry.]


                    En el pasto blanco de sol,
suelto la fruta derramada.
                    De los Brasiles viene el oro,
en prietos mimbres donde canta
de los Brasiles, niño...

(The entire section is 4920 words.)

Nita M. Dewberry (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sleep Images in Gabriela Mistral's ‘Canciones de Cuna,’” in CLA Journal, Vol. 37, No. 9, 1993, pp. 94–103.

[In the following essay, Dewberry discusses the imagery and associations surrounding sleep in Mistral's lullabies.]

Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, a Chilean poet known by her pen name of Gabriela Mistral, wrote very subjective poetry and prose which expressed values essential to contemporary man. She gained popularity and literary fame to the extent of earning the highest literary award in the world, the Nobel Prize for Literature, presented to her in Sweden on November 15, 1945. She was both the first woman and the first Hispanic-American writer to...

(The entire section is 2664 words.)

Linda Maier (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Crepuscular Landscape Motif in Two Poems by Gabriela Mistral,” in Hispanofila, Vol. 109, September, 1993, pp. 49–56.

[In the following essay, Maier analyzes two of Mistral's poems, both of which dwell on twilight images, for modernist and avant-garde elements; Maier calls her a “poet of transition.”]

Gabriela Mistral's rise to fame occurred during a transitional phase in Hispanic literature. In 1914, she achieved national recognition when she was awarded first prize in Chile's annual literary competition. Her celebrity spread abroad when in 1921, Professor Federico de Onís gave a lecture on Mistral's poetry to a group of North American teachers...

(The entire section is 3300 words.)

Maryalice Ryan-Kobler (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Beyond the Mother Icon: Rereading the Poetry of Gabriela Mistral,” in Revista Hispanica Moderna, Vol. 50, No. 2, December, 1997, pp. 327–34.

[In the following essay, Ryan-Kobler argues that Mistral's poetry contradicts the accepted, simplified image of Mistral as the saintly mother of Latin America.]

The psychoanalyst and feminist Julia Kristeva posits that the speaking subject's unconscious drives persist in the linguistic, psychic and societal orders. These rhythmic drives, or the Semiotic, initially orient the infant towards the body of the mother. When the child passes through the mirror stage and the oedipus complex, this attachment is repressed....

(The entire section is 3694 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Agosin, Marjorie. “Remembering Gabriela,” translated by Cola Franzen. Sojurner Vol. 15, No. 2, (October 1989), 15–16.

A prose-poem memoir-tribute links the poet's verse with the memoirist's recollections.

Fergusson, Erna. “Gabriel Mistral.” Inter-American Monthly Vol. 1, No. 4 (August 1942), 26–27.

Offers a sketch of Mistral as a person and as the “embodiment of an era.”

Furness, Edna Lue. “Gabriel Mistral Professor, Poet, Philosopher, and Philanthropist.” Arizona Quarterly Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring 1957), 118–23.

An obituary tribute...

(The entire section is 269 words.)