(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Jorge Guillén was stigmatized early in his career as a cold, intellectual poet, and although that is almost the opposite of the truth, it took a long time for his reputation to recover. He strove after the ideal of poesía pura (pure poetry) and sought to distill from experience its barest essence, weeding from his verse the incidental and the ornamental.

Guillén’s concern for poesía pura was obviously influenced by Juan Ramón Jiménez and Paul Valéry, while his pantheistic view of nature reveals the influence of José Ortega y Gasset. There was no such view of nature among the poets of nineteenth century Spain, and the radiance and intensity in Guillén’s work hard back to the Neoplatonic tradition of the sixteenth century poet Luis de León. In technique, Guillén was influenced by Francisco Gómez de Quevedo (especially in the trenchant wit of his epigrams, which Guillén called tréboles) and Juan Meléndez Valdés, the great Spanish lyricist of the eighteenth century. In Guillén’s classical Spanish rhythms and packed metaphors, he reveals the influence of Luis de Góngora y Argote, and there are also traces in his work of the creationism and Surrealism of the Chilean Vicente Huidobro.

Fond of assonance and short lines, Guillén uses a wide variety of meters. Often he uses the décima (with stanzas of ten octosyllabic lines) to express in simple form his ecstasy before the miraculous panorama of nature in a balance of rhythm, thought, and feeling. Contrary to the Spanish practice, he capitalizes the first word of each line of his poetry, and many of his poems have a circular structure, harking back in the last line to a key word in the first.

Nouns which stress essence predominate in Guillén’s poems, and his lexicon is basic and relatively spare. As fond as he is of onomatopoeia, he uses nearly as many nouns that are expressive of sound (such as baraúnda, batahola, guirigay, algarabía) as he does verbs. In “Alamos con río” (“Poplars with River”), for example, arrullar (to coo) appears as “Poplars that are almost music/ Coo to him who is lucky enough to hear.” In addition, Guillén is fond of elliptical sentences and exclamations, colloquial expletives (such as zas and uf), and rhetorical questions. Although his poetry is not easy reading, his vocabulary is not difficult.

Guillén was well grounded in Spanish and world literature quotations of and allusions to all periods abound in his work. His pieces are often headed by untranslated epigraphs in English, German, French, Italian, or Portuguese. He also makes moderate use of classical allusions, although often without encumbering the poetry with specific names.


Many years of Guillén’s poetic career were devoted to refining his Canticle, first published in 1928. The original collection included a mere seventy-five poems; in 1936, the poet added fifty more. The edition of 1945 contains 270 poems, and the 1950 volume contains 332.

First and foremost in Canticle, which,...

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