Introduction

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Guillén, Jorge 1893–

A Spanish poet, critic, and translator, Guillén celebrates life in a poetry that is pure, complex, and highly disciplined. Although his life was touched by the violence of the Spanish War, he has retained his optimism and spirituality. Showing the influence of Valéry and Juan Ramón Jiménez, his work transcends the local to achieve an artistry that is of universal proportions. He is considered by many to be Spain's greatest living poet.

Robert G. Havard

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1141

What Guillén's early poems indicate, above all, is a scrupulous care on the part of the poet, an ideal of perfection that is apparent both in a thematic context and in the business of making poems. (p. 111)

[The basic idea of the theory of pure poetry] is that of elimination, which in turn contains implicitly the notion of a compression or synthesis: elimination of the non-poetic…. The stringencies of this theory, which must have influenced (though not riveted) Guillén's sensibility, help to explain his special affection for the short poem where strict confines allow for a more densely worked piece, and from which, hopefully, flaws may be cast out.

Outstanding amongst the short poetic forms employed in the first Cántico is the décima. The seventeen décimas of this volume are most representative of Guillén's inclination towards a concision coupled with a disciplined roundness of form. The décimas also express, in one image or another, Guillén's most characteristic theme: that of man's fundamentally positive relationship with reality…. [The] essential property of the décima, which is its concision, makes this poetic form most appropriate for correlating the poet's dynamic concept of reality. It is more accurate to speak in terms of poetic tension than in terms of theme: the décima's tendency to concentrate itself into stark image form, as opposed to the more discursive tone of the sonnet, for example, is a key factor in its accommodation of Guillén's uncomplicated positivism in the first Cántico. (p. 112)

[Guillén has a] predilection for an unusual rhyme-scheme constructed out of two quatrains and a central couplet in lines five and six [patterned as ababccdeed]. (p. 114)

[This] pattern affects not only the words that rhyme but also the rhythmic structure of the poem as a whole. The couplet has the function of concentrating and even partially arresting the poem's rhythm at its centre. In the [traditional rhyming pattern of the décima, called the] espinela … a pause inevitably occurs at the end of the fourth line; and lines five and six, with their distinctive overlapping rhymes, have the function of relating the poem's separate parts and of re-charging its momentum. It is likely that Guillén objected to this somewhat rigid system and wanted more variation in his rhythm; indeed, even in his espinelas he prefers to abandon the traditional pause at line four, often using enjambement instead. Both types of décimas show that Guillén wished to complicate the rather fluent or andante rhythm which had been a feature of this form; but his achievement is more apparent in the new couplet décima, with its additional rhyme and central compression…. [Its] centralized couplet has the effect of organizing the poem in a symmetrical fashion (4-2-4). Now this is no incidental distribution, for the notion of symmetry or, more specifically, of concentricity, is a key motif in Guillén's early work and is inextricably related to his concept of perfection. A correspondence between the poem's form and theme may be found in the majority of these early décimas. (pp. 115-16)

[In the poem 'Panorama' for example, the poet stands at the top of a tower and views the patterned placement of streets in the town, all radiating from the foot of the tower.] The impression which the poem makes, then, is one of symmetry and concentricity; and this is clearly enhanced by the poem's own structure. In relation to the dominant motif of form, we may also appreciate what may be termed the poem's psychological properties; which is to say that, ultimately, the form is no more than an image of a mood or a psychic condition which the poet had experienced. Guillén has informed us that the concrete origin of the poem was the cathedral tower at Murcia; and we may easily imagine how the character of that townscape inspired a vision which is essentially tranquil, one of timeless harmony. The antithesis of this poem, both in mood and form values, is 'Rascacielos' of Clamor. This later décima, which, logically, does not have the centralized rhyme pattern, is a vision of a modern city in the United States. Though it is again constructed out of geometric form values there is little suggestion here of balance and symmetry. There is only one movement in the poem, and it is that which traces the upward thrust of the towering skyscrapers. This movement, in 'Rascacielos', comes to image the notion of a propulsion towards an uncertain future, which is itself in keeping with the disenchanted theme of Clamor and in opposition to that search for an experience of permanent beauty which characterizes Cántico.

The point I hope to have made about 'Panorama', however, is that the poem's formal and compositional qualities contribute in a positive way to what the poem has to say. Indeed, I should go further and suggest that the poem really says nothing; rather, it constructs itself into a total and complex image, and this image owes as much to the poem's formal qualities as it does to anything else. By formal I mean both the internal geometric vocabulary of the poem and the structure of the poem as such, which may be considered external but is nonetheless inseparable in terms of its contribution to the total image. (pp. 116-17)

As so often is the case in Guillén's poetry, the sudden intuition, the momentary experience of beauty, of harmony, or of plenitude, becomes the permanent value which the poem immobilizes. (p. 122)

Guillén's fundamental theme [in Cántico is] that, while the experience of harmony is available to everyone, it is not easily obtained; what is needed, in fact, is a forceful and determined drive to secure that permanent experience….

Clearly, in longer poems the narrative element allows for a more explicit development of the theme, whereas in the emblematic décima it has to be perceived in terms of the values of distilled images. This is … the theme which runs consistently throughout Guillén's work…. (p. 125)

[One] of the remarkable features of the original Cántico is its uniformity of tone and consistency of technique. This is not to imply a limitation, for the primary objective of this volume was to correlate, in distilled, emblematic poems, an impression of the central concept of 'plentitud'. It is in the sense of this total concentration into image form that the poetry of this volume is most properly described as pure poetry. Furthermore, the formal virtues of this volume should not be considered as cold or academic incidentals, for they constitute a significant contribution towards the relation of a very human experience. (pp. 126-27)

Robert G. Havard, "The Early 'Décimas' of Jorge Guillén," in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies (© copyright 1971 Liverpool University Press), January, 1971, pp. 111-27.

K. M. Sibbald

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[Although] Guillén did indeed write, at some point in his career, poetry which might well be described as dehumanized, pure, classicist or Gongoristic, by the time [Cántico (1919–1928)] was ready for publication he had freed himself from these categories….

His poems [before 1925] were often occasional pieces, lacking substance and almost always without the polished sophistication which distinguishes every edition of Cántico. (p. 24)

[Guillén] revised his early work [for Cántico] … in order to present a book of poems which had organic unity. (p. 25)

[Desiring to translate poetic experiences as faithfully as possible, Guillén] rejected sentimentality and realism. Such an attitude need not imply the dehumanization of poetry. Indeed, by this very rejection, Guillén focussed attention upon those things he considered to be at the very centre of human experience…. The very symbol of transitory beauty, the rose, which is often used by Guillén, defies oblivion. The axe bites into the pine but, in so doing, takes part in the pattern of creation and recreation. There is a certain mystery in creation and the poet's task is not to explain away the mystery but, first, ensure that the mystery holds no terrors, and secondly, to recreate the wonderful mystery of 'creation' in his own poetry. This can only be done if that mystery is approached in a controlled and reasoned manner. Thus, Guillén enlists the help of geometrical shapes and symbols. The one he uses most consistently is the circle…. The figure of the circle is the symbol of perfection…. Guillén follows tradition and uses this perfect figure to describe the progress from birth to death. In such harmony, therefore, death … cannot impose disruption upon life…. In [Cántico] the complete circle becomes the symbol of the universe. In such a universe involvement is always total. Death is no more and no less a part of the cosmic unity than any of the human activities…. (pp. 32-4)

The main concern, then of [Cántico] is with life. Guillén uses vital physical forces to defy historical time and reaffirm the unity of creation. (p. 34)

As Guillén explained …: 'Past and future lie latent as ideas. Only the present is real, although the unreflecting person is not conscious of its palpitation and regards as without time any act taking place now. All roads lead one to the universe at its pinnacle of abundance, of consistency, of health'. (p. 36)

The poet is powerless to prevent time passing. He can, however, perceive order in the motion of time. Consequently, all the seasons and also day and night appear in [Cántico]. When that order is disturbed the poet is threatened; reality becomes unreal. The poet depends on the things he sees. If they are blurred or indistinct, chaos, the antithesis of order and form, results. By creating his own time outside historical time, therefore, Guillén minimizes disruption. (p. 38)

K. M. Sibbald, "Some Early Versions of the Poems of 'Cántico (1919–1928)': Progress Towards 'Claridad'," in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies (© copyright 1973 Liverpool University Press), January, 1973, pp. 23-44.

Edmund L. King

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Poetry, it might be argued, has always inclined to Platonism or at least to Platonizing, and [Guillén's collection] Cántico acknowledges the proposition by opposing it, by affirming the value of living in the real world, by celebrating the experience of consciousness, that consciousness which, without experience, would not know that it existed. (p. 697)

Between the beginning of the book and the end are, in the complete Spanish original, 332 poems that celebrate the ordinary experiences of life, experiences that thus become extraordinary, experiences by definition—and faith—good—all the "normal" things that can be encountered in a day (and of course as long as one is awake, in a night). And since reality is what is, not what was or what may be, we have a rhetoric of the present, things in space more than actions in time, more nouns—far more—than verbs. Only the consummation of love generates verbs of action rather than of state…. (p. 698)

It's a daring trick to try, and Guillén brings it off in Spanish without a bobble: no doubt there are smiles of assent in the audience, but there's no snickering, no tittering. I cannot imagine such a performance in modern English…. [The] "normal" experiences represented by Guillén, of "dawns, mornings, noons, evenings, sunsets, nights, springs, summers, falls, winters, heat and cold, light and shade, earth and sky, the sun, the moon, the stars," through the fanatical purity of Guillén's spatialization transcend the dazzlingly representational and inevitably become representative. (p. 699)

Edmund L. King, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1978 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXI, No. 4, Winter, 1978–79.

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