Jorge Guillén 1893-1984
Spanish poet and essayist.
Critically acclaimed as one of the greatest Spanish poets of the twentieth century, Guillén was a major figure of the “Generation of 1927,” a group of highly talented Spanish poets which emerged in the 1920s. Guillén was known as a poet of precision, whose major themes include a jubilant celebration of human life and the natural world, as well as darker meditations on social injustice and political oppression. His central volumes of poetry were revised and expanded several times throughout his life, culminating in Aire nuestro (1968), which includes all five of his major works. Guillén's masterpiece is Cántico, first published in 1928. His other major works include Clamor (a three volume collection, 1957-1963), Homenaje (1967), Y otros poemas (1973), and Final (1981).
Guillén was born on January 19, 1893, in Valladolid, Spain. In 1911, he enrolled in the University of Madrid to study philosophy and literature, and in 1913 received an M.A. in literature from the University of Granada. In addition to writing poetry, Guillén had a successful academic career, teaching at many prestigious universities throughout Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. His first academic appointment was as a lecturer in Spanish at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, from 1917-1923. While there, he became acquainted with the French symbolist poet Paul Valéry. It was during this period that Guillén began writing the poems which were eventually included in Cántico. In 1921, he married the Frenchwoman Germaine Cahen, with whom he had two children. (His youngest child, Claudio, later became a professor at Harvard University.) Guillén received a Ph.D. from the University of Madrid in 1924. From 1926-1929, he was a professor of Spanish literature at the University of Murcia. In 1927, Guillén was among a group of talented Spanish poets who met in commemoration of the great Spanish poet Luis de Góngora y Argote (1561-1627), on the tercentenary of his death. Later known as the “Generation of 1927,” these poets rose to prominence during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. From 1929-1931, Guillén taught as a lecturer at Oxford University, in England. He then returned to Spain to occupy a post as professor at the University of Seville, which he held until 1938. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), however, led Guillén, as well as many other talented writers and artists of his generation, into exile. He had been temporarily imprisoned as an enemy of the Nationalist rebels during the winter of 1936-1937. His close friend, the poet Frederico García Lorca, had been killed in 1936 for opposition to the Nationalists. In 1938, Guillén emigrated with his family to the United States, where he remained, holding academic posts at several universities, for nearly forty years. In 1940, he became a professor of Spanish and Latin American literature at Wellesley College, in Massachusetts, a post which he retained until 1958. His wife died in 1947, after a long illness. Guillén retired from Wellesley in 1958, after which he traveled throughout Europe, teaching as a visiting professor at several different universities. During the 1960s, Guillén spent time in Italy, developing a special attachment to the culture and people. It was in Italy that he met and married Irene Mochi Sismondi in 1961. With the death of Francisco Franco—who had ruled as dictator of Spain since the Spanish Civil War—in 1975, Guillén was able to return to his native country. He died at the age of ninety-one, on February 8, 1984, in Málaga.
Guillén's major works are comprised of five central volumes, which were revised and reissued throughout his life. His first collection of poetry, Cántico, remains his masterpiece. First released in 1928, Cántico contained seventy-five poems. A revised edition of Cántico, expanded to include an additional fifty poems, was published in 1936. Nine years later, another new edition was published, revised and re-titled Cantico, fe de vida, containing 270 poems in all. The complete edition of Cántico, containing 334 poems, was published in 1950. The poems which comprise Cántico are often characterized as a celebration of life. The overriding tone of the volume is optimistic, jubilant over the harmony and perfection of the natural world, with frequent references to air and light. The poems are written in such classical verse forms as the sonnet, quartrain, décima, and ballad. Two key poems of Cántico are “Más Allá” and “Salvación de la primavera.” “Más Allá,” (the first poem in all volumes of Cántico beginning with the 1936 edition), celebrates the miracle of life through the experience of awakening to meet the light of a new morning. “Salvación de la primavera” is a love poem. Guillén's next major work, Clamor, was published in three volumes: Maremágnum (1957), Que van a dar en la mar (1960), and A la altura de las circuntancias (1963). In contrast to Cántico, the poems of Clamor—first published after the political chaos of the Spanish Civil War, the devastation of World War II, and the horrors of the Holocaust—are concerned with history and social strife. Leaving aside the classical verse forms of Cántico, Clamor includes more free verse and prose poetry. In Maremágnum, Guillén introduced a poetic form he called tréboles—three or four line “cloverleaves” expressing central themes of Clamor in the pithy, epigrammatic style of Japanese Haiku poetry. The poems of Maremágnum, the first volume of Clamor, express a darker tone, concerned with human struggle, social injustice, political oppression, and death. The overtly political and social preoccupations of this volume include several poems on the threat of human self-destruction through nuclear warfare. The poem “Potencia de Perez” is a thinly veiled allusion to the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939-1975. Que van a dar en la mar, volume two of Clamor, continues this dark perspective, concentrating on themes of death, loss, and childhood memories. A la altura de las circuntancias, volume three of Clamor, represents a culmination of the optimism and joi de vivre expressed in Cántico, edged with the darker mood and social struggle of the first two volumes of Clamor. In this volume, however, concern with social and political issues is expressed in more optimistic terms, looking toward a brighter future for humanity. The poems of A la altura de las circuntancias include reference to the humanitarian ethos of The Diary of Anne Frank and meditations on the future of Spain. The volume Homenaje, published in 1967, returns to the bright, optimistic, celebratory tone of Cántico. Homenaje is a collection of poems paying homage to other writers and poets, as well as dedications to personal friends and relatives. It also includes Guillén's translations of such poets as Valéry, Rilke, and Pound. In addition, some of Guillén's best love poems are included in Homenaje. The 1968 volume Aire Nuestro is a compilation including the entirety of Cántico, Clamor, and Homenaje. Guillén's last two major volumes of poetry are Y otros poemas (1973) and Final (1981). Y otros poemas touches upon such social and political concerns as racism in the United States, the Spanish Civil War, the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, and nuclear warfare. However, this volume is also characterized by a concern with the significance of poetry itself, the poet's relationship to language, and the process of poetic creation. Y otros poemas was revised and expanded in 1979, including poems written between 1966-1975. Final, published three years before his death, is made up of poems written by Guillén while in his eighties. It includes many of the central themes running throughout his body of poetry, as well as a preoccupation with aging and death. A revised edition of Aire Nuestro, published in 1977-1981, includes all five of Guillén's major volumes of poetry.
Guillén is known as one of the major Spanish poets of the twentieth century. Jorge Luis Borges in 1968 called him “beyond dispute the greatest living Spanish poet.” Anthony L. Geist and Reginald Gibbons asserted in 1979, “Guillén has written some of the most important and beautiful poetry in Spanish.” His inclusion in the “Generation of 1927” groups him with such great Spanish poets as Frederico García Lorca, Rafael Alberti, Pedro Salinas, Luis Cernuda, and Vincente Aleixandre. He is also often associated with Paul Valéry, the great French symbolist poet who was his friend and a significant influence. Guillén, however, adhered to no particular school of poetry. He is frequently referred to as “a poet of being,” whose works celebrate a sense of wonder regarding both manmade objects and the features of the natural world. Critics generally agree that “precision” is one of the primary qualities of Guillén's style. He is, however, frequently faulted as a cerebral, overly intellectual poet. Guillén received immediate recognition for his first publication of Cántico, and was soon recognized as a major Spanish poet of his generation. In 1979, Gibbons and Geist noted that Cántico “alone would be sufficient to assure Guillén a place of distinction in twentieth-century European letters.” Gibbons and Geist asserted that, in the final edition of Cántico:
“The poems, carefully wrought and formally sophisticated, convey a sense of poetic and moral exploration. They are the response of a poet of unusual sensibility to those aspects of the world that seem to him to embody the qualities of coherence, vitality, equilibrium, and light. They present a decorous rapture, a song—‘cántico’—of affirmation and wonder at creation.”
Critics often comment that Guillén's five central volumes, comprising the final edition of Aire nuestro, represent a consistent, finely orchestrated body of work. Gibbons and Geist remarked of the volumes of Aire nuestro, “they form a remarkable whole and present a coherent vision of creation and man's place in it.” Florence L. Yudin in 1974 observed that Aire nuestro is “Guillén's metaphor for the totality of human existence.” She continues: “Aire nuestro expresses in terms of intelligence and sensitivity the sustained dialogue which is consciousness and experience.” She adds, “It is, however, a poetry of correlations and contrasts, and thus it also explores the negation of life: the forces of violence, repression, and alienation reverberate in its counterpoint.” Yudin concludes, “The three component parts of Aire nuestro … record with differing perspectives the dialectics of human values.” In 1976, Guillén was awarded the Miguel de Cervantes prize, the most prestigious literary award in the Spanish-speaking world. In 1993, the centennial of his birth was celebrated in the literary world through colloquia, special sessions at academic conferences, and special issues of literary journals. In 1996, K.M. Sibbald assessed Guillén's significance and influence, asserting:
“In both academic and literary circles in the Old and the New Worlds Guillén has long been recognized as the dean of modern Spanish poets and an ethical as well as creative influence both in and outside Spain. … The organic poetry which was his continuous response to being-in-the-world has, moreover, served as model to younger poets, and his has been a formative influence and decisive voice in twentieth century Spanish poetry.”