Jorge Guillén Guillén, Jorge (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Cántico 1928; revised, 1936; revised as Cántico, fe de vida, 1945; revised, 1950; revised and translated as Cántico: A Selection of Spanish Poetry, 1965

The Poetry of Jorge Guillén [translated by Frances Avery Pleak] 1942

Clamor, tiempo de historia [three volumes] 1957, 1960, 1963

Maremágnum [Volume One of Clamor] 1957

Que van a dar en la mar [Volume Two of Clamor] 1960

A la altura de las circunstancias [Volume Three of Clamor] 1963

Homenaje: Reunion de vidas 1967

Aire Nuestro [includes...

(The entire section is 152 words.)

Mario Luzi (essay date 1968)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Long Poem of Jorge Guillén,” in Books Abroad, Vol. 42, Winter, 1968, p. 47.

[In the following essay, Luzi compares the poetry of Guillén to that of the French poet Paul Valéry.]

Jorge Guillén's Cántico—I remember well the moment when I heard about it from Hispanist friends, and when I myself made its first, still cursory, acquaintance. These were the years when the prestige of Valéry was at its zenith; wherever a powerful poetic synthesis seemed to incorporate a certain intellectual rigor, his work was sure to be evoked. Guillén's poetry as well seemed to be following in the trace left by these footsteps. Yet it appeared as an event of...

(The entire section is 667 words.)

C. B. Morris (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Game of Poetry,” and “In Praise of Creation,” in A Generation of Spanish Poets, 1920-1936, Cambridge University Press, 1971, pp. 82-142.

[In the following excerpted chapters, Morris explores some major themes and stylistic elements of Guillén's poetry. In “The Game of Poetry,” Morris discusses the element of playfulness in the works of Guillén and other modern poets. In “In Praise of Creation,” Morris argues that Guillén's poetry appeals to both the intellect and the emotions in poems which celebrate “the gift of life” through the precision and classic simplicity of his verse.]



(The entire section is 22013 words.)

Octavio Paz (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jorge Guillén,” in The Siren and the Seashell, University of Texas Press, 1976, pp. 153-60.

[In the following essay, Paz discusses the significance of Guillén's poetry to modern Spanish literature.]

Jorge Guillén occupies a central place in modern Spanish poetry. It is central in a paradoxical way: his work is an island, yet at the same time it is the bridge uniting the survivors of Modernism and the Generation of '98 to the Generation of 1925. His three great predecessors, who conceived of the poem as meditation (Unamuno), exclamation (Jiménez), or word in time (Machado), surely looked upon the appearance of his first works as heresy. Machado, at...

(The entire section is 3026 words.)

Rupert Allen (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Notes on Self-Transcendence East and West: Jorge Guillén and Haiku,” in Dieciocho, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1978, pp. 160-81.

[In the following essay, Allen discusses several short poems by Guillén, asserting that he is the greatest Spanish poet of “transcendental consciousness.” Allen also compares the poetry of Guillén to the Japanese form of Haiku.]

During the second half of this century we have seen an enormous growth in the literature on self-transcendence. The phenomena associated with “centered,” non-ego awareness have been described in a number of fields including ethnology, depth psychology, comparative religion, parapsychology, and the vast...

(The entire section is 6914 words.)

Patrick H. Dust (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Cosmic Love in Lorca and Guillén,” in At Home and Beyond: New Essays on Spanish Poets of the Twenties, edited by Salvador Jimenez Fajardo and John C. Wilcox, Society of Spanish and Spanish-American Studies, 1983, pp. 53-68.

[In the following essay, Dust discusses the poetry of Guillén and of Frederico García Lorca in terms of their sense of “cosmological reality.”]

In 1926, at the time when the young poets of the Generation of 1925 were beginning to make their unique contribution to a vertiable “Silver Age” in Spanish literature, José Ortega y Gasset perceptively noted that the prevailing ideology of the times had become exessively...

(The entire section is 5768 words.)

Martha LaFollette Miller (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Music as Order in the Poetry of Jorge Guillén,” inPerspectives on Contemporary Literature, Vol. 10, 1984, pp. 66-74.

[In the following essay, Miller discusses the themes of music and musicality as representative of cosmic order in Guillén's poetry.]

The duality of chaos and order plays a significant role in the poetry of Jorge Guillén, as various critics, as well as Guillén himself, have noted. The trajectory of his poetic development over time reflects this duality, with the harmony predominant in Cántico giving way in Clamor to the disorder that the title suggests. Yet, although Guillén at times permits chaos and disorder to surface...

(The entire section is 3425 words.)

Octavio Paz (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jorge Guillén,” in On Poets and Others, Seaver Books, 1986, pp. 166-75.

[In the following essay, Paz provides commentary on some central themes and stylistic elements of Guillén's poetry.]

Jorge Guillén is a Spaniard from Castile, which doesn't mean he's more Spanish than the Spaniards of other regions but that he is Spanish in a different way. He is no purist: Guillén is a European Spaniard and belongs to an historical moment in which Spanish culture was opening out to the thought and art of Europe. But unlike Ortega, who enlivened and inspired that group, Guillén was closer to France than to Germany. He pursued his university studies in Paris, where...

(The entire section is 3197 words.)

C. Christopher Soufas, Jr. (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Guillén's Early Poetry and the Imagist Critique of Traditional Modes of Picturing,” in Romance Notes, Vol. 29, No. 3, Spring, 1989, pp. 227-31.

[In the following essay, Soufas discusses the use of imagery in Guillén's poetry.]

The early poetry of Jorge Guillén acquires greater significance when understood in the context of an ongoing debate on the proper role of images in Western art (See Mitchell, Steiner, Lee). In his “Paragone,” Leonardo Da Vinci proclaims the superiority of images over words: “There is the same relation between facts and words that there is between painting and poetry, because facts are subject to the eye and words are subject...

(The entire section is 1906 words.)

Nancy B. Mandlove (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dialogue of Poets and Poetry: Intertextual Patterns in the Sonnets of Jorge Guillén,” in Anales de la Literatura Espanola Contemporanea, Vol. 16, No. 1-2, 1991, pp. 73-89.

[In the following essay, Mandlove discusses the use of the sonnet form in the poetry of Guillén.]

The persistence of the sonnet as a vital poetic form from the Renaissance into the twentieth century—a century characterized by free verse and experimentation—attests to the fascination that the form holds for poets and readers alike. Nearly every major Western poet has cultivated the sonnet and no other form has inspired as many poems dedicated to itself as has the sonnet. Lope de...

(The entire section is 5891 words.)

Howard T. Young (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Texts and Intertexts in Jorge Guillén's Homenaje,” in Comparative Literature, Vol. 43, No. 4, Fall, 1991, pp. 370-82.

[In the following essay, Young discusses literary references in the poems of Guillén's collection Homenaje.]

          “En qué se diferencian de
los comentarios los que no
                                                                      lo son”

Unamuno, Cómo se hace una novela 47

Homenaje (reunión de vidas)—Jorge Guillén's “poetic daybook”—contains a cornucopia of responses to a lifetime of browsing in world literature. Through hundreds of poems inspired by...

(The entire section is 4871 words.)

Jonathan Mayhew (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jorge Guillén and the Insufficiency of Poetic Language,” in PMLA, Vol. 106, No. 5, October, 1991, pp. 1146-55.

[In the following essay, Mayhew discusses Guillén's views on the limitations of language as a means of poetic expression.]

Jorge Guillén’s Lenguaje y poesía (Language and Poetry), one of the first critical works in Spanish to address the theoretical problems involved in defining poetic language, has provided a convenient point of departure for subsequent Spanish poets and critics. The most significant innovation in Guillén's lucid exposition of these problems is his linking of poetic language to the conception of language that...

(The entire section is 6698 words.)

R. G. Havard (review date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Final, in Modern Language Review, Vol. 87, No. 3, July, 1992, 785-6.

[In the following review, Havard points to the significance of Final, Guillén's final volume of poetry, and discusses the theme of old age which runs throughout the volume.]

When Final, Guillén's fifth and last volume, was published by Barral in 1981 it contained, to quote the poet, ‘muchísimas erratas’. By February 1983, when he died at the grand age of ninety-one, Guillén had made the necessary corrections and had added nearly thirty new poems for this ‘definitive’ volume, which is edited by the director of the Centro de Creación y Estudios Jorge...

(The entire section is 718 words.)

Sara F. García-Gómez (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “In Humble Conformity: Cipher and Vision in Jorge Guillén's Poetry,” in Allegory Revisited: Ideals of Mankind, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994, pp. 31-57.

[In the following essay, García-Gómez discusses the theme of “creatureliness” in Guillén's poetry.]

Emilia de Zuleta, one of the most careful and perspicacious students of Guillén's poetry, has established the existence of three distinct thematic clusters in his work. As she says, the “first one comprises being, time, and love … The second one includes chance, chaos, suffering, death, and memory … The third one involves imminence, enjoyment, jubilation, God, and the devil”.1...

(The entire section is 11331 words.)

Sally Harvey (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jorge Guillén: The Quest for Precision,” inModern Language Review, Vol. 90, No. 3, 1995, pp. 659-72.

[In the following essay, Harvey examines Guillén's Aire nuestro, asserting that “precision” is the overriding characteristic of Guillén's poems. Harvey also compares Guillén's poetry to that of his contemporary Juan Ramón Jiménez.]

          ¡Intelijencia, dame
el nombre exacto de las cosas!
          Que mi palabra sea
la cosa misma,
creada por mi alma nuevamente.

(Juan Ramón Jiménez)1

Jorge Guillén's poetic output, spanning fifty-five years from the first edition of Cántico in 1928 to...

(The entire section is 7253 words.)

Elizabeth Matthews (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Heroic Vocation: Cervantes, Guillén, and ‘Noche Del Caballero,’” in Modern Language Review, Vol. 93, No. 4, October, 1998, pp. 1021-33.

[In the following essay, Matthews discusses the influence of Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote) on the poetry of Guillén.]

Miguel de Cervantes was an influential figure not only for Jorge Guillén but for several other writers of the so-called Generation of 1927.1 In Cántico there are three poems that acknowledge a direct connection with Cervantes: ‘Tarde mayor’ and ‘Los balcones del Oriente’ from the 1945 edition, and ‘Noche del Caballero’ from the 1950 edition. All...

(The entire section is 7040 words.)

Lawrence Olszewski (review 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Horses in the Air and Other Poems, in Library Journal, Vol. 124, No. 10, June 1, 1999, pp. 118-19.

[In the following review, Olszewski offers an assessment of Horses in the Air and Other Poems, the posthumous selection from Guillén's body of poetry.]

Although a member of the influential Generation of 1927 and one of the greatest Spanish poets of the 20th century, Guillén (1893-1984) is not widely known in the English-speaking world; the last major mainstream translation of his work is now almost 20 years old. This bilingual anthology presents 85 representative poems from every stage of Guillén's career: the optimistic affirmation of...

(The entire section is 197 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Ciplijauskaité, Biruté. A review of El hombre y la obra. World Literature Today 66, No. 2 (Spring 1992): 312-13.

Assesses Guillén's posthumously published manuscript of literary criticism, originally written in 1917.

Geist, Anthony L. and Reginald Gibbons. “Translator's Preface.” In Guillén on Guillén, edited by Geist and Gibbons. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979, 220 p.

Surveys Guillén's body of poetry and prose, and his significance to Spanish letters.

Jones, C. A. A review of Language and Poetry: Some Poets of Spain. Modern Language Review...

(The entire section is 586 words.)