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Jorge Luis Borges 1899-1986

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(Also wrote under the pseudonym F. Bustos, and, with Adolfo Bioy Casares, under the joint pseudonyms H[onorio]. Bustos Domecq, B. Lynch Davis, and B. Suarez Lynch.) Argentine poet, short-story writer, essayist, critic, translator, biographer, and screenwriter.

For more information on the work of Borges, see PC, Vol. 22.

During his lifetime, Borges was highly regarded as a writer of baroque and labyrinthine short fictions often written in the form of metaphysical detective stories. Characteristically, they blur the distinction between reality and the perception of reality, between the possible and the fantastic, between matter and spirit, between past, present, and future, and between the self and the other. They are usually situated in the nebulous confines of allegorical locations, whether identified as bizarre dimensions of the universe, Arabian cities, English gardens, the Argentine pampa, amazing libraries, or the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. Since his death, Borges has attained the status of one of the major literary figures of the twentieth century, a master poet and essayist, as well as an architect of the short story. His work has influenced not only how Latin American and non-Latin American writers write, but also the way readers read. Associated with the avant-garde Spanish Ultraístas in the 1920s, Borges rejected the Spanish poetry of the nineteenth century, and wrote a baroque verse free of rhyme, surrealistic, even brutal, in imagery and metaphor, dedicated to the incorporation of Argentinean locations, locutions and themes, and establishing the poet as the soul of his subject. By the end of the thirties, however, Borges repudiated his early verse, abandoning local color, nationalism, and the desire to shock. Thereafter, until his death, he worked with traditional devices: rhyme, meter, elucidation, and time-honored metaphors in traditional forms such as the sonnet and haiku. He strove for simplicity of expression through the use of common language and colloquial word order, and projected a tone of tranquil irony, and a wisdom concerned with, but tempered by, an indifference to, time, desire, and mortality.

Biographical Information

Borges was born August 24, 1899, into an old, Argentinean family of soldiers, patriots, and scholars, in Buenos Aires, where he spent most of his childhood. His father was an intellectual, a university professor of psychology and modern languages, a lawyer, and a writer. He possessed an extensive library, which was the boy's delight. Borges, whose paternal grandmother was English, was raised bilingual and read English before Spanish. His first encounter with Cervantes, for example, was in English, and when he was seven, his Spanish translation of Oscar Wilde's “The Happy Prince” appeared in a Uruguayan newspaper. A visit to Switzerland in 1914 became an extended stay when the outbreak of the first World War made it impossible for the family to return to Argentina. Borges enrolled in the College de Geneve, where he studied Latin, French and German, as well as the European philosophers. he was especially taken with Schopenhauer and Bishop Berkley, whose dark pessimist and anti-materialist world view was reflected in Borges's literary work. After receiving his degree in 1918, Borges traveled to Spain where he joined with the avant-garde Ultraístas, who combined elements of Dadaism, Imagism, and German Expressionism in their reviews, essays, and highly metaphorical poetry. Borges returned to Buenos Aires in 1921, and, with the publication of his first books of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), Luna de Enfrente (1925), and Cuaderno San Martín (1929), was recognized as a leading literary figure in Argentina. During these years, too, Borges helped establish several literary journals, and published essays on metaphysics and language. In 1938, the same year his father died, Borges himself nearly died from blood poisoning, after the wound he received from knocking his head against the casement of an open window while running up a flight of steps was poorly treated. Fearful that his ability to write might have been impaired by his illness, Borges took up short fiction rather than poetry, intending to attribute possible failure to inexperience in the genre rather than diminished literary skill. The result was “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” a story highly acclaimed both as a fiction and as a precursor to deconstructionist textual analysis. In the period following this publication, Borges wrote many of the works now considered to be among his masterpieces. Though he spoke of his disdain for politics, Borges was always politically outspoken. He opposed European fascism and anti-Semitism, and the dictatorship of Juan Perón in Argentina. In 1946, Perón removed Borges from his post as an assistant at the National Library of Argentina, due to his opposition to the regime; in 1955, however, following the overthrow of Perón, Borges, now almost totally blind from a condition he inherited from his father, was made director of the National Library. In 1957, he was appointed professor of English literature at the University of Buenos Aires. In 1961, he was a co-recipient, with Samuel Beckett, of the Prix Formentor, the prestigious International Publishers Prize. Borges did not oppose the Argentinean military coup or the terrorism of the Videla junta in the seventies until 1980, when, apologetically, he signed a plea for those whom the regime had caused to “disappear.” Similarly, he supported the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, calling the general a “gentleman,” and commending his imposition of “order” in the face of communism. It was for these failings, rather than for any failure as an artist, many believe, that Borges was never awarded the Nobel Prize. The catalog of his awards and honors, nevertheless, is long and distinguished. He spent his last years as a literary celebrity, traveling and lecturing. Totally blind, he continued to write by dictation: to his mother, who died, in 1975, at the age of ninety-nine, and to his student and companion, María Kodama, whom he married shortly before his death. His enduring love of languages was marked by his late study of Icelandic. Borges died of cancer of the liver in 1986, and was buried in Geneva.

Major Works

Borges's literary output spanned seven decades, from the 1920s–1980s, during which he published more than fifty volumes of short stories, poetry, and essays. In his first collection of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (Passion for Buenos Aires), published in 1923, Borges, an early adherent to the Ultraísta literary movement, took his native city as his subject matter. Subsequent collections of poetry published in the 1920s include Luna de enfrente (1925; Moon Across the Way), and Cuaderno San Martín (1929; San Martín Copybook). Turning to the works of short fiction that eventually won him international praise, Borges virtually ceased to publish poetry throughout most of the 1930s and 40s. His best-known short-story collections include El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan (1941; The Garden of Forking Paths), Ficciones (1944), and El Aleph (1949), although the first English language translations of his work did not appear until 1962, with two collections, titled Labyrinths and Ficciones. Borges began publishing poetry again in the 1950s, when, as Edward Hirsch describes it: “The fabulist returned to poetry … with a more direct and straightforward style, a beguiling and deceptive simplicity.” Jay Parini asserts that, “his finest poems appeared between 1955 and 1965,” while Martin S. Stabbs observes, “By the mid-1960s Borges seems to have regained considerable momentum as a poet. Both thematically and technically his work displays a richness not seen since the 1920s.” In these later poems, “a notion that recurs almost obsessively in his poetry as well as in his prose” is “the idea of the world as a complex enigma, expressed at times in the form of a labyrinth, or as the dream-made-real of a capricious creator.” Borges's poetry volumes of the 1960s include El hacedor (1960; Dreamtigers), Obra poética (1964), and El otro, el mismo (1969; The Other, the Same), among others. This period of prolific poetic output continued into the 1970s, with the collections, The Gold of Tigers (1972), In Praise of Darkness (1974), and Historia de la noche (1977), among others. Borges's second-to-last volume of poetry, La cifra, was published in 1981. His last collection, Los conjurados (1985; The Conspirators), includes a combination of short prose pieces and poetry, often blurring the distinction between the two. Of this volume Stabbs states, “The very fact that Borges, then eighty-five, was still exploring that fascinating no-man's-land between prose and poetry, was still writing fine sonnets, and was continuing to rework the rich metal of earlier texts suggests that even though death was close, he remained a poet of substantial talent and considerable vigor.” A volume of new translations, Selected Poems: Jorge Luis Borges, was released in 1999.

Critical Reception

Borges was not well known outside of literary circles in Buenos Aires until 1961, when he was awarded the prestigious Formentor Prize, earning him international recognition and leading to his current status as one of the foremost short fiction writers of the twentieth century. Borges met members of the Ultraísta literary movement while in Spain in 1919, and, as a young writer in the 1920s, is sometimes credited with having introduced ulráism to Argentina. Jay Parini, writing in 1999, notes that, “With Pablo Neruda and Alejo Carpentier, Jorge Luis Borges set in motion the wave of astonishing writing that has given Latin American literature its high place in our time,” adding, “Yet Borges stands alone, a planet unto himself, resisting categorization.” Marcelo Abadi refers to Borges as, “one of the most prominent writers in any tongue,” observing, “in his poems, stories and essays our century can detect a voice that stirs the dormant wonder which, according to the Greeks, lies at the source of the love of knowledge and wisdom.” Edward Hirsch opines that Borges, “was a rapturous writer, a literary alchemist who emerged as an explorer of labyrinths, an adventurer in the fantastic, a poet of mysterious intimacies who probed the infinite postponements and cycles of time, the shimmering mirrors of fiction and reality, the symbols of unreality, the illusions of identity, the disintegration of the self into the universe, into the realm of the Archetypes and the Splendors.” However, critics frequently note that, to this day, Borges's accomplishments as a poet are largely overshadowed by his reputation as a master of short fiction. Beret E. Strong describes “the international literary community's portrait of ‘Borges’” as “that of a great short story writer and mediocre poet of conservative political and traditional literary values,” adding that critics have agreed with Borges's own assessment of his early poetry and essays “as less valuable than the later fiction,” and have, therefore, opted “not to write about them much.” Mark Couture, writing in 1999, states the case more strongly: “Borges, like Cervantes, has the reputation in some circles of being a ‘bad’ poet,” but adds, “I don't think this label is quite fair.” Couture points out that Borges's poems “have a quiet, metaphysical intensity and a thematic complexity that can be overlooked in superficial readings.” Parini, observing that, while “One tends to think of Borges as the writer of a dozen or so classic stories … Yet Borges was a well-known poet long before he tried his hand at fiction.” Stabbs, acknowledging that, “Today he is usually thought of first as the creator of fictional labyrinths, then as the writer of erudite essays … and only last as a poet,” defends Borges's poetry in adding: “… he began as a poet and has worked more or less continuously in this genre. Most important, he reveals more of himself in his verse than in any other kind of writing.”

Principal Works

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Fervor de Buenos Aires [Passion for Buenos Aires] 1923

Luna de enfrente [Moon across the Way] 1925

Cuaderno San Martín [San Martín Copybook] 1929

Poemas, 1923–1943 1943

Poemas, 1923–1953 1954

El Hacedor [Dreamtigers] (poetry and prose) 1960

Obra poetica, 1923–1964 1964

Para las seis cuerdas [For the Six Strings (verses for Milangas)] 1965

Seis poemas escandinavos [Six Scandinavian Poems] 1966

Siete poemas [Seven Poems] 1967

Elogio de la sombra (poetry and prose) 1969

El otro, el mismo [The Other, the Same] 1969

El oro de los tigres [The Gold of Tigers] 1972

Selected Poems, 1923–1967 1972

In Praise of Darkness 1974

Siete poemas sajones [Seven Saxon Poems] 1974

La rosa profunda [The Unending Rose] 1975

La moneda de hierro [The Iron Coin] 1976

Historia de la noche [History of Night] 1977

The Gold of Tigers: Selected Later Poems 1977

Obras Completas (poetry and prose) 1977

La cifra 1981

Antologia poetica, 1923–1977 1981

Los conjurados [The Conspirators] 1985

Selected Poems: Jorge Luis Borges 1999

Historia universal de la infamia 1935

El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan 1941

Ficciones, 1935–1944 1944

El Aleph 1949

Ficciones [includes The Garden of Forking Paths] 1962

Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (short stories and essays) 1962

The Aleph and Other Stories, 1933–1969 1970

El informe de Brodie 1970

El matrero 1970

Dr. Brodie's Report 1971

El congreso [The Congress] 1971

A Universal History of Infamy 1972

El libro de arena 1975

The Book of Sand 1977

Rosa y azul [contains “La rosa de Paracelso” and “Tigres azules”] 1977

Veinticinco agosto 1983 y otros cuentos de Jorges Luis Borges 1983

Collected Fictions: Jorges Luis Borges 1999

Seis problemas para Isidro parodi [with Adolfo Bioy Casares, under joint pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq] (short stories) 1942

Dos fantasias memorables [with Bioy Casares, under joint pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq] (short stories) 1946

Manual de zoologia fantastica [with Margarita Guerrero] (essays) 1955

Cronicas de Bustos Domecq [with Bioy Casares] (short stories) 1967

The Book of Imaginary Beings [with Margarita Guerrero] (essays) 1969

Chronicles of Bustos Domecq [with Bioy Casares] (short stories) 1976

Nuevos cuentos de Bustos Domecq [with Bioy Casares] (short stories) 1977

Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi [with Bioy Casares] (short stories) 1983

Atlas [with Maria Kodama] (prose and poetry) 1985

Inquisiciones [Inquisitions] 1925

El tamano de mi esperanza [The Measure of My Hope] 1926

El idioma de los argentinos [The Language of the Argentines] 1928

Evaristo Carriego (biography) 1930

Discusión 1932

Las Kennigar 1933

Historia de la eternidad [History of Eternity] 1936

Nueva refutacion del tiempo 1947

Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca 1950

Otras inquisiciones 1952

La poesia gauchesca [Gaucho Poetry] 1960

Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952 1964

Nuevos ensayos dantescos [New Dante Essays] 1982

Selected Non-Fiction: Jorge Luis Borges 1999

María Luisa Bastos (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “Whitman as Inscribed in Borges,” translated with Daniel Balderston, in Borges the Poet, edited by Carlos Cortinez, The University of Arkansas Press, 1986, pp. 219–30.

[In the following excerpt, Bastos argues that Walt Whitman is a major influence on Borges's poetry.]


In 1925, referring to the extreme subjectivity typical of nineteenth century esthetics, Borges pointed out: “… any frame of mind, however extraneous, can become the focus of our attention; in its brief totality, it may be our essence. If translated into the language of literature, this means that trying to express oneself and having the wish to express the totality of life are but one and the same thing.” Whitman was the first Atlas attempting to bring such a challenge into action, and he lifted the world upon his shoulders.2

Years before, the young Borges, astounded by Whitman's ambitious task,3 wrote verses that, according to the sarcastic reflection of the mature Borges, instead of echoing Whitman echoed the Peruvian Post-Modernista poet, Chocano.4 Here is a sample of those verses, from “Himno del mar,” written in 1919:

I have longed for a hymn of the sea with rhythms
                    as ample as the screming waves;
Of the sea when on its waters the sun flutters as
                    a scarlet flag;
Of the sea when it kisses the golden breasts of
                    virgin, thirstily waiting, beaches;
Of the sea when its forces howl, when winds shout
                    their blasphemes;
When the polished, bloody moon shines on the steel
                    waters. …
Oh, protean, I have sprung from you.
Both of us shackled and nomadic;
Both of us intensely thirsty of stars;
Both of us hopeful and deceived;
Both of us air, light, strength, darkness;
Both of us with our great desire,
                    and both of us with our great misery!(5)

However, in spite of the deliberate grandiloquence with which Borges tried to render the Whitmanesque rhythm, the statements in “Himno del mar,” like blurred copies, lessen the optimism of the original. It is useful to compare Borges' verses to Whitman's:

You sea! I resign myself to you also—
                    I guess what you mean,
I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers,
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling
                    of me,
We must have a turn together, I undress, hurry me
                    out of sight of the land,
Cushion me soft, rock me in billowy drowse,
Dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you.
Sea of stretch’d ground-swells,
Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths,
Sea of the brine of life and of unshovell’d yet
                    always-ready graves,
Howler and scooper of storms, capricious and dainty
I am integral with you, I too am of one phase and
                    of all phases.(6)

“Himno del mar” is interesting as a part of the prehistory of Borges' poetry, but the fact remains that many of his lasting early poems are firmly guided by the enticing invitation at the beginning of “Song of Myself”: “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems” (25).

Also, both Fervor de Buenos Aires and Luna de enfrente have many echoes of Whitman's decision: “Creeds and schools in abeyance / Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten” (24). For the Borges who wrote Fervor de Buenos Aires to turn away from the schools meant, among other things, having too many different objectives, which he himself mockingly summarized in 1969: “… to copy some of Unamuno's awkardnesses (which I liked), to be a Seventeenth Century Spanish writer, to be Macedonio Fernández, to find out metaphors already found out by Lugones, to sing of a Buenos Aires with one story houses and, towards the West or the South, villas surrounded by iron fences.”7 Underlying those contradictory objectives it is possible, however, to detect one guiding principle, an adaptation of Whitman's ambitious plan: “With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds” (45).

From the very beginning, it is also clear that Borges' project has been designed on a scale totally different from Whitman's. In Borges' first two books of poems and even in Cuaderno San Martín, the totality of life has been, paradoxically, envisioned in minute dimensions: the universe is viewed with a very limited focus. Moreover, it is looked for, pointed out and expressed within boundaries. Borges already knew that the poet is not identical to his universe—that he can, and must, keep his distance, accepting the limited dimensions of the poem in relation to the limitless world, to the limitless sectors of the world:

Africa's destiny lies in eternity, where there are
                    deeds, idols, kingdoms, arduous forests and swords.
I have attained a sunset and a village.

(66; transl. MLB)

Even before these lines in “Dakar,” from Luna de enfrente, in “Las calles,” the opening poem of Fervor de Buenos Aires, one can see some sort of a reduction of the Whitmanesque world. In fact, Whitman's “worlds and volumes of worlds” have been replaced by the humble streets which will be Borges' only topography:

Towards the West, the North, and the South
streets, which are also the native land, have unfurled:
may those flags be in the verses I design.

(16; transl. MLB)

As echoes of Whitman's project and of Whitman's voice, even the more grandiloquent poems—particularly those collected in Luna de enfrente: “Una despedida,” “Jactancia de quietud,” “Dakar,” “La promisión en alta mar”—render the tone of the model at a lower pitch. One could point out the poem, “Casi Juicio Final” (“Almost Last Judgment”) as the epitome of that change:

In my heart of hearts, I justify and praise myself:
I have witnessed the world; I have confessed the
                    strangeness of the world.
I have sung the eternal: the clear returning moon and
                    the cheeks longed for by love.

(69; transl. MLB)

In Elogio de la sombra, Borges acknowledges that he “once coveted the ample breath of the psalms or of Walt Whitman” (975; transl. MLB). The lines quoted above do, in my opinion, recall the almighty Adamic Whitmanesque breath. But it is as if Borges' reproduction had undergone a filtering process. Borges has pointed out very often that language is succession: it can only render a simplified, reduced universe, it cannot reproduce the universe's concurrences. A comparison between Whitman's and Borges' declarations will show the modesty of Borges' project. Whitman says in Leaves of Grass:

My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and
                    volumes of worlds.
Speech is the twin of my vision, it is unequal to
                    measure itself.


In “Casi Juicio Final,” the poetic voice sums up its accomplishments, its originality:

I have commemorated with verses the city that embraces
                    me and the shredding outskirts.
I have expressed wonder where others have merely
                    expressed custom.
I have held up in firm words my feeling which could
                    have been easily scattered in tenderness.

(69; transl. MLB)

It is also worth remembering that “Casi Juicio Final” is like a disturbing anticipation, a matrix of other Last Judgments in Borges' poetry in addition to that in “Mateo, XXV, 30.” For instance, in “Otro poema de los dones,” from El otro, el mismo (The Self and The Other), Whitman is a double symbol; his name is equivalent to gratitude and it is also an equivalent of the power of Grace:

I want to thank the divine
Labyrinth of effects and causes …
For Whitman and Francis of Assisi
Who already wrote the poem.

(936; transl. MLB)

All of the above can be summarized very briefly: if one had to choose only one poem from Borges' early poetry as an emblem of the powerful, yet silent presence of Whitman—presence explicitly reinforced in other texts—“Casi Juicio Final” could be that poem. In it, Whitman's ambition to witness the world is clearly inscribed. This vision, however, expressed through the modest confines of the topography of Buenos Aires has become typically Borgesian.


One of Borges' practices has been to define his own literary objectives when characterizing the literature of other writers. This, he has done while dealing with Whitman's poetry; in two notes included in Discusión—“El otro Whitman”; and “Nota sobre Walt Whitman”—in his lectures on the poet;8 in the preface to his selection and translations from Leaves of Grass (1969);9 and in his essay,” Valéry como símbolo.”

In his essay, “El otro Whitman,” written in 1929, Borges wrote that Whitman's themes render “the peculiar poetry of arbitrariness and loss,” (208; transl. DB) a phrase which would describe his own poetry with accuracy and concision. He also pointed out the failure of Whitman's critics to see the basic merit of his enumerations, “a merit lying not in their length but in their delicate verbal balance” (206; transl. D.B.), a description which is perhaps ultimately more appropriate for Borges' enumerations than for Whitman's. The essay on Valéry—written on the poet's death in 1945, and collected in Otras Inquisiciones in 1952—is an excellent sample of Borges' technique. He defines by closeness or by opposition—simpatías y diferencias. He develops an opposition Whitman/Valéry which might serve as a base to define Borges' literature; “Valéry personifies in an illustrious way the labyrinths of the spirit; Whitman, the interjections of the body” (686; transl. DB). Borges says of Whitman: “… he wrote his rhapsodies by means of an imaginary self, formed partly from himself, partly from each of his readers.” Borges continues that in the face of that quest, of that fiction of a “possible man … of unlimited and careless happiness Valéry glorifies the virtues of the mind.” Finally, in Valéry's predilections (the antithesis of Whitman's), are without a doubt Borges' pleasures: “The lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.”


In the early poetry of Borges one can notice the presence of Whitman's diction; but these versions even in the young Borges' display of Ultraísta baroque, already announce the future Borges. It is well-known that in the work of both Whitman and Borges free verse, marked by the use of long lines, has Biblical resonances. It is also known that such a resonance largely derives from the anaphoric repetitions and the enumerations. (I think it is appropriate to recall here that Michel Foucault, in The Order of Things,10 has aptly described Borges' enumerations as heteroclite, a term more adequate, in my view, than the stylistic “chaotic enumeration” popularized by Leo Spitzer, who, by the way, never mentioned Borges in his essay written in 1944, when Borges had already published twelve books.11) Like Whitman's, Borges' diction interweaves somewhat unexpected colloquial language with rather audacious images, linked together by a syntax of a paradoxically grandiloquent ease. That syntax, nonetheless, shows a degree of control which is the privilege of brevity: “he was a poet of a tremulous and sufficient laconism” (207; transl. DB), Borges said of Whitman, a singularly apt characterization of his own poetry. With tremulous and sufficient pithiness, Whitman had announced: “Tenderly will I use you, curling grass” (28), which Borges translated: “Te usaré con ternura, hierba curva.”12 Raised from its elementary condition to a pantheist motif, and ultimately to the level of symbol, the “curling grass” sums up the whole of Leaves of Grass, and perhaps provides the main clue to it:

These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages
                    and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the
                    riddle they are nothing,
If they are not as close as they are distant they
                    are nothing.
This is the grass that grows wherever the land is
                    and the water is,
This the common air that bathes the globe.


It is striking to note that Whitman's verses are particularly close to the reflections on “La nadería de la personalidad” (“The Nothingness of Personality”) in Inquisiciones13 and, above all, to Borges' concept of the author of the poem. That concept, repeated so many times, was set forth in the early inscription to the reader in Fervor de Buenos Aires: “Our nothings differ little: it is a trivial and chance circumstance that you are the reader of these exercises, and I the writer of them” (16; transl. DB).

Nonetheless, it must be recognized that the point of contact is at once more subtle and more solid than the comparison of the texts might suggest at first sight. The two concepts of poetry depend essentially on a similar intention: on a way of looking at humble and insignificant elements and raising them to poetic stature, to make them poetically prestigious. It is possible to go still further, and one will note that the deeper connection between Whitman's voice and that of the early Borges will be revealed moreover in the echoes of the first Borges in his later work. Such a connection can be established, I think, once the links are found between the early poems by Borges and later reworkings of them. To be sure, here it is necessary to attempt a reading which would reach for one of those secret traces I referred to previously. Like Whitman's grass, some humble and insignificant elements belong for Borges in the category of symbols. The streets of the out-of-the-way neighborhood, the outskirts—the arrabal—are one of those symbols. And just as there is a recognizable echo of “tenderly will I use you, curling grass” in the first line of “Para una calle del Oeste” (“For a street in the West”): “You will give me an alien immortality, lonely street” (72; transl. DB). That echo, that exaltation of something insignificant, similar to Whitman's, is repeated when the neighborhood street—freed of its literal meaning—is endowed with symbolic value.14

The preceding remarks are based on the following hypothesis: in “La noche cíclica” (“The Cyclical Night”), one of Borges' most characteristic and striking poems dated in 1940, Whitman is subtly inscribed in the affinity of the poetic quest, and in the will to specify a totalizing vision. There is no doubt, to begin with, that formally the regular quatrains of “La noche cíclica” could not be farther from Whitman's free verse. Besides, it is obvious that there are poems in El otro, el mismo—“Insomnio,” for instance, with which the book begins—in which the influence of Whitman, a “presence” that Borges acknowledges in the preface, is undeniable. But I think that the affinity should also be traced on a more profound level. Perhaps the affinity lies above all in the way of looking at, or in the way of looking for, the substance of poetry. In that respect, Borges transfigures the insignificant neighborhood into a meaningful, relevant poetic symbol:

They knew it, the fervent pupils of Pythagoras. …
But I know that a vague Pythagorean rotation
Night after night sets me down in the world
On the outskirts of the city. A remote street
Which might be either north or west or south,
But always with a blue-washed wall, the shade
Of a fig tree, and a sidewalk of broken concrete.
This, here, is Buenos Aires. Time, which brings
Either love or money to men, hands on to me
Only this withered rose, this empty tracery
Of streets with names recurring from the past
In my blood. …(15)

These stanzas show that, under the umbrella of other much more explicit shades—Pythagoras, Hume, Anaxagoras—Whitman springs forth to give deeper meaning to the non-prestigious sign (the grass / the neighborhood street). But, also, there is another trace of Whitman in the poem: Whitman is also present in the design of Borges' text. The design by which the last stanza (cyclically) returns to the first line of the poem is a version of Whitman's faith in poetic writing:

It returns, the hollow dark of Anaxagoras;
In my human flesh, eternity keeps recurring
And the memory, or plan, of an endless poem
“They knew it, the fervent pupils of Pythagoras …”(16)

Borges had commented many times on Whitman's intention that his entire work be a single book or poem, and also on the unattainable nature of such an intention: “La noche cíclica” appears to me as a metaphor, a Borgesian transposition of that ambition.

An earlier reference was made to Borges' desire to transcend Whitman's ambition by a process of moderation or restraint, and to conceive of poetry not as the complex expression of a luxuriant world but limiting himself to recording and simplifying an already essential universe; in ordering an “enigmatic abundance.”17 In his works on Whitman, Borges insists on the failures of an ultimately unattainable conception of a poem which would embrace the whole universe. In the preface to the selection from Leaves of Grass, he states: “To speak of literary experiments is to speak of exercises which have failed in some more or less brilliant way … Whitman's experiment worked out so well that we tend to forget that it was an experiment.”18

In the work of Borges, there is at least one significant example of failure to which we might say that Whitman is secretly, almost cunningly, inscribed. This is the wild project of the second rate, amateurish character in “El Aleph,” Carlos Argentino Daneri, bitten with the idea of composing a poem about “La Tierra” (“The Earth”). It is not by chance that this grotesque imitation, this caricature of a Whitman who has failed completely—or, better perhaps, of a barely embryonic Whitman—provides Borges, the character-narrator, with the experience of the Aleph; that Borges should perceive the qualities of that Aleph from Carlos Argentino's place; and, that he should transmit them in a paradigmatic enumeration. That enumeration not only proves the impossibility of rendering the universe's concurrences, but is at once a culmination and a negation of Carlos Argentino's (and Whitman's) unattainable project.19


To a certain extent, to write, or to speak about the familiar presences in this work was a fertile exorcism, which led Borges to find his own literary voice. The exorcism of the name of Whitman, like that of the other names which are signs in Borges, began early, perhaps becoming intensified during the hiatus in his poetic production after Cuaderno San Martín (San Martín Copybook)—as is proven by the two notes included in Discusión mentioned above—and culminating when Whitman appears as an explicit sign in poems and prefaces. A final confrontation between a poem by Whitman and a poem by Borges will be useful to show to what extent the exorcism was successful: it will provide an example of how Whitman's name, an explicit sign starting from El otro, el mismo keeps on inspiring the poet, as a secret cipher, as in the texts of Borges' prehistory. In his “Nota sobre Walt Whitman,” included in Discusión, Borges included a Spanish version of “Full of Life, Now”:

Full of life now, compact, visible,
I, forty years old the eighty-third year of the States,
To one a century hence or any number of centuries hence,
To you yet unborn these, seeking you.
When you read these I that was visible am become
Now it is you, compact, visible, realizing my poems,
                    seeking me,
Fancying how happy you were if I could be with you
                    and become your comrade;
Be it as if I were you. (Be not too certain but I
                    am now with you.)


So Borges addresses himself, in El otro, el mismo, “To My Reader”:

You are invulnerable. Have they not shown you,
The powers that preordain your destiny,
The certainty of dust? Is not your time
As irreversible as that same river
Where Heraclitus, mirrored, saw the symbol
Of fleeting life? A marble slab awaits you
Which you will not read—on it, already written,
The date, the city, and the epitaph.
Other men too are only dreams of time,
Not everlasting bronze nor shining gold;
The universe is, like you, a Proteus.
Dark, you will enter the darkness that expects you,
Doomed to the limits of your traveled time.
Know that in some sense you by now are dead.(20)

Certainly the dialogue of these two texts can be interpreted as a summary of the generative power of poetry, and as a synthesis of a continuity—ultimately beyond all analysis—of a poetic text combined with an idealist belief and with a clear baroque certainty: the continuity which prevents us from separating this poem from the whole of Borges' poetry, a poetry in which Whitman's name is a permanent force, and perhaps more so when it is not spelled out.


  1. Guillermo Sucre, “Borges: el elogio de la sombra,” Revista Iberoamericana, 72 (1970): 372.

  2. Jorge Luis Borges, Inquisiciones (Buenos Aires: Proa, 1925):91. Translated by MLB.

  3. James E. Irby, Encuentro con Borges (Buenos Aires: Galerna, 1968): 12–13.

  4. César Fernández Moreno, “Harto de laberintos,” Mundo Nuevo, 18 (1967):10.

  5. In Carlos Meneses, Poesía juvenil de Jorge Luis Borges (Barcelona: Otañeta Editor, 1978): 57–8. Translated by MLB.

  6. Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” 3. In Leaves of Grass and Selected Prose (New York: the Modern Library, 1950):25. Further references to Whitman belong to this edition, and the page number is given in parenthesis in the text. As I have said, in this paper I refer only to poems by Whitman which Borges chose to translate into Spanish for his selection of Leaves of Grass.

  7. Jorge Luis Borges, Obras completas (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1969): 13. Translated by MLB. Further references to this edition are given in parenthesis in the text.

  8. Apparently, the first public lecture that Borges gave on Whitman took place in Buenos Aires in 1958. Cf. La Prensa, Buenos Aires, August 2, 1958, p. 3. To my knowledge, there is a transcription of another lecture on Whitman he gave in Chicago in 1968. Cf. Jorge Luis Borges, “Walt Whitman: Man and Myth,” Critical Inquiry, 1 (1975): 708–711. James East Irby has mentioned Borges' project to give a lecture on Whitman in Texas in 1961. Cf. Irby, Encuentro con Borges, 12. Irby has told me that Borges lectured on Whitman at Princeton University in 1968 or 1969.

  9. Walt Whitman, Hojas de hierba. Selección, traducción y pró-logo de Jorge Luis Borges (Buenos Aires: Juárez Editor, 1969).

  10. Michel Foucault, Preface. The Order of Things (New York: Vintage Books, 1973): XVII.

  11. Leo Spitzer, La enumeración caótica en la poesía moderna (Buenos Aires: Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, 1945).

  12. Whitman, Hojas de hierba, 45.

  13. Borges, Inquisiciones, 84–95.

  14. I have developed this idea in “La topografía de la ambigüedad: Buenos Aires en Borges, Bianco, Bioy Casares,” Hispamérica, 27 (1980): 33–46. The opposition: Literal meaning/symbolic value is based in A. J. Greimas' theory, in Du Sens (Paris: Seuil, 1970): 7–17.

  15. Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems, 1923–1967 (New York: Dell, 1972): 79. Translation by Alastair Reid.

  16. Borges, Selected Poems, 81.

  17. Borges wrote in “Examen de metáforas,” Inquisiciones 65: “Language is an efficient ordering of the world's enigmatic abundance.” Translation by MLB.

  18. Jorge Luis Borges, “Prólogo,” Walt Whitman, Hojas de hierba, 29. Translation DB.

  19. There is, I think, another echo of that unattainable project in the drama in verse, The Enemies by the second-rate writer Jaromir Hladíc, victim of the Nazis, protagonist of “El milagro secreto” (“The Secret Miracle”) in Ficciones.

  20. Borges, Selected Poems, 183. Translated by Alastair Reid.

Dionisio Cañas (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1792

SOURCE: “The Eye of the Mind: Borges and Wallace Stevens,” in Borges the Poet, edited by Carlos Cortinez, The University of Arkansas Press, 1986, pp. 254–59.

[In the following essay, Cañas explores affinities between Borges and the poet Wallace Stevens.]

I don’t know what mysterious reason Borges had in his 1967 Introduction to American Literature by not mentioning the name of Wallace Stevens; to solve the enigma is irrelevant. Nevertheless, it is this omission that impelled me to do a simultaneous reading of the two poets.

In 1944, the literary magazine Sur published a translation of the famous Stevens poem “Sunday Morning”; the translators were Bioy Casares and Borges, and some lines from this poem are very close to Borges' own poetry:

What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?

At the end of the poem, once more, the obscurity so dear to the author of In Praise of Darkness appears in all of its sublimity:

And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

In the twenties, two poetic works were created over the foundations of European verse that would play a preponderent role among American and European writers. Robert Alter, in his article “Borges and Stevens: a Note on Post-Symbolist Writing” (Prose for Borges), points out the affinity between Borges and Stevens as part of post-modern literature and its anti-symbolist movement. He writes: “Borges and Stevens are great imaginists whose exercise of imagination—in Borges' case, often fantastication—is directed by a fine skepticism not only about the world of brute matter but also about the imagination itself.”

Borges writes about himself, about men and their activities as the splendor and mockery of a god, of gods; Stevens, with irony, writes about the splendor of the world and the presence of the “I” as a mind surrounded by beings created through poetry. Both are solitary poets, but generous in their gifts, and with their poetry they give us abundant fruits of the mind.

In “Poem of the Gifts” Borges writes:

Let no one debase with pity or reprove
This declaration of God's mastery
Who with magnificent irony
Gave me at once books and the night …
Within my darkness I slowly explore
The hollow half light with hesitant cane,
I who always imagined Paradise
To be a sort of library.

Stevens, in “Of Mere Being,” writes that Paradise is

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

We are facing here a humanistic philosophy, but paradoxically, the human being is absent, and it is his achievements and his imagination that create an Eden for these poets.

As Borges states in his “Ars Poetica,” poetry is “humble and immortal,” “Art is that Ithaca, / of green eternity.” But what does Borges mean by eternity? To what place does the finger of his poetry point? Is a library his eternity, his Paradise? And after all, doesn’t a library provide the only surviving visions of the minds of writers from the past? In The Necessary Angel Wallace Stevens writes: “The mind of the poet describes itself as constantly in his poems.”

But in the poems of Stevens that Borges translated, a more drastic dichotomy appears; blood is a symbol of life which opens a possible space for Paradise:

Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?

The answer to Stevens' question is given by Borges in his article “Valéry as Symbol.” This article is most illuminating and if we replace the name of the French poet with that of Stevens: “… a man who, in an age that worships the chaotic idols of blood, earth and passion, preferred always the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.”

Indeed, both poets are the last consequence of a certain faith in the human mind, not as a reasoning form, but rather as an imagining reason. They are the last members of the aristocracy of an imagining wisdom.

Borges and Stevens represent the other side and the ultimate expression of Romantic poetic thought. For both poets the domesticated imagination occupies a principal place in their poetry. In this way, they have overcome the long debate between imagination and reason, and have created the imagining reason.

The two poets have the tendency to claim for their poetry the same essential outlook: one that appears to the eyes as it is—the ordinary, everyday scene. At the same time, this commonplace is projected into an imaginative level, fabulous and mythical. Borges, for example, refers to “the celestial moon of every day,” but nevertheless believes that “better than real nighttime moons, I can / recall the moons of poetry” (“The Moon”). Stevens, in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” writes: “The moon rose in the mind …”

What moon is this that looks like the ordinary moon but is not? What eye that looks like the ordinary eye but is not, describes these moons? It is the moon of the mind, the eye of the mind and it is the sun “half sun, half thinking of the sun; half sky, / Half desire for indifference about sky” (“Extracts From Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas”). As a result of this, Stevens writes: “the mind / is the eye, and … this landscape of the mind / is a landscape only of the eye” (“Crude Foyer”).

For both poets, the poem is a kind of iceberg in which the world seen or thought has been frozen, making it always available to the reader's eyes. For Borges and Stevens poetry is also a sort of window in which the frame creates specific limits. Things are perceived by means of their changing aspects, with their lights and shadows, but circumscribed by a frame, by the boundaries of a precise form. This window can be a book, a word, a painting, a song, a legend or a myth: in any case, always with very clearly defined outlines.

Borges, as a poet, describes himself as someone sitting in a dark room from which he observes the outside world or the world of the mind. And from the darkness he can see without being seen. Stevens, in “Of Modern Poetry,” refers to poetry as “metaphysician in the dark.” The poet as well as the poem, for both writers, represents poetic form, art and the world, its limitations, its trompe l’oeil. In truth, the ultimate raison d’être for writers is a longing to find themselves or a description of the mind that does this.

Borges in his “Ars Poetica” writes:

Sometimes at evening there’s a face
that sees us from the deeps of a mirror.
Art must be that sort of mirror,
disclosing to each of us his face.

Stevens in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” views “reality as a thing seen by the mind” and continues:

Not that which is but that which is apprehended,
A mirror, a lake of reflections in a room,
A glassy ocean lying at the door, …

And it is because the eye of the mind is what we see reflected in the poem, that every object described in it is sustained by the self of the poet. Simultaneously the separation of the otherness and the self has vanished into the new space of poetic fiction.

Suppose these houses are composed of ourselves,
So that they become an impalpable town, full of
Impalpable bells, transparencies of sound.

The attitude of the two poets originated in an a priori: that of a “confidence in language as self sufficient” (as Guillermo Sucre has pointed out in Borges el poeta). But it is not a faith in the tautological values of language. Harold Bloom writes in Figures of Capable Imagination: “what Wittgenstein means when he speaks of a deep tautology, which leads to a true realism, Stevens too knows, as Emerson knew, that what he says is wrong, but that his meaning is right.”

When Borges wants to talk about the tiger “El otro tigre” (“The Other Tiger”) he establishes that his tiger is “a system and arrangement of human language.” Conscious about the fallacy of poetic fiction he says:

… I keep on looking
throughout the afternoon for the other tiger,
the other tiger which is not in this poem.

Stevens also describes a tiger as “lamed by nothingness and frost.” Therefore a faith in language indicates at the same time a distrust of the world that conceived it. This tragic consciousness of an excision between language and world, and the consequent retreat of the poet into an imagining reason, is resolved by Borges and Stevens through irony and sarcasm.

The works of the two poets is modulated by the eye of the mind that sees the world in its totality. This may be sensorial and intellectual in the way of Wallace Stevens, or profoundly intellectual in the manner of Jorge Luis Borges. To quote Borges, though he was talking about Valéry, both poets are: “… the symbol of [men] infinitely sensitive to every phenomenon and for whom every phenomenon is a stimulus capable of provoking an infinite series of thoughts.”

The concept of the eye of the mind is the ultimate result of the creative impulse formulated by the emotional eye of the Romantic movement. It is possible that the poetry of Borges and Stevens derives from the “Majestic Intellect” mentioned by William Wordsworth in the poem of the same title:

When into air had partially dissolved
That vision, given to spirits of the night
And three chance human wanderers, in calm thought
Reflected, it appeared to me the type
Of a majestic intellect, its acts
And its possessions, what it has and craves,
What in itself it is, and would become …

If, as Borges said in his poem “Cambridge,”

We are our memory,
we are this chimerical museum of shifting forms,
this heap of broken mirrors,

I am convinced that in some remote region of his memory Wallace Stevens is looking at Borges with consciousness from the eye of his mind.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Figures of Capable Imagination. New York: Seabury Press, 1976.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “El otro tigre,” in Obra Poética. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1977.

———. In Praise of Darkness. New York: E. P. Cutton, 1974.

———. Introduction to American Literature. Translated by L. Clark Keating and Robert O. Owens. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1973.

Kinzie, Mary. Prose for Borges. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974.

Stevens, Wallace. The Necessary Angel. New York: Knopf, 1951.

Sucre, Guillermo. Borges: el poeta. México: Unam, 1967.

Kenneth Holditch (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3618

SOURCE: “Borges and Emerson: The Poet as Intellectual,” in Borges the Poet, edited by Carlos Cortinez, The University of Arkansas Press, 1986, pp. 197–206.

[In the following essay, Holditch examines Borges's appreciation of and affinity with Ralph Waldo Emerson as a poet.]

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Borges' deep love for the literature of the United States is the high position in which he has repeatedly, in writing and in interviews, placed Ralph Waldo Emerson as poet. One is certainly not surprised at his appraisal of Walt Whitman as an epic poet, or Emily Dickinson as “perhaps the greatest poet that America … has as yet produced,” or when he speaks with admiration of the ideas expressed in Emerson's essays; but the praise for Emerson as a poet is another thing altogether. Traditionally Emerson has been admired by American readers and critics, rightly or wrongly, as a philosopher, thinker, and creator of pithy and memorable aphorisms that generously pepper the prose of his famous essays. His poetry, however, interesting insofar as it conveys some of the same philosophical concepts belonging to American romanticism, has generally been relegated to a distant second place. Yes, we remember the farmers who gathered by “the rude bridge that arched the flood” and “fired the shot heard round the world” and may even recall isolated lines such as “Things are in the saddle / And ride mankind,” but when we quote Emerson, it is usually from unforgetable lines in his prose; and such essays as “Nature,” “Self-Reliance,” and “The American Scholar,” for example. Borges' praise for the poems, then, places them in a new and intriguing light in which we can identify those aspects of Emerson's poetry Borges finds of particular interest and merit; examine specific poems which he singles out for comment or commendation; and distinguish any Emersonian elements which are present as allusions or influences in Borges' own works.

The one aspect of Emerson's poetry most often commented upon by Borges is its intellectual quality. His most recent published remarks on the subject appear in Borges at Eighty in which he states that Emerson, like Walt Whitman, is “one of those men who cannot be thought away,” that “literature would not be what it is today” without Poe, Melville, Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson, then singles out Emerson for particular commendation: “I love Emerson and I am very fond of his poetry. He is to me the one intellectual poet—in any case the one intellectual poet who has ideas. The others are merely intellectual with no ideas at all. In the case of Emerson, he had ideas and was thoroughly a poet.”1 The “intellectual poet who has ideas”—this is the characterization that surfaces again and again whenever Borges has written or spoken of the great Transcendentalist.

What exactly does Borges mean by the phrase “intellectual poet”? Is his definition of the word intellectual a restrictive one, or are we to accept it as meaning merely rational as opposed to emotional, merely possessed of ideas as opposed to being devoid of same? Part of the answer may be found in his assertion that the “breadth of his mind was astonishing,”2 and his comparison of Emerson to three other writers may illuminate this evaluation. In 1949, in the prologue to Representative Men, which he had translated into Spanish, Borges identifies Emerson as a classical writer in opposition to Thomas Carlyle the romantic—whom Borges had earlier loved but later declared unreadable—and asserts that Emerson is far superior to those “compatriots who have obscured his glory: Whitman and Poe.”3 In An Introduction to American Literature he states that Friederich Nietzsche had remarked “that he felt himself so close to Emerson, that he did not dare to praise him because it would have been like praising himself.”4 Borges counters that identification between the two philosophers, however, by observing that Emerson is “a finer writer and a finer thinker than Nietzsche, though most people wouldn’t say that today.”5 Granted that Borges reserves much of his praise and respect related to philosophers for that other German master, Schopenhauer, his comparison of Nietzsche to Emerson attests surely to his admiration for the philosophy of the American and suggests that it is in the philosophical realm, not only in his prose but also in his poetry, that Emerson excels intellectually. This is true especially in poetry, one might argue, since Borges has elsewhere asserted that Emerson's prose has a “disconnected character” and suffers from the fact that he does not construct valid, sequential arguments in the essays but merely strings together “memorable sayings, sometimes full of wisdom, which do not proceed from what [has] come before nor prepare for what [is] to come.”6

When he mentions Emerson in connection with Poe, Borges observes rather ambiguously that “the most curious” volume of the twelve that contains Emerson's collected works is the one devoted to his poetry, then reiterates his belief that Emerson was “a great intellectual poet” and that Poe, “whom he called, not without disdain, the ‘jingle man,’ did not interest him.”7 In the short fiction entitled “The Other Death,” the persona argues that Emerson is “a poet far more complex, far more skilled, and truly more extraordinary than the unfortunate Poe.”8

In the preface to Doctor Brodie's Report, Borges states that “the art of writing is mysterious” and “the opinions we hold are ephemeral.” He prefers, he continues, “the Platonic idea of the Muse of that of Poe, who reasoned, or feigned to reason, that the writing of a poem is an act of the intelligence. It never fails to amaze me that the classics advance a romantic theory of poetry, and romantic poets a classical theory.”9 Here he is referring, of course, to Poe's famous “explanation” in “The Philosophy of Composition” of the allegedly rational procedure through which he wrote that seemingly irrational poem “The Raven.”

Later Borges was to reaffirm this belief when in a 1980 conversation he stated that “opinions come and go, politics come and go, my personal opinions are changing all the time. But when I write I try to be faithful to the dream, to be true to the dream.”10 This rejection of Poe's belief that writing a poem is “an act of the intelligence” and the assertion that our opinions are “ephemeral” might seem markedly contrary to his praise for Emerson as an intellectual poet: a paradox, and how should it be solved? Probably Borges would not want it solved, since much of his work attests to love of the paradoxical, but critics never tire of trying.

The answer to the seeming dilemma lies perhaps in “A Vindication of the Cabala” where writers are categorized as journalists, verse writers, and intellectuals. The journalist, Borges states, in his “ephemeral utterances … allows for a noticeable amount of chance,” while the verse writer subjects “meaning to euphonic necessities (or superstitions),” but the intellectual is another matter. Although he has not eliminated chance, either in prose or verse, “he has denied it as much as possible, and limited its incalculable concurrence. He remotely resembles the Lord, for Whom the vague concept of chance holds no meaning, the God, the perfected God of the theologians, Who sees all at once (uno intelligendu actu), not only all the events of this replete world, but also those that would take place if even the most evanescent of them should change, the impossible ones also.”11 This presumably is the kind of poet that Borges believes Emerson to be, and the introduction of the notion that the intellectual poet sees all—not only that which exists, but that which might have been—relates to a favorite theme of Borges' own poetry. His admiration for the intellectual process as exemplified in Emerson's versifying surely relates to the idea of the nineteenth-century writer that all poetry derives from “meter-making arguments” rather than from meter.

Emerson is admired by Borges not only for his intellectuality, but, as Ronald Christ points out, for being a “man of letters” of the caliber of G. K. Chesterton, H. G. Wells, Thomas DeQuincey, George Bernard Shaw, and Robert Louis Stevenson—all, the critics note, “lovers of words, poets, or storytellers, weavers of theories, manifestations of the writer as grammaticus.” In addition, Borges has commented on the writer as vate or místico the writer, as Christ defines him, “who looks through the solidness of our reality and reveals another world and perhaps a secret scheme or logic which controls our world.” Emerson's transcendentalism, the critic concludes, “is explicitly vatic in the Borgesian sense. …”12 In his discussion of Transcendentalism in An Introduction to American Literature Borges points out that the New England version of Romanticism has its origin in, among other sources, Hindu pantheism and “the visionary theology of Swedenborg”—a favorite of Borges', of course—who proposed a belief that “the external light is a mirror of the spiritual.”13

Emerson's theory of art obviously holds an appeal for Borges, since he refers often to its principles. In Borges at Eighty, he is quoted as observing, “I remember what Emerson said: language is fossil poetry. He said every word is a metaphor. You can verify that by looking a word up in the dictionary. All words are metaphors—a fossil poetry, a fine metaphor itself.” In the same work, he remarks that “a book, when it lies in the bookshelf—I think Emerson has said so (I like to be indebted to Emerson, one of my heroes)—a book is a thing among things … A book is unaware of itself until the reader comes.”14 Often he has reiterated his agreement with Emerson that creative reading is as important as creative writing, the reader as essential in the scheme of things as he who writes the poetry. Another aspect of Emerson's esthetic, as Christ points out, is the belief that “a work of art is an abstract of the epitome of the world” and Borges has created in “The Aleph” “one of the points of the universe which contains all the points” so that it becomes “a symbol of all Borges' writing.”15

The works of Emerson to which Borges most often refers in his own writing include three remarkable poems, “Days,” “The Past,” and “Brahma.” The first two are concerned with the passage of time and its relationship to man, the third embodies the doctrine of the unity of all that exists.

In “Days,” the persona describes the subjects as “Daughters of Time,” hypocritical, dumb, like dervishes, who offer to each man “gifts after his will.” Forgetting his own “morning wishes,” the persona accepts from one of them “a few herbs and apples” and the day departs, a look of scorn upon her face. The poem is decidedly ambiguous, open to at least two interpretations. Certainly the persona may be complaining that he has not taken full advantage of the opportunities offered to him by the days (and months and years) of his life, but has settled rather for something less than the rewards accorded kings and martyrs. On the other hand, the two items he employs to symbolize his choice—herbs and apples—are objects of nature, not worldly baubles, and given Emerson's devotion to the natural world, to the simple; given his belief that man even in his most trivial activities may be involved in the serious labor of eternity, it is surely at least as likely that he is arguing that his decision is correct and the scorn of the “hypocritic” Daughter of Time is not to be accorded credence.

Borges has opted for the former interpretation. In a 1967 interview with Cesar Fernández Moreno, cited by Carlos Cortínez in his study of Borges' poem “Emerson,” Borges interprets “Days” as meaning that when Emerson, offered anything he wants on earth, takes only “a few herbs and apples,” the days make fun of the poet's absurd moderation (“la absurda moderación del poeta”). This leads Borges to speculate that there was in Emerson a secret discontent (“una secreta insatisfacción”), and that he regretted having chosen the life of the mind over the life of action.16

The powerful sonnet to Emerson portrays the “tall New Englander” closing a volume of Montaigne and going out into the fields one evening. The walk, as much a pleasure for him as reading, takes him toward the sunset, as well as through the memory of Borges who writes of him. Emerson thinks of the important books he has read, the imperishable books he has been granted the privilege to write, and of his national fame and concludes, surprisingly, that “I have not lived. I want to be someone else.” In his note to the poem, Emir Rodríguez Monegal observes that the sonnet was written in 1962 after Borges had visited New England and that in the work the North American poet becomes a “mask” for the Argentine poet. Cortínez has argued that Borges creates a contrast in the poem between Emerson, the contemplative man, and Don Quixote, the man of action. Although as I have suggested, the opposite interpretation may be given to “Days,” Emerson's belief in the necessity for action certainly was often expressed; consider, for example, his criticism of Thoreau, even as he eulogized him, for being content to be “the captain of a huckleberry-party” when he could have been “engineering for all America.”17

The opening line of “The Other Death,” Borges' story of the soldier who behaved in a cowardly manner in battle and may—or may not—be allowed to relive the event and die bravely, refers to a proposed first translation of Emerson's “The Past” into Spanish. In that poem, Emerson's intellectual idea is that what is past is finished; there is no altering any event: “All is now secure and fast; / Not the gods can shake the Past. …” “The Other Death” would seem to posit as one of the interpretations of the strange events it contains, a contradiction of Emerson's argument; to offer the possibility, at least, that the past can be relived.

The nostalgic and rather tragic recognition of the immutability of things and events that have been, however, is on other occasions, in other works, embraced by Borges. In “Things That Might Have Been,” for example, the poet envisions literary masterpieces that were never written, empires that never existed and “History without the afternoon of the Cross and the afternoon of hemlock. / History without the face of Helen.” Or, after “the three labored days of Gettysburg, the victory of the South.” In the conclusion of the poem, the persona envisions the “son I did not have.”18 In “Things That Might Have Been,” Borges obviously concurs with Emerson's past that “is now secure and past,” even though he may elsewhere assert, as in a 1980 conversation, that “as to the past, we are changing it all the time. Every time we remember something, we slightly alter our memory.”19 On the other hand, remember that one of the attributes of the “intellectual poet,” as noted above, is the ability to see “all at once,” not only what was, but what might have been; and it is to this category, of course, that he assigns Emerson.

The poem “Brahma” is based on the pantheistic unity which Emerson had derived from his reading of Hindu scriptures. Borges quotes the entire poem in An Introduction to American Literature and in Other Inquisitions identifies as “perhaps the most memorable line” that in which the persona, Brahma, states paradoxically “When me they fly, I am the wings.”20 The concept of the contradictory unity of all things as Emerson conveys it in the poem manifests itself often in Borges' works. Consider the passage in Dreamtigers called “A Problem” in which he speaks of the possibility of Don Quixote's having been reincarnated as a Hindustani king who stands over the body of the enemy he has slain and understands “that to kill and beget are divine or magical acts which manifestly transcend humanity. He knows that the dead man is an illusion, as is the bloody sword that weighs down his hand, as is he himself, and all his past life, and the vast gods, and the universe.”21 Not only is the idea of the passage parallel to the argument of “Brahma,” but the phrase “the vast gods” is surely an echo of Emerson's line “The strong gods pine for my abode.”

In addition to Emerson's concepts reflected in the poems considered above, other themes of his that have been influential in the works of Borges include the doctrines of the Over-Soul and the Universal Poet and man; of Compensation and Undulation; the concepts of Illusions and Miracles, and the ethical considerations of the Concord genius. Of these, Emerson's most important influence on the thought and work of Borges would seem to be the basic Transcendental concept of the Over-Soul, particularly as embodied in the Universal Man, or, more to the point here, the Universal Poet.

In “The Flower of Coleridge,” Borges quotes Paul Valéry as saying that literary history should not be constituted by the lives of poets and their careers but rather “the history of the Spirit as the producer or consumer of literature.” Borges adds that “It was not the first time that the Spirit had made such an observation,” for in 1844, “one of its amanuenses in Concord” wrote,

I am very much struck in literature by the appearance that one person wrote all the books; … there is such equality and identity both of judgement and point of view in the narrative that it is plainly the work of one, all-seeing, all-hearing gentleman.22

This passage from Emerson's essay “Nominalist and Realist” introduces a theme that obviously has a strong appeal for Borges, since he turns to it again and again. In a 1980 conversation, for example, he commented on how little we know of Shakespeare's life, a fact which does not trouble us, he insists, because Shakespeare has converted that life into plays and sonnets. The best thing for any author is to be a part of a tradition, a part of the language, which is in itself a kind of immortality, he argues, since language and tradition go on, while the books may be forgotten: “or perhaps every age rewrites the same books, over and over again. … Perhaps the eternal books are all the same books. We are always rewriting what the ancients wrote, and that should prove sufficient.”23 Emerson makes exactly the same point in his essay “The Poet” where he states that “poetry was all written before time was.”

A more generalized implication of the Over-Soul concept—the belief that not only are all poets one poet, but all men are one man—has intrigued Borges and provided inspiration in several works. In An Introduction to American Literature he observes that for Emerson, every man is a microcosm and the “soul of the individual is identified with the soul of the world,” so that all “each man needs is his own profound and secret identity.”24 The prologue to Borges' translation of Representative Men contains the observation that since the tragedy of human life results from individuals being “restricted by time and space,” nothing is “more gratifying than a belief that there is no one who is not the universe.”25 This being the case, for Emerson, men are immortal through their universality; and for Borges, as he states elsewhere, “my days and nights are equal in poverty and richness to those of God and those of all men.”26

Any attempt to make a case for Borges as a Transcendentalist in the Emersonian sense would be foolish and futile, but what is apparent from the evidence offered above, incomplete as it may be, is the fact that Borges feels for that “tall gentleman” of Concord both an admiration and an affinity. The value of finding and analyzing such a relationship is the evidence it offers for the value of tradition and the relationship of that tradition to poets and poetry, and the insight which such a study can afford readers to the writings of two great “intellectual” poets, one of the nineteenth century, one of the present; of two—as Borges himself might express it—“amanuenses” of the one great Spirit that connects all literature of the past and present and—if human beings continue to read—of the future.


  1. Willis Barnstone, ed. Borges at Eighty: Conversations (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982): 5.

  2. Jorge Luis Borges, In collaboration with Esther Zemborain de Torres, An Introduction to American Literature. Trans. L. Clark Keating and Robert O. Evans (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1973): 26.

  3. Carlos Cortínez, “Otra Lectura de ‘Emerson’ de Borges,” Revista Chilena de Literatura 19 (1982): 98.

  4. Borges, An Introduction to American Literature, 25.

  5. Cited by Ronald J. Christ, The Narrow Act (New York: New York University Press, 1969): 42.

  6. Borges, An Introduction to American Literature, 26.

  7. Borges, An Introduction to American Literature, 26.

  8. Borges: A Reader. Edited by Emir Rodriguez Monegal and Alastair Reid. (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1981): 215.

  9. Borges, Doctor Brodie's Report. Trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972): 10.

  10. Barnstone, Borges at Eighty, 12.

  11. Monegal and Reid, Borges: A Reader, 24.

  12. Christ, The Narrow Act, 11–12.

  13. Borges, An Introduction to American Literature, 24.

  14. Barnstone, Borges at Eighty, 67, 165.

  15. Christ, The Narrow Act, 11–12.

  16. Cortínez, “Otra Lectura de ‘Emerson’ de Borges,” 95.

  17. Perry Miller, ed. Major Writers of America (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1966): 307.

  18. Monegal and Reid, Borges: A Reader, 327.

  19. Barnstone, Borges at Eighty, 14.

  20. Jorge Luis Borges, Other Inquisitions: 1937–1952 trans. Ruth L. C. Simms (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964): 69.

  21. Jorge Luis Borges, DreamTigers. Trans. Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964).

  22. Monegal and Reid, Borges: A Reader, 163.

  23. Barnstone, Borges at Eighty, 9.

  24. Borges, An Introduction to American Literature, 25.

  25. Christ, The Narrow Act, 131.

  26. Barnstone, Borges at Eighty, 42.

Julie Jones (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4249

SOURCE: “Borges and Browning: A Dramatic Dialogue,” in Borges the Poet, edited by Carlos Cortinez, The University of Arkansas Press, 1986, pp. 207–17.

[In the following essay, Jones explores Borges's debt to Robert Browning,, especially, in his adaptation of the dramatic monologue.]

In a rather backhanded tribute to Robert Browning, Jorge Luis Borges comments that “si hubiera sido un buen escritor de prosa, creo que no dudaríamos que Browning sería el precursor de la que llamamos literatura moderna.”1 In a writer who has repeatedly emphasized his preference for plot over character and his suspicions about the nonexistence of personality, this interest in the work of a poet who described himself as “more interested in individuals than abstract problems”2 is curious, yet despite his claim in Introducción a la literatura inglesa of this widely accepted view of Browning, Borges seems drawn to a different reading. For him, Browning is “el gran poeta enigmático,”3 and, with Dickens, one of “dos grandes artífices góticos.”4 In the introduction to English literature, Borges summarizes a poem he must have especially liked, “How It Strikes a Contemporary”: “el protagonista puede ser Cervantes o un misterioso espía de Dios o el arquetipo platónico del poeta,”5 and among “Los precursores de Kafka,” he numbers another of Browning's poems, “Fears and Scruples,” in which the speaker defends a stubbornly enigmatic friend who, it is hinted in the last line, may be God. Borges appears particularly interested in The Ring and the Book, with its deployment of multiple narratives on the part of the different characters, each of whom presents his own version of the same murder.6 Browning's development of point of view, along with his ambiguity and what Borges sees as a quality of irreality are probably the basis for his argument that Browning be considered a precursor to James and Kafka and, through them, to much modern literature. Considering his own bent for the exotic, Borges must have been intrigued by the perspectives Browning opens on distant times and places, although he does not mention it. Although Borges' reading of Browning is quirky enough—he has nothing to say about the enormous energy or about the determined optimism that so offended T. S. Eliot—he is not alone in his evaluation of Browning's influence on modern literature. Ezra Pound, for example, claimed Browning as his literary father and pushed him tirelessly. In an essay on the relation between Browning and the Anglo-American Modernists, G. Robert Stange points out three primary reasons for Browning's prestige: his attempt to render spoken speech in verse; his use of an elliptical method with startling jumps and juxtapositions that put the onus of interpretation on the reader; and his elaboration of the dramatic monologue, a form with obvious importance for the literature of perspective developed by James, Conrad, Proust, Joyce, Woolf and Faulkner.7 Like so much modern literature, the dramatic monologue insists on the fragmentary, the incomplete; it opens up new areas of experience and conveys them through a single, and therefore limited, perspective.

The use of a conversational tone and an elliptical approach is widespread throughout twentieth-century poetry, but the dramatic monologue, perhaps the dominant form now in Anglo-American poetry, has never really caught on in Hispanic verse. Borges, however, uses the form rather frequently. That he does so may be the result of his intellectual formation in a library composed of English books; still, this fondness for a form that has traditionally been a vehicle for the presentation of character is odd. It is best seen by focusing on Borges' adaptation of the dramatic monologue, as it was developed by Browning, to suit his own ends.

In 1947, Ina Beth Sessions listed the characteristics of the “perfect dramatic monologue”: “that literary form which has the definite characteristics of speaker, audience, occasion, revelation of character, interplay between speaker and audience, dramatic action, and action which takes place in the present.”8 The problem with this schema is that it excludes many of Browning's best monologues and is totally inadequate for dealing with such modern examples as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or Pound's “The Tomb at Akr Çaar,” in which a soul addresses its mummified body. Although development of character is central to the majority of Browning's monologues, there are notable exceptions—“Saul,” “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” “Fears and Scruples,” “How It Strikes a Contemporary.” Sessions' description is useful as an index of features that often are presented in the form, but it should not be taken as prescriptive. In his seminal study, The Poetry of Experience, Robert Langbaum argues that it is more important to consider effect rather than mechanics. For him, the essential effect is to give “facts from within,”9 but he offsets this contention by observing that “there is at work in [the monologue] a consciousness … beyond what the speaker can lay claim to. This consciousness is the mark of the poet's projection into the poem.”10 Ultimately, Park Honan's definition may offer the most useful rule of thumb: “a single discourse by one whose presence in the poem is indicated by the poet but who is not the poet himself.”11

Before examining the dramatic monologue in Borges, it should be helpful to take a brief look at one of Browning's more representative monologues. In his introduction to English literature, Borges mentions “An Epistle of Karshish,” in which “un médico árabe refiere la resurrección de Lázaro y la extraña indiferencia de su vida ulterior, como si se tratara de un caso clínico.”12 The entire poem takes the form of an epistle written from Karshish to his mentor, Abib. Karshish writes at some length about his journey into Judea, including details about the political situation and his medical discoveries. Finally, he gets around to the real reason for his writing—his encounter with Lazarus. Even though he dismisses Lazarus as a “case of mania—subinduced / By epilepsy,”13 it is evident that he is rationalizing an experience that haunts him, and at the end of the letter, having apologized repeatedly for “this long and tedious case” and actually written his good-byes, he suddenly bursts out:

The very God! think, Abib; dost thou think?
So, the All-Great, were the All-Loving too—
The madman saith He said so: it is strange.

“An Epistle of Karshish” is representative of the Browning monologue as it takes up a character at a specific point in time, at a moment of personal as well as historical crisis. It is thick with detail which establishes time and place and, more importantly, delineates character (a reference to the herb borage, for example, not only demonstrates Karshish's attempt to circumvent his discovery, it also reveals the scientist's practiced eye). The protagonist addresses a particular person, but the communication is really a pretext for a “dialogue between self and soul” in which, while attempting to come to grips with a disturbing incident, he sums up his entire life. The letter is an expression of self and an exploration: what if Lazarus is right? The poem is open-ended; the outcome of the struggle, unresolved. An ironic tension is established between the speaker, who has an incomplete understanding of a firsthand experience, and the reader, whose knowledge is much greater, but who is separated from the event by two millenia.

It is not difficult to see why the poem appeals to Borges. In its oblique approach to a great historical moment, it brings to mind his speculations about why the thief asked to be saved in “Lucas XXIII” and why Judas betrayed Christ in “Tres versiones de Judas.” Browning's ironic manipulation of point of view in the monologue looks ahead to “La busca de Averroes,” Borges' narrative about the Arab translator of Aristotle, a man of high intelligence, who is prevented by his belief in Islam, on which his strength is founded, from accomplishing the task he has set himself, defining comedy and tragedy. Although repeatedly exposed to clues about the nature of the theater, he is doomed to ignore them. The story is told from the third person (except for an intrusion by Borges at the end to remind us that he is as ignorant of Averroes as Averroes is of drama), but the perspective is so carefully limited and so free of analysis that it is almost internal,14 and its effect is close to that of the dramatic monologue: it gives the facts “from within.”

However, rather than discussing possible analogues in his fiction, it is preferable to examine what Borges does with the dramatic monologue in his poetry. Among the speakers are his ancestor Francisco Laprida; Alexander Selkirk; Hengist, the Jutish king of Kent; God; Heraclytus; a Chinese library guard; Tamerlan, an English madman; Browning himself; Ulysses; an unknown Saxon warrior; an unknown inquisitor; an unknown conquistador; the Altamira painter; the Caliph Omar; Alonso Quijano; and Descartes. For the most part, these are short poems; a number are sonnets. There is neither room to develop nor an intention of developing the kind of psychological complexity that is Browning's peculiar characteristic. Instead, Borges tends to offer just a glimpse of the other.

“Hengist Cyning”15 is a fine example of the use of the dramatic monologue to open a perspective on the distant past by showing, instead of explaining, a way of thinking that is distinctly not modern. The poem opens with an epitaph that substantiates the claims made by the voice of the dead ruler, Hengist the first Jutish king of Kent, whose monologue makes up the body of the poem. Hengist is concerned with clearing up a misunderstanding about his life. The British accuse him of betrayal because he killed his king but what Hengist wants clarified is that the real betrayal lay in the selling of his strength and courage. By turning on the British Vortigen, he reaffirms his personal worth: “yo fui Hengist el mercenario” (v. 7, italics mine); and now he speaks as king. His speech is laconic, as austere as the epitaph engraved on stone, and appropriate for a Northern warrior king. His reference to the murder is understated and curiously touching: “Le quité la luz y la vida” (v. 16). In an economy based on limited good, the only way to attain “luz y vida” is to deprive someone else of these things (the following verse is, “Me place el reino que gané”). In any event, the murder needs no more justification than the comment that “la fuerza y el coraje no sufren / que las vendan los hombres” (vv. 12–13). That he should lay waste the British cities and enslave the subjugated populace is simply taken for granted. Like many dramatic monologues (“My Last Duchess” is a good, if far more complex, example), the poem is a gratuitous assertion of self. The real brunt of the message is: This is what I am, “Yo he sido fiel a mi valentía” (v. 27). To whom is Hengist speaking? A chance passerby at the grave? Future generations? The sole possible audience is Borges, sensitive to these cries from the past, and through him, the reader on whom he now confers a privileged insight into the workings of an archaic sensibility.

Borges has always been interested in what Browning calls that “moment, one and infinite,”16 when a man recognizes his destiny. Hengist turned on Vortigen because he realized that he was meant to rule rather than be ruled. The body of the poem deals with the upshot of that discovery. “El advenimiento”17 focuses on the moment itself, when the anonymous painter of the Altamira cave saw the herd of buffalo he later painted (like “Hengist Cyning,” the narration here takes place centuries after the event and is addressed to the void—or the ears of the poet):

Son los bisontes, dije. La palabra
No había pasado nunca por mis labios,
Pero sentí que tal era su nombre.
Era como si nunca hubiera visto,
Como si hubiera estado ciego y muerto
Antes de los bisontes de la aurora.
Surgían de la aurora. Eran la aurora.
No quise que los otros profanaran
Aquel pesado río de bruteza
Divina, de ignorancia, de soberbia.
Pisotearon un perro del camino;
Lo mismo hubieran hecho con un hombre.
Después los trazaría en la caverna
Con ocre y bermellón.

(vv. 23–37)

Like many of Borges' poems, “El advenimiento” arises from an intellectual question: how did the Altamira caves come to be painted? Borges answers the question with an impression that is vivid because it is rendered from within. The speaker is neither described nor analyzed. He simply tells us what, not why, he thought, and we instinctively feel—yes, it must have been like that. Through his use of the monologue, Borges allows a very distant, hazy event to become real. For the speaker, the critical moment comes when he sees the herd; the painting, which has had such a great impact on twentieth-century art, is an afterthought. The real genius, Borges suggests—and this notion obviously has wider application—lies in seeing.

In the last verses of the poem, Borges dissolves the image he has created:

… Nunca
Dijo mi boca el nombre de Altamira.
Fueron muchas mis formas y mis muertes.

(vv. 38–40)

Rodríguez-Monegal writes that for Borges, “All men who perform the same basic and ritual act are the same man.”18 As an artist, the speaker has more in common with other artists than he does with his other, nonartist self, the primitive man who must traffic with his tribe, hunt for food, sleep, make love. Since Borges conveys to the reader only what is relevant to the epiphanic moment, it is possible for this individual to be subsumed into the species. This type of transformation does not much interest Browning. For the most part, he builds up portraits of the whole man, full of troublesome details that cannot be wished away, even when he concentrates, say, on a man's art, as in “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “Andrea del Sarto.”

Borges uses the monologue to explore situation rather than character: how did the cave paintings come about? what is the reason for an apparent act of treason? Silvia Molloy comments that in Borges' fiction, character and situation usually coincide.19 In general, this is true of the poetry as well. As a form, the dramatic monologue is suited to this kind of overlapping since it involves the presentation of character in situ. Eliot, too, uses the monologue in a way similar to Borges—if “Prufrock” is a rounded portrait of a shattered man, “The Journey of the Magi” and “The Wasteland” (a series of monologues uttered by Tiresias in different times and places) are more concerned with situation.

Like “El advenimiento,” “Poema conjectural”20 is an example of a monologue concerned with what Mary Kinzie calls “hidden history,” the point when the individual merges with the archetype.21 The poem takes place at a specific historical moment. The prefatory note explains: “El doctor Francisco Laprida, asasinado el día 22 de setiembre de 1829 por los montoneros de Aldao, piensa antes de morir.” The action is dramatic, but the narrative is secondary to Laprida's discourse. He is even now being hunted down. Although he accepts his approaching death “sin esperanza ni temor,” (v. 11), he is confused and bitter about the kind of death being doled out to him since it represents a denial of the grounds of his existence, his “Yo, que estudié las leyes y los cánones, / yo, Francisco Narciso de Laprida” (vv. 6–7). He is lost, not because he is about to die, but because his ending makes no sense in terms of his life. The representative of civilization is being done in by the forces of barbarism.

In the second stanza, Laprida reaches for an analogy that may help him understand his peculiar fate. “Aquel capitán del Purgatorio,” to whom he refers, Buonconte da Montefeltro, falls into the group of the Late Repentant. In 1289, he commanded the Aretines in an unsuccessful attempt against the Florentines at Campaldino. Following the defeat, he was hunted down; his throat was cut, and his body carried away by the Arno. According to Dante, at the moment of his death, he repented his life of violence and called out the name of Mary, thus saving his soul. The manner of Buonconte's death coincides with Laprida's, but more important is Laprida's identification with a figure who reaches understanding just before he dies, and the fact that Laprida looks to the universal, embodied in literature, to come to terms with his individual situation; that is, the particular has meaning only in relation to the general. In the remainder of the stanza, Laprida returns to the narrative of his flight. His killers are drawing closer. Earlier he heard shots; now he hears hooves. The outer hunt parallels the inner search; time is running out for both. The situation is similar to that in “El milagro secreto.”

At the beginning of the third stanza, Laprida thinks back to his life, much in the terms he used earlier, but the fourth verse signals a change:

pero me endiosa el pecho inexplicable
un júbilo secreto. Al fin me encuentro
con mi destino sudamericano.

(vv. 25–27)

The analogy in the previous stanza opens the way for a revelation, a recognition not of Christian divinity, but of the collective unconscious of his race. Seen in this fresh light, Laprida's death is a confirmation, not a denial of self.22 At this critical juncture, Laprida discovers his “insospechado rostro eterno” (v. 37); he becomes one with the archetype—not only of the gaucho, but of warriors over the centuries, including Dante's Aretine captain, whose death he reenacts.

In the last stanza, it only remains to consummate his fate. Laprida, like Buonconte, narrates his own death. This point of view produces a disturbing close-up effect: “Pisan mis pies la sombra de las lanzas” (v. 39):

                                                  Ya el primer golpe,
ya el duro hierro que me raja el pecho,
el íntimo cuchillo en la garganta.

(vv. 42–44)

In the poem, we find a number of elements typical of the dramatic monologue. The protagonist is forced to formulate his thoughts at a moment of dramatic intensity. Through his discourse, he arrives at a revelation and subsequent understanding. Although the language is pure Borges, it is not beyond the reach of an educated forebear who is, in any event, not speaking out loud.

Through the prefatory note and the title, as well as the language, Borges reminds the reader of his shaping presence in the poem. The “conjectural” establishes the same relationship between creator and creation as does the last paragraph in “La busca de Averroes.” The tension thus set up between past and present, between reality and literature, is associated with the odd notion that only through recourse to letters does Laprida recognize that he is destined to be a man of action. The world of literature provides access to the universal. Yet even though he is, so to speak, disseminated through history, Laprida remains simultaneously fixed for the reader in the memorable gesture of his death, just as the Altamira painter is fixed in the moment he sees the herd.

In her study of his oscillations between the impersonal and the personal, Molloy points to Borges' use of gesture which, she argues, is much like Stevenson's: it gives shape to character, idea or emotion by means of an act or an attitude that captures our attention.23 Even though he sweeps a character away, Borges often leaves us with something akin to the Cheshire cat's furious grin, a gesture that stays with us. The monologue provides Borges with a ready source of irony—the character who announces his “yo” most tenaciously finds that the only appropriate term is “nosotros,” but it also offers a means of making the experience vivid—the character's own perspective. Because in “El advenimiento” we see the herd through the protagonist's eyes, join him imaginatively at the crack through which he peers, both he and the herd, in short, the entire situation, are sharply etched in our minds. Similarly, for an instant, we also find ourselves with Laprida at his death just because our angle of vision is exactly his. It is for this reason that Langbaum describes the dramatic monologue as a “poetry of sympathy.”24 Actually, the disparity between Langbaum's insistence that the monologue give the “facts from within” and his contention that there is a greater consciousness at work in the poem is only apparent, as these poems demonstrate. Borges manipulates point of view here to provide additional tension between the particular and the universal, the individual and the archetype. There is a great pathos to these creations that seem to be so bright and are suddenly sent up in smoke.

It is precisely because Borges does not take advantage of the speaker's perspective that “Browning resuelve ser poeta,”25 a poem inevitably in this discussion, is less successful than many of his other dramatic monologues. The title suggests that the poem will focus on a specific occasion—the point when Browning decided to become a poet—but the great moment eludes the poem. The speaker's remark, “descubro que he elegido / la más curiosa de las profesiones humanas” (vv. 2–3) is undercut by the next comment—“salvo que todas, a su modo, lo son” (v. 4), which reveals a diffidence characteristic of Borges, but quite alien to Browning. The poem turns on a playful series of allusions that continually remind the reader of the author's presence in the poem. For example, the reference to Browning's use of colloquial language:

haré que las comunes palabras—
naipes marcados del tahur, moneda de la plebe—
rindan la magia que fue suya
cuando Thor era el numen e el estrépito

(vv. 5–12)

does double duty since the two metaphors for common words point toward Borges' own work. “Los naipes del tahur” is the composition for which the Borges persona does not win an award in “El Aleph”; the coin is probably the “zahir.” The poem is graceful and clever, but it lacks the tension that gives a number of other monologues strength. Here the speaker, Browning, is simply swallowed up by the central theme, which is the intertextuality of all literature. Other poems discussed involve identifiable circumstances even though their speakers may now be disembodied voices monologizing centuries after an event; nevertheless, there is an experience and an attitude to remember. The real location of “Browning resuelve ser poeta” is in the pages of universal literature, rather than the “rojos laberintos de Londres” (v. 1) that are dismissed in one verse, and it takes place not at some point in the 1820's, but over the centuries. What is missing here is the memorable gesture that would, as Stevenson suggests, capture our attention.

The true power of the dramatic monologue as Borges uses it lies in its ability to create tension between the temporal and the eternal, between the individual speaker and the archetype, and to offer us a privileged perspective on a situation or mode of thought that would otherwise be inaccessible. If his tribute to Browning falls short of this potential and is—to this reader's mind—less successful, the vivid images that so many of the other dramatic monologues leave testify to Borges' brilliant use of a traditional form.


  1. Richard Burgin, Conversaciones con Jorge Luis Borges (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968): 48.

  2. Jorge Luis Borges, Introducción a la literatura inglesa (Buenos Aires: Editorial Columba, 1965): 46. My translation.

  3. María Esther Vásquez, “Entrevista a Borges,” Jorge Luis Borges. Edited by Jaime Alazraki. (Madrid: Taurus, 1976): 71.

  4. Jorge Luis Borges, Obras completas III. Otras inquisiciones (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1957): 121.

  5. Borges, Introducción a la literatura inglesa, 47.

  6. Burgin, Conversaciones, 48–9.

  7. G. Robert Stange, “Browning and Modern Poetry,” in Browning's Mind and Art. Edited by Clarence Tracy. (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1968): 153.

  8. Ina Beth Sessions, “The Dramatic Monologue,” in PMLA, 62 (1947): 508.

  9. Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963): 85.

  10. Langbaum, Poetry of Experience, 94.

  11. Park Honan, Browning's Characters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961): 122.

  12. Borges, Introducción a la literatura inglesa, 47.

  13. Robert Browning, Poetical Works: 1833–1864, edited by Ian Jack. (London: Oxford University Press, 1970): 594, vv. 79–80. The poem appears on pp. 594–602.

  14. Mary Kinzie, “Recursive Prose,” Prose for Borges (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1974): 28.

  15. Jorge Luis Borges, Obra poética (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1975): 213.

  16. Browning, “By the Fireside,” Poetical Works, 586, v. 181.

  17. Borges, Obra poética, 409–10.

  18. Emir Rodríguez-Monegal, “Borges: The Reader as Writer,” Prose for Borges, 120.

  19. Silvia Molloy, Las letras de Borges (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1979): 76.

  20. Borges, Obra poética, 129–30.

  21. Kinzie, “Recursive Prose,” 34.

  22. The poem is, of course, an attempt to find consolation for a needless death—like W. B. Yeats' “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” and “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory.” Interesting in this connection is Jaime Alazraki's discussion of “El Sur,” the story in which a librarian who lies dying of septicemia in a hospital in Buenos Aires dreams that he is killed defending his honor in a knife fight somewhere in the South. He sees the “death” as both a wasteful reminder of the country's barbarism and an effort to return to an epic past: “es un exceso y una privación, una destrucción y una forma de realización, una negación y un acto de afirmación.” [Jaime Alazraki, Versiones, Inversiones, Reversiones (Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1977): 40.]

  23. Robert L. Stevenson cited in Molloy, 124. (I am paraphrasing in English.)

  24. Langbaum, Poetry of Experience, 79.

  25. Jorge Luis Borges, The Gold of the Tigers: Selected Later Poems, a bilingual edition, ed. and trans. Alastair Reid. (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976): 52, 54.

María Kodama (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “Oriental Influences in Borges' Poetry: The Nature of the Haiku and Western Literature,” in Borges the Poet, edited by Carlos Cortinez, The University of Arkansas Press, 1986, pp. 170–81.

[In the following essay, Kodama discusses Borges's use of the traditional Japanese poetic forms of tankaand haiku.]

In the foreword to his Collected Writings (1969), and in other works, Borges has expressed many judgments on poetry and style which indicate the way he gradually assumed the essential poetic forms of the Japanese tanka and haiku. He attempted those two forms for the first time in El Oro de los Tigres (1972) and in La Cifra (1981). Borges began his prologue to the Collected Writings by claiming: “I have not rewritten the book. I have toned down its Baroque excesses, I have trimmed rough edges, I have blotted out sentimental verses and vagueness and, in the course of this labor sometimes pleasing and sometimes annoying, I have felt that the young man who in 1923 wrote those pages was essentially—what does essentially mean?—the elderly gentleman who now resigns himself to what he penned or emends it. We are both the same; we both disbelieve in success and in failure, in literary schools and in their dogmas; we both are true to Schopenhauer, to Stevenson and to Whitman. In my opinion, Fervor de Buenos Aires foreshadows all that came afterwards.” He ends by saying: “In those days, I sought sunsets, outlying slums and unhappiness; now, mornings, downtown, and serenity.”

These words express not only the writer's feelings on his work, and on himself, but reflect also an essential search, foreshadowed as he tells us, from the beginning. This search, or attempt, is the oldest in the world. It began with Homer, and will continue as long as men write. Its aim is to discover with the utmost formal rigor the center, eternity. This search has often been attempted in the East, particularly in Japan and in the West, and particularly in Borges.

In the West, literature begins with the epic, with poems which throughout Europe tell the tales of heroes in hundreds and hundreds of lines. A perfect expression is found in the famous beginning of Virgil's Aeneid: “Arma virumque cano.” “Arms and the man I sing,” as Dryden translated. The mind accepts the word “arms” immediately; it refers, of course, to the deeds of man. In the West those poems throughout the centuries grow briefer and briefer until they reach the avant-garde schools, among them Ultraism. In the case of Spanish literature this generated some of the most important changes since the introduction of the Italian sonnet by Garcilaso, not so much by itself, but by the changes wrought by its impulse.

Borges' career began with a flirtation with Ultraism, and then followed in his own personal way, a way that led him, in a wide circle, to Japan. He, the maker, even as God Himself, sought what is essential to all poetry and especially to Japanese poetry. Japanese poetry tries to carve into a few precious lines of seventeen syllables the meeting of time and space in a single point. The maker, even as God Himself tries to abolish succession in space.

In his own way Borges has tried to express the same wish in the foreword to his Historia de la Eternidad (1936):

I don’t know how on earth I compared to ‘stiff museum pieces’ the archetypes of Plato and how I failed to understand, reading Schopenhauer and Scotus Erigena, that they are living, powerful and organic. Movement, the occupation of different places in different moments is inconceivable without time; so is immobility, the occupation of the same place in different points of time. How could I not perceive that eternity, sought and beloved by so many poets, is a splendid artifice, that sets us free, though for a moment, of the unbearable burden of successive things.

In The Aleph (1949) he also says:

The Aleph's diameter must have been two or three inches, but Cosmic Space was therein, without diminution of size. Each object (the mirror's glass, for instance) was infinite objects, for I clearly saw it from all points in the universe … I saw the Aleph from all points; I saw the earth in the Aleph … I saw my face and entrails … and felt dizziness and wept because my eyes had seen that conjectural and secret object whose name men take in vain but which no man has looked on: the inconceivable universe. I felt infinite veneration, infinite pity … For the Kaballah, this letter the En-Sof, the limitless and pure God Head.

These ideological elements form converging aspects sympathetic to the intent of Japanese poetry, which must be examined in some detail in order to understand both its poetic patterns and their purpose.

As in the case of Western literature, Japanese literature begins by groping its way. The task of finding a precise date for the birth of regular forms in prose and verse is not an easy one. The earliest example is the Kojiki, a record of ancient matters, compiled circa A.D. 712. Afterwards came the Nihon Shoki, a chronicle of Japan, A.D. 720. In the year A.D. 751 there appeared a compilation of Chinese verses written in Japan, the Kaifūsō: Fond Recollection of Poetry. Therein are found texts dating from the last part of the seventh century. The Nara Period offers the first great anthology of poetry, the Manyōshū Collection of A Myriad Leaves. This compilation was undertaken towards the end of the eighth century. In the Kojiki and in the Nihon Shoki the length of the lines in the poems and in the songs varies from three to nine syllables though even in this early period we find the habit of repeating five and seven syllables. In the Manyōshū the poems have already a fixed number of lines and the forms are regular. The lines are invariably compounded of five and seven syllables passing from one to the other. An example is the poem in which Prince Arima is getting ready for a journey:

Iwashiro no
Hamamatsu ga e wo
Masakiku araba
Mata kaerimimu.

On the beach of Iwashiro. I put the knot together. The branches of the pine. If my fate turns out well, I shall return to see them again. This particular form of thirty-one syllable poems in five lines of 5, 7, 5, 7, 7 each is the most frequent and the most lasting of the three forms evolved in the Manyōshū Period. In Japanese poetry it is called tanka or waka. The other two are the sedoka and the choka. The choka is a long poem with no limit to the number of lines. The longest of these poems attains one hundred and fifty lines. It passes, like the tanka, from 5 to 7 syllables ending in a line of 7 syllables. It could also be completed by one or two or more hankas or envoys written after the manner of tanka and summing up the subject of the whole poem. However, of all stanzas to be found in Japanese poetry, the most congenial to the Japanese mind seems to be the tanka, since it still survives, along with the haiku that is engendered by an evolution of the tanka towards a greater brevity and a greater conclusion.

During the Manyū Period, poetry tended toward a private lyricism. The tanka, however, underwent a considerable evolution, which ended in a new form, the haiku. A crucial point was the transition of the caesura or pause in the syntax. In the Manyū Period most tankas had their caesura after the second or the fourth line. The poem is thus divided into three units of 5, 7 (12) and 5, 7 (12) and 7 syllables. This pattern hinders the attempt to pass from a short line to a long one and is weakened by the last short unit.

A verse from Hitomaro Kashū provides an example:

Hayabito no
Na ni ou yogoe
Waga na wa noritsu
Tsuma to tanomase.

Clear and loud as the night call of a man of Haya, I told my name. Trust me as your wife. [The Haya, a southern Kyūshū tribe, famous for the clarity of their voices, were employed at the Imperial Palace as watchmen. A woman tells her name to signify her assent to a proposal of marriage.]

Towards the end of the Heian Period (794–1185) and in the Kamakura Period (1185–1603), the caesura comes after the first and the third line. The poem is thus divided into three longer units of 5, 12 and 14 syllables. As an example the poem of Narihira is given, from the novel Ise Monogatari:

Tsuki ya aranu//
Haru ya mukashi no
Haru naranu//
Waga mi hitotsu wa
Moto no mi nishite.

Can it be the moon has changed, can it be that the spring is not the spring of old times? Is it my body alone that is just the same? This division gave the poet a greater freedom. It favoured the evolution of the imayō style, where the 12-syllable line had a caesura after the seventh. Far more important is the fact that the second caesura is stronger than the first.

This latter style of tanka was divided into the two principal parts, the first three lines and the last two lines (17 syllables and 14 syllables). From this division came the form of linked verse, the renga, whose initial stanza comprises three lines, the second two lines, the third three lines, and so on. In due time, the initial stanza of the renga became independent and took the name of haiku. The curious fact that the season of the year was always recorded or hinted at in those first three verses may have favored the process. A mild surprise clung to it, a sudden enlightenment akin to the satori of Zen Buddhism. This is the origin of haiku, which was essentially in its beginning the old linked poem of the fourteenth century, ruled by the ideas and conventions peculiar to the tanka.

Bashō (1644–1694) fixed forever the road of the haiku. Bashō stated that the haiku should use the common speech of men avoiding, let it be understood, vulgarity. He abounded in images and words forbidden to the tanka. Sparrows instead of nightingales; snails instead of flowers. The poet should be “one with the crowd but his mind should always be pure.” He should use “common language and somehow make it into a thing of beauty.” He should feel pity for the frailness of all things created and feel keenly Sabi, a word that stands for solitude, for lonely sadness, and for the melancholy of nature. Above all, he should so express the nature of the particular as to define, through it, the essence of all creation. His seventeen syllables should capture a vision of the nature of the world.

The best example of this teaching is his famous haiku:

Furu ike ya
Kawazu tobikomu
Mizu no oto.

An old pond. A frog jumps in, sound of water. First, we have something changeless, the pond, then something quick and moving, the frog, and lastly the splashing water, which is the point where both meet.

In an examination of Borges' poem “Un Patio” from Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), we find many elements in common, metrics apart.

With evening
the two or three colors of the patio grew weary.
The huge candor of the full moon
no longer enchants its usual firmament.
Patio: heaven's watercourse.
The patio is the slope
down which the sky flows into the house.
eternity waits at the crossway of the stars.
It is lovely to live in the dark friendliness
of covered entrance way, arbor, and wellhead.

[trans. Robert Fitzgerald]

Unknowingly, this poem follows the indications of Bashō.

How could a South American poet, after so many centuries, attain the very essence of the haiku? A possible explanation may be found in the fact that the essence of poetry is timeless and universal and when a writer attains it, as in the case of the Greek tragic poets, the achievement has no ending. An altogether different clue may be given us by Borges' childhood. His paternal grandmother was English, knew her Bible by heart and was continually quoting from it. I have been told that she could recite chapter and verse for any sentence in the Holy Writ. After Grimm, Borges read and reread the Arabian Nights in an English version and then went on to a now forgotten book, Fairy Tales from Old Japan by Mitford, an American scholar. During the first World War, the works of Schopenhauer sent him to the study of Buddhism. Borges explored with eagerness the books of Hermann Oldenberg on the Buddha and his teaching. These many interests gave him an open mind, a hospitable mind, sensitive to the most different cultures. Thus unaware of his path, he followed the century-old road of Japanese poetry towards the discovery of the haiku. Things done unconsciously are done well, and writers should not watch too closely what they are writing. If they do, the dream betrays them.

In the early 1970s, Borges deliberately undertook the composition of tankas and crowned that attempt in the 1980s with the composition of haikus. The stanza has seventeen syllables; Borges wrote seventeen haikus. Some may be chosen and examined more closely. The form will not be taken into account, since seventeen Spanish or English syllables may not be heard as seventeen syllables by an Oriental ear and vice versa. Japanese verse is meant not only to be heard but to be seen; the kanjis make a pattern that should be pleasant and moving to the eye. This kind of picture is unfortunately lost in a Western translation.

The haiku may be defined as an ascetic art. The ascesis is by far the most important element and the most difficult to attain. Therein we find a fundamental difference between East and West. Ascesis, in the West, is a mean towards an end. We instinctively think of passing from pleasure to suffering; from happiness to sanctity. In the East, ascesis is an end in itself and therefore stands in no need of explanation or justification. Strangely enough, the rigor of ascesis is linked in the East to art. In the West, art passes from life to artifice, from the simple to the complex. The haiku is as near to life and nature as it can be and as far as it can be from literature and a high flown style. This ascesis is the reverse of vulgarity.

The chief contribution of Japan to world literature is a pure poetry of sensations, found only partially in Western letters. The great difference between the haiku and western poetry is this material, physical, immediate character. It is an exaltation of the flesh, not of the sexual. In the haiku we find blended in equal proportions, poetry and physical sensation, matter and mind, the creator and creation. The choice of subjects is significant; war, sex, poisonous plants, wild animals, sickness, earthquakes, that is to say all things dangerous or threatening to life, are left out. Man should forget those evils if he aspires to live a life of mental health. The art of haiku rejects ugliness, hatred, lying, sentimentality and vulgarity. Zen, on the other hand, accepts those evils, since they are part of the universe. The heat of a summer day, the smoothness of a stone, the whiteness of a crane are beyond all thought, emotion or beauty which the haiku tries to capture. Japanese literature, with particular regard to the haiku, is not a mystic one. The haiku is, of all artistic forms, perhaps the most ambitious. In seventeen syllables it grasps, or tries to grasp, reality. Intellectual and moral elements are ruled out.

The haiku has nothing in common with Good, Evil or Beauty. It is a kind of thinking through our senses; the haiku is not a symbol. It is not a picture with a meaning pinned on its back. When Bashō says that we should look for the pine in the pine and for the bamboo in the bamboo, he means that we should transcend ourselves and learn. To learn is to sink into the object until its inner nature is revealed to us and awakens our poetic impulse. Thus a falling leaf is not a token or symbol of autumn, or a part of autumn; it is autumn itself.

Here is a haiku by Borges and another by Kitō, Buson's disciple:

Hoy no me alegran
los almendros del huerto.
Son tu recuerdo.

The almond blossoms hold no cheer for me today; they are but your memory. Kitō wrote:

Omoeba hedatsu
Mukashi kana.

The mists of evening when I think of them, far off are days of long ago. In the last poem the mist of evening reminds him of days past. The dim twilight is akin to the dim past. For Borges the almond blossoms bring back a happy, and perhaps recent past. The starting point of both pieces is nature. In another haiku Borges says:

Desde aquel día
no he movido las piezas
en el tablero.

Since that day I’ve not moved the pieces on the chessboard. And Shiki's haiku expressed a similar thought:

Kimi matsu ya
Mata kogarashi no
Ame ni naru.

Are you still waiting? Once more penetrating blasts turn into cold rain. Shiki looks back on a woman who may still be expecting him. Her (or his) loneliness may be hinted at by the penetrating blasts of wind and rain. Solitude is also the theme of the Borges haiku. The lonely chessboard stands for the lonely man. In this haiku, solitude is the solitude of the poet; in Shiki's haiku solitude is the solitude of the other.

In another haiku, Borges suggests:

Algo me han dicho
la tarde y la montaña.
Ya lo he perdido.

The evening and the mountain have told me something; I have already lost it.

Teishitsu (1610–1673) also composed a similar idea:

Kore wa kore wa
To bakari, hana no

My, oh my! No more could I say; viewing flowers on Mount Yoshino. Teishitsu is overwhelmed by a powerful beauty that he cannot describe; in Borges' case a revelation has been given him by a fleeting moment, a revelation that he is unable to express.

Further, Borges writes:

El hombre ha muerto.
La barba no lo sabe.
recen las uñas.

The man is dead. The beard is unaware of it. His nails keep growing. Which is similar to the composition by Bashō (1644–1649), who wrote:

Ie wa mina
Tsue ni shiraga no
Haka mairi.

All the family equipped with staves and greyhaired, visiting the graves. Death, in Borges' haiku, is not represented as pathetic or memorable, sorrowful or fatal, but rather as disgusting and strange, as a curious physical happening. In this particular haiku Borges fulfills a requisite we have already noted; that the stanza is a meeting point of something everlasting, death, and something going on for a while, such as the grim circumstance of the growing beard and nails. Death in Bashō's haiku is presented in a casually indirect way: the poet sees the family visiting graves and feels that those old men and women will soon be dead. The theme of death was forbidden to the writers of haiku; Bashō, a follower of Zen Buddhism, dared to use it.

The moon presents another image to Borges:

Bajo el alero
el espejo no copia
más que la luna.

Under the eaves the mirror holds a single image. The moon.

This is complemented by an earlier haiku by Kikaku (1661–1707) who composed:

Meigetsu ya!
Tatami no ue ni
Matsu no kage.

A brilliant full moon! On the matting of my floor shadows of pines fall. Kikaku sets a picture before us. The shadows of the pines can be seen because the moon is in the sky. In both poems solitude is signified by the full moon, absence is the real subject of both, and a fleeting point of time is held by the words. An image of eternity in the Japanese poem is in the full moon; eternity in Borges' haiku is reflected in a quiet mirror.

The sense of loneliness may also be found in two other haikus by Borges:

Bajo la luna
la sombra que se alarga
es una sola.

Under the moon the growing shadow is but a single one.

La luna nueva.
Ella también la mira
desde otra puerta.

The new moon. She too is gazing on her from another door.

Let us now compare a Western haiku and an Oriental one. First here is one by Borges:

¿Es un imperio
esa luz que se apaga
o una luciérnaga?

This dying flash is it an empire or a firefly? Compare it to a haiku by Bashō:

Natsu-kusa ya!
Tsuwamono-domo ga
Yume no ato.

You summer grasses! Glorious dreams of great warriors now only ruins. The subject of both poems is commonplace: the mortality of all things. We should recall, by the way, Seneca's memorable sentence: Una nox fuit inter urbem maximam et nullam, in which the last word speaks of the destruction of the entire city. The two haikus quoted express the futility of all human endeavours.

Next we might look at this haiku by Borges:

La vieja mano
sigue trazando versos
para el olvido.

This old hand goes on writing verses for oblivion. A haiku by Jōsō is complementary:

No mo yama mo
Yuki ni torarete
Nani mo nashi.

Both plains and mountains have been captured by the snow. There is nothing left. Jōsō (1662–1704) was one of the ten special disciples of bashō and a follower of Zen Buddhism. He tells us that nothing lasts. Even the mountains and their strength are blotted out by the most immaterial things such as snow. In Borges' haiku, the haiku itself is written for final and relentless oblivion.

Two other haikus are presented for comparison. Borges writes:

La vasta noche
no es ahora otra cosa
que una fragancia.

The endless night is now but a fragrance. And the poet Mokudō (1665–1723) wrote:

Haru-kaze ya!
Mugi no naka yuku
Mizu no oto.

A gentle spring breeze! Through green barley plants rushes the sound of water. Perhaps this last haiku by Borges is one of his best. The poem refers to a single instant where the unseen night reveals herself to the poet. The last line of Mokudō's haiku had been used already by his teacher Bashō in his most famous poem. Nobody thought of repetition as plagiarism; nobody thought in terms of personal vanity. The haiku is a splendid habit of a whole country, not of an individual. It is considered that poetry in Japan is a living thing, and every person from a laborer to the Emperor is a poet.

In examining these poems it is necessary to ask if there is a certain virtue common to all poetry in all ages and lands. The answer may be sought in Borges' foreword to El Oro de los Tigres, that: “to a true poet every single moment of his life, every deed or dream should be felt by him as poetic, since essentially it is poetic” … “Beauty is common in this world.” In the foreword to El Otro, El Mismo Borges tells us that “the fate of a writer is very strange. At the beginning he is Baroque, insolently Baroque; after long years he may attain, if the stars are auspicious, not simplicity, which is meaningless, but a shy and secret complexity.” This is the way of the haiku. The brief haiku is the apex of a vast pyramid.

Jaime Alazraki (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Enumerations as Evocations: On the Use of a Device in Borges' Late Poetry,” in Borges and the Kabbalah: And Other Essays on His Fiction and Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 116–23.

[In the following essay, Alazraki discusses Borges' use of the device of enumeration in his poetry.]

Enumerations in literature are as old as the Old Testament, but in modern times they have achieved the status of an established rhetorical device only since the writings of Walt Whitman. Such are the conclusions of Detlev W. Schumann and Leo Spitzer, two critics who have studied enumerations in contemporary poetry. Spitzer summarized his findings in a well known essay entitled “Chaotic Enumerations in Modern Poetry.”1 There he says: “All seems to indicate that we owe chaotic enumerations as a poetic device to Whitman.”2 In a different essay devoted to Whitman, Spitzer defines the device as “consisting of lumping together things spiritual and physical, as the raw material of our rich, but unordered modern civilization which is made to resemble an oriental bazaar. …”3 If enumerations have been, until Whitman, one of the most effective means of describing the perfection of the created world in praise of its Creator, it was Whitman's task to render that same perfection and unity into attributes of our chaotic modern world.”4 Whitman did not invent the device, but he used it with such intensity and skill that his poetry became a showcase of the rich possibilities offered by the device for poets who succeeded him. In Spanish America, Darío and Neruda were deeply influenced by Whitman and his enumerative style. So was Borges, who wrote about Whitman and on enumerations as early as 1929.

In a short note entitled “The Other Whitman,” he argued that Europeans misread Whitman: “They turned him into the forerunner of many provincial inventors of free verse. The French aped the most vulnerable part of his diction: the complaisant geographic, historic, and circumstantial enumerations strung by Whitman to fulfill Emerson's prophecy about a poet worthy of America.”5 Borges viewed enumerations and free verse—at that time—as foundations of European avant-garde poetry. “Those imitations,” he concluded caustically, “were and are the whole of today's French poetry.”6 He then added, on the subject of enumerations, “many of them didn’t even realize that enumeration is one of the oldest poetic devices—think of the Psalms in the Scriptures, and of the first chorus of The Persians, and the Homeric catalogue of the ships—and that its intrinsic merit it not its length but its delicate verbal balance. Walt Whitman didn’t ignore that.”7

Almost fifty years later, in a footnote to his latest collection of poems, La cifra, Borges restated the same notion. Referring to the poem “Aquél,” he wrote, “this composition, like almost all the others, abuses chaotic enumerations. Of this figure, in which Walt Whitman abounded with so much felicity, I can only say that it should impress us as chaos, as disorder, and be, at the same time, a cosmos, an order.”8 There are three elements here that need to be emphasized. The first is that Borges adopts in 1981 the term coined, or rather divulged, by Spitzer as it was used earlier by Schumann. Raimundo Lida translated Spitzer's article into Spanish and it was published in Buenos Aires in 1945. It is presumable that Borges read it, but he didn’t have to, since the term has become part of our literary jargon and we use it familiarly, unaware of our debt to either Schumann or Spitzer. What matters is that this is the first reference Borges makes to the device under the name of “chaotic enumerations.”

The second point is that Borges emphasizes the idea of order in the guise of chaos underlying the effectiveness of chaotic enumerations in Whitman. This is the very core of Spitzer's definition: “Whitman's catalogues,” he says, “present a mass of heterogeneous things integrated, however, in a majestic and grand vision of All-One.”9

The third and last point is Borges' explicit recognition that his last collection, La cifra, abuses chaotic enumerations. He is right. Although enumerations appear already in his early collections, and reappear throughout his entire poetic work, the device is considerably more frequent in his latest book. Following is an attempt to track the course of enumerations in Borges' poetry, and an effort to define the implications of the device in the development of his art.

For a writer who has been an early reader and admirer of Whitman, who has written several essays on him, who has acknowledged his debt to Whitman in numerous texts, early and late, and who has (more recently) translated Leaves of Grass into Spanish, it is not at all surprising to find in Borges' own poetry the use and abuse of enumerations. They appear as early as 1925 in his collection Luna de enfrente, in such poems as “Los Llanos,” “Dualidá en una despedida,” “Al coronel Francisco Borges,” “La promisión en alta mar,” “Mi vida entera,” and “Versos de catorce.” With the exception of “Mi vida entera” (“My Whole Life”), these poems use enumerations either partially or for the rhythmic element performed by a repeated word or anaphora. What sets “My Whole Life” aside from the others in his early poetry is the use of enumerations in a manner that will become characteristic of his later work. Note the poem in a translation by W. S. Merwin:

Here once again the memorable lips, unique and like yours.
I am this groping intensity that is a soul.
I have got near to happiness and have stood in the shadow
                    of suffering.
I have crossed the sea.
I have known many lands; I have seen one woman and two
                    or three men.
I have loved a girl who was fair and proud, and bore a
                    Spanish quietness.
I have seen the city's edge, an endless sprawl where the
                    sun goes down tirelessly, over and over.
I have relished many words.
I believe deeply that this is all, and that I will neither see
                    nor accomplish new things.
I believe that my days and my nights, in their poverty and
                    their riches, are the equal of God's and of
all men's.(10)

With the years, the list will become longer, the lines shorter, the voice deeper, the tone calmer, but the effort to survey his whole life through enumerations will remain the same.

But what exactly do enumerations enumerate in poetry? In the case of Whitman, they list the diversity or even chaos of a country, time, or people, in order to cluster that diversity into a unity: the poem renders that oriental bazaar of our unordered civilization—in the words of Spitzer—into “the powerful Ego, the ‘I’ of the poet, who has extricated himself from the chaos.”11 This is not the use Borges makes of enumerations. In his second essay on Whitman, he comments on this use of enumerations reminiscent of the holy texts found in most religions: “Pantheism,” he writes, “has disseminated a variety of phrases which declare that God is several contradictory or (even better) miscellaneous things.” He then brings up examples from the Gita, Heraclitus, Plotinus, and the Sufi poet Attar, and concludes: “Whitman renovated that device. He did not use it, as others had, to define the divinity or to play with the ‘sympathies and differences’ of words; he wanted to identify himself, in a sort of ferocious tenderness, with all men.”12 Borges himself has employed this particular type of enumeration, proper to pantheism, in his fiction, in the description of divine visions or theophanies in stories like “The Aleph,” “The Zahir,” and “The God's Script,” but not in his poetry.

There is another use of enumerations. It is best summarized by Whitman himself toward the end of his essay “A Backward Glance Over Traveled Roads” when he writes, “Leaves of Grass indeed has mainly been the outcropping of my own emotional and personal nature—an attempt from first to last, to put a Person, a human being (myself, in the latter half of the 19th Cent., in America) freely, fully and truly on record.13 But for Whitman to put a human being on record was to write about Humanity and Nature, History and Politics, America and Sex, or, as he says elsewhere, “to sing the land, the people and the circumstances of the United States, to express their autochtonous song and to define their material and political success.”14

Borges shares this task of poetry (“to articulate in poetic form my own physical, emotional, moral, intellectual and aesthetic Personality,” in Whitman's words), but in a much more modest and restricted way. Compared to the cosmic world of Whitman, Borges' poetry is an intimate environment inhabited by sunsets and cityscapes, streets and outskirts, authors and books, branches of his family tree, Argentine heroes and counter-heroes, obsessions and mythologies, metaphysical and literary reflections, Old English and Germanic sagas, time, blindness, memory, oblivion, old age, love, friendship and death. There is no need to reconcile these two different perceptions of poetry belonging to Whitman and Borges, the question is rather how to explain the latter's admiration for the former.

In the preface to Elogio de la sombra he wrote, “I once strove after the vast breath of the psalms and of Walt Whitman.”15 And in his poem “Buenos Aires,” from the same collection, he writes: “Buenos Aires is a tall house in the South of the city, where my wife and I translated Whitman whose great echo, I hope, reverberates in this page.”16 And again in the preface to El otro, el mismo he insisted, “In some of these poems, Whitman's influence will be—I hope—noticed.”17 That Whitmanesque “vast breath” is present, paradoxically, in poems where enumerations convey intimate evocations of the poet's personal past, as in his early poem “My Whole Life,” written in 1925. Another example, chronologically, of this type of intimate evocation is the second of the “Two English Poems” written in 1934. Like the previous one, this too is a sort of family album in which the most significant experiences and events of the poet's personal life are recorded: desperate sunsets, lean streets, ragged suburbs, a lonely moon, his grandfather killed on the frontier of Buenos Aires, his great-grandfather heading a charge of three hundred men in Peru, the memory of a yellow rose, books, explanations, theories, the poet's loneliness, darkness, and his heart. The poem can be read, indeed, as a microcosm of his entire poetic work; most of his major themes and motifs are spun in this early cocoon.

What needs to be pointed out, though, is that this poem typifies the kind of enumerations that will be predominant in later poetry. There is no chaos here, in the sense used by Spitzer, as an expression of modern world disorder. There is a random survey of experiences we call chaotic enumerations, but the chaos refers mainly to the nature of the presentation rather than to the disorder of the representation (be that a country, a civilization, or the world). Borges too strives “to put a person on record,” but not, as in Whitman's case, in the crucial latter half of the nineteenth century, during the rise of America as a world power, but in a very familiar time and in a place that is perceived more in personal than in historical terms.

Enumerations in which the specified material belongs to a strictly intimate space and a highly personal time may be illustrated by this passage:

Stars, bread, libraries of East and West,
Playing cards, chessboards, galleries, skylights, cellars,
A human body to walk with on the earth,
Fingernails, growing at nighttime and in death,
Shadows for forgetting, mirrors busily multiplying,
Cascades in music, gentlest of all time's shapes,
Borders of Brazil, Uruguay, horses and mornings,
A bronze weight, a copy of the Grettir Saga,
Algebra and fire, the charge at Junín in your blood,
Days more crowded than Balzac, scent of the honeysuckle,
Love and the imminence of love and intolerable remembering,
Dreams like buried treasure, generous luck,
And memory itself … All this was given to you …(18)

This scrutiny of things past and present comes from “Matthew XXV:30” written in 1963. It is a recasting, slightly modified, of the enumeration put forth in the second “English Poem” of 1934, which in turn rewrites the earlier inventory recorded in “My Whole Life” of 1925. They are not the same poem: each one has a different intent and a different tone suitable to that intent. In the first, the emphasis is on the admission that, as the poem declares, “this is all, and I will neither see nor accomplish new things,” a lucid anticipation, in 1925, of Borges' basic approach to writing as rewriting. The second is a love poem, and in it the poet's life is inscribed through its most memorable assets to be offered, as a trophy, to the beloved one: “I am trying to bribe you with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat.”19 The third poem recounts those same items, concluding: “You have used up the years and they have used up you / And still, and still, you have not written the poem.”20

The evocation of those chosen moments or things or people will be repeated throughout Borges' entire poetic work, although never in quite the same way. Specifically it will appear in the poems “Somebody,” “Elegy,” and “Another Poem of Gifts.” In some cases, the poem enumerates not the things that life gave the poet but those it didn’t—poems about gifts not received, like “Limits,” expanded into “An Elegy of the Impossible Memory,” and tried once again in “Things That Might Have Been.” In other poems, there are just inventories of things dear to the poet's memory, like “The Things,” reenacted in “Things,” and repeated once again in “Inventory.” In poems like “The Threatened One” and “To the Sad One,” personal things and interests are listed together. There are also poems whose enumerations are intended to give not a portrayal of the poet but of somebody else, or of animals, places, countries, cultures, books, or questions, such as “Descartes,” “The Righteous Ones,” “The Orient,” “Israel,” “Buenos Aires,” “Iceland,” “The Islam,” “England,” “A Thousand and One Nights,” and “Insomnia.” Finally, in a poem like “John I:4” the enumeration foregoes the particulars and concentrates on the abstract side of gifts from life.

But the more interesting and the more relevant to this study are those instances of enumeration addressed to a survey of the poet's life. In addition to those already mentioned, the following should be added: “I,” “I Am,” “Talismans,” “The Thing I Am,” “A Saturday,” “The Causes,” “The Maker,” “Yesterdays,” and “Fame.” What pertains to the first three poems applies to these also; each has its own focus, its own inflection and tone. Yet all share the condition of enumeration as a means of evoking the poet's past and reflecting upon his present. The theme is recast, again and again, each time to strike a different chord, a different poem. The method was essentially set forth in that early poem of 1925; time completed it, skill refined it. The early hesitant and elementary lyrics evolved into the perfection and complexity of Borges' later poetry in which we hear the same intrinsic melody, but the music now has the balance, the harmony and serenity that befit a master.

A final and concluding remark. Borges' penchant for summaries is proverbial. He has insisted that “to write vast books is a laborious nonsense” and suggested that “a better course is to pretend that those books already exist and then offer a summary, a commentary.”21 Such a tendency applies to his poetry as well. The poems mentioned as examples of enumerations are summaries of the poet's major themes and motifs, indexes of his poetic production, or metonymies of his main subjects. His ancestors' battles and deaths, splendidly sung in numerous poems, are now resolved in a single and slim line: “I am the memory of a sword.” His entire poetic endeavor is compressed into a single verse: “I have woven a certain hendecasyllable,” and the plots and counter-plots of his fiction are encapsulated in a terse line from the poem “Fame”: “I have only retold ancient stories.” There is no need for more. Borges, the master of metonymy, understands that having constructed a literary world of his own, an artful intimation suffices.

I also believe that this type of enumeration expresses his long held notion that “memory is best fulfilled through oblivion.” Everything must be forgotten so that a few words remain. But those few words, in turn, condense and contain everything—personal Alephs, indeed. Oblivion thus becomes the ultimate realization of memory: “Viviré de olvidarme”: “I shall live out of forgetting about myself,” he says. What is left is an echo, a trace, a single line, the wake of a long journey that the poem proceeds to compile.


  1. Leo Spitzer, Lingúística e historia literaria (Madrid: Gredos, 1961): 245–291. Second edition.

  2. Spitzer, Lingüística, 258.

  3. Leo Spitzer, “Explication de Text.” Applied to Walt Whitman's poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Included in Essays on English and American Literature (Princeton University Press, 1962): 23.

  4. Spitzer, Lingüística, 261.

  5. Jorge Luis Borges, “El otro Whitman.” Included in Discusión (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1957): 52. My own translation.

  6. Borges, “El otro Whitman,” 52.

  7. Borges, “El otro Whitman,” 52.

  8. Jorge Luis Borges, La cifra (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1981): 105.

  9. Spitzer, Lingüística, 258.

  10. Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems 1923–1967. Edited by Norman Thomas di Giovanni. (New York: Delacorte Press, 1972): 43.

  11. Spitzer, “Explication de Text,” 22.

  12. Jorge Luis Borges, “Note on Walt Whitman.” Included in OI, 73–4.

  13. Walt Whitman, “A Backward Glance o’er Travel’d Roads.” Included in Leaves of Grass, Authoritative Texts, Prefaces, Whitman on His Art, Criticism (New York: A Norton Critical Edition, 1973): 573–4.

  14. Whitman, “Backward Glance,” 574.

  15. Borges, ES, 11.

  16. Borges, ES, 128.

  17. Borges, OM, 11.

  18. Borges, SP, 93.

  19. Borges, OM, 18.

  20. Borges, SP, 93.

  21. Borges, F, 11.

Jaime Alazraki (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Outside and Inside the Mirror in Borges' Poetry,” in Borges and the Kabbalah: And Other Essays on His Fiction and Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 107–15.

[In the following essay, Alazraki discusses the significance of mirrors in Borges's poetry.]

In the Preface to his fifth book of poetry—In Praise of Darkness—Borges writes: “To the mirrors, mazes, and swords which my resigned reader already foresees, two new themes have been added: old age and ethics.”1 Mirrors are a constant in Borges' poetry, but long before becoming a major theme or motif in his works, mirrors had been for Borges an obsession that goes back to his childhood years. To his friends he has told that as a child he feared that the images reflected on his bedroom mirror would stay there even after darkness had effaced them. For the boy, the images inhabiting mirrors were like the ghosts haunting the castle of a gothic novel—constantly lurking and threatening through ominous darkness.

In the brief piece entitled “The Draped Mirrors” from Dreamtigers he reminisces upon those fears: “As a child, I felt before large mirrors that same horror of a spectral duplication or multiplication of reality. Their infallible and continuous functioning, their pursuit of my actions, their cosmic pantomime, were uncanny then, whenever it began to grow dark. One of my persistent prayers to God and my guardian angel was that I not dream about mirrors. I know I watched them with misgivings. Sometimes I feared they might begin to deviate from reality; other times I was afraid of seeing there my own face, disfigured by strange calamities” (Dreamtigers; [hereafter referred to as DT, 27).

One of the earliest references to mirrors appears in the essay “After the Images” originally published in the journal Proa in 1924 and later included in his first book of essays, Inquisiciones; hereafter referred to as I(1925). There he says: “It is no longer enough to say, as most poets have, that mirrors look like water … We must overcome such games … There ought to be shown a person entering into the crystal and continuing in his illusory country, feeling the shame of not being but a simulacrum that night obliterates and daylight permits” (I, 29). This first use of mirrors as the country of simulacra appears also in his first poems. “La Recoleta,” from Fervor of Buenos Aires (1923), opens with a series of images in which mirrors are just a simile, the vehicle of a comparison which is repeated with the frequency of a linguistic tic. In that poem he says that when “the soul goes out.”

Space, time and death also go out,
As when light is no more,
And the simulacrum of mirrors fade …

(Obre Poetica; hereafter referred to as OP, 20)

In his first volume of poetry and in the next—Moon Across the Way (1925)—mirrors are referred to merely on account of their reflective function. The city is “false and crowded / like a garden copied on a mirror.” In “El jardin botánico,” “each tree is movingly lost / and their lives are confined and rugged / like mirrors that deepen different rooms.” In “Ausencia,” the reflection on the mirror represents the reflected object: “I shall raise life in its immensity / which even now is your mirror: / stone over stone I shall rebuild it.” In other poems, some qualities associated with mirrors are mentioned: the silence of mirrors in “Atardeceres”; their capacity for repetition in “El Paseo de Julio,” for multiplication in “Mateo, XXV, 30,” and for memory in “El reloj de arena.”

These random references meet in the poem “Mirrors” included in Dreamtigers (1960). In many ways this poem is a recapitulation of most of the previous motifs. Borges recalls his early fears of mirrors and asks: “What whim of fate / made me so fearful of a glancing mirror.” The poem is an attempt to answer that question. A first explanation is its generative power: “They prolong this hollow, unstable world / in their dizzying spider's web.” Here Borges reiterates an idea advanced earlier on “Tlón, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Facing a spying mirror, Bioy Casares “recalled that one of the heresiarchs of Uqbar had declared that mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number of men” (Luna de enfrente; hereafter referred to as L, 3). And in the poem he writes:

I see them as infinite, elemental
Executors of an ancient pact,
To multiply the world like the act
Of begetting. Sleepless, Bringing doom.

(DT, 60)

A second answer to the same question defines mirrors as “a mute theater” of reflections where “everything happens and nothing is recorded,” and where the Other breaks in:

Claudius, king of an afternoon, a dreaming king,
Did not feel he was a dream until the day
When an actor showed the world his crime
In a tableau, silently in mime.

(DT, 61)

This last stanza brings to mind that memorable idea formulated in the essay “Partial Enchantments of the Quixote,” where Borges wrote:

Why does it make us uneasy to know that the map is within the map and the thousand and one nights are within the book of A Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disquiet us to know that Don Quixote is a reader of the Quixote, and Hamlet is a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the answer: those inversions suggest that if the characters in a story can be readers or spectators, then we, their readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

(Otras inquisiciones; hereafter referred to as OI, 48)

In a similar fashion, the poem “Mirrors” concludes:

God has created nighttime, which he arms
With dreams, and mirrors, to make clear
To man he is a reflection and a mere
Vanity. Therefore these alarms.

(DT, 61)

Here we get much closer to the ultimate meaning of mirrors in Borges' poetry. That illusory reality that mirrors produce becomes in turn a profound mirror of our own universe since our image of the world is just a fabrication of the human mind. The world as we know it is that illusory image produced on the mirror of culture, “that artificial universe in which we live as members of a social group.”2 Mirrors, like the map within the map, like Don Quixote reader of the Quixote, and like Hamlet spectator of Hamlet, suggest that our intellectual version of reality is not different from that “ungraspable architecture / reared by every dawn from the gleam / of a mirror, by darkness from a dream.”

Mirrors and dreams have for Borges an interchangeable value. In the poem “Spinoza,” for instance, the lens grinder “dreams up a clear labyrinth— / undisturbed by fame, that reflection / of dreams in the dream of another / mirror …”, and more explicitly in the poem “Sarmiento” where dreaming is tantamount to “looking at a magic crystal.” Borges has pointed out that “according to the doctrine of the Idealists, the verbs to live and to dream are strictly synonyms” (L, 164). A more transcendental significance of mirrors in Borges' poetry should emerge, thus, from a syllogistic transposition of the terms life, dream and mirror. If life is a dream Somebody is dreaming, and dreams are, as stated in the poem “The Dream,” “reflections of the shadow / that daylight deforms in its mirrors,” life is, consequently, not less illusory than the images reflected on the surface of the mirrors. In the poem “The Golem,” the dummy is the dream of a Rabbi who in turn is the dream of a god who in turn is the dream of another god and so on ad infinitum as suggested in “The Circular Ruins.” Yet, it should be noted that the Rabbi's golem is described as “a simulacrum,” as “a distressing son” and as “a symbol,” and that all these terms have been used before in relation to mirrors. In the Rabbi's lamentations as he gazes on his imperfect son—“To an infinite series why was it for me / to add another symbol? To the vain / hank that is spun out in Eternity / another cause and effect, another pain?”—there is an unequivocal echo of the “multiplying and abdominable power of mirrors.” On the other hand, in the poem “Everness” the universe is but the mirror of a total memory: God. God, in another poem entitled “He,” “is each of the creatures of His strange world: / the stubborn roots of the profound / cedar and the mutations of the moon.” God is, in addition, “the eyes that examine / a reflection (man) and the mirror's eyes.” Also Emmanuel Swedenborg knew, according to the poem so entitled, “like the Greek, that the days / of time are Eternity's mirrors.”

The notion that the whole of Creation is but a reflection of a Divine power is more clearly defined in the short stories. In “The Aleph,” for example, Borges writes that “for the Kabbalah, the Aleph stands for the En Soph, the pure and boundless godhead; it is also said that it takes the shape of a man pointing to both heaven and earth, in order to show that the lower world is the map and mirror of the higher.” And, in a more condensed manner, in “The Theologians”: “In the Zohar it is written that the higher world is a reflection of the lower,” and once again in “the Zahir”: “The Kabbalists understood that man is a microcosm, a symbolic mirror of the universe; according to Tennyson, everything would be.” The pertinence of these quotations to our subject lies in the value conceded to reality as a reflection and the notion that such reflections contain a secret order inaccessible to men. Our reality, says Borges (our reality as codified by culture), is made of mirror images, appearances that reflect vaguely the Other, or, more precisely, as the sect of the Histrionics sustains in “The Theologians”:

To demonstrate that the earth influences heaven they invoked Matthew, and I Corinthians 13:12 (“for now we see through a glass, darkly”) to demonstrate that everything we see is false. Perhaps contaminated by the Monotones, they imagined that all men are two men and that the real one is the other, the one in heaven. They also imagined that our acts project an inverted reflection, in such a way that if we are awake, the other sleeps, if we fornicate, the other is chaste, if we steal, the other is generous. When we die, we shall join the other and be him.

(L, 123)

Borges' short stories and poems are full of characters and people searching for the other, for the source of the inverted reflection. Laprida, in “Conjectural Poem,” “who longed to be someone else” finds the other “in one night's mirror” when he can finally “comprehend his unsuspected true face.” The idea of this life as a composite of reflections whose source is the other appears even more clearly in the poem devoted to López Merino's suicide included in the collection In Praise of Darkness (1969). There he says:

          The mirror awaits him.
He will smooth back his hair, adjust his tie (as fits a
          young poet, he was always a bit of a dandy), and
          try to imagine that the other man—the one in
          mirror—performs the actions and that he, the
          repeats them …

(In Praise of Darkness; [hereafter referred to as PD, 41–3)

Even about himself Borges has written in the poem “Junín”: “I am myself but I am also the other, the dead one” (E Siete poemas; [hereafter referred to as SP, 211).

Mirrors are thus defined as the residence of the other. Life outside the mirror, by contrast, surfaces as a reflection, as a dream, and as a theater. Sometimes the reader witnesses a dialogue between the simulacrum outside the mirror and the other inside the glass. Among those poems, none has dramatized in such a definite manner that old dialogue between the two Borgeses that reverberates throughout his work as “El centinela” (“The Sentry”) included in El oro de los tigres (1972):

Light comes in and I remember: he’s there.
He begins by telling me his name which is (clearly) mine.
I come back to a slavery that has lasted more than seven times
                                                                                                    ten years.
He imposes his memory on me.
He imposes the everyday miseries, the human condition on me.
I am his old male nurse; he forces me to wash his feet.
He lies in wait for me in mirrors, in the mahogony, in store
One or two women have rejected him and I must share his grief.
Now he is dictating this poem to me, which I don’t like.
He requires me to undertake the hazy apprenticeship of stubborn
He has converted me to the idolatrous cult of military dead
                                        with whom I could perhaps not exchange a single word.
On the last step of the staircase I feel that he is by my side.
He is in my steps, in my voice.
I hate him thoroughly.
I notice with pleasure that he can barely see.
I am in a circular cell and the infinite wall gets tighter.
Neither of us fools the other, but we both lie.
We know each other too well, inseparable brother.
You drink water from my cup and you devour my bread.
The door of suicide is open, but the theologians affirm that in
                                                            the ulterior shadow of the other kingdom, I will
be there,
                                                            waiting for myself.(3)

The reader notices without much effort that “The Sentry” is a reenactment of the piece “Borges and Myself” from Dreamtigers. Both texts are part of an exchange between Borges the writer and Borges the man, between “a man who lives and lets himself live” and “the other who weaves his tales and poems,” between one condemned to his inexorable destiny as writer and one who from the depth of a mirror paces equally inexorably toward his “secret center.” In both texts the voice comes from an intimate Borges who watches the other as though one were the audience in a theater and the other an actor on stage, but whereas in the prose the exchange takes place between Borges the writer and the other who simply lives, in the poem the exchange is much less symmetric. The confrontation is not between the writer and the man. There is no confrontation, but rather reflections voiced by a person who has reached seventy and contemplates, in the manner of Kohelet, his life and the miseries of the human condition. This Borges, profoundly intimate, looks at the other as a sentry and examines this sentry's visible and public life as a fiction or a theatrical representation. To define life as a dream presupposes the notion that with death we shall wake up from that dream; to define the world as a stage implies the idea of a spectator who will applaud or boo when the show is over. Likewise, there is an obverse of the mirror that reproduces and multiplies, that dreams and gesticulates, and there is reverse from whose depths the other—the awake one and the spectator—watches us. The ultimate meaning of mirrors in Borges' poetry lies in that reverse, dwelling of the other, house of the self. “Ars Poetica” has masterfully expressed this meaning:

At times in the evening a face
Looks at us out of the depths of a mirror;
Art should be like that mirror
Which reveals to us our own face.

(SP, 143)

Of the various significations that mirrors propose throughout Borges' poetry this is, beyond any doubt, the most transcending and the richest in suggestions. In a strict sense, we are dealing with the mirror of poetry as a road of access to the other, with literature as a bridge between the visible side of the mirror and the other side which poets of all times have always tried to reach. There is a mirror that “melts away, just like a bright silvery mist” so that the poet, like Lewis Carroll's Alice, may go through the glass and jump into the other side—the looking-glass room of fantasy; and to such a mirror Borges refers in the poem devoted to Edgar Allan Poe:

As if on the wrong side of the mirror,
He yielded, solitary, to his rich
Fate of fabricating nightmares …

(SP, 173)

But the mirror that in the last analysis Borges vindicates as a vehicle of art is the one “which reveals to us our own face.” In the context of Dreamtiger's Epilogue, it is clear that the face he alludes to is a symbolic face which, like a cipher, encodes the destiny of the writer. It is this writer who “shortly before his death discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines (his writings) traces the image of his face” (DT, 93).

The poem “Oedipus and the Riddle” also adheres to this same meaning. Borges had already reviewed the myth of Oedipus and the Sphinx in The Book of Imaginary Beings. There he explains:

It is told that the Sphinx depopulated the Theban countryside asking riddles and making a meal of any man who could not give the answer. Of Oedipus the Sphinx asked: “What has four legs, two legs, and three legs, and the more legs it has the weaker it is?” Oedipus answered that it was a man who as an infant crawls on all four, when he grows up walks on two legs, and in old age leans on a staff. (BIB, 211–12)

With these materials Borges makes his poem:

At dawn four-footed, at midday erect,
And wandering on three legs in the deserted
Spaces of afternoon, thus the eternal
Sphinx had envisioned her changing brother
Man, and with afternoon there came a person
Deciphering, appalled at the monstrous other
Presence in the mirror, the reflection
Of his decay and of his destiny.
We are Oedipus; in some eternal way
We are the long and threefold beast as well—
All that we will be, all that we have been.
It would annihilate us all to see
The huge shape of our being; mercifully
God offers us issue and oblivion.

(SP, 191)

In the monstrous image of the Sphinx, Oedipus recognizes his own destiny and that of all man, and Borges adds: “It would annihilate us all to see / the huge shape of our being.” But the poet inevitably looks for “the shape of his being,” and his written work is but the mirror where he will see his face, and in it the total image of his fate. But such a moment, similar to a revelation, comes “shortly before death.” One of Borges' most personal and intense poems, “In Praise of Darkness,” celebrates old age and darkness as forms of happiness; in the last lines he returns to the same idea presented in “Oedipus and the Riddle” but now in order to tell us that if art is “the imminence of a revelation that is not yet produced” (OI, 4) it is so because that last line to be traced by a hand stronger than any destiny (Death) is still missing:

From south and east and west and north,
roads coming together have led me
to my secret center.
These roads were footsteps and echoes,
women, men, agonies, rebirths,
days and nights,
daydreams and dreams,
each single moment of my yesterdays
and the world's yesterdays,
the firm sword of the Dane and the moon
                    of the Persian,
the deeds of the dead,
shared love, words,
Emerson, and snow, and so many things.
Now I can forget them. I reach my center,
my algebra and my key,
my mirror.
Soon I shall know who I am.

(PD, 125–7)

Only with death the patient labyrinth of lines that represents the writer's work is completed; only with death the labryinth yields its key and reveals its center; and only with death it becomes possible to cross and jump into the mirror and join the other, a way of saying that only then a revelation finally occurs as the outer image from this side of the mirror encounters its counterpart on the other side, looks at the shape of his being, and discovers who he is.


  1. J. L. Borges, In Praise of Darkness (Tr. by Norman Thomas di Giovanni). New York, Dutton, 1974, p. 10.

  2. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Arte, lenguaje, etnología (Entrevistas de Georges Charbonnier), México, Siglo Veintiuno, 1968, pp. 131–132.

  3. I thank my friend and colleague Willis Barnstone for having produced under rather unfavorable conditions this English translation of “El centinela.”

Jaime Alazraki (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Language as a Musical Organism: Borges' Later Poetry,” in Borges and the Kabbalah: And Other Essays on His Fiction and Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 124–36.

[In the following essay, Alazraki examines Borges's later poetry, and praises its ability to convey “verbal music.”]

From his early poems of the twenties to his later collection Historia de la noche (A History of the Night, 1977), Borges' poetry has traveled a long way. It first moved from a nostalgic rediscovery of his birthplace, Buenos Aires, to a cult of his ancestors and an intimate history of his country: heroes, anti-heroes, counter-heroes. He then found that metaphysical subjects, literary artifacts, and religious myths were not unworthy material for poetry: “The Cyclical Night,” “Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf,” and “The Golem” are samples which illustrate this later period. His perception of poetry in those years could be defined, in T. S. Eliot's dictum, “not as a turning loose of emotions, but as an escape from emotion: not as the expression of personality, but as an escape from personality.” A reflective and ruminative poetry. His ruminations were not about the fortunes or misfortunes of the heart, or existential angst, or the conundrum of life, but about the monuments of the imagination, and particularly those of literature: intellect as passion, culture as the true adventure, knowledge as invention. A rather selfless poetry, a poetry in which the most powerful presence of the self is found in its absence.

A grandson and great-grandson of military heroes, Borges turned his poetry into an epic exploration by evoking everything poetry can possibly evoke other than his own personal drama. In his more recent poetry this drama is defined as a lack of personal drama. Borges muses relentlessly and painfully about his life devoid of heroic violence: “Soy … el que no fue una espada en la guerra” (I am that who did not wield a sword in battle) “¿Yo, que padecí la vergüenza / de no haber sido aquel Fransisco Borges que murió en 1874” (I, who suffered the shame / of not having been that Francisco Borges who died in 1874) (La rosa profunda; hereafter referred to as RP, 83).

Estoy ciego. He cumplido los setenta;
No soy el oriental Francisco Borges
Que murió con dos balas en el pecho,
Entre las agonías de los hombres,
En el hedor de un hospital de sangre …

(RP, 107)

I am blind, and I have lived out seventy years.
I am not Francisco Borges the Uruguayan
who died with a brace of bullets in his breast
among the final agonies of men
in the death-stench of a hospital of blood …

(GT, 79)

Soy también la memoria de una espada

(RP, 13)

I am also the memory of a sword

(The Gold of the Tigers; [hereafter refferred to asGT, 49)

Since he is denied a sword, he turns poetry into a sword; since epic action has been ruled out of his life, he converts poetry into an epic exercise:

Déjame, espada, usar contigo el arte;
Yo, que no he merecido manejarte.

(RP, 45)

Let me, sword, render you in art;
I, who did not deserve to wield you.

How did he accomplish this? By effacing himself from his own poetry, by speaking of everybody but forgetting about himself. Borges has said of Bernard Shaw that “he is the only writer of our time who has imagined and presented heroes to his readers,” and he explains further:

On the whole, modern writers tend to reveal men's weaknesses and seem to delight in their unhappiness; in Shaw's case, however, we have characters who are heroic and whom one can admire. Contemporary literature since Dostoevsky—and even earlier—since Byron—seems to delight in man's guilt and weaknesses. In Shaw's work the greatest human virtues are extolled. For example, that a man can forget his own fate, that a man may not value his own happiness, that he may say like our Almafuerte: “I am not interested in my own life,” because he is interested in something beyond personal circumstances.2

Here we find a first explanation of the seemingly impersonal quality of his poetry; yet what Borges defends is not impersonality but an epic sense of life. The poet disregards his own tribulations to become the singer of virtues, values, people, and literary works dear to him. Haunted by the memories of his ancestors' “romantic death,” Borges celebrates the courage of heroes and knife fighters ready to die in defense of a cause or belief more precious than their own life. Since he is denied an epic destiny on the battlefield, he will turn literature into his own battlefield by refusing to speak about himself, by lending his voice to others. This epic attitude has been deliberate, and it stems from his family background as well as from the fact that, as he put it, “my father's library has been the capital event in my life”:3 books as events, intellection as life, past as present, literature as passion.

Until 1964. That year Borges published a sonnet entitled “1964” with which he inaugurated a new theme in his poetry. To what he has called his “habits”—“Buenos Aires, the cult of my ancestors, the study of old Germanic languages, the contradiction of time”4—he now adds his broodings over what can be called a vocation for unhappiness. The sonnet opens with the line “Ya no seré feliz. Tal vez no importa” (I shall no longer be happy. Perhaps it doesn’t matter) (El otro, el mismo; [hereafter referred to as OM, 175), a motif that appears and reappears in his last four collections between 1969 and 1976,5 and culminates in the 1976 sonnet “Remordimiento” (“Remorse”), included in La moneda de hierro (The Iron Coin):

He cometido el peor de los pecados
Que un hombre puede cometer. No he sido
Feliz. Que los glaciares del olvido
Me arrastren y me pierdan, despiadados.
Mis padres me engendraron para el juego
Arriesgado y hermoso de la vida,
Para la tierra, el agua, el aire, el fuego.
Los defruadé. No fui feliz. Cumplida
No fue su joven voluntad. Mi mente
Se aplicó a las simétricas porfías
Del arte, que entreteje naderías.
Me legaron su valor. No fui valiente.
No me abandona. Siempre está a mi lado
La sombra de haber sido un desdichado.

(El moneda de hierro; [hereafter refrred to as MH, 89)

I have committed the worst sin of all
That a man can commit. I have not been
Happy. Let the glaciers of oblivion
Drag me and mercilessly let me fall.
My parents bred and bore me for a higher
Faith in the human game of nights and days:
For earth, for air, for water, and for fire.
I let them down. I wasn’t happy. My ways
Have not fulfilled their youthful hope. I gave
My mind to the symmetric stubbornness
Of art, and all its webs of pettiness.
They willed me bravery. I wasn’t brave.
It never leaves my side, since I began:
This shadow of having been a brooding man.

(MEP, 607)

I have dealt with and elaborated on this subject,6 and I won’t repeat myself. It will suffice to say that Borges' treatment of this intimate side of his life has little to do with romantic confessionalism, or with yielding to the same weakness he earlier condemned in modern literature. If he now breaks the silence about himself and tells us about his unhappiness, he does so without self-pity, without tears or pathos, simply by acknowledging it as a fact, or rather, as a sin. The poem represents the acceptance of that sin as guilt, and throughout the poem he assumes this sin of unhappiness with the same poise and endurance with which epic heroes accept defeat. He breaks the diffidence of his previous poetry without outcries, almost restating his early selflessness, since his misfortune, his having been unhappy, is not a torment one mourns over but a sin one must accept quietly or even expiate, or perhaps sublimate in the silence of a verse. “One destiny,” he wrote in “The Life of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz,” “is no better than another, but every man must obey the one he carries within him” (A, 85). Such is the spirit of his own acceptance: a heroic stamina that welcomes triumph and adversity with equal courage.

His later collection of poems—Historia de la noche—adds yet new paths into the elusive territory of his intimacy. The accomplished writer, the celebrated poet, the man who welcomes love and death with equal resignation and joy, feels now that decorum could also be an expression of vanity, that modesty in the face of death is but another form of pettiness blocking total reconciliation. The circle of life closes in, unhappiness no longer matters, and a mundane virtue matters even less. Borges seeks oblivion, but since oblivion is a privilege denied to his memory, he backtracks through its meanders, paths, and deep chambers:

A veces me da miedo la memoria.
En sus cóncavas grutas y palacios
(Dijo San Agustin) hay tantas cosas.
El infierno y el cielo están en ellas.

(Historia de la noche;[ hereafter referred to as HN, 87)

Sometimes I fear memory.
In its concave grottoes and palaces
(Said Saint Augustine) there are so many things.
Hell and Heaven lie there.

There is no way out of memory but death:

Soy el que sabe que no es más que un eco,
El que quiere morir enteramente.

(HN, 120)

I am he who knows he is but an echo,
The one who wants to die completely.

Two elements set Historia de la noche apart from his previous collections: a restrained celebration of love, and a serene acceptance of everything life brings, for better or for worse, including the imminence of death. Not that the old motifs or “habits” are missing here; they are present but in a different way. They are part of his indefatigable memory, and as such they inevitably reappear: tigers, mirrors, books, dreams, time, ancestors, friends, authors, knives, cities, and countries. The manner in which these motifs enter into the poem has changed. “El tigre” (“The Tiger”), for example, is an evocation of the animal that fascinates Borges as an obsession of his childhood, for its beauty, and because it brings reverberations of Blake, Hugo, and Share Kahn. Yet the last line reads: “We thought it was bloody and beautiful. Norah, a girl, said: It is made for love” (HN, 35). This last line makes the difference, and gives the poem an unexpected twist. The recalled anecdote—a visit to the Palermo Zoo—was an old strand in his memory, but only now has its true momentum been recaptured, only now does the tiger's face of love surface and overshadow all previous faces to mirror the author's own. In no other book of poems has Borges allowed himself to deal with love with such freedom and with a distance which ultimately is the condition of love's magic. “Un escolio” (“A Scholium”) offers a second example of this new theme. Borges returns to the world of Homer, and here too, as in previous poems, he chooses Ulysses' homecoming to Ithaca as one of the four stories that, he believes, comprise everything literature could ever tell. It appears in the brief prose piece “Los cuatro ciclos” (“The Four Cycles”) from The Gold of the Tigers, where Borges comments: “Four are the stories. During the time left to us, we’ll keep telling them, transformed” (OT, 130). The story first appears in one of his most successful early poems, “Ars Poetica,” as a metaphor for art:

They say that Ulysses, sated with marvels,
Wept tears of love at the sight of his Ithaca,
Green and humble. Art is that Ithaca
Of green eternity, not of marvels.

(SP, 143)

Four years later, in the collection El otro, el mismo (The Self and the Other, 1964), Borges turned the episode into a sonnet, “Odyssey, Book Twenty-Three,” but the emphasis is now on the unpredictability of fate. In “A Scholium,” on the other hand, the story becomes a love poem. Borges chooses the moment when the queen “saw herself in his eyes, when she felt in her love that she was met by Ulysses' love” (HN, 47). In each of the four versions of the story, one witnesses a switch of emphasis and preference: in the first, the focus is on the notion that literature is “the history of the diverse intonations of a few metaphors” (OI, 8); in the second, Ulysses' return to Ithaca is seen as a metaphor for art; the third captures the idea that “any life, no matter how long or complex it may be, is made up essentially of a single moment—the moment in which a man finds out, once and for all, who he is” (A, 83); and in the fourth, the accent is on love as an inviolable common secret. But the last version reveals also that the old metaphor has become Borges' own metaphor, because what the last poem underlines is the nature of love as a secret bond, as an unwritten pact expressing itself through its own code: “Penelope does not dare to recognize him, and to test him she alludes to a secret they alone share: their common thalamus that no mortal can move, because the olive tree from which it was carved ties it down to earth” (HN, 47). Borges chooses allusion as the language of love, but allusion also as the literary language he prefers. In the same prose poem, he adds: “Homer did not ignore that things should be said in an indirect manner. Neither did the Greeks, whose natural language was myth.” What we have here, therefore, is a double metaphor. Penelope resorts to allusion to communicate with Ulysses; Borges, in turn, alludes to Homer's story to communicate his own perception of love. The thalamus as the metaphor for Penelope's love becomes the metaphor Borges conjures up to convey his own feelings about love. It is worth pausing on this aspect of his art. Not only because this example dramatizes an all too well known device of his writing—the Chinese box structure to which he subjects much of his fiction and poetry—but because this last volume of poems further refines that device to the point of perfection. In the epilogue to Historia de la noche, he offers a possible definition of this literary artifice:

Any event—an observation, a farewell, an encounter, one of those curious arabesques in which chance delights—can stir esthetic emotions. The poet's task is to project that emotion, which was intimate, in a fable or in a cadence. The material at his disposal, language, is, as Stevenson remarks, absurdly inadequate. What can we do with worn out words—with Francis Bacon's Idola Fori—, and with a few rhetorical artifices found in the manuals? On first sight, nothing or very little. And yet, a page by Stevenson himself or a line by Seneca is sufficient to prove that the undertaking is not always impossible.

(HN, 139)

Borges, who in his early writings held that “unreality is the necessary condition of art,” knows only too well that literature, and art in general, as Paul Klee once said, “is different from external life, and it must be organized differently.” What Borges restates in the epilogue is his old belief that “since Homer all valid metaphors have been written down,” and the writer's task is not to write new ones but to rewrite the old ones, or rather to translate them into his own language, time, and circumstance, very much in the way the nineteenth-century symbolist writer, Pierre Menard, undertook the rewriting of the Quixote. The creative act lies, then, not so much in the invention of new fables as in their transformation into vehicles of new content, in the conversion of an old language into a new one. Borges retells Ulysses' story of his return to Ithaca, but in each of his four versions a new perception has been conveyed.

The same principle can be applied to his other “fables.” He keeps repeating them, as he himself has acknowledged, but it is a repetition of the materials, not of their substance. There is no escape from that “absurdly inadequate” tool—language—yet with those same trite words the poet shapes the uniqueness of his emotion. “Gunnar Thorgilsson” offers a third example of this outlook on literature which sees in the new a derivation from the old: Iceland, which appears and reappears in Borges' poetry, is evoked once more, but now the focus is not on the ship or the sword of the sagas, but on the wake and the wound of love. The poem concludes simply: “I want to remember that kiss / You gave me in Iceland” (HN, 59). “El enamorado” (“The Lover”) and “La espera” (“The Waiting”) are also love poems in which Borges tersely reviews some of his literary habits—moons, roses, numbers, seas, time, tigers, swords—but they are now shadows which vanish to uncover the only presence that truly counts:

Debo fingir que hay otros. Es mentira.
Sólo tú eres. Tú, mi desventura
Y mi ventura, inagotable y pura.

(HN, 95)

I should feign that there are others. It’s a lie.
Only you exist. You, my misfortune
And my fortune, inexhaustible and pure.

If literature is, as Borges once wrote, “essentially a syntactic fact,” it is clear that his latest volume of poetry should be assessed not for whatever is new at the level of theme (love being the thematic novelty), but by how he succeeds in bestowing on old subjects a new intensity and a rekindled poetic strength. The reader of his last collection can find here the vertex of his new achievement.

Those of us who have been closely following Borges' poetry of the last ten years have witnessed several changes in his voice. His earliest poems strove to convey a conversational tone. They were a dialogue with the familiar city, its myths and landscapes, sometimes bearing Whitmanesque overtones. To emphasize that intimate and nostalgic accent, he often used free verse, local words, and Argentine slang. Then when he “went from myths of the outlying slums of the city to games with time and infinity” (A, 152), he opted for more traditional meters and stanzaic forms. This alone conferred a certain stilted inflection on his poetic voice. Rhymes were strong and at times even a bit hammering (Scholem was made to rhyme with Golem). He brought the hendecasyllable and the sonnet to new heights, stimulated undoubtedly by his advanced blindness. In spite of this sculptural perfection, there was still a declamatory falsetto in his voice that was particularly apparent when he read (or rather recited) aloud his own poetry. It goes without saying that this stiffness, however slight, disappeared in his best poems. In 1969, five years after his previous collection El otro, el mismo, he published In Praise of Darkness. With this volume Borges freed his verse from any linguistic slag. The sonnet, the form he has been using most frequently since, bordered on perfection: these sonnets are masterfully carved, with chiseled smoothness and a quiet flow that turns them into verbal music.

Poetry as music has always been to Borges a crystallizing point at which language succeeds in bringing forth its melodic core. This is not a music produced by sound; the poem turns words into a transparent surface which reveals a certain cadence, a harmony buried under the opacities of language, much in the same manner as music rescues a privileged order of sound and silence from a chaotic mass of sounds. In the prologue to the collection El otro, el mismo, he has explained this understanding of poetry:

On occasion, I have been tempted into trying to adapt to Spanish the music of English or of German: had I been able to carry out that perhaps impossible adventure, I would be a great poet, like Garcilaso, who gave us the music of Italy, or like the anonymous Sevillian poet who gave us the music of Rome, or like Dario, who gave us that of Verlaine and Hugo. I never went beyond rough drafts, woven of words of few syllables, which very wisely I destroyed. (SP, 279)

My contention is that Borges, whose “destiny”—as he put it—“is in the Spanish language” (GT, 31), has found in his most recent poetry not the music of English or German or of any other poet, but his own voice, and through it a music the Spanish language did not know before him. Not that Spanish did not produce great poets. It certainly did, and each of them represents an effort to strike a different chord of that musical instrument language becomes at the best moments of its poetry. One has only to think of Jorge Guillén as a definite virtuoso of that instrument, as a poet whose voice has given to Spanish some of the most luminous and joyous movements of its hidden music. Like Borges, Jorge Guillén has sought through his work to touch that musical kernel contained in language very much the way brandy is contained in the residual marc. For Borges, as for Guillén, poetry is a form of linguistic distillation.7

In Historia de la noche, there is hardly a subject or motif that has not been dealt with in his previous collections, love being the exception. “Ni siquiera soy polvo” (“I Am Not Even Dust”), which deals with the trinity Cervantes-Alonso-Don-Quixote as a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream, is a variation on a theme previously treated in “Parable of Cervantes and Don Quixote” (Dreamtigers) and in “Alonso Quijano Dreams” (The Unending Rose). “The Mirror” returns to his old obsession with mirrors first recorded in the short piece “The Draped Mirrors” (Dreamtigers), and then meticulously explored in the thirteen quatrains of “The Mirrors” (El otro, el mismo). The same could be said of “Lions” vis à vis “The Other Tiger,” “Dreamtigers,” and “The Gold of the Tigers.” Or “Iceland” as a new avatar of “To Iceland” (The Gold of the Tigers). Or “Milonga del forastero,” which is a sort of Platonic summation of all his other milongas. But precisely because Borges returns to his old subjects (he once stated: “A poet does not write about what he wants but about what he can”), the subject matters less than the voice. Furthermore: the voice is the subject.

In this last collection Borges further refines a device first developed in “Another Poem of Gifts”: the poem as a long list, listing as a poetic exercise. “Metaphors of the Arabian Nights,” “Lions,” “Things That Might Have Been,” “The Lover,” and “The Causes” follow this pattern. The device accentuates the magic character of poetry as a voice speaking in the dark, words reaching out for meanings that are beyond words. What is left is a music that speaks from its innumerable variations, but the variations are not repetitions. They are, as in the art of the fugue, new versions of the same tune, and in each variation the theme is further explored, condensed, and simplified, until it becomes so transparent that one sees the bottom, the poet's deepest voice, a face free of masks, a certain essence that more than saying, sings. It is as if Borges had put behind him his old habits as themes to focus on the tones and inflections of his own voice; and what that voice expresses is a serenity, a calm not heard in the Spanish language since Juan de la Cruz or Luis de León. Borges must have felt that he was nearing that shore of harmony glimpsed by the mystical poets. In the last poem of the collection, “A History of the Night,” he wrote referring to the night: “Luis de León saw it in the country / of his staggered soul.” Yet the soul that surfaces from Borges' last poems is not one pierced by divine emotion, but a fulfilled and resigned soul that can see life as a river of “invulnerable water,” an earthy soul anchored in life and yet unfearful of death, one that can look upon life from a timeless island against whose shores time breaks and recedes like sea waves:

“Adán es tu ceniza”

La espada morirá como el racimo.
El cristal no es más frágil que la roca.
Las cosas son su porvenir de polvo.
El hierro es el orín. La voz, el eco.
Adán, el joven padre, es tu ceniza.
El último jardín será el primero.
El ruiseñor y Píndaro son voces.
La aurora es el reflejo del ocaso.
El micenio, la máscara del oro.
El alto muro, la ultrajada ruina.
Urquiza, lo que dejan los puñales.
El rostro que se mira en el espejo
No es el de ayer. La noche lo ha gastado.
El delicado tiempo nos modela.
Qué dicha ser el agua invulnerable
Que corre en la parábola de Heraclito
O el intrincado fuego, pero ahora,
En este largo día que no pasa,
Me siento duradero y desvalido.

(HN 131)

“Adam Is Your Ash”

The sword will die like the vine.
Crystal is no weaker than rock.
Things are their own future in dust.
Iron is rust, the voice an echo.
Adam, the young father, is your ash.
The last garden will be the first.
The nightingale and Pindar are voices.
Dawn is the reflection of sunset.
The Mycenaean is the gold mask.
The high wall, the plundered ruin.
Urquiza, what daggers leave behind.
The face looking at itself in the mirror
Is not yesterday's. Night has wasted it.
Delicate time is shaping us.
What joy to be the invulnerable water
Flowing in Heraclitus's parable
Or intricate fire, but now, midway
Through this long day that does not end,
I feel enduring and helpless.

(trans. Willis Barnstone)

A restatement of his famous line “Time is the substance I am made of. It is a river that carries me away, but I am the river” (OI, 197). Now, however, the same idea flows without the lapidary sententiousness of the essay; simply, with ease and resolution, unconcerned with rejections or acceptances, free of outcomes or outcries, a meditative voice reconciled with life, accepting its gifts and losses with the same acquiescent gesture.

In the poem “The Causes,” Borges goes through an inventory of mementoes from history, literature, and life. The list encompasses some of the most memorable moments of his own poetry and becomes a sort of miniature of his poetic oeuvre. The poem closes with two equally compressed lines: “All those things were needed / so that our hands could meet” (HN, 128), a masterful coda that renders his tight survey of motifs into a love poem. This is the surface, however impeccable, of the text, its outer meaning. But what the text also says, between the lines, is that its laconic eloquence, terse to the point of diaphaneity, is sustained by sixty long years of poetic creation, the understated notion being: all those poems were needed so that this one could be written. The idea appears at the end of one of his most relaxed and subtly personal short stories, “Averroes' Search” (1947): “I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity” (Labyrinths; [hereafter referred to as L, 155). Literature, as well as life, as an inexorable concatenation of causes and effects; each poem as a stepping stone toward the poem; the poem as a symbol of the poet: in order to write this poem I had to write all the others; in order to write this poem I had to be the man I was. But this last poem does not form a circle with the others, it is rather the answer to the others, a sort of prism that reintegrates the dispersed shades of his poetry into one text, and this text gleams like a single beam of white light with a radiant simplicity that none of the individual texts had. With Historia de la noche Borges' poetry has found an equilibrium that undoubtedly conveys his own inner serenity; but this serenity, being a linguistic externalization, is also a song through which the Spanish language voices a music unheard before: an austere, poised, dignified, and quiet music:

Soy el que no conoce otro consuelo
Que recordar el tiempo de la dicha.
Soy a veces la dicha inmerecida.
Soy el que sabe que no es más que un eco,
El que quiere morir enteramente.

(HN, 119–20)

I am one who knows no other consolation
Than remembering the time of joy,
I am at times unmerited joy,
I am one who knows he is only an echo,
One who wants to die totally.

(trans. Willis Barnstone)

The young poet who once delighted in the exhilaration of his own performance has been left far behind. The voice we hear now is that of a consummate musician who has achieved total mastery over his medium. The music we hear now is that of the Spanish language attuned to its own registers, and that of a poet skillfully true to his own perceptions.


  1. Jorge Luis Borges, La rosa profunda (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1975), p. 53; The Gold of the Tigers; Selected Later Poems, trans. A. Reid (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977), p. 63. When English translations have been available, I have indicated the source; when unavailable, I have provided my own.

  2. Rita Guibert, Seven Voices (New York: Vintage, 1973), p. 98.

  3. J. L. B., Epilogue to Historia de la noche, p. 140.

  4. J. L. B., Selected Poems, p. 278.

  5. They are Elogio de la sombra (In Praise of Darkness), 1969; El oro de los tigres (The Gold of the Tigers) 1972; La rosa profunda (The Unending Rose), 1975; and La moneda de hierro (The Iron Coin), 1976.

  6. In my essay “Borges o el dificil oficio de la intimidad: reflexiones sobre su poesía más reciente”, Revista Iberoamericana XLIII, 100–101 (julio-diciembre 1977), pp. 449–463.

  7. Borges has written on this subject:

    Pater wrote that all arts aspire to the condition of music, perhaps because in music meaning is form, since we are unable to recount a melody the way we can recount the plot of a story. Poetry, if we accept this statement, would be a hybrid art—the reduction of a set of abstract symbols, language, to musical ends. Dictionaries are to blame for this erroneous idea, for, as we seem to forget, they are artificial repositories, evolved long after the languages they explain. The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature. The Dane who uttered the name of Thor or the Saxon who uttered the name of Thunor did not know whether these words stood for the gods of thunder or for the noise that follows the lightning. Poetry tries to recapture that ancient magic. Without set rules, it works in a hesitant, daring manner, as if advancing in darkness.

    (SP, 279–80).

Howard Giskin (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6334

SOURCE: “The Mystical Experience in Borges: A Problem of Perception,” in Hispanofila, Vol. 98, No. 2, January, 1990, pp. 71–85.

[In the following essay, Giskin explores the role and significance of mythical experience in Borges's work.]

A reader of Borges is likely to notice that his work, especially his short stories, is not always easily accessible. This is due not to any deliberate desire for obscurity, but rather his persistent allusion to mythical themes such as the search for self and ultimate knowledge. A journey, metaphorical or actual, frequently ends in epiphany in which a character discovers his true place in the universe.1 The mystical experience in Borges includes four characteristics which are common to all epiphany, as cited by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience: (1) Ineffability: Mystical union defies expression. It must be directly experienced and perceived, yet cannot be communicated to others. (2) Noetic experience: The mystic feels that tremendous knowledge has been imparted to him. (3) Transiency: The mystical interlude is very brief. (4) Passivity: The mystic feels his own will to be in complete abeyance to that of some superior power (292–93).2

One frequently finds in Borges instances in which characters see with absolute clarity the interrelationship of all things in the universe and the interrelationship of the universe with oneself. This act of knowing is ineffable, exceeding the limits of language. The mystical experience in Borges, as for all mystics, is a momentary transcendence of sense perception and intellect. For him, the problem of perception is central. His wideranging knowledge of philosophy and theology has imbued him with deep skepticism. He doubts that we can trust either what the mind or the senses tell us about the universe. Amid this chaos of endlessly differing perceptions, there appear frequently in Borges instances of mystical experience in which an individual instantaneously, and sub specie aeternitatis, intuits the true nature of things. It is at precisely these moments of epiphany that the human subject experiences the fundamental underlying unity of the universe. In the story “El Aleph,” Borges descends into a dark cellar where he has been told he shall behold the Aleph (The Aleph is a form of infinity concentrated in one point): “¿Cómo transmitir a los otros el infinito Aleph, que mi temerosa memoria apenas abarca? … Por lo demás, el problema central es irresoluble: la enumeración, siquiera parcial, de un conjunto infinito. En ese instante gigantesco, he visto millones de actos deleitables y atroces; ninguno me asombra como el hecho de que todos ocupan el mismo punto, sin superposición y sin transparencia. Lo que vieron mis ojos fue simultáneo: Lo que transcribiré, sucesivo, porque el lenguage lo es … El diámetro de Aleph sería de dos o tres centímetros, pero el espacio cósmico estaba ahí, sin disminución del tamaño” (“El Aleph” 163–4).

This epiphany is at the core of Borges' literary mysticism. Borges attempts to describe, using the limited and imperfect tool of language, an infinite experience, an experience which, by its very nature, overflows the narrow boundaries of language. For Borges epiphany is an experience of multum in parvo, multiplicity in unity; all things are revealed as they truly are and in their true relationships. Everything is seen as fundamentally One, while nevertheless manifested as individual and seemingly unrelated entities. Borges quotes Plotinus in “Historia de la eternidad”: “Dice Plotino con notorio fervor: ‘Toda cosa en el cielo inteligible también es cielo, y allí la tierra es cielo, como también lo son los animales, las plantas, los varones y el mar … todos están en todas partes, y todo es todo. Cada cosa es todas las cosas’” (15). The epiphany in Borges involves a revelation of the numen, which can burst forth and flood the mind, resulting in an overwhelming intellectual illumination. As a result of this experience the individual feels himself inseparably one with the entire universe. His sense of identity extends to include all the cosmos.3

The mystical experience is Borges' answer to the uncertainty of the rational mind. Borges expresses his doubt of the mind and senses in many of his works. Throughout his writings he entertains the possibility that the universe, as we perceive it through reason and the senses, is not as it really is. Who, then, creates this illusion of reality? Humans, according to Borges, create their own realities. The planet Tlön is a metaphor for this creation. On Tlön, the very act of perceiving an object changes it (“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” 27). This unusual state of affairs bears a similarity to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, which says that the observer, by the mere act of observing, alters that which he observes.4 This is significant since Borges himself does not accept the traditional Cartesian subject/object duality. The subject as observer can no longer be said to have access to reality as it is. In the mystical experience the subject/object distinction breaks down and becomes meaningless. In epiphany subject and object fuse, allowing a knowing of an entirely different order to take place.

For Borges, it is futile to search for the final laws of the universe. He contends that the actual workings of the universe remain hidden behind a veil of appearance, which the rational intellect cannot penetrate. The best the intellect can do is to create provisory schemas. Is the universe governed by chaos? Humans will do their best to disprove this hypothesis by attempting to impose order by way of the mind. For Borges, all perception is, by its very nature, selective. In every act of perception there is perhaps an infinity of unperceived or ignored material (“La postulación de la realidad” 69). Mystical intuition differs radically from normal perception in that nothing is ignored or selected, but rather the whole is seen in its infinite complexity sub specie aeternitatis and instantaneously. Our world is simplified to fit our conceptions of the way we think it should be, which is most often not the way it actually is. Our normal perception is filtered through a haze of attitudes, desires, emotions, and habits, which distort our vision of reality. But can truth ever be attained when the mind, as Borges notes, sees selectively, picking and choosing only what pleases it? Borges does not believe that reason can arrive at the true nature of things. Any attempt to do so will necessarily end in failure: “… notoriamente no hay clasificación del universo que no sea arbitraria y conjectural. La razón es simple: no sabemos qué cosa es el universo” (“El idioma analítico de John Wilkins” 105). He suggests, however, that the impossibility of comprehending the divine scheme of the universe should not dissuade us from creating human schemes, although we must admit that they are merely provisional (105).

Stressing the provisional relationship of language and reality, Borges, in the same work, quotes Chesterton: “Esperanzas y utopías aparte, acaso lo más lúcido que sobre el lenguaje se ha escrito son estas palabras de Chesterton: ‘El hombre sabe que hay en el alma tintes más desconcertantes, mas innumerables y más anónimos que los colores de una selva otoñal … Cree, sin embargo, que esos tintes, en todas sus fusiones y conversiones, son representables con precisión por un mecanismo arbitrario de gruñidos y de chillidos. Cree que del interior de un bolsista salen realmente ruidos que significan todos los misterios de la memoria y todas las agonías del anhelo’” (106). Language is at best an imperfect tool with which to describe and investigate reality. Language can be used to describe, analyze, name, and even create, but words are not reality itself. Words are a part of reality, not the whole of reality. There will necessarily be many things that language cannot contain. Language talks about reality, but it is not reality.

Borges notes that Pythagoras wrote nothing, believing only the spoken word a vehicle of truth. For Borges, the written word is a petrification of an essentially fluid reality which is constantly changing, like Heraclitus' river (“La poesía” 102). Plato, he tells us, narrates an Egyptian fable against writing in which books are likened to painted figures which appear alive, but do not answer questions asked of them (“Del culto de los libros” 111). All language is a freezing and making static of a fundamentally dynamic reality. Language is an instrument, and its objectification through the written word gives the illusion that truth can be captured and recorded. Language, however, can never reveal truth in its entirety. For Borges, existence not language is the fundamental mystery. Language can never fully reveal reality because language is sequential. To describe anything fully, even the most insignificant object, an endless list of attributes would result. (“Sobre el Vathek de William Beckford” 133) There is no limit, for example, to what can be said about a simple object such as a pencil, because our description of it could continue forever. It is clear that, for Borges, language does not exhaust the expression of reality. The mystical experience is, for him, a way of attaining intimate contact with reality, and without the limitations of language. He acknowledges the impossibility of ever fully capturing the numen in language, but as a poet he must try. In “La luna,” he speaks of his desire to embrace through poetry that which is beyond words:

Siempre se pierde lo esencial. Es una
Ley de toda palabra sobre el numen.
No la sabrá eludir este resumen
De mi largo comerico con la luna …
Cuando, en Ginebra o Zurich, la fortuna
Quiso que yo también fuera poeta,
Me impuse, como todos, la secreta
Obligación de definir la luna …
Pensaba que el poeta es aquel hombre
Que, como el rojo Adán del Paraíso,
Impone a cada cosa su preciso
Y verdadero y no sabido nombre …


The poet, as Borges suggests, through his superior vision and art points to that which lies behind things. He wishes to give a thing its true and unknown name, but he knows that this is impossible, because its true name is unspeakable. The essential reality is always lost when we attempt to cage and ossify the living, changing numen in words. Spirit or numen, like Heraclitus' river, is in a state of perpetual flux. The poet attempts the impossible: to capture living spirit with the pen. The moon cannot be defined. “Moon” is merely a pale reflection of the moon, not the moon itself. And yet it is the poet's duty to search for the true names of all things, an endless search, to be sure.

The second element of the epiphany in Borges is noetic experience in which the individual gains direct and instantaneous insight into the nature of reality.5 Mystical knowledge is thus contrasted to rational knowing, which can be only partial and imperfect. A frequent accompaniment of the mystical experience is a sense of absolute vision into the nature of things. One has the feeling that reality is for the first time seen in its primal, unconditioned, and indescribable splendor. In “La escritura de Dios,” Borges narrates just such an illumination:

Entonces ocurrió lo que no puedo olvidar ni comunicar. Ocurrió la unión con la divinidad, con el universo (no sé si estas palabras difieren). El éxtasis no repite sus símbolos; hay quien ha visto a Dios en un resplandor, hay quien lo ha percibido en una espada o en los círculos de una rosa. Yo vi una Rueda altísima, que no estaba delante de mis ojos, ni detrás, ni a los lados, sino en todas las partes, a un tiempo. Esa Rueda estaba hecha de agua, pero también de fuego, y era (aunque se veía el borde) infinita. Entretejidas, la formaban todas las cosas que serán, que son y que fueron, y yo era una de las hebras de esa trama total, y Pedro de Alvarado, que me dio tormenta, era otra. Ahí estaban las causas y los efectos y me bastaba ver esa Rueda para entenderlo todo, sin fin … Quien ha entrevisto el universo, quien ha entrevisto los ardientes designios del universo, no puede pensar en un hombre, en sus triviales dichas o desaventuras, aunque ese hombre sea él. Ese hombre ha sido él y ahora no le importa. ¿Qué le importa la suerte de aquel otro, qué le importa la nación de aquel otro, si él, ahora es nadie?


Mystical union, regardless of tradition, represents an intuition of the here and now, as it is in the present moment. Paradoxically, as Zen argues, we are always in direct contact with Truth, but by some trick of thought or reason have forgotten this. The mystical experience is merely the lifting of the veil which clouds our vision. The priest Tzinacán, in “La escritura de Dios,” experiences an incommunicable bliss of understanding, comprehending once and for all the ultimate designs of the universe. All things are well and seen in their proper places; the universe unfolds as it must. For Tzinacán, although left to die in a prison, the universe is infinitely hospitable. The possibility of illumination by an inflowing of the numen is everpresent. For Borges, spirit is a “presence” behind the objects and occurances of everyday reality, and this “presence” is potentially available to each and every one of us at every moment. The mystical experience is an opening to the ever-present numen. Everyday reality does not so much conceal the enigma of existence, but is that mystery itself; a tree, a rock, the sky, these constitute the sacred aspect of Being. In “Una brújula” all things point to a deeper unnamable presence:

Todas las cosas son palabras del
Idioma en que Alguien o Algo, noche y día,
Escribe esa infinita algarabía
Que es la historia del mundo …
Detrás del nombre hay lo que no se nombra;
Hoy he sentido gravitar su sombra
En esta aguja azul, lúcida y leve
Que hacia el confín de un mar tiende su empeño.


Borges sees all things, but particularly simple objects, as revealing most easily that which lies behind everyday appearance. All things point to the ineffable, which cannot be directly seen or named, but rather felt as a shadow in our experience. In mystical traditions the normal waking state is referred to as a “dream.” This dream state is one of illusion created by a clouded or “veiled” consciousness. Tzinacán realizes that his true identity is not that of priest or decipherer, but something far greater, the entire universe. Although imprisoned physically, he is now truly free (119). Finally at home in the universe, Tzinacán blesses even his bleak surroundings. The secret script of the tiger's skin, which he has tried in vain for years to decipher, now becomes clear to him (his god had confided the code to the living skin of the jaguars in remote antiquity). Simply to utter these words would bring infinite power, but he shall never say them because he no longer remembers the man “Tzinacán” (121). The priest's mystical experience is transient; although he may recall the mystical interlude for long afterwards, the mystical state does not last long. In “El Aleph,” we do not know the exact length of time which elapses in the cellar while Borges views the Aleph, but we know it is short, “a single gigantic instant” (164–65). In “La escritura de Dios,” the actual duration of the epiphany is short, although Tzinacán is permanently transformed by the experience (120–21).

In addition to the transient nature of the epiphany in Borges, the result of mystical illumination is a sense of being in the grasp of some higher controlling power.6 The illuminated man experiences himself as a vehicle or receptacle of a higher power, and this power urges him to search for his true self. Throughout his work, Borges exhibits a concern for the problem of the identity of the individual. Cutting through the layers of false identity is of central concern for Borges, and the mystical experience is the final unveiling of true personhood, which is paradoxically a sense of being “no one.” Both Buddhist and Hindu mysticism stress heavily the illusory nature of the ego or sense of self as agent. They deny the objective existence of any entity called the “self,” which can be described as the subjective feeling of being a causal agent acting separately from, or on other entities (Trungpa 122–23). Tzinacán no longer remembers Tzinacán, because Tzinacán as Tzinacán does not exist. The illuminated Tzinicán loses his sense of himself as an independent agent or ego. It is precisely in this sense that he forgets who he is. He ceases to identify with his previous ego self, but rather with the cosmos as a whole. He does not think in terms of one man, the man he was, because he is literally no longer that man. He cannot now be concerned with what worries ordinary men. Mystics call this state of being unity consciousness (Wilber 142). Unity consciousness is what we are when we are not our professions, our thoughts, our possessions, our body, our names, nor anything else. Somewhat paradoxically, however, our identity becomes (in actuality, always was) everything that exists, the entire cosmos. In this mystical vein Walt Whitman writes in “Song of Myself”: “I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots, / And I am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over …” (sec. 31). Likewise, Tzinacán can no longer remember Tzinacán because he is the trees, the sun, the moon and the stars—they are him, and he is them. Buddhists call this “big mind,” as opposed to the “little mind” of unenlightened awareness. Ordinary perception tells us that we are separate entities, but mystical union reveals that we are and always have been one with all of creation (Wilber 42). Tzinacán awakens from the dream which was his previous life, only to discover that he, as a separate self, does not exist. The man Tzinacán may die, but the cosmos is eternal, and Tzinacán is the cosmos.

In “Yo,” Borges contemplates his own shifting sense of self:

La calavera, el corazón secreto,
los caminos de sangre que no veo,
los túneles de sueño, ese Proteo,
las vísceras, la nuca, el esqueleto.
Soy esas cosas. Increíblemente
soy también la memoria de una espada
y de un solitario sol poniente
que se dispersa en oro, en sombra, en nada.
Soy el que ve las proas desde el puerto;
soy los contados libros, los contados
grabados por el tiempo fatigados;
soy el que envidia a los que ya se han muerto.
Más raro es ser el hombre que entrelaza
palabras en un cuarto de una casa.


Borges marvels at the elements that make up “Borges.” “Borges” is his bodily parts, his memory, his perceptions, his hopes and desires, and most importantly his dreams, “los túneles de sueño, ese Proteo.” Dreams are the subterranean key to identity for Borges. They cannot be grasped or seen, yet neither can many parts of the body, such as the heart or skull. “Borges” appears to be the sum of many seen and unseen qualities and attributes. “Soy esas cosas. Increíblemente …” “Borges” too is the memory of all that has happened to him, of what he has seen and done. He is the sum of perhaps an infinity of attributes, events, emotions. But stranger than to be all these things is to be the man called “Borges,” an indivisible unity composed of a myriad of disparate elements, paradoxically and inexplicably whole, a microcosm of unity in diversity. That such a unity exists is at once a great mystery and a wonder to him. Is Borges merely the sum of all these things he names, a collection of attributes somehow tied together by a vague sense of “I-ness?” Who is Borges? Paradoxically, Borges knows that although he is somehow the “sum of all his parts,” he is more than that also. He is not merely the one whom he sees in the mirror, nor even he who writes poetry, but something else altogether, an unnamable presence, a vague sense of Being behind “Borges.” In “Soy,” Borges expresses the feeling that he is “no one”:

Soy el que sabe que no es menos vano
que el vano observador que en el espejo
de silencio y cristal sigue el reflejo
o el cuerpo (da lo mismo) del hermano.
Soy, tácitos amigos, el que sabe
que no hay otra venganza que el olvido
ni otro perdón. Un dios ha concedido
al odio humano esta curiosa llave.
Soy el que pese a tan ilustres modos
de errar, no ha descifrado el laberinto
singular y plural, arduo y distinto,
del tiempo, que es de uno y es de todos.
Soy el que es nadie, el que no fue una espada
en la guerra. Soy eco, olvido, nada.


According to Buddhists, behind all self-identity is emptiness or shunyata.7 To understand shunyata means to grasp reality in absence of duality and conceptualization (Trungpa 188). To experience oneself as “nothing” is to know the numinal emptiness behind external form and attributes. Borges sees the reflection of his body in the mirror, which he knows is not truly him. The body, he knows, is only a reflection of a deeper reality of what he is. By saying that he is “nothing,” Borges is not making a nihilist proclamation, but rather an acknowledgement of the numenal emptiness which lies behind the illusion of selfhood. Mystical traditions uniformly teach that all persons, in fact all things, are part of a more inclusive reality and fundamentally unified. At this level of the psyche, we are literally one, because the (inherited) content of our psyches is the same. Mystics view the “personal” strata of the psyche as superficial because these are not a true representative of what we are. They postulate a level of psyche in which we are not merely one with all other members of his race, but one with all creation. In “Los teólogos” Borges implies the transcendental unity of all humans, when he suggests that a particular theological treatise appeared to have been written by all men or no one in particular because of its universality (38). At the end of this story, we discover that in the eyes of God, the two feuding theologians, Aurelian and John de Panonia, are the same man (45). From a Jungian point of view, the warring theologians project onto each other precisely the qualities and characteristics which they fail to recognize in themselves, their shadows (“The Shadow” 9). The theologians are the same man, because their conceptions of one another are projections of the other's shadow. Each objectifies evil in the form of the other.

This conception is consistent with mystical traditions, which insist that all qualities we see in others, both positive and negative, are qualities which we ourselves contain. Many mystics have held that our vision of the universe, the macrocosm, is entirely a reflection of the soul, or microcosm. The hater is the hated, and vice-versa to the extent that he fails to recognize the opposing quality in himself. The mystic sees all events as reflections of his inner nature. For the mystic, subject collapses into object; there is no distance between “I” and “other.” There are many tales in world literature which attempt to illustrate the identity of all persons. In a footnote to “El acercamiento a Almotásim,” Borges notes: “esa y otras ambiguas analogías pueden significar la identidad del buscado y buscador.” He observes that in the Mantig-al-Tayr (Colloquium of the Birds) of the Persian mystic Attar, the searchers for the magnificent bird the Simurg discover that they are actually the Simurg and the Simurg is each one of them and all (45). In “La forma de la espada” Borges similarly suggests the identity of all men: “Lo que hace un hombre es como si lo hicieran todos los hombres. Por eso no es injusto que una desobediencia en un jardín contamine al género humano; por eso no es injusto que la crucifixión de un solo judío baste para salvarlo. Acaso Schopenhauer tiene razón; yo soy los otros, cualquier hombre es todos los hombres, Shakespeare es de algún modo el miserable John Vincent Moon” (138).

For Borges, the search for self involves deep reflection upon his own identity, and yet he remains “disidentified” with his own attributes and what others recognize as “Borges”: “He olvidado mi nombre. No soy Borges … / soy el que sabe que no es más que un eco, / El que quiere morir enteramente. / Soy acaso el que eres en un sueño. / Soy la cosa que soy. Lo dijo Shakespeare …” (“Borges” 19–20). What is perhaps most interesting about this poem is Borges' lack of identification of his inner being with the man called “Borges.” Again, who is Borges? He knows that his true identity has very little to do with “Borges.” He is something mysterious, unnamed and unnamable behind the name and attributes. This sense of mystery is expressed throughout Borges' work by a continual search for self through an integration of the contents of his unconscious into his conscious self-image or persona, thus enlarging his vision of himself (Jung, “The Transcendent Function” 91). Indeed, the highest form of mysticism is a complete integration of the unconscious (including the collective unconscious) into consciousness. But this confrontation is not an easy task. The ego (persona, self-image) experiences terror, sometimes extreme, when delving into the unconscious regions of the psyche (Neumann 380). This is because the ego has no idea what it will find in the dark corners of the psyche. These hidden, forgotten, and repressed contents of the psyche are objectified and experienced as “monsters” or “demons” in the confrontation of the conscious and the unconscious. The ego is heroic because it confronts, explores, and finally conquers the uncharted world of the unconscious psyche. In mystical writings, the spiritual seeker is often portrayed as a warrior of the highest order, precisely because the battle with the self is the most difficult struggle one can face (Dhammapada 50).

Each new addition of a previously unconscious element results in the birth of a new self, but this birth is often painful. The encounter with the unconscious “always leads to an upheaval of the total personality and not only of consciousness” (Neumann 380). This fact explains Borges' fear of mirrors, which threaten to reveal his true “face,” through a confrontation with himself. He imagines his true face to be hideous. In “La pesadilla,” he says that a nightmare of his is the idea of masks. He is afraid to remove the mask he wears for fear of seeing his true (atrocious) face (43). For the artist, however, this confrontation with the self is necessary. It is the source of creativity, for beneath the mask lies the numen. Borges' fear of plumbing his psychic depths is well-founded, since instead of integration “there is also the possibility that the ego will succumb to the attraction of the numinous and, as a Hasidic maxim puts it, ‘will burst its shell.’ This catastrophe can take the form of death in ecstasy, mystical death, but also of sickness, psychosis, or serious neurosis” (Neuman 397). In “Los espejos” Borges' fear of mirrors because of their revelatory nature is evident:

Yo, que sentí el horror de los espejos
No sólo ante el cristal impenetrable
Donde acaba y empieza, inhabitable
Un imposible espacio de reflejos …
Infinitos los veo, elementales
Ejecutores de un antiguo pacto,
Multiplicar el mundo como el acto
Generativo, insomnes y fatales.


Mirrors are portals into an infinite and unlimited world, the world of the numen, of ecstasy, but also of nigthmares and insanity. The ego resists the “emptiness” of the numenological world. For the ego to become nothing is a kind of death. This is why to be “reborn” one must die, or properly speaking, one's ego must die. The descent into the depths of the unconscious is also a voyage to the source and unlimited fount of creativity. Paradoxically, the voyage ends with the realization that one is nothing but a vehicle for the transmission of something far greater than onself. Perhaps it is true, as Borges writes in “Los teólogos,” that “cada hombre es un órgano que proyecta la divinidad para sentir el mundo” (42). In the final stages of mysticism (illumination) the ego is absorbed into the void, and the sense of “I” as separate entity dissolves. This is called death of the ego in mystical terms. Borges' fear of dissolution of his sense of self is reflected in “Los espejos”: “Dios ha creado las noches que se arman / De sueños y las formas del espejo / Para que el hombre sienta que es reflejo / Y vanidad. Por eso nos alarman” (65). Mirrors are a threat because they represent the awakened consciousness which incorporates ego into the void. When this happens, the “old” man exists no more, and the “new” man is born. Everything provides a numinous background; everything in the world becomes a symbol and a part of the numinous, and God is seen everywhere (Neumann 410).

It is evident that mysticism in Borges conforms to the four characteristics of the epiphany cited by William James: ineffability, noetic experience, transiency, and passivity. The epiphany in Borges is incapable of being fully expressed in language. During the mystical experience, an individual transcends the normal boundaries of perception and intellect, intuiting instantaneously the true nature of things and the unity of the universe. One bypasses the rational mind, gaining absolute clarity into the nature of things; the subject becomes one with the object, and a knowing of “communion” takes place. Such knowing is of an entirely different order than sequential reason, since all normal perception is necessarily selective and incomplete. The true nature of reality can never be revealed through language, since language objectifies and freezes reality. The numen, Borges believes, can never be captured in language, but it is the poet's duty to try. The epiphany in Borges includes a noetic experience in which the individual achieves direct and instantaneous insight into the nature of reality. Transience is another quality of the mystical experience in Borges, as evidenced in “El Aleph” and “La escritura de Dios.” Finally, during the epiphany, the individual comes to feel that rather than doing anything, something happens to him. Another power, believed to be outside oneself, takes over. For Borges, this constitutes a sense of being “no one” or “nothing.” He often ponders his own identity in his writings, thinking of himself as other than the attributes and qualities which constitute him. In Borges, being “no one” is synonymous with being everyone. His literary mysticism reveals the entire human race to be microcosmically contained in every individual. Ultimately, the distinction between “I” and “other” is blurred. Borges searches repeatedly for clues to his own identity, often reflecting upon his fear of self-revelation. He fears the discovery of his true identity (his “true face”), which he imagines beyond his capacity to endure. Nevertheless, he senses that behind the illusion of his personal identity lies not the face of a monster, but divinity.


  1. The mystical roots of Borges' thought have not yet been fully investigated. Jaime Alazraki's important work La prosa narrativa de Jorge Luis Borges examines numerous elements of Borges' art, but does not directly treat mysticism. Gene H. Bell-Villada's Borges and his Fiction: A Guide to his Mind and Art contains a chapter entitled “El Aleph: The Visionary Experience,” in which he elucidates selected aspects of Borges' mysticism without considering its overall role in his work. Alberto C. Pérez in Realidad y suprarrealidad en los cuentos fantásticos de Jorge Luis Borges, realizes that mysticism is central to Borges' thought, but does not examine sufficiently the importance of mystical themes which recur throughout Borges' poetry, essays, and stories. The only work which treats Borges' mysticism with any degree of thoroughness is Giovanna de Garayalde's Jorge Luis Borges: Sources and Illumination. De Garayalde argues that Borges was strongly influenced by Sufi (mystical Islamic) stories and parables. She successfully shows that many of Borges' techniques and themes have precedents in centuries-old Sufi stories.

  2. Borges himself is a mystical thinker, and has acknowledged that he had several mystical experiences in his life. Quoting from a previous article “Sentirse en muerte,” published in 1928 and concerning an experience during a stroll in Buenos Aires, he writes in “Nueva refutación del tiempo”: “Me sentí muerto, me sentí percibidor abstracto del mundo; indefinido temor imbuido de ciencia que es la mejor claridad de la metafisica” (180). In an interview with Willis Barnestone and Jorge Oclander, Borges one commented that he has had two mystical experiences, but cannot tell them: “what happened is not to be put into words … I had the feeling of living not in but outside of time” (Borges at Eighty: Conversations 11).

  3. Transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber writes “the most fascinating aspect of such awesome and illuminating experiences … is that the individual comes to feel, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that he is fundamentally one with the entire universe, with all worlds, sacred or profane. His sense of identity expands far beyond the narrow confines of his mind and body and embraces the entire cosmos” (3).

  4. “According to the Uncertainty Principle, we cannot measure accurately, at the same time, both the position and the momentum of a moving particle. The more precisely we determine one of these properties, the less we know about the other” (Zukav 133).

  5. Epiphany does not confer knowledge in the traditional sense, but in silence rids one of delusion. It is only when the mind becomes quiet that mystical wisdom is received: about this all mystics agree. In his “Cántico espiritual,” San Juan de la Cruz describes the infusion of mystical knowledge directly into the soul, bypassing the normal perceptual faculties. Divine communication takes place “en la noche serena”: “Esta noche es la contemplación en que el alma desea ver estas cosas. Llámala noche, porque la contemplación es oscura, que por eso la llaman, por otro nombre, mística teología, que quiere decir sabiduría de Dios secreta o escondida, en la cual, sin ruido de palabras y sin ayuda de algún sentido corporal ni espiritual, como en silencio y quietud, a oscuras de todo lo sensitivo y natural, enseña Dios ocultísima y secretísimamente al alma sin ella saber cómo; lo cual algunos espirituales llaman entender no entendimiento” (39:12, 960).

  6. Andrew M. Greely writes: “something besides the conscious self-controlling reality principle is operating” (17).

  7. The “nothingness” which is characteristic of Borges' aesthetics is most similar to the concept of shunyata or “emptiness” in Buddhistic thought, a non-conditioned mode of being in which everything is in a state of potentiality or possibility. Shunyata represents something which cannot be named, much less defined. It is the groundless ground of existence in which all things are paradoxically undifferentiated yet exactly what they are (cf. Nishitani and Streng).

Works cited

Alazraki, Jaime. La prosa narrativa de Jorge Luis Borges. Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1974.

Bell-Villada, Gene H. Borges and his Fiction: A Guide to his Mind and Art. Chapel Hill: U of Carolina P, 1981,

Borges, Jorge Luis. “El acercamiento a Almotásim.” Ficciones. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1956.

———. “El aleph.” El aleph. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1957.

———. Borges at Eighty: Conversations. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982.

———. “Borges.” Historia de la noche. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1977.

———. “Del culto de los libros.” Otras inquisiciones. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1960.

———. “La escritura de Dios.” El aleph. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1957.

———. “Los espejos.” El otro, el mismo. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1969.

———. “La forma de la espada.” Ficciones. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1956.

———. “Historia de la eternidad.” Historia de la eternidad. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1953.

———. “El idioma analítico de John Wilkins.” Otras inquisiciones. Buenos Aires. Emecé, 1960.

———. “La luna.” El otro, el mismo. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1969.

———. “La penúltima versión de la realidad.” Discusión. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1957.

———. “La pesadilla.” Siete noches. México, D.F. Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1980.

———. “La poesía.” Siete noches. México, D.F. Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1980.

———. “Soy.” The Gold of the Tigers: Selected Later Poems, A Bilingual Edition. Trans. Alistair Reid. New York: Dutton, 1976.

———. “Sobre el Vathek de William Beckford.” Otras inquisiciones. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1960.

———. “Los teólogos.” El aleph. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1957.

———. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Ficciones. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1956.

———. “Una brújula.” El otro, el mismo. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1969.

———. “Yo.” The Gold of the Tigers: Selected Later Poems, A Bilingual Edition. Trans. Alistair Reid. New York: Dutton, 1976.

The Dhammapada. Trans. Juan Mascaro. New York: Penguin, 1978.

Garayalde, Giovanna de. Jorge Luis Borges: Sources and Illumination. London: Octagon, 1978.

Greely, Andrew M. Ecstasy: A Way of Knowing. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice, 1974.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Mentor, 1958.

Jung, C. G. “The Transcendent Function.” The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. Trans. R.C.F. Hull. Collected Works. 19 vols. Bollingen Series XX. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969.

——— “The Shadow.” Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Trans. R.C.F. Hull. Collected Works. 19 vols. Bollingen Series XX. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975.

Neumann, Erich. “Mystical Man.” The Mystic Vision: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks. Bollingen Series XXX, 6. Princeton UP, 1968.

Nishitani, Keiji. Religion and Nothingness. Trans. Jan van Bragt. Berkeley: U of California P, 1982.

Pérez, Alberto C. Realidad y suprarrealidad en los cuentos fantásticos de Jorge Luis Borges. Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1971.

San Juan de la Cruz. Obras completas. Madrid: Editorial de Espiritualidad, 1957.

Streng, Frederick J. Emptiness: A Depth Study of the Philosopher Naranjuna and his Interpretation of Ultimate Reality. New York: Abingdon, 1967.

Trungpa, Chogyam. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Boston: Shambala, 1973.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Leaves of Grass. Eds. Bradley Scully and Harold W. Blodgett. New York: Norton, 1973.

Wilber, Ken. No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth. Boston: Shambala, 1981.

Zukav, Gary. The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics. New York: Morrow, 1979.

Martin S. Stabb (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6494

SOURCE: “The Making of a Writer,” in Borges Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1991, pp. 1–36.

[In the following excerpt, Stabbs examines Borges's early poetry.]

Borges became famous as a writer through his prose rather than through his poetry. Today he is usually thought of first as the creator of fictional labyrinths, then as the writer of erudite short essays, often on arcane subjects, and only last as a poet. Yet he began as a poet and has worked more or less continuously in this genre. Most important, he reveals more of himself in his verse than in any other kind of writing. The capriciousness and learned frivolity of much of his prose are rarely found in his poetry. By contrast, we see in it the other Borges—the sincere and ardent youth of the twenties or the contemplative and nostalgic writer of the sixties and seventies. For many this is an unknown Borges; perhaps it is the real Borges.

Borges's career as a poet and writer began when he was in his late teens. His travels in Europe and contact with the Spanish avant-garde have already been noted. Like most young literary rebels, the members of the circle with whom he first became associated, the ultraístas, craved innovation and were repelled by the tastes of their fathers. The poetic movement against which they were reacting was modernismo, a rich and complex style of writing that drew heavily on the French fin de sìecle poets: Valéry, Rimbaud, Leconte de Lisle, and others. Led by the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío, and in Argentina by Leopoldo Lugones, modernismo dominated Hispanic letters—in Spain as well as the New World—through the 1890s and well into the twentieth century. It would be impossible to characterize the movement adequately here. It is sufficient to say that on the formal level, the modernistas endeavored to revitalize the poetic lexicon by replacing the tired adjectives of romanticism with new and unusual ones; they experimented with long-forgotten metrical schemes as well as with innovative ones; and perhaps most interestingly, they sought to blend, confuse, and interchange the distinct sensory realms in their poetry. Following the French poets Baudelaire and Rimbaud, they attempted to establish “correspondences” between sound and color. Taking what the Parnassians had done in their poetry as a point of departure, they tried to create verbal statuary in which the precise tactile and visual terms replaced the romantic's overt egocentrism and emotive vocabulary. From Verlaine they acquired the notion that words possess an inherent musical quality which might be the very essence of poetry. The content of modernista poetry, like its form, differed substantially from the literature that preceded it. The newer poets preferred the artificial, whereas the romantics glorified the world of nature. They held to theories of detachment and objectivity, whereas the romantics exalted the ego and cultivated literary confessionalism. The poets of the 1890s shunned overt political or social involvement, whereas many of their predecessors had been activists and reformers. The modernistas, like the romantics, enjoyed decorating their poetry with the trappings of a distant age, but when they sought escape into the past their favorite periods were the Renaissance and the classical age in contrast to the romantic's love of the medieval. Finally, the typical modernista tried hard to avoid the romantic's penchant for the picturesque: hence he did not concern himself with the Indian, the fatherland, or local color. Instead he wrote of the court of Versailles or of the sensuous refinement of ancient Greece. Though the Spanish American modernistas imitated their European mentors to a great extent, their poetry—particularly the best pieces of the leading writers—had much originality.

It would be inaccurate to claim that Borges's poetry, even that of the early ultraísta period, was merely a reaction to modernismo. It is true that he wished to purge his poetry of certain specific modernista techniques and mannerisms, but like all good poets his objective was to affirm his own poetic values rather than to refute those of his predecessors. Borges admits that he never adhered to the position sketched out in his “Ultraist Manifesto” of 1921. The points he emphasized are nonetheless worth enumerating: the reduction of lyricism to metaphor; the combining of several images in one; and the elimination of adornments, sermonizing, and all forms of poetic filler. A corollary to his view that poetry must be purged of unnecessary embellishments was his conviction that rhyme and meter contributed little to the value of a poem.1

Borges was less explicit about the thematic materials that ultraísmo was to employ, but in general he favored contemporary rather than antique poetic furnishings. He even proclaimed that the poets of his generation preferred the beauties of a transatlantic liner or of a modern locomotive to the magnificence of Versailles or the cities of Renaissance Italy. This statement is only half-serious: what he meant was that the here and now—the immediate environment—is the logical point of departure for creating genuine lyricism and that the overuse of highly decorative trappings typical of modernista poetry detracted from true lyrical expression and impeded the poetic process.

At first glance, the forty-five short pieces of free verse in Borges's first collection, Fervor de Buenos Aires (Fervor of Buenos Aires, 1923), seem to be little more than a group of vignettes describing familiar scenes in and around his native city. A few, however, present exotic scenes: “Benarés” describes the Indian city of the same name; “Judería” (“Ghetto”), the Jewish quarter of an unspecified but obviously European city. One poem, “Rosas,” takes as its point of departure the figure of Argentina's tyrannical nineteenth-century dictator. A limited number of poems are purely introspective and as such they do not describe any specific external reality. The poems vary from seven or eight lines to as many as fifty, with fifteen to twenty lines being about the average. In keeping with ultraísta precepts, neither regular meter, rhyme, nor regularized strophes are in evidence. The absence of traditional forms does not mean that these poems have no structure: like other writers of free verse, Borges does incorporate formal devices into his poetry. The effectiveness of these devices will be better appreciated after his poetry is examined in greater detail.

The mood of the Fervor de Buenos Aires is established in the opening lines of the first poem, “Las calles” (“Streets”):

The streets of Buenos Aires
have become the core of my being.
Not the energetic streets
troubled by haste and agitation,
but the gentle neighborhood street
softened by trees and twilight …
Las calles de Buenos Aires
ya son la entraña de mi alma.
No las calles enérgicas
molestadas de prisas y ajetreos,
sino la dulce calle de arrabal
enternecida de árboles y ocaso …

(Obre Poetica, 1923–1962; [herafter referred to asOP 64, 17)2

Despite the word Fervor in the collection's title, the reader soon becomes aware that this is a restrained fervor, a reflective passion directed toward an internalization of all that surrounds the poet. This goal is best achieved by selecting that portion of reality which is most easily assimilated: not the bustling downtown streets, but the passive, tree-shaded streets of the old suburbs. It may be a valid generalization to say that in much of his early poetry Borges sought out the passive and manageable facets of reality in order to facilitate the creation of his own internal world. A random sampling of the modifiers used in the Fervor bears out the point. For instance, he writes of “trees which barely mutter (their) being” (“árboles que balbucean apenas el ser”; OP 64, 23); of the “easy tranquillity of (the) benches” (“el fácil sosiego de los bancos”; OP 64, 26); of the “fragile new moon” (“la frágil luna nueva”; OP 64, 43); of “withered torches” (“macilentos faroles”; OP 64, 47); of “the obscure friendship of a vestibule” (“la amistad oscura de un zaguán”; OP 64, 30); of the ray of light which “subdues senile easy chairs” (“humilla las seniles butacas”; OP 64, 34) in an old parlor; and of “streets which, languidly submissive, accompany my solitude” (“calles que, laciamente sumisas, acompañan mi soledad”; OP 64, 57). Borges's frequent use of the late afternoon as a poetic setting may have a similar function. Aside from the obvious fact that the beauty of sunsets and the coming of night have always appealed to writers, the dulling of reality's edges at this time of day gives the poet a special advantage in his task of shaping the external world.

One cannot help wondering why the young Borges felt a need to infuse reality with these qualities of passivity and submissiveness. Perhaps his innate shyness coupled with the experience of foreign travel and subsequent return to the half-familiar, half-alien scenes of his childhood led him to view the world with trepidation and a sense of insecurity. His vocabulary throughout the Fervor is revealing. It clearly indicates that he is seeking tranquillity, familial solidarity, and a kind of serenity that can only be associated with parental protectiveness. Examples are abundant. In “Las calles” he speaks of the neighborhood streets as providing “a promise of happiness / for under their protection so many lives are joined in brotherly love” (“una promesa de ventura / pues a su amparo hermánanse tantas vidas”; OP 64, 17); in “Cercanías” (“Environs”) he writes of “neighborhoods built of quietness and tranquillity” (“arrabales hechos de acallamiento y sosiego”; OP 64, 62); and in the beautifully understated final verses of “Un patio” he sums up the peace and serenity of the traditional Latin residence by exclaiming “How nice to live in the friendly darkness / of a vestibule, a climbing vine, of a cistern” (“Lindo es vivir en la amistad oscura / de un zaguán, de una parra y de un aljibe”; OP 64, 30).

Closely related to Borges's poetic transmutation of “hard” reality into a pliable, manageable reality is his recourse to a certain philosophical notion that comes to occupy a central position in all his work. In “Caminata” (“Stroll”), one of the less anthologized poems of Fervor he writes: “I am the only viewer of this street, / if I would stop looking at it, it would perish” (“Yo soy el único espectador de esta calle, / si dejara de verla se moriría”; OP 64, 58). In “Benarés,” superficially one of the least typical pieces in the collection, Borges describes in considerable detail a place he has never seen. He admits in the opening lines that the city is “False and dense / like a garden traced on a mirror” (Falsa y tupida / como un jardín calcado en un espejo”; OP 64, 53). Yet at the very end of the poem he seems amazed that the real Benares exists: “And to think / that while I toy with uncertain metaphors, / the city of which I sing persists” (“Y pensar / que mientras juego con inciertas metáforas, / la cuidad que canto persiste”; OP 64, 54). In a better known poem, inspired by the Recoleta cemetery, he observes that when life is extinguished “at the same time, space, time, and death are extinguished” (“juntamente se apagan el espacio, el tiempo, la muerte”; OP 64, 20). What Borges is driving at in these poems is made explicit in another piece, “Amanecer” (“Daybreak”). The poem is set in the dead of night, just before daylight appears: with “the threat of dawn” (“la amenaza del alba”), the poet exclaims,

I sensed the dreadful conjecture
of Schopenhauer and Berkeley
that declares the world
an activity of the mind,
a mere dream of beings,
without basis, purpose or volume.
Resentí la tremenda conjetura
de Schopenhauer y de Berkeley
que declara que el mundo
es una actividad de la mente,
un sueño de las almas,
sin base ni propósito ni volumen.

(OP 64, 47)

In the rest of the poem, Borges follows out the logic of Berkeleyan idealism. There is a brief moment, he writes, when “only a few nightowls maintain / and only in an ashen, sketched-out form / the vision of the streets / which later they will, with others, define” (“sólo algunos trasnochadores conservan / cenicienta y apenas bosquejada / la visión de las calles / que definirán después con los otros”; OP 64, 48). In this moment in which few or no mortals are maintaining the universe, “it would be easy for God / to destroy completely his works” (“le sería fácil a Dios / matar del todo su obra!”; OP, 48). Berkeley, as a corollary to his idealism, posited God as the maintainer of the universe—if and when there were no human beings available to perceive and hence to guarantee its existence. But Borges injects another thought into the poem, and one that is alien to Berkeleyan philosophy. He suggests that there is some danger that God might choose to take advantage of this brief period when the universe hangs by a thread. The implication here is that a capricious, vindictive, or negligent God may actually wish to destroy the world. Rather than in Berkeley, the source for this notion is to be found in Gnosticism, a philosophical current that has shaped much of Borges's thought. “Amanecer,” at any rate, ends on an optimistic note: dawn comes, people awake, God has not chosen to destroy the world, and “annulled night / has remained only in the eyes of the blind” (“la noche abolida / se ha quedado en los ojos de los ciegos”; OP 64, 49).

Two of Borges's best-known essays, written years after the poetry of the Fervor, are intriguingly titled “Historía de la eternidad” (A history of eternity, 1936) and “Nueva refutación del tiempo” (A new refutation of time, 1947). In both these pieces, as well as in many other essays, stories, and poems, Borges's preoccupation with time is most apparent. This very human desire to halt the flow of time persisted through the last years of Borges's career, as we shall note when the poetry of the seventies and eighties is examined. Certain words and phrases that crop up in Fervor illustrate this intense desire. The verb remansar (to dam up, to create a backwater or eddy) and its related adjective remansado are not particularly common terms in the Spanish poetic lexicon though they appear several times in the Fervor and occasionally in later collections. Borges writes of an “afternoon which had been damned up into a plaza” (“la tarde toda se había remansado en la plaza”; OP 64, 25); of a dark, old-fashioned bedroom where a mirror is “like a backwater in the shadows” (“como un remanso en la sombra”; OP 64, 62); of doomlike solitude “dammed-up around the town” (“La soledad … se ha remansado alrededor del pueblo”; OP 64, 67). The significance is obvious: if time is a river, then the poet is seeking the quiet backwaters where time's flow is halted. Though Borges's fascination with time has often been interpreted as an example of a purely intellectual exercise, the very personal sources of this interest should not be overlooked. The traumatic return to Buenos Aires as well as the essential inwardness of his personality clearly help account for the emphasis on this theme in his early work.

In addition to the remanso motif, the Fervor contains other fine examples of Borges's reaction to the rush of time. He begins the poem “Vanilocuencia” (“Empty talk”) by stating “the city is inside me like a poem / which I have not succeeded in stopping with words.” (“La ciudad está en mí como un poema / que no he logrado detener en palabras” OP 64, 32). Although words, especially in the form of poetry, seemingly “freeze” or “pin down” the flow of time, Borges is aware of the crushing fact that the objects of the world are “disdainful of verbal symbols” (“desdeñosas de símbolos verbales”; OP 64, 32) and that despite his poetry every morning he will awake to see a new and changed world. The futility of trying to check the flow of time by literary creations, by recalling the past, or by surrounding oneself with old things appears clearly in the Fervor and subsequently became a dominant theme in all of Borges's writing. His attitude is ambivalent and leads to a poetic tension for he knows that time—in the brutally real, everyday sense—flows on, that the world will change, that he will grow old, and that the past is forever gone. Yet he is reluctant to give in without a struggle, though he knows his efforts are futile. And so the rich and plastic descriptions of antique furniture, of old photographs, and of timeless streets are usually undermined by a word or phrase suggesting that their solidity and apparent timelessness are merely illusory. For example, the old daguerreotypes in “Sala vacía” (“Empty Drawing Room”) are deceiving by “their false nearness” (“su falsa cercanía”), for under close examination they “slip away / like useless dates / of blurred anniversaries” (“se escurren / como fechas inútiles / de aniversarios borrosos”; OP 64, 33). Another possible way of deceiving oneself about time, of “refuting” time, as Borges would later say, is found in the realm of ritualistic activity. The point is well exemplified in “El truco” (“The trick”), a poem whose thematic material is a card game, but whose message is that in playing games—essentially participating in a ritual—“normal” time is displaced. He writes, “At the edges of the card table / ordinary life is halted” (“En los lindes de la mesa / el vivir común se detiene”; OP 64, 27). Within the confines of the table—a magical zone—an ancient, timeless struggle is again waged, and the “players in their present ardor / copy the tricks of a remote age” (“los jugadores en fervor presente / copian remotas bazas”; OP 64, 28). Borges concludes the poem with the thought that this kind of activity “just barely” immortalizes the dead comrades whose struggles are relived. For a brief moment in the heat of the game, past and present are fused. The mythical kings, queens, and princes whose faces decorate the “cardboard amulets” become comrades-in-arms of the twentieth-century Argentine country folk seated about the table.

Borges's poetry, if examined with an objective eye, reveals surprisingly sentimental, affectionate qualities. There are, for example, some touching love poems in Fervor: among these “Ausencia” (“Absence”), “Sábados” (“Saturdays”), and “Trofeo” (“Trophy”) are especially noteworthy. And when Borges writes of his favorite streets, of patios and suburban gardens, he adopts a tone of filial devotion that suggests the warmest of personal relationships. He displays a mood of frankness and sincerity which those who know his work only superficially do not usually associate with him. Indeed, some of the material in the first edition (omitted in later editions) is almost confessional in tone.3 It seems as if the Borges of 1923 were at a crossroads. Had he been a man of different temperament, it is quite possible that he would have yielded to the temptation of creating a literature of unrestrained personal catharsis. Instead, he chose to deny the emotive side of life in his art. At least he promised that he would do this in his poetry. As he writes in one of the last poems of the Fervor: “I must enclose my twilight tears / within the hard diamond of a poem. / It matters not that one's soul may wander naked like the wind and alone …” (“He de encerrar el llanto de las tardes / en el duro diamante del poema. / Nada importa que el alma / ande sola y desnuda como el viento …”; OP 64, 64).

But Borges was not yet ready to sacrifice life and passion to art. Thus he states in the prologue to his second collection, Luna de enfrente (Moon across the way, 1925), that “Our daily existence is a dialogue of death and life. … There is a great deal of nonlife in us, and chess, meetings, lectures, daily tasks are often mere representations of life, ways of being dead.”4 He states that he wishes to avoid these “mere representations” of life in his poetry, that he prefers to write of things that affect him emotionally, of “heavenly blue neighborhood garden walls,” for example. It is understandable, then, that among the twenty-eight compositions of Luna de enfrente, poems of deep personal involvement should predominate over pieces of a more detached and formalistic nature. A feeling of intimacy pervades the Luna: a third of the poems are in the second-person familiar form and the bulk of the remainder are in the first person. By contrast, the earlier Fervor contains only a few pieces directed to the familiar “you” (), while the majority are in the relatively impersonal third person. A further indication of the greater degree of intimacy of Luna de enfrente is seen in Borges's tendency to personify such inanimate things as the pampa, city streets, and the city itself. Finally, a substantial number of the compositions in the 1925 collection are love poems, among which are such memorable pieces as the “Antelación de amor” (“Anticipation of Love”) and the “Dualidá en una despedida” (“Duality on Saying Farewell”).

Several typically Borgesian themes that appeared in Fervor are again seen in Luna de enfrente. The same tendency to soften or undermine exterior reality is evident in Borges's frequent use of the hazy light of twilight or dawn. This technique is well illustrated in such pieces as “Calle con almacén rosado” (“Street with a pink store”), “Dualidá en una despedida,” “Montevideo,” and “Ultimo sol en Villa Ortúzar” (“Sunset Over Villa Ortuzar”). Of even greater interest in the Luna is the poet's preoccupation with time. In this collection Borges's emphasis is on the relationship between time and memory rather than on the simple desire to halt time's flow. More precisely, memory becomes the remanso, the quiet backwater in which time's onward rush is checked. This relationship is very clear in “Montevideo,” a poem in which Borges states that the more old-fashioned, less bustling Montevideo helps recreate the Buenos Aires of his early memories. Of the Uruguayan city he writes: “Like the memory of a frank friendship you are a clear and calm millpond in the twilight” (“Eres remansada y clara en la tarde como el recuerdo de una lisa amistad”).5 A somewhat similar verse appears in the magnificent “Anticipation of Love,” when the poet describes his beloved asleep as “calm and resplendent like a bit of happiness in memory's selection” (“quieta y resplandeciente como una dicha en la selección del recuerdo”; OP 64, 77). In these and other poems memory performs the important function of preserving past experience against the onslaught of time. But, Borges implies, memory is also a storehouse, a kind of infinite filing cabinet, the contents of which we cannot always control. We may indeed remember too much. In “Los llanos” (“The plains”) he writes, “It is sad that memory includes everything / and especially if memories are unpleasant” (“Es triste que el recuerdo incluya todo / y más aún si es bochornoso el recuerdo”; OP 64, 76). Perhaps these lines prefigure Borges's bizarre account—to be written some twenty years later—of “Funes el memorioso,” the man who remembered everything.

Some two years before Borges published Luna de enfrente he was asked to answer a series of questions for a magazine survey of young writers. In answer to a question about his age, he wrote “I have already wearied twenty-two years.”6 The choice of words here is significant, for there is the curious tone of the world-weary old man even in his work of the mid-1920s. This tone, contrasting markedly with the passionate lyricism of several pieces in the Luna de enfrente, takes the form of the poet's proclaiming that he has already lived a good deal of his life and that he will do nothing new in the future. The theme is very clear in “Mi vida entera” (“My Whole Life”):

I have crossed the sea.
I have lived in many lands; I have seen one woman and two or three men
… I have savored many words.
I profoundly believe that this is all and that I will neither see nor
do any new things.
He atravesado el mar.
He practicado muchas tierras; he visto una mujer y dos otros hombres.
… He paladeado numerosas palabras.
Creo profundamente que eso es todo y que ni veré ni ejecutaré
cosas nuevas.

(OP 64, 98).

A somewhat similar tone is present in some of the poems describing the pampas: in “Los llanos,” for example, Borges tries to infuse the plains with a feeling of tiredness and resignation suggestive of his own mood. It is difficult to determine what lies behind this pose of bored world-weariness. Is Borges retreating from life or is he simply stating what has become a cornerstone of his esthetic edifice: that there is nothing new under the sun; that changes, progress, novelty, and history are simply a reshuffling of a limited number of preexisting elements? Perhaps this is the philosophy he intends to set forth in the cryptic line that ends his poem “Manuscrito hallado en un libro de Joseph Conrad” (“Manuscript Found in a Book of Joseph Conrad”): “River, the first river. Man, the first man” (“El río, el primer río. El hombre, el primer hombre”; OP 64, 88).

Although history may be nothing more than the recurrence or the reshuffling of what has always been, Borges is nonetheless fascinated by historical events and personalities. Several of the pieces in the Luna show this interest. The dramatic death of the nineteenth-century gaucho leader Quiroga is very effectively commemorated in “El General Quiroga va en coche al muere” (“General Quiroga Rides to His Death in a Carriage”); the death of his own ancestor, Colonel Francisco Borges, provides the subject matter of another piece; and “Dulcia linquimus arva” evokes the early days of settlement on the pampas. Of the three, the poem to Quiroga is the most interesting for several reasons. First, the night scene of Quiroga's coach rocking across the moonlit pampa has a dramatic, almost romantic, feeling of movement uncommon in much of Borges's poetry. Second, though he is here still more or less faithful to the free verse tenets of his youth, Borges sees fit to place the poem within a fairly regular structure—rhythmic lines of about fourteen syllables arranged in quatrains having considerable assonance. The effect of this form is striking; it suggests the beat of the horses' hooves and the rocking of the coach racing on toward its encounter with destiny:

The coach swayed back and forth rumbling the hills:
An emphatic, enormous funeral galley.
Four death-black horses in the darkness
Pulled six fearful and one watchful brave man
That sly, trouble-making Córdoba rabble
(thought Quiroga), what power have they over me?
Here am I firm in the stirrup of life
Like a stake driven deep in the heart of the pampa. …
(El coche se hamacaba rezongando la altura:
un galerón enfático, enorme, funerario.
Cuatro tapaos con pinta de muerte en la negrura
tironeaban seis miedos y un valor desvelado.
Esa cordobesada bochinchera y ladina
[meditaba Quiroga] ¿qué ha de poder con mi alma?
Aquí estoy afianzado y metido en la vida
como la estaca pampa bien metida en la pampa;

(OP 64, 80)

It is to Borges's credit as a poet that despite his mild adherence to the restrictive poetic tenets of ultráismo he sensed the rightness of a more traditional form for this particular poem.

In “El General Quiroga va en coche al muere” Borges provides an insight into the kind of historical characters and events that were to dominate much of his later work, especially his prose. What fascinates him are those moments in which an individual—soldier, bandit, or similar man of action—reaches a crucial point in his life, a dramatic juncture where a turn of fate, a sudden decision, or a dazzling revelation cause a man to follow one path rather than another. Such events are delicate points of balance that determine whether a man shall become a hero or traitor, a martyr or coward. Borges was especially intrigued by them since they often provided a glimpse of an alternative track for history. What would have been the course of Argentine history if Rosas had not killed Facundo or if (as in one of his later poems) King Charles of England had not been beheaded? “General Quiroga Rides to His Death in a Carriage” is also significant in that it reveals another important side of Borges's interests. Though he may have been a shy and retiring bibliophile, he did have an undeniable affection for men of action. Gunmen, pirates, compadres (a kind of Buenos Aires neighborhood tough), ancient warriors, and modern spies fill the pages of his poetry, essays, and fiction.

The last group of early poems Borges chose to publish as a collection, Cuaderno San Martín (San Martin Notebook, 1929), contains only twelve pieces, one of which, “Arrabal en que pesa el campo” (“Suburb in which the country lies heavily”), has been omitted from more recent editions. Two themes dominate these poems: nostalgia for the past, and death. Often the two blend in a mood of elegiac evocation. Thus in the most memorable poems of the book Borges writes of the “mythical” founding of Buenos Aires; of his beloved Palermo district as it was at the close of the nineteenth century; of his grandfather Isidoro Acevedo; of the final resting place of his ancestors, the Recoleta cemetary; and of the suicide of his friend and fellow poet Francisco López Merino.

What the poet preserves in his memory in a sense lives; only what is gone and forgotten is really dead. In “Elegía de los portones” (“Elegy to gates”), for example, Borges describes the act of forgetting as “a minuscule death” (“una muerte chica”; OP 64, 107). Yet he is perfectly aware that death—real death—is undeniable: he knows that his attempts to negate its reality through memory and through poetry will be frustrated. He is haunted by the song of the wandering slum-minstrel in the poem to the Chacarita cemetery: “Death is life already lived. / Life is approaching death.” (“La muerte es vida vivida, / la vida es muerte que viene”). It even haunts him when he writes, in the same piece, that he doesn’t believe in the cemetery's decrepitude and that “the fullness of only one rose is greater than all your tombstones” (“la plenitud de una sola rosa es más que tus mármoles”; OP 64, 122).

One of the most interesting pieces in the collection is on the death of Borges's ancestor, Isidoro Acevedo. Aside from its intrinsic value, this poem is noteworthy because in it Borges gives a clear hint of the kind of literature he would produce in the decade to follow. This “prefiguring”—to use one of his own favorite terms—of his future prose occurs in the description of Acevedo's last day. The old man lying on his deathbed in a state of feverish delirium plans a complete military compaign in his mind. Though Acevedo only mutters a few fragmentary phrases, Borges uses these as a point of departure to recreate the very concrete fantasy he assumes his moribund grandfather was in effect experiencing:

He dreamt of two armies
that were going into the shadows of battle;
he enumerated each commanding officer, the banners, each unit
He surveyed the pampa
noted the rough country that the infantry might seize
and the smooth plain in which a cavalry strike would be invincible.
He made a final survey,
he gathered together the thousands of faces that man unknowingly
knows after
                    many years:
bearded faces that are probably fading away in daguerreotypes,
faces that lived near his own in Puente Alsina and Cepeda.
He gathered an army of Buenos Aires' ghosts
He died in the military service of his faith in the patria.
Soñó con dos ejércitos
que entraban en la sombra de una batalla;
enumeró los comandos, las banderas, las unidades.
Hizo leva de pampa:
vió terreno quebrado para que pudiera aferrarse la infantería
y llanura resuelta para que el tirón de la caballería
fuera invencible.
Hizo una leva última,
congregó los miles de rostros que el hombre sabe sin saber después
de los años:
caras de barba que se estarán desvaneciendo en daguerrotipos,
caras que vivieron junto a la suya en el Puente Alsina y Cepeda.
juntó un ejército de sombras porteñas
murió en milicia de su convicción por la patria.

(OP 64, 113–14)

Those who are familiar with Borges's fiction may appreciate the similarity of this poem to such short stories as the “Ruinas circulares” (“The Circular Ruins”). There are only a few steps between describing the disturbing concreteness of dreams and suggesting that what we call the real world may actually be the product of some unknown being's dream.

Borges continued to write poetry after 1929, though his output of verse, particularly during the thirties and forties, was not very great. There may be some significance to the fact that between the summer of 1929 and the spring of 1931 he published nothing. This hiatus may have been due to the extremely unsettled political and economic conditions of the period: a similar pattern can be observed in the literary activity of other Argentine writers during the same two years. When Borges resumed publishing, he devoted himself chiefly to essays and literary criticism, genres in which he had been working steadily throughout the twenties. It was not until 1934 that he again began writing poetry. Oddly enough, he broke his poetic silence with two pieces composed in English. These were followed by “Insomnio” (“Insomnia,” 1936), “La noche cíclica” (“The Cyclical Night,” 1940), “Del infierno y del cielo” (“Of heaven and hell,” 1942), “Poema conjectural” (“Conjectural poem,” 1943), and “Poema del cuarto elemento” (“Poem of the fourth element,” 1944). Between March 1944 and April 1953 Borges wrote no poetry; at least he published none. Yet it was during this period that he produced his most celebrated stories and a number of important essays. The seven poems that Borges published between 1934 and 1944 are, at first glance, quite dissimilar in both form and content. The “Two English Poems,” for example, are amorous in theme and are cast in extremely free verse, so much so that they could be regarded as poetic prose:

I offer you my ancestors, my dead men; the ghosts
that living men have honoured in marble:
my father's father killed in the frontier of
Buenos Aires, two bullets through his lungs,
bearded and dead, wrapped by his soldiers in
the hide of a cow; my mother's grandfather
—just twenty-four—heading a charge of
three hundred men in Peru, now ghosts on vanished horses.”

(OP 64, 142)

“Insomnio” is also written in free verse, but unlike the “Two English Poems” its lines are generally shorter and its appearance on the printed page is more traditional. “La noche cíclica,” in sharp contrast to most of the poetry Borges had published previously, is written in neat quatrains rhymed in the cuarteto pattern (abba). In the next two poems of this group, “Del infierno y del cielo” and “Conjectural Poem,” Borges reverted to a rather free unrhymed form, only to use the cuarteto again in 1944 in his “Poema del cuarto elemento.” The significance of these formal shifts should not be overestimated: they only indicate that Borges would from this point on be bound neither by the orthodoxy of his free-verse ultraísta years nor by the orthodoxy of traditional forms.

Why Borges chose to write the “Two English Poems” in the language of his paternal grandmother is a matter neither he nor his commentators have discussed. Perhaps these compositions are merely a tour de force or perhaps they indicate a feeling of alienation from the not too pleasant surroundings of Buenos Aires in the early thirties. Certain details in the poems suggest the latter possibility. Borges reveals an ennui and desperation in these pieces that are clearly lacking in the earlier poetry. The opening lines of the first poem are indicative of this mood: “The useless dawn finds me in a deserted street corner.” A bit later he speaks of the night as having left him “some hated friends to chat / with, music for dreams, and the smoking of / bitter ashes. The things that my hungry heart / has no use for.” The piece ends on a note of great intensity summed up in some of Borges's finest lines. At daybreak, the poet says, “The shattering dawn finds me in a deserted street of my city.” The “lazily and incessantly beautiful” woman to whom the poem is addressed is gone. The poet is left with only memories of the encounter and with a desperate longing: “I must get at you, somehow: I put away those / illustrious toys you have left me, I want your hidden look, your real smile—that lonely, / mocking smile your cool mirror knows” (OP 64, 140–41). The same tone of desperation pervades the second English poem when the poet asks his beloved:

What can I hold you with?
I offer you lean streets, desperate sunsets, the
moon of jagged suburbs.
I offer you the bitterness of a man who has looked
long and long at the lonely moon.

Throughout the remainder of the piece—as quotable as any Borges has written—he continues to enumerate what he can “offer.” The last lines reinforce and climax the entire poem: “I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the / hunger of my heart; I am trying to bribe you / with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat” (OP 64, 142–43). The details of these give a picture of almost surrealistic disintegration: lean streets, shattering dawn, jagged suburbs. These are not typically Borgesian adjectives. And in “Insomnio,” a poem whose intent is admittedly quite different from that of the English pieces, the poet's restlessness is aggravated by visions of “shattered tenements” (“despedazado arrabal”), “leagues of obscene garbagestrewn pampa” (“leguas de pampa basurera y obscena”, and similar scenes (OP 64, 138).

The references to insomnia, to loneliness, to bitterness, and the use of adjectives suggestive of disintegration have little in common with the often ardent, though seldom desperate, poems of the earlier collections. The unusual character of his verse of the thirties points to the fact that he was undergoing a period of transition in his literary career. Borges seems, moreover, to have suffered some kind of personal crisis, aggravated, perhaps, by a political and economic environment distasteful to him. An examination of his prose of the mid-1930s supports this view. It is especially significant that the genesis of his distinctive fiction—a literature of evasion, his critics might say—comes precisely at this time.


  1. Borges, “Ultraísmo,” 466–71.

  2. This poem does not appear in later editions of the Obra poética.

  3. An interesting example of the poetry suppressed in later editions is “Llamarada.” The piece is actually a prose poem, quite confessional, and even a bit erotic. Note the line, “deseando … perdernos en las culminaciones carnales.”

  4. Jorge Luis Borges, Luna de enfrente (Buenos Aires: Proa, 1925), 7.

  5. Jorge Luis Borges, Poemas: 1923–1958 (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1958), 82. Although it appears in the original and in this 1958 collection, “Monterideo” is omitted from later editions of the Obra poética.

  6. Jorge Luis Borges, “Contestación a la encuesta sobre la nueva generación literaria,” Nosotros 168 (May 1923): 16–17.

Martin S. Stabb (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5420

SOURCE: “A Late Harvest,” in Borges Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1991, pp. 69–100.

[In the following excerpt, Stabb offers a brief survey of Borges's later poetry.]


In 1964, Borges's publishers, the Buenos Aires firm of Emecé Editores, brought out a single volume Obra poética (Poetic works) that included, with some modifications, his three early collections and a group of mostly newer compositions under the subheading “El otro, el mismo” (“The other, himself”).1 This section of the volume also includes the poems of Dreamtigers, though they are not identified as such. In addition, the collection retrieves a few poems from the forties and early fifties that had not appeared in earlier poetic collections. The 1979 Obra poética uses the same subtitle, “El otro, el mismo,” for a section of the volume but adds a new prologue and a number of poems written in the late 1960s while it excludes the material from Dreamtigers. The same volume also includes a short collection of folkloric poetry, Para las seis cuerdas (For the six strings, 1965), In Praise of Darkness (1969), the poetry from The Gold of the Tigers (1972), La rosa profunda (The profound rose, 1976), and La moneda de hierro (The iron coin, 1976). The Historia de la noche (History of the night) appeared late in 1977 and is not included in the 1979 Obra poética. Borges's last two collections of poetry, La cifra (The cipher) and Los conjurados (The plotters), were published in 1981 and 1985 respectively.

It was seen earlier that after the mid-1930s, following a decade of prolific work in the genre, Borges's poetic activity was apparently declining. Yet a few poems of these years must be briefly noted: “La noche cíclica” (“The Cyclical Night”), a philosophical piece on the idea of cyclical history; “Del infierno y del cielo” (“Of heaven and hell”), a poem that signals Borges's growing fascination with otredad, a theme that came into full flower in Dreamtigers; and the dramatic “Poema conjectural” (“Conjectural Poem”), one of Borges's personal favorites. “Mateo XXV, 30” (“Matthew XXV:30”) is another piece that serves to introduce the later poetry and also to underscore the importance of poetry in Borges's life. In it he likens himself to the foolish virgins in the parable of the ten talents. Though he has been given everything, all the raw material a poet might desire, “Stars, bread, libraries of East and West / … a human body to walk with on the earth / … algebra and fire” (“Estrellas, pan, bibliotecas orientales y occidentales / … un cuerpo humano para andar por la tierra / … algebra y fuego”), a voice tells him “You have used up the years and they have used up you, / and still, you have not written the poem” (“Has gastado los años y te han gastado, / Y todavía no has escrito el poema”).2

By the mid-1960s Borges seems to have regained considerable momentum as a poet. Both thematically and technically his work displays a richness not seen since the 1920s. Although he appears to have acquired new interests, such as ancient Norse and Anglo-Saxon culture, older preoccupations persist, such as his unceasing infatuation with his native city and the history of his family. Certainly history, viewed at times in the microcosm of a small but crucial event, and at other times in broad sweep, remained a central concern. Closely related to his interest in the specifics of history is his constant fascination with time. And perhaps at the very root of all these concerns is a notion that recurs almost obsessively in his poetry as well as in his prose: the idea of the world as a complex enigma, expressed at times in the form of a labyrinth, or as the dream-made-real of a capricious creator.

On the technical side, a few generalizations can be made regarding the poetry of this later period. One of these is that while Borges never abandoned free verse and experimental forms, he shows an increasing tendency to use traditional metric patterns, notably the sonnet (in both its English and Italianate forms) and the hendecasyllable, especially as used in rhymed cuartetos (quatrains). Borges frequently stated that his fondness for more structured verse stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that it was easier for a nearly blind person to write poetry in these forms because it required less dependence on a visual text.

The first separately published poetry collection of the sixties is, in a sense, an anomaly. Para las seis cuerdas consists of only eleven compositions, all cast as lyrics of milongas, an Argentine musical form of the recent past. These pieces are written in strongly accented octosyllabic verse, hardly Borges's favorite metrical vehicle. Yet their spirit and content could not be more Borgesian: they reflect, albeit in a ritualistic, stylized manner, the world of passion and violence that pervaded the Buenos Aires lower-class outer suburbs of a century ago. This is the same world that fascinated Borges in his earliest narratives such as “Streetcorner Man,” and that would continue to haunt him in his prose of the seventies: a vanished no-man's-land where the pampa impinges on the city; where weapons appear to have a life of their own; and where neighborhood compadritos settle old scores in almost balletic knife fights. Note, for example a fragment from the “Milonga de Calandria” (“Milonga about Calandria”): “He wasn’t one of those technicians / Who’d use a trigger to bet his life / The game that he enjoyed / Was the dance that’s done with a knife.” (“No era un científico de esos / Que usan arma de gatillo; / Era su gusto jugarse / En el baile del cuchillo”; Obre poética, 1923–1976; [hereafter referred to as OP, 310). Although they can hardly be considered examples of Borges's most important poetry, the milongas of this collection provide an impressive example of how a sophisticated poet can take full advantage of a rich folkloric tradition. Moreover, those who are fond of ancient ballads or who enjoy Argentina's gauchesque poetry will find Para las seis cuerdas especially satisfying.

It is more difficult to generalize about the other poetry of the decade. Leaving aside the milongas, the sixty-odd poems of the period constitute an album of Borges's wanderings both spiritual and real. Prominent among his concerns are such things as the world of ancient Norsemen and Britons, comments on his favorite authors, his characteristic fascination with historical turning points, and the ever present evocation of old Buenos Aires. Many of these apparently disparate themes are, however, quite similar in underlying motif. For example, his near obsession with weapons, especially swords and daggers that seem to have a mystical autonomy, is glimpsed in the sonnet “A una espada en York” (“To a sword in York”) as well as in the prose poem “El puñal” (“The dagger”). In one case the setting is ancient Britain, in the other it is the Hispanic world of Spain and Argentina, yet in both pieces the weapons are underscored as “symbols and names” of heroic destinies. In “El puñal,” especially, the idea of the weapon as an independent living thing is clear:

It is more than a metallic artifact …
it is in a sense eternal, this dagger
that killed a man in Tacuarembó
and the daggers that killed Caesar.
It desires to kill, it wants to shed fresh blood.
Es más que una estructura de metales …
es de algún modo eterno, el puñal
que anoche mató a un hombre en Tacuarembó
y los puñales que mataron a César.
Qiuere matar, quiere derramar brusca sangre.

(OP, 281)

The same motif dominates the free-verse “Fragmento” (“Fragment”) in which Borges evokes the sword of Beowulf, “una espada que será leal / Hasta una hora que ya sabe el Destino” (“a sword that will be loyal / Until that hour already known by Destiny”; OP, 228). The theme is further evidenced in several pieces dealing with heroic deaths: the fine sonnet to the medieval Icelandic leader Snorri Sturluson and the poem to a nameless casualty of the American Civil War, “Un soldado de Lee” (“A Soldier under Lee”).

But not all the poetry of this period is centered on death or bloody weapons. A number of finely wrought sonnets present vignettes of favorite personages such as Emerson, Poe, Whitman, Cansinos-Assens, Heine, Swedenborg, Spinoza, and Jonathan Edwards. Finally, several poems may be described as purely lyrical in nature. Of these, two sonnets, one titled in English, “Everness,” and the other in German, “Ewigkeit,” are particularly striking. Both are structured around one of Borges's perennial concerns—the timeless realm of memory. The first piece begins with the affirmation “Sólo una cosa no hay. Es el olvido” (“Only one thing does not exist. It is forgetting”); almost the same verse appears in the first tercet of “Ewigkeit”: “I know that one thing does not exist. It is forgetting” (“Sé que una cosa no hay. Es el olvido”; OP, 258–59). “Everness” is perhaps the more personal of these companion pieces, as it hints at a long-remembered love. The poet recalls a face “left” in the reflection of mirrors at twilight and then concludes in a lovely pair of tercets:

And everything is part of that diverse
Glass of memory, the universe;
Whose arduous corridors are endless
And whose doors close as you walk by
Only on the other side of twilight
Will you see Archetypes and Splendors.
Y todo es una parte del diverso
Cristal de esa memoria, el universo;
no tiene fin sus arduos corredores
Y las puertas se cierran a tu paso;
Solo del otro lado del ocaso
Verás los Arquetipos y Esplendores.

(OP, 258)

Borges referred to his collection of 1969, In Praise of Darkness, as his “fifth book of verse” and he notes in his prologue that while some prose “co-existed” with the poetry, he would prefer that the volume be read as a book of verse. The fact that half a dozen very short prose pieces are included leads Borges to make some interesting observations regarding the fine line that divides prose from poetry: “It is often said that free verse is no more than a typographical sham; I feel an error lurks in this assertion. Beyond its rhythm, the typographical appearance of free verse informs the reader that what lies in store for him is not information or reasoning but emotion.”3

And indeed it is poetic emotion that awaits us in this collection. For example, the title piece, though placed at the end of the volume, represents one of Borges's most lyrical moments. Musing on his age and blindness, he observes:

My friends are faceless
women are as they were years back.
one street corner is taken for another,
on the pages of books there are no letters.
All this should make me uneasy,
but there’s a restfulness about, a going back.
Mis amigos no tienen cara,
las mujeres son lo que fueron hace ya tantos años,
las esquinas pueden ser otras,
no hay letras en las páginas de los libros.
Todo esto debería atemorizarme,
pero es una dulzura, un regreso.

(PD, 125)

Then, after recalling the multitude of his life's memories, he concludes: “Now I can forget them. I reach my center, / my algebra and my key, / my mirror. / Soon I shall know who I am” (“Ahora puedo olvidarlas. Llego a mi centro, / a mi álgebra y mí clave, / a mi espejo. / Pronto sabré quien soy”; PD, 127). A number of other poems in this collection reveal similar lyrical richness coupled with strong personal references. “Junio, 1968” (“June, 1968”), for example, is another lovely free-verse piece in which the poet uses a third-person viewpoint to describe himself at the task of arranging books in his library. The scene is set in a “golden afternoon,” and the subject, while lovingly handling each volume muses:

… Alfonso Reyes surely will be pleased
to share space close to Virgil
[to arrange a library is to practice,
in a quiet and modest way,
the art of criticism.]
… a Reyes no le desagradará ciertamente
la cercanía de Virgilio,
(ordenar bibliotecas es ejercer,
de un modo silencioso y modesto,
el arte de la crítica.”

(PD, 71)

The poem ends on a touching personal note with Borges again recognizing his blindness, the fact that he can no longer fully appreciate the books he is handling, and, most important, that he will never produce the book, “the book which … might justify him” (“el libro que lo justificará”; PD, 71).

During the last decades of his life Borges did a considerable amount of traveling, and his poetry testifies to his odyssey. Not surprisingly, whether he writes of Cambridge, Israel, or Iowa, his reaction to these places is essentially internal rather than external. Yet the fact that he vaguely senses the reality of unfamiliar locales seems to activate his muse, producing some fine lyrical moments, filtered through a rich matrix of literary and personal recollection. Thus in the sonnet “New England, 1967” he writes:

Any day now [we are told] snow will come
and out on every street America
awaits me, but as evening falls I feel
the slowness of today and the brevity of yesterday.
Buenos Aires, yours are the streets that I
go on walking without a why or when.
Pronto (nos dicen) llegará la nieve
y América me espera en cada esquina,
pero siento en la tarde que declina
el hoy tan lento y el ayer tan breve.
Buenos Aires, yo sigo caminando
por tus esquinas, sin por qué ni cuándo.

(PD, 27)

The opposite perspective is seen in “Acevedo,” a sonnet in which Borges celebrates a visit to his grandparents' property on the pampa and which brings to mind other similar regions he has known: “Plains are everywhere the same. I have seen / such land in Iowa, in our own south, in the Holy Land. … / That land is not lost. It is mine. I own / it in wistfulness, in oblivion” (“La llanura es ubicua. Los he visto / en Iowa, en el Sur, en tierra hebrea. … / No los perdí. Son míos. Los poseo / En el olvido, en un casual deseo”; PD, 81).

With regard to meter, throughout the collection the sonnet vies with free verse, with the former often used for pieces stressing external description and the latter for more intimate, confessional lyrics. Although this is far from an invariable relationship, it does account for a goodly number of the collection's poems. Some support for this notion may be seen in the unusual coupled pieces on the famous Dürer engraving, “Dos versiones de ‘Ritter, Tod und Teufel’” (“Two Versions of ‘Ritter, Tod und Teufel’”). In the first version, a sonnet, the graphic work is described in firmly drawn “objective” terms; in the second, consisting of twenty-two unrhymed hendecasyllables, Borges writes of “the other path” suggested by the knight's journey, that is, his own path, his own mortality.

The many canonical themes that run through In Praise of Darkness and the familiar ghosts that haunt its pages cannot be adequately treated in this brief discussion. In addition to the motifs noted here, the rich sampling of Borgesian preoccupations found in the volume would include the metaphor of the labyrinth, Heraclitus's river of time, the Rubaiyat, and of course Buenos Aires with its compadritos, knife fights, and passions.

In his 1972 prologue to The Gold of the Tigers Borges wrote that “for anyone who has lived out seventy years … there is little to hope for except to go on plying familiar skills, with an occasional mild variation and with tedious repetitious.”4 This very modest assessment of the collection may be, to a degree, accurate, yet Borges certainly made a fine art of variation on familiar themes—itself the very essence of great literature, as he so often suggested. A good example is seen in the rich hendecasyllables of “Cosas” (“Things”), a rather long enumerative poem in which Borges lists, with much fondness, those things that have been forgotten, that become invisible under certain conditions, that exist unperceived, or that have only the most ephemeral life:

The mirror which shows nobody's reflection
after the house has long been left alone.
The momentary but symmetric rose
which once, by chance, took substance in the shrouded
mirrors of a boy's kaleidoscope
The colors of a Turner when the lights
are turned out in the narrow gallery
The echo of the hoofbeats at the charge
of Junín, which in some enduring mode
never has ceased, is part of the webbed scheme.
El espejo que que no repite a nadie
Cuando la casa se ha quedado sola
La simétrica rosa momentánea
Que el azar dio una vez a los ocultos
Cristales del pueríl calidoscopio.
Los colores de Turner cuando apagan
Las luces de la recta galería
El eco de los cascos de la carga
De Junín, que de algún eterno modo
No ha cesado y es parte de la trama.

(GT, 19–21)

The piece ends with a reference familiar to readers of Borges: “El otro lado del tapiz. Las cosas / Que nadie mira salvo el Dios de Berkeley” (“The other side of the tapestry. The things / which no one sees, except for Berkeley's God”). The appeal to Berkeleyan idealism no longer seems to be a philosophical concern; rather the concept has become a trope suggesting that vast obverse of reality that is best perceived poetically.

A somewhat similar mood prevails in another piece on a familiar theme: the sonnet “On His Blindness,” wherein the poet is “unworthy” of direct perception of the real world yet may still savor the riches of literature. Formally the poem is a gem: few sonnets show a better relationship between octave and sestet, dramatically introduced by the verb “I am.” Yet another magnificent reworking of an old theme is found in the free-verse composition “El centinela” (“The Watcher”). Here, as in several earlier texts, Borges is haunted by the ghostlike presence of his “otherness.” The poem begins as daylight enters his room, bringing consciousness of the other Borges who not only “lurks” in the room's mirrors and other reflecting surfaces but who even “dictates to me now this poem, which I do not like” (“dicta ahora este poema, que no me gusta”; GT, 29). This is the same being whom, he confesses, has been rejected by several women and who has forced him into the difficult study of the Anglo-Saxon language. The poem concludes with a bitter irony that reveals Borges in a decidedly grim mood: “We know each other too well, inseparable brother. / You drink the water from my cup and you wolf down my bread. / The door to suicide is open, but theologians assert that in the subsequent shadows of the other kingdom, there will be I, waiting for myself” (“Nos conocemos demasiado, inseparable hermano. / Bebes el agua de mi copa y devoras mi pan. / La puerta del suicidio está abierta, pero los teólogos afirman que en la sombra ulterior del otro reino, estaré yo, esperándome”; GT, 29).

A number of pieces in the collection strike familiar chords for anyone who has read the earlier Borges. “Hengist quiere hombres (449 A.D.)” (“Hengist Wants Men, (A.D. 449)”), while celebrating Anglo-Saxon culture from the first Germanic invasions onward, affirms a tenuous line of historical determinism: the Jutish chieftan, Hengist, not only wanted men to capture Britain, but also was sowing the seeds for Shakespeare's literature, for Nelson's ships, and for Borges—the grandson of England's Fanny Haslam—to write his poetry. Several poems again evoke the world of Buenos Aires knife fighters, others sing of the gauchos, and a few stand out for their novelty. Among the latter we find a series of short poems cast in the form of the Japanese tanka, a topical piece on the first moon landing, a poem on the prehistoric cave art of Altamira. One of the most interesting of these atypical compositions is “Tú” (“You”), a poetic comment on the impersonality of contemporary life and death. The initial verse firmly asserts: “In all the world, one man has been born, one man has died” (“Un solo hombre ha nacido, un solo hombre ha muerto en la Tierra”; GT, 25). To consider people as masses, he asserts, represents only the “impossible calculations” of statistics. This one individual is Ulysses, Cain, Abel, or Darwin on the bridge of the Beagle. He is a dead soldier at Hastings, Austerlitz, or Gettysburg. He is also an anonymous patient dying in a hospital, a Jew in a gas chamber; in short, he is you or I. The impressive final verse disproves the charge that Borges was an unfeeling intellectual lacking in human warmth: “One man alone has looked on the enormity of dawn. / One man alone has felt on his tongue the fresh quenching of water, the flavor of fruit and of flesh. / I speak of the unique, the single man, he who is always alone” (“Un solo hombre ha mirado la vasta aurora. / Un solo hombre ha sentido en el paladar la frescura del agua, el sabor de las frutas y de la carne. / Hablo del único, del uno, del que siempre está solo”; GT, 25).

The mid-1970s was a period of considerable poetic production for Borges. Moreover, the three volumes of verse that were published between 1975 and 1977, La rosa profunda, La moneda de hierro, and Historia de la noche, show little diminution of his lyric powers. The first collection, for example, presents several well-turned sonnets that have an almost Parnassian elegance: “La pantera” (“The panther”), “Habla un busto de Jano” (“A bust of Janus speaks”), or “El bisonte” (“The buffalo”). A striking experiment in this form is his Alexandrine sonnet, “La cierva blanca” (“The white doe”), a piece evidently inspired by a fleeting dream. He uses the same metrical scheme for another unusual poem in the second collection, “El ingenuo” (“The simple soul”). In this piece he confesses his wonderment at ordinary things rather than “marvels”—that a key can open a door, or that “the cruel sword can be beautiful / and that the rose has the fragrance of a rose” (“la espada cruel pueda ser hermosa, / Y que la rosa tenga el olor de la rosa”; OP, 486). These collections are especially rich in intertextual echoes. For example, the sonnet “Soy” (“I am”) ends on a note suggestive of the Baroque poetry of a Góngora or Sor Juana: “I am an echo, a forgetting, nothing” (“Soy eco, olvido, nada”; OP, 434). And of course there are the innumerable intratexts—poems whose subjects elicit reverberations of Borges's own poetry or prose: ancient Norse warriors, mirrors, coins, and old-time knife fighters like Juan Muraña.

Although Borges's poetry of this period remains impressive in terms of its quality as well as quantity, it is colored by a growing preoccupation with death and general pessimism. Aside from the obvious—that he was growing older—a number of other factors may explain this mood: the ill health and subsequent death of his mother and the brief return of Perón along with the continuing failure of Argentine democracy are a few of these. The bare-boned eleven-line free-verse poem “El suicida” (“The suicide”) is a particularly strong indicator of his frame of mind:

I shall die and with me the sum
Of the intolerable universe.
I am looking at the last sunset
I hear the last bird.
I bequeath nothingness to no one.
Moriré y conmigo la suma
Del intolerable universo.
Estoy mirando el último poniente
Oigo el último pájaro.
Lego la nada a nadie.

(OP, 430)

The theme of his blindness, which in earlier poems often functioned in a positive manner, now contributes to this autumnal gloom. Thus in the twopart composition “El ciego” (“The blindman”) he speaks of his “insipid universe,” of being “deprived of the diverse world,” and finally of how now “I can only see to see nightmares” (“solo puedo ver para ver pesadillas”; OP, 450). Yet a kind of sweet sadness pervades such pieces as the nostalgic “All Our Yesterdays,” “Elegía” (“Elegy”), “La clepsidra” (“The hourglass”), and the enumerative poem “Talismanes” (“Talismans”). In the latter piece, after fondly recalling old friends, cherished objects, and pleasant experiences, he concludes in chilling tones: “Surely they are talismans, but they are useless against the shadow that I cannot name, against the shadow that I must not name” (“Ciertamente son talismanes, pero de nada sirven contra la sombra que no puedo nombrar, contra la sombra que no debo nombrar”; OP, 459). A somewhat similar mood pervades the poems of his 1977 collection, Historia de la noche. Among a number of memorable lyrics at least one must be briefly noted. In the English-titled “Things That Might Have Been” he considers the possibility of such things as books that Dante might have written after finishing the Divine Comedy, of the course of ancient history had the beautiful Helen of Troy not existed, and of other literary or historical events that did not come to pass. He concludes this enumeration of “what might have been” when, in a striking final verse, he sadly thinks of “The son I never had” (“El hijo que no tuve”).5

In the prologue to his penultimate book of verse, La cifra, Borges discusses “verbal” poetry as opposed to “intellectual” poetry. To illustrate the two he cites first the hauntingly lyrical first strophe of Ricardo Jaimes Freyre's “Peregrina paloma imaginaria,” and then the essentially intellectual verse of Luis de León's “Vivir quiero conmigo.”6 He states that his desire in this collection is to follow a middle course between these two extremes. How successful he is in achieving this objective is difficult to determine. What is clear, however, is that the collection is rich in opposing elements. At times its tone is serene and hopeful while at other times death, desperation, and nihilism hold sway. As to form, the sonnet gives way, with but one exception, to free verse, prose poems, or the unrhymed hendecasyllable. Thematically, a great deal of the collection is simply a reworking of well-known Borgesian motifs, and by comparison with his earlier poetry these pieces on Berkeleyan idealism, time, infinite regression, Buenos Aires, and so on are not especially impressive. One relatively new theme does appear in several pieces: the culture and especially the literature of Japan. In The Gold of the Tigers he had already experimented with the tanka form; here Borges presents, with considerable success, seventeen examples of the more familiar haiku. Several other pieces on such subjects as the game of go, and the Shinto religion are further indications of this interest.

On balance, however, the dominant mood of the collection is one of resigned weariness and melancholy, broken only occasionaly by a ray of sunshine. This is seen in any number of pieces. For example, in the title poem he writes of the moon, “Has agotado ya la inalterable / suma de veces que te da el destino. / Inútil abrir todas las ventanas / del mundo. Es tarde” (“You have already exhausted the unchangeable / sum of times destiny has given you. / It is useless to open all the windows / of the world. It is late”).7 An even more negative tone is evident in “Al adquirir una Enciclopedia” (“On acquiring an encyclopedia”) in which the poet contrasts his joy and wonderment at having this new possession “with eyes that no longer function” and hands that “fumble” through its illegible pages (La cifra; [hereafter referred to as C, 23). But perhaps the most desperate poem in the collection, and yet one that contains some lovely verses, is “Eclesiastés 1,9” (“Ecclesiastes 1:9”). He begins with a series of strong hendecasyllablic lines, introduced by the word “if,” that mention simple everyday acts; he observes that if he does any of these things, he is only repeating what he has done before. Borges then states, in the crucial thirteenth verse: “No puedo ejectuar un acto nuevo, / tejo y torno a tejer la misma fábula, / repetido un repetido endecasílabo” (“I cannot perform a single new act, / I weave and re-weave the same tale, / I repeat a repeated hendecasyllable”). He goes on to confess that night after night he has the same nightmare and the same labyrinthine obsessions. The final verses are especially dramatic: “I am the weariness of an unmoving mirror / or the dust of a museum / I hope for only one untasted thing, / a gift, a bit of gold in the shadows, that maiden, death” (“Soy la fátiga de un espejo inmóvil / o el polvo de un museo. / Sólo una cosa no gustada espero, / una dádiva, un oro de la sombra, / esa virgen, la muerte”; C, 27–28).

Borges's last collection of poetry, Los conjurados, is signed 9 January 1985, a year and a half before his death. Like the previous volume, it is dedicated to María Kodama, the woman who was to become his bride just before his passing. Again, like La cifra, the volume includes some fourteen short prose pieces, or about a third of its content. Some of these texts are reminiscent of the parables written years earlier in Dreamtigers, and because some of the poems are in blank verse, the fine line between prose and poetry is not always easy to establish. There are, nonetheless, a goodly number of sonnets and even a few octosyllabic milongas in the collection.

In one of the shorter prose pieces, “Posesión del ayer” (Possession of yesterday), while pondering the notion that in a sense what we lose is often retained in a special way, Borges remarks, “Every poem, with time, becomes an elegy.”8 This observation certainly applies to many of the collection's pieces. One of the many cases in point is the lovely poem “La joven noche” (“The young night”). The tone here is one of gentle acceptance; the twilight of life reduces the world to pure essences, to Platonic ideas. Citing a favorite author Borges comments: “Goethe said it better: nearby things became distant. / There four words sum up all twilight. / In the garden the roses stop being roses / and wish to be the Rose” (“Mejor lo dijo Goethe: Lo cercano se aleja. / Esas cuatro palabras cifran todo el crepúsculo. / En el jardín las rosas dejan de ser las rosas / y quieren ser la Rosa”; Co, 29). A somewhat similar mood pervades poems such as “Doomsday” or “Tríada” (“Triad”). The latter, a fine example of free-verse innovation, is built upon three statements, each a bit longer than its predecessor and each describing the “alivio” (relief) felt immediately before death. The first two statements—or verses—speak of famous men such as Caesar or Charles I of England. The final segment, however, is expressed in personal terms as “The relief that you and I will feel at the moment preceding death, when fortune casts us free of the sad habit of being someone and of the weight of the universe” (“El alivio que tú y yo sentiremos en el instante que precede la muerte, cuando la suerte nos desate de la triste costumbre de ser algiuen y del peso del universo”; Co, 20). The very fact that Borges, then eighty-five, was still exploring that fascinating no-man's-land between prose and poetry, was still writing fine sonnets, and was continuing to rework the rich metal of earlier texts suggests that even though death was close, he remained a poet of substantial talent and considerable vigor.


  1. Borges's publisher, Editorial Emecé, however, published a later separate volume of poetry titled El otro, el mismo (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1969).

  2. Jorge Luis Borges, Obra poética: 1923–76 (Madrid and Buenos Aires: Alianza-Emecé, 1979), 194–95. Succeeding references appear parenthetically in the text as OP. Some of the later poetry has been translated in Selected Poems 1923–67, ed. with an introduction by Norman Thomas di Giovanni (New York: Delacorte Press, 1972). The translations in my text are, however, my own, though they occasionally parallel the published versions quite closely.

  3. Jorge Luis Borges, In Praise of Darkness, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni (New York: Dutton, 1974), 10. Succeeding references appear parenthetically in the text as PD. In this case I have retained di Giovanni's translations.

  4. Jorge Luis Borges, The Gold of the Tigers: Selected Later Poems; Bilingual Edition, trans. Alastair Reid (New York: Dutton, 1977), 7. Succeeding references appear parenthetically as GT. I have retained Reid's translations in my text.

  5. Jorge Luis Borges, Historia de la noche (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1977), 91.

  6. Ricardo Jaimes Freyre (1868–1933) of Bolivia was an important poet of the modernista movement; Luis de León (1527–1591) was a major poet and theologian of Spain's Golden Age.

  7. Jorge Luis Borges, La cifra (Madrid: Alianza, 1981), 12. Succeeding references appear parenthetically in the text as C.

  8. Jorge Luis Borges, Los conjurados (Madrid: Alianza, 1985), 63. Succeeding references appear parenthetically in the text as Co.

Keith Polette (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 836

SOURCE: A review of The Preface and John 1:14, in The Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 151–53.

[In the following essay, Polette finds similarities in the conception of God held by Borges and that of seventeenth-century Puritan minister, Edward Taylor.]

The power of the imagination to unify opposites and thus reveal the interplay between the eternal and the temporal, or the Divine and the human, links Edward Taylor, a seventeenth-century Puritan colonial minister, to Jorge Luis Borges, a twentieth-century secular Argentine writer. Separated by time and language, Taylor and Borges become, in a sense, two human eyes in the face of God. The two writers offer poetic visions of two important acts of creation: Taylor re-visions the wonder of Genesis in his “Preface,” and Borges sees with bright and broad eyes the poetry of St. John's Gospel. Both poets, via the imagination, reconcile and harmonize oppositional forces and ideas by discovering the sacred in the experience of the profane. They express their experience of this discovery in clear, common language and sing in simple human song of that which is more than human. It might be said that God, or the poets' conception of God, is “languaged alive” through each writer's pen.

Taylor describes a God who deliberately fashioned the world. The God he writes about is not the distant, judgmental God who presided darkly over the Puritan world, but a God who works and works hard. In the “Preface,” Taylor writes,

Upon what base was fixed the Lath wherein
He turned the Globe, and rigged it so trim?
Who blew the bellows of his Furnace Vast?

(lines 3–5)

Here, Taylor envisions a different kind of God, not one who waved his hand, uttered some magic words, and pulled the universe from his Godly top hat. Taylor's God is a working God surrounded by wood and iron, soot and smoke, whose determined brow is smudged with grime, whose face drips with sweat, and whose hands are rough and calloused. Such a God grunts and groans in the act of hammering out the universe on the anvil of the imagination.

Moreover, Taylor has a vision of this same rough-handed God as a God who “Laced and Filleted the earth so fine” (9), and who “made the Sea its Selvedge” (11). This God, then, is also soft, gentle, and feminine and has an eye for beauty and intricate design. For Taylor to imagine that God is both male and female, that he/she resides in all human endeavors and is to be found not only in heaven, but in the objects of nature and of human construction shows evidence of twofold consciousness. Taylor sees God through the interplay of the masculine and the feminine, the sacred and profane, the temporal and the eternal, and the conscious and the unconscious.

Jorge Luis Borges expresses the same twofold consciousness in his poem “John 1:14” by showing the cross-fertilizing of the eternal with the temporal. In his poem, Borges suggests that God, being a mystery that human beings will never fully understand, still needs language to become a reality for humanity; he writes, “I who am the Was, the Is, and the Is To Come again condescend to the written word … which is no more than an emblem” (7–10). The “word which is no more than an emblem” becomes the linguistic thread that gently yokes the Divine to the human, or the eternal to the temporal.

Once made flesh through the word, God (through Borges, or through Borges's persona) speaks of those human things that he “knew” and valued: “memory, hope, fear, sleep, dreams, ignorance, flesh, the blind devotion of dogs” (22–26). He continues, “My eyes saw what they had never seen—night and its many stars” (29–30). Here the Divine describes the experience of immediate temporality in concrete language. Through such use of language, the Divine becomes known and knowable through self-reflexivity. This seems to echo the Zen notion that until enlightenment occurs the human mind is like a hand trying to grasp itself or an eye trying to see itself. Borges may be suggesting that God needs man in order to be God. Or, put another way, infinity without finity conjoined is ultimately formless and without emblematic meaning.

Borges understands what Taylor understood, that the experience of God is the experience of the imagination's power to penetrate finitude in order to discover infinitude. By such penetration followed by reflection and the creation of poetry, Taylor and Borges have granted the world its being by knowing that God can not only “turn this globe upon his lathe,” but also feel “homesick” when thinking back upon “the smell of that carpenter's shop.” Thus, Borges and Taylor experience the world in which a Divine presence signals that distinctions exist without divisions, that discordant opposites are reconciled, and that the unconscious and the conscious are harmonized.

Works cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. In Praise of Darkness. New York: Dutton, 1969.

Taylor, Edward. “The Preface.” The American Tradition in Literature. Ed. George Perkins, Sculley Bradley, Richmond Croom Beatty, and E. Hudson Long. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990.

Joseph Tyler (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Medieval Germanic Elements in the Poetry of Jorge Luis Borges,” in Readerly/Writerly Texts, Vol. 1, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1993, pp. 97–105.

[In the following essay, Tyler demonstrates Borges's interest in medieval Germanic literature, and points to elements of it in his poetry.]

Libros como el de Job, LA DIVINA COMEDIA, Macbeth (y, para mí, algunas de las sagas del Norte) prometen una larga inmortalidad …

Borges, “Sobre los clásicos.”1

… In the preface to Literaturas germánicas medievales (1978), Borges states that the aim of his book is “to trace the origins of three literatures which emerged from a common root, and whose complex historical vicissitudes transformed and separated, as occurred also with the diverse languages in which they were written” (“Medieval Germanic Literatures” 7, hereafter referred to as MGL; my trans. Translations hereafter are my own). My aim here is to trace elements from those literatures in several poems included in his Obra poética and elsewhere.

Borges's initial interest for these literatures begins at home with the English origins of his father: “My father's English came from the fact that his mother, Frances Haslam, was born in Staffordshire of Northumbrian stock” (“An Autobiographical Essay” 136; Bantam, 1971). In his autobiographical essay, the Argentine poet talks about his attraction to the medieval Germanic literatures and to their poetic forms:

I had always been attracted to the metaphor, and this leaning led me to the study of the simple Saxon kennings and overelaborate Norse ones. As far back as 1932, I had even written an essay about them. The quaint notion of using, as far as it could be done, metaphors instead of straightforward nouns, and of these metaphors being at once traditional and arbitrary, puzzled and appealed to me. I was later to surmise that the purpose of these figures lay not only in the pleasure given by the pomp and circumstance of compounding words but also in the demands of alliteration. Taken by themselves, the kennings are not especially witty, and calling a ship “a sea-stallion” and the open sea “the Whale's-road” is no great feat. The Norse skalds went a step further, calling the sea “the sea-stallion's-road,” so what originally was an image became a laborious equation. In turn, my investigation of kennings led me to the study of Old English and Old Norse.

(The Aleph and Other Stories 178)

Borges's experience with these medieval Germanic literatures led to his lecturing and teaching the subject in and out of the university. His research efforts in this field culminated in the publication of Antiguas literaturas germánicas (Old Germanic Literatures), an earlier version of Literaturas germánicas medievales.3 The earlier text appeared in México in 1951, and it is in “Mateo, XXV, 30,” a poem published as part of his El Otro, el mismo in 1953, that we find the first traces or elements of these medieval Germanic literatures. This single reference to “La saga de Grettir” is the bridge that connects a simple title with a full composition, a poem entitled “A Saxon” (A.D. 449). This poem, with its indefinite and anonymous title, is symbolic for its generic value, for it transmits diachronically the metamorphosis or rudimentary individuals into men of letters, as the last two stanzas of the poem clearly testify. The poem ends with a long, chaotic enumeration of words which together compose one single sentence.

He brought with him the elemental words
Of a language that in time would flower
In Shakespeare's harmonies: night, day,
Water, fire, words for metals and colors,
Hunger, thirst, bitterness, sleep, fighting
Death, and other grave concerns of men;
On broad meadows, and in tangled woodland
The sons he bore brought England into being.

(Selected Poems, 1923–1967 107, hereafter referred to as SP)

Later in other poems, Borges joins the many bards who sing of the moon with these meaningful lines:

There's an iron forest where a huge wolf
Lives whose strange fate is
To knock the moon down and murder it
When the last dawn reddens the sea.
(This is well known in the prophetic North;
Also, that on that day the ship made out
Of all the fingernails of the dead will spread
A poison on the world's wide-open seas.)

(A Personal Anthology, 197)

These parenthetical lines derive from Scandinavian literature (The Poetic Edda) where one reads of Ragnarökr (“The Twilight of the Gods”), a poetic title for a short piece found in Dreamtigers (26). The original source for these referential lines appears within the text of the “Medieval Germanic Literatures” where Borges writes:

This is the Twilight of the Gods (Ragnarökr). Fenrir, a wolf muzzled by a sword, breaks its millenial prison and devours Odin. The ship Naglfar sets sail, constructed with the fingernails of the dead. (In the Snorra Edda we read: “one must not allow someone to die with uncut fingernails, because he who forgets it hastens the construction of the ship Naglfar, feared by the gods and men.”)


Engrossed by this phenomenon of nails growing after death, Borges writes yet another piece simply entitled “Toenails.” But what is treated mythically in the earlier example becomes simply another curiosity in the later work.

Gradually we move away from these peripheral elements and we approach a concentration of poems directly related to the central subjects of the medieval Germanic literatures. A poem functioning as an inaugural part of these cardinal themes is appropriately entitled “Embarking on the Study of Anglo-Saxon Grammar.” Here again we find autobiographical data supporting a now commonly-held hypothesis about the poet's kinship to early skalds. In selecting the term embarking for the poem's title, the translator chose his words wisely, for it is a sort of voyage in time that the poet (anchored in his native Buenos Aires) chose to undertake. “I come back to the far shore of a vast river / Never reached by the Norsemen's long ships [los dragones del viking reads the original] / To the harsh and workwrought words / Which, with a tongue now dust, / I used in the days of Northumbria and Mercia / Before becoming Haslam or Borges” (SP, 139). Serious studies of these words, symbols of other symbols, will keep the poet researching, learning, and writing about his findings.

Proceeding along the same path, we come to Borges's sonnet “Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf.” Here Borges trades the internal rhyme of the former composition for the external rhyming scheme of the sonnet in its original version (abba abba cdd cdd). What may seem at first, if one pardons the oxymoron, a silent clamor for weaving and unweaving words—(“At various times I have asked myself what reason / Moved me to study … / The Language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons”)—ends up being a philosophical commentary comparing the bard's lexical toil with his weary existence: “I tell myself: It must be that the soul / Has some secret sufficient way of knowing / That it is immortal … / Beyond my anxiety and beyond this writing / The universe waits.” He concludes, “inexhaustible, inviting” (SP, 155).

The third in this series of poems dealing with the medieval Germanic literatures, “Hengest Cyning,” has a Nordic flavor. Both poem and title contain a binary value; the composition starts with The King's epitaph:

Beneath this stone lies the body of Hengist [sic]
Who founded in these islands the first kingdom
Of the royal house of Odin
And glutted the screaming eagle's greed.

(SP, 157)

Then he continues with the neo-fantastic element of the King's speech, supposedly after death, in defense of his own deeds:

I know not what runes will be scraped on the stone
But my words are these:
Beneath the Heavens I was Hengist the mercenary.
My might and my courage I marketed to Kings
Whose lands lay west over the water
Here at the edge of the sea
“Called the Spear-Warrior”;
But a man's might and his courage can
Not long bear being sold,
And so after cutting down all through the North
The foes of the Briton king,
From him too I took light and life together.
I like this kingdom that I seized with my sword;
It has rivers for the net and the oar
And long seasons of sun
And soil for the plough and for husbandry
And Britons for working the farms
And cities of stone which we shall allow
to crumble to ruin,
Because there dwell the ghosts of the dead.
But behind my back I know
These Britons brand me traitor,
Yet I have been true to my deeds and my daring
And to other men's care never yielded my destiny
And no one dared ever betray me.

(SP, 157)

Composed of alternating long and short verses, the protracted text contrasts with the briefer portion of the composition in both size and content. Its tempo, nevertheless, is kept with internal rhyme and an occasional alliteration—“no sé que runas habrá marcado el hierro en la piedra / Hay ríos para el remo y para la red”—Obra poética 234–235; italics added). The poem is not only interesting because of its contrasting elements, but also because of its narrative components. Especially appealing are those parts mentioning the geography, the toil of the Briton farmers, and the fateful decay of their cities. As a matter of fact in “The Elegies,” Borges mentions something to this effect at the same time that he quotes another scholar; thus in “The Ruin” he comments, “Stopford Brooke, in a dignified tone, says that the Saxons disdained city life, allowing the existing towns in England to fall into ruin and later composing elegies to deplore those ruins” (MGL, 24).

In his next poem titled simply “Fragment,” Borges's attention is focused upon a sword. Here things are deconstructed, so to speak, for the rhymer sings of one of the basic elements for settling discords: “A sword carved with runes … / A sword from the Baltic that will be celebrated in Northumbria, / A sword that poets will equate to ice and fire … / A sword to fit the hand of Beowulf” (SP, 159). There are fifteen rhythmic mentions of the word “sword,” and the placement of the word creates for the reader a pattern of pulsating sounds that resemble a collective image of the blade. Needless to say, the poem abounds in “kenningar”: a sword “That will stain with blood the wolf's fangs / And the raven's ruthless beak. / That will bring down the forest of spears” (SP, 159). Another title connecting with the same pattern is that of “A una espada en York” (“To a Sword in York”). And in La Rosa profunda there appears a sonnet titled “Espadas” (“Swords”), a sort of arma virumque cano that starts with a brief enumeration of famous blades. Borges himself, in a concluding note, explains that the weapons listed belonged to Sigurd, Roland, Charlemagne, and King Arthur.

Moving from the naming of the basic symbols of conflict to the praising of those who lexically celebrated victory and the spoils of war, the author dedicates his next poem “To a Saxon Poet,” a simple title designating two different compositions included in the collection I have been quoting from. Because of its vertical concatenation of apostrophes addressed to an anonymous bard who normally extolls heroes and heroic deeds, this poem resembles the previously discussed “Fragment.” From the eulogy to the nameless Saxon poet, Borges shifts to “Snorri Sturluson,” a tragic figure depicted here in a sonnet and the subject of the writer's twice-told-tales. Let us briefly consider the first of these variants:

“Snorri Sturluson, (1179–1241)”

You, who bequeathed a mythology
Of ice and fire to filial recall,
Who chronicled the violent glory
Of your defiant Germanic stock
Discovered in amazement one night
Of swords that your untrustworthy flesh
Trembled. On that night without sequel
You realized you were a coward. …
In the darkness of Iceland the salt
Wind moves the mounting sea. Your home is
surrounded. You have drunk to the dregs
Unforgettable dishonor. On
Your head, your sickly face, falls the sword
As it fell so often in your book.

(SP, 163)

Yet in another, but shorter, version of this biographical piece, Borges mentions the name of Sturluson—famous as historian, archaeologist, builder of hot baths, genealogist, president of an Assembly, poet, double traitor, victim of beheading, and ghost—as the main source for his “Kenningar,” an essay on poetic language published together with an article titled “Metaphor” in his History of Eternity. It should be added that we find a more unabridged biographical note about Sturluson within the frequently quoted “Medieval Germanic Literatures.”

A final poem with an oxymoronic title “The Generous Enemy” is composed of nine elliptical verses, seven of which are subjunctive phrases expressing an eloquent greeting, emitted by Muirchertach, King of Dublin, cheering the exploits of the rival King Magnus Barford;4 the final couplet, however, foretells King Magnus's final defeat and demise. The contradictory content of “The Generous Enemy” concurs with its title, and it seems to be a direct rendition of a piece taken from the Anhang zur Heimskringla by Hugo Gering, according to the final note provided by Borges at the poem's conclusion. The peculiarity of this text lies not only in its given form and content, but also in its almost total exclusion from other Borgesian writings such as the “Medieval Germanic Literatures.” It is there that we find a brief mention of it, for it appears insignificantly important on a list of other minor compositions that preceded Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla. There we read:

Another historical work, valuable for the verses and compositions it cites, is called Fagrskinna (Beautiful Skin) because of the elegant binding of one of the two copies which were preserved in the seventeenth century, and then destroyed in a fire. Another similar compilation is called Morkinskinna (Rusty Skin), and includes biographies of Magnus Olafson, who was king of Norway and Denmark; of Harold Hardrada, Harold the Cruel, who fought in Italy, in Sicily and in the Orient; of Magnus Berfoett, Magnus Bare Foot, who fell in ambush in Dublin; and of Sigurd Jorsalafari (Sigurd the Pilgrim, Sigurd the Traveler to Jerusalem), who fought against the Spanish Arabs, and died insane.

(MGL, 150–51)

Ultimately, I suggest that Borges's interest in medieval Germanic literature has numerous causes, but one in particular seems to lie slightly hidden within his autobiographical strata. Living in a world of created doubles (ein doppelgänger), Borges has conceived the character Juan Dahlmann and sets him in a conflict very much like Borges's own self in “Borges and I.” In the poem, too, Borgas-poet-persona undergoes a kind of personality split while yearning to become one with his predecessors. It is important to recall here one of my preliminary citations when Borges recites, “I come back … / To the harsh and work-wrought words / I used in the days of Northumbria and Mercia / Before becoming Haslam or Borges” (SP 139). It is in his Historia de la Eternidad that Borges expresses, in a footnote, a similar affinity. Speaking about Snorri Sturluson's epithet as traitor, he defensively states, “Traitor is a harsh word. Sturluson, perhaps, was merely an available fanatic, a man shockingly torn apart by consecutive and opposite loyalties. On the intellectual order, I know of two examples: that of Francisco Luis Bernárdez, and mine” (Historia de la Eternidad 49). Borges's earlier books of poetry, Fervor of Buenos Aires, Moon Across the Way, and San Martin Copybook, speak of his native Buenos Aires. His The Self and The Other talks about his other Fatherland, that of Northumbria and Mercia. Thus, poetically Borges comes to his very own forking paths choosing for the moment to relive the past of his other. Indeed, the ubiquity of medieval Germanic elements in Borges's poetry mirrors cogently the English side of his ancestry, which has often been interpreted as his other self.


  1. Italics and emphasis added. Also, whenever I quote poetry, I provide the page number(s) rather than the line(s) to facilitate reference to translations.

  2. Cf. my article “Borges y las literaturas germánicas medievales en El libro de arena,” Hispanic Journal, II 1 (1980): 79–85.

  3. Jorge Luis Borges with María Esther Vázquez, “Medieval Germanic Literatures,” trans. Joseph Tyler (unpublished MS 1985).

  4. Magnus III, King of Norway (1093–1103), was also called Magnus the Bare foot Norwegian, Magnus Barford, 24 August: 1103. He conquered the Orkney and the Hebrides, and was killed before Dublin during an invasion of Ireland, The New Cyclopedia of Names, Vol. III, eds. Clarence L. Barnhard, et al. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1954) 2575.

Works cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “An Autobiographical Essay.” The Aleph and Other Stories 1933–1969., Trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni, with Borges. New York: Bantam, 1971.

———. Dreamtigers. Trans. Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland. Austin: U of Texas P, 1964.

———. Historia de la Eternidad. Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 1966.

———, and María Esther Vázquez. Literaturas germánicas medievales. Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 1978.

———. “Medieval Germanic Literatures.” Trans. Joseph Tyler. (Unpublished.)

———. Obra poética. Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 1967.

———. A Personal Anthology. Ed. Anthony Kerrigan. New York: Grove, 1967.

———. Selected Poems, 1923–1967. Trans. Norman Thomas Di Giovanni. New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1972.

Alexander Coleman (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4868

SOURCE: “The Ghost of Whitman in Neruda and Borges,” in Walt Whitman of Mickle Street: A Centennial Collection, edited by Geoffrey M. Sill, The University of Tennessee Press, 1994, pp. 257–69.

[In the following essay, Coleman demonstrates the strong influence of Walt Whitman on the poetry of both Borges and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Coleman focuses on the contrasting effects of this influence on the two poets.]

In writing his lucid overview of the history of Walt Whitman's presence in Spanish America, Professor Fernando Alegría of Stanford University had to come to grips with a question that inevitably haunts Hispanists as they try convincingly to identify the “influence” of such a magisterial and protean poet as Walt Whitman in the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges. Professor Alegría's bafflement before his task might well serve as a starting point for my own comments:

To study Whitman in Spanish American poetry is to trace the wanderings of a ghost that is felt everywhere and seen in no place. His verses are quoted with doubtful accuracy by all kinds of critics; poets of practically all tendencies have been inspired by his message and have either written sonnets celebrating his genius or repeated his very words with a somewhat candid self-denial.

(Qtd. in Gay Wilson Allen, New Walt Whitman Handbook, 534)

We have to start, therefore, with the fact that Whitman undergoes a sea change as he enters the imagination of poets in Spanish; not only is what they know of Whitman very much to the point, but what they do not know or choose to ignore in their visions of Whitman is even more to the point. Without having made an exhaustive survey of the matter, I would say that “Song of Myself,” the “Calamus” poems, “Salut au Monde,” “Song of the Open Road,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” with a few others, have attained almost canonical status in Spanish, whereas Drum-Taps and most of the prose—above all, Democratic Vistas—offer a figure of Whitman which, while not at all contradictory to the first canonical Whitman, does not quite jibe in all respects and thus is not perceived with the same intensity. For instance, in the essay entitled “Whitman, Poet of America,” by the contemporary Mexican poet Octavio Paz, we find such sentences as the following:

Whitman can sing with full confidence and innocence democracy on the march because the Utopia of America is confounded and is indistinguishable from American reality. The poetry of Whitman is a great prophetic dream, but it is a dream within another dream, a prophecy within another even more vast which feeds it. America dreams itself in Whitman's poetry because it itself is a dream. And it dreams itself as a concrete reality, almost physical, with its men, its rivers, its cities and its mountains. … Before and after Whitman we have had other poetic dreams. All of them—be they called Poe or Darío, Melville or Emily Dickinson—are, more precisely, attempts to escape the American nightmare.

(El Arco 299–300; trans. by A. C.)

Well, this is one way of putting it. But I want to emphasize that, as we enter into the world of poetry in Spanish, I do not wish, nor do I feel competent, to compare such a comment as that of Octavio Paz with the multiple, contradictory, and ungraspable literary reality that is Walt Whitman. I merely want to tell you as clearly as I can how he is seen by poets writing in Spanish. For their purposes, their ways of seeing him may entail gross misreadings, or partial overlookings or abandonings, of aspects of Whitman, in poetry and in prose, which do not serve their creative purposes. I am merely saying that, in responding to Whitman as they read him and as they imagined him, they found their own voices, with Whitman possibly present as a subtext for their own most original utterances.

I have chosen to look at two of Whitman's most fervent admirers, Pablo Neruda of Chile, born in 1904, and Jorge Luis Borges of Argentina, born in 1899. Both are eminently worthy of consideration, because both are major poets who have openly confessed their allegiance and their debt to Whitman, and both have produced texts that express, in poetical terms, the overwhelming magisterium of the author of Leaves of Grass.

Having said that, we could not imagine two pocts less similar to each other, two poets who have had such differing convictions over the years concerning the nature of poetry, the relation of word to object, and the relation of the poem to the self and the society which engendered the poem. I wish to emphasize the radically opposed natures of their achievements, including some amusing comments with which they expressed, sometimes in barbed terms, their mutual admiration mixed with the most openly argued views concerning each other's personal and poetic selves. Bits of literary gossip—i.e., Borges on Neruda, Neruda on Borges—are always to be taken with high seriousness, given the indisputable grandeur of the two poets' respective achievements. But since in many ways these achievements are irreconcilable, the simplest way to contrast the two is brashly to suggest that the only thing they had in common was their mutual admiration of Whitman; they were parallel lines in poetry, touching ever so slightly in various periods of their poetic development, whether early, middle, or late. The one constant between the two is Whitman—that is to say, their peculiar and at times idiosyncratic imagining of Whitman's achievement. They both started out enunciating keen dissatisfaction with the Spanish language, showing a determination to infuse into a fossilized poetic language a new vigor, new metaphors, a new view of the poet in the cosmos. Thus Whitman, generalized and mythic, is at the core of their revolt against both didactic poetry and the aestheticist excesses of Modernismo.

But almost as soon as that is said, we must recognize their divergence: Neruda began to write political poetry, while Borges wrote increasingly metaphysical poetry. In his major phase, the political poetry of the thirties and the forties, Neruda abandoned his earlier hermeticism to obey Tolstoy's final injunctions contained in What is Art?—that is, art should produce “a feeling of brotherhood and love of one's neighbor.” Neruda glories in his poetic multiplicity, in his role as a civic poet of national and continental consciousness, a poet who intentionally simplifies his language to make it a mode of communication with the unawakened consciousness of all Latins. In this prophetic, bardic phase, Neruda's poetry is above all celebratory and hortatory, and he is a poet of optimism and plenitude, an agent of moral fervor—all this in order that the word touch and press itself upon those who have never been given a voice. Does this not echo Whitman's transcendental vision? It must be said, though, that such a poet—the role of such a poet—is not at all prevalent in the post-Whitmanian literary history of the United States, and such a voice is immensely difficult to transmit in a manner that sounds contemporary, in the same way that translations of Mayakovsky pose difficulties in English. The point is that Neruda's divergence from an Eliotic poetry of anguish gave him an audience that before had been quite unimaginable. The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, who was a witness to Neruda's hypnotic power in mass readings of his poetry, often attended by thousands, expresses this matter in a revealing interview:

This extraordinary fact could only occur in a culture such as that of Latin America, where a poet can still be a poet of the people. I don’t think you have to be a poet of the people to be a good poet, of course. I think Mallarmé is a great poet. I’m just trying to explain this phenomenon of a writer who is really capable of giving voice to the voiceless. And of being repaid for this art with the grace of anonymity. Of being recited by people who do not know that the poet exists, or that the poems were written by a man called Pablo Neruda. This is unthinkable in the United States.

(Mac Adam and Coleman 677)

For the moment, you will have to take it on faith that the poetry of Borges is a radically different proposition, in all its phases. As Neruda's most imposing poetry takes wing by being read aloud, Borges's poetry is not heard but overheard. As we shall see, he began as a poet inebriated with Whitman's vision of the possibilities of poetry in this age, but his evolution over the years is not toward a poetry of a striding multiplicity of selves, but toward a more private, delimiting voice which owes less to oratorical or acoustic sound with abundant accumulative images than to a single inner vision, a voice which comes across both in English or Spanish as reminding us of the meditative poetry of Eliot, Yeats, Donne, or Herbert. If I were to say one thing about the differences between the two to end this introduction, I might say that Neruda in his most political phase lives a poetry of touching, of communication, of diving into the world and being immersed in its processes; while Borges's voice veers away from society to the solitary expression of a rich inner vision. And let it be said that each poet reads and sounds differently in English. Borges's voice more nearly matches our verbal expectations, our unconscious contemporary expectation of the nature of poetry, while Neruda's discontent with his translators is not at all related to the incompetence or insensitivity of the various hands who have translated him, but rather to his deepest suspicions about the suitability of the English language as a medium for his neo-Whitmanian verse. In a memorable comment, he noted, “It seems to me that the English language, so different from Spanish and so much more direct, often expresses the meaning of my poetry but does not convey the atmosphere.” He prefers above all his own poetry in Italian, “because there’s a similarity of values between the two languages, Spanish and Italian.” “English and French,” he says, “do not correspond to Spanish, neither in vocalization, nor in placement, color or weight of the words. This means that the equilibrium of a Spanish poem … can find no equivalent in French or English. It’s not a question of interpretive equivalents, no; the sense may be correct, indeed the accuracy of the translation … may be what destroys the poem” (Guibert 35–36). The same impression is not given by the poetry of Borges either in Spanish nor in English, above all because, at home in Buenos Aires, Borges's first language was English and the resultant tone of his mature poetry is much more subdued than Neruda's. I bring up these differences not to emphasize an interesting but irrelevant aside, but to remind you once again that the two men's allegiance to Whitman, their Whitman, is still more or less constant—both are translators of good portions of Leaves of Grass. Neruda, however, is an unquestioning celebrant of Whitman's mission as Neruda appropriated it; while Borges, a fervent adept at first, challenges both Whitman's vision and his language, all while constantly commenting upon his various and changing views of Whitman over a poetic career that spans, as does Neruda's, some six decades.

Where we touch their books, so do we touch each man, each poet in himself. There is an auspicious encounter between Neruda and Borges, which, though lying well within the realm of a literary anecdote, might help us distinguish between the invisible and unconscious impulses of the two authors as they began their respective lives as poets.

In June or early July 1927, Neruda, at the age of twenty-three, had been named Chilean honorary consul in Rangoon. On his way to his post via a circuitous route, he stopped off in Buenos Aires on his way to Portugal, from whence he would travel by steamer to Burma. By that date, Neruda had written one of his most famous texts of exacerbated love poetry—the “Twenty Love Songs and One Desperate Song.” He had also by then written a few of the first poems now contained in Residence on Earth, including the “Galope Muerto” (“Dead Gallop”), with which the book still opens. Borges, on the other hand, was already a well-known figure in Buenos Aires, author of two volumes of poetry and two collections of critical essays. After arriving in Ceylon, Neruda took the time to recall to a friend his epic meeting with the young Borges, and his words give us a convenient point of departure for distinguishing the two poets and their poetry. Speaking of Borges, Neruda noted that

he seems to be more preoccupied about problems of culture and society, which do not seduce me at all, which are not at all human. I like good wines, love, suffering, and books as consolation for the inevitable solitude. I even have a certain disdain for culture; as an interpretation of things, [I think that] a type of knowledge without antecedents, a physical absorption of the world seems to me better, in spite of and against ourselves. History [itself], the problems of “knowledge” as they call them, seems to be lacking some dimension. How [many of these problems] would fill up the vacuum? Every day I see fewer and fewer ideas around and more and more bodies, sun and sweat. I am exhausted.

(Aguirre 46, trans. A. C.)

Naturally, this intuitive, even mysterious perception by Neruda of the young Borges might be read many ways, but for our own convenience, I would baldly state that here Neruda announces himself as a poet of the body, where the body will be both the perceiver and filter of all perception, and that the mind of the poet, the verbalizing faculty, should do nothing but submit to the sensual apparatus of the body as it moves through the world. Neruda's disdain for bookish culture, even though he was a voracious reader and tireless bibliophile, is striking, and we also note that the poet views “a physical absorption in the world” as greater material than an intellectual perception. For Borges, all of Neruda's evaluations are reversed, in ways we may now proceed to explore.

Absorption in the world is fundamental to Neruda. In a later interview, he makes this more precise:

Just as the action of natural elements pulverizes our deepest feelings and transforms them into an intimate reflective substance … which we call literature, so also it is the writer's duty to contribute his own work to the development of the cultural heritage, by pulverizing, purifying and constantly transforming it. It is the same effect nutrition has on the blood, on the circulation. Culture has its roots in culture, but also in life and nature.

(Guibert, 47)

This is the fundamental agency of the Whitmanian body which we must recognize in all Neruda, in spite of the radical transformations of style, tone, politics, and themes evident throughout his work. The body must be all men, the agent of all perception and suffering; as he says, “There’s only one command [for the poet], and that is to penetrate life and make it prophetic: the poet should be a superstition, a mythic being” (Aguirre 60).

Neruda has no single poetic voice; as he says, “We are many.” Thereby he affirms the absolute license of the unleashed poet to start each book anew, with new poetic duties and new audiences to be reached. We can see a touchingly adolescent, sentimental poet in him, then a poet of contemplation of infinite space, then a poet of disintegration and hallucinatory reality, available to us in his harrowing Residence on Earth. But there are more Nerudas. After his return from the East, serving during the Spanish Civil War as a Chilean diplomat in Spain, Neruda's poetry took a firm grip on material reality and politics. While in Spain in 1935, he translated the second, third, and thirtieth section of “Song of Myself” and also composed a fundamental manifesto for the new direction of this poetry, an essay entitled “Towards an Impure Poetry,” in which Emerson's and Whitman's injunctions are reformulated into an anti-aesthetic aesthetic. In Ben Belitt's translation, the key passages are the following:

Let [this] be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand's obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades that we live by, inside the law or beyond it.

A poetry impure as the clothing we wear, [as impure] as our bodies, soupstained, soiled with our shameful behavior, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, declarations of loathing and love, idylls and beasts, the shocks of encounter, political loyalties, denials and doubts, affirmations and taxes.

(“On Impure Poetry” xxi)

After visiting the sacred city of the Inca empire in 1943, Neruda became an even broader poet, more conscious of his role in the celebration of a silent “dead” consciousness. The result of his 1943 visit was the stunning “Heights of Macchu Picchu”; in a prose note composed after his visit, this poet's change of focus, as he ever exchanges old clothes for new, is very apparent. He remembers the effect of those silent stones on his imagination, commenting:

I could no longer segregate myself from those structures. I understood that if we walked on the same hereditary earth, we had something to do with those high endeavors of the American community, that we could not ignore them, that our neglect or silence was not only a crime but the prolonging of a defeat. … I thought many things after my visit to Cuzco. I thought about ancient American man. I saw his ancient struggles linked with present struggles.

(“Translating Neruda,” 144)

Neruda's communion reaches its culmination in the final passage of “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” where the poet begs the living and the dead to speak through him, just as Whitman had begged of the dead in canto 24 of “Song of Myself”:

Through me many long dumb voices,
Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion. …

(LG, 52)

Neruda's exhortation joyfully, heroically, takes on the same grand task:

I come to speak through your dead mouth.
All through the earth join all
the silent wasted lips
and speak from the depths to me all this long night
as if I were anchored here with you,
tell me everything, chain by chain,
link by link, and step by step …
Fasten your bodies to me like magnets.
Hasten to my veins to my mouth.
Speak through my words and my blood.

(“Alturas de Macchu Picchu,” 237–39)

Borges is so different from all that you have read up to now that it is hard to know where to begin. We might start by saying that his is an intensely playful and droll intelligence, one that sees himself looking at himself, a kind of intelligence where the mind-body problem in poetry is resolutely solved in favor of mind. Above all, he is often cruel and insouciant toward his earlier poetic selves and his earlier literary allegiances, a king of irascible high humor that is the polar opposite of the very uncritical but no less powerful poetic intelligence of Pablo Neruda. Borges's views on Whitman follow along the above inconstant lines. For instance, in 1970, he published in the New Yorker a “profile” under the title “An Autobiographical Essay,” which is a mine of information about his earliest attempts at poetry, attempts in which Whitman plays a role, though not a happy one. Listen to the tone of the aging Borges as he assesses the qualities of his earliest poetry:

It was also in Geneva (in 1918) that I first met Walt Whitman, through a German translation by Johannes Schlaf (“Als ich in Alabama meinen Morgengang machte”—“As I have walk’d in Alabama my morning walk”). Of course, I was struck by the absurdity of reading an American poet in German, so I ordered a copy of Leaves of Grass from London. I remember it still—bound in green. For a time, I thought of Whitman not only as a great poet, but as the only poet. In fact, I thought that all poets the world over had been merely leading up to Whitman until 1855, and that not to imitate him was a proof of ignorance. … [Later,] I saw my first poem into print. It was titled “Hymn to the Sea” and appeared in the magazine Grecia. … In the poem, I tried my hardest to be Walt Whitman:

O sea! Oh myth! O Sun! O wide resting place!
I know why I love you. I know that we are both very old,
that we have known each other for centuries …
O Protean, I have been born of you—
both of us chained and wandering,
both of us hungering for stars, both of us with hopes and disappointments. …

Here is Borges's comment: “Today, I hardly think of the sea, or even of myself, as hungering for the stars. Years after, when I came across Arnold Bennett's phrase ‘the third-rate grandiose,’ I understood at once what he meant” (“An Autobiographical Essay,” 217, 220). As one sees from the tone and the humorous optics of old Borges looking at young Borges, the joke is not on Whitman, but on an immature imagination looking at Whitman with an uncritical, hagiographic point of view. Some six years later, Borges published in Buenos Aires a collection of verses, one poem of which, “My Whole Life,” is once again a Whitmanian exercise. But now the former grandiosity has been reduced to a more inviting poetic modesty:

Here once again the memorable lips, unique and like yours.
I am this groping intensity that is a soul.
I have got near to happiness and have stood in the shadow of suffering.
I have crossed the sea.
I have known many lands; I have seen one woman and two or three men.
I have loved a girl who was fair and proud, with a Spanish quietness.
I have seen the city's edge, an endless sprawl where the sun goes
                    tirelessly, over and over.
I have relished many words.
I believe deeply that this is all, and that I will neither see nor accomplish
                    new things.
I believe that my days and my nights, in their poverty and their riches,
                    the equal of God's and of all men's.

(Selected Poems, 43, trans. W. S. Merwin)

This is still an unsatisfactory poem, but the enumerations have a more modest and restricted sense. You still feel that he wants to encompass worlds with his poem, but the feeling in Borges is less cosmic and more humble; one feels that he is trying to carve out a voice for himself from amid the welter of voices that pulsate through “Song of Myself.” Four years later, in 1929, Borges wrote “The Other Whitman,” a laudatory essay in which he suggested, allusively, one of the principal fascinations that Whitman exercises for Borges—Whitman's twoness, the distance between “Walter Whitman, Jr.” and “Walt.” Or, as Paul Zweig has put it, “his simultaneous personalities of adventurous word master and unsophisticated man of the people” (117).

We should be prepared for Borge's critical inconstancy before the phenomenon of Whitman, Borges's wavering allegiance to him. In the following instance, the interviewer, Richard Burgin, caught Borges in a rather grumpy mood about Whitman's world view:

in Whitman everything is wonderful, you know? I don’t think that anybody could really believe that everything is wonderful, no? Except in the sense of it being a wonder. Of course, you can do without that particular kind of miracle. No, in the case of Whitman, I think that he thought it was his duty as an American to be happy. And that he had to cheer up his readers. Of course he wanted to be unlike any other poet, but Whitman worked with a program, I should say; he began with a theory and then he went on to his work. I don’t think of him as a spontaneous writer.

(Burgin 141)

I would be remiss not to mention two final artifacts related to Borges and Whitman. The first is the former's translation of most of the original edition of Leaves of Grass, an effort announced as “in preparation” in a Buenos Aires literary magazine of 1927, but which actually was not published until 1969. Borges contributed a stunning prologue to his Hojas de hierba, in which he returns, maniacally, to the baffling duplicity, doubleness, or twoness of Whitman, and at the same time gives us a splendid appreciation of Whitman's achievement. Borges says:

Those who pass from the glare and the vertigo of Leaves of Grass to the laborious reading of any of the pious biographies of Whitman always feel disappointed. In those gray and mediocre pages, they seek out the semidivine vagabond that these verses uncovered for them, and they are astonished not to find him. This, at least, has been my own experience and that of all my friends. One of the aims of this preface is to explain, or try to explain, that disconcerting discord. …

He needed, as did Byron, a hero; but his hero had to be innumerable and ubiquitous, symbol of a populous democracy, like the omnipresent God of the Pantheists. That creature has a twofold nature; he is the modest journalist Walter Whitman, native of Long Island, a man whom some friend in a hurry might greet in the streets of Manhattan; and he is, at the same time, the other person that the first man wanted to be and was not, a man of adventure and love, indolent, courageous, carefree, a wanderer throughout America … there is almost no page on which the Whitman of his mere biography and the Whitman that he wanted to be and now is are not confounded in the imagination and affections of generations of men.

(Hojas de hierba 18, 20–21; trans. A. C.)

During one of his last visits to the United States, Borges wrote a short poem, “Camden 1892,” which makes its quiet and painful point amid a grey, subdued rhetoric:

The fragrance of coffee and newspapers.
Sunday and its tedium. This morning,
On the uninvestigated page, that vain
Column of allegorical verses
By a happy colleague. The old man lies
Prostrate, pale, even white in his decent
Room, the room of a poor man. Needlessly
He glances at his face in the exhausted
Mirror. He thinks, without surprise now,
That face is me. One fumbling hand
The tangled beard, the devastated mouth.
The end is not far off. His voice declares:
I am almost gone. But my verses scan
Life and its splendor. I was Walt Whitman.

(Selected Poems, 175, trans. Howard and Rennert)


  1. Fernando Alegría, Walt Whitman en Hispanoamérica, as cited in Gay Wilson Allen, New Walt Whitman Handbook 534. The problematical task of translating from English to Spanish is complicated in Whitman's case by the fact that Whitman's most energetic translator in Spanish America at the beginning of the century, Alvaro Armando Vasseur, knew no English and used Italian translations from Whitman's English as the “base” language. The matter becomes even more grotesque, since the Italian translator was heavily influenced by Nietzsche's rhapsodic style in Also Sprach Zarathustra. A full history of this series of misreadings is to be found in Santí.

Works cited

Aguirre, Margarita. Pablo Neruda/Héctor Eandi—Correspondencia durante Residencia en la Tierra. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1980.

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. New York: Hendricks House, 1962.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “An Autobiographical Essay.” The Aleph and Other Stories, 1933–1969. Ed. and trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni. New York: Dutton, 1978. 217–20.

———. “Camden 1892.” Selected Poems, 1923–1967. Trans. Richard Howard and César Rennert. Ed. Norman Thomas di Giovanni. New York: Delacorte, 1972. 175.

———. “My Whole Life.” Selected Poems, 1923–1967. Trans. W. S. Merwin. Ed. Norman Thomas di Giovanni. New York: Delacorte, 1972. 43.

Burgin, Richard. Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.

Felstiner, John. Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 1980.

Guibert, Rita. Seven Voices: Seven Latin American Writers Talk to Rita Guibert. New York: Knopf, 1973.

Mac Adam, Alfred, and Alexander Coleman. “An Interview with Carlos Fuentes.” Book Forum 4 (1979): 677.

Neruda, Pablo. “Alturas de Macchu Picchu.” Trans. John Felstiner. In his Translating Neruda, 203–39.

———. “Oda a Walt Whitman,” Obras Completas. By Pablo Neruda. 3d ed. Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1968. l: 1357.

———. “On Impure Poetry.” Pablo Neruda, Five Decades: A Selection. Ed. and trans. Ben Belitt. New York: Grove Press, 1974.

Paz, Octavio. El arco y la lira. 2d ed. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1967.

Santí, Enrico Mario. “The Accidental Tourist: Walt Whitman in Latin America.” Do the Americas Have a Common Literature? Ed. Gustavo Pérez Firmat. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1990.

Whitman, Walt. Hojas de hierba. Ed. and trans. Jorge Luis Borges. Buenos Aires: Editorial Lumen, 1969.

———. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965. Abbreviated as LG.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic, 1984.

Donald L. Shaw (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Manometre (1922–28) and Borge's First Publications in France,” in Romance Notes, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, Fall, 1995, pp. 27–34.

[In the following essay, Shaw introduces two of Borges's earliest poems, including variants and a French translation of one, which were discovered in a little-known magazine published in Paris in the 1920s.]

In his essay “Pour la préhistoire ultraïste de Borges” (Cahiers L’Herne 161) Guillermo de Torre writes: “Dans ses premières lignes autobiographiques—celles qu’il rédigea pour une Exposición de la actual poesía argentina (1927)—Borges écrit: ‘Je suis porteño … Je suis né en 1900 … En 18 j’allais en Espagne. Là j’ai collaboré aux commencements de l’ultraïsme … ’ Eclairons ce point-là: ‘J’ai collaboré’ et avec quelle fréquence et quelle intensité! A peine ouvre-t-on un quelconque numéro de cette tendance, Grecia, Ultra, Tableros. … qu’on y trouve quelques écrits de lui en prose ou en vers …” Gloria Videla extends the list to include Cosmópolis, Cervantes and Reflector. In the magazines mentioned in her book she also includes Manomètre. But since in her bibliography she mentions only the brief review which it carried of Guillermo de Torre's Hélices (1923), without either details or page-numbers, she may not have seen the original. Clearly, however, this little magazine deserves attention not only by Hispanists but also by students both of comparative literature and of cultural movements in Europe in the 1920s.

Manomètre began publication in Lyons in 1922, dying in 1928 after nine numbers. Its founder and contributing editor was a young doctor with literary pretensions, Emile Malaspine (1892–1953). He had served in the First World War as a medical auxiliary and been gassed in 1918. While recuperating in Switzerland during the following year he met Vicente Huidobro and almost certainly through him came into contact with other Spanish and Spanish American poets and with the little reviews in which they published. Thus he was presently able to contribute, like Borges, to the Ultraista magazine Alfar, published in Corunna between 1921 and 1927 and to Proa (1922 and 1924–26) in Buenos Aires. About the time he met Huidobro, Malespine also met Hans Arp, the French poet, painter and sculptor and possibly through him contacted Herwarth Walden, the editor of the immensely influential Der Sturm in Berlin (1910–1932) to which he would contribute along with Tristan Tzara. No doubt through other acquaintances Malespine would also publish in Het Oversicht (Antwerp), Mertz (Hanover), Ma (Vienna), and even Zenit (Zagreb-Belgrade), as well as sundry French magazines. His career illustrates how interconnected the small literary and artistic magazines of the day in Europe tended to be.

Manomètre engaged Malespine's main efforts in the 1920s outside his profession. It is not impossible that it was inspired by Huidobro's similar magazine Creación which began to appear a year earlier than its French counterpart. Both published items in several languages and accepted, in addition to poetry, illustrations of contemporary painting and architecture and articles on the arts in general, including the “new” music. A glance at the list of contributors to Manomètre is quite startling. They included acquaintances like Huidobro, Arp, and Guillermo de Torre; fellow editors of other little magazines (who could return the favor) like Walden, Julio J. Casal (the editor of Alfar between 1923 and 1926), and Alfar's next editor, Julio González del Valle; poets like Rogelio Buendía, Borges, and others best forgotten who were active with Huidobro and de Torre in Spanish Ultraísta magazines; and friends of friends like Tzara, Soupault, Mondrian and the Mexican Stridentist, Maples Arce. The list is remarkable until we recall that around the same time Grecia in Spain (whose editorial board included Buendía) was publishing contributions by (or translations of) Apollinaire, Marinetti, Cocteau, Tzara, Reverdy, Soupault and others of similar caliber.

Sadly, the first contribution in Spanish to Manomètre, “Poesía sin lógica” (Manomètre 1, pp. 11–13),1 is unsigned. It purports to specify, very schematically, the difference between contemporary poetry and that of earlier periods. It contains nothing surprising to anyone who has read, for instance, the Prisma manifesto of 1921 signed by Guillermo de Torre, Guillermo Juan, Eduardo González Lanuza and Borges, which itself rehearses the basic doctrines of an already well-established “new” poetry, that of the European avant-garde. It is in fact a simplified explanation of what the ultraístas, in this case, took for granted, with certain concessions to a provincial French readership familiar with Spanish. The writer insists on the suppression of anecdotic content, rhyme and metre, while stressing the continuing importance of rhythm and musicality, with predictable references to Rémy de Gourmont and Verlaine. What links this short essay to Borges's views at this time is the insistence on imagery as the stuff of poetry, so that what is to be aimed at is “música de imágenes” without the necessity of logical or syntactical connections from line to line or stanza to stanza. “La sensación interna domina la sensación externa. (Cenestesia) … A la lengua lógica se substituye la lengua cenestésica … Un poema perfectamente lógico no es poético …” (p. 13). What makes this item interesting is that it was almost certainly written by Guillermo de Torre. If so, it represents one of his earliest attempts to explain the outlook of the group of poets to whom he belonged. The chief reason, apart from the content, which points towards de Torre as the author, is that the essay contains the phrase “Palabras en libertad” which subsequently became the title of a section in his only book of poetry, Hélices (1923). Poems by de Torre appear in the second, third and eighth numbers of Manomètre.2 Clearly Malespine saw de Torre as a more promising poet than Borges, but had serious doubts already about ultraísmo and the avant-garde. Indeed, before long Malespine was issuing his own manifestos, in favor of what he called “Suridéalisme” (7, 109–11 and 9, 154–55). The second of these was merely a polemical article directed against a Parisian take-over of the name of his “movement”. In the first, however, he develops his criticism of recent poetry as merely a pattern of rhythms and images (especially the latter) and calls for a return to ideas and to simpler poetic diction. Nonetheless, as we saw, he did publish another poem by de Torre.

The inclusion of items by Huidobro and Borges, not forgetting those by more minor figures like Maples Arce, Rogelio Buendía, Julio Casal, Roberto Ortelli and Julio González del Valle, is interesting chiefly because of the way they figure alongside others by Tzara,3 Soupault,4 Arp,5 and Mondrian, who contributed a little essay on “Les arts et la beauté de nôtre ambiance tangible” (6, pp. 107–8). Huidobro's contribution is his poem “La Matelotte” from Automne régulier (1925). It is identical with the version contained in his Obras completas (I, 1976, pp. 344–45) save in one respect: line 6 here reads “Les bateaux traînent les vagues jusqu’à toucher le ciel” while the Obras completas text has “monter au ciel”.

The two poems by Borges: “Sábado” (2, p. 12) and “Atardecer” (4, p. 71) are another matter. So far as I know, these were the first of his poems to be published in France and, in the case of the second, the first to be translated into any language. The second number of Manomètre, in which “Sábado” appeared, came out in October 1922. By this time Borges had returned to Buenos Aires from Spain and was preparing Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923) in which the poem figures under the title “Sábados” and was dedicated to his then novia Concepción Guerrero (Meneses 43–52). Shortly before the poem appeared in Manomètre a version had appeared in Nosotros (Buenos Aires) in September 1922. None of the three versions is identical to any of the others. The version in Manomètre reads as follows:


Benjuí de tu presencia
                    que luego he de quemar en el recuerdo
y miradas felices
de ir orillando tu alma
Afuera hay un ocaso joya oscura
engastada en el tiempo
que levanta las calles humilladas
y una honda ciudad ciega
de hombres que no te vieron
La tarde calla o canta
Alguien descrucifica los anhelos
clavados en el piano
Siempre la multitud de tu hermosura
en claro esparcimiento sobre mi alma

The version in Nosotros published a month earlier, reads as follows (the variants are in italics):


Benjuí de tu presencia
                    que iré quemando luego en el recuerdo
y miradas felices
de bordear tu vivir.
Afuera hay un ocaso joya oscura
engastada en el tiempo
que redime las calles humilladas
y una honda ciudad ciega
de hombres que no te vieron.
La tarde calla o canta.
Alguien descrucifica los acordes
clavados en el piano.
Siempre la multitud de tu belleza
en claro esparcimiento sobre mi alma.

(Scarano, 93–95)

Finally, the version published in Fervor de Buenos Aires was as follows:


                                        Para mi novia, Concepción
Benjuí de tu presencia
                    que iré quemando luego en el recuerdo
y miradas felices
de bordear tu vivir.
Hay afuera un ocaso, alhaja oscura
engastada en el tiempo
que redime las calles humilladas
y una honda ciudad ciega
de hombres que no te vieron.
La tarde calla o canta.
Alguien descrucifica los anhelos
clavados en el piano.
Siempre la multitud de tu hermosura
en claro esparcimiento sobre mi alma.

Although it was published earlier, the Nosotros version seems to be a corrected version of the text in Manomètre since it is clearly closer to the Fervor text. Some points are interesting. We notice that in Nosotros Borges has discreetly restored punctuation. Secondly, he replaces “luego he de quemar” with “iré quemando luego” but, on the other hand, he substitutes “bordear tu vivir” for “ir orillando tu alma”. This last substitution removes both an overstatement and an Argentinism. It refines the effect of line 4; but in addition the change deliberately introduces the only “verso agudo” in the poem as amended, altering the whole rhythmic effect of the opening. As we know, a major feature of Borges's early poetry about Buenos Aires was its tendency to humanize the city-scape. Here that tendency is intensified by the substitution of “redime”, a verb more appropriate to humans, for the more banal “levanta”. The change seems to have been made in order to emphasize Borges's sense of the contrast between the squalid streets and the beauty of the sunset. Interestingly, the two other changes made in the Nosotros version do not survive into the poem as it appeared in the first edition of Fervor: “anhelos” becomes less metaphorically “acordes” in the allusion to a piano in the background, but “anhelos” is wisely restored in 1923. Similarly, Concepción's “hermosura” becomes “belleza” in the Nosotros version, losing the acoustic effect of the tonic accents on “multitUd” and “hermosUra”, but Borges again had wise second thoughts. In the version contained in Fervor the change from “joya” to “alhaja” in line 5 is presumably dictated by a desire to balance “afuera” earlier in the line; in this case the change is surely an improvement. It is not clear why the title is shifted from singular to plural in Fervor, since the experience which the poem expresses seems to be related to a specific occasion. Perhaps the change is related to “la multitud de tu hermosura”, in the sense that each Saturday evening of the kind evoked reveals one more facet of Concepción's manifold beauty.

The second Borges poem to be published in Manomètre was then entitled “Atardecer.” Later, when it was incorporated into Fervor de Buenos Aires, it lost its individual existence and title, becoming instead stanza three (lines 9–18) of “Sábados”, which was expanded to 28 lines. The only difference between the Manomètre version and the lines as they appear later in Fervor, is that in the Manomètre text there is no punctuation other than a final period thoughtlessly added by Malespine at the end of his translation. In Fervor, punctuation is restored. Since this is probably the first poem by Borges ever to be translated, I reproduce the original and the translation:


A despecho de tu desamor
tu hermosura
prodiga su milagro por el tiempo
Está en tí la ventura
como la primavera en la hoja nueva
Quedamente a tu vera
se desangra el silencio
Ya casi no soy nadie
soy tan solo un anhelo
que se pierde en la tarde
En tí está la delicia
como está la crueldad en las espadas

“Le Soir Tombe”

En dépit de ton désamour
ta beauté
par le temps son miracle prodigue
le bonheur est en toi comme
le printemps dans la feuille neuve
Quiétement à ton côté
le silence perd son sang
Déjà presque personne ne suis
Suis seulement un désir
qui se perd avant la nuit
Le délice est en toi
comme est la cruauté dans les épées.

Despite helpful work by Guillermo de Torre, Videla, Meneses, Linda Maier and others, if and when the much-heralded critical and annotated edition of the complete works of Borges ever appears (hopefully it will be begun before his centenary), much more research will be required on his early poetry, including that contained in manuscripts which are still coming to light, and in small journals of which Manomètre is a hitherto neglected example. It is to be hoped that the process of accumulating evidence, to which this note is a modest contribution, will continue, until we have really adequate and systematic documentation of this period of his career.


  1. The pagination of this collection is as follows: No. I is paginated 1–16; thereafter the other eight numbers are paginated consecutively 1–155. To avoid misunderstanding I give both the number of the magazine and the pages as they appear in the collected edition. I owe the discovery of Manomètre to the Curator of the Borges Collection at the University of Virginia's Alderman Library, Dr. J. B. Loewenstein, to whom I return grateful thanks.

  2. To be precise: “Inauguración” (dated “Madrid 1922 [2, pp. 6–7]), “Ventilador” (from Hélices [3, pp. 40–41]), with a short introduction by Malespine, praising Hélices and declaring his friendship with de Torre, but already uttering a significant warning against “l’image outrancière” and de Torre's use of recherché language, and “Balneario” (dated “Ontaneda, septr 1924” [8, 132–33]).

  3. “Herbiers des jeux et des calculs,” from De nos oiseaux 1929 (3, p. 38); “Préalable” and “Précise” from L’arbre des voyageurs, 1932 (5, p. 87 and 8, p. 136); “Les écluses de la pensée”, “Le nain dans son cornet”, “Chaque ampoule contient mon système nerveux” and “Carnage abracadabrant”, all four from L’antitête: Monsieur Aa l’antiphilosophe, 1933 (2, pp. 4–5 and 7, p. 118). All of these are fully documented in the first two volumes of Tzara's Oeuvres complètes, Paris, Flammarion, I, 1975 and II, 1977.

  4. A note on Paul Eluard's Répétitions (2, pp. 10–11) and another on Tzara's De nos oiseaux (4, pp. 75–76).

  5. “Die Schwallenhode” (2, p. 11) and four illustrations, one of which is accompanied by an untitled poem beginning: “die fahnenflüchtigen engel stürzen verhetzl herein” (8, p. 130).

Works cited

Huidobro, Vicente. Obras completas. Santiago de Chile: Andrés Bello, 1976.

Maier, Linda S. “Three ‘New’ Avant-garde Poems of Jorge Luis Borges.” Modern Language Notes 102 (1987):223–32.

Manomètre: collection complète. Paris: Editions Jean-Michel Place, 1977.

Meneses, Carlos. Jorge Luis Borges. Cartas de juventud. Madrid: Orígenes, 1987.

Roux, D. de & Milleret, J. de (eds). Jorge Luis Borges. Paris: Cahiers L’Herne, 1964.

Scarano, Tommaso. Variante a stampa nella poesia del primo Borges. Pisa: Giardini Editori, 1987.

Tzara, Tristan. Oeuvres complètes, Paris: Flammarion, I, 1975 and II, 1977.

Videla, Gloria. El ultraismo. Madrid: Gredos, 1963.

Johnny Wink (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “What to Make of an Even More Diminished Thing: A Borgesian Sonnet Considered in a Frosty Light,”in Publication of the Arkansas Philological Association,Vol. 22, No. 2, Fall, 1996, pp. 77–85.

[In the following essay, Wink praises Borges as a writer of sonnets.]

Some years ago I heard an otherwise bright young man announce in the student union at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville a literary critical approach which promised to save time and which I have since come to think of as the arm's length theory of evaluative reading. He contended that he could hold a text before his eyes at arm's length and deem it worthy of reading or not based solely upon the shapes the words conspired to make on the page he was holding at bay. He was later prevailed upon to modify slightly this approach by agreeing that the number of permissible shapes might vary in direct proportion to the age of the poem.

The shape a poem assumes when it is a sonnet is no longer a permissible shape. My interlocutor had not quite the chronological surety of the fellow in the Viennese section of John Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire, a cocksure young Bohemian who knew to the moment and in what cafes artistic movements had begun and ended. And so he wasn’t quite sure what to do with Robert Frost's “The Oven Bird.” The sonnet's being irregularly rhymed was in its favor. However, it was still a sonnet, and it was not a hundred years old. My friend felt that it was clearly on the cusp.

I suspect that Robert Frost did, too. Although I have as of yet seen nothing in print about the matter, I feel certain that, whatever is the range of possible referents for “the diminished thing” of the poem's last line, it must include the sonnet form itself.

“The Oven Bird”
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.


To be sure, the sonnet form had not in 1916 fallen into quite the disrepute it was later to encounter. E. A. Robinson won a couple of Pulitzer Prizes in the 1920's with a body of poetry liberally laced with sonnets, and Edna St. Vincent Millay's vogue was yet to come. However, Frost's poem deals not with utter exhaustion but, rather, diminution. When a marriage or a season or a poetic form hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne, what is to be done? That is the question the oven bird frames, according to our persona/paraphraser. I propose that one answer to the oven bird's question is “The Oven Bird” a weirdly-rhymed, but almost monotonously metrical, sonnet. And if the question is framed “in all but words,” the answer is framed in nothing but words, the words that make up “The Oven Bird.”

Mark Van Doren feels that the rhyme scheme of the poem is odd enough to disqualify it from categorization as a sonnet:

All of the rhymes have been telling, for these pentameters chime in a strange, wayward fashion, promising a sonnet (the poem is fourteen lines) yet giving none. The rhyme now is expressive of the dreariness the bird suddenly feels, remembering the dust; though it is a dreariness he can overcome, for he keeps on talking.


I see nothing in the poem's rhyming character expressive of dreariness. It’s rather a startling omnium gatherum of schemes, featuring a couple of couplets, a duo of terza rima triplets, and a closing quatrain rhyming abab (although by the time we get to it, we have moved down the alphabet to fgfg). The couplets enclose the triplets and in so doing hint at the abba scheme of the Petrarchan octave.

Structure in a Petrarchan sonnet means an octave and a sestet; in a Shakespearean sonnet we expect three quatrains and a closing couplet. Frost's nifty little hybrid adds two and four and divides by two. “The Oven Bird” makes of the diminished thing of the sonnet form a tripartite arrangement. The first three lines announce the singer everyone has heard. The next seven translate his song into speech. The final four sum up what he has said. It’s as if we’re in the realm of the disjunctive presque-Petrarchan here: a septet is interrupted three-sevenths of the way through by another septet. The interrupted septet then resumes in line eleven and marches to its conclusion.

The meter of the poem is not quite so exciting, although its almost dreary regularity is perhaps as it should be, given the humdrum nature of the oven bird's report on the season. There is, however, one line which, metrically speaking, offers almost as much variety as do the rhyme scheme and the structure: “Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird …” To my way of hearing, this line features a trochee, a spondee, a pyrrhic, an iamb, and another spondee.

What to make of a diminished thing? A sonnet the deliciously grab bag nature of which makes the sonnet form, given all the possibilities here realized, feel like anything but a diminished thing.

The scene shifts. Now the one playing youth to my crabbed age is a current student of mine at Ouachita, an articulate and remarkably well-read fellow who for some reason views poetic forms with genuine suspicion.

“You mean Borges wrote a sonnet?” he queries, incredulity blistering his tongue. “Jorge Luis Borges?” I tell him yes, Borges wrote at least two sonnets about which I know and which I have read.

“Composición escrita en un ejemplar de la gesta de Beowulf

A veces me pregunto qué razones
Me mueven a estudiar sin esperanza
De precisión, mientras mi noche avanza,
La lengua de los ásperos sajones.
Gastada por los años la memoria
Deja caer la en vano repetida
Palabra y es así como mi vida
Teje y desteje su cansada historia.
Será (me digo entonces) que de un modo
Secreto y suficiente el alma sabe
Que es inmortal y que su vasto y grave
Círculo abarca todo y puede todo.
Más allá de este afán y de este verso
Me aguarda inagotable el universo.

“Poem Written In A Copy of Beowulf”

At various times I have asked myself what reasons
moved me to study, while my night came down,
without particular hope of satisfaction,
the language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons.
Used up by the years, my memory
loses its grip on words that I have vainly
repeated and repeated. My life in the same way
weaves and unweaves its weary history.
Then I tell myself: it must be that the soul
has some secret, sufficient way of knowing
that it is immortal, that its vast, encompassing
circle can take in all, can accomplish all.
Beyond my anxiety, beyond this writing,
the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.

(Qtd. in Monegal 285–86)

On the face of it this poem appears to be a real cri de coeur a lyric from which has disappeared utterly the distance between author and persona. Indeed Borges was aging and going blind when in the late 1950s he undertook the study of Anglo-Saxon. “Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf” was published in 1964. Even the title suggests the casual, a something jotted down in a margin in a moment of despair which turns, upon reflection, into another moment, this one of grand affirmation.

Yet there is nothing casual about the poem's structure. Like “The Oven Bird” Borges' poem blends elements of earlier sonnet forms. The feel of it is essentially Petrarchan, for it features a crisp turn in line nine, along with a rhyme scheme in the octave which is almost Petrarchan: abbacddc. The hint of the Shakespearean comes in with the change of rhymes in the second quatrain of the octave and, again, in the closing couplet. The allusion to sonnet-writing is for me even slyer than Frost's.

The persona convinces himself in the sonnet's octave that the soul is immortal (“it must be”) and that “its vast, encompassing / circle can take in all, can accomplish all.” One of the things the soul can accomplish is the composition of yet another powerful expression of our condition in the form of a sonnet, that form which, like the poem's persona, is weary of time but which has accomplished much and which can accomplish more, despite the ravages of age. Two projects are saved in the poem's octave: the persona will continue to study the language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons and the sonnet will conclude itself, understanding that beyond all anxiety and writing awaits a universe which can neither exhaust nor be exhausted by forms and which invites all manner of moods and styles to behold it.

The universe of Borges' poem proves more receptive than those who object to sonnets and other poetic forms on the grounds that something has happened in our century to prevent powerful expression from occurring within the precincts of preordained verbal structures. A colleague of Jack Butler at the College of Santa Fe has assured Jack that poetic forms are still permissible (how kind of him!), but that nothing really important is going to happen in them. In Writing Poetry: Where Poems Come From and How to Write Them, David Kirby teams up with Galway Kinnell to produce a profoundly baffling passage:

Following World War I, it is the general consensus that the ignorant armies were victorious. Writers of the modern era can have no illusions about the disappearance of the world's grace, says Kinnell which is why “for modern poets—for everyone after Yeats—rhyme and meter amount to little more than mechanical aids for writing. … In rhyme and meter one has to be concerned with how to say something, perhaps anything which fulfills the formal requirements. It is hard to move into the open that way.”


What have World War I and the supposed disappearance of the world's grace got to do with poetic form? If global catastrophe renders formal possibilities in poetry impossible, why didn’t the Black Death stop Petrarch in his tracks? How is it that Yeats could move into the open with rhyme and meter but nobody after him can? If nobody after him has been able to move into the open in rhyme and meter, have I hallucinated the great sonnet by Borges discussed above? I’ve never been present at a more powerful moving into the open than the one which takes place in the sestet of the Borges poem and which is accompanied by the stately drumbeat of loose iambics and the splendid ticking of terminal rhymes: modo/sabe/grave/todo/verso/universo.

In a true Petrarchan sonnet, written to celebrate the invention of the sonnet form, Borges declares the resources of the sonnet to be as limitless as the sequestrations of night and the revelations of day.

“Un poeta del siglo XIII”

Vuelve a mirar los arduos borradores
De aquel primer soneto innominado,
La página arbitraria en que ha mezclado
Tercetos y cuartetos pecadores.
Lima con lenta pluma sus rigores
Y se detiene. Acaso le ha llegado
Del porvenir y de su horror sagrado
Un rumor de remotos ruiseñores.
¿Habrá sentido que no estaba solo
Y que el arcano, el increíble Apolo
Le habrá revelado un arquetipo,
Un ávido cristal que apresaría
Cuánto la noche cierra o abre el día:
Dédalo, laberinto, enigma, Edipo?

“A Poet Of The Thirteenth Century”

Think of him laboring in the Tuscan halls
on the first sonnet (that word still unsaid),
the undistinguished pages, filled with sad
triplets and quatrains, without heads or tails.
Slowly he shapes it; yet the impulse fails.
He stops, perhaps at a strange slight music shed
from time coming and its holy dread,
a murmuring of far-off nightingales.
Did he sense that others were to follow,
that the arcane, incredible Apollo
had revealed an archetypal thing,
a whirlpool mirror that would draw and hold
all that night could hide or day unfold:
Daedalus, labyrinth, riddle, Oedipus King?

(Qtd. in Monegal 277)

In Frost and Borges, one finds blooming—having bloomed—figures of capable imagination, poets able to hold up to experience that exquisite “whirlpool mirror that would draw and hold / all that night could hide or day unfold, …” and to make of the amalgam of experience and carefully-wrought mirror such gems as “The Oven Bird” and “Composición escrita en un ejemplar de la gesta de Beowulf.

Works cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. Borges: A Reader. Ed. Emir Rodriguez Monegal and Alastair Reid. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1981.

Frost, Robert. The Poetry of Robert Frost. Ed. Edward Connery Lathem. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.

Kirby, David. Writing Poetry: Where Poems Come From and How to Write Them. Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1989.

Van Doren, Mark. Introduction to Poetry. New York: The Dryden Press, 1951.

Richard Sanger (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11014

SOURCE: “‘Todos queriamos ser heroes de anecdotas triviales’: Words, Action and Anecdote in Borges' Poetry,” in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies,Vol. LXXIV, No. 1, January, 1997, pp. 73–93.

[In the following essay, Sanger considers the function of “self-enacting discourse” in Borges's poetry.]

In his speech on the topic of arms and letters in Chapters 37 and 38 of the first part of Cervantes' novel, Don Quixote, as a knight errant, naturally upholds the superiority of arms over letters, arguing that the soldier's goal of peace is nobler, and that his life entails greater sacrifices and requires physical, as well as mental, strength. However, when he ends his speech reiterating his desire to ‘hacerme tamoso y conocido por el valor de mi brazo y filos de mi espada’, we are told of the impact his words have had on the barber, the priest and the others assembled at the inn: ‘En los que escuchado le habían sobrevino nueva lástima de ver que hombre que, al parecer, tenía buen entendimiento y buen discurso en todas las cosas que trataba, le hubiese perdido tan rematadamente en tratándole de su negra y pizmienta caballería.’1 The phrase points up one of the great ironies of the novel: that, though Don Quixote has chosen to devote himself to arms and the world of action, his real talent lies in words, especially words that advocate or describe action.

When Pierre Menard sets out to write Don Quixote in Jorge Luis Borges' well-known story [“Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote”], it is no accident that one of the three fragments he completes is precisely Chapter 38. Borges' narrator, of course, understands why Don Quixote should argue in favour of arms; the surprise is that, three centuries later, ‘el don Quijote de Pierre Menard—hombre contemporáneo de La trahison des clercs y de Bertrand Russell—reincida en estas nebulosas sofisterías!’. Four possible explanations are put forward:

Madame Bachelier ha visto en ellas [nebulosas sofisterías] una admirable y típica subordinación del autor a la psicología del héroe; otros (nada perspicazmente) una transcripción del Quijote; la baronesa de Bacourt, la influencia de Nietzsche. A esa tercera interpretación (que juzgo irrefutable) no sé si me atreveré a añadir una cuarta, que condice muy bien con la casi divina modestia de Pierre Menard: su hábito resignado o irónico de propagar ideas que eran el estricto reverso de las preferidas por él.2

The question is left hanging: Does Pierre Menard really favour arms? Could it be that Cervantes' novel secretly sides with letters? And what, we may wonder, about Borges himself?

In Borges' poetry, the debate between the life of action and that of letters is one of the most constant themes, and the answer he develops is not always as equivocal as in ‘Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote’. Like a wiser Don Quixote, Borges the poet devotes himself to words that represent and, in their own way, become action. Of course, he phrases the question in a slightly different way from Don Quixote. For the knight errant and for his creator, who, we should remember, was a soldier long before he became a novelist, the life of letters included the study and practice of law: a ‘letrado’ was a lawyer, and the aim of ‘letras’ (or ‘learning’ in J. M. Cohen's translation), as Don Quixote states, is ‘poner en su punto la justicia distributiva y dar a cada uno lo que es suyo, y entender y hacer que las buenas leyes se guarden’.3 This means that, although such letters have a very real influence on the real world, they are not the most glamorous of careers. As a means of securing justice, if somewhat less effective, Don Quixote's free-lance vigilantism, with the lofty aim to ‘desfazer tuertos y enderezar agravios’, has the incomparable advantage of rewarding one with renown—especially when those you defeat are forced to go mumble your name and wondrous deeds before the lady you serve.

For Borges, in contrast, the life of ‘letras’ usually means the life of a writer—a career concerned not with justice but one, as he often reminds us, that promises everlasting renown. Borges' idea of what the life of action might be in his day is less specific. The most logical choice would have perhaps been something like the life of another famous Argentinian from a well-to-do family, Che Guevara: a combination of idealism, romance and altruism. But, leaving aside the politics, Borges never really seems to consider the life of action as a possibility in his own day: unlike Don Quixote, he is unwilling to believe that the heroisms of an earlier time can be repeated in the present. In ‘Página para recordar al coronel Suárez, vencedor en Junín’, a poem written in the last years of the first Peronist regime, Borges contrasts the battle his great-grandfather fought against the Spaniards with the predicament of his own time:

Su bisnieto escribe estos versos y una tácita voz
desde lo antiguo de la sangre le llega:
—Qué importa mi batalla de Junín si es una gloriosa
una fecha que se aprende para un examen o un lugar en el atlas.
La batalla es eterna y puede prescindir de la pompa
de visibles ejércitos con clarines;
Junín son dos civiles que en una esquina maldicen a un tirano,
o un hombre oscuro que se muere en la cárcel.(4)

Though, as the illustrious ancestor reminds his great-grandson, the battle is eternal or, to put it another way, the struggle continues, Borges the poet preferred to fight it in its older and grander variants. The figures who exemplify the life of action for him are all from the past and enveloped in a bookish mist—either the Saxons and Danes of the sagas, gauchos like Juan Muraña or his own military forbears who fought in the Wars of Independence or on the Argentinian outback.

If, unlike the knight errant, Borges does not consider the soldier's life as a career option, this does not mean he renounces the idea of action. Instead, alongside the description of heroic military feats undertaken by historical figures, Borges does something else—he presents the life of letters, or significant moments in it, as a life of action. This he does by portraying speech as an action that occurs in a certain context, and by using that context to give words the force of the ‘magical symbols’ they once were, as he writes in the prologue to La rosa profunda (420). Quevedo's composition of a memorable verse thus becomes as important as the beheading of Charles the First or the battle of Junín. By showing words he has composed for these figures as actions in certain contexts, Borges is advancing a general argument in favour of his own particular guild (the Men of Letters) against Don Quixote's claim that the life of action is superior. He is also making his own words into something more than words, into action.


The narrative form that Borges uses in order to make his argument is one that he denigrated at the start of his poetic career: the anecdote. This has not often been considered the chief glory and strength of modern poetry. Lorca, when he wanted to downplay the poem's popularity, spoke dismissively of ‘La casada infiel’ as ‘pura anécdota andaluza’ and such detractors of contemporary poetry as A. S. Byatt continue to use the term with disapproval, most damningly in conjunction with the adjective ‘prosey’. The pejorative connotations of the term arise mainly from the claim that all anecdotes make: namely, that the events recounted actually occurred. This claim to historical veracity is the ostensible raison d’être of all anecdotes and present in what Heinz Grothe, in the only monograph on the subject, calls ‘the first scientific definition of the anecdote’, that of Dalitzsch:

Anekdote ist die einen Einzelmenschen behandelnde, kurze Geschichte ohne Nebenhandlung, in der durch individuelle Züge des Handelns und Sprechens die Characteristik einer Persönlichkeit oder Kennzeichnung einer gemeinsamen, womoglich allgemein-menschlichen Eigenschaft einer Gruppe von Menschen geboten wird. Dabei ist wesentlich, dass diese Geschichte entweder tatsächlich auf einer historische Begebenheit zurückgeht oder wenigstens den Anspruch erhebt, für historisch genommen zu werden in Bezug auf das zu charakterisierende Individuum.5

(The anecdote is a brief tale without a subplot which has a single protagonist and which, through the particular details of the action and speech, reveals the characteristics of a person or the general qualities of a group of people. Therefore it is essential that this story is either actually based on historical fact or at least claims to be historical fact as far as the individual in question is concerned.)

Anecdotes are merely anecdotal because they recount actual events that somehow fall short of the magical transformations we require of art. True but trivial, they are more journalism than literature, raw material rather than polished work.

The most obvious way the anecdote lays claim to historical veracity is by dealing with figures and national traits that are known to its audience; it does not create new characters. In direct oral communication, this means that the raconteur, aware of the make-up of his audience, will often speak of mutual acquaintances. In published texts and on radio and television broadcasts, one has no such assurance and the whole realm of mutual acquaintances and figures from one's private life is eliminated. The subject of the anecdote becomes either the famous or the raconteur himself. The fact that collections of published anecdotes, such as the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, are usually ordered by the name of the subject attests to the importance of the reader's ability to recognize the subject.

Of course, a story that concerns a historical figure is not necessarily true. The real test of an anecdote is a poetic one: if not historically verifiable or even accurate, it need only be symbolically true. Grothe writes:

Der Urstoff einer Anekdote kann weit zurückreichen. Ob er ‘wirklich wahr’ ist, also tatsächlich geschehen, oder ob er ‘erdacht’ worden ist, das ist eigentlich unwichtig: wesentlich ist, dass das besondere Geschehnis, so wie es geschildert wird, hatte geschehen können.6

(The basis of an anecdote may lie deep in the past. It is basically unimportant whether it is ‘really true’, i.e. actually happened, or whether it was ‘invented’: what is essential is that the particular event as it is represented could have happened.)

In his ‘Nota sobre Walt Whitman’, Borges makes the same point rather more forcefully:

Un hecho falso puede ser esencialmente cierto. Es fama que Enrique I de Inglaterra no volvió a sonreír después de la muerte de su hijo; el hecho, quizá falso, puede ser verdadero como símbolo del abatimiento del rey.7

This test of poetic or symbolic truth is what governs the elaboration of anecdotes in poetry; this is particularly true of poems which present a historical situation that cannot be verified, say, the thoughts of Whitman as he looks at himself in the mirror for the last time.

Because the anecdote purports to recount an actual event, involving real figures, it is natural to see it as the record of that event—that is, as an instance of narrative in which language plays a role analogous to the sculptor's marble, merely representing the action of the story. It is narrative at its simplest, a story that tells us something that actually occurred, recounted by an apparently trustworthy and objective narrator whose motives are more or less transparent—or, at least, do not form the main intrigue of the story. Even the self-aggrandizing personal anecdote, the what-Winston-Churchill-said-to-me-when-I-met-him tale, lays claim to being the record of an event.

Things, however, are not quite this simple. In defining the anecdote as ‘something unpublished; a secret history’, Dr. Johnson followed etymology and Greek and Latin usage. Whatever else it may be, the anecdote is first and foremost an oral form and, though Grothe has no qualms about treating it as a ‘literary genre’ (introduced into German literature by an Italian and gaining great popularity in the eighteenth century), we should. No one writes anecdotes; we tell them, record them or write them down. In other words, there is something inherently oral about the anecdote, and the transition from the spoken to the written form involves a modification and loss of these qualities. For this reason, whenever poets have sought to bring poetry closer to the ‘language of men’, as Wordsworth did, the anecdote has been a natural form for them to choose.

There is a further sense in which the anecdote is an oral phenomenon: it is a form that is enormously concerned with direct speech and its context. As any collection of them will illustrate, the most typical anecdote involves someone recounting what someone else said in certain circumstances. For this reason, it can be seen as the most basic instance of narrative—the simplest possible combination of description and dialogue, of what Plato called diegesis and mimesis. In some cases, this use of direct speech has been taken to be the defining characteristic of the anecdote: Grothe quotes an anonymous eighteenth-century editor who claimed that the anecdote always contained ‘eine charakterisierende Herzens-oder Geistsäusserung’ (a characteristic utterance of the heart or spirit).8 There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, anecdotes that end in actions or gestures rather than words; nonetheless, these gestures and actions themselves can often be interpreted as speech acts of one sort or another. Even the ‘resourcefulness’ anecdote, the what-so-and-so-did-when-such-and-such-happened story, often carries a symbolic meaning that resembles verbal exchanges.

The anecdote, then, represents action—yes, but the action that it represents most often is speech. To return to Dr. Johnson's definition, it is unpublished utterance: what is unpublished, though, is not the circumstantial detail of the framing narrative but the direct speech which this circumscribes. In other words, the anecdote is speech, originally perhaps something like the scattered bon mots of orators, and the framing narratives, or circumstances, simply come attached, like the bibliographical references of a published work. In fact, the editor of the proceedings of a recent colloquium on the subject defines the anecdote as ‘un apophtègme en action’, and cites Chamfort's Caractères et anecdotes as illustrating particularly well ‘ce passage d’une forme aphoristique à une forme narrative’.9 A great many anecdotes simply supply the context for memorable or epigrammatic speech.

The context, however, is essential. From a certain perspective, it is possible to claim that all poems that situate speech in a certain context are anecdotal. Telling us who said what and where and when, such poems bind their words to particular circumstances which we, through lack of empathy or understanding, may be unwilling to identify with or look beyond.10 The combination of direct speech and circumstance or ‘framing narrative’ that characterizes anecdotal poems also stands behind other forms of poetry. When information regarding these circumstances is incorporated into a character's speech and the framing narrative is discarded, the result is a dramatic monologue. If the framing narrative is discarded completely and no information incorporated into the speech, the result is an occasional poem—a work which, while not recounting an anecdote, refers implicitly to one, most often in its title.


There is no development that characterizes Borges' mature poetry (that is, the works that followed Cuaderno de San Martín [1929]) more than his adoption and continual use of the anecdote. As a young ultraísta, he denounced the ‘anecdotismo gárrulo’ of his contemporaries and championed metaphor as the ‘elemento primordial’ of poetry;11 as an aging poet, however, it was the anecdote that his imagination repeatedly resorted to. Following Borges' own theoretical preoccupations, however, most critics have concentrated on metaphor as the barometer by which to measure the changes in his poetry. Thus Guillermo Sucre traces the poet's evolution from the extravagances of ultraísmo to the sobriety of a poetry that is ‘pobre e inmortal’.12 The official source of this view is Borges' 1950 essay, ‘Lametáfora’, which recants on ultraísta claims and advocates the simple and eternal similes while criticizing the Islandic kenningar and the baroque conceits of Góngora. In the well-known story, ‘La busca de Averroes’, it is worth noting, the same theme surfaces: Borges has the character Averroes defend the use of a cliché (the blind camel of destiny) against the argument that ‘cinco siglos de admiración la habían gastado’.13

The absolute predominance that the ultraístas gave to metaphor had other consequences. Since they assumed that metaphor was solely the creation of individual genius and not also popular speech, the diction and sentiment of their work tended to remain self-consciously literary. The poems of Borges' first book, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), are wistfully descriptive evocations of the Argentinian capital. The gently ironic lines the later Borges addresses to a minor poet of the Anthology might almost serve to describe the poet of that early volume:

Dieron a otros gloria interminable los dioses,
inscripciones y exergos y monumentos y puntuales historiadores;
de ti sólo sabemos, oscuro amigo,
que oíste al ruiseñor, una tarde.


If it is hard to find one poem in the collection that does not place the poet in the city streets at dusk, it is harder still to see how such work could ever be considered avant-garde. The poems are simply too intent on nostalgically reconstituting the city of the poet's birth.

The delicacy of these early poems contrasts sharply with the robust polemic of the essays that accompanied them. In an article entitled ‘Ultraísmo’, published in Nosotros in 1921, Borges vigorously attacked the two dominant poetic schools of the period:

Antes de comenzar la explicación de la novísima estética, conviene desentrañar la hechura del rubenianismo y anecdotismo vigentes, que los poetas ultraístas nos proponemos llevar de calles y abolir. Y no hablo del clasicismo, pues el concepto que de la lírica tuvieron la mayoría de los clásicos—esto es, la urdidura de narraciones versificadas y embanderadas de imágenes, o el sonoro desarrollo dialéctico de cualquier intención ascética o jactancioso rendimiento amatorio—no campea hoy en parte alguna.14

The most interesting part of this manifesto, however, are not the jabs that Borges takes at the Parnassian followers of Rubén Darío; it is his criticism of ‘el anecdotismo vigente’ and the so-called ‘sencillistas’ who propagated it:

Por cierto, muchos poetas jóvenes que aseméjanse inicialmente a los ultraístas en su tedio común ante la cerrazón rubeniana, han hecho bando aparte, intentando rejuvenecer la lírica mediante las anécdotas rimadas y el desaliño experto. Me refiero a los sencillistas, que tienden a buscar poesía en lo común y corriente y a tachar de su vocabulario toda palabra prestigiosa. Pero éstos se equivocan también. Desplazar el lenguaje cotidiano hacia la literatura, es un error. Sabido es que en la conversacion hilvanamos de cualquier modo los vocablos y distribuimos los guarismos verbales con generosa vaguedad […] El miedo a la retórica—miedo justificado y legítimo—empuja los sencillistas a otra clase de retórica vergonzante, tan postiza y deliberada como la jerigonza académica, o las palabrejas en lunfardo que se desparraman por cualquier obra nacional para crear el ambiente. Además, hay otro error más grave que su estética. Ni la escritura apresurada y jadeante de algunas fragmentarias percepciones ni los gironcillos autobiográficos arrancados a la totalidad de los estados de conciencia y malamente copiados, merecen ser poesía. Con esa voluntad logrera de aprovechar el menor ápice vital, con esa comenzón continua de encuadernar el universo y encajonarlo en una estantería, sólo se llega a un sempiterno espionaje del alma propia, que tal vez resquebraja e histrioniza al hombre que lo ejerce.15

The poets are reprimanded for their use of everyday language and for their autobiographical subject-matter; it is noteworthy that the two are seen to go hand in hand. And the autobiographical impulse is what leads them, ‘with the miserly desire to profit from the tiniest fraction of life’, to pass off such personal anecdotes as poetry.

There are, we may note, several difficulties that Borges fails to consider here. Firstly, if one writes autobiography in anything other than a low anecdotal style, there is a danger that the author's self-importance will sabotage the whole venture. Julius Caesar and Charles de Gaulle attempted to solve the problem by composing their memoirs in the third person. (Affecting just the ‘shameful’ plain-speaking rhetoric Borges criticizes, present-day politicians hire ghost writers to compose their memoirs in the first person, as if that were a guarantee of their sincerity.) When Wordsworth describes childhood card games as ‘strife too humble to be named in verse’ or Seamus Heaney likens himself to ‘a fleet god’ running through the tunnels of the London Underground, we may start to wonder just who the author thinks he is.16 Likewise, if an author decides to write his autobiography in a form that is not anecdotal, the suggestion that he or she perceives an overall and perhaps divinely-inspired pattern or destiny to their lives can be similarly disconcerting.

For Borges, the answer to this dilemma is simple: not to write autobiographical verse. Or, rather, since all verse is inescapably autobiographical, not to write verse that is autobiographical in the traditional manner. This is how that 1921 ultraísta manifesto ends:

Un resumen final. La poesía lírica no ha hecho otra cosa hasta ahora que bambolearse entre la cacería de efectos auditivos o visuales, y el prurito de querer expresar la personalidad de su autor. El primero de ambos empeños atañe a la pintura o a la música, y el segundo se asienta en un error psicológico, ya que la personalidad, el yo, es sólo una ancha denominación colectiva que abarca la pluralidad de todos los estados de conciencia. Cualquier estado nuevo que se agregue a los otros llega a formar parte esencial del yo, y a expresarlo: lo mismo lo individual que lo ajeno. Cualquier acontecimiento, cualquier percepción, cualquier idea, nos expresa con igual virtud; vale decir, puede añadirse a nosotros […] Superando esa inútil terquedad en fijar verbalmente un yo vagabundo que se transforma en cada instante, el ultraísmo tiende a la meta primicial de toda poesía, esto es, a la transmutación de la realidad palpable del mundo en realidad interior y emocional.17

In other words, there is a part of the self that is unbounded by time and space and has the potential to be anyone. As Borges writes in a famous story from Ficciones, ‘Acaso Schopenhauer tiene razón: yo soy los otros, cualquier hombre es todos los hombres, Shakespeare es de algún modo el miserable John Vincent Moon’.18 The same idea is restated in the prologue to Borges' last book, Los conjurados: ‘No hay poeta, por mediocre que sea, que no haya escrito el mejor verso de la literatura, pero también los más desdichados.’19 In writing about Walt Whitman or Robert Browning, the poet is being just as autobiographical as if he were writing about his own life—he is writing about his own life, his own imaginative life. In this sense, this 1921 essay foreshadows all of Borges' later doublings and disguises of the self, while providing a rationale for the kind of anecdote he would eventually use.

The criticism of the anecdote found in these early declarations echoes criticisms made by other avant-garde groups in Spain and France at the time. It also contrasts sharply with the practice of the mature Borges. Beginning with the collections entitled El hacedor (1960) and El otro, el mismo (1964), some of whose contents were composed as early as 1943, we find poem after poem presenting us with short anecdotal situations: historical figures (writers, soldiers, philosophers) go for walks, dream up lines of verse, read newspapers and—most frequently—die. In Sucre's words, this later poetry ‘sigue el fluir de una meditación que no desdeña lo cotidiano, lo anecdótico’.20 In the prologue to Elogio de la sombra (1969), Borges seems to admit as much, suggesting slyly that these developments are due to his readers' demands:

No soy poseedor de una estética. El tiempo me ha enseñado algunas astucias: […] preferir las palabras habituales a las palabras asombrosas; intercalar en un relato rasgos circunstanciales, exigidos ahora por el lector …


These ‘circumstantial details, which readers now demand’ are in large part the framing narratives of the anecdote: when and where and to whom such a thing was said. The prologue to Los conjurados reiterates the claim in very similar terms:

En este libro hay muchos sueños. Aclaro que fueron dones de la noche o, más precisamente, del alba, no ficciones deliberadas. Apenas si me he atrevido a agregar uno que otro rasgo circunstancial, de los que exige nuestro tiempo, a partir de Defoe.21

Given the often abstract nature of Borges' thought, such details are perhaps welcome. If his poetry is at times overly cerebral (his conquistador proclaims ‘Yo soy el Arquetipo’ [483]), such details help mitigate the tendency towards abstraction.22

This adoption of the anecdote does not, however, have the consequences one might expect. In his book on the Generation of 1927, Tony Geist comments on an ultraísta manifesto (that of Prisma 1921) in the following manner:

Borges et al. intiman aquí, sin llegar a enunciarlo, uno de los postulados básicos del ultraísmo. Para conseguir esta independencia de la metáfora, que produce en el poema ‘la contextura … de los marconigramas’, es imprescindible la supresión de la anécdota. De la realidad exterior, que rehuye el poeta, procede la anécdota, la historia vulgar que sujeta la metáfora y facilita su comprensión y traducción. Sólo la figura liberada de todo nexo con el mundo extrapoético puede crear un poema ‘despojado de todas sus vísceras anecdóticas y sentimentales, podado de toda su secular hojarasca retórica y de su sofística finalidad pragmática’.23

This connection to exterior reality, as we have seen, is made through its claim to historical veracity and its use of historical figures, and by the fact that it is primarily an oral form. That is, the anecdote uses both the personalities and the language of the streets.

Borges' anecdotes do not, however, tend to bring the reader any closer to what Geist calls exterior reality; nor do they concern the ‘historias vulgares’ of contemporary life. And only very rarely are they autobiographical in any traditional sense. Instead, the great majority of them concern the historical and literary figures of a bookish past. This tends to confirm the least generous estimates of his poetry: that it consists mainly of outmoded and ceremonious exercises in which the dust of libraries supplants the fire of original inspiration. Hence, the relentless parade of names, the patriotic odes (‘Oda compuesta en 1960’, ‘Oda escrita en 1966’), the eulogies (of England, France, the German language, wine and chess) and the elegies, the sonnets and the tightly-rhymed quatrains. The value of the poems, one might then argue, consists mainly in the insights they provide into the mind of their creator: they are seen as exhibits in the arcane field of Borges studies, the literary allusions and esoteric references to be deciphered by initiates who share the enthusiasms of their author and know the precise significance of such references in their master's universe.

There are, thankfully, other ways of looking at Borges' poetry. If, as he argued in that 1921 ultraísta manifesto, the self is nothing more than ‘a collective noun designating the sum of all states of consciousness’, including those imagined, then the poet's imaginary experience of other writers' lives and works constitutes a part of his own identity. Sixty-two years later, the answer Borges gave to a question at a conference both explains this reliance on such literary and historical figures (which I have suggested is characteristic of the published anecdote) and illuminates his notion of the self:

Question: Señor Borges, it seems that some authors end up hating their characters a bit, like Unamuno maybe with Augusto Pérez. Is there a Borgesian character that you don’t like that much now, or for which you lack any affection at all?

Borges: But I’ve never created a character. It’s always me, subtly disguised. No, I can’t invent anyone—I’m not Dickens, I’m not Balzac—I can’t invent people. I’m always myself, the same self in different times or places, but always, irreparably, incurably, myself.24

And that self is what you imagine it to be.

The first collection of Borges' mature poetry, El hacedor, begins with a quatrain in which the poet savours the irony of his fellow creator, God, in placing a blind man amidst so many books:

Nadie rebaje a lágrima o reproche
Esta declaracion de la maestría
De Dios, que con magnífica ironía
Me dio a la vez los libros y la noche.


If what follows is unabashedly literary in subject matter (‘Yo, que me figuraba el Paraíso / Bajo la especie de una biblioteca’), it is because the poet's reading material forms a part of his experience that he assumes is much more interesting than the banal details of his daily life. At the end of his 1977 Obra poética, in the epilogue to Historia de la noche, Borges is still in his library, foreseeing our objections:

De cuantos libros he publicado, el más íntimo es éste. Abunda en referencias librescas; también abundó en ellas Montaigne, inventor de la intimidad. Cabe decir lo mismo de Robert Burton, cuya inagotable Anatomy of Melancholy—una de las obras más personales de la literatura—es una suerte de centón que no se concibe sin largos anaqueles. Como ciertas ciudades, como ciertas personas, una parte muy grata de mi destino fueron los libros. ¿Me será permitido repetir que la biblioteca de mi padre ha sido el hecho capital de mi vida? La verdad es que nunca he salido de ella, como no salió nunca de la suya Alonso Quijano. (558)

Borges' argument is the same as Cervantes': literature and literary models condition our perception of reality, and therefore are part of it. The use of literary allusions to defend one's use of literary allusions, referring to Montaigne, and then Burton, is almost self-parody. It is also an example of words doing and saying at the same time—what one might call ‘self-enacting discourse’, that carries out what it describes. The paragraph both makes a verifiable statement about the world (are Montaigne's essays and Burton's Anatomy full of literary allusions?) and, like Austin's performative, does something (alluding to Montaigne and Burton) that can only be done in words. In a library full of words saying things, Borges is performing little tricks, making them do things.


One of the authors most often alluded to by Borges is Emerson and the sonnet that bears his name as its title (237) is typical of Borges' procedures. It presents a picture of the New England writer at a certain point in time and space, something like a vignette from an imaginary biography. Both the title and the demonstrative of the poem's first verse, ‘Ese alto caballero americano’, show the author assuming that the reader will recognize his subject; it is also assumed that we will recognize the significance of the poem's other literary reference, the volume of Montaigne that Emerson closes. The poem's first eight lines sketch, in a fashion that recalls the evocative mode of Borges' early work, a picture of Emerson abandoning his reading and walking out towards the sunset:

Ese alto caballero americano
Cierra el volumen de Montaigne y sale
En busca de otro goce que no vale
Menos, la tarde que ya exalta el llano.
Hacia el hondo poniente y su declive,
Hacia el confín que ese poniente dora,
Camina por los campos como ahora
Por la memoria de quien esto escribe.

The last six lines then transcribe his thoughts in first-person direct speech. (Though this thematic division follows the Italian model of two quatrains and two tercets, the poem is actually a modified Shakespearean sonnet, rhymed ABBA CDDC EFFE GG, a form often used by Borges). Thus we move from an exterior vision that places the poem's subject in context to direct speech presenting his thoughts—the one to be weighed against the other.

Mere evocation, however, is not the poem's goal; if we look closely at the details of the first eight lines, we can see that Emerson is portrayed at a moment in his life that, more than defining, may be described as epiphanic. It is the point that Borges has defined on more than one occasion:

Cualquier destino, por largo y complicado que sea, consta en realidad de un solo momento: el momento en que el hombre sabe para siempre quien es.25

Un hombre se propone la tarea de dibujar el mundo. A lo largo de los años puebla un espacio con imágenes de provincias, de reinos, de montañas, de bahías, de naves, de islas, de peces, de habitaciones, de instrumentos, de astros, de caballos y de personas. Poco antes de morir, descubre que ese paciente laberinto de líneas traza la imagen de su cara.


This revelation of the self, then, occurs just before death. If we reread the first two quatrains allegorically, it is clear that Emerson is dying. Montaigne, the subject of one of Emerson's best-known essays, is just the kind of author one reads for consolation at the end of one's life; to be closing the book on him and then walking into the sunset is, in figurative terms, to die twice—to die the death of the East Coast intellectual and the very Western death of a man of action.

But there is also another sense in which Borges' Emerson closes the book on Montaigne. In this final moment, able to see the (apparently limitless) limits of his achievements, he discovers who he is and yet, unlike the great French stoic, is unwilling to accept the picture he sees:

Piensa: Leí los libros esenciales
Y otros compuse que el oscuro olvido
No ha de borrar. Un dios me ha concedido
Lo que es dado saber a los mortales.
Por todo el continente anda mi nombre;
No he vivido. Quisiera ser otro hombre.

The paradox of the last line, Emerson's dissatisfaction with his life despite his great renown, may refer to some detail of the real Emerson's life or thought.26 The more likely cause, though, is that Emerson regrets having devoted his life to literature and philosophy.27 He has not lived—that is, he has not lived the life of action. In closing the book on Montaigne, Emerson is closing the book on books.

Practically all the anecdotal poems that Borges wrote about historical figures end with similar epiphanic moments. In fact, an inordinate number of them concern writers who, like Emerson, are about to die. After reading them, one is left with the feeling that Borges is using the other figures to contemplate vicariously his own death: Snorri Sturluson, Whitman and Heine, among others, are shown facing their own deaths in evocative sonnets. The revelations they experience often consist of paradoxes similar to that of ‘Emerson’: Snorri, the author of bloody sagas glorifying the bravery of his countrymen, realizes that he is a coward; Whitman realizes that he, the aging man of flesh and blood, is no longer the Walt Whitman of the poems that will survive him; and Heine, in contrast, is told by the poet that his poems will not save him from death. In other poems, the epiphany presented is one of artistic creation: Quevedo thinks of a memorable line, Petrarch invents the sonnet, and Cervantes (over and over again) dreams of Don Quixote.

In a sense, these poems might be more accurately described as vignettes. They have none of the accidental, fortuitous or surprising qualities that usually colour anecdotes about the famous. Nor do they portray their subjects in society, speaking with other people, as most such anecdotes do. Instead, they use atmospheric details to construct portraits that attempt to grasp, in solitude, an essential part of their subjects' characters—most often, that final picture of themselves that they apprehend just before death. Although they implicitly claim to be historically true, we as readers have no way of verifying their accuracy and, more significantly, realize that neither has Borges—what counts then is their poetic (or symbolic) truth. We judge them as fabrications to place beside our own imaginary pictures of their subjects. And, in doing so, we judge the justice of Borges' imagination.

Nonetheless, the poems are also more than disinterested vignettes or portraits. In each case, the poet has his motives and the subject has something to tell him. If we take the model of the meeting-the-famous anecdote, the poem then becomes the narration of the encounter between Borges' imagination and Emerson. The key point in these poems is the shift from the social niceties and exterior description of the subject to the presentation of the inner revelation he experiences, i.e. what he has to tell the narrator—and sometimes what the narrator has to tell him. At this point, the poem moves from representing action to presenting speech. In the sonnets, this shift usually occurs after the first two quatrains; this thematic division following the Italian model contrasts with the modified Shakespearean sonnet of three quatrains and a couplet, rhymed ABBA CDDC EFFE GG, that Borges often uses. The result is that the Italian form seems superimposed upon the Shakespearean model and the rigidity of the thematic division is mitigated formally. This shift in perspective casts the narrator, sometimes rather clumsily, into the role of an omniscient, mind-reading clairvoyant. As in other sonnets, the thoughts and words of the subject in ‘Emerson’ are introduced by the verb ‘pensar’ placed at the start of the ninth verse. (In some poems, the verb ‘saber’ is used.) What follows the verb, however, is first-person speech. It is both the momentary revelation of the self that Borges often refers to, and something else: speech delivered with authority. In other words, Borges is borrowing the figure of Emerson to endow his own words with significance and power. In passing, we can note the verbal ambiguity that binds verses 7–9:

Camina por los campos como ahora
Por la memoria de quien esto escribe.
Piensa: Leí los libros esenciales …

The obvious subject of the verb form ‘piensa’ is Emerson walking through the fields; there is, nonetheless, another third-person singular antecedent for the verb, the ‘quien esto escribe’ that immediately precedes ‘piensa’. The grammatical subject of the verb, then, is both Emerson and Borges: they are both united in the rather grand intonations of the first person that follows.

In ‘Emerson’, we know from the title who the subject of the poem is and therefore are led to have certain expectations, which the poem both fulfils and frustrates. Employing a favourite Borges trick, the sonnet entitled ‘Camden, 1892’ (239) reverses this procedure: it describes an apparently banal and everyday scene only to reveal its significance in the final verse. An old man turns away from the newspapers and his coffee to look at himself in the mirror:

Piensa, ya sin asombro, que esa cara
Es él. La distraída mano toca
La turbia barba y la saqueada boca.
No está lejos el fin. Su voz declara:
Casi no soy, pero mis versos ritman
La vida y su esplendor. Yo fui Walt Whitman.

These poems simulate or reproduce what might be called the chance-encounter-with-the-famous anecdote: we start off with mundane details, maybe something mildly intriguing, are introduced to a curious figure or activity, and then are flabbergasted to discover who or what it was. Unlike ‘Emerson’, ‘Camden, 1892’ is able to present its subject in his casual wear and slippers. (Not that Whitman would have had it any other way.) The surprise, then, is how the everyday or apparently insignificant then becomes invested with meaning.

There are other differences. In ‘Camden, 1892’, the verb ‘pensar’ is used to introduce an indirect account of Whitman's last thoughts; it is only with the rather declamatory ‘su voz declara’ that we move into direct speech. Although the declaration is grandiose, we note that the speaker's mouth is ‘saqueada’—‘pillaged’ or ‘looted’. The poet has exhaled his wonderful poetry and is now all used up. The tedium and banality of his present contrast with the glorious declaration: ‘Yo fui Walt Whitman.’ ‘I was Somebody’ is not something one would normally say in everyday (non-theatrical) life, as those who can speak usually still are. Borges' Whitman has become his verses and the whole of the poem builds up to the final lapidary declaration which, like and unlike that of Ozymandias in Shelley's sonnet, asks us look upon his works and rejoice.

In both poems, we are presented with direct speech in the voice of the poems' subjects. Like an officious master of ceremonies, the narrator tells us (or doesn’t) who this poem's subject will be, hints at how eminent he is and then bids him speak for himself. There is, it seems, nothing more important in these poems than the attempt Borges makes to endow a certain set of words with authority—the authority accorded to age and eminence. The words ‘Yo fui Walt Whitman’ become a performative, a verbal enactment of the poet's death.

But though the figures of these poets are borrowed and the words put in their mouths, the ultimate responsibility—and authority—rests with Borges. It is he who has concocted the situation and who reports the words; he, furthermore, edits them, thinks them worth reporting and suggests the significance they have. If ‘Emerson’ hints at the tacit link between narrator and subject, other poems show the narrator moving to direct speech, addressing the subject of the poem. The sonnet about Heinrich Heine, ‘París, 1856’ (240), ends with Borges shifting from this third-person clairvoyance to second-person address:

Piensa en las delicadas melodías
Cuyo instrumento fue, pero bien sabe
Que el trino no es del árbol ni del ave
Sino del tiempo y de sus vagos días.
No han de salvarte, no, tus ruiseñores,
Tus noches de oro y tus cantadas flores.

Here, it is not the famous writer who has something to tell the poet but rather the opposite. The encounter is closer to the typical anecdote: it rouses one of the characters to significant, if not terribly original or memorable, direct speech. In this sense, the poem is an event, an encounter between Borges and the shade of Heine—and not an attempt by Borges to squeeze some wisdom from a vignette. The narrator's mind-reading clairvoyance, what he knows about Heine and about time, is what presumably gives him the authority to dispatch the German poet in this fashion.

In all these poems, Borges' apparent omniscience, his ability to enter the minds of his characters, masks something else: the poet's absolute power and freedom to invent whatever he wants. When Borges pretends to be reporting the words or thoughts of another character, he is following a convention adopted to give those words power and significance; he is also disguising the fact that he has the power to determine exactly what those words will be. The use of a famous third person mitigates this power to some extent: if the sonnet is about Emerson, the poet is forced to consider what the reader's idea of Emerson might be, and to provide a convincing portrait of him. This, in turn, may lead to certain ethical concerns involved with the writing of history. Given that one is using the name of a real person, how ‘true’, in a symbolic sense, must one's portrait of him or her be? Can a writer simply manipulate events and personalities to suit his own ends? For the most part, Borges' philosophical idealism short-circuits such inquiries. Nothing exists outside the mind. We all have our own different Emersons, and they are part of ourselves.

If the clairvoyance of such poems as ‘Emerson’ wears thin after a while, it is because we sense that Borges is not acknowledging the true source of the words—himself. ‘Una rosa y Milton’ (213), one of Borges' best sonnets, is explicitly about the power the poet has to rescue, or invent, objects and events arbitrarily from history. Remembering the etymology of the word, we might even read the poem as a symbolic justification (and modus operandi) for Borges' ‘anthology’ of famous last words from the poets:

De las generaciones de las rosas
Que en el fondo del tiempo se han perdido
Quiero que una se salve del olvido,
Una sin marca o signo entre las cosas
Que fueron. El destino me depara
Este don de nombrar por vez primera
Esa flor silenciosa, la postrera
Rosa que Milton acercó a su cara,
Sin verla. Oh tu bermeja o amarilla
O blanca rosa de un jardín borrado,
Deja mágicamente tu pasado
Inmemorial y en este verso brilla,
Oro, sangre o marfil o tenebrosa
Como en sus manos, invisible rosa.

The subject-matter recalls a quandary formulated by Coleridge and cited by Borges in Otras inquisiciones: ‘Si un hombre atravesara el Paraíso en un sueño, y le dieran una flor como prueba de que había estado allí, y si al despertar encontrara esa flor en su mano … ¿entonces, qué?’28 Here, Borges, who always ‘figuraba el Paraíso / Bajo la especie de una biblioteca’ (120), retrieves a rose from the dusty past and bids it to open and glow, like a rose, in his verse.

Unlike the Heine sonnet, however, this poem retains the fortuitous quality that often characterizes oral anecdotes. It is not destiny, as the poet claims, but the arbitrary power of poetic creation that accords him the gift of naming the flower. The last rose Milton lifts to his face could just be any rose—in fact, as the last six lines make clear, it is just any rose. Borges tells us he doesn’t know whether it is red, yellow or white, gold, blood or ivory. But neither did Milton know its colour: the significance of it being Milton is that he, like the author of the poem, is blind. The poem thus conjures up the flower only to make it disappear, ‘tenebrosa / Como en sus manos, invisible rosa’. The poet makes us see and then makes us not see. The poem thus becomes an event—it doesn’t recount one. The last six lines, as in so many of the other sonnets, contain direct speech that leads us inside the mind of the poem's subject, ‘tenebrosa / Como en sus manos’. The words, however, are the narrator's. By addressing the flower, his words do what they say—they summon the rose into existence. Borges is drawing our attention to the particular actions that words—and men of letters—are capable of. At the same time, he is acknowledging the real source of his words, and the arbitrary power that he, as poet, possesses.


In the poems examined so far, Borges has shown men of letters in moments when their speech has become tantamount to action. There is, however, another side to the coin—that of the men of action and their approach to words. The most impressive and idiosyncratic of Borges' poems dealing with the life of action is ‘Poema conjetural’ (186—87). As a dramatic monologue, it does away with the shift from external to internal that characterized the sonnets; instead, it has to integrate an external vision of its speaker into his speech in a way that balances lyric revelation with narrative detail. The conjecture of the poem's title consists, in the first instance, of the poet's imagining the lawyer Francisco Laprida's description of his own death in battle. Besides the apparent impossibility of someone lucidly describing his own death, there exists the further unlikelihood that Laprida's thoughts before death would include the opening description of the battle:

Zumban las balas en la tarde última.
Hay viento y hay cenizas en el viento,
se dispersan el día y la batalla
deforme, y la victoria es de los otros.
Vencen los bárbaros, los gauchos vencen.

The poem's prefatory note tells us that these are his thoughts before death: ‘El doctor Francisco Laprida, asesinado el día 22 de septiembre de 1829 por los montoneros de Aldao, piensa antes de morir:’. Nonetheless, being caught up in the fighting and fleeing, there is no reason why he should need to describe it—even to himself.

Of course, these anomalies are caused by the need to integrate an external perspective into Laprida's speech. Part of the problem is that the setting of the poem supplies the speaker with no obvious interlocutor. In Borges' short story-cum-dramatic monologue, ‘Deutsches Requiem’, a Nazi war criminal defiantly addresses the court that will sentence him to death: we accept his descriptions of himself and his work because we know it is part of an exculpatory explanation directed at others. In ‘Poema conjetural’, there is no such audience—if Francisco Laprida is talking to anyone, he is talking to himself. The poem is thus what Barbara Herrnstein Smith calls ‘interior speech’.29 But rather than the chaotic string of impressions such a term might lead us to expect, Laprida presents us with a beautifully constructed and rhetorically polished oration. There is nothing inherently ‘interior’ about the style of the poem; one might, in fact, question whether there is anything inherently ‘interior’ about any style of writing. There is likewise no attempt to emphasize the drama of the situation by making it affect the speaker's descriptive abilities: no enemy bullet is going to stop him from finding le mot juste. The entire poem, with its dramatic setting and descriptive felicities, is really just Laprida's last words, an elaborate equivalent of the direct speech that closes so many of Borges' sonnets.

The real reason Laprida has for describing himself to himself is revealed in his middle name, Narciso. This, nonetheless, is convincing enough: the narrator's narcissistic dwelling on the details of his defeat and death manages to fulfil, without undue clumsiness, the practical necessity of supplying us with enough circumstantial information to understand what is happening. In other words, the arrogant tone of Laprida's voice is the perfect vehicle for conveying the necessary self-description:

Yo, que estudié las leyes y los cánones,
yo, Francisco Narciso de Laprida,
cuya voz declar´daó la independencia
de estas crueles provincias, derrotado,
de sangre y de sudor manchado el rostro,
sin esperanza ni temor, perdido,
huyo hacia el Sur por arrabales últimos.

The whole poem is a self-dramatization, in which Laprida looks in the mirror and, with great aesthetic self-regard, describes himself dying. In fact, given the rapturous tones in which Laprida describes it, one is led to assume that he, like his creator, has often imagined the circumstances of his death. And, like the poem, this death is a composition.30

In discussing the young Borges' objections to the anecdotal poetry of his contemporaries, I noted that he failed to take into account the risks of writing autobiography in anything other than a low anecdotal style—namely, that the author's self-importance may sabotage the whole venture. ‘I looked resplendent in my white uniform as I strode energetically up to the podium to receive the well-deserved medal from the President of the Republic’ is a claim that one instinctively wants to dispute when made in the first person; in the third person, it is much easier to let pass. In ‘Poema conjetural’, the autobiographical arrogance of the first-person narrator is balanced by his fascination with the details of his defeat and death. The final effect, then, is that of a proud man taking a morbid, quasi-sexual delight in his submission to lowly reality:

Yo que anhelé ser otro, ser un hombre
de sentencias, de libros, de dictámenes,
a cielo abierto yaceré entre ciénagas;
pero me endiosa el pecho inexplicable
un júbilo secreto. Al fin me encuentro
con mi destino sudamericano.

It is this curious morbidity and his fatalism, rather than his pride, that make him most intriguing. He is, we discover, the opposite of Borges' Emerson—a soldier who dies in action but who wished to be a man of letters. In fact, as a trained lawyer, he is, in Cervantes' terms, a man of letters; his ‘South American’ destiny, however, requires that he forgo such cultured, literary aspirations and submit to a violent and ignominious death in a remote and swampy province.

The revelation Laprida experiences before death is, for readers of Borges, no surprise; here, it is spelled out with a kind of rhapsodic pedantry:

A esta ruinosa tarde me llevaba
el laberinto múltiple de pasos
que mis días tejieron desde un día
de la niñez. Al fin he descubierto
la recóndita clave de mis años,
la suerte de Francisco de Laprida,
la letra que faltaba, la perfecta
forma que supo Dios desde el principio.
En el espejo de esta noche alcanzo
mi insospechado rostro eterno. El círculo
se va a cerrar. Yo aguardo que así sea.

Even to his own considerable detriment, Laprida takes aesthetic pleasure in witnessing the completion of fate's design. The description he gives is practically a catalogue of all the different ways of representing death in Borges' work: ‘los espejos, laberintos y espadas que ya prevé mi resignado lector’, as he referred self-mockingly to them in the prologue to Elogio de la sombra (316).

Unlike many of the sonnets, however, ‘Poema conjetural’ does not end with this revelation of self. Instead, Borges has his speaker describe the very end of his life in the same elegant unrhymed hendecasyllables:

Pisan mis pies la sombra de las lanzas
que me buscan. Las befas de mi muerte,
los jinetes, las crines, los caballos,
se ciernen sobre mí … Ya el primer golpe,
ya el duro hierro que me raja el pecho,
el íntimo cuchillo en la garganta.

There is no attempt at psychological realism, horror, exclamations and so forth; the death has all been composed and imagined beforehand, and the adjectives chosen. Borges is attempting to make words do the impossible: to send them into battle and through death. The dilemma recalls Ginés de Pasamonte's response when asked by Don Quixote whether he has finished his life story: ‘¿Cómo puede estar acabado [… ] si aún no está acabada mi vida?’.31 Laprida's words end only when the knife slits his throat.

In portraying the experience of a violent death, ‘Poema conjetural’ works by understatement. The key to this is Laprida's morbid aestheticism and a kind of aristocratic bearing and fatalism that prevents him from doing anything unbecoming in the face of death. If we believe there is an actual death in the poem, it is because of the speaker's very composure and fascination with his death, and not any high-pitched attempts at conveying horror. For Francisco de Laprida, a man of action who wished to be one of letters, the poem is an attempt, perhaps his only attempt, to make that action into words. For this reason, it is perhaps not surprising that his words should be wordy and descriptive; that, though a dramatic monologue, the poem should be almost more concerned with description than speech. It is, to paraphrase Orwell's famous comment on Auden's ‘Spain’, not the poem of a man for whom death is just a word but, rather, the poem of a man who wishes to make his death into words. This means it is both the description of a man's death, and the dramatic monologue of someone trying to describe his death.

According to its own premises, ‘Poema conjetural’ is spoken or ‘thought’ by a man of action. Ultimately, however, it is the poem of a man of letters—the poet whose conjecture the poem is. Like Emerson, Laprida wishes, or wished, for a fate that is not his own. Unlike Emerson, his wish is fulfilled: thanks to the conjecture, or intervention, of the poet, the action of his life and death do become words. Although the poem gives a rhapsodic description of Laprida's death in action, the real victors of the poem—and perhaps the cause of the speaker's ‘júbilo secreto’—are the instrument of the conjecture that transforms his defeat into victory: words. In this sense, ‘Poema conjetural’ makes the same argument in favour of the life of letters as the many sonnets concerned with the lives of famous poets. Even when they are romanticizing the soldier's life, the poet's words, like Don Quixote's, uphold his own vocation.


How does the mature Borges' use of the anecdote contrast with his early criticism of anecdotal poetry? By dealing primarily with historical and literary figures, his later poems avoid ‘esa voluntad logrera de aprovechar el menor ápice vital’ that afflicts autobiographical poets. Language and the imagination, he argues, can permit us to be (or to pretend we are) other people in other times. Why then use them to dwell on mundane details of our actual lives? Instead, by using other figures (and a certain amount of mundane detail to create dramatic tension, as in ‘Poema conjetural’), Borges is able to deal with what he views as truly significant themes. Francisco Laprida's dramatic monologue is simply a developed anecdote, a long series of last words uttered in exceptional circumstances. One can bolster this argument further with references to Borges' view of the self, and to the Kabbalah, as Borges no doubt would.

The other criticism of his early anecdotal contemporaries concerned their use of everyday, colloquial language: ‘Desplazar el lenguaje cotidiano hacia la literatura es un error.’ True to this axiom, the poems of his early books remained descriptive treatments of the streets of Buenos Aires, poems which attempted to use language to evoke certain moods and places in the same way an artist might use paint. With the introduction of the anecdote, this approach changed: his poetry started to concern itself with the context and power of speech. In sonnets such as ‘Emerson’, Borges uses a described context to endow flat statements with a sense of drama and authority: the aim is not to stop the reader dead in his tracks with an arresting image but, with a short narrative, to give certain words as much power as possible. Thus the very banal statement that ends ‘Una mañana de 1649’ (276), the sonnet about Charles the First going to his beheading:

No lo infama el patíbulo. Los jueces
No son el Juez. Saluda levemente
Y sonríe. Lo ha hecho tantas veces.

The poem ends with the throw-away phrase that a harried mother might direct at a truant child. What makes it effective is the build-up and the story, the context that it is placed in.

Because of its emphasis on the act of speech, the anecdote permitted the mature Borges to examine, with the arrogance and insecurities of any writer, the contrast between the life of letters and the life of action. The real quandary for Borges, as for his Emerson, was: how can a life of letters become a life of action? As a young ultraísta, Borges attempted to transform the world with metaphor and ended up describing it, in a melancholy literary way. By presenting the figures of other writers in his later poetry, and placing words in their mouths, Borges was able to show their words as actions in their lives. In ‘Una rosa y Milton’, it is Borges himself whose words become an action—the action of summoning up the last rose Milton raised to his face. This desire to convert words into action is carried to the extreme in ‘Poema conjetural’: through the figure of Francisco Laprida, Borges was able to charge verbally into battle and beyond. Francisco Laprida's unfulfilled wish to be a man of letters makes his wordy death that much more plausible.

For the mature and late Borges, poetry is this attempt to make words into action:

La palabra habría sido en el principio un símbolo mágico, que la usura del tiempo desgastaría. La misión del poeta sería restituir a la palabra, siquiera de un modo parcial, su primitiva y ahora oculta virtud. (420)

Unlikely as it may seem, this idea stands behind all Borges' occasional verse, his invocations and his eulogies and his odes. The anecdote, however, creates its own occasion; it provides him with another form to attempt this task, and a context in which to reflect upon it. Looking back on his youth in the prologue to El otro, el mismo (1964), he wrote:

En su cenáculo de la calle Victoria, el escritor—llamémoslo así—Alberto Hidalgo señaló mi costumbre de escribir la misma página dos veces, con variaciones mínimas. Lamento haberle contestado que él era no menos] binario, salvo que en su caso particular la versión primera era de otro. Taleseran los deplorables modales de aquella época, que muchos miran con nostalgia. Todos queríamos ser héroes de anécdotas triviales.


Speaking of repetition and anecdotes, Borges tells an anecdote of which he, however much he regrets it, is the hero. Saying becomes doing, the words action. The libraries and literary salons were perhaps as good an arena for heroism as the pampas and battlefields.


  1. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (Barcelona: Juventud, 1971), 394.

  2. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones (Madrid: Alianza/Emecé, 1971), 56.

  3. Cervantes, El Quijote, 389.

  4. Jorge Luis Borges, Obra poética, 1923–1977 (Madrid: Alianza/Emecé, 1977), 193. Unless otherwise indicated, all poems, prologues and epilogues are quoted from this edition.

  5. Heinz Grothe, Anekdote (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1971), 7. My translation.

  6. Ibid., 94–95. My translation.

  7. Jorge Luis Borges, Obras completas (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1974), 252–53.

  8. Grothe, 6. My translation.

  9. Alain Montandon, L’anecdote (Actes du colloque de Clermont-Ferrand, 1988) (Clermont-Ferrand: Université Blaise Pascal, 1990), vi.

  10. It is instructive to look at the example of a poet who tried to eschew almost all external referents in his work. Writing about Mallarmé's occasional verse in the Times Literary Supplement, 27 January 1989, 75, Richard Sieburth points out:

    Critics have occasionally deplored what they take to be the later Mallarmé's waste of time and talent on such futile fulfilments of epistolary obligation—mere distractions from his real work, mere excuses to go on deferring his ultimate book. It would be wrong, however, to dismiss the greater portion of Mallarmé's correspondence as the empty observance of the rituals of civility—just as it would be misleading to isolate his ‘major’ poetry (all fifty pages of it) from the hundreds of vers de circonstances that he so delighted in inscribing on fans, flyleafs, Easter eggs, or stones. Try as he might to eliminate all traces of chance or personal voice from the field of pure poetic language, most of Mallarmé's writing in fact tends to be profoundly occasional, that is, grounded in accidental social or public circumstance and, more often than not, ironically miming a desire for dialogue.

    In this light, one is tempted to see Mallarmé's occasional verse as the return of what he repressed from this ‘major’ work. The tombeaux, éventails, and other vers de circonstances carry out literally the act that anecdotal poems represent in their framing narratives: they place their utterances in the external world.

  11. Gloria Videla, El ultraísmo (Madrid: Gredos, 1971), 201–03.

  12. Guillermo Sucre, Borges, el poeta (México: UNAM, 1967), 50.

  13. Jorge Luis Borges, El Aleph (Madrid: Alianza, 1971), 101.

  14. Quoted in César Fernández Moreno, Esquema de Borges (Buenos Aires: Perrot, 1957), 50.

  15. Ibid., 50–51.

  16. See William Wordsworth, Prelude in The Oxford Authors: William Wordsworth, ed. Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1984), Book 1, 1, 540; Seamus Heaney, Station Island (London: Faber, 1984), 13.

  17. In Fernández Moreno, 55–56.

  18. Borges, Ficciones, 138.

  19. Jorge Luis Borges, Los conjurados (Madrid: Alianza, 1985), 13.

  20. Sucre, 55.

  21. Borges, Los conjurados, 14.

  22. In the prologue to La cifra, Borges appears to recognize this:

    Mi suerte es lo que suele denominarse poesía intelectual. La palabra es casi un oxímoron; el intelecto (la vigilia) piensa por medio de abstracciones, la poesía (el sueño), por medio de imágenes, de mitos o de fábulas. La poesía intelectual debe entretejer gratamente esos dos procesos.

    See Jorge Luis Borges, La cifra (Madrid: Alianza, 1981), 11.

  23. Anthony Leo Geist, La poética de la generación del 1927 y las revistas literarias (Madrid: Guadarrama, 1980), 53.

  24. Carlos Cortínez, ed., Borges the Poet (Fayetteville: Univ. of Arkansas Press, 1986), 57.

  25. Jorge Luis Borges, Prosa completa (Barcelona: Bruguera, 1980), II, 44.

  26. In fact, the poem probably alludes to Emerson's epigram: ‘The scholar is enchanted by the magic of words on the page until he ends up leading a life as thin and dry as the paper they are printed on.’ I quote, paraphrasing, from memory since I have been unable to locate the sentence, either in Emerson's work or the context in which I first read it.

  27. These last lines echo, in less harsh terms, the effect of an earlier poem, ‘El poeta declara su nombradía’, which, after cataloguing an apocryphal Arabian poet's enormous success, ends with the wish, ‘Ojalá yo hubiera nacido muerto’ (167).

  28. Jorge Luis Borges, Prosa completa (Barcelona: Bruguera, 1980), II, 139.

  29. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, On the Margins of Discourse (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), 205.

  30. In Poetry of Experience (New York: Norton, 1957), Robert Langbaum discusses ‘the self-descriptive convention’ in Shakespeare ‘whereby the good characters speak of themselves frankly as good and the wicked as wicked’; this, he argues, is ‘the entirely adequate expression of an absolutist world-view’ (162). One might claim that Laprida's own self-description derives from a similarly absolute view of the world, as both the mention of ‘barbarians’ at the start of the poem and the description of the ‘ruinosa tarde’ suggest.

  31. Cervantes, El Quijote, 209.

Beret E. Strong (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11173

SOURCE: “Borges and Girondo: Who Led the Vanguardia?” in The Poetic Avant-Garde: The Groups of Borges, Auden, and Breton, Northwestern University Press, 1997, pp. 71–97.

[In the following excerpt, Strong contrasts the relationship of Borges and his fellow Argentine writer Oliviero Girondo to the Spanish modernist movement known as Ultraísmo.]


In the 1920s, the Argentine vanguardia valued Borges's lyric poems more highly than Girondo's prose poems. Aside from their mutual commitment to the use of metaphor and to a couple of new literary journals, the two poets had little in common. In important ways Borges was as conservative and traditional as Girondo was radical and avant-garde. That Borges's early work was at that time more highly valued than Girondo's is partly because of the literary establishment's conservatism and the vanguardia's unwillingness to risk upsetting that establishment. Where Girondo was critical of the wealthy, state institutions, the Catholic Church, and the sexual mores of his day, Borges avoided topical issues. He changed course several times in his early years, while Girondo—like Breton—remained committed to the philosophy of the vanguardia. Though both were products of the same cultural atmosphere and had experienced European avant-gardism firsthand, they grew farther and farther apart over the decades. Girondo produced his most radical book, En la masmédula (In the uttermarrow, 1954) at a time when Borges was fast becoming a literary and political conservative.

In recent years, critics have echoed the values of the vanguardia by privileging Borges—who helped promote Argentine literature's image of itself as serious and traditional—over Girondo, who mocked and rebelled against this notion of the national literature. Moreover, their treatments of Girondo emphasize his role as the enfant terrible of the vanguardia; he becomes a colorful illustration of avant-garde outrageousness. That he is the only such illustration often goes unmentioned. Ironically, Girondo legitimates the vanguardia's status as an avant-garde, while Borges legitimates a decidedly un-avant-garde national literature-in-formation. Through the repetitive action of generations of critical texts, the vanguardia has in many ways become synonymous with Borges, whose poetry and essays stand in an ironically antithetical relationship to the movement's rhetoric. Umberto Eco (1983) writes, “It is not the ability to speak that establishes power, it is the ability to speak to the extent that this ability becomes rigid in an order, a system of rules, the given language” (240–41). The official critical myth also emphasizes the Boedo-Florida conflict and fails to examine with care the differences between the movement's two leaders. Coupled with the rigidity of the movement's reiterated myth-of-self, these critical choices distort the history of the vanguardia.

The literary establishment's attention to Borges during the 1920s and 1930s is consistent with its promotion of projects of cultural nationalism, such as the consolidation of a canon and the building of national literary institutions. To put it bluntly, Borges was a better instrument of cultural propaganda than Girondo, who consequently received less credit for his important role in the movement. The many differences between the poets should present a challenge to critics who start from the erroneous premise that the vanguardia's work was poetically and theoretically consistent. I suspect, though, that an important reason why critics have elided the contrasts between Girondo and Borges is that such an analysis would contribute to the dismantling of the official myth of a unified avant-garde.

Because Borges's oeuvre has been internationally acclaimed while Girondo is known primarily to literary Hispanists, there has also been a tendency in recent years to emphasize Borges in these histories. But as early as 1930 Borges was historicized as the official vanguardia leader, even though having a conservative leader runs afoul of avant-garde ideology. The privileging of Borges over Girondo in later years was increasingly influenced by questions of value and Borges's international fame. Fame, of course, builds on fame. But while Borges was certainly the superior writer when he turned his hand to fiction, Girondo's early poetry is significantly more interesting and innovative than Borges's from an avant-garde point of view. Neither poet produces during these early years an especially memorable body of poetry; Borges evokes a subtle and appealing lyricism, but Girondo's work would have the greater impact on later generations of Argentine poets. Girondo is perhaps the less fortunately born in the sense that he is less suited to his place of birth and would have done better had he been born in Europe. As it is, he turns to Europe for inspiration and support. …

In its historical series on the vanguardia, the Centro Editor de América Latina devotes most of two essays to the movement's official history, especially martinfierrismo and the Boedo-Florida conflict. Girondo and Borges are treated separately from each other. When the poets are mentioned together, the emphasis is usually on finding some degree of commonality. About their first books, Carlos Mastronardi (1980/1986) writes: “Se trata de obras nada semejantes entre sí, pero que responden con pareja eficacia a las apetencias de remozamiento que … empieza[n] a manifestarse con creciente intensidad” (1). (The works have nothing in common but they respond equally effectively to the appetite for rejuvenation that … is beginning to show itself with increasing intensity.) Masiello makes much the same gesture, but treats their poetry separately.1 Leland (1986) points to the poets' shared “concern for the resonances of the image” without mentioning the differences between them (36). Sarlo Sabajanes emphasizes the diversity of the vanguardia group, only to make her own gesture of erasure of their differences:

Se ha hablado mucho de la falta de coherencia interna del grupo que hizo la revista Martín Fierro. … Lo cierto es que … el martinfierrismo trasciende a Martín Fierro, supera las fronteras, existentes pero invariablemente laxas, de la revista y se conforma en signo constituyente de un grupo coetáneo y generacional.2

(Much has been said about the lack of internal coherence of the group behind the journal Martín Fierro. … What is certain is that … martinfierrismo transcends Martín Fierro, overcomes the existing but invariably lax borders of the journal, and becomes the constituent sign of a contemporary and generational group.)

A number of histories of the movement—such as Iturburu's La revolución martinfierrista, María Raquel Llagostera's prologue to the anthology Boedo y Florida, and Teodosio Fernández's (1987) La poesía hispánoamericana en el siglo XX (28–33)—follow the pattern of discussing the vanguardia's central polemic—Boedo versus Florida—without examining the differences dividing the leading vanguardia poets themselves.

Compared to Borges and Girondo, the central Auden poets were quite similar, though when they disbanded at the end of the 1930s, a clamor of voices—including those of the poets themselves—argued that the poets had never had much in common. This refutation was based on hindsight and a collective sense of a failed mission. But the Argentine vanguardia has been historicized as a successful and important movement, which it in fact was. It seems odd that the vanguardia's cohesiveness and integrity have gone unchallenged except by a handful of critics such as Beatriz Sarlo. Given the institutional drive to divide literary history into movements, undermining the vanguardia's integrity would force a revision of Argentine literary history as written. All historical revisionism involves a loss of previously accepted meaning, which can in turn threaten the institutional ideology that erected the history in the first place.

The differences between Borges and Girondo suggest that poetic and personal differences are often less important than the company poets keep and the publications in which their signatures appear. Borges's choice of journals, for example, largely accounts for why he was identified with Florida instead of Boedo. Had he made different publishing choices and had different friends, he might have been able to write the same poems and publish some of them in Boedo's journals.3 In an important sense, however, Borges was destined for Florida long before the conflict between the groups arose. He had laid the groundwork for an aesthetics-realism opposition when he brought ultraism to Buenos Aires and helped gather together a new generation of aesthetics-oriented writers. Borges was allied with Florida for reasons extending beyond his texts to the social circumstances of his life. And though avant-garde movements like to believe that their every new move is made with the freshness of total autonomy, Borges in 1924 was already largely determined by the Borges of 1921 who helped create Prisma and whose family was socially connected to the cultural elite.

When it came to marketing and self-promotion, the young Borges was a traditionalist. If the primary journal of the vanguardia, Martín Fierro, occasionally lapsed into the taboo rhetoric of popular advertising, its leading poet did not. Borges paid three hundred pesos to publish three hundred copies of Fervor de Buenos Aires (Fervor of Buenos Aires) (1923) and refused to promote it for the public. Though he later wrote, “I never thought of sending copies to the booksellers or out for review” (Alazraki 1987, 34), he devised a publicity strategy aimed directly at important literary figures. He talked Nosotros editor Alfredo Bianchi into slipping copies of the book into the coat pockets of the journal's visitors and staff (Alazraki 1987, 34). When he returned from Europe a year later, Borges found he had a reputation as a poet. He describes this first book as “essentially romantic,” a reflection of his desire to write “poems beyond the here and now, free of local color and contemporary circumstances” (Alazraki 1987, 84–85). The antithesis of the early Auden, pylon poet and lover of modernity and machinery, Borges here empties the city streets that Darío filled with people some twenty years earlier.4

The effect of Borges's unwillingness to participate in modern marketing techniques is mitigated by his prolific output of literary and theoretical texts during the 1920s and his willingness—shared by Breton—to publish and republish his early essays. Most of the essays in El tamaño de mi esperanza (“The dimension of my hope”) (1926), for example, had already appeared in La Prensa, Nosotros, Inicial, Proa, and Valoraciones. Borges participated simultaneously in mainstream and avant-garde publishing. In comparison, the Auden poets published more in the mainstream, while the surrealists stuck more closely to their own publications. All three groups, however, published books with major presses and wrote from time to time for major journals. Their postures vis-à-vis the market were different, however. Where Borges appears to have been reluctant, the Auden poets were unabashed in their self-promotion. The surrealists were most inventive in their strategies; they wanted both to insult the market and to make it do their bidding.

Like the martinfierristas, Borges tended to say one thing and do another when it came to getting his work into print. To Nosotros's 1923 survey of the new literary generation, Borges gave antimodern responses. Asked his age, he responds “Ya he cansado veintidós años.” (I’ve already exhausted twenty-two years.) He professes a commitment to ultraism, classical syntax, and sentences “complejas como ejércitos” (as complex as armies). About older literary masters he admires, he says: “Mis entusiasmos son ortodoxos. Entre los santos de mi devoción cuento a Capdevila, a Banchs, y señaladamente a nuestro Quevedo, Lugones.”5 (My enthusiasms are orthodox. Among the saints of my devotion I count Capdevila, Banchs, and most of all, our Quevedo, Lugones.) To admire postmodern poets—the nearest literary ancestor—is not only anti-avant-garde behavior, but is also a less self-differentiating choice than most young poets tend to make.

A number of critics have accepted uncritically Borges's canonization choices, echoing and reinforcing his opinions. José Miguel Oviedo's comments reflect Borges's changing point of view. Of Borges's first three books of poems, he writes:

With them, Borges wanted to create a new poetic tradition, specifically Argentine, which … was a challenge to tradition and the Hispanic legacy, a gesture of radical independence. The argentinisms and neologisms of his early poetry (which have been erased or revised in later editions) were a defiant sign of his literary stance of that decade.

(in Cortínez 1986, 124–25; my emphasis)

Only in his earliest essays did Borges make such claims, though Oviedo—echoing the early manifesto-writing Borges—represents him as having succeeded at them. Borges was no revolutionary, and in later life he disagreed with Oviedo's point of view: “I can now only regret my early ultraist excesses. After nearly half a century, I find myself still striving to live down that awkward period of my life” (Alazraki 1987, 35). If Oviedo were to consider fully Burges's admissions of debt to older poets and how his attitude toward his early work changed, he would find it difficult to call the poetry a product of “radical independence.” Borges realized that his early claims were exaggerated, for though he distinguished himself through the use of argentinisms and neologisms, he brought neither device to Argentine literature. It is widely known that modernist poets invented criollo and Greek- and Latin-based neologisms. “Luna ciudadana” (Citizen moon) shows that by 1909 Lugones had set the standard for linguistic exploration: “Mientras cruza el tranvía una pobre comarca / De suburbio y de vagas chimeneas … / Fulano, en versátil aerostación de ideas, / Alivia su consuetudinario / Itinerario” (Lugones 1961, 110). (While the streetcar crosses a poor area / Of suburbs and vague chimneys … / John Doe, in a versatile air station of ideas, / Lightens his usual / Itinerary.)

Critics have supported Borges's efforts to remove the bulk of his early work from the Borges canon. The international literary community's portrait of “Borges” is that of a great short story writer and mediocre poet of conservative political and traditional literary values. Most of the time “Borges” is the older fiction-writing Borges, the one who became known in Europe and North America only after he shared the Formentor Prize with Samuel Beckett in 1961. This Borges is a product consumed on northern soil whose literary works date mainly from stories written in the late 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and whose philosophical point of view is generally taken from Otras inquisiciones (1952) and interviews conducted late in life. In his biography of Borges, Emir Rodríguez Monegal has contributed to the notion that the early Borges was somehow not the real article by calling him “Georgia” for the first three decades of his life. In 1930, “Georgia” magically turned into “Borges,” though we are never told how he finally earned the right to wear the long pants of the adult writer.6 Borges's abundant output in the early years is not unusual among important avant-garde figures. Auden, Spender, and Day Lewis were prolific poets, essayists, critics, and journalists, and Breton and Aragon each published several important texts in their early years. Though militantly avant-garde writers such as Breton were vociferous in their opposition to the professionalization of writers, such voluminous output certainly suggests that Breton was a professional writer. Flooding a literary market he claimed to disdain is a contradictory choice. It is the Dada paradox all over again: How does a movement create the public it needs to sustain itself without pursuing traditional avenues of self-promotion and consecration? No movement has satisfactorily solved this problem that provided the raw material for many of surrealism's fiercest in-house battles.

The secondary erasures of critics—where they devalorize what Borges removed from his canon or did not allow to remain in general circulation—mask the poet's sometimes violent means of exercising power over the canonization process. Borges later explained that he suppressed a lot of work because he felt he had been carelessly prolific:

This period, from 1921 to 1929, was one of great activity, but much of it was perhaps reckless and even pointless. I wrote and published no less than seven books—four of them essays and three of them verse. I also founded three magazines and contributed with fair frequency to nearly a dozen other periodicals … Three of the four essay collections—whose names are best forgotten—I have never allowed to be reprinted.

(Alazraki 1987, 37–38)

Auden edited his work heavily and experimented with ordering his poems in ways that disturbed the chronology of their composition. Breton, too, revised himself, but he did not try to outmuscle the predilections of critics the way the other two did. Instead, he merely added a new text amending or adjusting his previous point of view to his extremely long list of publications. He was less focused on what his body of work would look like posthumously and more on what he wanted to say at a given moment. He exemplifies the radical avant-garde's obsession with the present.

Critics have by and large opted to reinforce Borges's choices by assessing the early poetry and essays as less valuable than the later fiction and by opting not to write about them much. In fact, the early work is considerably less valuable in that it is less universal and less interesting than the later work. But it is also important to note that the excision of some of it from his canon served Borges's desire to present a consistent face to the world. In contrast, Auden's carefully considered revisions were often overruled by critics who rejected editorial changes he made on his 1930s poems after the decade was over. There were two Audens, a number of critics argued, and the later one was inferior to the “social poet.” This divided Auden became a convenience to those who wanted to treat “the early Auden” separately.

Borges's case is the other side of the coin. Where a rupture in a poet's work is difficult to deal with—as in the case of Auden in 1940 and Borges's Spanish ultraism days—critics have been surprisingly willing to opt for the cleaver. While the juvenalia of many writers is less interesting than more mature work, Borges, the object of hundreds of critical works, is no ordinary writer. Auden's juvenalia has received abundant attention, Borges's very little. Graciela Palau de Nemes has labeled Borges's early history—a history he largely rejected—“prehistory.”7 De Torre's article “Para la prehistoria ultraísta de Borges” (For Borges's ultraist prehistory) includes a discussion of Prisma's 1921 debut, thus suggesting that Borgesian “history” began in 1922 or 1923.8 In the face of lesser deviations, such as Borges the erratic vanguardia leader, critics sometimes go to considerable lengths to sew up the holes and inconsistencies in their portrait of the writer.

I am not aware of a work that plumbs the ideological implications of Borges's suppression of his early work, though Borges's own critique is interesting. He condemns for their excesses Inquisiciones (Inquisitions) (1925), El tamaño de mi esperanza (1926), and El idioma de los argentinos (The language of the Argentines) (1928), and claims to have written and destroyed three books before he published Fervor de Buenos Aires. Los naipes del tahúr (Tarot cards) he describes as literary and political essays. Another early work was approximately twenty free-verse poems “in praise of the Russian Revolution, the brotherhood of man, and pacifism. … This book I destroyed in Spain on the eve of our departure” (Alazraki 1987, 33). In his “Autobiographical Essay,” however, Borges says he destroyed the book of poems because he failed to find a publisher for it (Rodríguez Monegal 1978, 165). Borges describes his early experiences with literary journals in an agentless way that absolves him of responsibility for seeking a publisher: “Three or four of [the poems] found their way into magazines—‘Bolshevik Epic,’ ‘Trenches,’ ‘Russia’” (Alazraki 1987, 33; my emphasis). About one of the books of essays he did publish, Borges writes,

I was doing my best to write Latin in Spanish, and the book collapses under the sheer weight of its involutions and sententious judgments. The next of these failures was a kind of reaction. I went to the other extreme—I tried to be as Argentine as I could. I got hold of Segovia's dictionary of Argentinisms and worked in so many local words that many of my countrymen could hardly understand it. (Alazraki 1987, 38)

Borges's early ultraist poems are tinged with political and erotic language, language he later avoided in his work. The early work should be studied because its suppression raises the question, What is the critic's stake in starting a history well after that history has begun? Here the problem is an anomalous stage of Borges's development, one that doesn’t fit the impersonal, nostalgic, Berkeleyan poetry he later writes. Like Auden, Borges often revised his discursive persona and creative work. Unfortunately, he and critics have erased too well some of the contradictions that characterize his first decade in the public eye. Of Borges's transition from ultraist poet to fiction writer in the early 1930s, Rodríguez Monegal offers such comments as “subtly, ironically, through his example, [Alfonso] Reyes would lead Georgie away from the baroque and teach him how to write the best Spanish prose of the century.” But this statement is too simple an explanation of the transition (Rodriguez Monegal 1978, 213). Assigning an end date to ultraism presents yet another problem, for while ultraist poets continued to publish ultraist poems in the late 1920s, Borges became the single most powerful force in the dating of the movement. De Torre claims the movement was over in the spring of 1922, while Robert A. Ortelli argues that it was thriving in 1923, a proof being the publication of Borges's Fervor de Buenos Aires (Bastos 1974, 76). This illustrates the critic's tendency to identify movements with their leaders.

In rejecting poetic predecessors, the ultraists most often emphasized their objection to rhyme and to worn-out metaphors. In his early essays, Borges expresses some disdain for Lugones, the champion of rhyme, though he acknowledges him in the Nosotros survey as an important influence on the vanguardia. In Leopoldo Lugones, published decades later, Borges insists: “I affirm that the work of the ‘Martín Fierro’ and ‘Proa’ poets … is absolutely prefigured in a few pages of the Lunario” (qtd. in Running 1981, 149). In his eighties, Borges comments, “Todos—en aquel tiempo—no sólo lo imitábamos sino que hubiéramos querido ser Lugones” (Ferrari 1985, 210). (All of us—at that time—not only imitated him but would have liked to be Lugones.) Such inconsistencies help explain why Borges wanted to suppress his essays. The essays reveal, for example, that Borges, a determined writer of free verse, chose a critical battle—the rejection of rhyme as an important aspect of ultraist poetics—that he as a poet had already settled. Though heavily influenced by Lugones, Borges was even more influenced by Walt Whitman, at least on the question of free verse versus rhyme. Why then did he expend so much energy on an issue he had resolved for himself? Was it to defend the vanguardia movement's rebellion of choice9 or, like Martín Fierro, to engage in avant-garde-style battles for the sake of creating polemics and attracting publicity? This is the kind of question that should be asked if we are to understand what is at stake in his selective canonical suppressions. We might come to view certain strategic choices as the erasure of embarrassing experiments with the power of trumped-up polemics.

Such polemics contrast with the traditional values the young Borges expressed about poetry: “El ultraísmo no es quizá otra cosa que la espléndida síntesis de la literatura antigua.”10 (Ultraism is perhaps nothing other than the splendid synthesis of ancient literature.) In fact, his earliest published poems, even those with topical references, are undeniably antimodern. “Guardia roja” (“Red Guard”) appears to be about the Russian Revolution but, except for the title, it could describe a number of premodern wars:

El viento es la bandera que se enreda en las lanzas
La estepa es una inútil copia del alma
De las colas de los caballos cuelga el villorio encendido
y la estepa rendida
no acaba de morirse
Durante los combates
el milagro terrible del dolor estiró los instantes
ya grita el sol
Por el espacio trepan hordas de luces
En la ciudad lejana
donde los mediodías tañen los tensos viaductos
y de las cruces pende el Nazareno
como un cartel sobre los mundos
se embozarán los hombres
en los cuerpos desnudos.(11)
(The wind is the flag which tangles in the lances
The steppe is a useless copy of the soul
From the horses' tails hangs the burning jerkwater town
and the conquered steppe
does not finish dying
During the battles
the terrible miracle of pain stretched the moments
the sun already screams
Through space hordes of lights climb
In the distant city
where the middays strum the tense viaducts
and the Nazarene hangs from the crosses
like a handbill over the worlds
men will cover themselves
in naked corpses.)(12)

In contrast to early surrealism's valorization of the metaphor whose tenor and vehicle form the most striking and unlikely pair, ultraist metaphors tend to link the spiritual and the human with the physical, nonhuman world. Here the sun screams, human pain and the middays play the viaducts like a musical instrument, and the landscape mirrors the soul. There is no modern diction here; only a lack of punctuation and insistent assonance assert the poem's modernity. Senses are mixed up; the sun, usually represented by visual or tactile imagery, is here anthropomorphized into a screaming, dying soldier. The oxymoron, a quintessentially Borgesian trope, is represented by the “terrible miracle” of pain. The perspective is that of a human survivor, the distant village hanging from the tail of a running horse. There is Girondian hyperbole—men up to their eyes in corpses—and irreverence, Christ hanging like the poster for a local show. Both tendencies will be muted in poems Borges writes a mere handful of years later.

Like Whitman, Borges has a very personal relationship to poetry and often invokes the first person. In “Himno del mar” (“Sea hymn”), published in Spain, he sounds like Whitman:

Oh mar! oh mito! oh sol! oh largo lecho!
Y sé por qué te amo. Sé que somos muy viejos,
Que ambos nos conocemos desde siglos.
Sé que en tus aguas venerandas y rientes ardió la aurora
de la Vida.
(En la ceniza de una tarde terciaria vibré por primera vez en
tu seno)

(Meneses 1978, 58)

(O sea! O myth! O sun! O long seabed!
And I know why I love you. I know we are very old,
That we have known each other for centuries.
I know that in your venerable and laughing waters burned the dawn of
(In the ash of a terciary afternoon I vibrated for the first time in

The poem prefigures the Borges who at age twenty-five will write: “Creo que no veré, ni realizaré cosas nuevas” (I believe I will neither see nor accomplish new things).13 This Borges looks into the past for timeless sources of poetry. Nestor Ibarra (1930)—not insignificantly a Borges scholar—argued in 1930, “Lo moderno no ha arraigado, no ha podido arraigar en la Argentina” (126). (The modern has not taken root, has not been able to take root in Argentina.) Girondo (1987) the rebel of the vanguardia, contradicts Ibarra's assessment. “Biarritz,” from Veinte poemas para ser leídos en el tranvía (Twenty poems to be read on the streetcar) (1922), contains the following undeniably modern fragments:

Automóviles afónicos. Escaparates constelados
de estrellas falsas. Mujeres que van a perder sus sonrisas al bacará.
Cuando la puerta se entreabre, entra un pedazo de “foxtrot.”


(Hoarse automobiles. Shop windows constellated of false stars.
Women who will lose their smiles at baccarat.
When the door opens, a piece of “foxtrot” comes

While Girondo shares many of Borges's devices, his subject and diction create a portrait of modern urban decadence. He uses a form of telegraphese more commonly found in European poetry and his speaker avoids personal pathos and moral judgments. Because of the differences between Girondo and Borges and the analogous gap between the vanguardia's rhetoric and behavior, descriptions of the movement diverge widely. Critics who take at face value the vanguardia's statements tend to see radical innovation while others emphasize its (that is, Borges's) conservatism. Ultraism, according to Ibarra (1930), is a purely rhetorical school characterized by vagueness, temporal and spatial dimensions, a lack of argument, and idealism (104). But this description pertains to Borges's poetry, not to that of other ultraist poets, and certainly not to Girondo's prose poems. Rodríguez Monegal (1978) points out that Ibarra's work, while ostensibly about the ultraist movement, is really the first book-length treatment of Borges. As such, it conflates Borges and the vanguardia (239).

Borges was interested in German Expressionism, English poetry, and the comparatively tame experiments of ultraism, while Girondo participated in early Dadaist and surrealist spectacles in Paris. In poetry, Borges privileges the traditional; Girondo, the modern. Though he seeks a timeless national essence, however, Borges fails to escape the modern. “Jactancia de quietud” (“Boasting of stillness”) creates an “I”-“them” opposition where “they” are time pressed, market oriented, and modern. The speaker, in contrast, is a philosophical Whitmanesque Everyman who inhabits the countryside.

Seguro de mi vida y de mi muerte, miro los ambiciosos y quisiera
Su día es ávido como un lazo en el aire.
Su noche es tregua de la ira en la espada, pronta en acometer.
Hablan de humanidad.
Mi humanidad está en sentir que somos voces de una misma penuria.
Mi nombre es alguien y cualquiera.
Su verso es un requirimiento de ajena admiración.
Yo solicito de mi verso que no me contradiga, y es mucho.
Paso con lentitud, como quien viene de tan lejos que no espera
(Sure of my life and death, I look at the ambitious and would like to
                    understand them.
Their day is avid like a lasso in the air.
Their night is a respite from the sword's ire, ready to attack.
They speak of humanity.
My humanity is in feeling that we are voices of a shared poverty.
My name is anyone and whoever.
Their verse is a necessity of alien admiration.
I ask of my verse that it not contradict me, and that is a lot.
I pass slowly, like one who comes from so far he has no hope

The voice of this poem is surprisingly mature for a poet in his mid-twenties. Rural, timeless, and in many ways transpersonal, the poem nevertheless bears the marks of avant-garde ideology. The “other” is portrayed as ambitious, hurried, perhaps insincere (“they” speak of humanity, but what have they said?). Most important, “they” are poets. The “alien admiration” that supports their verse might well be the plebeian tastes of a market supported by recent immigrants. Though gentleness replaces Martín Fierro—like rhetoric, the poem features an opponent against whom the speaker defines himself. For all of Borges's attempts to be timeless, we are still in the 1920s, one of Argentine literature's more binary decades.

One of Girondo's many “membretes” or memoranda, published only two years later, offers a very different view of argentinidad and nationalism:

¿Estupidez? ¿Ingenuidad? ¿Política? … “Seamos argentinos”—gritan algunos. … —Sin advertir la confusión que implica ese imperativo, sin reparar que la nacionalidad es algo tan fatal como la conformación de nuestro esqueleto.15

(Stupidity? Ingenuousness? Politics? … “Let’s be Argentines”—some shout. … Without understanding the confusion this imperative implies, without noticing that nationality is something as inevitable as the shape of our skeletons.)

Responding to a 1924 Martín Fierro survey on whether a specifically Argentine sensibility and mentality exist, Girondo answers yes, but he states that he sees no reason why writers should have to prove the existence of argentinidad by displaying it in their work.16 This attitude places Girondo at the margins of the vanguardia's projects of cultural nationalism. Early efforts to place him at its center failed. One such effort, an unsigned essay in Martín Fierro, makes the weak argument that Girondo brings a new sort of criollismo to Argentine literature: “algo de franqueza gaucha mezclada con rudeza y desplante indígena”17 (something of the gaucho's frankness mixed with indigenous coarseness and arrogance). Though much of Veinte poemas and all of Calcomanías were written in Europe and Girondo was apparently unconcerned about being labeled extranjerizante, his editors are still apologizing for him. In the prologue to Veinte poemas para ser leídos en el tranvía, Calcomanías, Espantapájaros (Twenty poems to be read on the streetcar, Decals, Scarecrow) (1987), Rodolfo Alonso argues that Girondo is “no menos nacional por más universal” (Girondo 1987, 1) (no less national for being more universal). This argument was hard to make in the 1920s, when the national and the universal were one of the era's major binary divisions. The fact that it was still being made in the 1980s reflects the strongly held Argentine belief that the nation's writers should concern themselves with national reality.

Girondo and Borges represent two views of cultural nationalism in the 1920s. Girondo believed that—being Argentines—it was impossible not to produce Argentine literature, while Borges felt a literary text was national only if its contents dealt with national themes and motifs (Borges 1974, 48, 57; Girondo 1987, 10). Borges later rejected his early view and the change of heart caused him to discard a number of his early poems. In an interview conducted when he was eighty-five, Borges says of Luna de enfrente (“Moon across the way”): “Cometí un error capital, que fue el de ‘hacerme’ el argentino” (Vázquez 1984, 51). (I committed a capital error, which was to ‘make myself’ Argentine.) Borges made Buenos Aires the focus of his early poetry. “Las calles” opens with “Las calles de Buenos Aires / ya son mi entraña.”18 (The streets of Buenos Aires / are already my innermost self.) Many of Fervor's poems are set in Buenos Aires: in the rich man's cemetery Recoleta, in the arrabales or suburbs, and at the Plaza San Martín. Borges (1974) imagines his own death in Buenos Aires, calling Recoleta “el lugar de mi ceniza” (18) (the site of my ashes). In the spirit of linguistic nationalism, Borges fashions a new spelling from Argentine dialect. In “Atardeceres” (“Dusks”) he omits the final “d” from “oscuridad” and in “Calle con almacén rosado” (“Street with a pink store”), he uses the “vos” form. Early essays betray an even more insistent commitment to his version of criollo spelling. In contrast, Girondo's nationalist gestures are much milder. In the 1922 prologue to Veinte poemas, he argues the importance of having faith in “our phonetics,” only to undermine himself by saying that these phonetics are perhaps “badly educated.”

If in the 1920s Borges is a Berkeleyan idealist, in later life he modifies his stand, making a statement in Otras inquisiciones that critics have taken to mean that he was a realist: “El mundo, desgraciadamente, es real; yo, desgraciadamente, soy Borges.” (Borges 1974, 771). (The world, alas, is real; I, alas, am Borges.) But the early poem “Amanecer” (“Dawn”) describes daybreak as a threat to all life because, as Berkeley argued, if things exist only because they are perceived, there is little to guarantee the existence of the world when everyone sleeps. The poem's speaker, one of the few nocturnal flâneurs or street wanderers who keep the city alive each night, philosophizes about his experience:

reviví la tremenda conjetura
de Schopenhauer y de Berkeley
que declara que el mundo
es una actividad de la mente,
un sueño de las almas,
sin base ni propósito ni volumen.

(Borges 1974, 38)

(I felt again that tremendous conjecture
of Schopenhauer and Berkeley
which declares the world
an activity of the mind,
a dream of souls,
without foundation or purpose or volume.)

(trans. di Giovanni; Borges 1985, 25)

This excerpt, however, is not what Borges wrote in the early 1920s. It is the official version disseminated by translators to the English-speaking world and it is the edited version found in his Obras completas (Complete works). Borges originally wrote:

realicé la tremenda conjetura
de Schopenhauer y de Berkeley
que arbitra ser la vida
un ejercicio pertinaz de la mente,
un populoso ensueño colectivo
sin basamento ni finalidad ni volumen.

(Borges 1923 a, n.p.)

(I fulfilled the tremendous conjecture
of Schopenhauer and of Berkeley
that contrives to make life
a tenacious exercise of the mind
a populous collective dream
with neither foundation nor finality nor volume.)

The differences between this and the later version are small but important. The early language is more erudite and therefore less accessible to some readers. The speaker is more arrogant about his experience—instead of merely reliving (“reviví”) the idealist conjecture, he has caused it to happen or fulfilled it (“realicé”). The agent or speaker has a more active role and through the force of will and effort has saved the city almost single-handedly. Borges frequently explores the power of the poetic speaker. In the Nosotros ultraism manifesto, he argues that ultraism supports “la meta principal de toda poesía, esto es, a la transmutación de la realidad palpable del mundo en realidad interior y emocional”19 (the principal goal of all poetry, which is the transmutation of the palpable reality of the world into inner, emotional reality). In Fervor's “Caminata” (“Long walk”), the speaker makes an even clearer statement about the power of a solitary night walker to keep the world alive in an idealist's world: “Yo soy el único espectador de esta calle, / si dejara de verla se moriría” (Borges 1923a, n.p.) (I am the only observer of this street, / if I stopped looking at it, it would die.)

Borges, who admired and tried to emulate what he perceived as the intellectual humility of Macedonio Fernández, later did his best to erase some of these early quasi-autobiographical traces. In the 1969 revision of the prologue to Fervor, notes Pezzoni, Borges deletes a reference to himself as a “desconfiado y fervoroso escribidor” (fervorous and mistrustful writer). He is trying to cut the early Borges down to size.20 Borges's early conception of the self is erratic. In “La nadería de la personalidad” (The nothingness of the personality), published in 1925, he agrees with Schopenhauer: “El yo no existe” (The self doesn’t exist) and argues that the personality is a dream or illusion. A year later, he writes, “Toda literatura es autobiográfica, finalmente.” (All literature is ultimately autobiographical.) Literature may be imaginary, archetypal, or personal, he writes, adding “Yo solicito el último.” (I seek the last [of the three].)21

In early essays, Borges views the subject as a linguistic—but not transcendentally powerful—entity. He writes (1928) “El ser no es categoría poética ni metafísica, es gramatical” (126). (The self is neither a poetic nor a metaphysical category—it is grammatical.) This view is not borne out by his poetry, however, where speakers often function as interpreters of a world they create through metaphor. In “Singladura” (“Day's run”),

El mar es una espada innumerable y una plenitud de pobreza.
El mar es solitario como un ciego.
El mar es un huraño lenguaje que yo no alcanzo a descifrar.
En la cubierta, quietamente, yo comparto la tarde con mi hermana
                    como un trozo de pan.(22)
(The sea is a countless sword and a plenitude of poverty.
The sea is as solitary as a blind man.
The sea is an unsociable language I cannot manage to decipher.
On deck, quietly, I share the afternoon with my sister like
a piece
                    of bread.)

Though the speaker calls attention to the failure of his meaning-making activities, he is nevertheless interpreting the sea through the lens of Borges's experience—a father going blind for congenital reasons, lunch with Norah, the habit of making text out of world. His litanic attempts to evoke the sea suggest that the poet triumphs over his subject, even as a diagnostician of its mystery.

Where Borges constructs the world, Girondo tears it—both subjects and objects—apart. A clear illustration of the subject's instability can be found in Espantapájaros (“Scarecrow”) (1932):

Yo no tengo una personalidad; yo soy un cocktail, un
conglomerado, una manifestación de personalidades.
En mí, la personalidad es una especie de forunculosis
anímica en estado crónico de erupción; no pasa
hora sin que me nazca una nueva personalidad.

(Girondo 1987, 66)

(I don’t have a personality; I am a cocktail, a
conglomerate, a manifestation of personalities.
In me, personality is a sort of psychic boil in a
chronic state of eruption; not half an hour goes by
without a new personality being born.)

Girondo and Borges share a love of the first person and its power. But Borges uses the spiritual power of the self to make things poetic, while Girondo makes poetry by destroying and dismembering synecdochally the world around him and the poetic subjects who people it. Borges's “Otra vez la metáfora” (“Once again the metaphor”) contains the following statement: “Las cosas (pienso) no son intrínsecamente poéticas; para ascenderlas a poesía es preciso que las vinculemos a nuestro vivir, que nos acostumbremos a pensarlas con devoción” (Borges 1928, 56). (Things [I think] are not intrinsically poetic; to raise them to the level of poetry we must link them to our lives, so that we become accustomed to thinking of them with devotion.) Borges's project is thus antithetical to that of Girondo, who, Masiello (1986) argues,

produce un sujeto violento, que viaja a través de la moderna civilización. Agresivo y descaradamente fuerte, su sujeto lírico es el terrorista máximo de la vanguardia, que proclama su poder por los abundantes lugares e imágenes que se atreve a poseer y destrozar.


(produces a violent subject who travels through modern civilization. Aggressive and impudently strong, his lyrical subject is the greatest terrorist of the avant-garde, proclaiming his power through an abundance of places and images he dares to possess and destroy.)

While in Inquisiciones (1925), Borges offers a detailed discussion of types of metaphors, by 1928 he argues that the poet should not focus on creating new metaphors.23 And whereas he began the decade rejecting the anecdotal in poetry, he ends it arguing that poetry should be anecdotal and that abstractions are unpoetic (Borges 1928, 127). The poem “Arrabal” (“Suburb”) reflects this evolution, changing markedly between 1921 and 1943. In the early version, Buenos Aires is a text created by the speaker:

… y sentí Buenos Aires
y literaturicé en la hondura del alma
la viacrucis inmóvil
de la calle sufrida
y el caserío sosegado(24)
(… and I felt Buenos Aires
and made literature in the depths of the soul
from the immobile crossroads
of the suffering street
and the quiet hamlet)

In any hands but these, the man-as-city device would be unmistakably modern. But as we have seen, Borges specializes in the paradox of modern urban atavism. In the 1943 version—which became the standard version of the Obras completas—Buenos Aires has metamorphosed from text to world. The speaker's role has thus changed substantially. No longer is the poet making literature of the city or creating the city in and through language. Instead, there is a simple, personal statement of belonging to a place:

… y sentí Buenos Aires
Esta ciudad que yo creí mi pasado
es mi porvenir, mi presente;
los años que he vivido en Europa son ilusorios,
yo estaba siempre (y estaré) en Buenos Aires.

(Borges 1974, 32)

(… and I felt Buenos Aires
This city that I believed to be my past
is my future, my present;
the years I have lived in Europe are illusory,
I always was (and will be) in Buenos Aires.)

Whereas for Borges the city is often closely identified with the poetic subject, Girondo consistently objectifies and makes it alien. In Veinte poemas' “Verona,” for example, Girondo has a statue of the Virgin menstruate into a fountain:

La Virgen, sentada en una fuente, como sobre un “bidé,” derrama un agua enrojecida por las bombitas de luz eléctrica que le han puesto en los pies.25 (The Virgin, seated in a fountain as over a “bidet,” leaks water reddened by the electric lamps they have put at her feet.)

Unlike Borges, Girondo (1987) makes baldly contemporary references. In “Croquis de arena” (Sketch in the sand), photographers sell the bodies of bathing women for eighty centavos apiece (14). Like the French symbolists who were one of his most important influences, Girondo enjoys shocking the conventional reader. In “Milonga,” the dancers are crudely sexualized:

El bandoneón … imanta los pezones, los pubis y
la punta de los
Machos que se quiebran en un corte ritual, la cabeza hundida entre los
                    hombros, la jeta hinchada de palabras soeces.
Hembras con las ancas nerviosas, un poquitito de espuma en las axilas,
                    y los ojos demasiado aceitados.
De pronto se oye un fracaso de cristales. Las mesas dan un corcovo
                    y pegan quatro patadas en el aire.

(Girondo 1987, 91)

(The accordion … magnetizes nipples, groins and shoetips.
Males who break in ritual twist and jerk, their heads sunk between
                    their shoulders, their mugs swollen with vile words.
Females with nervous rumps, a little sweat in their armpits and overly
                    greasy eyes.
Soon the noise of breaking glass is heard. The tables hump and buck,
                    kicking their four legs into the air.)

Whereas Borges renders the world sacred, Girondo, consistent with the Continental avant-garde, attacks cultural icons and institutions, here eliding the difference between people and furniture as both metamorphose into barnyard animals. Breton would have approved: Girondo personifies the inanimate, dehumanizes the animate, profanes the sacred, works to defy expectation, and turns the world upside down. Carnivalesque in the Bakhtinian sense, he overwhelms even Borges. In a 1925 review of Calcomanías, Borges applauds Girondo's work in a qualified way: “Es innegable que la eficacia de Girondo me asusta. … Girondo es un violento. Mira largamente las cosas. … Luego las estruja.”26 (It is undeniable that Girondo's effectiveness scares me. … Girondo is a violent person. He looks generously at things. … Then he crushes them.) J. Schwartz (1979) calls the anthropomorphization of things and the “cosificación” (thingification) of people in Girondo's poetry a “fusion of differences” (192–94). Girondo's modern city collapses the division between subject and object, revealing the alienation and sterility that result from a loss of individuality and separateness. Like Eliot, he indicts modernity even as he modernizes literary form.

The prologues to their first books illustrate well the differences between Borges, an exemplar of Argentine cultural identity, and Girondo, an affront to it. Borges is earnest, self-important, and serious. His project is the nationalization of Buenos Aires: “He rechazado los vehementes reclamos de quienes en Buenos Aires no advierten sino lo extranjerizo” (Borges 1923a, n.p.). (I have rejected the vehement claims of those in Buenos Aires who notice nothing but the foreign.) In the city he will uncover the sacred: “Aquí se oculta la divinidad.” (Here the divine hides itself.) He represents himself as one who uses the “primordial” meanings of words, ending with an apparently humble apology that he, not the reader, is the author of these poems. The last two words of the prologue of Fervor de Buenos Aires are, however, “my verses.” Borges could have used the definite article to depersonalize the work, but he does not. Not surprisingly, he removed this trace of authorial assertiveness from the 1969 reprint of the prologue.

Girondo's prologue to Veinte poemas opens with an attack on its audience: “¿Qué quieren ustedes!” (What do you want!) One finds poems, he says, thrown into the middle of the street, “poemas que uno recoge como quien junta puchos en la vereda” (poems one gathers up like scraps of trash from the sidewalk). Do we write to humiliate ourselves? Why publish “cuando hasta los mejores publican 1.071٪ más de lo que debieran publicar?” (when even the best publish 1,071٪ more than they ought to?) The argument he makes for publishing his book is surrealist: The everyday is an admirable manifestation of the absurd and cutting through logic is the only way to arrive at true adventure. In an even more surrealist act, he ends by celebrating the contradictions of these arguments. “No renuncio ni a mi derecho de renunciar, y tiro mis Veinte poemas, como una piedra, sonriendo ante la inutilidad de mi gesto” (Girondo 1987, 9–11). (I don’t renounce even my right to renounce, and I throw my Veinte poemas like a stone, smiling at the futility of my gesture.) If Borges's prologue spiritualizes the nation, Girondo's evokes the nation-bashing of Tzara and Breton. It is not surprising then, given their cultural and historical moment, that Borges becomes the spokesperson of an avant-garde operating in a nationalist age while Girondo is the movement's unruly older brother.

Because the first edition of Veinte poemas was published in Paris, it came to Argentina as a European product. Both Nosotros and La Nación, which were part of the ideological apparatus Girondo attacked in his prologue, published reviews by European critics. Had the production and reception of Veinte poemas been a purely national affair—without the cachet of foreign critics and, in the words of Delfina Muschietti, the “mediating and neutralizing”27 effect of their criticism on scandalous material—it is unlikely Girondo's early work would have been enthusiastically received. His second book, published in Madrid, was also favorably received by the bastions of consecrated culture. European critics, accustomed to the textually outrageous, reacted almost exclusively to the book's aesthetics, calling it “original” and “revealing” and describing it as full of “magnificent explosive images.”28 In contrast, Borges's early work was considered nostalgic (de Torre), dignified (Ramón Gómez de la Serna), and formally classic (Enrique Díez-Canedo) (repr. Alazraki 1976, 21–26, 29–31). Locally, the critical reaction to Girondo's first book was decidedly tepid. Reviews published in La Nación in 1923–24 have such titles as “La literatura nacional en el extranjero” and “La literatura sudamericana vista desde París.” The emphasis is less on the works themselves than on what the European critics think about them. An angry article appearing in Martín Fierro in March 1924 called the newspapers and journals that failed to review Veinte poemas “cretinous,” an epithet usually reserved for Boedo (20).

Girondo was not so lucky thereafter. Espantapájaros (1932) and En la masmédula (1954), each more radical than the last and both published in Buenos Aires, were given lukewarm receptions (Muschietti 1985, 160–61). Espantapájaros was greeted with silence from La Nación and Sur, the journal in important ways representative of the avant-garde generation in the 1930s. Arturo Capdevilla repeated in Nosotros an Argentine woman's comment that the book was “nasty” (Girondo 1987, prologue). Espantapájaros represents a significant rupture in Girondo's work. There are no more foreign travel sketches and few signs that the poetic speaker is upper class. We must ask whether Argentina's elite publications shunned the book in part because its contents reflected little cultural or economic privilege.

Girondo's relationship to the literary market became more unacceptable in high cultural circles as the years went by. He published Veinte poemas in two editions aimed at two audiences. The first edition sold for five pesos, the popular second edition—published by Martín Fierro Editorial in 1925—for only twenty centavos. The Parisian printing was a luxury edition, almost certainly paid for by Girondo, who chose to withhold many copies from sale. The majority of the Argentine audience, then, had to wait three years for Girondo's book to become available. In 1932, Girondo made a boldly ostentatious marketing gesture that scandalized the anticommercial cultural elite but was, ironically, aimed at that very elite. To sell Espantapájaros, he had a life-size papier-mâché scarecrow driven about for days in a funeral carriage drawn by six horses and accompanied by footmen dressed in the style of the late eighteenth-century French Directory.29 The scarecrow was dressed in a top hat and monocle reminiscent of the French dandy. Young women hired for the occasion sold all five thousand copies of the unusually large edition from a locale Girondo rented in Buenos Aires's most fashionable neighborhood.30 Major newspapers refused to cover the event.31

Girondo claimed that at age eighteen he had a “sagrado horror” (sacred horror) of publicity (qtd. in J. Schwartz 1987, 43). But he was already familiar with the audience-enlarging strategies of the Dadaists at the time he staged a play that required an actor to insult the audience by calling it “stupid.” He also tried to produce a journal called Comedia, but the publisher “forgot” to distribute it.32 By his own account, he then—like Borges—destroyed a lot of work until he published Veinte poemas. Because Buenos Aires was not Paris, Girondo was caught in the avant-garde dilemma of wanting to confront a large audience with material it wouldn’t tolerate.33 He struggled to resolve the conflict between the privileges of his class and his desire to democratize the literary market. The title of his first book suggests that it be read in a streetcar, transportation for those who couldn’t afford their own automobiles. A Martín Fierro article complaining about the lack of recognition by Argentine critics of Veinte poemas however, calls its title ironic. Espantapájaros's subtitle, Al alcance de todos (Within everyone's reach) is somewhat ironic, as Girondo did not take the necessary steps to distribute his books to the masses, nor were they likely to find it to their taste.

In the 1920s, Girondo broke rank with his socioeconomic class by satirizing the aristocracy, though he did nothing to undermine the class system itself. He also defied the vanguardia, especially Martín Fierro and Proa, by declaring himself opposed to state-sanctioned prizes and to writers holding public office. Borges, in contrast, accepted with pleasure the Second Municipal Prize for prose in 1929. He later headed the National Library for the better part of two decades, a post Victoria Ocampo helped obtain for him.34 Though critical of the upper classes, Girondo did not advance the cause of the Argentine poor. He was a satirist, not a populist or a revolutionary. Formally radical but socially and politically ambivalent, he vacillated between enjoying and denouncing the privileges of his class. He did more than any other Argentine vanguardia writer to force the relationships among literature, institutions, and the market to reveal themselves to the public eye, much as Dadaism forced the European public to confront the crisis of cultural value. In the 1920s, however, he was merely an apprentice in radicalism.

Girondo did not become the avant-garde's second most important poet until well after World War II when his work was “reevaluated.” In her prologue to Girondo's Espantapájaros y otros poemas (Scarecrow and other poems), Delfina Muschietti dates this reevaluation from the 1960s. Only then did high culture receive him in its center, she says. For decades he was considered a destructive element to be counterposed to the constructive Borges, the lover and preserver of Argentine tradition.35 Girondo was the cosmopolitan aficionado of speed and modern things who captured images with a mock camera eye and turned cities into postcards. Borges was a slow, nostalgic, willfully porteño writer with highly narrative syntax; Girondo was fast, international, and partial to fragmented, cubist images.36

Girondo's formal innovations were markedly less well accepted in Argentina than were those of Borges. His use of the prose poem, borrowed from the French symbolists, was new to Argentina and was thus a more radical choice than free verse. Evar Méndez's (1927) article “Doce poetas nuevos” (Twelve new poets) praises Borges even as it puts Girondo on the literary sidelines (17, 26; see also Muschietti 1985, 165–66). The conservative Argentine spirit, says Méndez, sees in Girondo “una amenaza terrible para la estabilidad del lirismo escrito” (a terrible threat to the stability of written lyricisim). Méndez, however, offers only a lukewarm defense of Girondo. Late in life, Borges criticizes Girondo for his market-oriented behavior, calling him the “más flojo” (laziest, weakest) member of the vanguardia (Muschietti 1985, 168). In an important sense, Girondo was too avant-garde for his movement. But if the movement was too conservative to foreground Girondo's poetry, it still found him essential.37 On trips through Latin America and Spain, Girondo represented five Argentine and two Uruguayan journals, including those of the Argentine vanguardia.38 Unlike Borges, he did not sign the manifesto he wrote, which—significantly—was also the vanguardia's most important document. The omission of this signature is meaningful in the context of how differently the movement treated the two poets.

Muschietti argues that Girondo's texts corrode the dominant social, literary, moral, and religious premises of Argentine culture. Girondo (1987) once said his aesthetic goal was to “abrir al arte las puertas de la vida” (prologue) (open the doors of life to art) and that “un libro debe construirse como un reloj, y venderse como un salchichón” (Girondo 1968, 146–47; see also 1987, prologue) (a book should be put together like a clock, and sold like a sausage). J. Schwartz (1979) likens Girondo's wealthy casino revelers in “Biarritz” to Eliot's Prufrock: they are mocked and rendered sterile and mechanistic (224). Though he rejects social norms and scandalizes the public, however, Girondo's early revolution is merely aesthetic.39 His satirical attacks—on women, the church, and the lazy rich—neither change nor seriously threaten the norms and institutions that produce Argentine literature. That Girondo remains the cas limite of the vanguardia defines the movement's essential conservatism. His sexual rebellion is traditional and machismo-ridden: women are objectified, dismembered, or made crudely animalistic. Like the surrealists, Girondo believed that undermining conventional language will change reality. But, like them, he failed in his mission to revolutionize literary relationships. As Umberto Eco (1983) describes this problem, “Literature says something and, at the same time, it denies what it has said; it doesn’t destroy signs, it makes them play and it plays them” (242). The cas limite of the Auden group is different. In a decade characterized by extremes, it is occupied by Louis MacNeice, the one who tried to occupy a middle ground. For the surrealists, the cas limite is in one sense Breton, whose monomaniacal relationship to the surrealist cause is unparalleled. In another sense, it is the poets who did not fit: Aragon, because he became a devoted communist, and others, who were, in Breton's eyes, followers of literature.

If the differences between Borges and Girondo were noted but not widely discussed during the 1920s, they have since become clear. As Enrique Molina notes, the independent Girondo opted out of the complacent vanguardia well before the end of the decade:

Volvió la espalda a sus compañeros de generación, que tras proclamar una mistificade actitud iconoclástica, acabaron por ubicarse dentro de las jerarquías tradicionales, pastando idílicamente en los prados de los suplementos dominicales. La efervescencia martinfierrista se diluyó en una mera discusión de aspectos formales. Ajenos a un auténtico inconformismo, la mayoría de los componentes del grupo terminaron en las más reaccionarias actitudes estéticas.40

(He turned his back on generational compatriots who, having proclaimed a falsely iconoclastic attitude, ended up situating themselves inside traditional hierarchies, grazing idyllically in the pastures of the Sunday supplements. The martinfierrist effervescence diluted itself in a mere discussion of formal issues. Unaware of authentic nonconformity, most of the group members ended up with the most reactionary aesthetic attitudes.)

Borges did in certain ways become the aesthetic reactionary described here, and he later saw in these early efforts to be avant-garde a good deal of posturing.

Literary historians tend not to discuss Borges and Girondo together largely because they had little in common philosophically and poetically. However, because they were the two most important leaders of the vanguardia—Borges offering an aesthetics, Girondo the movement's avant-garde gestures and publicity—this is a complex and perhaps strange choice. It is likely that Girondo was marginalized partly because he was too aware of issues of power and privilege to provide the vanguardia with a spokesperson uncritical of the movement's ideology and behavior. …


  1. See, for example, the references to Borges and Girondo as the most important poets of the decade and as participants in the vogue of the Grand Tour of Europe (Masiello 1986, 23, 126).

  2. Introduction to Revista Martín Fierro (1969), 11–12. See also Sarlo's “Síntesis y tensiones,” in Altamirano and Sarlo (1980), 168–69.

  3. As Bürger (1984), 51–52, points out, the art market privileges the signature over the work itself. Foucault's author-function, then, is in a sense more important than the literary or artistic work. Paradoxically, avant-garde movements tend to undermine somewhat the notion of individual artistic production, erasing differences among their members in order to present a united front.

  4. Sylvia Molloy points this out in “Flâneries textuales: Borges, Benjamin y Baudelaire,” in Lerner and Lerner (1984), 495.

  5. “Nuestra encuesta sobre la nueva generación literaria,” Nosotros 44, no. 168 (123): 16–17; repr. Ulla (1969), 254.

  6. For the transition between “Georgie” and “Borges,” see Rodríguez Monegal (1978), 232–33.

  7. See, for example, Graciela Palau de Nemes, “Modernismo and Borges,” in Cortínez (1986), 221.

  8. This essay can be found in Flores (1984), 30ff.

  9. The vanguardia was not in fact consistent about its condemnation of rhymed verse. Although no poet wrote an essay justifying the use of rhyme, some of the lesser vanguardia poets used it and Martín Fierro did not shy away from publishing rhymed poems, especially satirical ones.

  10. Borges, “Al margen de la moderna lírica,” Grecia (Sevilla) 39 (31 January 1920); qtd. in Pezzoni (1986), 70.

  11. Meneses (1978), 71; from Tableros (Madrid) 1 (15 November 1921).

  12. Unless otherwise noted, translations of poems from the Spanish are mine, sometimes in consultation with Ana Rosa Rapaport de Genijovich. Any errors, of course, are mine.

  13. From Luna de enfrente; qtd. in Ibarra (1930), 43.

  14. Proa 1, no. 1 (1924): 49.

  15. Oliverio Girondo, “Membretes,” Martín Fierro 3, no. 34 (1926); repr. Revista Martín Fierro (1969), 150.

  16. “Contestaciones a la encuesta de ‘Martín Fierro,’” Martín Fierro 1, nos. 5–6 (1924); repr. Revista Martín Fierro (1969), 42.

  17. Martín Fierro 1, no. 2 (1924); repr. Revista Martín Fierro (1969), 21.

  18. Borges (1974), 17. “Entraña” can be defined as heart, insides, entrails, disposition. Here it means the deeply personal and essential.

  19. From Nosotros 39, no. 151 (1921); 471.

  20. Pezzoni (1986), 91. Masiello (1986), 87, argues that the mature Borges has “personalized” literary history as a “precondition” of artistic excellence.

  21. Borges, “La nadería de la personalidad,” in Borges (1925), 93, 84; Borges (1926b), 152.

  22. Proa 1, no. 1 (August 1924): 49–50.

  23. “Examen de metáforas,” in Borges (1925), 65–75.

  24. The 1921 and 1943 excerpts from the poem are quoted in Pezzoni (1986), 79. I am grateful to Pezzoni for his analysis of the two versions. He calls the early version of the poem “formalist” and the late version a product of “lived experience.”

  25. Girondo (1987), 27. Many of the city poems of Veinte poemas, such as “Verona,” “Sevillano,” “Biarritz,” “Venecia,” and “Rio de Janeiro,” were written in the cities they took as their subjects.

  26. Jorge L. Borges, “Calcomanías,” Martín Fierro 11, no. 18 (1925); repr. Revista Martín Fierro (1969), 91.

  27. Delfina Muschietti uses these terms in her prologue to Girondo (1987).

  28. The first of these descriptions is by Ramón Gómez de la Serna, “La vida en el tranvía,” review of Veinte poemas para ser leídos en el tranvía, El Sol (Madrid) (4 May 1923). The second is by Jules Supervieille, “Veinte poemas para Oliverio Girondo,” Revue de l’Amérique Latine (Paris) (March 1924). Both critics were friends of Girondo's. The reviews were reprinted in La Nación and may also be found in J. Schwartz (1987), 326–29.

  29. This is the story told by Norah Lange, who married Girondo some years later. See J. Schwartz (1987), 216, for her account.

  30. See Running (1981), 129. Four years later, in 1936, the average edition was only 3,500 copies. Rivera (1985a), 582.

  31. This refusal is reminiscent of the major French newspapers' refusal to write about surrealist spectacles in Paris in the aftermath of the Saint-Pol-Roux banquet. In early 1920s France, Girondo's display would have been considered an artistic act in its own right.

  32. This account is from “Nahuelpan: Diez minutos con Oliverio Girondo, fuerte mentalidad agridulce,” Columba 1, no. 3 (2 June 1925): n.p. It can be found in J. Schwartz (1987), 43.

  33. Muschietti points to the central contradiction of Girondo's behavior: “Su rechazo del burgués como celui qui ne comprend pas más un aparente desdén por el mercado literario se contredicen con su intento por generar un nuevo público que, además de masivo, tuviero acceso a los criterios de ruptura estético-ideológicos y a una competencia especializada.” (His rejection of the bourgeois as celui qui ne comprend pas plus an apparent disdain for the literary market contradict his intention to generate a new public that, in addition to being massive, would have access to [understanding] the criteria of an aesthetic-ideologic rupture and to a specialized competence.) Muschietti (1985), 162.

  34. For one of Girondo's statements of opposition to the state's role in professionalizing the writer, see “Girondo no cree que en el exterior interese la literatura argentina,” Crítica (15 May 1960), in J. Schwartz (1987), 48.

  35. The description of Borges paraphrases a comment by Evar Méndez (1927), 26.

  36. J. Schwartz's (1979) useful comparison is one of few that portrays Borges and Girondo as opposites (151).

  37. As its publicist, his role was analogous to those played by Michael Roberts and John Lehmann of the New Signatures group in England.

  38. Martín Fierro took much of the credit for its agent's successful mission. See “Oliverio Girondo en misión intelectual,” Martín Fierro 1, no. 7 (July 1924); repr. J. Schwartz (1987), 173. Though avant-garde movements distribute power and roles in the way that best suits their needs and goals, they are rarely credited with such rational behavior. For example, Roberts and Lehmann, whose poetry was never so good as that of the core group of Auden poets, had important roles as editors and publicists.

  39. In the 1940s and 1950s, as Girondo became more surrealist in practice, his philosophies were in some ways as revolutionary as those of the French surrealists. Girondo's later work has often been compared to the early poetry of Peru's César Vallejo, author of Trilce (1922), as a map of the discursive limits of poetry in Spanish.

  40. Enrique Molina, “Hacia el fuego central o la poesía de Oliverio Girondo,” in Girondo (1968), 12. Molina was a disciple of Girondo in the 1940s during the heyday of Argentine surrealism.

Works cited

Alazraki, Jaime, ed. 1976. Jorge Luis Borges. Madrid: Taurus Ediciones.

———. 1987. Critical essays on Jorge Luis Borges. Boston: G.K. Hall.

Bastos, Maria Luisa. 1974. Borges ante la critica argentina, 1923–1960. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Hispamerica.

Cortinez, Carlos, ed. 1986. Borges the Poet. Fayetville: U. of Arkansas Press.

Eco, Umberto. 1986. Travels in Hyper Reality. Trans. William Weaver. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Fernandez, Teodosio. 1987. La poesia hispanoamericana en el sieglo XX. Madrid: Taurus Ediciones.

Ferrari, Osvaldo. 1985. Borges en dialogo; conversaciones de Jorge Luis Borges con Osvaldo Ferrari. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Grijalbo.

Girando, Oliviero. 1987. Espantapajaros y otros poemas. Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de America Latina.

Ibara, Nestor. 1930. La nueva posia argentina: ensayo critico sobre el ultraismo, 1921–1929. Buenos Aires: Molinari e Hijos.

Leland, Christpher Towne. 1986. The Last Happy Men: The Generation of 1922, Fiction and the Argentine Reality. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Llagostera, Maria Raquel. 1987. Boedo y Florida. Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de America Latina.

Lugones, Leopoldo. 1961. Lunario sentimental. Buenos Aires: Editorial Centurion.

Masiello, Francine. 1986. Lenguaje e ideologia: las escuelas argentinas de vanguardia. Beunos Aires: Hachette.

Mastronardi, Carlos. 1980/1986. “El movimiento de ‘Martin Fierro.’” Historia de la litreatura argentina: Los proyectos de la vanguardia. Buenos Aires: Centro Edit or de America Latina.

Mendez, Evar. 1927. “Doce poetas nuevas.” Sintesis I, no. 4 (September):15–33.

Muschietti, Delfina. 1985. “La fractura ideologica en los primeros textos de Oliviero Girondo.” Filologia 20, no I:153–69.

Rodriguez Monegal, Emir. 1978. Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography. New York: Dutton.

Running, Thorpe. 1981. Borges' Ultraist Movement. Lathrup Village, Mich: International Book Publishers.

Schwartz, Jorge. 1979. Vanguardia y cosmopolitismo en la decada del veinte: Oliviero Girando y Oswald de Andrade. Ph.D. diss., Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International.

———, ed. 1987. Homenaje a Girondo. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Corregidor.

Vazquez, Maria Esther. 1980. “Victoria Ocampo, una argentina universalista.” Revista Iberoamericana 110–11 (January-June): 167–75.

Edward Hirsch (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “Jorge Luis Borges,” in The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. XXII, No. 4, Autumn, 1998, pp. 109–14.

[In the following excerpt, Hirsch discusses Borge’s love of reading and of languages, focusing on his conception of poetry as “a collaborative act between writer and the reader.”]

We tend to think of Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) exclusively in terms of fiction, as the author of luminous and mind-bending metaphysical parables that cross the boundaries between the short story and the essay. But Borges always identified himself first as a reader, then as a poet, finally as a prose writer. He found the borders between genres permeable and lived in the magic space, the imaginary world, created by books. “If I were asked to name the chief event in my life, I should say my father's library,” he said in 1970. “In fact, sometimes I think I have never strayed outside that library.”

Borges was so incited, so inflamed by what he read, so beholden to what he encountered, that it demanded from him an answer in kind, a creative response. He was an Argentine polyglot who learned English even before he learned Spanish (in a sense he grew up in the dual world of his father's library of unlimited English books and his mother's sensuous Hispanic garden). As a teenager in Geneva during World War I he also learned Latin and German, which he considered the language of the philosophers, and in old age he devoted himself to studying old Germanic languages. One could say that reading others spurred him into writing poetry, which was for him something so intimate, so essential, it could not be defined without oversimplifying it. “It would be like attempting to define the color yellow, love, the fall of leaves in autumn,” he said. He loved Plato's characterization of poetry as “that light substance, winged and sacred.”

One of the persistent motifs in Borges's work is that our egos persist, but that selfhood is a passing illusion, that we are all in the end one, that in reading Shakespeare we somehow become Shakespeare. “For many years I believed that literature, which is almost infinite, is one man,” he said. “I want to give thanks,” he wrote in “Another Poem of Thanksgiving,”

For the fact that the poem is inexhaustible
And becomes one with the sum of all created things
And will never reach its last verse
And varies according to its writers. …

Borges never viewed poetry in the way the New Critics did, as an object, a thing unto itself, but rather as a collaborative act between the writer and the reader. Reading requires complicity. He wrote:

The taste of the apple (states Berkeley) lies in the contact of the fruit and the palate, not in the fruit itself; in a similar way (I would say), poetry lies in the meeting of poem and reader, not in the lines of symbols printed in the pages of a book. What is so essential is the aesthetic act, the thrill, the almost physical sensation that comes with each reading.

Borges's first book of poems, Fervor of Buenos Aires (1921), was inspired by his native city and written under the sign of a vanguard imagist sect called the ultraísts, a group of Spanish poets who believed in the supreme power of metaphor and the liberating music of free verse. “I feel that all during my lifetime I have been rewriting that one book,” he said. He wrote poetry throughout the 1920s, but then it mysteriously deserted him as he went on to create a new kind of narrative prose, the astonishing work that registered his greatness: Inquisitions (1925), Universal History of Infamy (1935), The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), Ficciones (1944), and A New Refutation of Time (1987), among others. (The first English collections of Borges's writing, Labyrinths and Ficciones, appeared in 1962.)

Borges suffered from hereditarily weak eyesight and eventually became the sixth generation of his family to go blind. This was an especially tragic fate for the reader and writer who was also the director of Argentina's National Library. In “Poem of the Gifts,” written in the 1950s, he speaks of God's splendid irony in granting him at one time 800,000 books and total darkness. The conclusion of the poem underscores the tragedy of a man who had been denied access to what he most loved:

Painfully probing the dark, I grope toward
The void of the twilight with the point of my faltering
Cane—I for whom Paradise was always a metaphor,
An image of libraries.

The fabulist returned to poetry in the 1950s with a more direct and straightforward style, a beguiling and deceptive simplicity. He dictated his poems to classical meters and chanted them aloud at readings. He wrote about the flow of rivers and the nature of time, his ardor for Buenos Aires, the cult of his ancestors, his study of Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon, the contradictions of temporal experience, the power of certain sunsets, certain dawns, the immanence of a revelation always about to arrive. His poems show how much he loved to read the narrative language of storytelling (of Rudyard Kipling, G. K. Chesterton, and Robert Louis Stevenson, of Gilgamesh and Beowulf), and the magical language of lyric poetry (of runes, riddles, and spells, of Walt Whitman at his most incantatory and Ralph Waldo Emerson at his most oracular), and the investigatory language of metaphysical speculation (from Spinoza to Kafka, from Schopenhauer to Berkeley, Swedenborg, and Unamuno). He was a rapturous writer, a literary alchemist who emerged as an explorer of labyrinths, an adventurer in the fantastic, a poet of mysterious intimacies who probed the infinite postponements and cycles of time, the shimmering mirrors of fiction and reality, the symbols of unreality, the illusions of identity, the disintegration of the self into the universe, into the realm of the Archetypes and the Splendors.

Mark Couture (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: “Empty Words: Vanity in the Writings of Jorge Luis Borges,” in Romance Notes, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Spring, 1999, pp. 265–71.

[In the following essay, Couture discusses the centrality of “vanity” as a word and as a concept in Borges's writing.]

Twisting an old Spanish saying, Bryce Echenique wrote that Borges “más sabía por viejo y sabía más todavía por diablo” (7). Alastair Reid, speaking of conversations with Borges about translation, said that Borges's modesty could be deadly. These remarks allude to one of Borges's greatest charms, something that attracts us more than his audacious, sophisticated metaphysical speculations: his coy sense of humor. I think that a great deal of the humor in Borges can be attributed to his sense of the vanity of literature, his own included. Borges, while aware of the beauty and power of words, also knew that words, at last, are just words, and as such are ultimately destined to fail us. Part of the subdued chuckle of recognition we experience as we read Borges comes from this awareness. Borges's writings have the uncanny knack of deflating our preconceived notions of the nature of language and literature. “Vanity,” etymologically, means “emptiness.” One of Borges's most effective diabluras is a deflation, a gentle reminder running through his texts of the illusory character of literature, a knowledge that literature is not life, nor are literary politics literature.

Perhaps it is inevitable that someone so bookish as Borges, who seemed to live for and through books, be supremely aware of literature's limitations. In fact, this is a principal theme of Borges's writing. Yet this insight into the vain emptiness of the literary undertaking is not without an accompanying blindness. Borges may have suffered not only from a literal blindness, but from a metaphorical blindness as well: what might be called a blindness to “real reality,” to the hustle and hum above and beyond the pages of the books he spent his life reading. Certainly this was a common complaint about him from his contemporaries in the days before Borges was famous throughout the world.1 Interestingly, Borges's prioritizing of literature over life, to put in banally, is precisely what first attracted North American academics to him.

What I propose here is a preliminary mapping of the uses and meanings of the words vano and vanidad in Borges's writings. Since the word occurs frequently in both Borges's poetry and prose, I aim to construct a sort of contextual glossary of the term in order to show how this simple word encapsulates a certain philosophy of language and literature: the notion that words, despite their occasional power and glory, inevitably let us down.

In “La luna,” a poem from El hacedor, Borges writes, echoing his own “Aleph,” of a man who undertakes the impossible task of writing an infinite book in which he plans to “cifrar el universo.” He finishes the project, only to realize that he has forgotten to include the moon. The poem then becomes an inventory of literary moons. Near its end, the poem takes a seemingly autobiographical turn by switching to the first person, as the poet confesses that he too, years ago in Geneva, took upon himself the “secret obligation” to define the moon. As the poem draws to a close, the poet admits to the vanity of this task: “Ya no me atrevo a macular su pura / aparición con una imagen vana” (186).2 The use of the verb macular, to stain or blemish, suggests a notion of literature as a sort of stain on silence; metaphors (imágenes vanas), even words themselves, are inadequate in the face of the quotidian moon in the night sky. The opposition of adjectives, vana / pura, relays the message that words fail us, even if the message can only be relayed through words.

The doubling technique, so prevalent in Borges, is often used to reflect on the shared vanity of the literary undertaking. By writing about the vanity of another's work, Borges alludes to the vanity of his own by establishing networks of correspondence between the poet whom Borges is writing about and himself. In “Baltasar Gracián,” a poem about the death of the great preceptista of the Spanish baroque, Borges registers his dissatisfaction with Gracián's writing using the notion of vanity. Since Gracián's soul is devoid of music (an allusion to Verlaine's “la musique avant toute chose”), in its place there is “sólo un vano / Herbario de metáforas y argucias …” (159). While certainly a severe critique of literature as artifice, the poem also implicitly doubles Borges and Gracián; it is a recognition that, to some extent, the failures of Gracián are those of Borges himself. The identification between Borges and Gracián is highlighted by the poem's use of laberintos in its first and last lines. In this relatively late poem, we see Borges looking back as much as his younger, “vanidosamente barroco,” self as at Gracián.3

The poem's ending calls to mind one of Borges's most famous stories, “La muerte y la brújula.” At the end of the story, the detective Erik Lönnrot is led to his death, having solved the puzzle that had been elaborated by Red Scharlach to trap him. Facing death at the hands of Scharlach, Lönnrot can think of nothing but another labyrinth, another riddle distracting him from the more immediate question of life and death. The same is true of Gracián in the poem: as he faces his own death he can think of nothing but puns, emblems, and labyrinths.

One of Borges's recurrent fascinations or terrors is the mirror, which, needless to say, is the quintessential symbol of vanity. The reference in “Los espejos” is typical:

Dios ha creado las noches que se arman
De sueños y las formas del espejo
Para que el hombre sienta que es reflejo
Y vanidad. Por eso nos alarman.


The rhyme of espejo with reflejo: could anyone else get away with it? It would be interesting to know what the baroque young Borges would have made of it?4

One could go on enumerating the appearance of vano, en vano, vanamente and vanidad in Borges's poetry. One more example should suffice to highlight its importance. Borges writes in “Composición escrita en un ejemplar de Beowulf”:

Gastada por los años la memoria
Deja caer la en vano repetida
Palabra y es así como mi vida
Teje y desteje su cansada historia.


Although one may find some solace in literature, the literary act, finally, is destined to be the repetition of hollow words. Repetition of turns of phrase and of ideas serves in the end to empty these ideas and turns of phrase of meaning. There is more than a note of stoic resignation in this stanza: literature may be a vain enterprise, but life itself is only expressed in textual terms: “mi vida / Teje y desteje su cansada historia.”

The word vanidad and it variants also frequently make their way into Borges's prose, even into his most famous pieces. In “Borges y yo,” the short piece from El hacedor about the split between the literary personality and its humble alter ego, Borges writes about his tastes:

Me gustan los relojes de arena, los mapas, la tipografía del siglo XVIII las etimologías, el sabor del café y la prosa de Stevenson; el otro comparte estas preferencias, pero de un modo vanidoso que las convierte en atributos de un actor.


Once these “preferences” are given literary expression, they lose some of their inherent value: following the etymology of my key word, one could say that they are “emptied out.” The literary act, the act of putting things into words, automatically cancels authenticity. There are things, tastes, preferences, and all the rest, as they say, is literature.

I cannot conclude without a cursory glance at some of the vain distractions we encounter when we take up Borges. First among these is the “vanity” of the artist who wants to be known to readers only through the texts that he considers to be his best: the vanity of an author who goes out of his way to eliminate all traces of his “youthful indiscretions.” I’ve heard an anecdote about a youngish Borges making the rounds of Buenos Aires's bookstores, buying up all the copies of Inquisiciones that he could find in order to take them home and burn them. Marcos Barnatán writes about a visit of Borges and María Kodama to a bookstore in Mallorca, where Borges was shown a copy of Carlos Meneses's recently released compilation Poesía juvenil de J. L. Borges:

Borges le dijo a María que rompiera el libro. A lo que ella respondió que en la portada había una buena foto de él. “Entonces conserve la portada y rompa el resto” sentenció Borges.


And yet Borges did not go so far as to act as if he had never written the essays of Inquisiciones El tamaño de mi esperanza or El idioma de los argentinos. First of all, he would often refer to these early essays in his interviews, if only to critique their baroque excessiveness, the lack of the sort of concision that characterizes his later writings. Yet even in the most vehement of these repudiations there is a certain acknowledgement, a wink at the ghost of one's former self.

Another symptom of this artistic vanity is the incessant changing and polishing of his poems. Borges, like Cervantes, has the reputation in some circles of being a “bad” poet. I don’t think this label is quite fair. While Borges's poems don’t have the intensity of imagery of those of Neruda or Lezama, they do have a quiet, metaphysical intensity and a thematic complexity that can be overlooked in superficial readings. Borges's earliest poems are the extreme example of the vanity of this constant revision. The poems of the Fervor de Buenos Aires in the socalled Obras completas that Borges himself supervised in his lifetime often bear little resemblance to the poems originally published under the same title in 1923, even though the first sentence of the book's prologue reads, “No he reescrito el libro” (9). A hypothetical critical edition that charted all of the variants in Borges's poetry would be voluminous. In an interview Borges, quoting Keats regarding this on-going propensity to revise, said, “it is myself that I remake.” Is there not a certain vanity involved in this unwillingness to relinquish control over one's poems, in this on-going desire to remake one's former self?

The passage that first got me thinking about reading Borges through the prism of vanity is from one of his best stories, “El Aleph.” In the story, Carlos Daneri Argentino, an acquaintance of the narrator (a certain “Borges”) writes a vast, all-encompassing poem called “La tierra.” The poem is inspired by the aleph, a point containing all possible points seen at all possible times, which just happens to be found in Daneri's basement. In the course of events, “Borges” literally stumbles upon the point, seeing all of time and space. Through this act of mere perception he succeeds where Daneri had failed in his vast poem: he achieves a communion with the whole by merely resigning himself to being no one, by not writing.

“El Aleph” is full of sentences that use the word vano. The story begins with a brief reflection on change. The day that Beatriz dies, The Borges character looks up and notices that a cigarette advertisement has changed:

Cambiará el universo, pero yo no, pensé con melancólica vanidad; alguna vez mi vana devoción la había exasperado; muerta yo podía consagrarme a su memoria, sin esperanza pero también sin humillación.


A little further on, Borges describes the yearly dinners, held to commemorate Beatriz's death, as “melancólicas y vanamente eróticas.” The recurrence of the word suggests that the notion of vanity has more than a little bearing on the idea of literature being developed in the story. Carlos Daneri Argentino's vast literary enterprise is vain in that it is doomed to failure.

At the end of a brilliant article, Enrico Mario Santí suggests that “El Aleph” be read en clave, that it is, among other things, a parody of Neruda's monumental Canto general. While Neruda's poem had not yet been published when Borges's story came out, news of a gargantuan, Whitmanesque poem by Neruda had long been discussed in Latin American intellectual circles.5 Santí writes that “the point of the parody is to identify the object of the cult as the desire for totalization—what could otherwise be called an anxiety of literary legitimacy” (173–74). This desire or anxiety of legitimacy is certainly a symptom of the poet's vanity, for a certain vanity is essential for even the attempt to write such a work.

“La tierra,” Daneri's endless poem, is a vain rhetorical exercise, as the perceptive “Borges” of the story points out early on, even before being aware of the existence of the aleph: “Tan ineptas me parecieron esas ideas, tan pomposa y tan vana su exposición, que inmediatamente las relacioné con la literatura” (158, emphasis added).6 In this line, the notion of literature as an exercise in vanity couldn’t be clearer, for it expands outward: not only is Daneri's poem a vain enterprise, but literature itself is too. Needless to say, I was disappointed when reading “El Aleph” in another edition, to find that the word vana had suddenly become vasta. But I guess that is a reflection of my own vanity, not that of Borges or the whole of literature.


  1. Jaime Alazraki quotes Enrique Anderson Imbert: “Those of us who devotedly accompany him in his descents to buried temples suffer at times the suffocation of so much rarefied air. I doubt if we could endure to live there too long should Borges persist in inhabiting them forever. Perhaps we will kill ourselves or die as did his Babel's librarians” (3).

  2. All page references to Borges's poems are to the Obra poética (1923–67).

  3. The older Borges frequently refers to his younger self as a baroque writer, as in a 1981 interview with Antonio Carrizo:

    “Cuando era joven … yo quería ser Lugones, Quevedo, y escribir en un estilo barroco” (101). A principal defect of the baroque, according to Borges, is its inherent vanity. In the introduction to his anthology of Quevedo's poetry Borges writes that “el defecto esencial del barroco es de carácter ético; denuncia la vanidad del artista”


  4. Marcos-Ricardo Barnatán comments:

    “Borges asocia la idea del espejo a la de la vanidad y también a la mentira … La proliferación de espejos en la poesía del Borges maduro le obligó a reiterar sus rimas con la palabra reflejo, vicio que le imputaron los omnipotentes críticos, sin percatarse de que en la reincidencia borgiana nacía un nuevo concepto de la originalidad. Ya sólo Borges podría rimar espejo con reflejo, así como Góngora al abusar hizo exclusiva para sí la rima de plumas con espumas.”


  5. Perhaps Borges objected to such lines in Neruda's long poem as “déjame a mí, poeta de nuestra pobre América, coronar tu cabeza con el laurel del pueblo” (4.29), or “Pablo Neruda, cronista de todas las cosas” (4.26).

  6. This change is not included in Jaime Alazraki's register of variants in his Prosa narrativa de Jorge Luis Borges.

Works cited

Alazraki, Jaime. La prosa narrativa de Jorge Luis Borges. Madrid: Gredos, 1974.

———, Ed. Critical Essays on Jorge Luis Borges. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1987.

Barnatán, Marcos-Ricar Borges: Biografía total. Madrid: Ediciones Temas de Hoy, 1995.

Borges, Jorge Luis. El Aleph. Madrid: Alianza, 1990.

———. Fervor de Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1969.

———. El hacedor. Madrid: Alianza, 1996.

———. Obra poética (1923–1967). Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1967.

Bryce Echenique, Alfredo. Permiso para vivir. Barcelona: Anagrama, 1993.

Carrizo, Antonio and Jorge Luis Borges. “Borges el memorioso.” CHA 505/507 (1992): 99–112.

Neruda, Pablo. Canto general. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1983.

Quevedo, Francisco de. Antología poética. Ed. Jorge Luis Borges. Madrid: Alianza, 1982.

Santí, Enrico Mario. “The Accidental Tourist: Walt Whitman in Latin America”. Do the Americas Have a Common Literature? Ed. Gustavo Pérez Firmat. London & Durham: Duke UP, 1990. 156–76.

Norman Thomas diGiovani (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: “One Mind at Work,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 5019, June 11, 1999, p. 14ff.

[In the following essay, diGiovani discusses the process of collaborating with Borges in the translation of his poetry.]

In November 1967, in Harvard Square, I walked into Schoenhof's Foreign Bookshop and asked for a copy of Jorge Luis Borges's collected poems. When the clerk brought me the book, he said, “You know Borges is speaking here next week.” That was the first link in an invisible chain of cause and effect that brought me together with Borges in a working association that lasted for nearly five years. It was also the first link in a network that was soon to connect me with Buenos Aires in particular, with the River Plate in general, and with many dozen friends the world over.

I went home from Schoenhof's that day with a copy of Borges's Obra poética under my arm, and the following week I attended his public lecture in Memorial Hall. But the whole time, while I was reading the poems and listening to Borges and afterwards reading and studying the poetry further, I was transported to another realm. The words in the book and those spoken by the man on the stage were unmistakably one and the same, and I was struck by the gentle quality and humanity that each radiated. I had first come across it in lines of verse that Borges had written about his friend Elvira de Alvear, a Buenos Aires society woman whose life ended in madness. The poem, in the form of a bronze plaque, now adorns Elvira's tomb in the Recoleta cemetery.

She once had everything but one by one
Each thing abandoned her. We saw her armed
With beauty. The morning and the hard light
Of noon from their pinnacle revealed to her
The glorious kingdoms of the world. Evening
Wiped them away. …

During the autumn of 1967 and winter of 1968, all of Cambridge was buzzing about Borges's presence. But I was probably the only one who went home after that November lecture and wrote Borges a letter. In it, I asked if I could work with him on a volume of his poems in English translation. I told him that, a few years before, I had edited a selection of poems by Jorge Guillén, the Spanish poet who had lived and taught for years around Boston, and that my plan for Borges's poems was to produce something along similar lines. At this point, the hand of fate came heavily to intervene. Borges was notorious for never answering letters, and yet he answered mine, telling me to phone and to come and see him. I phoned. He asked me to come that very afternoon and to bring the poems I had done. “I haven’t done any poems yet”, I said in panic. “Come anyway”, he said. That was the 3rd of December. I knocked at Borges's door, walked in, and was to stay for nearly five years.

On that first afternoon, we talked about a recent poem of his that I liked very much. It was on an Anglo-Saxon figure, Hengist Cyning, who founded the first Saxon kingdom in what is now England.

The extraordinary thing about that encounter, as I look back on it, was the fact of a poem about a Saxon king from the fifth century AD linking an older Argentine writer and a younger American, in Massachusetts, with the pair of us speaking in a flow of Spanish and English. The link, of course, was poetry and the music of words. I found out at the same time that Borges considered Guillén to be the finest poet then writing in the Spanish language. I also found out that Guillén's daughter, who was an old friend of mine, was accompanying Borges to a class he gave three times a week on contemporary Argentine writers. So when I had written my letter invoking Guillén's poems and his name, I could not have given myself a better recommendation.

Within a month, Borges and I had planned the whole book, which would become his Selected Poems, 1923–1967. Together we made a choice of 100 poems, I began to commission poet-translators to make the English versions, we secured the necessary rights from the Argentine publisher, and I sold the project to an American publisher. Our method was to make a literal rough draft of each piece that was to be in the selection, which I would use both to help the translators get started and later to criticize their drafts as they came in. Sometimes letters would pass back and forth several times between me and a particular poet before each of us was satisfied with the result. Only after that would I take the poem to Borges for a final reading. Nearly a dozen American and British poets participated, and Borges and I were gratified by the way such distinguished writers flocked to the project.

The winter of 1968 was an important time for Borges. Five of his books were then available in English (the first two had appeared in 1962); he was at Harvard, as the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry, to give six public lectures; and interest in his work in the United States was swelling to a crest. Through the poets involved in the Selected Poems, word got out about what Borges and I were up to in our meetings. In the beginning, these took place two or three times a week; soon they increased, and I was forced to move near Cambridge so that we could work in daily sessions. Borges would exhort me in his typically self-effacing way, “When you write to the translators, tell them that in spite of my poems the translations must be good.” Of course, that was just the sort of remark that made our collaborators redouble their efforts. Borges and I began to be asked to organize readings, using our new translations, at a number of Greater Boston universities; and, a few months later—with several of the translators reading—at the YM-YWHA, in New York.

Meanwhile, quite by chance, an unusual piece of information came my way. At the time we were working, Borges became the subject of a long interview with several pages of photographs, in Life en español. The woman conducting it, Rita Guibert, was a frequent visitor at Borges's flat. One day I heard her ask him whether he had ever worked with any of his other translators the way he was working with me. No, never, he said. I found his reply remarkable. The several editors and translators involved in every one of those first five books of Borges's had, at one time or another, been in contact with him, but none had ever consulted him about his or her translation. It was a wonder to me that so many had overlooked anything so obvious. Borges was the easiest of men to approach, he was unfailingly co-operative, and he also spoke very fine English. The greatest resource of all—the author himself, steeped in the English language and its literature—had gone untapped. Moreover, I came to find, Borges's English was better than that of his translations. Later on, he confessed to me that one translator had contacted him a few years before to say she could find no equivalent in English for the title of his prose piece called “El hacedor”. “That was odd”, Borges said, “because I thought up the title in English. It comes from the Scottish poet Dunbar. My Spanish title was a translation from the English right from the start.” That title, of course, was “The Maker”.

During this same period, I approached Borges about translating one of his short stories. We had been working on the poems for a couple of months by then, and I was curious to see whether we could apply the method we had evolved with the poetry to a longer work in prose. I warned him that I did not know enough about Argentina to translate any of his stories on my own, so would only try my hand at it if he would help. I said we could then credit the finished product as having been translated in collaboration with the author. Borges was stunned by the suggestion. “Of course, I’ll help,” he said, “but won’t it hurt you to say that I took part?” I told him it would give the work more authority. “Yes, I see that,” Borges said, “but in my country a translator would be far too jealous to share credit with the author.”

The first story we translated together—it was “The Other Death”—turned into one of the happiest and most fortuitous experiences of my life. Altogether I worked on the tale for about a week, including the three afternoon sessions that I spent on it with Borges. When we finished, I saw that what we had achieved was truer to the original tone and meaning and complex intentions of the author than any other translation of his into English up until then. For his part, some time later, Borges told a class at Columbia University that

When we attempt a translation, or re-creation, of my poems or prose in English, we don’t think of ourselves as being two men, We think we are really one mind at work.

At the outset of taking on “The Other Death”, on my own I had puzzled out and made a rough draft of the story. Since there were a number of elements in it so local that only an Argentine would understand them, and only an Argentine who spoke perfect English could have explained them, it was plain that I should not try to make perfect sentences in English of what I did not fully grasp. So I left gaps. I want to emphasize that my intention at this stage had been only to produce a makeshift draft that I could later go over with the author so as to get the meaning straight. Naturally, where simple sentences flowed out into solid English prose, I let them flow. When I completed my draft, I took it round to Borges. I read to him half a sentence or so in Spanish, followed by the equivalent portion of my rough-and-ready English version. Where the gaps fell, Borges would interrupt before I could explain my difficulty and he would say, “Now in this next bit you won’t understand such-and-such”, and he would launch into an elaborate description of River Plate rural life or history that would provide me with exactly what I lacked. It soon became clear that the affinities between the plains of Argentina and those of the United States, with their vast open stretches of range land for grazing cattle, were greater than one at first imagined. There had to be terms common to both countries to express the similarity of their frontier histories. And there were—if only one avoided the dictionary, whose word-for-word equivalents are often of little value.

We forged ahead, sentence by sentence, sometimes feeling that what I had was good enough as it stood, sometimes revising extensively. On occasion, Borges corrected me; on occasion, I asked him to clarify. Often, no sooner had I read out one of my sentences than I saw ways of improving it before he could make the suggestion himself. In some cases, he offered an alternative or variations that I would return home with to test on my own. We would keep trying to free the sentences of cumbersome or indirect locutions. Passive constructions might become active; negative, positive. A phrase like “marchaban desde el Sur”—they marched from the south—might become “on their march north”. Our aim at this point was simply to get all of the Spanish into some kind of English, and in order to do so I needed a full understanding not only of the text but also of Borges's intentions. It did not matter to us yet that during the completion of this stage we might still be fairly literal or provisional. Often, in fact, we remained deliberately undecided about such details as finding the right word or phrase or shade of meaning.

After a session with Borges, I would return home and type out what we had gone over together, then set to work shaping and polishing the sentences and paragraphs, this time trying to supply the exact words. Now I would refer back to the Spanish only for checking rhythms and emphases. The concern would be with matters of tone and tension and style. To anyone who constructs a piece of prose and cares about style, this amounts to a slow and painstaking search for meanings to fit the sound patterns one keeps turning and turning in one's head. After finishing this stage—and it was far and away the most time-consuming part of the job—I read the not-quite-final draft to Borges for approval and a last test. This time we completely ignored the Spanish and only tinkered here or there with a word.

I still remember how much trouble that complicated first sentence of “The Other Death” gave me. It was the classic Borges opener, fulfilling his personal dictum that if you began with a long, involved sentence, by the time the reader got to the end of it he had made his way well into the story and would be hooked. I must have sat there for over an hour on that sentence alone, taking it apart and putting it together, testing it and retesting it for crucial balances and rhythms. What made the sentence so hard was its multiple clauses. Here it is:

I have mislaid the letter, but a couple of years or so ago Gannon wrote to me from his ranch up in Gualeguaychú saying he would send me a translation, perhaps the first into Spanish, of Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem, “The Past”, and adding in a PS that don Pedro Damián, whom I might recall, had a few nights earlier died of a lung ailment.

I am quite fond of that sentence, not only because it was the first prose of Borges's that I ever translated but also because to me it stands for the beginning—the first story itself, the method we invented there on the spot, and, gratifyingly, the contract it landed us from the New Yorker magazine. They invited us to súbmit to them any of Borges's work previously untranslated—stories, poems and essays, past and to come.

The long sentence quoted above, I hasten to point out, is not the version of it that appeared in print either in the magazine or in the volume it was subsequently destined for, in 1970, The Aleph and Other Stories. On two occasions since then, in quoting the sentence I have revised it. I mention this to indicate that a translation, like any other piece of writing, can always be improved.

On a number of occasions, Borges and I were able to make new translations of some of his finest tales—even ones translated three or more times previously into English. I have likened our achievement in these stories to the cleaning of old pictures. In our effort, we tried hard to restore the clarity, the sharpness and the colour of the originals. Once, when I read him the finished draft of his celebrated story “The Circular Ruins”, Borges wept. “Caramba,” he said, “I wish I could still write like that.” These were the versions of his work that Borges had long awaited and that he now considered to be definitive.

Borges left Cambridge to return to Argentina in April 1968, and several months later I joined him in Buenos Aires. After I went to live in his country, where I stayed for nearly four years, those bits of any text I did not understand and left blank in my early drafts got fewer and fewer. But nothing changed with regard to the tacit assumptions and agreements that underlay the method that Borges and I had worked out for ourselves. We agreed, for example, that a translation should not sound like a translation, but should read as though it had been written directly in the language into which it is being made. While this may appear obvious, for a writer and translator as accomplished as Vladimir Nabokov, the opposite held true. He maintained that a translation should sound like a translation. But Borges and I wanted his translations to read like original works. He once confessed to me that, when earlier versions of his stories were read to him, he recognized the particular piece as his, but always thought he wrote better than that. In the preface to The Aleph and Other Stories, we stated:

Perhaps the chief justification of this book is the translation itself, which we have undertaken in what may be a new way. Working closely together in daily sessions, we have tried to make these stories read as though they had been written in English. We do not consider English and Spanish as compounded of sets of easily interchangeable synonyms; they are two quite different ways of looking at the world, each with a nature of its own. English, for example, is far more physical than Spanish. We have therefore shunned the dictionary as much as possible and done our best to rethink every sentence in English words. This venture does not necessarily mean that we have willfully tampered with the original, though in certain cases we have supplied the American reader with those things—geographical, topographical, and historical—taken for granted by any Argentine.

Borges and I further agreed that in translating from Spanish into English, words with Anglo-Saxon roots are preferable to words of Latin origin. Often this means that the first word suggested by the Spanish should be avoided. On a number of occasions, Borges said he could never understand why his early translators would translate habitación oscura into “obscure habitation” when what he meant was “dark room”. Of course, when choosing the first word suggested by the Spanish, there is the danger of falling into the trap of the false cognate, or false association. The translation of one Borges story is badly marred at a crucial point when the word discutir, “to argue”, is translated as “to discuss”. A professor of Spanish-American literature at an American university once criticized me in print for having translated Borges's words mas notorio atributo as “most obvious trait”. He wanted the translation to read “most notorious attribute”, not only ignoring the context of the phrase but also being caught out by the false cognate. “Notorio” in this instance meant simply “noteworthy”, or “obvious”, without the negative connotation the word carries in English.

Borges has a marvellous prose poem about Shakespeare called “Everything and Nothing”. In the opening line, Borges described Shakespeare's words as “copiosas, fantásticas y agitadas”. One translation of this reads, “copious, fantastic, and agitated”; a second, “copious, imaginative, and emotional”. This is distinctly better and shows that the translator is not just translating the words but is thinking about their meaning in terms of Shakespeare. A third translation reads, “copious, fantastic, and stormy”. A fourth, “multitudinous, and of a fantastical and agitated turn”—a solution both long-winded and stodgy. A fifth version—the one made by Borges and me—reads, “swarming, fanciful, and excited”.

There were other factors working for us that underpinned our method. Foremost was Borges's command of English and his sense of English prose style. An anecdote will illustrate just how sensitive he was to English. In 1964, Borges fixed to his collected poems the following paragraph, taken from one of Robert Louis Stevenson's letters:

I do not set up to be a poet. Only an all-round literary man: a man who talks, not one who sings. … Excuse this little apology; but I don’t like to come before people who have a note of song and let it be supposed I do not know the difference.

As the Spanish-language editions of Borges's work were riddled with errors, I thought I had better look that quotation up in Volume Two of the edition Borges had cited. When I did, sure enough, I found an error—but not a printer's error. What I found was that Borges had tampered with the text. It was not, as in his version, “Excuse this little apology; but I don’t like to come before people” etc. Rather, the correct text ran: “Excuse this little apology for my house; but I don’t like to come before people”, and so on. When I asked Borges why he had suppressed the words “for my house”, he said it was because they sounded silly and thereby weakened the text. But he added that for our edition of his poetry I could print the epigraph any way I liked.

A few years later, in London, travelling with Borges—it is uncanny how this takes the shape of a Borges story—I bought the beautiful twenty-six-volume Vailima edition of Stevenson's works. Back in Buenos Aires, I don’t know for what reason, I checked the source of the epigraph again; this edition had been published twenty-four years after the one Borges had used, and it had been newly edited as well. There I found that the quotation read: “Excuse this little apology for my muse …”. Muse, not house. Now it made perfect sense. The original letter had been handwritten, and its editor had misread the word “muse” as “house”. Borges, without having seen the original, had sensed the mistake.

Jay Parini (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1934

SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 268, No. 30, May 31, 1999, pp. 25–8.

[In the following review, Parini discusses the volume Selected Poems of Borges (1999), edited by Alexander Coleman.]

With Pablo Neruda and Alejo Carpentier, Jorge Luis Borges set in motion the wave of astonishing writing that has given Latin American literature its high place in our time. Yet Borges stands alone, a planet unto himself, resisting categorization. Although literary fashions come and go, he is always there, endlessly rereadable by those who admire him, awaiting rediscovery by new generations of readers.

One tends to think of Borges as the writer of a dozen or so classic stories, such as “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” “The Circular Ruins,” “The Lottery in Babylon,” “The Secret Miracle” and—my favorite—“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” where the author imagines a parallel universe. This idiosyncratic, mind-altering fiction was mostly written in the late thirties and forties (Ficciones, his central collection, appeared in 1944, gathering most of his best stories to date). Yet Borges was well-known as a poet long before he tried his hand at fiction.

Now a generous volume of his poetry has been published by Viking, edited by Alexander Coleman and translated by various hands, including Alastair Reid, Mark Strand, W. S. Merwin and Robert Fitzgerald. This follows Collected Fictions, which appeared last September in a matching edition, translated by Andrew Hurley. Next fall a third volume, containing Borges's essays, will appear, thus making available in English virtually all of his important work.

Reading the stories, poems and essays side by side, one sees that it makes no sense to think of him as a writer constrained by genre; if anything, his work as a whole interrogates, even ridicules, the very notion of genre. In the famous Prologue to Ficciones, he wrote: “The composition of vast books is a laborious and improverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a résumé, a commentary.” Thus, his stories were born of critical commentaries, much as his poetry is deeply involved in the fictions, as one discovers in reading through his Selected Poems, where his abiding themes (the puzzle of identity, the illusory nature of the physical universe, the alluring yet maddening nature of love) and symbols (the mirror, the labyrinth, the tiger, the game, the double) are summoned and repossessed.

Even the sacred boundary between writer and reader is blurred, as in the introduction to Borges's first book of poems, where he wrote: “If in the following pages there is some successful verse or other, may the reader forgive me the audacity of having written it before him. We are all one; our inconsequential minds are much alike, and circumstances so influence us that it is something of an accident that you are the reader and I the writer—the unsure, ardent writer—of my verses.”

The author of Borges's early poems does seem ardent, but there is little unsureness. In “Truco,” in which a card game becomes a metaphor for art, the poet seems astoundingly self-assured as he writes:

A furtive slowing down
keeps all words in check,
and, as the vagaries of the game
repeat and repeat themselves,
the players of that evening
reenact ancient tricks:
An act that brings to life, but very faintly,
the generations of our forefathers
who bequeathed to the leisure of Buenos Aires
truco, with all its bids and its deceptions.

That first volume, published in 1923, was called Fervor de Buenos Aires, and the title suggests the nature of the poems: feverish evocations of the city where Borges was raised and spent much of his life. The young poet soon became a key figure in a literary movement called Ultraísmo—a version of Surrealism—although its effects, in the poems, consist of little more than a residue of inventiveness in lines such as “Light roams the streets inventing dirty colors” or “The street's end opens like a wound on the sky.” (There is also that Surrealist penchant for the prose poem, at which Borges excelled throughout his long writing life.)

Whitman was, as Borges often noted, his earliest model, but the poet of the twenties was obviously reading widely in English, French and Spanish poetry. He was already obsessed by “the enigma of Time,” which in “Year's End” he regards as

the miracle
that, though the chances are infinite
and though we are
drops in Heraclitus' river,
allows something in us to endure,
never moving.

Late in life, Borges wrote: “The fate of a writer is strange. He begins his career by being a baroque writer, pompously baroque, and after many years, he might attain if the stars are favorable, not simplicity, which is nothing, but rather a modest and secret complexity.”

The early poems do occasionally exhibit a touch of baroqueness, with their elaborate conceits and symbols, but nothing like in the major stories, where baroqueness occasionally overwhelms other effects. Having cast himself in Whitman's shadow, Borges as poet was saved from a certain kind of excess; in “Boast of Quietness,” there is a wonderful blend of Borgesian hermetics and Whitmanesque openness:

Time is living me.
More silent than my shadow, I pass through the loftily covetous multitude.
They are indispensable, singular, worthy of tomorrow.
My name is someone and anyone.
I walk slowly, like one who comes from so far away he doesn’t
expect to

Borges spoke English from early childhood with his maternal grandmother, who was herself British, so his native language was always infused with Anglicisms. Indeed, the oddity and richness of his syntax in Spanish, even the way the phrases are gathered and pitched, owes something to his vast reading in English poetry. He adored the Old English poets, Milton and Shakespeare, the Romantics and (as any bookish British child reared in the Edwardian era would) Kipling and Stevenson. Aware that he would eventually inherit his father's blindness, he had memorized most of his favorite poems by middle age, when his eyesight finally dissolved. (In 1971, in Scotland, I heard him recite a long passage from Beowulf by heart—in Anglo-Saxon!)

He turned to fiction in the mid-thirties, not returning to poetry until the fifties and sixties, when his finest volumes—The Maker and The Self and the Other—were published. In the former, Borges sets in place a number of symbols and metaphors, which he then reworks in various ways, always deepening them. In the prose Epilogue to The Maker, for example, he writes:

A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Over the years he fills a given surface with images of provinces and kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fish, rooms, instruments, heavenly bodies, horses, and people. Shortly before he dies he discovers that this patient labyrinth of lines is a drawing of his own face.

In his next book, in “Of Heaven and Hell,” he repossesses and complicates the same analogy:

In the clear glass of a dream, I have glimpsed
the Heaven and Hell that lie in wait for us:
When Judgment Day sounds in the last trumpets
and planet and millennium both
disintegrate, and all at once, O Time,
all your ephemeral pyramids cease to be,
the colors and the lines that trace the past
will in the semidarkness form a face,
a sleeping face, faithful, still, unchangeable
(the face of the loved one, or, perhaps, your own)
and the sheer contemplation of that face—
never-changing, whole, beyond corruption—
will be, for the rejected, an Inferno,
and, for the elected, Paradise.

The greatest poetry is always motivated by a writer's sense of that terrible dislocation between the mind and the world; the poem itself rises in that gap, intrusive, begging for consideration, helpless and hopeless, trying to patch over the silence that is always (in theory) beyond improvement yet somehow unsatisfactory. Borges addresses this subject directly in “The Other Tiger,” my favorite in this volume. Here, Borges compares the “real” tiger, who exists “on the fringes of the Ganges,” with the tiger created by the poet with his pen:

Evening spreads in my spirit and I keep thinking
that the tiger I am calling up in my poem
is a tiger made of symbols and of shadows,
a set of literary images,
scraps remembered from encyclopedias,
and not the deadly tiger, the fateful jewel
that in the sun or the deceptive moonlight
follows its paths, in Bengal or Sumatra,
of love, of indolence, of dying.

In the end, the poet seeks a “third tiger.” “This one,” he says,

will be a form in my dream like all the others,
a system, an arrangement of human language,
and not the flesh-and-bone tiger
that, out of reach of all mythologies,
paces the earth.

As ever in Borges, the fictive tiger is more real, more satisfying, than the tiger who paws the earth or curls, sleeping, in the folds of the cerebrum. The fiction flares, takes on memorable life, between the unspoken world and the unspoken mind.

The bulk of these poems appear in Alastair Reid's translations, and one can only be grateful to him for devoting his considerable poetic gifts to Borges (as he has, in years past, to Neruda and others). If anything, Reid seems to improve upon the Spanish. In the above passage, for instance, Borges writes about the third tiger becoming “un sistema de palabras/Humanas,” or “a system of human words.” Reid's phrase, “an arrangement of human language,” interprets and extends what Borges has written in thrilling ways, faithful to the text yet substituting for the easy, more literal translation an equivalent that possesses a life itself as poetry in English.

In poem after poem of this period, Borges mixes desire and metaphysical speculations tinged with lamentations for “this dear world losing shape, fading away / into a pale uncertain ashy-gray / that feels like sleep, or else oblivion.” In the beautiful “Rain,” he reflects on the elusive nature of memory and time, using the literal phenomenon of rain as a springboard for larger musings: “Quite suddenly the evening clears at last / as now outside the soft small rain is falling. / Falling or fallen.” Soon memories of rain fetch recollections of lost time: “The evening's rain / brings me the voice, the dear voice of my father, / who comes back now, who never has been dead.”

Although his finest poems appeared between 1955 and 1965, Borges returned again and again to the form, often finding that “modest and secret complexity” he longed for in poems such as “Things,” “Fragments from an Apocryphal Gospel,” “In Praise of Darkness,” “The Gold of the Tigers” and “The Unending Rose.” With remarkable consistency over a lifetime, the same themes and images sustained his attention, and one can hear the earliest Borges, with some adjustments, in the latest.

A fitting epilogue for his work, perhaps, can be found in “The Suicide,” a fierce, eloquent poem in which the poet eerily reconsiders his legacy, which is no more (or less) than the legacy of his readers:

Not a single star will be left in the night.
The night will not be left.
I will die and, with me,
the weight of the intolerable universe.
I shall erase the pyramids, the medal lions,
the continents and faces.
I shall erase the accumulated past.
I shall make dust of history, dust of dust.
Now I am looking on the final sunset.
I am hearing the last bird.
I bequeath nothingness to no one.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 230


Foster, David William. Jorge Luis Borges: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1984, 328 pp.

Scholarly in its depth and comprehensive in its range.

Loewenstein, C. Jared. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Jorge Luis Borges Collection at the University of Virginia Library. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1993, 254 pp.

Catalogs a major collection dedicated to providing “reliable information about the origins and development of” Borges's texts.


Woodall, James. Borges: A Life. New York: Basic Books, 1997, 333 pp.

Contains significant scholarly tools, including bibliography and catalogs of travels, awards, and films based on his works, as well as a lucid account of life and work.


Menocal, Maria Rosa. Writing in Dante's Cult of Truth: From Borges to Bocaccio. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991, 223 pp.

Adopting a Borgesian, non-linear aproach to literary history, views Dante and Borges in a relation of reciprocal influence.

Additional coverage of Borges's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 26; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 19, 33; Contemporary Literary Criticism Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 13, 19, 44, 48, 83; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 113; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vol. 86; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors and Multicultural; Hispanic Literature Criticism, Vol. 1; Hispanic Writers; Major 20th-Century Writers; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 4; and World Literature Criticism, Vol. 1.

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