José Asunción Silva Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

José Asunción Silva 1865-1896

Colombian poet and novelist.

An important writer associated with the Spanish-language modernismo movement, Silva committed suicide at the age of thirty, thus cutting short a promising literary career. His work, which includes a number of poems and a novel, is characterized by the same pessimism and sense of futility that haunted his life. Silva shared his writings with only a few intimate friends, and most of his work remained unpublished until the early part of the twentieth century.

Biographical Information

A member of a rich aristocratic family and the eldest of six children, Silva was born November 27, 1865, in Bogotá to doña Vicenta Gómez and don Ricardo, a prosperous importer and minor writer. Silva, an eager student, was tutored at home initially and then enrolled in various private schools where his devotion to his studies and his reserved nature alienated him from his schoolmates. Although his formal education ended when he joined his father's business at the age of sixteen, he continued learning on his own in a variety of fields—languages, philosophy, science, and history. In 1885, Silva traveled with his great uncle to Paris where he lived for the next two years. During this period he was exposed to the works of such poets as Stéphane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire as well as the philosophical writings of Auguste Comte and Arthur Schopenhauer. While he was in Europe, civil war broke out in Columbia and Silva's father suffered severe financial losses. When his father died in 1887, the 22-year-old Silva became head of both the family and its failing import business, although he was clearly unsuited for a commercial career. He spent the next seven years trying to salvage the business and repay his father's many creditors, but his efforts were unsuccessful. In 1891, his sister Elvira died suddenly, causing the poet to withdraw into a melancholy solitude. In 1894, Silva served briefly as the secretary of the Colombian Legation in Caracas, Venezuela, where he took up with the editors of a modernist periodical and wrote what many consider his finest poetry. On his return to Bogotá in 1895, however, he suffered yet another blow through the loss of a number of his most precious manuscripts in a shipwreck. An unsuccessful attempt to secure a diplomatic post and another failed business venture plunged him into a state of disenchantment and depression. Visiting a doctor about his insomnia, Silva expressed curiosity about the exact position of the heart and asked the doctor to mark the location on his chest. The next day, May 25, 1896, he died of a self-inflicted bullet wound to the heart.

Major Works

Silva began composing poetry at the age of ten, and the poetry of his early years was based on happy childhood memories. Soon after, though, his writing became infused with melancholy and eventually gave way to pessimism and a preoccupation with death. “Muertos,” “Un poema,” and his best-known poem, “Nocturno III,” all involve the loss of loved ones, the latter inspired by his personal grief over the death of his sister. The manuscript of Silva's only novel, De Sobremesa, was lost in the shipwreck of L'Amerique off the coast of Columbia and was rewritten from memory by Silva at the urging of a friend. Silva completed the work before he died, but it was not published until 1925, possibly because of concerns from Silva's family that the work would damage his reputation. The novel is constructed as a series of diary entries by a South American poet traveling in Europe and is, like most of Silva's work, considered highly autobiographical. Like the protagonist of De Sobremesa, Silva shared most of his compositions in readings with an intimate group of friends rather than publishing them. The majority of his work was, like his novel, published posthumously, including Poesías (1908), and El Libro de Versos (1928), a collection of approximately thirty poems based on his childhood and his anticipation of death and the afterlife.

Critical Reception

It is as a representative of modernismo that Silva has gained the most critical attention. Mark I. Smith (1982) reports that Silva was, like many others of his generation, attempting to break away from the older literary conventions and to create a new tradition of his own. According to Smith, Silva “possessed the eclecticism, or elasticity of mind, characteristic of the truly original artist.” Smith has also studied possible sources of Silva's poetic inspiration and notes the similarities between his work and that of Victor Hugo, suggesting the influence of French Romanticism on the modernismo movement. “It is particularly in the handling of vague and melancholic effects (achieved through an impressionistic use of carefully chosen detail) that Silva often resembles the great French master,” according to Smith.

Many critics, including Lily Litvak (1989) and Julia Palmer (1991), consider the novel De Sobremesa to be a characteristic modernist text that was misunderstood by Silva's contemporaries and neglected by critics until recently. Litvak calls the work “a lyric novel that subordinates action to the intensity of an instant's emotion,” and claims that the work features “the disintegration of the realistic protagonist.” Palmer reports that the novel is being reevaluated by scholars today, and insists that an analysis of the novel's narrative structure reveals a work that is more complex than assumed by earlier critics, who dismissed it as disorganized and lacking in unity.

Many literary scholars have traced the autobiographical elements of Silva's work, noting that the qualities that defined Silva's life and early death also characterize his poetry and his novel. One such critic, Jack Roberts (1972), believes that “there is within his work a deep melancholy, a sense of helplessness, a lack of purpose, a feeling of anxiety and desperation unequalled in modernist poetry.” Litvak, too, has studied the pessimism of Silva's writing and claims that his most prominent themes are the unhappy condition of present reality, the escape to the fantastic and mysterious, and the attractiveness of death, which Litvak describes as “the primary character in his poetic universe, the decomposing factor of all that might be perfect.” Silva is, according to Litvak, “a poet whose vision is directed toward the past, yet who is condemned to a coarse, rough, mediocre present, an existence that leaves him with a pessimistic, negative view of the future.” Alfredo Villanueva-Collado (1997), discussing conventional notions of masculinity in the Spanish-American critical tradition, suggests that speculation on Silva's possible homosexuality may have distorted assessments of his life and work and resulted in criticism that concentrates on lengthy descriptions of the poet's physical beauty and his “dandyism” rather than on the merits of his poetry and prose.