José Asunción Silva Essay - Critical Essays

Silva, José Asunción


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 Silva shared his writings with only a few intimate friends, and most of his work remained unpublished until the early part of the twentieth century.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.

Principal Works

Poesías (poetry) 1908

De Sobremesa, 1887-1896 (novel) 1925

El Libro de Versos, 1883-1896 (poetry) 1928

Obras Completas (poetry and prose) 1965

Intimidades (poetry) 1977


G. Dundas Craig (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: Craig, G. Dundas. “José Asunción Silva.” In The Modernist Trend in Spanish-American Poetry, pp. 251-54. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1934.

[In the following essay, Craig discusses Silva as a member of the group of Spanish-American writers associated with the early Modernist movement.]

José Asunción Silva was born in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1865, and died there in 1896. He is properly regarded as one of the precursors of the Modernist movement, and is so grouped along with Julián del Casal, Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera, and José Martí by Arturo Torres-Ríoseco in his volume, Precursores del modernismo (Madrid, 1925). Blanco Fombona has...

(The entire section is 1633 words.)

Donald McGrady (essay date 1966)

McGrady, Donald. “Two Unknown Poems by José Asunción Silva.” MLN 81, no. 2 (March 1966): 233-37.

[In the following essay, McGrady reviews two previously undiscovered poems by Silva, first printed in the Bogotá newspaper Gil Blas upon the sixteenth anniversary of Silva's death.]

The works of José Asunción Silva are only partially and imperfectly known. Silva published a small portion of his total production during his lifetime, and most of his extant poems were published posthumously by friends or descendants. These friends and relatives did not always respect the poet's work, but frequently retouched those passages that they considered unsuitable....

(The entire section is 1883 words.)

Jack Roberts (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Roberts, Jack. “Life and Death in the Poetry of José Asunción Silva.” The Southern Quarterly 10, no. 2 (January 1972): 137-65.

[In the following essay, Roberts examines the pessimism and sense of futility that characterized Silva's life and work, pointing to the influence of Comte and Schopenhauer on his poetry.]

When any man takes his life, it is a tragic event, but if that man happens to be a promising literary figure, the public seems particularly shocked, and, doubtless, many wonder what could have compelled him to such a choice. José Asunción Silva is usually considered the most pessimistic of the modernists. There is within his work a deep...

(The entire section is 9806 words.)

Betty Tyree Osiek (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Osiek, Betty Tyree. “De Sobremesa: Silva's Modernist Novel.” In José Asunción Silva, pp. 94-139. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

[In the following essay, Osiek provides a complete plot summary and textual history of Silva's only novel and discusses its autobiographical elements and prominent themes.]


The single novel written by José Asunción Silva … was lost in the sinking of the ship L'Amerique, on his return from Caracas. But when his friend Hernando Villa, who feared Silva was going to commit suicide, asked him to rewrite one of the lost manuscripts, Silva allowed his friend to choose the one he...

(The entire section is 18457 words.)

Mark I. Smith (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Smith, Mark I. “José Asunción Silva: The Literary Landscape.” Romance Quarterly 29, no. 3 (1982): 283-92.

[In the following essay, Smith examines the influence of Victor Hugo and other contemporary French and American writers on Silva's poetry.]

The work of José Asunción Silva represents such a fine synthesis of the influences he suffered and his own original perception that there are no seams discernible. As Bernardo Gicovate has observed, “La asimilación de ideas y procedimientos heterogéneos y la absorción completa de sus lecturas en una obra variada a pesar de su exigüedad, no permite fácilmente el encuentro de reminiscencias que guíen en el...

(The entire section is 3991 words.)

Lily Litvak (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Litvak, Lily. “José Asunción Silva (1865-1896).” In Latin American Writers, Vol. 1, edited by Carlos A. Solé and Maria Isabel Abreu, pp. 377-85. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989.

[In the following essay, Litvak praises Silva's accomplishments as a Modernist poet, claiming that his skill in evoking the subtleties of the Spanish language was superb.]

The author Miguel de Unamuno, in his prologue to the 1908 edition of Poesías by José Asunción Silva, commented,

How is it possible to reduce to ideas a pure poetry, one in which the words taper, thin, and fade to the point of becoming cloudlike, whirled...

(The entire section is 5752 words.)

Julia Palmer (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Palmer, Julia. “Some Aspects of Narrative Structure in José Asunción Silva's De Sobremesa.Revista Interamericana de Bibliografia 41, no. 3 (1991): 470-77.

[In the following essay, Palmer identifies and describes the organizing patterns of Silva's novel.]

It has only been within the last few years that critics have begun to re-examine the previously somewhat maligned modernista novel De sobremesa. Initially, José Asunción Silva's story of a young poet and his anguished search for something to bring meaning to his life was not particularly well received. A close friend of Silva, Baldomiro Sanín Cano, stated, “es inferior a su...

(The entire section is 3915 words.)

Aileen Dever (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Dever, Aileen. “The Experience of Radical Insufficiency.” In The Radical Insufficiency of Human Life: The Poetry of R. de Castro and J. A. Silva, pp. 7-38. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2000.

[In the following essay, Dever compares the work of two nineteenth-century Spanish American poets, noting that the work of both was characterized by disillusionment and an awareness of human limitations.]

Rosalía de Castro and José Asunción Silva express eternal concerns about the meaning of life and death, anticipating many themes of the existentialists. Both are writers in transition who lived in a century characterized by political chaos and ideological strife. In...

(The entire section is 15140 words.)

Further Reading


González, Aníbal. “Modernist Prose.” In The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature, Vol. 2, edited by Roberto González Echevarría and Enrique Pupo-Walker, pp. 69-113. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Examines the prose works of the major writers of Spanish American modernism, including Silva's novel De sobremesa.

Hazera, Lydia D. “The Spanish American Modernist Novel and the Psychology of the Artistic Personality.” Hispanic Journal 8, no. 1 (fall 1986): 69-83.

A discussion of three novels associated with Spanish American modernism: Silva's De sobremesa and Diaz...

(The entire section is 331 words.)