Juan Ramón Jiménez

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4371

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Somewhat ironically perhaps, Juan Ramón Jiménez is probably best known for his Platero y yo (1914, enlarged 1917; Platero and I , 1956), a collection of sketches in prose largely about his native Moguer. As always in Jiménez’ noncritical work, however, his poetic vision and lyric expression...

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Other Literary Forms

Somewhat ironically perhaps, Juan Ramón Jiménez is probably best known for his Platero y yo (1914, enlarged 1917; Platero and I, 1956), a collection of sketches in prose largely about his native Moguer. As always in Jiménez’ noncritical work, however, his poetic vision and lyric expression are most apparent.

Achievements

In 1903, Juan Ramón Jiménez revealed himself as a prolific poet, and by 1916 no one could surpass Jiménez’ position and influence as a poet in the Hispanic world. His twenty-two years spent in the United States, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and South America from 1936 to his death, indicated no overall diminution of his creativity as a writer or of his authority as a critic. Appropriately, both for the excellence of his work and the half century devoted to it, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1956, the first Spaniard to win it since 1920.

Biography

Juan Ramón Jiménez was born in Moguer, a typical town in Andalusia, steeped in tradition, colorful but slow-moving. His father, Victor, had come from north-central Spain to make his fortune in viniculture, acquiring extensive vineyards and numerous wineries in Moguer. Purificación, Jiménez’ mother, was a native Andalusian and a very good mother, although perhaps too indulgent toward her youngest child, Juan Ramón. The future poet had a comfortable and happy early childhood in the family’s new home on the Calle Nueva. Later, he learned to ride and, on horse or donkey, developed his love of nature in the beautiful countryside, which offered some compensation for the scant cultural stimulation of the town. After four or five years of elementary education in Moguer, Jiménez, then eleven years old, was sent with his brother to a Jesuit school near Cádiz, where he completed his secondary studies at age fifteen.

The colegio offered the best education available in the region, and Jiménez was a good, well-behaved student. Although somewhat homesick and averse to the school’s regimentation, he was alert, imaginative, and intellectually curious, enjoying a variety of subjects, especially drawing and literature. His meditative mind and love of nature inclined him to religion and, despite later aversion to the Church, among the six schoolbooks that he kept permanently were the Bible and Thomas à Kempis’s Imitatio Christi (c. 1427; The Imitation of Christ, c. 1460-1530). Upon graduation, Jiménez went to Seville to study painting and to develop his passion for poetry. His father had wanted him to study law at the university, but he had no interest in prelaw studies and neglected them for the arts. The family’s prosperity made it possible for Jiménez to indulge himself and choose between two financially unpromising careers. Some early paintings show that he might have become a fine painter, but the publication of his first poems, evoking favorable criticism, turned him to poetry.

Fatigue and emotional strain in Seville put Jiménez under the care of doctors in Moguer, yet he continued to write feverishly, sending poems to magazines in Madrid and establishing contacts with poets there. Somewhat capricious and unreasonable, he shunned social events in Moguer and, despite two or more youthful love affairs, preferred to be alone. The poems sent by Jiménez to Vida nueva met with such favor that the magazine’s editor, Francisco Villaespesa, and Rubén Darío, the Nicaraguan poet and leader of Modernismo who had been in Spain since 1899, invited the young poet to visit Madrid to help them reform Spanish poetry. Life in Madrid was exciting. Jiménez became close friends with Darío and other contemporary poets, and despite some excesses criticized by the academicians, his first collections were hailed as the work of a promising newcomer. His father’s sudden fatal heart attack in 1900 caused Jiménez’ nervous illness, which had recurred during the stimulating sojourn in Madrid, to worsen to the point that he required care in a sanatorium in Bordeaux.

In France, Jiménez read Charles Baudelaire and the Symbolist poets and continued to write, expressing his grief, sometimes in the excessively sentimental manner of the nineteenth century, sometimes in a more dignified, authentic style. Returning to Madrid rather than Moguer in 1901, the young poet continued his sheltered, privileged life in the Sanatorio del Rosario. Surrounded by tranquillity and beauty, Jiménez often entertained friends and relatives, more than ever before, and his retreat became a literary salon and social center. His work soon became known in the New World, and his popularity and influence grew with each volume. In 1903, Jiménez and a number of other young poets began to publish the literary journal Helios, the eleven issues of which exercised great influence—so much so that Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, certainly not identified with Modernismo, was willing to be a contributor. While Darío gave Spanish poetry new subtlety, beauty, and music, Unamuno’s influence deepened and intensified it. Later in 1903, Jiménez went to live with his physician and friend, Dr. Luís Simarra, with whom he remained for two years. With Simarra’s encouragement and that of other scholars, Jiménez expanded his knowledge in several fields by reading and attending lectures at the Institución Libre de Enseñanza. The liberal views at this institution further eroded Jiménez’ already weakened traditional religious convictions.

Unlike most of his colleagues, Jiménez felt less comfortable in Madrid than in a more rural setting. In 1905, ill again and homesick, he returned to Moguer, where he remained for six years, not with his family but in a house at Fuentepiña owned by them. There he rested and wrote, avoiding society for the most part. In 1910, at the age of twenty-eight, Jiménez was elected to the Royal Spanish Academy, but he declined membership, not only then but also on two subsequent occasions under different political regimes. With his sisters’ marriages and other changes, including financial ones, the family’s situation declined. Although Jiménez preferred solitude and nature, there were periods of tedium and depression for him, especially as he continued to suffer sporadically from ill health. Occasional amorous interludes were followed by disenchantment, bitterness, and remorse. In 1912, it seemed time to return to Madrid, where, except for brief visits to Moguer, the poet remained until 1936.

In four years at the Residencia de Estudiantes, the heart of intellectual and literary activity in Madrid, in the company of celebrated thinkers and writers, Jiménez completed two volumes of poetry and his prose masterpiece, Platero and I. His experimentation in content and form continued, and he gave evidence of increasing maturity in every way. In 1912, too, Jiménez had met Zenobia Camprubí Aymar; they soon became engaged and were married in 1916. Zenobia, who was part American, was lovely—as had been other women in the poet’s life—and intelligent, interested in the same things that interested Jiménez. Above all, Zenobia was lively, a quality that proved very helpful for the sober, moody Jiménez. After a trip to New York and his wedding, Jiménez published his Diario de un poeta recién casado (diary of a newly married poet), a work marking his entrance to full maturity and long considered his best by the critics and author alike. He continued to grow in all respects, producing more significant poetry in the years from 1916 to 1923 than during any other period in his life, and might have become the “grand old man” of poetry had his temperament permitted.

Like so many other Spanish refugees from the Civil War, Jiménez headed for the United States in 1936, first visiting Washington, D.C., briefly as a cultural emissary of the Spanish Republic, then visiting Puerto Rico and Cuba for three years, finally settling for six years in Coral Gables, Florida, and later in Washington, D.C. His fame as a poet and critic was great, especially in Hispanic circles, and he lectured, read his poetry, and wrote numerous critical essays but produced no new poetic works for a time. Between 1942 and 1951, however, he published four major works and began a fifth that he was not to complete. Despite numerous invitations, Jiménez and his wife rarely left the United States. In 1956, Jiménez won the Nobel Prize for Literature, two days before Zenobia’s death from cancer. He died in 1958 and is buried in Moguer with his wife.

Analysis

The Spanish intellectuals and writers of the generación del 98, or Generation of ’98, saw the need to arouse the national conscience and envisioned a vigorous, creative Spain in every aspect of life. The presence of Rubén Darío in Madrid had drawn many to the city and to Modernismo, the literary movement of which he was the chief exponent. Both the French Symbolists, who had largely inspired Modernismo, and Darío himself strongly influenced Juan Ramón Jiménez’ poetry for more than a decade. In 1903, he published a collection of lyric poems, Arias tristes (sad airs), which revealed that he had abandoned the excessive sentimentality and random experimentation and imitation of his earlier collections for a more mature position based on firmer understanding of his talents.

Arias tristes

Arias tristes is divided into three “movements,” each prefaced by the score of a Lied by Franz Schubert and dedicated to a friend. In addition, the second part has an epigraph taken from Paul Verlaine, and the third, one from Alfred de Musset. The second part is further prefaced by Jiménez’ commentary on his own work, which is “monotonous, full of moonlight and sadness,” and concludes with an evocation of Heinrich Heine and Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer as well as of Verlaine and Musset and an entreaty to all kindred spirits to weep for those who never weep. A vague, subdued sadness prevails here as in much Symbolist poetry. Avoiding novelty for the sake of novelty, Jiménez employs the verse of the romance exclusively and with a versatility that remains unmatched. Seemingly artless in its simplicity, the verse reveals great mastery in the use of enjambment, to give it fluency and grace, and in its diction, chosen for maximum musicality as well as meaning. Among the best poems in the collection are those that capture Jiménez’ love of his native Andalusian landscape in delicate and original imagery.

Jardines lejanos and Pastorales

In part under the influence of Unamuno, who wrote for Jiménez’ journal, Helios, but favored exploiting traditional Spanish inspiration, but more so under that of his doctor and close friend, Luís Simarro, who introduced him to the principles of liberal education of the Institución Libre de Enseñanza, the poet began to explore sources other than Symbolism and Modernismo, and in 1904 and 1905, respectively, produced two collections of verse, in Jardines lejanos (distant gardens) and Pastorales. The former is full of musical allusions that convey Jiménez’ emotional, often sad responses to music, and it has a new, conventional, and superficial eroticism that separates it from his earlier work. The second volume, like Arias tristes and Jardines lejanos, is prefaced with musical notations (from Christoph Gluck, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, and Robert Schumann), and its verse is chiefly that of the romance (usually four-line stanzas, odd lines unrhymed, even lines assonanced), but it is less introverted, less morbid, and less sorrowful than its predecessor. Jiménez’ prolonged stay in the Guadarrama Mountains had completed his cure and brought him back to an appreciation of nature, albeit in solitude and mystery.

Baladas de primavera

For Jiménez, the years from 1906 to 1912, spent in his native Moguer, represented both a physical and a spiritual renewal, as well as a return to Modernismo. In no less than nine books of poetry, he again emulated Darío in his experimentation with forms, fascination with the music of words, and joyous eroticism in nature. Baladas de primavera (ballads of spring) exemplifies this phase of Jiménez’ development. In Baladas de primavera, he eschews exotic figures and decor so typical of the Parnassians, Symbolists, and modernists; here, his sensuality is simpler, more tender, and closer to that of Musset, Verlaine, and Francis Jammes, experienced more personally than vicariously. Again, there is the inspiration from the heritage of popular Spanish poetry, evident both in form—as in the use of a rhythmic line as a musical refrain, conveying no particular meaning but with an appealing lilt—and in content, where ingenuous and simple expression belies profound thought or poignant emotion.

La soledad sonora

The trilogy of elegies marked a return to the Baudelairean decadence of some earlier volumes. These poems have little of the spontaneity and musicality of the pastorals and ballads, largely because of the poet’s efforts to adapt his material to the fourteen-syllable Alexandrine, usually in four-line stanzas with assonance in the even lines, not Jiménez’ best poetic medium. Jiménez continued to modify and perfect the Alexandrine as well as other forms in four more volumes, La soledad sonora (the sonorous solitude) being the most representative. This collection articulates with particular clarity the poet’s personal view of the world.

The epigraph of La soledad sonora is taken from Saint John of the Cross, reinforcing the link with the sixteenth century mystical poet suggested by the title of the collection. The apparent paradox in the antithetical “sonorous solitude” disappears when the reader becomes aware that solitude here does not mean withdrawal from the world but rather intimate communion with it. Moreover, there is much more auditory imagery in this work than before, along with the characteristic range of visual and other sensuous images, made possible for Jiménez by his solitude. The poet’s normal tendency to Impressionism extends here to synesthesia, a common feature of Modernismo and one to which Jiménez’ keen sensory perception easily adapted. The poet’s skill in prolonging the perfect instant to render it infinite, occasionally disturbed by thoughts of the passage of time and death, is epitomized in his contemplation of the pine tree by his house at Fuentepiña. Jiménez’ perceptions of the odor and sounds of the tree that best characterizes the Andalusian scene are transformed from sensations of the moment into a mystical experience in which he finds himself attuned to the eternal.

Sonetos espirituales

Back in Madrid until his exile from Spain, Jiménez associated with many prominent artists and intellectuals, but by this time in his career he was less open to stylistic influences. His Sonetos espirituales (spiritual sonnets) are unique in his oeuvre in that they are composed almost exclusively of classic eleven-syllable sonnets with the traditional abba rhyme scheme. The discipline of these poems, which are characterized by a high degree of technical perfection, is matched by great emotional restraint. Here, Jiménez achieves a balance between thought and feeling. Despite the great mastery of form, the structural and verbal precision of these poems, genuine emotion prevents exclusive concern with intellectual subtlety, formal perfection, and verbal agility for its own sake. The introductory “Al soneto con mi alma” (“To the Sonnet with My Soul”), with its physical images translated in each case into ideal images and arranged in pairs, contains the essence of the volume. Estío (summer) marks further Jiménez’ maturation in terms of emotional and poetic authenticity; most notable in Estío are the variety, flexibility, and verbal economy of the verse. Jiménez’ treatment of love in this volume, inspired by his love for his fiancé, is in marked contrast to the immature eroticism of earlier works.

Diario de un poeta recién casado

Less than a year after his wedding, Jiménez published Diario de un poeta recién casado, a combination of free verse and brief prose pieces generally recognized as a key work, his best, in the poet’s own opinion. This collection is composed of six groups of poems, each with a title that identifies its theme. The principal themes of the volume are married love and the poet’s metaphysical reflections on his ocean voyage to the United States and return voyage to Spain. This was not only his first contact with America but also his first experience of the sea. The expanse, monotony, and solitude of the gray ocean and gray sky immediately gripped him; he was most impressed by the endless, restless motion of the sea, like the beating of a huge, cosmic heart, giving the ocean a kind of immortality that he had never perceived before. Jiménez’ awareness of the sea as an image of the entire physical world, changing constantly yet remaining fundamentally the same, gave Diario de un poeta recién casado a metaphysical dimension previously lacking in his verse. The collection marked the mature poet’s search for more universal values in poetry and life at a time when the vogue of Modernismo had passed. Diario de un poeta recién casado, followed by Eternidades (eternities), Piedra y cielo (rock and sky), Poesía, and Belleza (beauty), set a new direction for Spanish poetry and established decisively Jiménez’ position and influence.

Exploiting Spanish Heritage

Like Unamuno and Antonio Machado, Jiménez continued to keep abreast of the latest movements in literature and the arts yet sought inspiration primarily in Spanish traditions. Although it cannot be said that, either by age or temperament, Jiménez had become the “grand old man” of Spanish poetry, he did not recommend novelty for novelty’s sake to his fellows, and he began to find fault not only with imitations of foreign works but also with the innovations of the Spanish vanguard poets. (Indeed, he had grown somewhat crotchety and, except for his wife, more solitary than ever.) His own originality was no longer achieved in defiance of tradition, but rather in a harmonious blend of change with the traditional. The romancero, Saint John of the Cross, Luis de Góngora y Argote, and Bécquer exemplify the vital heritage that Jiménez and the greatest of his contemporaries would continue to exploit. In fact, the generación del 27 (Generation of 1927) indirectly took its name from Góngora, whose tricentenary was celebrated in that year and to the admiration of whose virtuosity Jiménez had contributed. The Mexican essayist Alfonso Reyes, Jiménez’ longtime friend, compared him physically and spiritually to Góngora as well as to the tortured figures in many of El Greco’s paintings.

Poetry from the New World

During the first part of Jiménez’ new life in the New World, spent in Puerto Rico and Cuba, the poet wrote many articles for newspapers and magazines published in every country of Latin America. For several years, however, he wrote no new poetry, publishing several volumes that were no more than anthologies or rearrangements of old materials, perhaps because he thought that his American readers would find them new. Finally, in Florida, his inspiration returned and, before a trip to Argentina and Uruguay in 1948, he produced La estación total (total season) and Romances de Coral Gables. Although the former also contains some of his earlier work, Jiménez added much that was a distillation of all of his poetic experience and a reaffirmation of the values of Diario de un poeta recién casado. La estación total not only is a summation, however, but also points the way to the joyous sense of fulfillment of Animal de fondo (animal of depth).

In the collections immediately preceding La estación total, Jiménez had expressed the fundamental tension in his being—both a source of inspiration and a soul-wearying affliction. Torn between light and shadow, truth and falsehood, hope and doubt, he would be whole only when these opposites were united, perhaps only in death. Such was Jiménez’ recurring theme in the volumes preceding La estación total. In contrast, “Desde dentro” (“From Inside”), the first poem of La estación total, is positive and confident; in this collection, Jiménez finally attains the transcendent reality that he had grasped imperfectly and fleetingly in earlier work. “Plenitude” might well be the title of the volume, which reveals the poet’s awareness of plenitude in three dimensions: the “eternal,” seen in nature; the “external,” experienced through the senses; and the “inner reality,” discovered intuitively. Communicating a sincere, intensely personal religious experience through language alone, these poems are inevitably marked by a certain obscurity and ambiguity, desirable if readers are to be permitted their own interpretations.

Animal de fondo

Animal de fondo was to be the first part of Dios deseado y deseante (God desired and desiring), a much larger work that Jiménez never completed. The twenty-nine poems of the collection were not intended to be read as individual pieces but rather as links in a continuous chain. A dynamic rhythm, strongly suggestive of the motion of the ship on which Jiménez sailed to South America, prevails throughout the sequence. Soothed by the gentle movement of the sea, the poet is as satisfied as a child rocked and comforted in his mother’s arms, attaining at last the complete sense of fulfillment that he has sought since childhood and to which he has aspired throughout his long, arduous efforts as a poet. Contrary to the tradition of Spanish mysticism, which expresses the divine through the language of human love, Jiménez uses religious metaphors to deify his sensitivity to the beautiful, for poetic creation is also a religious experience, an intimate union, although not, as in the customary mystical sense, a union with God. The theme of “La transparencia Dios, la transparencia” (“Transparency, God, Transparency”) is that of the whole collection, expressing the struggle between the poet and his personal god to achieve successful union in art and love, “as a fire with its air” in its ardor. There is some ambiguity in the poems that follow, as Jiménez attempts to distinguish his god from God, often in paradoxical and contradictory terms. Among the several attributes of his god, Jiménez discovers love, found in all the elements but not solely spiritual or divine. “En mi tercero mar” (“On My Third Sea”) reveals his god to be one of human love also, that of the poet for his wife, as much physical as spiritual. The poet’s “great knowledge” is his awareness of being complete when, as perceiver, he merges with that which is perceived. On the sea, his god is the “mirror” of himself, then, but in “La fruta de mi flor” (“The Fruit of My Flower”), the imagery becomes more abstract, ad Jiménez’ vision turns inward. The sensibility that has been like a halo about him through life now enters his being, and the flower of promise bears the fruit of fulfillment. Whether Jiménez’ mysticism is orthodox or not, the joyous yet humble religious attitude, the flexible meter and other aspects of prosody, and the novel imagery of Animal de fondo often remind one of the canciones del alma (songs of the soul) of Saint John of the Cross.

It is neither as theologian nor as philosopher but as a great lyric poet that the author of Animal de fondo is remembered. Unfortunately, recurring depression prevented Jiménez from maintaining in his last poems the optimism of Animal de fondo. In more than fifty years of poetic production, however, Jiménez’ aesthetic and spiritual vision remained clear and his creative ability vigorous. Constant renewal kept his work from becoming dated, although his roots were always deep in the Spanish traditions that sustained his entire poetic creation.

Bibliography

Fogelquist, Donald F. Juan Ramón Jiménez. Boston: Twayne, 1976. An introductory biography and critical analysis of Jiménez’s major works. Includes a bibliography of the poet’s works.

Jiménez, Juan Ramón. The Complete Perfectionist: A Poetics of Work. Edited and translated by Christopher Maurer. New York: Doubleday, 1997. Maurer, who has written widely on Spanish literature, has collected and categorized the thoughts and aphorisms recorded by Jiménez in his quest for perfection in life and his work. Maurer provides context for the maxims set down by Jiménez, allowing the reader to begin to know Jiménez as a person and a poet as well as a philosopher.

Nicolás, Antonio T. de, ed. and trans. Time and Space: A Poetic Autobiography—Juan Ramón Jiménez. New York: Paragon House, 1988. Nicolás provides some excellent translations and a detailed introduction to the prose work Tiempo and the prose and poetry of Espacio. His well-documented presentation is supported by analysis in a historical context.

Urbina, Pedro Antonio. Actitud modernista de Juan Ramón Jiménez. Pamplona: Ediciones Universidad de Navarra, 1994. This brilliant analysis resulted from Urbina’s Berley lectures. He demonstrates the extent of influence that Jiménez had on the Generation of ’27 as well as his ideological and literary influences on European and Latin American writers. In Spanish.

Wilcox, John C. Self and Image in Juan Ramón Jiménez. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987. Examines the evolution of the poetry from pre-Modern origins through Modernism and its endurance through the post-Modern era. Focuses on the work as process and reader interpretations from various perspectives, including formalist, structuralist, and poststructuralist readings as well as other critical readings of the enigmatic poet’s prolific corpus.

Wilcox, John C. “T. S. Eliot and Juan Ramón Jiménez: Some Ideological Affinities.” In T. S. Eliot and Hispanic Modernity, 1924-1993, edited by K. M. Sibbald and Howard Young. Boulder, Colo.: Society of Spanish and Spanish-American Studies, 1994. A discussion of Jiménez’s connections with literary movements in England and the United States.

Young, Howard T. The Line in the Margin: Juan Ramón Jiménez and His Readings in Blake, Shelley, and Yeats. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980. This analysis demonstrates the influences upon the poet’s work by English poets William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Butler Yeats. Jiménez had translated their poetry, and the Spanish poet’s admiration is evident in his own poetry as he departed from his Spanish and French models. This investigation yields interesting biographical data as well as critical readings and literary analyses. The poet’s affinity for British literature was evident in his life and work.

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