Julián del Casal Essay - Critical Essays

Casal, Julián del


Julián del Casal 1863-1893

(Full name José Julián Herculano del Casal y de la Lastra; also wrote under the pseudonym Hernani) Cuban poet and essayist.

Considered one of the earliest and more significant poets of Spanish-American modernism, Casal's poetry is permeated with an awareness of the growing complexities of modern life. His writing reflected his own philosophies, but also serves as a representative example of the developments in the Spanish-American modernist movement at the time. Casal's poetry included sonnets and prose poems, and although his technique was fairly traditional, the subjects he addressed in his writing were very modernist in nature. Today, Casal is studied as one of the foremost poets of the Cuban modernist movement, and his writings provide insight into the historical and political world he inhabited.

Biographical Information

José Julián Herculano del Casal y de la Lastra was born in Havana, Cuba, on November 7, 1863 to a Spanish mother and Cuban father. Casal's mother died when he was only five, leaving the young boy grief-stricken. His father did not provide much emotional support, instead rebuking the young Casal for his feelings of abandonment and guilt. As a result, many critics believe that Casal never really recovered from his mother's death, and the feelings of loneliness and fear that permeate his poetry are a result of this early trauma in life. In line with his own somber and traditional thinking, Casal's father sent the young boy to the Real Colegio de Belén, from which he graduated in 1879. A year of law school followed at the University of Havana, after which Casal left his studies to accept a job at the treasury department in Havana. At the same time he began writing articles for La Habana Elegante, but comments he made in one of these articles regarding the governor general of Havana led to dismissal and an end to this phase of his journalistic career.

To escape disfavor, Casal left for Spain. Dejected and out of money after only a few weeks, he returned to Cuba and began working for two newspapers. However, anxiety and despair, the feelings that he struggled with all his life, ultimately led him to quit his job and retreat into himself, restricting his social interactions to a few close friends. He did, however, maintain a correspondence with many intellectuals outside Cuba, including Rubén Darío and Gustave Moreau. Although Casal began writing years before, none of his work was published until after his father's death in 1885. Mostly poetry, his work was published in such periodicals as La Habana Elegante and El Figaro. His first collection of poems, Hojas al viento, was published in 1890 and he followed this with two other collections, Nieve (1892) and Bustos y rimas (1893). In addition to poetry, Casal wrote various prose works and translated the works of such authors as Charles Baudelaire. In the late 1880s he worked for two newspapers, publishing numerous articles under the pseudonym Hernani. Plagued by tuberculosis for many years, Casal died in October, 1893, shortly before Rimas was published.

Major Works

Casal published only two poetry collections during his lifetime, Hojas al viento and Nieve. His last collection, Bustos y rimas, appeared in 1893, shortly after his death, and was completed with the help of Casal's friend Hernández Miyares. It differs from his earlier works because it contains both prose and poetry. Hojas includes forty-nine poems and is considered an example of Casal's early writing style. The poems in this collection are topical in nature and often refer to contemporary events. A few of them were even characterized as “imitations” and show the influence of other writers. The work was well received by his contemporaries as an early offering by a poet with much promise. Casal continued to publish poems in various Cuban periodicals, and in 1892 he collected many of these pieces in his second collection, Nieve. Divided into five sections, the poems in this collection are categorized according to theme. The first section, “Bocetos antiguos” includes poems inspired by pagan and Judeo-Christian thought; the second section, “Mi museo ideal,” is famous because the poems contained in it were inspired by the art of Gustave Moreau, with whom Casal had an ongoing correspondence. The third section, “Cromos españoles,” is a collection of well-known Spanish word pictures; the fourth, “Marfiles viejos,” contains sixteen sonnets, all reflecting his fears and concerns about life in general. The fifth section, titled “La gruta del ensueño,” completes the collection with seventeen miscellaneous poems. Nieve met with some critical success, although most contemporaries in Cuba felt that Casal's themes were too dark and pessimistic.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, Casal was hailed as a fresh new talent following the publication of his first collection. However, the dark themes and perceived nihilism of his second collection led many contemporaries to label Casal as repetitive and oppressive. His work has since been acknowledged as one of the first examples of Spanish-American modernist writing, reflecting the concerns of writers with respect to the changing times in which they lived. In his discussion of Casal's place in the development of Cuban modernism, Ivan A. Schulman notes that Casal's preoccupation with his fears has led many scholars to characterize him as a “dreamer” and an “escapist.” Yet, stresses Schulman, his concerns with respect to art and reality were shared by numerous artists of that era, all of whom were struggling with a social and cultural crisis of advancing technology and urbanization. In his introduction to an edition of Casal's poetry, Robert Jay Glickman notes that unlike other artists and writers, who were mostly able to ignore the ugliness of modernization, Casal was deeply affected by it. His concern for the future of art and literature in the face of modernization is reflected clearly in both his poetry and prose. Many scholars have proposed that Casal used his writing as a means to create distance between himself and society, and as a way of dealing with his anxieties. Priscilla Pearsall notes that Casal's poetry reflects his personal crises and that he used poetry as both a cathartic release and for philosophical articulation. Luis Felipe Clay Méndez also notes that Casal's prose provided him with release. According to Méndez, in order to gain a complete understanding of Casal's ideology, a study of both his prose and poetry is necessary as only an analysis of both provides a balanced view of Casal's writing and philosophy.

Principal Works

Hojas al viento (poetry) 1890

Nieve (poetry) 1892

Bustos y rimas (poetry, prose) 1893

Poesías completas (poetry) 1945

Prosas. 3 vols. (prose) 1963-64

Julián del Casal: Letters to Gustave Moreau (letters) 1974

The Poetry of Julián del Casal: A Critical Edition. 3 vols. (poetry) 1976-78


Lee Fontanella (essay date December 1970)

SOURCE: Fontanella, Lee. “Parnassian Precept and a New Way of Seeing Casal's Museo ideal.Comparative Literature Studies 7, no. 4 (December 1970): 450-79.

[In the following essay, Fontanella discusses the form and function of Casal's poetry series “Mi museo ideal,” which can be interpreted as an ode to French painter Gustave Moreau. The middle ten sonnets each focus on a separate painting of Moreau, while the first and last pieces act as framing elements that situate the collection as a type of museum or “temple for art.”]

Very few of those critics who have paid due attention to the Cuban poet Julián del Casal (1863-1893) have elaborated on their...

(The entire section is 13921 words.)

Robert Jay Glickman (essay date 1972-73)

SOURCE: Glickman, Robert Jay. “Julián Del Casal: Letters to Gustave Moreau.” Revista Hispanica Moderna 37, nos. 1-2, (1972-73): 101-35.

[In the following essay, Glickman assesses the significance of Casal's correspondence with painter Gustave Moreau, noting that the letters served to battle the loneliness and despair of Casal's everyday life.]

Julián del Casal was one of the most sensitive and emotionally vulnerable of the Spanish American Modernists. Disagreeing with the values of contemporary society, opposing authority-figures whom he considered unjust, and moving farther and farther away from the Church despite his desperate need for religious faith, Casal...

(The entire section is 4159 words.)

Ivan A. Schulman (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Schulman, Ivan A. “Casal's Cuban Counterpoint of Art and Reality.” Latin American Research Review 6, no. 2 (1976): 113-28.

[In the following essay, Schulman presents a comparative analysis of Casal and José Martí's philosophy of art.]

It has been traditional to treat the life and art of Julián del Casal and José Martí as antithetical statements.

Si Martí encarna entre nosotros las nupcias del espíritu con la realidad, con la naturaleza y con la tierra misma, Julián del Casal (1863-93) significa todo lo contrario. Su incapacidad radical para asumir la realidad, que unas veces interpreta como signo de...

(The entire section is 6448 words.)

Luis Felipe Clay Méndez (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Méndez, Luis Felipe Clay. “Julián del Casal and the Cult of Artificiality: Roots and Functions.” In Waiting for Pegasus: Studies of the Presence of Symbolism and Decadence in Hispanic Letters, edited by Roland Grass and William R. Risley, pp. 155-68. Macomb, Ill.: Western Illinois University, 1979.

[In the following essay, Méndez examines the cult of artificiality in Casal's prose, tracing its literary and contextual antecedents.]

haz, ¡oh, Dios!, que no vean ya mis ojos
la horrible Realidad que me contrista.

Julián del Casal1

[Grant, oh, Lord!, that my eyes no longer see
the horrible Reality that...

(The entire section is 7331 words.)

Priscilla Pearsall (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Pearsall, Priscilla. “Julián del Casal's Portraits of Women.” In The Analysis of Literary Texts: Current Trends in Methodology, edited by Randolph D. Pope, pp. 78-88. Ypsilanti, Mich.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1980.

[In the following essay, Pearsall analyses Casal's representations of women in his prose and poetry, remarking that his powerful images of women represented one of the major culminations of his poetic vision.]

Julián del Casal's portraits of women in prose and poetry were central to the development of his aesthetic world. There is a need to examine the way in which Casal's deeply ambiguous and fragmented attitude toward women...

(The entire section is 5584 words.)

Priscilla Pearsall (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Pearsall, Priscilla. “Julián Del Casal: Modernity and the Art of the Urban Interior.” In An Art Alienated from Itself: Studies in Spanish American Modernism, pp. 11-39. University, Miss.: Romance Monographs, Inc., 1984.

[In the following essay, Pearsall explains Casal's concept of modernity, tracing the influence of other poets, such as Baudelaire, on his work.]

Of all of the Modernist writers, none was more concerned with the problem of literary modernity than Julián del Casal. He wrote one of Modernism's most thoughtful definitions of modern art when he examined, in his review of Aurelia Castillo de González's long poem Pompeya, the European...

(The entire section is 10565 words.)

Oscar Montero (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Montero, Oscar. “Julián del Casal and the Queers of Havana.” In ¿Entiendes?, edited by Emilie L. Bergmann and Paul Julian Smith, pp. 92-112. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Montero places some of the erotic images in Casal's writings within the context of the homosexual subculture of Cuba.]

By the end of the nineteenth century, the gentle reproaches of cultural patriarch Andrés Bello about the “melindrosa y femenil ternura,” [affected, feminine tenderness] and the “arrebatos eróticos,” [erotic raptures] of certain writers had paradoxically hardened into the ambiguous aesthetic of Modernismo, nurtured on the...

(The entire section is 9352 words.)

Further Reading


Aching, Gerard. “On the Creation of Unsung National Heroes: Barnet's Esteban Montejo and Armas's Julian Del Casal.” Latin American Literary Review 22, no. 43 (January-June 1994): 31-50.

Examines biographies of Montejo and Casal for insight into Cuban nationalist thought.

Beebee, Tom. “Orientalism, Absence, and the Poéme en Prose.” Rackham Journal of the Arts and Humanities 2, no. 1 (fall 1980): 48-71.

Focuses on the use of the Orient in the prose poems of Casal and Baudelaire.

Berger, Margaret Robinson. “The Influence of Baudelaire on the Poetry of Julián del Casal.”...

(The entire section is 427 words.)