Julián del Casal Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.