Luis Cernuda Cernuda, Luis - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Luis Cernuda 1902-1963

(Born Luis Cernuda y Bidón) Spanish poet, critic, translator, and short story writer.

Cernuda is celebrated as one of the preeminent writers of modern Spanish poetry. He was a member of the Generation of 1927, a distinctive group of poets—including Federico García Lorca, Jorge Guillén, Pedro Salinas, and Rafael Alberti—who gained prominence during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Cernuda's poetry is distinguished by its themes of homosexual love and metaphysical pessimism as well as its individualistic spirit, sharp social criticism, and unrelenting self-examination. Demonstrating innovative techniques and the European literary modes of romanticism, symbolism, and surrealism, Cernuda's poetry marked a turning point in Spain's contribution to world literature.

Biographical Information

Cernuda was born in Seville, Spain, to Bernardo Cernuda Mousa and Amparo Bidón de Cernuda. Studying law at the University of Seville, he befriended Salinas, who mentored Cernuda and encouraged him to pursue writing. Salinas also prompted Cernuda to begin reading seriously in French literature and the classics. After completing his law studies in 1925, Cernuda met such literary figures as Manuel Altolaguirre, Ramón de Valle-Inclán, and José Ortega y Gasset while living in Madrid. It was through these connections that Perfil del aire (1927; Profile of the Wind or Outline of the Air) was published. Cernuda was deeply troubled when the volume met with mixed reviews, but his interest in literature was strengthened by his discovery of surrealist poetry while working at a Madrid bookstore in 1928. In the fall of the same year, Cernuda was hired as a lecturer at the University of Toulouse in France, where he continued his study of surrealism. Soon afterward, Cernuda published his first attempts at surrealist poetry as part of Un río, un amor (1929; A River, A Love). In 1935, Cernuda returned to Spain and began translating the works of Friedrich Hölderlin, a nineteenth-century German poet whose lyricism and philosophy of Idealism influenced Cernuda throughout his career. A volume of these translations, Poemas, was published in 1942 and later revised in 1974. When the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, Cernuda fled to France, but returned to Spain a year later as a military volunteer. In 1938, Cernuda took a position as a teacher's assistant in England; in 1939 he accepted a lectureship at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. During a subsequent lecturing position at Cambridge, England, Cernuda immersed himself in the English classics and began formulating the ideas contained in Pensamiento poético en la lírica inglesa: Siglo XIX (1958). In 1947 Cernuda arrived in America to begin a teaching position at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Intrigued by its Latin customs and Spanish-speaking culture, Cernuda settled in Mexico in 1952. After brief teaching posts at the University of California at Los Angeles and San Francisco State College, Cernuda died of a heart attack in Mexico at the age of sixty-one.

Major Poetic Works

Published in 1927, Cernuda's first collection of poems, Perfil del aire, contains an initial exploration of his lifelong themes, namely the conflict between desire and actuality, as well as the individual's ability to transcend reality through poetic vision. His next collection, Égloga, elegía, oda (1928; Eclogue, Elegy, Ode) includes lengthier poems written in a classical style, but maintains the general thematic concerns of his first book. In Un río, un amor, Cernuda utilized the fragmentary logic of surrealism to express feelings of erotic and spiritual turmoil. Los placeres prohibidos (1931; Forbidden Pleasures) addresses notions of sexual yearning through incongruous syntax and spontaneous reflection. In Donde habite el olvido (1934; Where Forgetfulness Lives or Where Oblivion Dwells), Cernuda downplayed previous avant-garde techniques in favor of a style influenced by the nineteenth-century Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. The seventeen poems in this collection demonstrate Cernuda's identification with Bécquer's lyrics of tormented heartbreak. The influence of Hölderlin is noticeable in Invocaciones (1934-35; Invocations). In this volume, Cernuda presented a meditation on the relationship of the poet to nature. Ocnos (1942) is a collection of prose poems in which Cernuda utilized a youthful protagonist, Albanio, to convey themes of reality, time, and desire. Albanio is depicted as a child in perfect accord with nature, living in an Edenic world that is untouched by human time. This sense of divine harmony is eventually threatened by the awakening of sexual desire. Cernuda returned to the character of Albanio and the style of Ocnos in Variaciones sobre tema mexicano (1952; Variations on a Mexican Theme). This work connects Mexico to Cernuda's childhood and relates the experience of new love.

Las nubes (1943), which may be translated as The Clouds, is comprised of poems written during Cernuda's stay in England, and carries a sense of heightened dislocation and despair. In this volume, the use of dramatic monologue is prevalent as Cernuda began to adopt religious themes in the face of the ravages of World War II. His later collection, Como quien espera el alba (1947; Like Someone Waiting for the Dawn) is a reflection on mortality and the potential for everlasting beauty. Composed during his transition from England to America, Vivir sin estar viviendo (1949; Living Without Being Alive or Living but Not Alive) begins with a series of love poems, but evokes a sense of existential disconnection through a reflection on the past. Con las horas contadas (1956; With Time Running Out or With But a Few Hours Left) is an intricate study of nostalgic and metaphysical motifs. Comprised of poetry written during Cernuda's move from America to Mexico, this work contains a sequence of homoerotic poems that was published separately in 1957 as Poemas para un cuerpo (Poems for a Body). Cernuda's final book of poems, Desolación de la quimera (1962; The Disconsolate Chimera) explores the role of the artist and aesthetic experience. As a whole, the book is an autobiographical final statement on Cernuda's life as a poet and a justification of such core themes as love, Spain, and exile. A summation of Cernuda's spiritual and emotional self-exploration, La realidad y el deseo (1936; Reality and Desire) is a compilation of Cernuda's complete poems successively published in 1958 and 1964. La realidad y el deseo charts his stylistic progression and demonstrates the range of influences upon his verse, from the effusive lyricism of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to the restrained, objective poetics of T. S. Eliot.

Critical Reception

Though critics initially responded to Cernuda's work with mixed reviews, his reputation had grown considerably by the time of his death and continues to grow to this day. The early lack of appreciation for Cernuda's literary merits is primarily attributed to his connection to the Generation of 1927. Alongside such writers as Lorca and Guillén, reviewers had considered Cernuda a minor figure, deeming him overly reliant on awkward surrealist or purely lyrical imagery. Yet as Cernuda's poetic talents matured, critics began to focus on the complex development of his verse, categorizing his literary output into distinct phases of symbolism, surrealism, and exile poetry. Critics view Cernuda's final volumes of verse, his “poetry of exile,” in terms of a period of mastery for the poet, praising this work as an assured, finely tuned culmination of Cernuda's career. Furthermore, critics highlight Cernuda's proficiency with the dramatic monologue and his emphasis on the Romantic and Metaphysical poetic traditions in these later volumes. With the 1958 publication of his collected poetry, La realidad y el deseo, Cernuda's work was made available to a wider audience, increasing the scope of his influence on up-and-coming Spanish poets and broadening both his critical and popular appeal. Scholars treat this eleven-volume collection as Cernuda's autobiography, a poetic journey of self-discovery from adolescence through old age. In reference to this definitive record of Cernuda's literary self-analysis, critic Derek Harris avows: “the passionate, almost destructive integrity with which he searched for his truth makes him an exemplary poet.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Perfil del aire [Profile of the Air] 1927; revised as Perfil del aire, con otras obras olvidadas e ineditas documentos y epistolario, 1971

Primeras poesías [First Poems] 1927

Égloga, elegía, oda [Eclogue, Elegy, Ode] 1928

Un río, un amor [A River, A Love] 1929

Los placeres prohibidos [Forbidden Pleasures] 1931

La invitación a la poesía [An Invitation to Poetry] 1933

Donde habite el olvido [Where Forgetfulness Lives] 1934

Invocaciones [Invocations] 1934-35

La realidad y el deseo [Reality and Desire] 1936; revised edition 1958; revised as La realidad y el deseo: 1924-1962, 1964

Ocnos 1942; revised edition, 1949

Las nubes [The Clouds] 1943

Como quien espera el alba [Like Someone Waiting for the Dawn] 1947

Vivir sin estar viviendo [Living without Being Alive] 1949

Variaciones sobre tema mexicano [Variations on a Mexican Theme] 1952

Con las horas contadas [With Time Running Out] 1956

Poemas para un cuerpo [Poems for a Body] 1957

Desolación de la quimera [The Disconsolate Chimera] 1962

Antologia poetica 1970

The Poetry of Luis Cernuda 1971

Poesia completa 1974

Antologia poetica 1975

Obra completa 1993

Written in Water: The Prose Poems of Luis Cernuda 2004

Poemas [translator; from the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin] (poetry) 1942; revised as Poemas de Friedrich Hölderlin, 1974

Tres narraciones (short stories) 1948

Estudios sobre poesía española contemporánea [Studies in Contemporary Spanish Poetry] (criticism) 1957

Pensamiento poético en la lírica inglesa: Siglo XIX [Poetic Thought in the English Lyrical Tradition of the Nineteenth Century] (criticism) 1958

Poesía y literatura. 2 vols. [Poetry and Literature] (criticism) 1960

Critica, essayos y evocaciones [Criticism, Essays, and Evocations] (criticism) 1970

Prosa completa [Complete Prose Works] (prose) 1975

Epistolario inedito [Unpublished Letters] (letters) 1981

Epistolario, 1924-1963 (letters) 2003

Luis Cernuda (essay date 1935)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Cernuda, Luis. “Words Before a Reading.” In The Poet's Work: 29 Masters of 20th Century Poetry on the Origins and Practice of Their Art, edited by Reginald Gibbons, pp. 42-7. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979.

[In the following essay, originally written in 1935 and translated here by Reginald Gibbons, Cernuda discusses the definition and nature of poetry in relation to his own work.]

I can say that for the first time in my life I am risking a direct contact with the public. For me, the sensation is strange, since generally a poet cannot suppose that there is a public, listening to him. The poet is alone when he speaks or is with someone who scarcely...

(The entire section is 2056 words.)

Derek Harris (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Harris, Derek. Preface to The Poetry of Luis Cernuda, edited by Anthony Edkins and Derek Harris, pp. v-xviii. New York: New York University Press, 1971.

[In the following essay, Harris provides an overview of Cernuda's poetic development, with reference to the collection Reality and Desire and other titles.]

Today Luis Cernuda (1902-1963) is widely recognized as one of the major Spanish poets of this century, but only within the last decade has his work begun to receive the attention it deserves. He belonged to that brilliant group of poets, who include Federico García Lorca, Jorge Guillén, Pedro Salinas and Rafael Alberti, poets who came into...

(The entire section is 5475 words.)

Salvador Jiménez-Fajardo (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Jiménez-Fajardo, Salvador. “Like Someone Waiting for the Dawn: The Gaze Within.” In Luis Cernuda, pp. 70-95. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

[In the following essay, Jiménez-Fajardo examines Cernuda's themes of the relationship between the poet and his work, the opposition of desire and time, and notions of death and cosmic unity in Como quien espera el alba.]


Como quien espera el alba (Like Someone Waiting for the Dawn) was included in the 1958 edition of Reality and Desire, but it had been published independently in 1947 by Losada in Buenos Aires. Of its title Cernuda says in...

(The entire section is 10701 words.)

Stephen J. Summerhill (essay date spring 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Summerhill, Stephen J. “The Failure of Symbols in a Surrealist Poem of Luis Cernuda.” Essays in Literature 6, no. 1 (spring 1979): 129-39.

[In the following essay, Summerhill analyzes “El caso del pájaro asesinado” as an expression of the dominant theme of doubt in Un río, un amor, emphasizing Cernuda's awareness of the limitations of symbolism.]

One of the most important of Cernuda's collections of poetry is his 1929 volume, Un río, un amor [A River, A Love] Written under the influence of French surrealism during a period of deep personal torment, the work expresses the poet's fall from a state of innocence and love into a...

(The entire section is 5861 words.)

Kevin J. Bruton (essay date winter 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bruton, Kevin J. “Luis Cernuda's Exile Poetry and Coleridge's Theory of Imagination.” Comparative Literature Studies 21, no. 4 (winter 1984): 383-95.

[In the following essay, Bruton studies the influence of the English Romantics on Cernuda's later exile poetry.]

The tendency among critics of Luis Cernuda's eleven-volume collection of a lifetime's poetic output, La realidad y el deseo,1 spanning the years 1924-62, has been, almost without exception, to direct attention toward three major aspects of the poetry: first, Cernuda's embrace of Symbolist ideas in the early period up to 1928; second, the middle period of 1929-33 dominated by the...

(The entire section is 4721 words.)

Richard K. Curry (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Curry, Richard K. “Between Platonism and Modernity: The Double ‘Fall’ in the Poetry of Luis Cernuda.” In The Word and the Mirror: Critical Essays on the Poetry of Luis Cernuda, edited by Salvador Jiménez-Fajardo, pp. 114-31. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Curry details how the self-conscious modernity of Cernuda's poetry conflicts with the Platonic ideal.]

a dynamic semantic unit differs from a static one by virtue of the fact that it occurs as a gradually realized contexture

—Jan Mukarovsky, “On Poetic Language”


(The entire section is 6092 words.)

C. Brian Morris (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Morris, C. Brian. “The Oblique Language of Luis Cernuda: Creative Ruin or Fragments Shored?” In The Spanish Avant-Garde, edited by Derek Harris, pp. 190-203. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Morris explores Cernuda's use of surrealist language to subvert homosexual subtext.]

The fragments to which Eliot refers in the last passage of The Waste Land are a cluster of phrases and quotations that, although they may have been thrown up by his memory, according to his earlier ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, as ‘a crowd of twisted things’, are assembled as a defence against disintegration, which is more...

(The entire section is 4790 words.)

Kevin J. Bruton (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bruton, Kevin J. “‘La Mirada’ in the Poetry of Luis Cernuda—The ‘Hedgehog on the Prowl.’” Annals of Contemporary Spanish Literature 21, nos. 1-2 (1996): 27-40.

[In the following essay, Bruton emphasizes the traditional, Romantic nature of Cernuda's poetry, underscoring the poet's focus on a single object to introduce universal themes.]

The second half of the title of this article is taken from a fascinating 1981 study by Roger Cardinal entitled Figures of Reality. A Perspective on the Poetic Imagination in the course of which Cardinal examines some common ideas among poets of the Romantic and post-Romantic era. He argues that for many poets...

(The entire section is 4910 words.)

Philip W. Silver (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Silver, Philip W. “Luis Cernuda and the Restitution of Romanticism.” In Ruin and Restitution: Reinterpreting Romanticism in Spain, pp. 99-122. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Silver addresses Cernuda's place in the “poetics of failure” characteristic of Spanish Romanticism.]

The possibility that romanticism itself is a “pseudohistorical totalization,”1 intended to stem the infrangible erosion of material history, has been amply illustrated in chapter 2. But in Spain the precariousness of this literary event is especially striking. There the early nineteenth-century “bourgeois” revolution and its...

(The entire section is 9759 words.)

Derek Harris (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Harris, Derek. “Luis Cernuda: Caves of Poisonous Lights.” In Metal Butterflies and Poisonous Lights: The Language of Surrealism in Lorca, Alberti, Cernuda and Aleixandre, pp. 161-201. Fife, Scotland: La Sirena, 1998.

[In the following essay, Harris chronicles the surrealist origins and “neoromantic” nature of Cernuda's poetry.]

Luis Cernuda's earliest surviving poetry dates from 1924, the year of the First Surrealist Manifesto, but it was some time before any interest in or awareness of Surrealism makes itself felt in his work. His first collection of poems, Perfil del aire [Outline of the Air] is a slim volume of short, Symbolist style...

(The entire section is 13136 words.)

Neil C. McKinlay (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: McKinlay, Neil C. “Order Into Chaos: The Loss of the Absolute.” In The Poetry of Luis Cernuda: Order in a World of Chaos, pp. 8-43. London: Tamesis, 1999.

[In the following essay, McKinlay outlines the metaphysical search for order in Cernuda's poetry, pointing to the poet's contemplation of art as a rebirth of hope.]


We have chosen to foreground the crisis and loss of faith as central to La realidad y el deseo. At first sight this may seem curious, for probably its most obvious thematic concern centres, not around such overtly existential matters, as around love and...

(The entire section is 15190 words.)

Philip Martin-Clark (essay date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Martin-Clark, Philip. “(Homo)sexual Identities.” In Art, Gender, and Sexuality: New Readings of Cernuda's Later Poetry, pp. 55-73. Leeds, England: Maney Publishing, 2000.

[In the following essay, Martin-Clark focuses on themes of sexual orientation in Cernuda's poetry, stressing the concept of a “gender-transitive identity” in the author's later work.]

In this chapter, I examine the different and, at times, contradictory discourses through which male same-sex desire is represented in Cernuda's last four books of poetry. Throughout the chapter, I show how Cernuda's later poetry draws on gender-separatist, gender-transitive, universalizing, and...

(The entire section is 9342 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Bruton, Kevin J. “Symbolic Reference and Internal Rhythm: Luis Cernuda's Debt to Hölderlin.” Revue de Littérature Comparée 58, no. 1 (January-March 1984): 37-49.

Compares Hölderlin's poetic style and aesthetic approach to Cernuda's writing.

———. “The Cemetery Poems of Luis Cernuda.” Annals of Contemporary Spanish Literature 13, no. 3 (1988): 189-208.

Analyzes Cernuda's choice of place in four cemetery poems.

Fajardo, Salvador J. “Ekphrasis and Ideology in Cernuda's ‘Ninfa y pastor por Ticiano.’” Annals of Contemporary Spanish Literature 22, no. 1...

(The entire section is 210 words.)