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.
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.
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.”