Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1743
Juan Ramón Jiménez was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1956. Though he is most famous for his poetry, his contributions to the development of Spanish prose are considered equally important. He began writing poetry at the age of fourteen, and he began experimenting with prose poetry at seventeen. His first prose poem, “Andén” (“The Railway Platform”), shows a strong influence of Spanish Romanticism in its imagery, structure, and vocabulary. It tells of a woman afflicted with a mental disorder that causes her to wait forever on the platform for a train to bring her the child that she never had. The Spanish romantic poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer and the Nicaraguan modernist Rubén Darío, along with the Germans Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Heinrich Heine and the French Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, were clearly influential in his early prose poems. Jiménez went on from there to set new standards for prose poetry in a series of highly original works that started in 1917 with Platero and I, one of the best examples of prose poetry in Spanish literature.
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Platero and I, written between 1907 and 1912, is based on material Jiménez gathered in his hometown of Moguer (in the province of Andalusia) while recuperating from the severe depression caused by his father’s sudden death in 1900. At a time when many of his contemporaries—the writers of the literary Generation of ’98—were focusing on Castile, a province long dominant in the history of Spain, Jiménez turned for inspiration to his native Andalusia. Platero and I draws on many of the area’s resources and characteristics, including the country towns, the ringing bells, the sounds of children, the animals, the small houses, and the golden moon. The work also draws on the traditionally impressionistic style of the region. The elegiac tone of Platero and I, however, is markedly different from Jiménez’s other poetry of that time. The tone here expresses grief and real suffering.
The first publication of Platero and I, in 1914, was an abbreviated version of the poem, written for a collection of children’s literature, that contained only 73 of the 135 prose poems that were composed over a number of years and make up the complete edition of 1917. During his lifetime, Jiménez wrote 250 prose poems that he ultimately hoped to publish in a collection titled “Versos para ciegos” (verses for the blind). This title reveals that Jiménez thought poetry to be distinguished from prose based only on the presence in poetry of assonant or consonant rhyme. Once an author eliminates rhyme, the verses become like poetry read to a blind person. Unable to see the physical disposition of the text on the printed page and unguided by the familiar presence of rhyme, the blind person would not be able to distinguish between poetry and prose. The poetic element of Platero and I is Jiménez’s masterful use of the natural rhythm of the Spanish language to generate melodic sentences that are flexible in syntax and in the use of clause structures—sentences that produce the almost cinematographic effects of slow motion and close-up and wide-angle views. He frequently suppresses cause-and-effect relationships and logical connections in an impressionistic style of writing that values the poetic image above all else.
“Platero” is the name generally given to a type of silver-colored donkey (plata is the Spanish word for silver). In these prose poems, the donkey is Jiménez’s companion, the one to whom the author makes his observations and in whom he confides. Although it may be tempting to look for parallels between Platero and Juan Ramón and Miguel de Cervantes’ Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, Platero, unlike Sancho, neither speaks nor participates actively in the work. On the contrary, Platero is the ideal listener and, though not “blind,” perhaps also the ideal reader.
The events in Platero and I take place in one year, starting in one spring and ending in the next. Platero is actually a synthesis of the many silver donkeys the author knew during the years of his recuperation in Moguer. The symbolism in Platero’s year of life is important for Jiménez, for it represents the natural cycle of birth to rebirth. As if to underline the importance of rebirth, Jiménez associates a second, traditional symbol with Platero’s death: the butterfly, whose evolution from larva to winged creature has for centuries symbolized the transformation and renewal of life. In the last chapter of Platero and I, Jiménez, accompanied by children from the area, visits Platero’s grave. As if responding to the poet’s question, “Do you still remember me?” a butterfly appears and flies “like a soul” from lily to lily. These symbols anticipate a new beginning for Jiménez, who, only a few years before, was so fearful of death that he had to have a doctor with him at all times.
Jiménez uses the first person and the third person to alternate between subjective and objective narrative perspectives. The perspectives also vary between a child’s view and that of an adult. What the views have in common is a firm grounding in reality; in this work, Jiménez first introduces death, violence, abuse, cruelty, deformity, racism, the ugly side of social reality, human suffering, and human abuse of other human beings. Jiménez’s descriptions of nature and its beauty, of the joys of being a child and of being with children, counterbalance the work’s sometimes overwhelming accumulation of harsh realism.
Death has many manifestations in Platero and I. It is part of a larger process of growth and transformation such as that of Platero. It is sad and lonely like that of Pinito (poem 94), the loner whom the townspeople have dehumanized to being the epitome of stupidity, and it can be tender and sorrowful like that of the young girl who dies of tuberculosis (poem 46) or that of the little girl who so loves to play with Platero (poem 81).
Violence, abuse, and cruelty to animals appear frequently in the poems. In “The Mangy Dog” (poem 27), the vineyard guard kills a dog with his shotgun for no reason other than that the animal is physically unattractive. “The Old Donkey” (poem 113) shows what can happen to animals that grow old and are of no further use to their human owners. A dog saves itself once from death in the boneyard only to have its life ended by the winter’s cold wind. The animal in “The White Mare” (poem 108) must cope not only with old age, like the old donkey, but also with being beaten by its master with a stick and a sickle. As the mare lies dying, people gather to curse it and poke fun at it, and the children throw stones at it. Jiménez tells Platero that in the darkness of the street, the mare’s cadaver attains a cloudlike whiteness and light that the cold evening sky complements with small pink clouds. In Jiménez’s works, whiteness, like that of the lilies at Platero’s grave, consistently symbolizes purity and transcendence.
Deformity appears in “The Half-Wit Child” (poem 17), which describes a mute who, while not worthy of the attention of others, was all that his mother had in life. Jiménez looks back, remembering him, and, after his death, he looks ahead to envision him enjoying his eternal reward.
“Sarito” (poem 74) presents the problem of racism. A former black servant of a friend in Seville is now a traveling bullfighter who has stopped to visit. Most people eye him with suspicion, and one resident starts a fight with him. Jiménez receives him openly and affectionately. Nevertheless, the black Sarito knows to keep his distance, as he must, even from a friend.
Poem 95, “The River,” chronicles the decline that pollution from the copper mines upstream has brought to an area. In retrospect, Jiménez looks back on the lively hustle and bustle of the fishermen, wine merchants, and others who once sailed the waters; when he looks at the now lifeless stream, the color of rust, he compares it to the trickle of blood from a cadaver.
Nature has many manifestations in Platero and I. In “The Eclipse” (poem 4), nature is a source of humor as the gradual darkening of the sun fools the hens into returning to their roost early, as if it were night. An unexpected warm spell, a rather cruel joke, tricks the swallows (poem 13) into returning, only to have them suffer when it turns cold again. Thunderstorms pound the area, keeping all in fear and suspense (poem 71) and sometimes killing people (poem 18).
Jiménez is at his impressionist best when describing nature. A sunset becomes a “Scarlet Landscape” (poem 19), wounded by its own crystals and dressed in a bleeding purple. Its light turns small plants and flowers transparent. Employing a synesthesia that combines the senses of touch, sight, and smell, Jiménez describes the light as embalming the moment with a moist, luminous, and pungent perfume. This technique frequently appears elsewhere in Platero and I, as in “The Pomegranate” (poem 96), where the poet describes the bitter, dry taste of the outer skin, then the first taste of sweetness—a “dawn made briefly into a ruby”—and finally the center of the fruit, “edible amethysts.” He extends this poetic image to the limits of language: silence. The poet confesses that he can no longer talk, caught up as he is in a taste as sweet as what the eye sees when lost in the multiple colors of a kaleidoscope.
Children come and go constantly through the poems of Platero and I. Jiménez had a special place in his heart for children, whether rich or poor, whether from Moguer or from Argentina, where he visited in 1948, or from Puerto Rico, where he lived and finally died. “The Magi” (poem 122) is typical. Jiménez’s description of the day in January when Spanish children normally receive their Christmas gifts combines the excitement of a child with an adult’s love of children. Once the children have finally gone to bed, the poet plans with Platero how they and other adults will dress up in sheets, quilts, and old hats and parade at midnight beneath the window of the children’s room, leaving the children astonished, trembling, and marveling at the magi who have come to leave them gifts.