Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1412

About his life, Juan Ramón Jiménez said very little. He was born in the small Spanish village of Moguer, in Andalusia, and educated at a Jesuit school. A few poems published in a Madrid magazine brought him an invitation to visit the capital where the poet Ruben Dario and others befriended him. Violent critical attacks on a volume of his poetry, however, and the death of his father so upset him that he spent some time in a French sanitarium. From then on, in spite of enthusiastic reception of later volumes of verse, he lived almost a recluse either in Spain or as a political refugee, after the Spanish Civil War, in Cuba and Puerto Rico. By the time he was thirty-five years old, he had published twenty volumes of what he called borradoras (rough drafts); the rest of his life was spent polishing them, beginning with his Selected Poems in 1917.

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In prose, his best-known work is PLATERO AND I, a series of brief, unconnected sketches, 138 in all, about life in Moguer, the whole given unity by the presence of a silver-gray donkey, Platero. There are both narrative and descriptive sections in poetic prose. The subtitle is “Andalusian Elegy,” making the donkey a symbol of the simplicity and purity of the soul. Like Sancho Panza’s donkey in Don Quixote de la Mancha, Platero seems headed for immortality in a volume “capable of giving back to people their childhood soul.”

Platero was a hairy donkey, so soft that he might have been made of cotton, without bones. Only his eyes were hard, like two scarabs of black crystal. He fed on oranges, grapes, and figs when he was not nibbling the grass of the meadow. To the country people he looks like steel, as the narrator, telling his story in the first person, rides him through the town of Moguer on Sundays. Coming back at dusk, he tells the customs collector that all they have brought with them are white butterflies. Then he rides on through the miserable streets down by the river, where poor children are playing games of make-believe.

Unconnected episodes are presented. Once Platero and the author saw an eclipse of the sun. In the eerie light, the town seemed to shrink, and even the donkey appeared diminished.

At the age of four, Platero should have entered kindergarten, but there were no chairs big enough for him. In the opinion of his master, the wisest plan was to take Platero to the fields where he could learn about flowers and stars. There no one would ever put a dunce cap on Platero or call him an ass.

Riding his donkey, the author, with his long brown beard and small black hat, must have looked strange, for ragged children ran after him, shouting “Crazy man!” Later, the children were the ones who seemed crazy on the day before Easter, as they celebrated their feast by shooting at Judas, to the terror of the little donkey.

The lengthening days, as the year went on, brought the ripening of the first figs, and Jiménez and Platero went to Rica to pick them. Everybody raced to see who could get there first and arrived panting and excited. The author picked a few of the ripe ones and put them on a tree trunk for Platero. Somehow a fig fight started; the pickers threw the bluish fruit at everybody, including the donkey. On another occasion, Jiménez, with a book of prints that he had received the day before from Vienna, told the children that he would give it as a prize to the first one who reached the violets at the end of the meadow. Seeing them running, Platero took off after them and easily outdistanced them. Panting their protests, the children gathered around the author. He told them that Platero had won and demanded a prize. Because the book would be of no use to him, Jiménez took some parsley and made a crown with which to adorn the victor.

In a serious moment, Jiménez tried to comfort his donkey by promising that he would not be thrown into a pit when he died, or abandoned beside the road; he would be buried beside the tall pine in the orchard. More immediate problems, however, occupied the donkey. As he entered the pasture, he began limping. Immediately, his master jumped off. Platero showed his right forefoot, in which Jiménez found a long orange-tree thorn stuck into it like a little emerald dagger. After the wound had been washed in a brook, they continued on toward the sea, the master now walking ahead and Platero, still limping, gently nudging him in the back.

The swallows arrived early, chirping as if to tell everybody about their two sea crossings and the flowers they had seen in Africa. Because of the unseasonal cold, the birds nearly froze to death.

Sometimes, in their conversations, Jiménez would reminisce over his childhood days, the people who lived across the street from him, the striped doorway of the confectioner’s house, and the little idiot boy who sat, ugly and unable to speak, in the doorway of his house to watch the people pass. The boy had died and must now be in heaven watching the promenade of heavenly souls.

Another memory was the story of Anilla, who used to dress in a sheet, put flour on her face, and walk about carrying a lantern to scare children. One September night, during a severe storm, lightning struck, and a eucalyptus tree fell on the toolshed. When the moon came out, the dog began barking so loudly that everybody went out to see what was wrong. There was Anilla, still dressed in a sheet and with her lantern burning, but now she really was a ghost.

The author also communed with his earthbound donkey about the joys of height. He described climbing to the flat roof and the sights to be seen there: the gardens, the houses, the people working in them, and even the far-off river with its boat. Looking into the distance gave him the same feeling that he felt when, as a child, he went to the locked gate in the city walls and saw the winding road with its promise of romance.

Many of the inhabitants of Moguer pass through these pages: the French doctor whose parrot comforted patients with “It’s nothing! Nothing!”; the gypsies who would sometimes visit the town and scandalize its inhabitants: Don Jose, the priest who rode a female donkey; Darbon, the veterinarian. Children, in particular, play an important part in the life of Platero and his master. There is much talk over plans to celebrate the Day of the Magi, when the children would put their shoes on the balconies in hopes of presents from the Wise Men and all the older people would have a parade: Platero would be adorned with a Colombian flag, and his master, wearing a cotton beard, would impersonate one of the Three Kings.

There are tragedies as well. One day Platero, while drinking at the fountain, got a leech on his tongue. With the help of Raposo, a farmer, Jiménez pried open the donkey’s mouth and removed the leech with sticks. At another time horseflies left him covered with blood.

Sometimes Platero could be helpful, as when he gave a ride to a little sick girl, or when he and his master helped a little girl and her donkey with their cart which was stuck in the mud. She rewarded them with two oranges, one of which Platero ate; the other little donkey got the second orange.

Finally came the morning when the author found Platero “lying on his bed of straw, his eyes soft and sad.” Darbon, the veterinarian, could do nothing for him. “Something he ate, perhaps a poison root.” By noon Platero was dead. Later, when his master went with some children to his grave and asked whether the donkey was carrying angel children through the heavenly meadows, a white butterfly appeared.

At the end, in “To Platero, in the Heaven of Moguer,” Jiménez dedicated the book to the donkey and concluded: “You, Platero, are alone in the past. But you also live in a period of no time, for you possess, as I do, a new sun with the dawn of each day, red as the heart of the everlasting God.”

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