Gabriela Mistral was born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, on April 7, 1889, of Spanish and Basque lineage; her father, who deserted the family when Lucila was but a child of three years, was a teacher and a poet. Her early years were spent among the peasants, and the poet, who speaks of herself as one of the campesinos, put the peasant’s love of the land and the countryside into her poetry.
To understand the poetry of Gabriela Mistral, one must know something of her life. To begin with, she always thought of herself as a teacher first and a poet second, even after she had been awarded the Noble Prize for Literature in 1945. She began her teaching career at the age of fifteen, with unusual success. In 1912 she became a teacher in secondary schools, moving up from primary schools, with the help, it is said, of Pedro Aguirre Cerda, who later became President of Chile, the poet’s native land. During the years 1918-1922 the poet served as director of liceos at Punta Arenas, Temuco, and Santiago. In 1922 she had become so well known in educational circles that she was sent to Mexico to help in the educational reforms in that country. Her fame spread, and in later life she held a host of educational and official positions. She taught in the United States at Columbia University, Vassar, and Middlebury College. She was Chilean representative on the Committee of Intellectual Co-operation of the League of Nations, in Geneva. She was Chilean consul in Naples, Madrid, Lisbon, Nice, and Santa Barbara, California. She died in New York City in 1957.
Gabriela Mistral’s first fame as a poet came when three sonnets on death were read for her (though she was in the audience) at Chile’s Juegos Florales, in 1914. These poems, which brought her national acclaim, were, ironically, the indirect result of a suicide. Gabriela had fallen in love with a young man about five years before. The young man, Romelio Ureta, killed himself with a gunshot when he was unable to repay money he had “borrowed” from the railroad which employed him, to help a friend in need of funds. Also ironically, her first published volume of poems appeared, not in her native Chile, but in the United States, in 1922, after interest in her poetry had been generated by Federico de Onis, in a lecture on her poetry at the Columbia University Instituto de las Espanas. This volume was DESOLACION.
Part of the poetry in DESOLACION, in the section entitled “Dolor,” was also the direct result of the death of the young man she loved. But there are also poems which show the poet’s interest and feeling for religion, her deep maternal feeling for children, and her inspiration in teaching. There are also some poems for children, as well as those written for the adult public. The poems about love show that love for her, at least as a poet, was not a sensual gratification, nor was it joy. The poet tells the reader that it is a bitter experience that ends with death, unless it is the kind of love that becomes almost a religion, so that it can transcend mortality. Her own love, as she writes about it, was an overpowering, jealous love, so strong that it made her, a plain woman, into one of beauty. She describes in “El Ruego” (The Prayer) how she wants her dead lover, a sinner because he took his own life, admitted to the presence and grace of God, despite his sinful end; she pleads humbly, but at times even forcefully, for him. Herself childless, another side of love that Gabriela Mistral celebrated is maternity, the fruits of love. The poet says that sterility which brings forth no child is a source of shame, and the woman who suffers it a tragic figure. Woman, she says, is instinctively maternal.
Maternity and teaching fused together for Gabriela Mistral. In her “Teacher’s Prayer” she begs God to make her more maternal than an ordinary mother, so that she may love her young charges as a mother, though they are not of her flesh and blood. In “La Maestra Rural” she compares the rural...
(The entire section is 1,513 words.)