Profane Hymns Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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Although Latin American literature has a long and honorable history, it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that it began to produce writers, especially poets, whose innovative techniques and technical mastery brought them worldwide recognition as significant and influential artists. Among this group, one of the first, and certainly one of the most important, was Rubén Darío, whose Prosas Profanas (“profane hymns”) is among the most innovative and enduring works of Latin American verse. As a key part of Darío’s complete writings—which are considerable, given the brief span of his life—Prosas Profanas is indicative of the scope, breadth, and power of his poetic achievements.

Born in Metapa, Nicaragua, in January, 1867, and christened Félix Rubén García Sarmiento, the poet began a lifetime of wandering at the age of fourteen. By the time he was nineteen Darío was living and studying in Chile, where he spent several years that were critical to his development as a writer; in Chile he absorbed the latest works by Central and South American authors as well as European authors. He later lived in Argentina, Spain, and France, where he edited an influential and innovative literary journal, Mundial, in Paris.

With the outbreak of World War I, Darío returned to live in Latin America. To relieve his considerable financial difficulties, he embarked on a strenuous lecturing tour that took him as far north as New York City, where he fell seriously ill. He returned home to Nicaragua, where he died on February 6, 1916, at the age of forty-nine.

At an early time during his travels, he had shortened his name to Rubén Darío. The Mexican writer Octavio Paz, among others, saw in this choice of names a deliberate attempt by the poet to link himself to the great literary and artistic traditions of the Middle East, uniting both Jewish (Ruben) and non-Jewish (Darius, king of Persia) heritages. Whatever the ultimate source or reason, his choice of name clearly indicates that Darío considered himself to be, like his poetry, original, but he also tacitly acknowledged his debt to the great creations and creators of the past.

Latin America had always maintained close cultural ties with Europe and prided itself on its transatlantic culture. This was especially true in artistic matters, including literary influences. After the middle of the nineteenth century, these European influences exerted a profound pressure on Latin American writers. The literary models of modernism and Symbolism, largely inspired by French examples, were especially important, and Darío’s Prosas Profanas shows the considerable influence of both.

Modernism helped writers such as Darío break free of the conventions of earlier poetry. Modernism encouraged new and innovative uses of language, including the incorporation and adaptation of peasant or folk forms and the creation of new and individual poetic structures. In the hands of a writer such as Darío, modernism and the use of rhythm were more than poetic forms or devices. Modernism and rhythm became for him a way of looking at the world and seeing everything in it as mysteriously yet intimately connected. Darío believed that it was the poet alone who could express these connections, through the power of the art of poetry. For Darío, analogy was an exalted expression of the imagination.

Darío was also deeply influenced by the writings of authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman, but his natural preference, reinforced by his readings of French poets such as Charles Baudelaire, was for the aristocratic refinement and symbolic mannerism of Poe rather than the democratic vistas and demotic cadences of Whitman. Darío’s careful choice of words, his preference for sensuous and emotion-laden rhythmic patterns, and his refined and often rarefied subject matter all reveal his debt to Poe and to Poe’s French admirers. Throughout Prosas Profanas the scenes and settings are of far-off and long-ago places, often...

(The entire section is 1,770 words.)