Rafael Alberti

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Throughout his long career, Rafael Alberti proved to be a remarkably versatile poet. His facility of composition enabled him to shift smoothly from fixed forms to free verse, even within the confines of a single poem. Whether composing neomedieval lyrics, Baroque sonnets, or Surreal free verse, he always managed to be authentic. His deep emotions, sometimes obscured by his sheer virtuosity, found expression in all modes. His technical skill did not allow him to stagnate: Commentators on Alberti agree in their praise of his astonishing technical mastery. He might continue in the same vein for three volumes, but he would invariably break new ground in the fourth. His massive corpus of poetry comprises a remarkable array of styles, themes, and moods.

Although he was a natural poet with little formal training, Alberti always kept abreast of current developments in his art—indeed, he kept himself in the vanguard. He associated with the best and brightest of his time and participated in their movements. When the luminaries of Spain reevaluated Luis de Góngora, Alberti wrote accomplished neo-Baroque poetry; when Dalí and Buñuel were introducing Surrealism in Spanish art and film, Alberti adapted its principles to Spanish poetry; when most of the intellectuals of Spain were resisting General Franciso Franco and embracing Communism, Alberti was the “poet of the streets.” He remained withal a genuine and unique lyric voice. Even his political verses are not without poetic merit—an exception, to be sure. Alberti changed by adding and growing, never by discarding and replacing; thus, he became a richer talent with each new phase of his creative development.

Alberti’s poetry is suffused with nostalgia. The circumstances of his life decreed that he should continually find himself longing for another time, a distant place, or a lost friend, and in his finest poems, he achieves an elegiac purity free of the obscurity and self-pity that mar his lesser works. From first to last, the sadness for things lost remains Alberti’s great theme, one he explored more fully than any other poet of his generation.

Alberti was a poet who could grow without discarding his past. The youthful poet who composed marvelous lyrics persisted in the nostalgia of exile; the angry poet of the streets reasserted himself in diatribes against Yankee imperialism in Latin America. At ease in all forms and idioms, forever the Andalusian in exile, always growing in his art and his thought, Alberti wrote a staggering number of excellent poems. In the vast treasure trove of twentieth century Spanish poetry, he left a hoard of pearls and sapphires—hidden at times by the rubies and the emeralds, but worthy nevertheless.

Marinero en tierra

The doyens of Spanish letters received Marinero en tierra with immediate enthusiasm, and the young Alberti found himself a de facto member of the generación del 27, eligible to rub elbows with all the significant writers of the day. Although Alberti seems to have been happy in the mid-1920’s, his early volumes glow with poignant nostalgia for the sea and the coasts of his native Andalusia. He expresses his longing in exquisite lyrics in the medieval tradition. Ben Belitt, introducing his translations collected in Selected Poems , confesses that he could find no way to render these lyrics in English. They depend entirely on a native tradition, the vast trove of popular verses from Spain’s turbulent Middle Ages. Alberti’s genius is such that the poems have no savor of pedantry or preciosity. Luis Monguió, in his introduction to Belitt’s translations, suggests that “it is far from unlikely that they are being sung in the provinces today by many in complete...

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ignorance of their debt to Rafael Alberti.” The notion is a tribute both to the poet and to the tradition he understood so well.

The verses themselves may seem enigmatic, but only because the modern reader is accustomed to probe so far beneath the surface. One of the best of them, “Gimiendo” (“Groaning”), presents the plaint of a sailor who remembers that his shirt used to puff up in the wind whenever he saw the shore. The entire poem consists of only six brief lines; there is only one image, and only one point. That single image conveys a feeling close to the hearts of those born within smell of the sea—a need unfulfilled for Alberti. He speaks for all seamen who are marooned inland, the sailors on land.

“Pradoluengo,” an aubade in the same style, is only seven lines long and conveys an equally simple message. The beloved to whom the poem is addressed is told that the cocks are crowing, that “we need cross only river waters, not the sea,” and is urged to get up and come along. With all the richness of the genre, Alberti hints at a wealth of erotic possibilities and natural splendors. Only William Butler Yeats, in modern English poetry, matches this exquisite simplicity and feeling for tradition.

Cal y canto

As noted above, Alberti took a leading role in the Góngora tricentennial of 1927, and many of the poems in Cal y canto owe much to the Baroque model. Here, Alberti reveals a new facet of his technical mastery, particularly in his handling of the sonnet, perhaps the most difficult of forms. “Amaranta,” a sonnet that frequently appears in anthologies, shows how completely Alberti was able to assimilate the poetics of Góngora and to adapt them to the twentieth century. The octave describes, in ornate and lavish terms, the beauty of Amaranta; as with Góngora, the very exuberance of the description disquiets the reader. Her breasts, for example, are polished “as with the tongue of a greyhound.” The sestet conceals the scorpion sting so often found in Góngora’s conclusions: Solitude, personified, settles like a glowing coal between Amaranta and her lover. In this poem, Alberti displays his affinity with Góngora in two respects: an absolute control of his idiom and an obscurity that has deprived both poets of numerous readers. As Alberti himself remarked in his autobiography, “this was painterly poetry—plastic, linear, profiled, confined.”

Concerning the Angels

Concerning the Angels differs sharply from Alberti’s previous work. Bouts of depression and a loss of faith in his former ideals drove him to abandon nostalgia and to confront despair. Suddenly, all the joy and tender sorrow of his early work is gone, replaced by anguish and self-pity. The revolution in content corresponds to a rebellion in form: Free verse prevails as more appropriate to the poet’s state of mind than any traditional order. Alberti does not despair utterly, as Monguió indicates, but the overall tone of the collection is negative.

“Tres recuerdos del cielo” (“Three Memories of Heaven”), a tribute to the great Romantic poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, constitutes a noteworthy exception to the depressing tone of the volume. Here, Alberti displays the subtlety and tenderness that characterize his work at its most appealing. Evoking a condition of being before time existed, Alberti recaptures the tenuous delicacy of Bécquer, the sense of the ineffable. The meeting between the lovers, for example, takes place in a world of clouds and moonlight: “When you, seeing me in nothingness/ Invented the first word.” Alberti imitates Bécquer masterfully, at the same time finding a new way to express his own nostalgia.

“Three Memories of Heaven,” however, is atypical of the collection. Virtually all the other poems treat of “angels” and ultimately of a world turned to wormwood and gall. “El ángel desengañado” (“The Angel Undeceived”) debunks the ideals of the younger Alberti, particularly in its desolate conclusion: “I’m going to sleep./ No one is waiting for me.” “El ángel de carbón” (“Angel of Coals”) ends no less grimly: “And that octopus, love, in the shadow:/ evil, so evil.” Several of the poems offer a kind of hope, but it is a wan hope, scarcely better than despair. Like the T. S. Eliot of “The Hollow Men,” however, Alberti maintains his poetic control, even with the world withering away around him.

To See You and Not to See You

Two pivotal events in Alberti’s life helped him out of this quagmire: meeting his future wife and becoming a communist. The political commitment, while it did little to benefit his poetry, provided him with a set of beliefs to fill the void within. Of his proletarian verse, one can say only that it is no worse than most political poetry. Like his friend and contemporary Pablo Neruda, Alberti mistook a sincere political commitment for an artistic imperative; like Neruda, he eventually returned to more personal themes, although he never wholly abandoned doctrinaire verse.

Even at the height of his political activism, however, Alberti was capable of devoting his gifts to the elegy; the death of Ignacio Sánchez Mejías in the bullring moved him to write the sonnet series that makes up To See You and Not to See You in 1935. The same tragedy also inspired Federico García Lorca to compose one of the most famous poems in the Spanish language, “Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías” (“Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías”). A comparison of the two poems reveals the radical differences between these two superficially similar poets. García Lorca chants compellingly, “At five in the afternoon,” evoking the drama of the moment and the awful immediacy of the bull. Alberti reflects on the bull’s calfhood, its callow charges as it grew into the engine of destruction that destroyed Sánchez Mejías. García Lorca goes on to convey, in muted tones, his sense of loss. Alberti expresses that sense of loss in terms of distance: As his friend dies in the bullring, Alberti is sailing toward Romania on the Black Sea. The memory of the journey becomes permanently associated with the loss of the friend and thus a redoubled source of nostalgia.

In Federico García Lorca’s Shadow

As usual, García Lorca enjoys the fame, and Alberti is lost in his shadow. No doubt García Lorca’s elegy speaks more clearly and more movingly; it probably is better than its counterpart. Alberti himself admired the “Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías” without reservation. The pattern, however, is only too familiar: Alberti, so like García Lorca in some ways, found himself outmatched at every turn while his friend and rival was still alive. Alberti wrote exquisite medieval lyrics, but García Lorca outdid him with the Romancero gitano (1928; The Gypsy Ballads, 1953). Alberti captured the essence of Andalusia, but the public identified Andalusia with García Lorca. Alberti wrote a noble and moving elegy for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, but his rival composed such a marvelous lament that Alberti’s has been neglected.

All this is not to imply conscious enmity between the two poets. Alberti had cause to envy his contemporary’s fame, and his bitterness at playing a secondary role may have been reflected in Concerning the Angels. Indeed, although Alberti gave many indications, in verse and prose, of his profound regard for García Lorca, his relationship with the poet of Granada represents an analogue to the dilemma of his literary life. The competition must have stimulated him, but, because his poetry was less accessible and less dramatic in its impact, he tended to be eclipsed. After the Spanish Civil War, Alberti emigrated to Argentina, mourning his slain and dispersed comrades, including García Lorca, who was senselessly gunned down at the outset of the hostilities. The war poems in the Alberti canon compare favorably with any on that subject, not least because his lively imagination enabled him to look beyond the slaughter.

Entre el clavel y la espada

For all his faith, the poet soon found himself across the Atlantic, listening to reports of World War II, picking up the pieces. Somehow he managed to recover and to emerge greater than ever. A poem from his first collection published outside Spain, Entre el clavel y la espada (between sword and carnation), sounds the keynote of his renewed art:

After this willful derangement, this harassed
and necessitous grammar by whose haste I must live,
let the virginal word come back to me whole and
meticulous,
and the virginal verb, justly placed with its rigorous
adjective.

The poem, written in Spain, anticipates the purity of Alberti’s poetry in exile. The poet forgot neither the horrors he had seen nor his love for his homeland.

Another elegy deserves mention in this context. Written after news of the death of the great poet Antonio Machado, “De los álamos y los sauces” (from poplar and willow) captures the plight of Alberti and his fellow exiles in but a few lines. The man in the poem is caught up “in the life of his distant dead and hears them in the air.” Thus, Alberti returns grimly to his leitmotif, nostalgia.

Retornos de lo vivo lejano

With his return to his nostalgic leitmotif, Alberti reached his full potential as a poet during the 1940’s and 1950’s. He poured forth volume after volume of consistently high quality. Retornos de lo vivo lejano (returns of the far and the living), a book wholly devoted to his most serviceable theme, may well be the finest volume of his career. The poems are at once accessible and mysterious, full of meaning on the surface and suggestive of unfathomed depths.

“Retornos del amor en una noche de verano” (“Returns: A Summer Night’s Love”) recalls in wondrous imagery the breathlessness of a time long past. For example, two pairs of lips, as they press together, become a silent carnation. “Retornos de Chopin a través de unas manos ya idas” (“Returns: Chopin by Way of Hands Now Gone”) evokes some of the poet’s earliest memories of his family. After many years, the poet is reunited with his brothers by an act of imagination, supported by the memory of Frédéric Chopin’s music as played by the poet’s mother. This is the quintessential Alberti, the master craftsman and the longing man in one.

A la pintura

Amid the melancholy splendor of his poems of exile, Alberti distilled a curious volume entitled A la pintura (to painting). In contrast to all that Alberti lost in exile, painting stands as a rediscovered treasure, and the Alberti of the early 1920’s comes face to face with the middle-aged émigré. The collection includes sonnets on the tools of painting, both human and inanimate; free-verse meditations on the primary colors; and poems on various painters, each in a style reminiscent of the artist’s own. Beyond its intrinsic value, the volume reveals much about the mutual attraction of the two arts.

“Ballad of the Lost Andalusian”

A poem from Ballads and Songs of the Parana, deserves special mention. “Balada del Andaluz perdido” (“Ballad of the Lost Andalusian”), as much as any single poem, reflects Alberti’s self-image as a poet in exile. Written in terse, unrhymed couplets, it tells of a wandering Andalusian who watches the olives grow “by the banks of a different river.” Sitting alone, he provokes curious questions from the Argentine onlookers on the opposite bank of the river, but he remains a mystery to them. Not so to the reader, who understands the pathos of the riderless horses, the memory of hatred, the loneliness. The final question admits of no answer and in fact needs none: “What will he do there, what is left to be done/ on the opposite side of the river, alone?”

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Alberti, Rafael