Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral

by Lucila Godoy Alcayaga

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Gabriela Mistral’s work is part of that of a generation of women poets in Spanish America at the beginning of the twentieth century. In an era when women’s writing was still not taken as seriously by the literary establishment as men’s writing, Mistral, along with some of her contemporaries such as Delmira Agustini, Alfonsina Storni, and Juana de Ibarbourou, broke with tradition and wrote boldly about their experience from a woman’s point of view. Mistral’s poetry, of all the poets of her generation, is uniquely marked by her personal experience. While a young woman living in a small town in Chile, Mistral fell in love with a young man, Romelio Ureta. Although they were in love, they did not marry, and, tragically, Romelio Ureta later took his own life. Much of the poetry that Mistral was subsequently to write would be inspired by the loss of Ureta’s love. In particular, “Prayer” and “Poem of the Son” focus on the anguish caused by that loss. Mistral never married and never had children, yet marriage and children figure prominently in her work. It is as if she were re-creating in literature what she was deprived of experiencing in life. The cradle songs, for example, describe in loving detail the intimate spiritual and physical bond between a mother and her child. The person addressed in the cradle poems is often the child. In the poem “Close to Me” the last two lines run: “Do not slip from my arms:/ sleep close to me.” Mistral never held her own child to her breast in this way in her personal life. What is most striking about the cradle poems is their ability to bring the external world into the poem. In “Night,” for example, the world is described as stopping once the child goes to sleep: “Because you sleep, my little one,/ the sunset will no longer glow.” “Poem for Mothers” takes on the voice of the pregnant mother who feels the fetus growing in her womb: “Because of the sleeping child I carry, my footsteps/ have grown silent.” One of the poems is addressed to the speaker’s husband, and another warns her husband not to harm her for her son’s sake. Two others describe the growing understanding between a mother and her daughter as a result of the latter’s pregnancy. Much of Mistral’s poetry springs from the vicarious experience of love, marriage, and children. Mistral presents these experiences as if they were her own. One of the most important poems of the collection is the “Poem of the Son,” in which Mistral imaginatively creates the son she dreamed of having with Ureta: “A son, a son, a son! I wanted a son of yours/ and mine, in those distant days of burning bliss.”

Mistral projected her maternal feelings into her professional life as an educator (she worked for decades as a teacher in Chile and abroad). Her poems “For Children” and “Children’s Hair,” for example, are extraordinarily lyric expressions of her love of children. The first invites children to play with her body when it is one day turned to dust, and the second asks that the hair of all the children she has loved serve to comfort her in heaven.

One other aspect of Mistral’s work is the role of the natural kingdom in her poetic universe. Women are specifically associated with the earth and connected to the natural world through their childbearing capacity. In “Helpers,” for example, the poet describes the earth as a conscious agency actively creating the fetus in her womb: “the grain makes his hair,/ the date palm his...

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tiny fingers/ and white wax his fingernails.” The last poem of the collection, “Song,” offers a synthesis of all the major themes of Mistral’s poetry. It opens with the portrayal of a woman “singing in the valley,” clearly a projection of Mistral herself. The poem asks the question of whether the speaker sings for her husband or for a child or for her own heart. The answer is yes to all three. Mistral meticulously creates a world in which she, as mother, is loved by a man, and bears his child. At a deeper level, Mistral is also delineating the pain of her emotional universe, cut off as it is from communion with her lover and their intended future together. The last stanza of “Night” also draws attention to the fact that her song aspires to specifically feminine values. The poem makes clear reference to Mistral’s disillusionment with patriarchy. Finally, the poem ends on an image of hope, a note of purification; Mistral’s poetry is able to feminize and thereby redeem that universe.