Aleixandre, Vicente (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Aleixandre, Vicente 1898–
A Spanish poet, Aleixandre was a prominent member of the liberalistic group called the "1927 Generation." Unlike other well-known members, such as Rafael Alberti and Jorge Guillén, Aleixandre never left Spain. His poetry began in the tradition of the poésie pure but was soon transmuted into a style suggestive of surrealism. Although written in free verse, Aleixandre's work is structurally both complex and carefully crafted. Because he was relatively unknown outside of Spain, his selection as recipient of the 1977 Nobel Prize for Literature was a surprise to much of the literary world.
Aleixandre had been the greatest poetical rebel of the Republican period. He seems to have been the only poet definitely to set out to write under the [influence of Freud]…. Aleixandre was thought of in early life as a revolutionary in every way. Hernández dedicated Viento del pueblo to him with the words: "Nosotros venimos brotando del manantial de las guitarras acogidas por el pueblo" (We have sprung from the source of the guitars the people received for their own)…. (p. 37)
Aleixandre began with a book called Ambito which both by the form of the verse and the use of images reminds us of Guillén…. But soon Aleixandre was to read Freud and try to apply psycho-analysis as a poetic method…. In the prose-poems of Pasión de la tierra he wrote in dream-symbols. His other poetry, in a highly rhythmical free-verse, used the same sort of symbols but subordinated them to some theme, usually of love, interspersed with clear statements about his emotions and thoughts. Aleixandre does not induce in himself the trance Surrealists require; instead, he voluntarily creates a pleasing though rather stark pattern with unusual images…. [In his] kind of poetry an impression is the same as a reality…. Aleixandre sets us on the border-line between sensation and thought. There is also something wild and almost animal about his poems, full of extravagant images; and we must not try to understand these logically, lest they become absurd. (pp. 37-8)
Many poets in the past have … chosen the sensuality of the dance as their subject…. Aleixandre [compares, in a Freudian manner,] the sensuality of the dancer to the kind of extremely sweet food usually served at dances; there is even a displeasing suggestion of indigestion. Also one image does not follow on from another, but merely suggests it as in a dream; the "pechos" are "dulces tartas … sobre los hombros"; a kiss becomes a sweetmeat; and a "yes" is painted green. The idea appears to be that incontinence in eating sweet things at a dance leads to the thought of another sort of incontinence. (p. 39)
If Sombra del paraíso had been as full of personal and Freudian images as Aleixandre's former books, it would hardly have satisfied all the expectations it aroused. It would probably never have appeared, for the authorities might have felt suspicious of the poet's cryptic utterances. As it was, the book was recognizably in the Aleixandre style and probably an improvement on his former writings, but the general meaning was plain and the whole had a unifying tone. (pp. 40-1)
Aleixandre's great skill in Sombra del paraíso was to write in his own "visionary" style and yet give a general impression of coherence, even compose poems each with a definite theme in a book which has a certain unity of mood….
In the years following the publication of Sombra del paraíso, Aleixandre ceased to appear such a unique figure in Spanish poetry. Much poetry of a more varied nature was written in Spain and the work of Spanish poets abroad became much more easily available. Aleixandre was no longer a survivor from a revolutionary age but an academician and a master. (p. 44)
His Historia del corazón (1954) is … just as important a part of Aleixandre's achievement as Sombra del paraíso, even though it may not have been as enthusiastically received….
The language and imagery are plainer, more pedestrian, the dream-quality less persistent…. The master even becomes rather pedantic at times. A child's hoop is an "aro gayo de rodantes colores" (gay ring of rolling colors); he would hardly have used that adjective gayo in his earlier books; nor do we feel he would have spoken of the "viviente aromar" (living scentedness) of flowers. This implies that when Aleixandre leaves the dream for the day-to-day world he is in danger of falling into a traditional literary rhetoric.
As to the subject-matter of these poems, they are generally about a love in which the soul and body are thought of as one. Passion founded on sensuality appears to be all that comforts the poet in his stony pessimism. Life is aimless, meaningless, cruel and brief. Rubén Darío had written that we do not know … (where we are going or where we come from) but Aleixandre replies:… (We know where we come from and where we are going. A lightning flash between two darknesses.) (p. 45)
Charles David Ley, in Spanish Poetry Since 1939 (copyright © 1962, The Catholic University of America Press, Inc.), Catholic University of America Press, 1962.
Vicente Aleixandre is one of the last surviving members of the brilliant generation of Spanish poets which began to publish in the early 1920s, and perhaps the only one who is still writing at his best. His collected poems have about them a remarkable sense of organic growth deriving from their central theme, which is nothing less than creation itself. With the theme goes a view of the poet as visionary: in Aleixandre's own phrase, a "timeless prophet", who is as much concerned with bringing the past to life as with speculating on the future. These bardic claims suggest something of the scope of his work, as well as indicating certain Romantic affiliations: one needs to add, however, that he is a noticeably "modern" poet, who is aware of Freudian psychology and has learnt a good deal from the techniques of Surrealism. These influences appear most strongly in his second and third collections. Pasión de la tierra (1928–29) and Espadas coma labios (1930–31), which mark an almost total break with the relatively conventional, though technically accomplished, manner of Ambito (1924–27).
Aleixandre himself has described this phase as "a gradual emergence into light": though the poetry is difficult, in so far as it is attempting to deal with chaotic and irrational types of experience its sheer verbal control creates an effect of coherence from which a kind of ordering eventually springs. What is impressive is the apparently unforced nature of this ordering: unlike his contemporary, Jorge Guillén, Aleixandre does not believe in the poem as a more intense kind of reality, but as a means of heightening one's sense of a universal relationship which exists fully-formed at the deepest level of experience. This sense is rooted in the basic intuition expressed in the title of his fourth collection, La destrucción o el amor (1932–33); love, as the determining principle of cosmic unity, implies destruction, since the total fusion which creation ideally demands is prevented by the limitations of finite substance. In these poems, the forces of the natural world are conveyed through dazzling images of birds, beasts and reptiles which embody the universal process in a state of innocent violence. Human love is centred on the self-destructive aggression of the sexual act, in itself a symbolic representation of the death which is the only means of becoming integrated in a higher form of existence.
This is the extreme form of the myth which, with certain modifications, determines the rest of Aleixandre's work: though … there is a point at which the emphasis shifts decisively from the physical universe to a consideration of man in his human context. This point comes in Historia del corazón (1945–53), though it is anticipated by certain poems in Sombra del paraíso (1939–43), in which Aleixandre's sense of universal perfection begins to shape itself around images of a lost Eden, glimpsed platonically through memories of childhood and other forms of pastoral simplicity. Critics have tended to associate this new emphasis with the general shift towards a socially-committed type of verse which occurred in Spain in the late 1940s. In his theoretical statements of the time, Aleixandre clearly sympathizes with such aims, yet the fact that his own poetry continues to be so superior to that of the so-called "poetas sociales" merely confirms its continuity with his earlier work.
The most surprising poems in Historia del corazón are not those on collective themes, in which the expression of human solidarity occasionally falls into sentimentality, but the group of love-poems which includes "Mano entregada", "Otra no amo" and "El último amor". Here, for the first time, Aleixandre strikes a note which continues to echo in some of the best of the younger Spanish poets, like Claudio Rodriguez: a tenderness which is aware of its own illusions and which accepts the limitations of a human relationship as the proof of its uniqueness. The relationship of the lovers is now seen as a microcosm of the much vaster relationship in which the living and the dead appear as innumerable facets of a single material, the "materia única" of the concluding poem in Aleixandre's last major collection, En un vasto dominio (1958–62).
Seen in perspective, this new sense of collective involvement may be seen to have its origins in the vision of an undivided cosmos which dominates the earlier poetry and whose presence can still be felt in the later work, notably in the wonderful group of poems on the parts of the body which opens this last collection. The majority of these poems are simpler than the earlier ones, but only because they can afford to be: the inexhaustible spectacle of human lives is evoked in poem after poem…. Almost any of these poems would be enough to make the reputation of a lesser poet, and a number, like the series of "Retratos anónimos", are very fine indeed. At the same time, compared with Aleixandre's earlier work, there is a relaxing of pressure which here and there makes for a certain monotony. The verbal skill is as great as ever, and the sheer ability to construct a poem is continuously impressive: what one misses is the degree of commitment which made possible a poem like "Comemos sombra", from Historia del corazón, in which Aleixandre seemed for once to be groping towards a genuinely religious experience which would transform his sense of the human situation into something more deeply personal.
This note does, in fact, reappear very movingly in his most recent collection, Poemas de la consumación (1968), which is not included in the Obras completas. These poems, for the most part of almost aphoristic brevity, are among the bleakest which Aleixandre has written. Their treatment of old age and the passing of love is uncompromisingly honest and devoid of any kind of easy consolation. If the poet himself sees his whole work as a constant clarification of means and material (a view which seems essentially just), these new poems at last break through to the kind of difficult simplicities which are occasionally the reward for a lifetime's major work. So, recalling the words of Hamlet "to die, to sleep, to sleep: perchance to dream" he writes in "El poeta recuerda su via" ("The poet remembers his life"):
Forgive me: I have slept.
To sleep is not to live. Peace to all men.
To live is not to sigh, nor to glimpse words which may still live us.
To live in words? Words die, are beautiful to hear, but unenduring.
Like this clear night. Yesterday at dawn.
Or when the completed day draws out
its final beam, which falls upon your face.
It seals your eyes with a single stroke of light
The night is long, but already it is past.
"The Undivided Cosmos," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1969; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 10, 1969, p. 751.
The similarities of word and topic between Cántico and Ámbito could never let Aleixandre claim that he and Guillén were contrasting poets…. Aleixandre echoed Guillén's pleasure in the compactness of the world when in 'Luz' he celebrated the light which frames and encases creation…. (pp. 137-38)
But it was in their attitudes to night that the two poets diverged: whereas Guillén saw it as an interlude, a hiatus in which he remained suspended till day gave him back the world he loved, Aleixandre found in the night a new energy which animated his body and ignited his passion…. (pp. 138)
Cántico described a sunlit world; Ámbito, despite the tributes to '¡Mañana dulce …!'…, is an ecstatic song to the darkness with which Aleixandre came to identify himself so completely that in the last poem, 'Noche final', which closes the frame opened by 'Noche inicial', he said simply: 'La noche en mí. Yo la noche' [The night in me. I the night]…. In Ámbito night is an actor as well as a backcloth; it has shape and blood, like a living creature, and senses so stimulated that in 'Agosto' it offers itself to the poet with all the licentiousness of a whore…. (pp. 138-39)
Unlike Guillón, whose eyes swept creation, Aleixandre did not want to look further than the woman's body; this was all that his eyes saw and his hands explored. When he plunged his arms into the night in 'Materia,' he wanted to find food for his fingers in female flesh…. (p. 139)
The erotic stimulus which Aleixandre received from the night and from a woman's naked body generated a feverishness reflected in his vision of the world as constantly moving. Just as his own 'hot hand' sought and explored a form, so in 'Mar y aurora' do the tongues of light lick and spread over the world like slowly growing tentacles…. (p. 140)
There is nothing controlled or measured in Aleixandre's poetic universe; casting himself according to a prose piece published in 1928 as a 'horseman on a most lusty horse', he accelerated into a blind stampede Guillén's pursuit on horseback of the marvels of life…. In Ámbito Aleixandre's imagination began a frenzied gallop which transformed the world into a place of violence in which, as in 'Riña', the moonbeams stab the night…. (pp. 140-41)
Aleixandre's excited depiction of a turbulent world created an uneasy truce between form and content;… his ejaculations, parentheses, jerky phrases and contorted periods strain moulds as regular as the romance and heptasyllabic quatrains which Guillén respected with elegant ease. Nor did Aleixandre's feverish imagination let him present creation as simply and directly as Guillén. The opening of 'Las seis'—'Seriá como si …' …—suggests that to name things did not satisfy him. What marked Ámbito as an immature work was Aleixandre's failure to control his image-making, which in Pasión de la tierra was to become hysterical and anarchic. He strained too hard to create images, some of which were so clumsily manufactured that … they obstruct rather than aid the poem…. (p. 141)
There is no doubting his vigour and enthusiasm, even though his perpetual orgasms are tiresomely repetitive; what Aleixandre failed to see when he wrote Ámbito was that the uncommon cultured words he used with relish hinder rather than help; he had no love of bare lines or hostility to lush foliage to make him prune from his poems obtrusively rare words…. Nor was he perceptive enough to recognize the artificiality of phrases … reminiscent of Góngora and Espinosa…. (pp. 141-42)
[These words and phrases] were generated by unpredictable bursts of energy which were to convulse Aleixandre's subsequent works and which made Ámbito into a tense chant to creation pink with female flesh and succulent with the juices he sucked in 'Posesión'. (p. 142)
Aleixandre's passion for freedom, which explains his enjoyment in Espadas como labios of 'los no-límites' … and the paradoxical principle he established twenty-five years later that 'the universe of the poet is infinite but limited,' led him to adopt and evolve a rhetoric of effusion. The tumult which in the restless pages of Ámbito rampaged rebelliously within the confines of verse-forms trampled down all formal barriers in his next three works as he assaulted the reader's sensibility with ecstatic enumerations and endlessly proliferating images drawn from inexhaustible sources of mental energy.
The work of Aleixandre that in aim, technique and achievement was closest to surrealism, as he himself has acknowledged, is Pasión de la tierra, which is composed of densely textured and highly imaginative prose poems whose capricious fluidity he did not control and whose excesses of language and fantasy he did not correct. To record his vision of primeval chaos, Aleixandre wrote his 'poetry "in a nascent state"' out of the 'subconscious elements' he harvested in the deep and inaccessible areas of his mind; this conscious pursuit of the mentally wayward and unformed made his original title La evasión hacia el fondo a more accurate label for an extravaganza that is one of the most unfathomable works of twentieth-century Spanish poetry….
[Aleixandre] submerged his mind, senses and identity in what he himself called the 'mass in ebullition', which paralysed him in an embryonic purity and rawness where he witnessed weird metamorphoses and savoured the strange perceptions and sensations of his 'conciencia sin funda' [consciousness without limit] …, whose freedom he celebrated…. [He] put his trust in the chance prophecies and haphazard permutations of playing-cards, which in 'Fuga a caballo' he combined with the motif of the horse to illustrate his longing to be swept away…. (pp. 179-80)
It was because love can unite and so thwart the pitiless melting of things and creatures that in 'El mundo está bien hecho' Aleixandre followed the cries of '¡Ámame!' made by the crickets and the cacti with the shouts of 'Muere, muere' uttered by the serpent when it discovered the fact that delighted Guillén: 'el mundo está bien hecho' [the world is well made]…. Aleixandre's determination to let his mind roam freely through an effervescent world made him imagine love as a destructive power so fearful that it could transform a kiss into 'Un río de sangre, un mar de sangre' [a river of blood, a sea of blood]…. The whips, daggers and teeth which recur in Pasión de la tierra and other works of Aleixandre point to the brutality of a universe that, refusing to be divided or dominated, ferments as unpredictably as his prose, which … displays before the reader a mosaic of fantasy, an impetuous sequence of changing planes, capricious associations, eccentric hypotheses and joltingly plain statements…. (pp. 180-81)
As Aleixandre played patience in 'El solitario', the pack plotted for him an erratic journey of mental adventure …, the reader may perhaps be forgiven for not following the labyrinthine paths that thread through this virgin territory…. Aleixandre recorded the spurts of his volatile and insubordinate mind, whose mutiny, which he himself had incited, he was to subdue partly in his subsequent works. His comforting blanket assertions that poetry should 'communicate' and express not 'beauty' but 'emotion' allowed him ample freedom to say what he liked and how he liked as he assaulted our sensibility. By courting chance …, Aleixandre imagined the sudden transformation by which, after kissing the playing-cards, he changed into a gramophone record…. And his search for the 'expressive words' which came to him in his sleep … and which he did not sift when awake unearthed such rare and resonant examples as delicuescente, intercostal, vivíparo and carpetovetónico, with which he seemed keen to justify his faith that 'poetry is not a question of words'.
Aleixandre's belief that 'Every word is poetic if necessary' fed the loquacity which he confessed disarmingly in Pasión de la tierra … with an indiscriminate diet, often as graceless as his censure of words in Espadas como labios…. By prefacing Espadas como labios with Byron's definition of a poet as 'a babbler', Aleixandre suggested ominously that he was fulfilling the promise he made in Pasión de la tierra: 'No me ahorraré ni una sola palabra' [I shall not avoid even one word]…. The strain of singing, as he twice insisted, with his whole body … made him imagine in 'La palabra' smoke pouring out of his mouth as he ejaculated words in rapid lists, or raced, stopped for breath and impetuously changed the direction of his thoughts…. (pp. 181-82)
This irrepressible impulsiveness forced Aleixandre to recite catalogues of objects and creatures whose only link is their common membership of the universe; as he saw himself in 'La palabra' as nothing more than a tiny snail …, his awe and excitement at being encompassed by the lush complexity of creation spilt into an indiscriminate roll-call of its components…. [He] takes us on a crescendo of freedom from the single and the specific to the unlimited and undefined. Pasión de la tierra presented us not with an identifiable person but with the excited virginal consciousness of a poet exploring the mysteries of lo descaminado; Espadas como labios invited us to follow Aleixandre's imagination as it ranged exuberantly over the universe, whose awesome expanse he signposted constantly with the words tierra, cielo, mar, río and nube.
Although Aleixandre imagined himself as a cloud and a wasp in 'Acaba' …, where he dreamed like Altolaguirre and Prados of the freedom of the air, it was to the sea that he resorted most frequently in his fantasy. His repetition throughout Espadas como labios of the words [of the sea] reveals in their variety and frequency his enthusiasm for an element that in its uncontrollable restlessness represents perfectly liberty of thought and action; in 'Resaca' his voice and his embraces are as free as the open sea, the flying spray and the billowing sail…. The freedom he demanded in 'Libertad' was liberty of mind and body; he wanted to drink in the sensations aroused by the world outside him and look within himself at areas that existed in his fantasy…. (pp. 182-83)
What Aleixandre's eyes sought and discovered in Espadas como labios as they turned away like Salinas from the obvious, 'lo más fácil', to the mysterious, 'un cuento' …, was a world of surprise, whose sudden and capricious metamorphoses he documented in frequent records of odd transitions whose pivot is o…. The o which peppers … Aleixandre's poetry as a whole links the acrobatic leaps of a mind where, according to his neat diagnosis, 'extremos navegan' [extremes navigate]…. Aleixandre challenged us to emulate his mental flexibility and supply for ourselves the unseen, suppressed links between objects grouped just as capriciously by como, which licenced [surprising comparisons]…. (p. 184)
The disparate objects which Aleixandre gathered into clusters … were thrown together by 'the clearly differentiated psychic movements' which, Aleixandre maintained, 'give unity to each poem' of Espadas como labios. But to claim that a complex of mental impulses gives coherence to a poem is to postulate unity in anarchy, is to suggest that cattle racing in four directions create the wholeness of a stampede. To perceive the truth and revelation Aleixandre mentioned in his poems …, the reader has to destroy his inhibitions, cleanse his mind and prepare it for entry into a universe more intricate than simple titles like 'Muerte' and 'Río' would have us believe; he has to pick his way through a world of shifting planes, fleeting visions and changing shapes, where hands suddenly become mountains, as in 'Resaca' …, or where, as Aleixandre showed in 'Blancura', an open wound can become a bee and then a rose as it moves into the 'supersensible reality' which he regarded as the poet's province…. (pp. 184-85)
The lights shining through the armpits in 'Suicidio', where in a vision as horrid as Lorca's 'Martirio de Santa Olalla' a body hangs in the wind …, illuminate Aleixandre's enjoyment of the macabre and repellent…. (p. 185)
[Love] for Aleixandre was a brutal passion which brought pain as well as pleasure, anguish as well as frenzy. The lips which obsessed him in Espadas como labios perpetuate the river of blood which, released by a kiss in Pasión de la tierra …, still flows in La destrucción o el amor as evidence of his steadfast attitude to love and consistent vision of it.
The mouth which in the strangely titled 'El más bello amor' of Espadas como labios Aleixandre likened to a 'bestial fruit', a dagger and a bite … still haunted him in La destrucción o el amor, where his linking of kisses or lips with teeth and blood reinforced his vision of love as a brutal power as graphically as his conjunction of amor and many sharp weapons…. (p. 186)
The vigour contained within the beautiful form of a woman's body invited him to melt into the lava flowing through her veins and die suspended in ecstasy…. By confining his hungry eyes to these 'beautiful limits', Aleixandre realized his ambition to 'vivir en el fuego' [live in the fire] …, roaming in La destrucción el amor over a woman's thighs, stomach, waist, throat, neck, lips and mouth, lingering over her breasts and hovering like Domenchina in Latúnica de Neso over her armpits, he catalogued feverishly the anatomical details of a form that, unlike Guillén's clinically reposed and asexual 'Desnudo', embodied the love which rules and enfolds the universe. His insistent use of 'es' and 'sé' at the end of his 'Triunfo del amor' organized into a rapturous litany his definition of love as a naked body whose habitat is the elements and nature and whose destiny is to savour the sensations it provokes…. (pp. 186-87)
While Guillén's crisp and controlled mind channelled his ecstatic enjoyment of creation into simple images, terse statements and formal moulds, Aleixandre let his words and images stream erratically over the page as his volatile fantasy raced over the universe; too impulsive to linger in any one place, he wandered ceaselessly in La destrucción o el amor around the elements, from the earth, where he lay …, to the sea, which he celebrated in 'Que así invade' …, to the air, whose freedom entranced him so much that in 'Nube feliz' he imagined himself in lines reminiscent of 'Acaba' in Espadas como labios as a bird, a feather, a cloud and a breeze escaping from the world…. (p. 188)
That La destrucción o el amor commemorated Aleixandre's recovery from tuberculosis, as he himself has reminded us, is apparent in his eagerness to expose his senses to the exuberance of nature and go digging for sensations with an insistence charted in his enthusiastic use of repetition and enumeration…. But … Aleixandre's sensations ranged within limits as extreme as the contrasts which in his eyes composed creation…. [He] tried casually to play down the eccentric relationships and control the 'imaginative contagions' which in Pasión de la tierra and Espadas como labios had hardened into a mannered eccentricity. In La destrucción o el amor his forging of strange links was more of a tool than an end in itself…. (p. 189)
Aleixandre's faith in the unity of the world eliminated divisions and guaranteed, according to the titles of two poems, the presence of a 'Mar en la tierra' and the unity of 'La selva y el mar'. The sky of mud which appears in one poem … and the metal feathers found in another … illustrate both the fluid unity of creation and the flexibility of a mind that swung rapidly between earth and sky, sea and earth, beauty and horror, anguish and rapture, tenderness and savagery, life and death. But around these extremes of place, feeling and condition Aleixandre put, as if the universe were a woman's waist, an arm …, which he changed in 'Cobra' into a cobra encircling the chaotic richness of the universe…. Predictably, in La destrucción o el amor Aleixandre paraded the lushness of creation in lists which, like the excitedly indiscriminate finale of 'Se querían', expose his dependence on a technique that aggravated the verbal diarrhoea from which he suffered in his attempts to achieve 'propagation'…. [Aleixandre's] enthusiastic tribute to the variety and freedom of the universe [in Mundo a Solas] established between this work and La destrucción o el amor a link which was strengthened even further by the reappearance of love as a hammer smiting as cruelly here as it did in Pasión de la tierra…. But while anyone familiar with Aleixandre's poetry expects to find titles like 'Humano ardor', 'Al amor', 'Filo del amor', 'Tormento del amor' and 'El amor iracundo', he has to detect in the titles 'No existe el hombre', 'Ya no es posible' and 'Nadie' a deepening pessimism clearly signalled in the epigraph, for which he resorted significantly to Quevedo…. The confidence with which in his preceding works he had celebrated nature and sung his own role in it has crumbled into the doubt which made him echo with '¿Quién soy, quién eres, quién te sabe?' [Who am I, who are you, who knows you?]…. Aleixandre's melancholy insistence in Mundo a solas that 'Allí no existe el hombre' [Man does not exist here] … and that 'El hombre está muy lejos' [Man is very far away] … lamented the replacement of élan by the despair which had anguished Alberti, Cernuda and Lorca several years earlier. Now a passive bystander rather than a dynamic actor, Aleixandre has discovered painfully that the world is not a compact circle but a void; [and those] … who people it represent his distress as simply and chillingly as the 'uninhabited body' which appears in Sobre los ángeles … and the 'grey man' and 'headless horsemen' whom Ceruda introduced into Un río, un amor … as graphic comments on a life he found bleak, aimless and sterile. (p. 190)
C. B. Morris, in his A Generation of Spanish Poets: 1920–1936 (© Cambridge University Press), Cambridge University Press, 1969.
While it is true that a psychoanalytic interpretation, where applied, may not be clinically valid without the cooperation and interpretation of the poet himself under expert analysis, and although in dealing with half-conscious remote associations, shifting illusions, and confusing images the recurring themes may not give definitive answers, an examination of the sea symbolism in Aleixandre's poetry reveals the neurotic motivation behind and preoccupation with the equation that love equals death. (p. 62)
In April of 1925 a serious illness caused Aleixandre to retire to the countryside for two years. This illness left an indelible impression on his poetry, which concentrated on an evasion of reality and a preoccupation, at least in part, with his own physical necessities. (p. 63)
In 1932 a new illness which proved to be almost fatal struck him, and he had to have a kidney removed and spend a long period of convalescence. Sickly, alone, withdrawn, a man who fought death constantly and sought life instinctively, Aleixandre wanted a refuge from a world indifferent to his pain and found it in a dream world of the unconscious where he might escape the reality of his impotence. In his poetry, orgiastic Dionysian efforts to recreate a reality through imagery struggle with Apollonian tendencies to control his subconscious fantasy world. Aleixandre was never able nor willing to give an adequate explanation of his poetry, but he recognized it as a necessity based on subconscious desires. (p. 64)
In Ambito (1924–1927), Aleixandre sets the stage for the sea as the battleground between Eros and Thanatos. "Mar y Aurora" shows us the sea as a living entity whose timid waves and passive foam awaken with the dawn. Gradually the sun's rays disperse the shadows, and the sea becomes more active as the sunlight and the sea renew their daily symbolic relationship, "lento, diario, culto/bebedor de las ondas." A primitive belief held that the sea had previously swallowed the old sun and like a woman gave birth the following day to a new sun. "Mar y noche" …, the counterpart of the life force of the previous poem, reveals a dark and threatening sea viewed as a mouth, throat, and gullet waiting eagerly to devour the night…. Seeking to swallow its enemy, the sea, chained to its black bed, vainly strains its muscles to free itself…. In these two poems Aleixandre produces a kind of primal relationship and reciprocal cannibalism as the day drinks the sea and the sea attempts to devour the night, again implying that the drive for life and the impulse to destruction are mutually independent factors.
More clearly in Pasión de la tierra (1928–1929) the poems emphasize a combination of death and sexuality…. Aleixandre here and in future sea imagery, in extrarational and compulsive symbolism, stresses his need for loving and being loved, and his impotence, and thus in a sense death state, at fulfilling that need. (pp. 64-6)
"Ansiedad para el día" … implies death, breast, and castration fantasies. Aleixandre misses a finger of his hand which he does not wish to recognize in the beak of a sea gull. The poet feels "perdido en el océano" against the background of a giant wave made up of handfuls of umbrellas, and wants to wet his tongue in the ecstatic blue of heaven. Both the pleasurable and the unhappy are conveyed in the screen memory which seems to be equated with a primitive wish to sleep and to join the mother. Being one with her at the breast and in sleep means also to lose one's individual consciousness or ego, and thus in a sense to die. To merge or be lost in the ocean clearly reflects this loss of individuality, characteristic of going to sleep. The poet is both buoyed up and supported by the waves and yet he is threatened, a typical reaction of anxiety dreams…. He is also threatened by the "gargantas de las sirenas húmedas." The poet then indulges in a kind of autocannibalism … while a dried-up girl demands whether he has enough skin left for two arms. Sinking and smothering sensations, or the loss of consciousness, are found in fantasies of oral incorporation or being eaten. A baby treats the breast as it does its own fingers or other parts which it stuffs into its mouth, indulging in a kind of autocannibalism. This type of anxiety comes from childhood fantasies about the prenatal state, an aspect of which is the child's imagining it entered into the mother by being swallowed.
"El amor padecido" …, the last poem in this collection, shows phallic and oedipal fantasies…. In Aleixandre's sea symbolism what is commonly called a castration complex, in a sense psychological death, recurs constantly. (pp. 66-7)
The poet's psyche appears to reject reality for a regression to the past where his sexual instinct operated freely. The fish inhabiting the life-giving seas represent a vital sexual force of destructive capacity. (pp. 67-8)
In "Playa ignorante" … the poet comes from the exhausted world and desires to become one with the sea. He is buoyed up, rocked by heat, pierced by the water, as the sea with which he has fused strikes his unmovable body, a sea which in "Formas sobre el mar" … represents death or sleep and the unknown frontier…. Aleixandre shows that through dying symbols of detumescence a life may ensue….
The poems of La destrucción o el amor (1932–1933) continue Aleixandre's sea imagery. In "La selva y el mar" …, the human ego is overwhelmed by elemental forces of fantasy, represented by a variety of fierce animals who show their swords or teeth…. Aleixandre views the instinctive attack of primitive animals as a form of love, but the implied sexual force may also represent a passive masochistic gratification or even a passive homosexual implication, for he both loves and fears these symbols of masculine virility, the lion, the cobra, and the eagle. To wish to be eaten by menacing animals often represents a death fantasy equivalent to a fear of castration, or as Melanie Klein has shown, the neurotic dread of death is primarily related to the fear of being devoured. The fear of death may also be an "anxious transmutation of the original pleasure of falling asleep. The idea of oral impregnation includes not only the active eating process, but the passive 'being eaten' as well."…
Aleixandre establishes an inverse hierarchy in which the non-living triumph over the living, the mineral over the vegetable, the vegetable over the animal, and the animal over man…. He welcomes life and love as a longed-for enemy which he fears but which will nevertheless relieve his own dammed up sexuality. Thus the forest is viewed as virginal and untouched by the impregnating sea, and the powerful claws of the animals, "el amor que se clava," cannot fertilize…. (pp. 68-9)
The fierce attacks of and identification with the long list of animals which the poet projects outward against the world may also serve as a father substitute onto which the fear of a father, a derivation of the Oedipus complex, has been displaced. (p. 69)
"Después de la Muerte" … equates the sea, filled with threatening tongues and furious foam, with both life and death…. This death is both good and bad, for the sea may represent a kind of timeless afterlife which deletes the distinction between annihilation and immortality.
In "Mar en la tierra" … death may be a happiness … which will triumph over life and a world which is merely a dissolving grain born for a divine water…. According to Freud, water or the sea symbolizes the original fountain of birth or the genesis of the individual either in association with the concept that the sea is the vital element from which all animal species came or in simple relation to the uterus of the mother, where the child originated in liquid. Fantasies and unconscious thoughts relating to life in the womb contain "the profoundest unconscious reason for the belief in a life after death, which represents only the projection into the future of this mysterious life before birth." Aleixandre's pseudo-animistic theory holds that man returns in death to the place from which he came, to the sea which gave him birth, and thus a dark happiness…. The state of sleep bears a marked resemblance to the prenatal state, and it is easy to postulate an intrauterine regression, the dark joy of dying, of fusing with the sea, that is, returning to the womb. "La Muerte" …, the last poem in the collection, stresses the poet's search for life against a powerfully threatening sea. He wants "el color rosa o la vida," but the sea offers him a love which must end in death … for which the poet is prepared…. In death he seeks surrender to his beloved nature, his final and greatest act of love; only thus can he achieve freedom. (pp. 70-1)
Mundo a solas … repeats Aleixandre's idea of an elemental world in which the sea plays a prominent part…. The sea is nevertheless a death…. "Pájaros sin descenso" … shows human life which lives and dreams at the edge of the nonhuman sea…. Even though man may choose to ignore it, the sea is there, eternal and waiting. In "Al Amor" … the sea has many faces, sweet and warm or cold and burning, threatening or promising. The sea is man's traditional enemy untroubled by man's weakness…. In "El amor iracundo" … the poet offers himself like an awaiting beach to the sea, but the latter is one which has escaped its calcareous bed, a proud abyss where fish rot…. (p. 71)
Sombra del paraiso (1939–1943) contains some of Aleixandre's most provocative sea imagery. (p. 72)
Aleixandre views his childhood world [in Málaga] as Eden in mythopoeic fashion. "El poeta" … reveals that he is no longer the victim of an impassioned sexuality represented by the sea…. Rather in the sea and in himself he sees a need for affection and identification with nature…. This is not to say that the psychological interpretations of earlier works are no longer germane. On the contrary, the poet's return to his youth gives ample opportunity for continuing interpretations. "Destino trágico" … presents a silent but loved sea, as Aleixandre tries to define that sea. It is not foam, the wind, a bird, a stone, or a fleeting kiss. Under the ocean he sees a forest and birds in the trees. The waves are the wind which moves the branches as he listens to the song of the birds. The sea still recalls an animal, but it is now tranquil…. But this peace is not what it appears…. (pp. 72-3)
"Poderío de la noche" … represents the sea as the noise of life … which the poet searches for to rekindle his old identification with nature and his former love relationship. The sea was youth and joy of life, but those days are far away. Although still beautiful and kindly, the sea now has another face, for the passing of time stills life and love, just as night puts an end to the day…. Aleixandre, through the sea's generative force, kindles his memory and thus evokes an emotion previously felt. He enjoyed and suffered his youthful memories through the sea, and there he had the pleasure, youth, love, and things of far more value than the empty reality in which he now lives…. The sea in "Mar del paraíso" … represents the most positive identification of the sea, as life, and the realization that one can manage to live in spite of the worst that can happen to one; a person can convalesce from his impotence and manage life on new terms. The poet dreams of happiness and love…. In his youth, the first vision of life included the sea. In maturity the poet still faces the sea with the hope of regaining his lost desire, even though dimmed by adult experience…. In "Destino de la carne" … Aleixandre shows that man is born for a moment to be a spark of light, consumed with love, and then he becomes one with nothingness. The poet sees tired gray bundles of human bodies who retain at the shores of the sea the consciousness that life never really ends. The bodies continue to pile up nevertheless in mountains of flesh, endlessly and apparently hopelessly, at the sea which is both the origin of life and also the end of life in an ever-recurring process. (pp. 73-5)
In Nacimiento último (1927–1952), the far-off sea reflects a continuing desire for love and life as well as death in poems such as "La estampa antigua" … and "Eternamente" …, where young girls wait for strong men…. This sea brings passion with its "hirviente resplandor," as human beings love one another along the beaches. But the sea also promotes purity, as the graceful roe deer on whom no hand has yet set its love finds its fruition through the sea. For age does not destroy the contemplation of life and love, and through the sea one may find eternity and life, a death and love which are but fleeting moments in the eternal scheme of things…. (p. 76)
In Historia del corazón (1945–1953), the poet seeks his real human existence, unable to rediscover the certain constants of the past in fusion with love or nature. Nevertheless, the sea appears still in its psychological and spiritual aspects, as it recalls memories of his infancy, youth, and maturity.
The idea that love equals death is the leitmotiv of almost all Aleixandre's poetry and not exclusively an aspect of his sea imagery. Since the sea meant so much more, however, both consciously and unconsciously to Aleixandre, the man, and since the sea as the origin of life and a place of death have been universal constants in man's inheritance, it is through its symbolism that his ideas become clear. In addition to a repressed sexuality common to many poets, a neurotic and somewhat limited group of fantasies recur throughout. Aleixandre's youth in Málaga impressed the sea on his consciousness so that it became for him the symbol of that youth which he equated with innocence, happiness, and his mother. In psychoanalytic literature the sea and ocean in dreams often symbolize the mother. His desire to return and merge with that happiness and all it represents implies his death as an individual, as he is absorbed by a larger unit. Intrauterine life, being premortal, except for the Church, is easily equated with postmortal life; so that life before birth equals, as a fantasy, life after death. Aleixandre's sea, then, is pathognomic, as it reflects the anxieties and fantasies of his unconscious conflicts, which he artistically conveys in symbolic form. (pp. 76-7)
Kessel Schwartz, "The Sea, Love, and Death in Aleixandre" (originally published in Hispania, Vol. L, No. 2, May, 1967), in his The Meaning of Existence in Contemporary Hispanic Literature (copyright © 1969 by University of Miami Press), University of Miami Press, 1970, pp. 62-77.
Vicente Aleixandre's most recent book of poems [Diálogos del conocimiento] is one of his best, and unmistakably different from any of the others. This is an unusual and gratifying thing to be able to say of a poet … who for many years has been regarded as a master by younger generations of Spanish poets. His Obras completas, published seven years ago …, seemed at the time to round off an achievement which could be seen to have grown naturally and organically from its earliest premises. This organic quality comes largely from Aleixandre's central preoccupation with the process of creation itself. In his earlier, Surrealist-influenced, poems, love becomes a metaphor for the self-destructive and self-renewing powers of the universe; later, from Historia del corazón (1945–53) onwards, the emphasis shifts to the contemplation of man in his human context, where the living and the dead are felt as parts of a single material, the "matería única" of one of his best-known poems.
These two phases, with their seemingly endless possibilities of inter-relationship, achieve their richest effect in En un vasto dominio (1958–62), the last collection to be included in the Obras completas. Yet, almost simultaneously, Aleixandre published a new book, Poemas de la consumación (1968), a series of bleak and moving lyrics on old age and the passing of love. In Diálogos del conocimiento, this most recent phase is taken a stage further: though the treatment of old age is no less intense than in the previous collection, the writing is deliberately less personal, as if Aleixandre were trying to accommodate his new vision to the more universal perspective of his earlier work.
Each of the fifteen poems is in dialogue form and runs to about a hundred lines. This relative spaciousness, together with the absence of complex imagery, may suggest that Aleixandre has returned to a more expansive mode after the austerities of his previous book. Yet the term "dialogue" is deceptive: the majority of the poems consist of two interwoven monologues, whose speakers make no direct contact with one another. In this way, the cumulative effect of genuine dialogue is avoided: instead of a steady linear development, there is a subtle interplay of contrasts and coincidences of which the speakers themselves are unaware. And the effect of this is to call into question the actual status of the words, as if the reader were gradually to become conscious of an unwritten poem behind the interrupted snatches of monologue.
The speakers themselves are differentiated through contrasts of age, sex and temperament, sometimes with the suggestion of a historical or literary context. Yet the most fundamental difference is between the experience of old age and that of youth. The key-word, as the title of the book implies, is "knowledge". In poem after poem, Aleixandre plays brilliantly on the nuances of the verbs conocer ("to know by experience or intuition", "to be acquainted with", "to discover") and saber ("to know for a fact", "to be intellectually certain of"). Thus, for several of the speakers, the movement through life towards death is a question of passing from one kind of knowledge to the other, from the vital, though tentative, process of sense experience to the certainties which come only when such experience is at an end. Or, as one of the speakers in "Los amantes viejos" puts it:… ("To know by experience is to love. To know intellectually is to die.")
In the poems themselves, however, nothing is as simple as that. Though Aleixandre renders the pathos of old age with great poignance—the whole drift of his earlier poetry was towards the celebration of sense experiences he no longer finds available—there are moments when he seems to allow that abstract thought may be as "real", and therefore as vital, as intuition. And in "Dos vidas", one of the few poems into which old age does not enter, he imagines two young poets, one a believer in the world of the senses, the other a more austere visionary for whom external reality must be filtered through the processes of the mind. Here it is as though, by admitting this second possibility, Aleixandre were recognizing a kind of poetry very different from his own which he had finally understood and might still come to practise.
The fact that he can convey such openness without sense of strain is perhaps the most obvious measure of his continuing vitality. More than ever, Aleixandre has, in Hugh Kenner's phrase, "the power to charge simple vocables with all that they can say". These … poems, with their clarity of language and constantly shifting meanings, show that, after fifty years of writing, he is still capable of extending his range in unexpected and profoundly convincing ways.
Arthur Terry, "Kinds of Knowing," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 23, 1975, p. 559.
Vicente Aleixandre … is one of the Spanish poets who, early in this century, began the work that has become the most fruitful current in modern poetry: they turned toward the unconscious and the soul….
Mr. Aleixandre shared with these writers a distrust of the reflective mind and a fascination with the sea. He has described a poet as a person who speaks for the earth with forces that rise through the soles of his feet.
We might expect such poetry to be an affirmation, but it was not, at least not in the beginning. Mr. Aleixandre's early poems—for almost 20 years—are filled with the kind of loneliness we usually associate with exiles…. He has love poems and there are poems with a sort of surrealist wit, but what runs beneath all of them is a nostalgia for a paradise that has been lost….
Mr. Aleixandre has described his poetry as "a longing for the light." The early poems are often opaque and difficult. They were written with "black light," he says, as if the approach to the unconscious had dragged him far under the sea where no light can penetrate and the fish must attract each other with their own luminescence.
But even in his early work, Mr. Aleixandre had begun to rise. He is one of the few pessimistic poets of this century who managed to emerge and find something above the darkness.
The shift was quite dramatic. It came with "The Story of the Heart," a book published in 1954. Death and loss still hover over these later poems but they seem accepted now, passed over to something else. The book affirms human fellowship, a spiritual unity, friendliness. The poems are social, the style is narrative, almost talky. There are real people all around and he pays attention to them, to friends and lovers, to strangers and dead heroes, to his dog.
Where before he had been attentive to nature and longed to join it, now nature is just the background for the lives of human beings. In the introduction to a book of selected poems, he wrote: "This now is the opposite of human loneliness. No, we aren't alone."
Vicente Aleixandre deserves [his Nobel Prize]. He is a poet of intellectual vigor, spiritual depth and tenacity. He did the work. he went far down into the soul and brought back pieces of life as a gift for the rest of us.
Lewis Hyde, "Modern Poets Owe Much to Work of Aleixandre and His Colleagues," in The New York Times (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission) October 7, 1977, p. A12.