Vicente Aleixandre 1898-1984
Spanish poet, critic, journalist, and editor.
Recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1977, Aleixandre was a poet of the “Generation of 1927” whose prolific output has strongly influenced the work of subsequent Spanish poets. His selection for the Nobel Prize came as a surprise to much of the literary world even though Aleixandre's first collection had appeared in Spain almost fifty years earlier and his reputation in his country was well established. Prior to 1977, Aleixandre's works available to English readers, including Vicente Aleixandre and Luis Cernuda: Selected Poems (1974) and The Cave of Night: Poems (1976), had received little notice. Critical attention abroad increased following his reception of the award, and several additional works of selected poems in translation have been published. Despite this interest and the vital role he has played in the evolution of Spanish-language poetry, the complexity of Aleixandre's work and the inherent difficulties in translating it have resulted in a limited general readership.
Aleixandre was born in Seville, Spain, and raised in Málaga, a nearby city that figures symbolically in much of his work. When he was eleven he moved with his family to Madrid, where he later received degrees in law and business administration and began a career in economic law. In 1925 Aleixandre contracted tuberculosis, thus beginning a series of illnesses that plagued him for the rest of his life. His ill health eventually forced him to abandon his career and concentrate instead on writing poetry. His first book, Ámbito (Ambit), published in 1928, was written in the tradition of poésie pure, which was characteristic of Spanish poetry in the 1920s. Around the same time, Aleixandre began to associate with Pedro Salinas, Federico García Lorca, Jorge Guillén, and other poets based in Madrid, culminating in the innovative literary movement referred to as the “Generation of 1927.” Writers in this group reacted against the provincialism of Spanish literature. They advocated poetry as a means to discover and explore the relationship between external reality and the poet's internal world, and, while they rejected sentimentality, love was a dominant theme in their works. Unlike most other writers of his generation, Aleixandre remained in Spain during the Civil War and the subsequent reign of the dictator Francisco Franco. Although never a political poet, his works were banned in the postwar years because of his antifascist beliefs and his independence from the official regime. Aleixandre's works were reinstated during the 1940s. As one of the few representatives of the earlier period still living in Spain, Aleixandre served as an inspiration to younger generations of Spanish poets, who viewed him as a great master. He continued to publish new works, including the critically heralded volumes Poemas de la consumación (1968; Poems of Consumation) and Diálogos del conocimiento (1974; Dialogues of Knowledge), the latter published when the poet was seventy-six years old. Aleixandre died in 1984.
Most of Aleixandre's poetry can be divided into three periods. The first includes Pasión del la tierra (1935; Passion of the Earth), La destrucción o el amor (1935; Destruction or Love), and Mundo a solas (1950; World Alone). Most of the poems in these collections were written just prior to or during the Spanish Civil War, but they do not reflect the events of the time. Rather, they use surrealistic imagery to present a cosmic, mystical vision of the world. Aleixandre's thematic focus during this period centers on the elemental forces of the human mind, a yearning for the solace of nature, and the inextricable connection between love and death and between the forces of creation and destruction. In contrast to Ámbito, these volumes are more complexly constructed free verse, in which Aleixandre's sweeping, passionate meditations are given freer rein. Aleixandre's first post-Civil War collection, Sombra del paraíso (1944; Shadow of Paradise), is a transitional volume leading to the second phase of his career. Poems in the middle period, which include those from Historia del corazón (1954; History of the Heart) and En un vasto dominio (1962; In a Vast Dominion), share with earlier ones a nostalgia for the lost union between humanity and nature, but a dramatic shift in focus is evident. Previously, Aleixandre had looked inside the individual, rejecting historical and social reality. During the middle period he reached outward, emphasizing temporal and physical connections between the self and the surrounding world and projecting a universal compassion for humanity. With a firmer grounding in earthly reality, surreal imagery and irrationalist techniques gave way to a more direct approach in which the affirmation of love predominates. In Aleixandre's final period, consisting of Poems of Consumation and Dialogues of Knowledge, he attempted to comprehend the depths and limitations of human knowledge, a process marked by emotional intensity and somber brooding.
Aleixandre described his poetry as a “longing for the light.” Many critics, and the poet himself, have noted the influence of Freudian psychoanalysis on Aleixandre's exploration of the hidden passions and driving forces that operate beneath the surface of consciousness. Lewis Hyde, one of Aleixandre's translators, observed in his introduction to Twenty Poems (1977) that a desire to explore “the strong under-tow beneath the accelerating tide of rationalism” connects Freud, surrealism, and the early poetry of Aleixandre. Of Aleixandre's poems, Hyde says: “[They] are not an affirmation. They are not working out a full and nourishing surreality, but away from the reality at hand. That … is part of their tension—they are the reflective mind trying to think its way out of coherence and precision.”