BORN: 1867, Metapa (now Ciudad Darı´o), Nicaragua
DIED: 1916, Leon, Nicaragua
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
Profane Hymns and Other Poems (1896)
Songs of Life and Hope (1905)
The Autumn Poem and Other Poems (1910)
One of the great names of Hispanic poetry, Ruben Dar´ıo is widely recognized as the embodiment of modernism in Spanish letters. He is best remembered for his innovative poetry, which blended experimental rhymes and meters with elements of classical
literature and mythology. He spent most of his life outside his home country, working as a journalist and diplomat. A sense of tragic despair can be found in Dar´ıo’s poetry and in his life, which he devoted to poetry in a way that called for almost religious sacrifice.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Poet Ruben Dar´ıo was born Felix Ruben Garcia Sarmiento on January 18, 1867, in Metapa (later renamed Ciudad Dar´ıo in his honor), Nicaragua. His parents separated when he was two, and he was mostly raised by aunts and uncles because of his mother’s poverty. He displayed a precocious talent for poetry, and one aunt in particular nurtured his literary aspirations. He was a writer by age fourteen; by seventeen, he was working as a clerk in the office of the Nicaraguan president, writing for the capital of Managua’s press, and giving public poetry readings. When his first book, Epistles and Poems: First Notes (1885), was completed, he published it under the pseudonym Rube´n Dar´ıo.
Dar´ıo’s early interest in journalism led to his association with members of the intelligentsia. In 1886, he became manager of a Nicaraguan daily newspaper, then embarked for Chile, where he contributed reviews and
creative pieces to the daily La Epoca (The Epoch). In 1887, he won a prize in a poetry contest in Valparaiso for his ‘‘Epic Song to the Glories of Chile,’’ a patriotic ode honoring Chile’s military victory over Peru in 1879. This victory presaged Chile’s 1881 occupation of Lima, the turning point in the War of the Pacific and an event that secured Chile’s dominant position in Latin America for years to come.
Dar´ıo’s first critically acclaimed work, Blue (1888), was released when he was twenty-one. This volume of prose and verse brought about a revolution in Spanish letters: a bold experimentation with line and meter construction, and a deliberate break with the conventions of Romanticism. Sonnets in unusual meters, the use of alliteration, and a rich association of metaphors, conceits, and wordplay reflect a mastery of the musicality of the poem. Blue marked, as Octavio Paz has written, ‘‘the official birth of modernism.’’
One of Dar´ıo’s key poetic works, Profane Hymns and Other Poems, appeared in Buenos Aires in 1896. An expanded edition was published in Paris five years later. This collection, which includes some of Dar´ıo’s most celebrated verses, would confirm his leadership of the Modernismo movement in both Spain and the Americas, and his revival of the stagnant poetic tradition in the Spanish language. Thematically, Profane Hymns is a mul-tifaceted work that includes poems about creative
freedom, love and eroticism, Christianity and paganism, and the poet’s critical attitude toward materialism and modernity. Stylistically, the book takes liberties with stanza forms and employs free verse, a form that later became prevalent in Hispanic poetry.
Falling Apart and Falling Together While Dar´ıo was traveling and writing, his life was falling to pieces. His first wife died in 1893, after two years of marriage. And very soon after, he was tricked into marrying his first girlfriend, the unfaithful Rosario Murillo. The marriage quickly deteriorated, but they were never divorced. Rosario continued to pursue him, however, and to extract a portion of his income, for many years. In 1899, covering the aftermath of the six-month Spanish-American War of 1898 for the Argentine newspaper La Nacion, he fell in love with a young woman from the Spanish countryside, Francisca Sanchez. The couple had several children, two of whom died in infancy. Dar´ıo took to drink, a habit that gradually reduced his faculties and would ultimately lead to his untimely death. These circumstances of his life underlie the poetics of despair in Dar´ıo’s verse.
Dar´ıo collected his reports from Spain at the cusp of the twentieth century into the book Contemporary Spain (1901). As Nicaraguan consul to France, he resided in Paris from 1903 to 1907. During this period, he wrote perhaps his most important book of poetry, Songs of Life and Hope (1905). In this work, Dar´ıo has reached his artistic maturity: No longer ensconced in an idealistic ivory tower, he expresses concern for political unity and explores the tenets of a practical humanism. Poems such as ‘‘To Roosevelt’’ convey the theme of Hispanic cultural solidarity, while other verses insist on the possibility and importance of a future for humanity. Amid the life-affirming verses, however, there is also an undercurrent of disenchantment and despair, movingly expressed in the concluding poem, ‘‘What Gets You.’’
Final Years In the final decade of Dar´ıo’s life, he continued to
travel across the Atlantic between Europe and South America, despite economic hardship, and continued to compose verse. As a dedicated spokesman for Hispanic concerns, he urged Spain and Spanish America to unite against the imperialism of the United States. U. S. imperialism was driven, as Dar´ıo saw it, by the arrogance of such leaders as Theodore Roosevelt, who far exceeded his mandate during the Spanish-American War, ordering the invasion of the Philippines. He had praise for some aspects of U. S. culture, however, as he reveals in ‘‘Salute to the Eagle,’’ published in The Wandering Song (1907).
The outstanding achievement of Dar´ıo’s final years, however, is the ‘‘Autumn Poem,’’ included in The Autumn Poem and Other Poems (1910). The poem is an exhortation to live, an invitation to the sensual world, and an embrace of death as the pinnacle of life. Here, if nowhere else, Dar´ıo has reconciled his persistent melancholia with his own desire for hope and life.
Following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Dar´ıo left Europe for the last time, bound for New York. While there, he fell ill with pneumonia. His book Song to Argentina and Other Poems was published in 1914. A year later, his health declined; he returned to Nicaragua with Rosario Murillo, and died of cirrhosis of the liver in February of 1916.
Works in Literary Context
As a result of Rube´n Dar´ıo’s
education and early interest in poetry, he became familiar with the Western literary canon. French poets such as Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine were an important influence on Dar´ıo’s work; the Parnassian movement represented by Verlaine and Stephen Mallarme, for example, with its emphasis on art for art’s sake, is a direct precursor to Dar´ıo’s aesthetic. The Cuban poet-revolutionary Jose´ Mart´ı, another father of Modernismo, is a significant precursor to Dar´ıo. In his youth, Dar´ıo also wrote some verses in the style of the Spanish Romantic poet Gustavo Becquer.
Modernismo Dar´ıo became the leader of a new Hispanic literary movement called Modernismo, which should not be confused with Anglo-American modernism. This movement responded to a perception that Spanish letters had reached a low point; the new cultural and artistic attitude dominated the arts in Spain and Spanish America as the twentieth century opened. Modernismo adapts and blends the Romantic, Parnassian, and Symbolist movements current in Europe at the time. Its distinct quality is the expression of inner passions in a rhythmically stylized verbal music. Dar´ıo revived Spanish poetics with his vibrant language and novel technique, but his contribution goes beyond the formal. He demonstrated that poetry could be more than an aesthetic pleasure, but a vehicle for understanding all of human existence, an adventure in spiritual, social, erotic, and metaphysical experience.
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