Quietly overlooked among the anniversaries celebrated during this remarkable 2016, monopolized by the Shakespeare-Cervantes axis, has been the centennial of Rubén Darío, the seminal Nicaraguan poet who passed away at the age of 49 in February 1916. Already at the time of his death Rubén Darío, whose real name was Félix Rubén García Sarmiento, was recognized as one the most remarkable writers of his generation, but as the twentieth century developed and Spain—together with its literature—was plunged fully into the dark ages by the effects of a bloody war and the subsequent censorship of a totalitarian regime, it became evident that Rubén Darío’s contribution to Spanish literature had not only been pivotal, it had also been monumental.
No matter where you choose to do your research, from Wikipedia to the Cervantes Institute or the Britannica, all without exception highlight Rubén Darío’s work as the cornerstone of the development of Modernism in Spanish. He is credited with liberating the language, so to speak, from the firm and oppressive grip the Romantic aesthetic held on Spanish literary forms and tastes since well over a century—forms and tastes, by the way, which failed to flourish into the sort of inspiring creation that abounds in the German or English variants of Romanticism. But while this is all very nice and well, the problem comes when you pick up one Rubén Darío’s classic collections. I say it’s a problem because while a tremendous amount of care, craft and sensibility have clearly gone into these books, the verse fails to feel dynamic, the imagery no longer raises as much as an eyebrow, let alone any controversy, and the whole exercise simply doesn’t even come close to being liberating at all.
So where did things go wrong? Is Rubén Darío just outdated, more than out of fashion? Or is his reputation down to the hype there was around him rather than to the actual quality of his work?
Darío was born in 1867 in the small city of Matagalpa in Nicaragua. He started working for newspapers in Managua as a teenager, publishing his first book of epistles in 1885. The following year he traveled to Chile, where he published Azul (Blue, 1888), an anthology of sorts that brought together prose and verse works, many of which he had published before in the local press. Though Azul… is Rubén Darío’s fourth book the transition from his previous work is quite dramatic. Probably the most relevant of his collections to a modern reader, Azul… is still remarkable for its thematic and structural originality: the opening story, “The Bourgeois King” is caustic and ironic, amusing, committed, artistically accomplished and altogether a delight to read. Together with this social critique, however, Darío published a fanciful tale of fairies with clear ties to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream titled “The Veil of Queen Mab”. While it is clear that Azul… was not conceived as a unitary collection there was still something gutsy and unfamiliar in combining social causes and airy-fairy themes in a single volume. What is more, there was something utterly disquieting in the fact that Darío’s motley combination actually worked—and it still works—perfectly well.
The glue that holds Azul… together is precisely its most unique aspect: Darío’s style. Whether in prose or verse there is a musicality, a sonority, a balance to his writing that makes it stand out. Familiar with French literature to the point of obsession, Darío imported styles and metric combinations that to that point were deemed inappropriate for Spanish language. Most famously, he adapted the long Alexandrine (twelve-syllable) verse to Spanish—but to me his forays into the so-called “prose poems” are at least as valuable as his verse experiments. Not least because in Azul… Darío is still keenly aware of the Latin American condition, and deeply troubled by it. Not yet shielding himself fully from reality behind the creative process, in Azul… he finds a connection—haphazard and suspiciously loose, like a good conversation in the pub—which is missing in much of his later work.
Though not an immediate success Azul… earned Rubén Darío an excellent reputation in the southern cone, to go with his burgeoning fame in Central America. He became a correspondent of the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación and spent several years traveling between Argentina and Central America, caught up in his journalistic and by now also diplomatic duties. His next literary coup, however, would not arrive until 1896 with the publication of Prosas profanas (Profane prose). Widely regarded as his artistic as well as aesthetic breakthrough, this collection is densely populated with nymphs, centaurs and other figures from the classical world which Darío places in a world that is paradoxically both pantheistic and at the same time widely regulated by Christian values. Focused on the internal conflicts of Man, Darío gestures towards the contradiction between a unitary universe and the multiple sources of pleasure pulling human desire (and behavior) in several different directions simultaneously.
It is not at a conceptual or even philosophical level that Prosas profanas fails to deliver to the modern reader in the way that it clearly did to the audience of the turn of the twentieth century, though. Quite on the contrary, to this day the most remarkable contribution of the collection remains its preliminary note, a two-page warning to readers (and critics) which essentially doubles up as a manifesto of Modernism. Consciously and rather brazenly, Rubén Darío announces this as the necessary evolution of the artistic proposal he has been putting forward since Azul…, a proposal that is heavily influenced by the French tradition, from Hugo to Verlaine (especially Verlaine), and that aims to bridge that with the rich heritage of Spain’s Siglo de Oro in the seventeenth century by modernizing and adapting the language, the rhythm and the metaphors used to the realities of Latin America—young and fresh soil, perfectly equipped to lead the rejuvenation of a tradition stifled by its own weight.
What happens when we start reading this apparently irreverent work, however, is similar to what happens when we pick up a volume of groundbreaking Italian verse from the thirteenth century: much like Petrarca’s nature-centric imagery (metaphors such as the pearls in your mouth, and so on), Rubén Darío’s lascivious nymphets and indulgent themes are not scandalous or even eye-opening to an audience daily exposed to Miley Cyrus’s twerking or to Rihanna, well, just being Rihanna. Indeed, the effect is quite the opposite: as the daring preliminary note gives way to songs of fairies prancing to the cosmic tune of cellos and violins the reader is likely to end up thinking that Rubén Darío talks a good talk, but that when it comes to walking his swing, his pace, even his boots have given way to the strains of time.
This impression doesn’t really change with Darío’s next major work, Cantos de vida y esperanza, los cisnes y otros poemas (Songs of life and hope, the swans and other poems), which he published in Madrid in 1905. Darío had moved to Spain in 1898, in the advent of the Spanish-American war, and had reacted to the gloomy mood prevalent in the country after the emphatic military defeat with a defiant display of somewhat melancholy optimism and affection for Spanish culture. Back in Madrid after a three-year hiatus in Paris (1902-05), Darío battled his alcoholism to complete a collection that engaged far more openly with the pressing issues of life, drawing inspiration from anything from newspaper clippings to the odious figure of American president Teddy Roosevelt, whom he viewed as a modern conqueror with imperialistic ambitions.
Darío’s grounding of his collection in recent political events and his all-too human response to the cataclysmic effects of the war on the last remnants of the Spanish empire bring Cantos de vida y esperanza closer to the modern reader. But even then, and despite truly beautiful poems such as “Canción de otoño en primavera” (An autumn song in spring) and “Tarde del trópico” (Tropical afternoon), it is hard to imagine a context within which this would constitute an epoch-defining work. And yet, that is precisely what Darío, and the three books I have touched upon here, was—an eclectic creator whose special sensibility marked a new chapter in Spanish literature.
Rubén Darío stayed in Madrid as ambassador to Nicaragua until the 1909 coup brought a change at the top of the political establishment in the Central American country. He then moved to Paris before embarking on a long Latin American tour. During the war he lectured in America but his frail health became increasingly problematic. Darío returned to León, Nicaragua in 1916 and died of liver cirrhosis later that year. As soon as four years later the name of his home city was officially changed to Ciudad Darío, a symbolic gesture that points to the stature he managed to achieve during his life. His centenary this year presents us with the perfect opportunity to revisit his poetry, and while this might no longer ring as new or exciting as it once did, it is still well worth reading, if only out of archaeological interest.
Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald on