Aleixandre, Vicente (26 April 1898 - 14 December 1984)
Vicente Aleixandre (26 April 1898 - 14 December 1984)
University of Texas at San Antonio
This entry was expanded by Daydí-Tolson from his Aleixandre entry in DLB 108: Twentieth-Century Spanish Poets, First Series.
BOOKS: Ambito (Málaga: Literal, 1928);
Espadas como labios (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1932);
Pasión de la tierra (Mexico City: Fábula, 1935);
La destrucción o el amor (Madrid: Signo, 1935; revised, 1944); selections translated by Stephen Kessler as Destruction or Love (Santa Cruz, Cal.: Green Horse Three, 1976);
Sombra del paraíso (Madrid: Adán, 1944); translated by Hugh A. Harter as Shadow of Paradise (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987);
Vida del poeta: El amory la poesía (Madrid: Real Academia Española, 1950);
Mundo a solas (Madrid: Clan, 1950); translated by Lewis Hyde and David Unger as World Alone (Great Barrington, Mass.: Penmaen Press, 1982);
Nacimiento último (Madrid: Ígravensula, 1953);
Historia del corazón (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1954);
Algunos caracteres de la nuevapoesía española (Madrid: Instituto de España/Góngora, 1955);
Mis poemas mejores (Madrid: Gredos, 1956; augmented, 1968);
Los encuentros (Madrid: Guadarrama, 1958);
Poesías completas (Madrid: Aguilar, 1960);
Poemas amorosos (Buenos Aires: Losada, 1960; enlarged, 1970);
Picasso (Málaga: Guadalhorce, 1961);
En un vasto dominio (Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1962);
Presencias (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1965);
Retratos con nombre (Barcelona: Bardo, 1965);
Dos vidas (Málaga: Guadalhorce, 1967);
Poemas de la consumatión (Barcelona: Plaza & Janés, 1968);
Obras completas (Madrid: Aguilar, 1968; revised and enlarged, 2 volumes, 1978);
Antología del mar y la noche, edited by Javier Lostalé (Madrid: Al-Borak, 1971);
Poesía superrealista: Antologia (Barcelona: Barral, 1971);
Sonido de la guerra (Valencia: Fomento de Cultura, 1972);
Diálogos del conocimiento (Barcelona: Plaza & Janés, 1974);
Antología total, edited by Pere Gimferrer (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1975);
Antología poética, edited by Leopoldo de Luis (Madrid:Alianza, 1977);
Poemas paradisiacos, edited by José Luis Cano (Madrid:Cátedra, 1977);
Poesía (1924-1967) (Madrid: Aguilar, 1977);
Antología: Verso yprosa (Barcelona: Planeta, 1979);
Antología esencial, edited by Alejandro Duque Amusco (Barcelona: Orbis, 1983);
Nuevos poemas varios, edited by Irma Emiliozzi and Amusco (Barcelona: Plaza & Janés, 1987);
Prosas recobradas, edited by Amusco (Barcelona: Plaza & Janés, 1987);
En gran noche: Ultimos poemas, edited by Carlos Bousoño and Amusco (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1991);
Miré los muros: Textos inéditos y olvidados, edited by Mario Hernández and Driss El-Fakhour (Madrid: Ediciones de la Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, 1991);
Poesías completas, edited by Amusco (Màlaga: VisorLibros, 2001);
Prosas completas, edited by Amusco (Málaga: Visor Libros, 2002).
Editions in English: Twenty Poems, translated by Lewis Hyde and Robert Bly (Madison, Minn.: Seventies Press, 1977);
A Longing for the Light: Selected Poems of Vicente Aleixandre, translated by Hyde (New York: Harper & Row, 1979);
The Crackling Sun, translated by Louis Bourne (Madrid: Sociedad General Española de Librería, 1981);
A Bird of Paper, translated by Willis Barnstone and David Garrison (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1982);
Destruction or Love, translated by Robert G. Mowry (Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2000).
OTHER: Gerardo Diego, ed., Poesía española, introduction by Aleixandre (Madrid: Signos, 1932; revised, 1934).
The 1977 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Vicente Aleixandre for “a creative poetic writing which illuminates man’s condition in the cosmos and in present-day society, at the same time representing the great renewal of the traditions of Spanish poetry between the wars,” as the citation read. These words continue to be a valid representation of what is essential in Aleixandre’s contribution to literature as a twentieth-century Spanish author. At the time of the awarding of the Nobel Prize, Aleixandreás name was little known outside Hispanic literary circles; his poetic work was seen as stylistically and conceptually too complex, and consequently too difficult to understand, by the general reading public. This perceived difficulty constitutes a characterizing factor in the current appreciation of the poet as a figure of exceptional poetic quality. An undisputed master of the previous century, Aleixandre is well recognized by critics and by the newer generation of Spanish poets as an influential voice. For most people, though, the Spanish “Generation of 1927,” of which Aleixandre is a representative member, is most often associated with the much more popular figure of Federíco Garcia Lorca, whose surrealistic book Poeta en Nueva York (1940; translated in The Poet in New York and Other Poems of Federico García Lorca, 1940) has much in common with Aleixandre’s poetic views, objectives, and techniques.
Since the 1920s, when he began to frequent the literary tertulias (conversational gatherings) in Madrid, Aleixandre was always an important part of Spain’s literary scene, although not a poet for the general public. Because his health was poor, he had to maintain permanent residence in Madrid, with only a few short trips, mostly within Spain; his home in the neighborhood of the Ciudad Universitaria (University Campus) became the meeting place for Spanish and Spanish American writers for several years before the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). García Lorca and Pablo Neruda were regular visitors and close friends of the poet. As one of the members of the prestigious Generation of 1927, Aleixandre was involved in the innovative changes that characterized the best poetry in Spain during the conflict-filled last years of the monarchy and the short period of the Republic. He survived the civil war, and, unlike other surviving poets of the generation, he did not leave Spain for a life of exile in a foreign country. He lived, during Francisco Franco’s regime, the interior exile of an intellectual who was opposed to the political dictatorship.
After the civil war, Aleixandre became again a central figure in Spanish literary circles: poets and critics began to visit the ailing master, whose house resumed its function as a meeting place for writers and intellectuals. The younger generation saw in Aleixandre a connecting link with the older, pre-civil-war poets who had died or were living in exile. He was seen as a model by those who began to write during the first years of dictatorship: he represented the continuity of literary excellence in postwar Spain. Because he always considered himself part of a larger scheme, the Nobel Prize awarded to him may be seen to represent international recognition not only of his personal work but also of the best literature written in Spain since the great period before the war.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, a text that summarizes aptly Aleixandre’s main ideas about his art, he states that poetry is, above all, tradition: the poet is a link between past and future—a truism made evident in his own case. His life covers a period of Spanish literary history that extends from the masterful Generation of 1898 to the developments of the 1980s, including a period of poetry akin to the politicized social poetry preferred in Spain in the 1950s and 1960s. As a young man he was involved in a group of poets including, besides García Lorca and Neruda, Luis Cernuda, Pedro Salinas, Rafael Alberti, and Miguel Hernandez. As a mature writer Aleixandre was given the opportunity and the responsibility of helping the younger generations searching for a poetic inheritance half lost after the civil war. In his old age he acquired the inspiring presence of a master, the consecrated poet in whom tradition finds its continuity.
Aleixandre’s works are the poetic reflection of the circumstances in which he lived. From his first published poems, written during a period of highly technical and aesthetically demanding literature, to his last collection of dramatic monologues, Diálogos del cono-cimiento (1974, Dialogues of Knowledge), his poetry evolved in harmonious correspondence with the main transformations in Spanish lyric poetry. He had a clear understanding of the historical character of all artistic creation, and his own writing reflects his recognition of what was essential in the main currents of Spanish poetic art at different historical moments. This ability to transform his poetic diction in accordance with the times was not the result of an inordinate interest in aesthetic fashion, but it was the natural consequence of his conception of poetry and the poet.
From a theoretical position well within a tradition of contemporary poetry, Aleixandre defined the poet as a prophet or a seer. Reminiscent of the Platonic idea of poetic inspiration, this conception and the practice it condones have their most immediate antecedent in Surrealism, although they can be traced back to early Romanticism. This visionary interpretation of the poet as a means for other voices to express themselves, as a spiritually superior being who can be in touch with the cosmos and with humankind’s essence, is directly related to the total immersion of the individual writer in a tradition. Thus, in theoretical terms, Aleixandre saw himself as the poet, the nameless speaker through whom all humanity talks; in his writings he even refers directly to himself as “the poet,” instead of using the first-person pronoun. Many of his works convey a degree of anonymity, a feeling that the lyrical voice in his poems does not belong to any definite persona, much less to the author. This absence of an identifiable speaker is a central characteristic of his poetic discourse and defines much of its originality within the development of contemporary Spanish poetry.
Born in Seville on 26 April 1898, Vicente Aleixandre Merlo grew up in a period of extremely active political and intellectual life in his country. He spent his boyhood in Málaga, a fact that explains his later images of the sea and the paradisiacal world of infancy in an old provincial town on the Mediterranean. In 1909, when he was eleven years old, his parents, Cirilo and Elvira Merlo Aleixandre, moved the family (including Vicente’s sister) to Madrid, where Vicente completed his high-school and university studies.
Although during his school years he was an avid reader, he avoided reading poetry; he was then under the impression that such a form of literature neither provided much enjoyment nor had much intellectual value. But by the age of eighteen he had become a fervent enthusiast of poetry. His acquaintance with another young poet, Dámaso Alonso, whom he met the summer of 1917 while vacationing in Ávila, had changed his attitude. Alonso, who would not accept his friend’s refusal to read poetry, introduced him to the work of Rubén Darío, the Latin American master of modernism. Many years later, in a prologue to the second edition of La destrucción o el amor (1935, selections translated as Destruction or Love, 1976), Aleixandre recalled that the reading of Darío’s poems produced a revolution in his spirit. He had discovered true poetry and felt infused with his great passion, one that never abandoned him throughout the remainder of his life. During that same summer vacation he began to write, but his first publications did not appear until ten years later. While studying for his professional degrees in business and law at the University of Madrid, he cultivated in silence his personal vocation, probably unaware of his talents. In 1919, after graduating from the university, he began to teach at the school of business there. For a while he devoted himself to his profession and wrote on economic subjects. A trip in 1923 to Paris and London was of little consequence to his literary career. He never married or had children.
When he began to write his first book in the 1920s, the masters of the Generation of 1898 were at the peak of their careers, and among the younger writers one could already find salient names, such as Jorge Guillén, Alberti, and Cernuda. His own generation, which would be known as the Generation of 1927, was bewildered by the new aesthetic, philosophical, and scientific ideas of post-World War I Europe. The climate in the literary circles frequented by Aleixandre in those days was one of curiosity, renovation, and activity. In Madrid the literary cafés, theaters, art galleries, the Ateneo, and the important Residencia de Estudiantes were the meeting places for writers, artists, and philosophers from Spain and abroad. In the friendly atmosphere of common intellectual and aesthetic interest, Aleixandre found his first admiring readers and the motivation to become a writer.
It is particularly revealing that Aleixandre was awakened to his own poetic gifts after reading Darío’s poems, because a spiritual correspondence existed between the two writers. For the young poet-to-be, Dario’s works represented not only the manifold possibilities of language but most of all the poetic view that defines man as a passionate creature consumed by love. In Darío’s writings poetic language reaches a level of communicativeness directly related to the poet’s ability to create a purely fictional reality representing, in metaphorical terms, an otherwise inexpressible understanding of man and existence. No less important for such poetic effectiveness of language in Dario’s works is the general tone of passionate materialism, an essential sensuality not at all alien to an unquenchable desire for spiritual transcendence. These aspects of Darío’s literary accomplishments inspired Aleixandre.
But the influence of the Latin American modernist is not seen in Aleixandre’s first published poems. These works were the result of a more immediate influence: Aleixandre wrote them when he had an intense literary relationship with other young poets who declared their interest in Juan Ramón Jiménez and the theories of “pure” poetry. Aleixandre’s participation in the group’s literary experimentation and theoretical discussions explains the influence of their taste on Ambito (Ambit), his first collection of poems, published in 1928. Aleixandre’s career as a poet began in 1926 when a few of his friends sent to Revista de Occidente (Western Review), the new periodical founded by José Ortega y Gasset, the poems Aleixandre himself did not care to publish. They appeared that same year; the book, consisting of a tightly knit collection of interrelated poems, soon followed.
Ambito constitutes a basis for later developments in his art. A careful critical reading demonstrates that, although Ambito has many debts to other poets respected highly at the time, this first collection displays some of the peculiar characteristics of Aleixandre’s work. In comparison with his later books, Ambito seems at first particularly different—its external characteristics are a good imitation of Jiménez’s techniques. Like many other young poets of his generation, Aleixandre wrote under the dictates of a rigorous concept of style and composition. Most of the thirty-five poems in Ambito are written in traditional verse; but the combination of different meters in some poems is the first indication of the poet’s inclination toward free verse, a form that came to characterize his personal style.
The other important aspect of the book is its irrational imagery, suggestive of Surrealism and directly communicative of a cosmic vision of man and nature as identical in essence. Love in its widest sense is central to these compositions; it constitutes, in the poet’s view, the only possible way for man to achieve the desired fusion with all matter. Ambito represents Aleixandre’s first attempt to conform to the requisites of being a poet of his time; it is the product of several years of apprenticeship in the active workshop of his generation—the cultural life of Madrid. But it is also the result of the poet’s seclusion and dedication to poetry after contracting tubercular nephritis, a chronic illness that curtailed his activities starting in 1925.
Pasión de la tierra (1935, Earth Passion), the first good example of Aleixandre’s characteristic poetic language, is even more the result of the serious illness. It represents a new awareness of the mysterious character of human nature, gained through personal experience and study. By 1928 Aleixandre was reading the works of Sigmund Freud and James Joyce, two authors influential in his own decision to look for a new form of literary experimentation. Although Pasión de la tierra was finished in 1929, it remained practically unknown until 1946, by which time Aleixandre was established as the most representative member of his generation still living in Spain. Only a few copies of the 1935 Mexican first edition reached Spain before the civil war, and consequently, in spite of its revolutionary nature, the book did not have any noticeable influence on the literary developments of the period it represents so well. Had it been published immediately after Aleixandre finished writing it, Pasión de la tierra would likely have become one of the major Surrealist books in Spanish literature.
In Ambito, Aleixandre was able to resolve every stylistic problem by using the well-known and already established solutions—he was working within the predetermined patterns of a tradition. In Pasión de la tierra the fixed channels of poetic expression were totally disrupted: language itself lacks the normal semantic values that render it meaningful. These seemingly incoherent prose poems express within the limitations imposed by language the new reality revealed by psychoanalysis and by writers such as Jean-Nicolas-Arthur Rimbaud and Joyce. Ambito and Pasión de la tierra appear to be the works of two completely different poets, one a “purist” poet of aesthetic restraint and technical control, the other a vanguardist writer who follows the Surrealist practice of automatic writing. The decision to adopt a Surrealistic form of expression came as a result of Aleixandre’s well-informed confidence in the value of psychoanalytical theories and in the effectiveness of automatic writing. By accepting the theoretical principles behind the Surrealistic method, he was stating his revolt against established poetic objectives and methods. His interest in aesthetic experimentation common to the period was in response to the need for new techniques to express his new awareness of himself.
Between the carefully measured and well-combined verses of Ambito and the entirely loose prose poetry of Pasión de la tierra, there is a difference not only in external form and poetic techniques but more significantly in the perspective of the speaker, his attitude, and tone of voice. Once traditional diction is attacked, the attitude of the speaker changes from dutiful acceptance of the norm to rebellious freedom. In Pasión de la tierra this freeing force appears in the external form of prose, releasing the new verbal flux. The model for this form had already been set forth convincingly by Joyce; Aleixandre adapted it to a still deeper search into the human psyche and its world of fascinating dreams, fears, and desires. The reasons for writing poetry in such a manner are to be found in his emotional experiences at the time. His life was centered around his innermost experiences, as illness had made him more aware of mortality. Compelled by this realization, he began a desperate and obsessive search within himself for life and its meaning.
Surrealism offered a theoretical basis and more effective ways to express his new awareness. The idealized experience of cosmic union presented in Ambito lacks the powerful conviction found in Pasión de la tierra. In the first book the perspective and the attitude of the poet are constrained by traditional principles, whereas they are free from any limitations in the latter.
Prose is the form that best reproduces the free flow of speech, the uncontrolled stream of oneiric visions created by a web of apparently unrelated images. A return to versification in Aleixandre’s next book, Espadas como labios (1932, Swords like Lips), is a significant change. The transcription of the Surrealistic, associative images into verse suggests that he was still hesitant about which form best suited his expressive needs. He never again used prose for poetic purposes, but the experiment with it in Pasión de la tierra left him with a keener sense of prosody. The shorter compositions in Espadas como labios are in traditional metrics. The main rhythmic patterns and the general tone are not new; they lack the strangeness and novelty of Pasión de la tierra. These poems are the products of controlled writing and reproduce a measured attitude even when the images allude to strong emotions; from this duality emerges a feeling of tension. The longer poems instead use a freer form of versification in accordance with a freer attitude of the speaker, who allows his emotional state to appear in the poem. This second type of composition, akin to both verse and prose, was improved in Aleixandre’s next book, La destrucción o el amor, and became characteristic of most of Aleixandre’s subsequent works.
Aleixandre’s free verse, or versicle, is constituted by several types of repetitions, with the exception of regular rhyme and isosyllabism. Repetition is found in the phonic, the syntactical, and the semantic levels of the poems, and observable correspondences with the traditionally established meters are only circumstantial. Essential to Aleixandre’s verse are several stylistic devices, which, by stressing repetition, underline the value of resonance and rhythm. Espadas como labios includes some of them, and in La destrucción o el amor they become defining characteristics. These reiterative techniques include anaphora, alliteration, and assonance; another technique used for the same effect is apposition. These richly rhythmic, dualistic patterns convey the indecisiveness of the speaker in naming things. In some cases the poet seems to stutter in confusion, or tries unsuccessfully to put his vision into words in different ways. Behind this attitude of bewilderment there is a clear sense of the mysterious interrelation of all aspects of reality. Thus, the most characteristically Aleixandrian of all these devices is the use of the conjunction or, not as a disjunctive but as a means of connecting two terms. The constant use of this conjunction—present even in the title of the book—provides many pairings. Duality becomes identity, and variety is a sign of unity.
Only a detailed analysis of the poems would give an adequate idea of all the possibilities of free verse in expressing the various attitudes and emotional states of the speaker. This type of versification has its first antecedent in the combination of traditional verses used in Ambito; the experience with prose in Pasión de la tierra taught the poet how to extend the common Spanish metric patterns into a much more flexible rhythmic use of the language. Free verse became for Aleixandre the best medium to communicate his particular conception of humankind and destiny. In La destrucción o el amor one finds the application of Aleixandre’s ideas about poetry as he stated them in his commentary for the 1934 edition of Gerardo Diego’s Poesía española. In the first edition, published in 1932, Aleixandre had expressed his doubts about the function and value of poetry in modern society; two years later he had a more positive outlook. Without intending an explanation of poetry, Aleixandre offers a few principles of a coherent poetic theory closely related to a general cosmic vision of humankind and nature. For him all elements of creation are only different manifestations of the one and only universal entity. In La destrucción o el amor he underlines this meaning through chaotic enumerations including terms referring to human aspects as well as to animate and inanimate nature: “Flor, risco o duda, o sed o sol o látigo: / el mundo todo es uno, la ribera y el párpado” (Fower, rock or doubt, or thirst or whip: / all in the world is one, the riverbank and the eyelid). Aleixandre’s conception of the unity of all existing matter and of the power of love to effect this unification finds its contemporary equivalents in philosophy, theology, psychology, and natural sciences.
As in Pasión de la tierra, Aleixandre is driven in La destrucción o el amor by the desire for authenticity; he looks for poetic revelation in the subconscious, where words change their everyday meaning. It is the poet’s duty to listen to the messages of the cosmos and to make of them a sensible and communicating expression.
In La destrucción o el amor, Aleixandre is still using a form of automatic writing, except that in this case he no longer writes the utterances of an unconscious self but rather has become the mouthpiece for all life and matter communicating itself through the deep consciousness of a man who acts under inspiration as a sibyl, a bridge between human understanding and the cosmos. In La destrucción o el amor, Aleixandre’s poetry reaches a vaguely ancient tone of pagan pantheism with mythical overtones. The poet’s journey toward the attainment of the ideal takes him to the depths of existence as lived and experienced by the inner man. At this point the emotionally cautious and aesthetically restrained songs of Ambito have changed drastically to primal screams.
The poet’s conception of reality is clearly stated in La destrucción o el amor. The personal view of Aleixandre in this epoch of his life is the poetically coherent exposition of his Surrealistic approach to knowledge. In this book Aleixandre has conceived a metaphorical world, a purely literary construction, through which his own interpretative view becomes evident. This world of primitive nature and oneiric images is reminiscent of Pasión de la tkrra, but La destrucción o el amor has a more logical structure and a clearer language. By this time Aleixandre was moving toward a more easily understandable lyric language: this new diction reflects not only the deeper levels of subconscious knowledge but also the conscious need for order and intelligible communication.
By 1936, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, Aleixandre was thirty-eight years old and had survived a dangerous illness. For ten years he had suffered physical shortcomings; life and death, pleasure and pain, and desire and fear had been for him omnipresent opposites that had to affect his outlook. As a chronically ill man he was more aware than others of biological determinants; he could see in his own body the slow and unremitting process of decay and dissolution. He contemplated the different available explanations for human life and death. Aleixandre’s first books, the ones written before the war, are imbued with an anguished search for a meaningful explanation for existence. Irrationalism in this case is more a method than an objective in itself. Confusion and chaos are the conditions of a mind in a state of total uncertainty, but in the mass of images that fill these Surrealistic books it is possible to discern the elements that in further works develop into a more logical understanding. With a more mature sense of his accomplishments, and aware of the circumstances surrounding him, Aleixandre had begun, in 1934, a new book, Mundo a solas (published in 1950; translated as World Alone, 1982). It is a sad and pessimistic book in which he depicts humankind’s loss of the primeval elemental state.
During the three years of the civil war, Aleixandre wrote sparingly, although he contributed war poems to Republican publications. It was a time of sorrow and devastation; his own house was half destroyed in the fighting in Madrid. At the end of the conflict, peace brought life back to the shattered garden and rooms of the house, but many of those who frequented it in the prewar years were gone: García Lorca was dead; Cernuda, Guillén, Neruda, and many others had left Spain; and Hernández was in prison, where he died a few years later. Still faithful to his old friends and ideals, Aleixandre wrote a poem to Hernández’s memory, a tacit criticism of the new political regime. But while the memories of those who had gone lingered in the renovated house where Aleixandre continued living his reclusive life, a new group of writers started to replace them and came to visit the poet. They did not form a generational group, nor a school following the dictates of a leader; these new visitors were the first among many postwar Spanish poets who saw in Aleixandre the inspiration of the master. The author of revolutionary Surrealist books had reached maturity. Coincidentally, in 1944, an important year for the history of postwar Spanish poetry because of the publication of Hijos de la ira (Children of Wrath) by Alonso, Aleixandre published his first book in almost ten years, Sombra del paraíso (translated as Shadow of Paradise, 1987).
Sonnets and other neoclassical pastiches, inspired by the stale desire to believe in the reborn greatness of the empire, were the main expressions of poetry in the early days of the Franco regime. The long free verses, the sensuous images, and the musically ample rhythms of Aleixandre’s new book were a much-needed exception. His worldview was made concrete in the imagery of the poems. With Mundo a solas, which only appeared in 1950 as a document of past experiences, Aleixandre wanted to express his sad realization that humans lived in a fallen state; this same idea, reminiscent of religious explanations for human inadequacy in nature, is fully developed in Sombra del paraíso, but with important differences. The first volume conveys in violent overtones a negative view; the dominant chord in Sombra delparaíso is a more complex and richly evocative feeling of human totality. This difference between the two books, one written immediately before the war, the other during the first years of peace, is indicative of two stages in Aleixandre’s understanding of reality. The first stage includes the five books written in the prewar years; they are the work of youth and convey an impression of disorder and confusion. The second stage, which begins with Sombra del paraíso, introduces a more harmonious, if nostalgic, view of the universe and corresponds to the mature years of the poet.
This change in Aleixandre’s outlook did not happen suddenly because of the war, nor did it come as a total surprise—it is a sign of the writer’s maturity reached after years of poetic meditation on life and death. Essential to this new understanding of the relationship between humankind and the universe are Aleixandre’s conceptions of poetry and the poet. Although in essence they are the same ones he professed in 1934, the intensity of the conviction and its purposefulness make them appear new. What years before had been a supposition and a wish was now an accepted fact, a definite ordering of the multiple components. The poet, for Aleixandre, continues to be a seer, a person who can reveal to others that ultimate knowledge of the otherwise inexpressible truth. Aleixandre represents the poet as a gigantic being whose feet are deep inside the earth and whose head is up above, touching the sky.
Sombra del paraíso can be compared with Romantic works. Everything in it is designed to underline the emotion of remembrance and the hope of recovering a lost paradisiacal state. From the conception of poetry and the poet to the images and versification, Sombra del paraíso stands out in contemporary Spanish letters as a document of people’s eager acceptance of a degraded existence that is only a pale shadow of the original one. The speaker addresses nature, the cosmos, and other men as if he were indeed the gigantic poet of magnificent voice depicted in his own Surrealistic image.
At this point in Aleixandre’s literary career his work had reached its originality by a constant effort to relate poetry and the personal search for meaning. He had applied with conviction the theory of poetic knowledge as learned from Surrealism and its predecessors. La destrucción o el amor and Sombra del paraíso are two examples of poetry understood as a spiritual vocation, as a method to reach a higher form of consciousness. Partly because of his delicate health and his inability to lead a normal, active life, Aleixandre had not had other interests or devotions outside poetry; everything in his reclusive life depended on it and found meaning in it. As in the case of a religious believer, Aleixandre’s particular belief provided an order and interpretation to all creation. This virtually religious conviction does not correspond in Aleixandre’s case to an already provided answer that the individual readily accepts and embraces. He went step-by-step in a personal search for an explanation of existence; this spiritual journey he described metaphorically in his commentary for Mis poemas mejores (1956, My Best Poems) as an aspiration toward light.
Up to the publication of Sombra del paraíso the image of light pervades all Aleixandre’s work and carries with it a meaning of knowledge representative of the writer’s own definition of his poetic aim. This predominance of light finds its correspondence in his prose texts about poetry in which the poet is described as “illuminator, provider of light.” Aleixandre’s books are closely related to each other; together they form an extended structure in which there is a continuity of purpose, a slow development in his view of reality and its poetic manifestation, both represented by a growing luminosity. This light is particularly bright in Sombra del paraíso, the collection standing at the center of Aleixandre’s whole production: it is the culmination of a process but also provides the basis for the developments that follow in the subsequent collections.
The novelty of the next book Aleixandre wrote, Historia del corazón (1954, The Heart’s History), which took almost ten years to finish, lies in its central subject—concrete, everyday reality. His ideas about the cosmic indistinctness of all things and of the equalizing powers of love are applied in this book in a much more restricted way—they refer only to people in society. Aleixandre explains this transformation by saying that Historia del corazón presupposes a new view and a new conception. But, more than a new conception, the book illustrates the last stage in the developmental process that Aleixandre’s poetry had been following from the first compositions he wrote under the influence of Jiménez to the poems of Sombra del paraíso. That process was one of clarification, the journey to light that takes the poet from the universality of a cosmic view to the realization of the most immediate destiny of humankind.
In the 1950s Aleixandre achieved harmony with his world and with himself. Love, on the other hand, the all-encompassing force of identification, took on the form of social love. And his voice became the voice of collective humankind, as is clearly stated in the title of his poem “El poeta canta por todos” (The Poet Sings for Everyone). An obvious consequence of this attitude is the need to stress the importance of communication, a conviction sustained also by the social poets of the same period.
With the abandonment of the visionary images found in his prewar books, the vague feeling of awe before the mystery of life and the almost-sacred tone of the oracle also vanished. His interest in humankind, common people, brought other aspects of everyday reality into Aleixandre’s perspective and affected greatly his inspiration and discourse. The imagined reader or listener, the poetic personae, and the settings of the poems all point to a different attitude. They also bring to the forefront a factor Aleixandre started to consider only in relation to human life—the day-to-day passage of time. The attention focused on purely realistic aspects had to be complemented by an interest in realistic language—a language much nearer to everyday discourse while still maintaining a poetic force. Visionary imagery comes to be replaced in Historia del corazón by common images imbued with a profoundly emotional understanding, acceptance, and exaltation of human life in a communal world:
Aquí también entré, es esta casa.
Aquí vi a la madre cómo cosía.
Una niña, casi una mujer (alguien diría: qué alta, qué
guapa se está poniendo),
alzó sus grandes ojos oscuros, que no me miraban.
Otro chiquillo, una menuda sombra, apenas un grito, un
ruidillo por el suelo,
tocó mis piernas suavemente, sin verme.
Fuera, a la entrada, un hombre golpeaba, confiado, en un
(Here I also went into this house.
Here I saw how the mother was sewing.
A girl, almost a woman [someone would say: how tall she
is, how beautiful she is becoming]
raised her large dark eyes that did not look at me.
Another child, a little shadow, only a cry, a subtle noise
around the floor,
touched my legs, softly, not seeing me.
Outside, at the entrance, a man was beating, confidently, a
piece of metal.)
The basic principles of free verse again constitute the stylistic basis for these new compositions. Every form of repetition is tried in order to create the appropriate tone of chants, hymns, elegies, and songs. The poems cover the complete range of subjects listed by Aleixandre in the prologue to the 1944 edition of La destrucción o el amor as those that every poet writing for the majority of people should embrace as central: the essentially unifying aspects of love, sadness, hate, and death. He did not include in his list, as he certainly does in his poetry, the joy of living and the sensuous awareness of the real.
At the time of writing Historia del corazón, Aleixandre had reached his full emotional and intellectual maturity. Public recognition, underlined by his election to the Spanish Royal Academy in 1950, is also an indication of his complete adjustment to circumstances and of his involvement in literary activities. He had become more of a public man as he was invited to give lectures and read his poems. He published some of his nearly forgotten works, prepared anthologies and new editions of his works, contributed to poetical publications, and was extensively interviewed and honored. Some of Aleixandre’s most important theoretical texts are from this period and include Algunos caracteres de la nueva poesía española (1955, Some Characteristics of the New Spanish Poetry) and the notes to the anthology Mis poemas mejores.
His point of view on poetics became a guiding principle among Spanish poets. Aleixandre knew how to interpret the times, and his principles appeared as appropriate to the circumstances and the needs of that particular historical time. In his prologue to Mis poemas mejores, Aleixandre explains that, starting with Historia del corazón, he believed the poet was the expression of difficult human life and that the poet’s voice either comes from his extended communitarian heart, comforted by love, or is gathered from the mass of the people. Aleixandre had followed a similar path—only at a slower pace—to the one taken by other writers of his generation who, having practiced Surrealism in the years before World War II, had later written a poetry committed to their immediate social situation. Another Nobel Prize winner comes to mind in this regard—the Chilean Neruda, who was one of Aleixandre’s close friends while living in Madrid as a diplomat. For him the evolution from visionary to realistic poetry was sudden and ideologically inspired. A comparison of these poets shows many differences, but they have in common their awareness of nature and cosmos, people and society, love and death, and the never-forgotten visionary origin of their understanding of reality. Only poets such as they, modern-day seers and inheritors of a lyric tradition, could have written fully poetic realist works. In post-civil-war Spain, Aleixandre’s Historia del corazón, En un vasto dominio (1962, In a Vast Domain), and Retratos con nombre (1965, Portraits with Names) are good examples of this new social sensibility caused by political circumstances.
En un vasto dominio has an introductory poem that, mirroring a growing concern among the poets of the day, offers another declaration of poetic principles. The attraction poets have toward ars poetica seems unusually conspicuous in post-civil-war Spanish poetry, particularly during the period when the social realist style was predominant. Aleixandre himself paid less attention to the subject in his books prior to Sombra del paraíso. The preoccupation with poetics can be accounted for, at least in this brief period, by the
nature of literary creativity under a dictatorship. Realistic poets, whose manifest social awareness was limited at the most to a personal testimony of their attitude toward the troubled world, felt the psychological need to explain their social value as poets to themselves and to others. Aleixandre was sensitive to the fact that there are unavoidable limitations in communication with all people through poetry, but he did not seem to see these facts changing the essentially communal character of the authentic poet, who continues to be the same as the one he had described years before. His keeping intact the previous conception of the poet as a bard of cosmic dimensions had an influence on his understanding of realism and its social function. Unlike the poets who confused the levels of poetic understanding with the most obvious everyday social and individual experiences, he saw reality in a wider perspective.
“Para quien escribo” (To Whom I Write), the introductory poem in En un vasto dominio, uses simple, direct language, as befits the style of realistic writing; most of the emotional impact comes from the rhythmic organization of the plain discourse. The long lines are separated from one another in stanza-like units characterized by enumeration and repetitions: “Escribo para el enamorado para el que pasó con su angustia en los ojos; para el que le oyó para el que al pasar no miró para el que finalmente cayó cuando pre-guntó y no le oyeron” (I write for the one in love for the one who walked by with anguish in his eyes; for the one who heard him; for the one who passed by and did not look; for the one who fell at last when he asked and no one listened). The similarities of the compositions in the book to some of Walt Whitman’s can be attributed not solely to the metrical form but also the inspired conception of poetry and worldview that in both writers leads to a comparable expression. By listing the different types of people to whom he writes or does not intend to write, Aleixandre conveys in his first poem his basic tenets. Two of those for whom he does not write are “the gentleman with the stiff jacket” who has “furious moustaches” and raises his disapproving finger “among the sad waves of music,” and the lady hidden inside a car, her lorgnettes shining “like cold lightning.” These are unequivocal references to a false world of social disguise and cruel lack of sensibility, a constant motif in Aleixandre’s view of creation: some forms of life are false, and, therefore, to him nonexistent. On the other hand, he writes for people who perhaps will never have the opportunity, nor the interest, to read his work: “Para todos escribo. Para los que no me leen sobre / Todo escribo” (I write for everybody. I write particularly for those who do not read my poetry). This comment coincides with a common concern among social poets who knew that they were writing for those who by education and social standing would never read their poetry. This awareness is not the full idea behind Aleixandre’s verse; he was stating once more his long-sustained belief in the universal character of the poet who is fused into the totality of humankind. Thus, to tie this interpretation in with the cosmic vision of his earlier books, natural elements are also included in the list of those for whom he writes.
Toward the end of the 1960s Aleixandre abandoned most of the elements that characterize his realistic work. Social and political circumstances had changed in Spain, making it unnecessary to sing any longer the hymns of human solidarity. Furthermore, old age had finally come to him, and with it came also more of the luminosity so cherished from the beginning. A more meditative attitude set the tone of his poems. They are grouped in two major books: Poemas de la consumación (1968, Poems of Consummation) and Diálogos del conocimiento. These collections constitute a final development in the long process of the poet’s growing understanding of the world. They are at the same time undeniably his and so novel that they fall well within the parameters of the new Spanish poetry. In his old age the master was able to renew himself because his experience had taught him the need to be open to inspiration. This inspiration came in different forms as he was able to grasp new meanings and interpret anew the presence of the world.
Poemas de la consumación and Diálogos del conocimiento reintroduce as a poetic method the almost hermetic image of his Surrealist period that had been abandoned by the mature poet in order to attain the much-desired ideal of communication. Aleixandre brought together in his last books all his capacities as a writer. He found himself in possession of revealed truth and could not pass the opportunity to try for the last time to put his inner visions into words. From the time of his initial experiments in Ambito, he had been dealing with poetry as a form of knowledge, as a method of apprehending the essences lost to science. He tried from the beginning to construct a worldview, a system of poetic ideas to account for reality. Consequently most of the critical approaches to his work had tried to explain, discuss, compare, or interpret its philosophical aspects. Poemas de la consumación and Diálogos del conocimiento add a new, still more complex chapter to the already comprehensive system.
Poemas de la consumación includes several brief poems in short, almost traditional hendecasyllabic meter. This style of concision reproduces the succinct discourse of a wise man who does not need many words to state his ideas. Light and darkness—day and night—are once more central to Aleixandre’s conception and find their correlatives in the polarities of youth and old age, the point of realization from which the book develops as a meditation on man’s temporal condition. The poems are for the most part a series of short, aphoristic sentences as expressed by a detached speaker. The poet, who to a certain extent is an objective voice, transmits the emotional feeling of ultimate, wistful wisdom.
This objective voice of knowledge changes to specific voices in Diálogos del conocimiento, as the poems are made up of the contrasting speeches of different characters. The structural polarity seen in Poemas de la consumación assumes in this volume the form of long compositions that reproduce the words of two, in some cases three, speakers who sustain opposing views but do not seem to pay attention to each other’s monologues. As if they were entranced by their own intellectual and emotive convictions, they talk in the same epigrammatic manner that the unspecified speaker uses in Poemas de la consumación. In both cases the attitudes of the speakers and their tones of voice give the impression of ancient oracles. Several other factors help to produce in Diálogos del conocimiento the effect of entrancement. First in importance is the philosophical character of the book, which explains the abundance of apothegmatic statements. Images are also used in a similar axiomatic way. Many statements are contradictory or hermetic, and images are irrational, adding still more to the mysterious and gnomic tone. Reiterations give density and rhythm to the book; of particular interest are the several references to earlier texts by Aleixandre, whose work acquires in such a way the fullness of a complete and self-contained system.
After a flurry of journalistic interest caused by his 1977 Nobel Prize, Aleixandre returned to a less visible position, although he maintained his profile as one of the masters of Spanish lyrical poetry. By the time he received the Nobel Prize, Aleixandre was old (ill health prevented him from attending the ceremony), and the award had little effect on his life. The initial media exposure did not lead to increased critical attention, particularly outside Spain, and he did not write much more. He died on 14 December 1984.
The analysis and evaluation of Vicente Aleixandre’s contribution to Spanish and universal letters is an ongoing process; as critical readings enhance with time the quality of his art, Aleixandre’s poetry becomes an essential component of Spanish culture. Critics have most often admired in him his ability to put into highly emotional poetic language a few basically profound ideas about being. A poet with an almost religious penchant for meditation and hymn singing, Aleixandre has been praised for his understanding of the mysterious, for the poetic knowledge underlining his poetry, and for his capacity to communicate his luminous visions through verbal images.
Epistolario, edited by José Luis Cano (Madrid: Alianza, 1986);
Correspondencia a la generación del 27 (1928-1984), edited by Irma Emiliozzi (Madrid: Castalia, 2001);
Cartas de Vicente Aleixandre a José Antonio Muñoz Rojas (1937-1984), edited by Emiliozzi, transcribed by María del Carmen Martínez Pereira (Valencia: Pre-Textos, 2005).
Antonio Colinas, Conocer: Vicente Aleixandre y su obra (Barcelona: Dopesa, 1977);
Leopoldo de Luis, Vida y obra de Vicente Aleixandre (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1978);
José Luis Cano, Los cuadernos de Velintonia: Conversaciones con Vicente Aleixandre (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1986).
Carlos Bousoño, La poesía de Vicente Aleixandre, third edition, revised (Madrid: Gredos, 1977);
Vicente Cabrera and Harriet Boyer, eds., Critical Views on Vicente Aleixandre’s Poetry (Lincoln, Nebr.: Society of Spanish and Spanish-American Studies, 1979);
José Luis Cano, ed., Vicente Aleixandre (Madrid: Taurus, 1977);
Santiago Daydí-Tolson, ed., Vicente Aleixandre: A Critical Appraisal (Ypsilanti, Mich.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1981);
Giancarlo Depretis, Lo zoo di spechi (II perceptive ambivalente nella poesia de V. Aleixandre) (Turin: Facoltá di Magisterio, 1976);
Francisco Javier Díez de Revenga, La poesía de Vicente Aleixandre: Testimonio y conciencia (Málaga: Centro Cultural Generación del 27, 1999);
Hernán Galilea, La poesía superrealista de Vicente Aleixandre (Santiago, Chile: Editorial Universitaria, 1971);
Vicente Granados, La poesía de Vicente Aleixandre (Formacón y evolución) (Madrid: Cupsa, 1977);
Robert Havart, ed., A Companion to Spanish Surrealism (London: Tamesis, 2004);
José Olivio Jiménez, Vicente Aleixandre: Una aventura hacia el conocimiento (Madrid:Júcar, 1982);
Gabrielli Morelli, Linguaggio poetico del primo Aleixandre (Milan: Gilardino-Giolardica, 1972);
Daniel Murphy, Vicente Aleixandre’s Stream of Consciousness (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2001);
Darío Puccini, La palabra poètica de Vicente Aleixandre (Barcelona: Ariel, 1979);
Kessel Schwartz, Vicente Aleixandre (New York: Twayne, 1970).