Let us start by considering Salvador Elizondo’s “The Graphographer.” The text by the Mexican author (1932-2006) is brief enough to be quoted in full here:
Escribo. Escribo que escribo. Mentalmente me veo escribir que escribo y también puedo verme que escribo. Me recuerdo escribiendo ya y también viéndome que escribía. Y me veo recordando que me veo escribir y me recuerdo viéndome recordar que escribía y escribo viéndome escribir que recuerdo haberme visto escribir que me veía escribir que recordaba haberme visto escribir que escribía y que escribía que escribo que escribía. También puedo imaginarme escribiendo que ya había escrito que me imaginaría escribiendo que había escrito que me imaginaba escribiendo que me veo escribir que escribo.
[I am writing. I write that I am writing. In my mind, I see myself writing that I am writing and I can also see that I am writing. Now, I remember myself writing and also seeing myself writing. And I see myself remembering seeing myself writing, and I remember seeing myself remembering that I was writing and I write seeing myself writing that I remember having seen myself writing that I saw myself writing that I remembered having seen myself writing that I was writing and that I was writing that I am writing that I was writing. I can also picture myself writing that I had written that I would picture myself writing that I had written that I pictured myself writing that I see myself writing that I am writing.]
By hyperbollically unfolding the subject’s awareness of his own act of writing, “The Graphographer” invites us to consider, among other things, the overwhelming distance between author and writing subject. Another famous literary statement on this topic, Jorge Luis Borges’s “Borges and I” (“Borges y yo”) compares Borges, the writer, with Borges, the person, and concludes with the following laconic statement: “No sé cuál de los dos escribe esta página” (“I don’t know which of us writes this”).
Such a distance is a fact one must bear in mind while reading. Nevertheless, this is often forgotten in the case of poetry, which, in spite of the two hundred or so years elapsed between the preface to the Lyrical Ballads and us, is still considered by many readers and even writers of poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”
British and American literature in the XIX century had Robert Browning to counteract Wordsworth’s cunning statement (“La plus belle des ruses du diable est de vous persuader qu’il n’existe pas”, “the devil’s best trick is to persuade you that he doesn’t exist”, said Baudelaire), though even in Wordsworth’s poems and in some of the other Romantics in Britain as well as in America, there is an attempt to dissociate the poet from “the poetic voice.” (See, for example, Wordsworth’s “The Thorn”). Of course, we also have very important antecedents of this kind of poetical personae (Latin for “masks”) in the prologues of Chaucer’s tales as well as, for example, in Pope’s “Eloise to Abelard”, an imaginary epistle written to emulate Ovid’s Heroids, a collection of imaginary letters by mythical heroines to their lovers and husbands.
In Latin American poetry, compositions similar to Browning’s monologues were not frequent. “Metempsicosis” (“Metempsychosis”), by Ruben Darío (1867-1916) is an exception. It was published for the first time in the Mexican Revista Moderna in 1898. The first sentence goes like this:
Yo fui un soldado que durmió en el lecho
de Cleopatra la reina.
[I was a soldier who slept in the bed
of Cleopatra the queen.]
Browning’s presence is noticeable in most major English modernists after him, especially in Pound and Eliot. In poetry written in Spanish, he became an important influence since Jorge Luis Borges and Luis Cernuda wrote several dramatic monologues of their own. In his prologue to his book of poems, The Gold of the Tigers, Borges wrote about Browning:
Para un verdadero poeta, cada momento de la vida, cada hecho, debería ser poético, ya que profundamente lo es. Que yo sepa, nadie ha alcanzado hasta hoy esa alta vigilia. Browning y Blake se acercaron más que otro alguno; Whitman se lo propuso, pero sus deliberadas enumeraciones no siempre pasan de catálogos insensibles.
[For a true poet, every moment of existence, every act, ought to be poetic since, in essence, it is so. As far as I know, no one to this day has attained that high state of awareness. Browning and Blake got closer to it than anyone else. Whitman aimed in that direction, but his careful enumerations do not always arise above a kind of crude cataloguing.]
In the past, I have devoted some time to study Borges’s dramatic monologues. In this brief text, I explore some by Cernuda. Of course, I am not the first to write about them.
According to Derek Harris, one of the most reputed scholars of the Sevillian poet’s work, the poetry of Cernuda is an attempt to develop, through writing, an image of the poet that will satisfy his desires, always frustrated by reality. Hence the title of Cernuda’s collected poems, La realidad y el deseo [Desire and Reality]). There is a conflict then, and a distance, to which the very title points, between the poet and the poetic persona he created for himself.
But Cernuda also wrote, as I mentioned before, dramatic monologues in which we find other personae or characters that are the poetic voices of those poems. Cernuda’s dramatic personae include Lazarus, Phillip II, one of the Kings of Spain during the Spanish Golden Age, a Spanish soldier and companion of Hernán Cortés, conqueror of México, etc. About these poems, Cernuda wrote:
Algo que aprendí de la poesía inglesa, particularmente de Browning, fue el proyectar mi experiencia emotiva sobre una situación dramática, histórica o legendaria (como en “Lázaro”, “Quetzalcóatl”, “Silla de Rey”, “El César”), para que así se objetivara mejor, tanto dramática como poéticamente.
[Something I learnt from English poetry, especially form Browning, was to project an emotional experience into a dramatic situation (as I did in the poems) “Lázaro” (“Lazarus”), “Quetzalcóatl”, “Silla de Rey” (“The King’s Chair”), “El César” (“Caesar”), so as to share the experience in a more objective way, dramatically as well as poetically.]
In this short essay, I will deal mainly with two poems, “La adoración de los magos” (“The Adoration of the Magi”) and “La fuente” (“The Fountain”). Both these poems belong to Las nubes (The Clouds) (1937-1940), a book of poems included also in Cernuda’s La realidad y el deseo. I will also refer to another dramatic monologue: “Lazarus.”
“The Adoration of the Magi” consists of five sections. It describes, mostly through the Magi’s voices, their encounter with Jesus and the disappointment that ensued. In the third section, the poetic voice is in the first person, plural and it belongs to the three wise men. They say:
Un niño entre sus brazos la mujer guardaba.
Esperamos un dios, una presencia
Radiante e imperiosa, cuya vista es la gracia,
Y cuya privación idéntica a la noche
Del amante celoso sin la amada.
Hallamos una vida como la nuestra humana,
Gritando lastimosa, con ojos que miraban
Dolientes, bajo el peso de su alma
Sometida al destino de las almas,
Cosecha que la muerte ha de segarla.
de nosotros su fe viva mantuvo
y la verdad buscada sin valor quedó, toda,
el mundo pobre fue, enfermo, oscuro.
[A baby boy in her arms the woman held.
We expected a God,
A shining and commanding presence, whose sight would be Grace,
His absence, equal to the night
Of the jealous lover without his beloved.
We found a life that was, as ours, human,
Pitifully crying, with sorrowful eyes,
Carrying the burden of its soul,
Bound to the doom of souls.
A crop that Death will harvest.
[…] In none
Of us faith survived
And the truth for which we searched, lost all its value.
The world became poor, sick, dark.]
In the following section of the poem, an old shepherd tells his version of the encounter of the Magi with Jesus, and he says:
Eran reyes que el ocio y el poder enloquecieron.
Buscaron un dios nuevo, y dicen que le [sic] hallaron
Yo apenas vi a los hombres; jamás he visto dioses.
¿Cómo ha de ver los dioses un pastor ignorante?
Mira el sol desangrado que se pone a lo lejos.
[Idleness and Power drove these Kings mad.
They looked for a new god; it’s said they found him.
I barely have met men; I never met gods.
How could an ignorant shepherd see the gods?
Look at the bleeding sun, setting far away.]
According to Harris, the shepherd
goza de una comunión envidiable con la naturaleza, que hace innecesaria la búsqueda de dioses para ordenar o consolar la existencia. Esta parábola de la pérdida de la fe religiosa termina con una nueva declaración de la fe panteísta, que momentáneamente se había enflaquecido ante las tribulaciones del destierro. Al llegar al poema “Las ruinas” de Como quien espera el Alba, Cernuda adopta abierta y directamente la postura del pastor anónimo y rechaza la búsqueda de “eternos dioses sordos” a favor de la serenidad que le otorga la contemplación de la naturaleza, desatento ya al ansia de un consuelo sobrenatural.
[Enjoys an enviable communion with nature, which makes unnecessary the search for gods that give sense or comfort us from existence. This parable about the loss of religious faith ends in an affirmation of pantheism, weakened previously (in Cernuda) by the tribulations of exile […]. In a later poem, “Las ruinas”, Cernuda adopts openly and straightforwardly the point of view of the anonymous shepherd and rejects the search for “eternal and deaf gods” in favor of the serenity provided by the contemplation of Nature.]
Nevertheless, I think it is possible to dissent from Harris’s opinion that in “The Adoration of The Magi” it is possible to read the beginning of an affirmation of pantheism. On the one hand, the poem closes with an epitaph for the Magi that summarizes their experience as follows:
La delicia, el poder, el pensamiento
Aquí descansan. Ya la fiebre es ida.
Buscaron la verdad, pero al hallarla
No creyeron en ella.
[Pleasure, power, thought
Rest here. The fever is gone.
They looked for truth, but when they found it
They did not believe it.]
These last lines seem to ratify the truth of the encounter with the God, and the Magi’s lack of vision. The phrase “Pleasure, power, thought”, seems to refer to each one of the wise men. In trying to come to terms with their finding, each wise man reacts to it according to one of these abstract nouns. For pleasure driven Caspar “maybe [Jesus], like spring, will open red desires”; for pragmatical Balthasar “with your truth we could, were we to find it, raise a great empire”; finally, for Melchor, “the truth, where needed, will shine naked.”
In later dramatic monologues, Cernuda’s personae seem to affirm faith; such seems to be the case of “Lazaro” (“Lazarus”, a poem also included in Las nubes) risen from the dead by Jesus. He says that he has decided to come back to life:
[…]no por mi vida ni mi espíritu
mas por una verdad en aquellos ojos entrevista
ahora. La hermosura es paciencia.
Sé que el lirio del campo,
Tras de su humilde oscuridad en tantas noches
Con una larga espera bajo tierra,
Del tallo verde erguido a la corola
Irrumpe un día en gloria triunfante.
[Not for the sake of my own life or my own spirit
But for the truth half discovered in his [Jesus’s] eyes.
Beauty is patience.
I know the lily,
After his humble darkness of many nights
In long wait beneath the ground,
From its green stem raising to the corolla
Explodes one day in triumphant glory.]
Lazarus seems to be content with insight rather than with full knowledge. Like Keats he seems to be able to conjure “Negative capability”, “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties.”
It is not my intention to substitute Harris’s opinions on the presence of the religious with an opposed point of view. What I am suggesting is that a unified image of Cernuda’s identity as revealed by his poems is necessarily artificial. I would like to conclude by presenting some lines from another dramatic monologue by Cernuda, “La fuente” (“The fountain”, also in Las nubes). The persona of the poem is precisely the fountain referred to in the title. It says:
Al pie de las estatuas por el tiempo vencidas
Mientras copio su piedra, cuyo encanto ha fijado
Mi trémulo esculpir de líquidos momentos,
Único entre las cosas, muero y renazco siempre.
[Before the statues vanquished by time,
Copying their stone, whose charms are fixed
By my trembling craft of liquid moments,
Unique among all things, I die and come to life forever.]
More than Christian or pantheistic, Cernuda’s poetry seems to invite us to accept our shifting nature through the contrasts of his poems. The critic trying to grasp uniformity will, in my opinion, try to draw water in a sieve. The second stanza of the epitaph of the three wise men goes like this:
Ahora la muerte acuna sus deseos,
Saciándolos al fin. No compadezcas su destino,
más feliz que el de los dioses
[Now death lulls their desires,
Quenching them at last. Do not pity their fate,
Happier than the God’s,
Eternal, up there.]
These lines seem to suggest that our fate is happier than the God’s because it is not fixed, since it concludes in death.
GABRIEL LINARES is a tenured professor of English in the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He has also taught at Harvard University, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and El Colegio de México. He has written a number of essays on various subjects, which have been published both nationally and internationally. Recently, he authored the book Un juego con espejos que se desplazan: Jorge Luis Borges y el monólogo dramático (ColMex, 2011). In 2010 he was awarded the Premio Universidad Nacional for excellence in teaching in the field of Humanities.