Rubén Darío, Latin American reader of European culture
Poet Rubén Darío, “the universal Nicaraguan,”
was also a passionate reader of European culture
at a time when the old world was going through
a period of accelerated transformations.
Today, with the whole world doing the same,
our “inevitable fellow countryman” Darío
can teach us a lot via his critical eye,
his desire to study things from all perspectives,
and his provocative spirit.
February 6, 2016, was the hundredth anniversary of Rubén Dario’s death. The government commemorated the day by issuing one decree declaring him a national hero and another ordering that his works be remembered throughout this year in schools and institutions. It also inaugurated a park in his honor in the city of León. On the day itself, public events were held at which his best known poems were recited. The media and social networks were full of comments about his life, death and funeral, some controversy and what one observer called a lot of “dispersed vigor.”
In Nicaragua we always tend to talk about the same stages of Ruben’s errant trajectory. We talk more about his death than about the rough patch he went through six years earlier, when he attempted suicide in Havana. We speak more about his dramatic life than about his extensive work in prose and even less about his varied journalistic work. And as for his poetic work, we almost always know and recite the same poems. There are some, like Pax, that hardly anyone remembers despite its relevance to the times we are currently living in Nicaragua:
Oh our peoples! oh our peoples!
Come together in hope and in labor and in peace;
Do not seek darkness, do not chase chaos,
and do not shed blood on our fertile land.
Our ancient grandfathers have fought enough
for the Homeland and Liberty...
Buried as a Prince of the Church
Historians say Félix Rubén García Sarmiento’s funeral overflowed with popular fervor in the streets of León. “Monumentalization” is what Erick Blandón calls the strategy used by the Conservative government and the Catholic hierarchy back then, in their attempt to bury Rubén Darío’s message and his works together with his mortal remains by granting him the highest honors of the liturgy. By burying the Prince of Arts as a Prince of the Church, they were trying to bury all the works of the modernist poet in oblivion, everything that invoked the philosophical, social and political principles of Modernism, a school of thought and art condemned by Pope Pius X. In the end, the sinner had received the holy sacraments and the free thinker had recanted his errors...
For those who buried him with incense and holy water, one of Dario’s sins had been his relationship with Liberal President José Santos Zelaya at the end of the previous century. As recently as 1912, during his tour to promote the magazine Mundial, Darío visited Zelaya—by then deposed—in Barcelona, a fact that some hagiographic clichés tend to overlook. The encounter was documented in the magazine’s June edition with a photo by Boyé and a text by Javier Buyeno, supervised by Darío, “the one who instructs and guides me about how these chronicles should be.” It said, “This man, who was the President of the Republic of Nicaragua for seventeen years, is a victim of North American hatred because he defended the sacred rights of the Latino race, seeing them threatened by the great men from the North.”
That day, Zelaya invited Darío over to eat in the “sunny villa full of flowers” where he, retired, lived “satisfied for having accomplished his duty.” Beyond the interests of the magazine in question, the encounter responded to Dario’s wish. It was the way to reaffirm his political position, expressed years before in several articles against US President Theodore Roosevelt, whom he criticized for giving lessons on democracy to the French. It was also expressed in texts against the “anti-diplomacy” of another President from the North, William Howard Taft, the one who sent the famous Knox Note that precipitated Zelaya’s fall.
Being a diplomat to be able to write
Rubén Darío spent his whole life aspiring to a diplomatic post. He saw in diplomacy the ideal way to have a dignified position that would allow him to dedicate himself to literature, as did his Colombian friend Vargas Vila. He achieved this during his first two diplomatic missions as secretary of Nicaragua’s delegation to the Fourth Centenary of the Discovery of America, where he met Menéndez Pelayo, Juan Valera, Emilio Castelar, the regent queen María Cristina and the royal Spanish family in person. He also achieved it as the consul general of Colombia in Argentina, when he moved from Guatemala to Buenos Aires with a stop in New York, where he was a guest of honor at a José Martí rally. And during his second stop in Paris he saw Paul Verlaine, though he was barely able to speak to him due to the “sad, painful, grotesque and tragic” state in which the French poet’s alcoholic addiction had left him. In the almost six years that he was Nicaragua’s consul in Paris, he also traveled to Madrid as a delegate in the Nicaragua-Honduras Border Commission and to Rio de Janeiro for the Third Pan-American Conference.
By representing Nicaragua in Spain he almost reached his dream of being ambassador, as he should have been appointed minister plenipotentiary instead of resident minister, which meant less financial resources. His worst experience as a diplomat was as Nicaragua’s delegate to Mexico’s Independence Centenary.
In 1910, Rubén moved to Paris and resigned his position in the Consulate. This was after close to three years as Minister Resident in Spain—a position for which they by then owed him twelve months pay—and for which to maintain the Nicaraguan legation’s decorum in Madrid, he had had to resort to his earnings as a writer, the sale of his piano and what he earned as a correspondent writing for La Nación of Argentina under the pen name Ni-ka. Nicaragua’s new President, José Madriz, without explicitly accepting his resignation, responded by saying he was sorry about the separation and hoped he could count on him in the future, which he soon did, naming him the Nicaraguan government’s representative to the centennial ceremony in Mexico.
Be a journalist to be able to live
But it wasn’t his experiences in the diplomatic corps that made him lean towards journalism. Darío was aware that only journalism could place him in the international arena so he could spread his renovating ideas in Language and Arts. Perhaps that was a lesson he learned during his adolescence in León, reading the cosmopolitan Ecuadorian writer and politician Juan Montalvo.
To acknowledge Rubén Darío as a journalist is to recognize that the “universal Nicaraguan” needed incomes to live with dignity during a time in which there were no longer patrons and authors were still in the crawling stage in the literature market. The thing is that the word “periodista” [contemporary Spanish for journalist] was not used during Darío’s time with the same meaning we give it today. Those who wrote for newspapers were called gacetistas (gazetteers), jornalistas (from the French word journal) and diaristas (diarists). During the first years of the 20th century Valle-Inclán still wrote in Luces de Bohemia about a young floozy who was a “periodista y florista, ” which meant she sold newspapers and flowers. As early as 1862, however, Juan Valera had already stated during his induction speech into the Royal Spanish Academy that to be a periodista was a profession, like that of a doctor, engineer or lawyer.
Street reporter, correspondent,
In journalism, Rubén Darío did everything with the exception of owning a newspaper: he was a reporter, columnist, correspondent, art director and director. And he did it practically his whole life, from collaborating with El Termó¬metro, directed by the Liberal historian José Dolores Gámez in Rivas,where his first poems were published, and with La Verdad in León, where he published his first articles, on up to his last chronicle, which appeared in La Nación in Argentina only months before his death.
But publishing his poems, stories and novels in newspapers and magazines didn’t make him a journalist. He was a journalist because he directed newspapers: La Unión in El Salvador and El correo de la tarde in Guatemala. And because he founded magazines: Revista de América in Buenos Aires. And also because he helped found them: Revista Nueva in Madrid. He was also a street journalist covering events and red news in La Época, a Liberal newspaper in Santiago, Chile.
When he arrived in Buenos Aires in August 1893, he paid his first in-person visit to the editorial office of La Nación, Argentina’s main newspaper and back then the most influential in all of Latin America, for which he already was collaborating since his stay in Chile. This newspaper wasn’t just his source of income, but was also the minaret from which he would summon the believers in the Religion of Art. More than 630 of his writings—chronicles, essays, prologues, poems, stories and novels—came out in La Nacion. Darío’s last letter was written to the director of this newspaper, thanking him for his last pay and entrusting his son Güicho to him.
A poetic laboratory
After living in Buenos Aires for five years, Darío found, thanks to La Nación, the opportunity to establish himself in Spain for a while, before taking the definite leap to Paris to cover the Universal Exposition in 1900.
By then he had achieved fame as a poet in Buenos Aires, one of the most prosperous Latin American cities during the 19th century. In Spain his mission was to “encourage intellectual and affective relationships between Spain and the Republic of Argentina.” He would achieve this as the newspaper’s correspondent in Madrid, which gave him the freedom to address the issues of his chronicles, considered the most novel and “strange” of his journalistic writings.
Uruguayan critic Ángel Rama was one of the first to reexamine Darío’s chronicles and those of other modernist authors. Rama states that the modernist poets used journalism as a laboratory where they experimented a lot with what they would bring to their poetry. Before the 1870s, when Rama made this reflection, literary critiques considered everything that couldn’t be classified as poetry, narratives or drama to be ephemeral and suspicious. And none of Darío’s chronicles fit these labels.
Rubén Darío experienced important examples of journalistic work in the Mundial magazine and in the fashion magazine Elegancias. In Paris, thanks to his pen’s fame, Darío was proposed as Mundial’s literary director.
This innovative magazine was a sales success for three years, not only due to Darío’s prestige and that of the authors published there, but also for its luxurious editions, even including their ads. Each issue was 100 pages (18 x 25.5 cm) and on the card stock cover was the face of a woman with elaborate illustrations by the period’s most renowned artists. The inside pages were decorated with borders, bullets and initials in capital letters, elements characteristic of modernist esthetics. This success is also due to the “globalized” distribution achieved by the magazine, which had subscriptions and sales agents in England, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Spain and several other Latin American countries.
His fame spread throughout
Europe and Latin America
It is paradoxical that Darío, a person who radiated sympathy in intimate circles and gave short responses in public, who was not a public speaker and instead of declaiming his poems would recite or read them with a very sensual voice, would reach fame through the power of his written word in his own country, where very few people knew how to read and where communication technology was still rudimentary: telegrams, crank phones, newspapers, daguerreotype or photos that substituted oil paintings were just starting to put a new form of interaction within the reach of the middle classes.
What reasoning could have influenced the arousal of such popular fervor by Darío during a period like that? Contributing to his popularity were his prodigious memory, his ability to improvise and even his humble origins despite being related to the Daríos, renowned in Leon’s society since colonial times. And of course his sense of humor. Since his youth he fenced with his steely humor, his polemical stiletto. At an early age he defined two types of writers: those who sport the “casco de oro” (golden helmet) of the goddess Minerva and those who wear “cuatro cascos como los burros” (four hoofs like a donkey). Rubén Darío’s fame filled cafes, restaurants and hotel diners in Nicaragua and beyond... Buenos Aires, Paris, Barcelona. It would fill theaters like the Odeon, one of the most important in Buenos Aires throughout the 20th century, and cultural clubs in Havana, Montevideo and Madrid, where he read the “Salutación del optimista” (“The Optimist’s Salutation”). A year before his death he filled the auditorium of New York’s Columbia University.
During the Mundial magazine tour, which took him from Paris to Buenos Aires and back, passing through Barcelona, Madrid, Lisboa, Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo, the cheering at the farewells and receptions at train stations and ports would surprise passengers who didn’t know him.
With backing from the streets of Mexico
At some junctures the political factor was what elevated Darío’s fame, making him even more popular. In 1910, when Mexico decided to commemorate Hidalgo’s Battle Cry in the municipality of Dolores at the Independence Centennial, not only of Mexico, but of all Latin America, Nicaragua’s President Madriz assigned Rubén Darío to represent Nicaragua in the festivities to take place in Mexico.
Madriz’s fall, close to a year after that of Zelaya—whose position he had filled—held up the Nicaraguan poet in Veracruz, while the press opposing the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz protested against his having taken away Darío’s credentials. In both Nicaragua and Mexico’s capital, people took to the streets to back Darío. Those were the first street protests against Porfirio Diaz, who—pressured by the US government—had not allowed the poet into the capital.
Three years before, in 1907, in a visit to Nicaragua Darío writes about in his book El viaje a Nicaragua e Intermezzo tropical, support committees were organized in his honor in Managua, Masaya and Granada. And in León, there was even a parade with floats representing Victory, Fame and Poetry, preceded by a banner with the figure of a condor and Pegasus.
“Awake to the political
and social concerns”
Journalistic texts of Latin America’s modernist writers allow us to see not only the exterior context of what they wrote about, but also uncover their interior world to us. Recovering and studying Darío’s political prose, his dispersed writings of literary critique and his travel chronicles, we come close to his perception of the happenings during the period he lived in and of the culture that dominated the fin de siècle. It brings us closer to the art and the daily life that accompanied the thriving industrial revolution and at the same time connects us to the interior world of the poet, reflected in his poetry.
Along with José Marti, Rubén Darío was part of a group of journalists of his times renowned more for their poetry than their prose, despite the enormous importance of their prose writings. With respect to the latter, Salomon de la Selva was amazed by “how awake his intellect was to social, political and economic concerns.”
One of those “concerns” Darío wrote about was the controversy created by the famous Dreyfus affair, a political scandal involving a French captain or engineer of Jewish origin accused of treason that shook French society and fascinated international public opinion for ten full years, from 1896 to 1906. The text Une protestation, signed by many French doctors, artists and academics supporting Emile Zola’s manifesto J´acuse in defense of Dreyfus, is considered the modern intellectuals’ birth certificate, in France as well as in Spain.
Darío included himself among those modern intellectuals, referring to the Dreyfus affair with this phrase: ...and this happens in a country where we intellectuals say: Every man has two homelands: his own and France. In this writing Rubén denounces chauvinism and states that the scandalous sentence against Dreyfus reminded him of a painting, “Christ aux Outrages,” which he used as the title for his article because the sentence against Dreyfus, as well as the anti-semitic manifestations were once again sacrificing “the ideal of justice.”
Among other themes, the Latin American “concerns” he wrote about were the birth of Panama, the youngest republic of the continent, when it separated from Colombia; the history of Costa Rican Juan Santamaría; the war for Cuban independence and the Ibero-American Social and Economic Congress held in Madrid in 1900.
Renovator of the Spanish language
In all his writings, verse and prose, Rubén Darío is considered the renovator of the Spanish language. One of his strategies was to introduce neologisms. One of his most famous was hipopotamicida (murder of hippos) That’s what he accused US president Theodore Roosevelt of, which turned out to be quite strong in those days, because with the suffix “cide” Darío was accusing him of committing a crime at a time when hunting elephants, hippopotamus, tigers, lions and rhinoceros was considered a sport for the European monarchs. In 1910, Roosevelt came through Paris on his way back from a safari in Africa in which he and his men killed, for “scientific purposes,” more than five hundred animals for the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.
Another neologism of that period was “Pan-Americanism.” In the poem known as Epistle to Madame Lugones, Darío used the verb panamericanicé (I Pan-Americanized...)
When in Litany of Our Lord Don Quixote Darío writes “from the epidemics of horrible blasphemies /from the Academies / free us, Lord!” he is referring to the innocuous function of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, which had just published an update of the dictionary that Darío called a luxurious hefty tome. One of the new words in that dictionary was “trole” (trolley), the gadget placed above the streetcar to feed it electricity. The Argentinian city of Córdoba had been one of the first to use it. Rubén complained to the Academy for its excessive prudence about including names of new inventions being produced continuously and definitions for the new terms arising in international political and commercial relationships. He also suggested naturalizing words from other languages to Spanish.
In that same writing about the Academy, Darío quoted, seeing as he felt the same, these phrases from Unamuno: those Hispano-Americans who demand the rights of their language and maintain their neologisms do well, and so do those who in Argentina speak of a national language... As long as we do not internationalize the old Castilian, turning it into Spanish, we can’t condemn the “Hispano-Spanish” and much less could the “Hispano-Castilians.” We need to make Spanish international with Castilian, and if the latter puts up resistance, over it, without it or against it.
“Los raros”: To free literature
Among Darío’s first prose writings that received recognition were those he wrote as literary critiques. They appeared in hia prologues—some first published in newspapers—as well as in the biographical sketches in his book Los Raros (The Strange), in the Cabezas section of Mundial and in Historia de mis libros (History of my Books), which came out posthumously, in which he refers to his three most important books: Azul, Prosas profanas (Profane Prose) and Cantos de vida y esperanza (Songs of Life and Hope). Those who study Darío’s prose point out that he used journalism to “scare” the academics. According to current literary critics, strangeness was for Darío the opposite of tradition.
Los Raros is a collection of impressionist essays about the authors Darío considered the most valuable and modern literature of his time. These biographical sketches were part of his strategy to free literature from the precepts that, according to his criteria, strangle it. Most of those he picked were French authors, both Parnassians and symbolists. He also included a North American (Edgar Allan Poe), a Norwegian (Henrik Ibsen), a Portuguese (Eugenio de Castro) and a Cuban (José Martí).
One of the most studied sketches is the one Darío wrote about the French poet Verlaine, whom he defined as a “miserable but enormous man, half satyr, full of uncontrollable lust, and half saint.” Beyond the man, he found music in his poetry above all: “What can I say of Verlaine’s works? He has been the greatest of this century’s poets.” Whereas he had introduced in Latin America those he considered the best European authors in Los Raros, in Mundial he made use of his authority as literary director to present the best of Latin America and Spain, writing biographical sketches of Latin American authors (Leopoldo Lugones, Enrique Gómez Carrillo and Graça Aranha), Spanish ones (Jacinto Benavente and Santiago Rusiñol) and other thinkers (José Enrique Rodó), as well as politicians such as Emilio Castelar and King Alfonso XIII). He published other biographical sketches, like that of Emilia Pardo Bazán, in other texts. In Buenos Aires he had said of her that she was “one of the best Spanish writers and at the same time a woman of high society.” He dedicated two of his prologues to women: Peruvian Aurora Cáceres and Uruguayan Delmira Agustini.
With loyal defenders and
in the face of famous detractors
As captain of the Latin American modernist movement, Rubén Darío enjoyed loyal supporters and prestigious defenders who exalted both his poetry and his prose, including his journalistic texts: historian José Dolores Gámez in Nicaragua, journalist and diplomat Eduardo Poirier in Chile, General Bartolomé Mitre in Argentina and writer Juan Valera in Spain.
The fame of his detractors—Nicaraguan Enrique Guzmán, renowned throughout Central America, French-Argentinian Paul Groussac and Spaniard Leopoldo Alas, “Clarín”—also helped strengthen and give visibility to the modernism Darío headed. And some of Darío’s replies to them were similarly famous. The most quoted is his youthful reply to Enrique Guzmán, controversial from the very title itself: On how Enrique Guzmán is going to swallow the spilt sympathy, candor and more which will be seen by those who should read.
Darío would resort to polemics more than once to spread his ideas: referring to the content of Los Raroshe said in his autobiography: “I caused all the damage I possibly could to Hispanic dogmatism, to academic stagnation...” But his reply to Paul Groussac was more self-critical than polemic. Groussac had criticized Rubén’s selection of French symbolist poets in Los Raros, and his dismissal of English pre-Raphaelites. In his response, Darío expressed his consciousness of belonging to an international movement that goes beyond the limits of the French decadence school. And when he traveled to Spain, in speaking in Catalonia about Modernism, he referred not only to the French but also to the English artists and those from other European countries.
Fully involved in the
In his book, España contemporánea, referring to the absence of modernist authors in Spain’s literature in Castilian or of modernist artists in other disciplines, Darío made an exception for Catalonia, that part of the peninsula with its own culture and language: “There doesn’t exist in Madrid or the rest of Spain, with the exception of Catalonia, any group, brotherhood in which pure art—or impure art, prescriptive Sirs—is cultivated following the movement that during these times has been treated with such harshness by some, and with such enthusiasm by others.”
That movement was Modernism. And the Industrial Revolution, so linked to Modernism in art, literature and culture, came to Catalonia before other areas of Spain, although later than to other European countries.
The 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition put this city in contact with the world’s new trends, among them the one initiated by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in London by a small group of painters, poets and essayists who rejected academic painting and proposed that painting be inspired again by studying Nature, as the medieval painters had done before Raphael. For them, painting and poetry were sisters, which is why they admired John Keat’s long poems and preferred medieval themes in their paintings.
Time for an aesthetic revolution
One of those who mentioned Darío while reflecting about Catalonian Modernism was the British artisan, designer, printer, poet, writer, painter and political activist William Morris. Through him, the Pre-Raphaelite’s ideals influenced many English, North American and European editors, architects and decorators in places as far as San Francisco, Budapest and Barcelona, giving way to the Arts and Crafts Movement.
His business, Morris & Company, as well as the Arts and Crafts Movement, proposed returning to handmade manufacturing in opposition to assembly line industrial production. Morris also influenced editorial production with his Kelmscott Press, his most renowned edition being that of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The initial capital letters and the margins in the books he published marked a trend in modernist esthetics. As regards his political activism, his utopian novel News from Nowhere stands out; it narrates the transition to socialism and achieved great popularity in its time.
Other artists quoted by Darío a propos of his reflections about Catalonian modernism were the Frenchman Cheret and the Czech painter Alphonse Mucha—well known in Argentina, Cuba and other Latin American countries—both of whom were dedicated to “poster art.” With respect to a puppet show he saw in Els Quatre Gats, where the Modernists from Barcelona would meet, he quoted, among others, Maeterlinck, a key author of European theater with presentations such as La Intrusa (The Intruder), performed for the first time in Spain in 1892 during the second Modernist Festival in Sitges.
The subject he was
most passionate about
Whereas Latin American Modernism is known more as a literary movement, in Europe it expressed itself through advertising posters, book and magazine illustration, typography, painting, decoration, jewelry and architecture.
A current that brought fresh air to art, it was called by different names: Modern Style in England, Sezession in Austria, Jugendstil in Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, Art Nouveau in France and Belgium, Floreale in Italy, Liberty and Art Nouveau in the United States… Modernisme Català was open to the European trends, while at the same time affirming its nationalism. The young Catalonian artists traveled to London and Paris and upon their return would configure their own version of the esthetic renovation and above all, the rebirth of Catalonian culture.
Darío waited eleven months in Spain before declaring himself in regards to the subject that he was most passionate about, Modernism. He had already used the term in Argentina back in 1890, describing it as a “clear awareness of the movement of an America that has awakened from a long lethargic slumber.” Also as “the new spirit that today encourages a small but triumphant and proud group of writers and poets of Spanish America.” This new spirit had been initiated around 1880 by the Cubans José Martí and Julián del Casal and the Mexican Manuel Gutíerrez Nájera. After the publication of Azul in 1888, several young authors in addition to Darío had continued to enrich Latin American modernist literature: Argentinian Leopoldo Lugones, Peruvian José Santos Chocano and Mexican Amado Nervo, among others.
The reasons the renovating impulse happened in Latin America before “Castilian Spain” seemed “very clear” to Darío. The most visible one was the “material and spiritual trade with different nations of the world” but “mainly because a new American generation exists with an immense desire for progress,” a desire that would not only renovate language and literature, but also contribute to the building of a Latin American identity: “Our modernism, if we may call it that,” wrote Rubén, “is going to grant us a separate place, independent from Castilian literature.”
His travel chronicles
If Darío’s journalistic prose was expressed in political articles and biographical sketches, his travel chronicles were also journalistic, following the French model, subjective and intuitive and with an educational rather than commercial purpose. Towards the end of the 19th century, the major newspapers began hiring hire famous writers to write chronicles. The modernist writers agreed to do so, less for the income than to analyze and spread the changes being produced by industrialization, new technologies and the constant growth of the metropolis.
Travel chronicles was a genre that became popular at the turn of the century. Mark Twain wrote numerous ones, and those of Blasco Ibañez about the First World War or the three volumes of his trip around the world are still found in bookstores today. José Martí, Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera, Julián del Casal, José Enrique Rodó, Rubén Darío and Enrique Gómez Carrillo were some of Latin America’s modernist journalists renowned for their travel chronicles. The Catalonians Santiago Rusiñol, Pompeu Gener and Gabriel Alomar were also modernist journalists who wrote travel chronicles, as well as pursuing other arts.
In a time of
During the 18th century two great revolutions would mark the development of journalism: the one in France and the one in the United States. Both coincided with economic changes that accompanied the Industrial Revolution and demanded new terms to describe the relationships between countries.
The monthly magazine Mercure de France was being published in France during that century. With its combination of literature and journalism, it spread ideas, opinions and tastes that helped form the West’s nationalisms. Mercure and the Gazette supported the independence of the United States at the time, and through French influence, its revolution incorporated the principle of freedom of press, later taken on by the first Latin American newspapers. Also during the 18th century, an English model of journalism started with the Daily Courant, the first daily newspaper in history, published in London in 1702. It had news and ads and was conceived as a business. In its first issue, the editor promised to provide the “freshest” news and to tell the facts without “leaning towards one side or the other,” offering readers different versions of the news with the four Ws: What, When, Where, Who.
This model was consolidated in the 19th century by several newspapers—above all The New York Times after Adolph Ochs acquired it in 1896. It imposed “hard informative facts” told with “diligence, objectivity and scrupulous seriousness, free of passions.” All through the 19th century, Anglo-American influence spread throughout the world due to England’s commercial relationships and the thriving economy of the United States, which required updated information about markets and politics in the countries. In that same context, the first Latin American newspapers were founded: El Mercurio in Valparaíso, El Comercio in Lima, el Jornal do Comercio in Río de Janeiro and years later in Argentina La Prensa and La Nación, founded in 1870, which took Darío in.
Latin American reader
of European culture
It was in the travel chronicles that the fusion of literature and journalism, the subjective with the social and political events of the era were best produced. What was determinant in the travel chronicles was the “view from outside” of the traveling writer, acting as reader of a foreign culture. That outside view had as precedents the Persian Letters by the French philosopher Montesquieu and the Moroccan Letters by the Spaniard José Cadalso. Both novels are structured as a collection of letters written by two travelers—a Muslim thinker and a young Moroccan member of an ambassador’s retinue—who analyzed French and Spanish society with the curiosity and astonishment of a foreigner. The letter format gave the chronicles a colloquial tone that allowed one to easily jump from one theme to another.
Darío’s outside view of European culture was natural. He called himself a foreigner and a sauvage. His travel chronicles are found in the books Tierras solares, La caravana pasa and El viaje a Nicaragua e Intermezzo tropical among others, where he quotes the chronicler of the Indies López de Gómara, picks up long paragraphs of the Historia de Nicaragua by José Dolores Gámez and dialogues with Thomas Belt, Squier, Mark Twain and other travelers who visited Nicaragua using the progress/backward categories of analysis.
He wrote the documentary of an era
According to Günter Smigalle, many of the characteristics of modernist poetry appeared in Darío’s chronicles: the search for the unusual, a mixture of sensations, bringing together unalike elements, invoking images familiar to the reader.... His chronicles were the documentary of an era. For Smigalle, the book La caravana pasa is an epitome of a modernist chronicle, in the sense of a summary of a broader written piece. Thanks to epitomes, the summaries Latino historians wrote, the history of ancient Egypt was reconstructed. In a similar manner, Darío’s chronicles introduce us to European, Spanish and Latin American society during the fin de siècle, the time leading up to the First World War, an era full of quickly failed utopias, a time of crossroads in which humanity often chose the wrong path.
We see Darío’s passion, his eagerness to look at a theme from all perspectives so he could establish his own conclusions as one of his main contributions to today’s readers. It’s not a matter of assimilating his tastes or imitating his style. His thinking and his literary resources have evolved and during his times he himself suggested to young artists that they discover—and remain faithful to—their own style, remembering the words of Wagner: “do not imitate anyone, above all, not me.”
At various times, Darío explained his work method, one that is still valid today: “Before visiting a Rodin exhibition I have read everything that has been published about the great artist and his work, both in favor and against.” Afterwards, informed and without prejudice, he visited the exhibition several times to meditate before Rodin’s sculptures.
“Darío renovated everything:
Vocabulary, meter, sensibility”
Darío’s greatest contribution, through his poetry and his prose, lies in his renovation of the Spanish language, in the same way Cervantes had done three centuries before.
“Darío renovated everything: the subject, vocabulary, meter, the peculiar magic of certain words, the sensibility of the poet and his readers,” said the cosmopolitan Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges. And Salomón de la Selva recommended that to understand Darío, one had to remember that for centuries the Spanish language did not have the freedom to continue developing that other languages such as English, French and German did.
Positivism meant a radical change in European philosophy, which translated into a crisis of thought. In Spain the crisis of European philosophy was aggravated by internal problems and was expressed in almost all facets of social life: science, literature, religion, art and politics. In Latin America, the colonial inheritance was very present and was a burden that kept the national societies excluded from progress. Even if some sectors of the bourgeoisie were becoming rich, they expected modernity to come from the North and Europe. This made them vulnerable to enculturation.
With the allegory of Ariel and Caliban, Uruguayan writer José Enrique Rodó made a different proposal to Latin American youth so they could articulate their cultural identity, countering Caliban’s Anglo-Saxon utilitarianism with the Latin American spirituality of Ariel, rooted in the Greco-Latin tradition and Christian values.
In Spain, the writers of the generation of ‘98 as well as the modernists responded to the crisis and the commotion Europe was experiencing, but not in the same way. Those of ‘98 were trying to regenerate the Spanish society by expressing dissatisfaction with the figures “consecrated” by literary authorities, rebellion against norms and the desire for change with a look “inside” national reality. By contrast, the modernists were cosmopolitans. The modernist poets, Spanish as well as Latin American, admired France and looked abroad. Cosmopolitanism was not an organic political movement, though many politicians of the 19th century embraced the cosmopolitan ideal and fought nationalisms.
“If your country is small...”
We find cosmopolitanism in Ruben Darío’s poetry and journalistic prose; he’s fascinated by what is “strange” in the same way Julián del Casal had been before, by seeing in Paris two cities and opting for the “strange, exotic, delicate, sensitive, brilliant and artificial” Paris. Cosmopolitanism was a path to make him different from the bourgeoisie world Darío had to relate to due to his profession as a writer. It was, above all, a cultural adhesion to its own language, to the roots of Greco-Latin literature.
As a foreigner, like other Latin American modernists, and coming from the province, from the periphery where progress had not yet arrived, Darío perceived Paris as the center of a world that was progressing. But Rubén was convinced that every country could contribute to the universal nationality: “Our land,” he said about Nicaragua, “is made for humanity.” Another principle from his cosmopolitan creed was the power of individual effort: “I want the youth of my country to be filled with the fundamental idea that no matter how small the land where one was born, he can give a Homer if in Greece, a Tell if in Switzerland.” Hence the verses in his poem Retorno:
“If your country is small, you dream it great.
My illusions and desires and my hopes
tell me no country is small and León
for me today is like Paris or Rome.”
Darío was cosmopolitan, not only because of his constant trips or his progressive thinking. It was mostly because he declared himself a “citizen of language.” Salomon de la Selva called him the “Hispanic Keats.” He didn’t call him the Verlaine of America or the Latino Walt Whitman, instead he associated his name to an English romantic poet who died young but with his relatively short work renewed English literature.
Keats expressed the wish that his epitaph, with no name or date, say only “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” In this manner he invoked the Latino poet Catulo. They did not comply with his wishes and engraved this other epitaph: “This grave contains all that was mortal, of a Young English Poet, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart at the Malicious Power of his enemies desired these words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821”
He’s not in that tomb
A similar masking was attempted with Darío when they buried the revolutionary of the Spanish language with a funeral ceremony for a Prince of the Church in a tomb inspired by the lion of Lucerne, a monument that commemorates the Swiss Guards who died fighting against the revolutionary people of Paris defending Louis XVI during the French Revolution. There is no epitaph written on Darío’s tomb, just his signature. However, as the years go by, the verse dedicated to him by his friend, Andalucian modernist Manuel Machado, becomes truer: “Move on traveler, Rubén Darío is not here.”
In effect, Rubén Darío is not there in his tomb. He is in his works, in the blue trunk guarded by Francisca Sánchez, who gave him a home, the company and peace he needed. He is in his works conserved by numerous archivists of Latin America and Europe, valued and admired by those who collecting his dispersed works, continue to study them. He is in those of us who continue reading, enjoying and learning from them.
Pascual Ortells is a sociologist and a Darío aficionado.