Apart from being the 400th anniversary of the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes, 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Rubén Darío, who was never a supreme god on the level of those other two, but was, even so, a god, fit to be mentioned in divine company—a god of modern literature, especially in the Hispanic world. In Nicaragua, where he was born, there has always been a custom of celebrating him by composing mini-essays on tiny themes, which decorate the newspapers—essays on Darío’s mastery of classical meter in a dozen forms, or his innovative 13-syllable alexandrines, or his handiness at dactylic feet, or his debt to the Spanish poets of the Centuries of Gold. In this spirit, I hope the readers will permit me to engage in a homage, suitable for Tablet magazine and New York, where the great poet stayed for short stretches, by dilating on a still tinier theme, which is the Jews.
The theme is not entirely a happy one. In New York during his last months, in declining health, Darío composed a poem called “El Gran Cosmpolis,” which begins:
Casas de cincuenta pisos,
servidumbre de color,
millones de circoncisos,
máquinas, diarios, avisos
¡y dolor, dolor, dolor!
Or, in English, without the rhyme scheme:
Houses of fifty stories,
millions of circumcised,
machines, dailies, advertisements
and pain, pain, pain!
He expressed himself a little oddly on the Dreyfus Affair, too. And yet, some part of him was tender to the Jews, such that you could almost imagine that he felt a tinge of Jewish identity. His full name was Félix Rubén García Sarmiento. But he preferred to go by “Rubén” instead of “Félix,” together with an informal family name, “Darío,” that his grandfather had adopted—which left him with a byline that appeared to be conjointly and exotically Hebrew (because Rubén is Reuben) and Persian (because Darío is Darius). I have wondered if anything in his Nicaraguan background pushed him in Jewish directions, but I think not. He was born in 1867 near the small city of León, north of Managua, and received his education—from the Jesuits—in León itself. But León lacked a Jewish connection. One of the prominent participants in the Nicaraguan wars of the 1850s was a Hungarian Jewish exile from the revolution of 1848 named Louis Schlesinger, who fought on the side of the American filibusters in Nicaragua and then defected to the government side and fought for the Nicaraguans; but I do not think that Schlesinger left a legacy in León or anywhere else in Nicaragua.
If there was a Jewish tinge to Nicaraguan society in Darío’s time, its center would have been the small city of Granada in the south, not because there were any Jews in Granada, either, but because the original conquistador families included a number of conversos with long Jewish memories. Or so it was said by a distinguished Nicaraguan poet of a later generation, José Coronel Urtecho, who was fascinated by Jewish traces (and partly for that reason liked New York a lot more than Darío did). It was Granada that eventually became the center of Nicaraguan poetry, but that was later on, and Darío was not a Granadino.
The winds of his career took him to Argentina, though. He admired Walt Whitman, and, in a Whitman mode, he wrote a processional poem celebrating Argentina, with a full stanza devoted to the Argentinean Jews (unlike Whitman, who in his own processional poetry devoted only a single line to the American Jews). And he placed his own name in a Jewish context:
¡Cantad, judios de la pampa!
Mocetones de ruda estampa,
dulces Rebecas de ojos francos,
Rubenes de largas guedejas,
patriarcas de cabellos blancos,
y espesos como hípicas crines;
cantad, cantad, Saras viejas,
y adolescentes Benjamines,
con voz de vuestro corazón:
¡Hemos encontrado a Sïón!
Sing, Jews of the pampa!
Youths with rude features,
Sweet Rebeccas with frank eyes,
Reubens with large locks,
patriarchs with white hair,
and thick like horsehair;
sing, sing, old Sarahs,
and adolescent Benjamins,
with the voice of your heart:
We have found Zion!
Late in his life, when he was living in Spain or perhaps Mallorca, he devoted a full poem to the Jews, which displays a very Catholic mix of ancient and theological wrath and modern generosity. It appeared in his collection Del Chorro de la Fuente, or From the Jet of the Fountain:
¡Benditos seáis los odiados,
los tremendos maldecidos,
los eternos vencidos y eternos desterrados,
en pasajeras cuevas y trashumantes nidos!
¡Benditos, oh judíos, desterrados de España!
Dueños del oro y del trabajo,
fusteis los proveedores de ruecas e incensarios;
os pidieron favors los hidalgos precarios,
dominasteis arriba y ayudasteis abajo.
En el nombre del Desollado
y atrozmente Crucificado
por quién fue judío malvado,
consagro estos versos de bien
a quién es ignorado, y quién
con Diós será también.
Divinos ojos, y divinos bocas,
de las Rebecas y de las Saras,
candidos velos y negras tocas,
perfumes, cuentas, sonrisas raras:
gestos esquivos, y caprichosas
de esas mujeres avaras
de las rosas
de sus caras,
y dueñas, en sus ojos, de una luz infinita,
que hace mirar profundos horizontes,
y con fuga de barcos y visiones de montes
la gente misteriosa de la raza semita.
Blessed be the hated,
the tremendously cursed,
the eternally defeated and eternally exiled,
in passing caves and nomad nests!
Blessed o Jews, exiled from Spain!
Owners of gold and of labor,
you were the providers of spinning wheels and censers;
precarious noblemen asked favors of you,
you dominated above and aided below.
In the name of the Flayed
and atrociously Crucified
by the wicked Jew,
I consecrate these verses of good
to whomever is overlooked, who
will also be with God.
Divine eyes, and divine mouths,
of the Rebeccas and the Sarahs,
candid veils and black scarves,
perfumes, beads, and rare smiles:
elusive gestures, and capricious
of these women greedy
for the roses
of their faces,
and possessors, in their eyes, of an infinite light,
that makes visible deep horizons,
and with the sailing of boats and visions of mountains
the mysterious people of the Semitic race.
I do not mean to exaggerate the importance (or the literary quality) of these few lines on Jewish themes. They are minor brush strokes, which he deployed as part of a larger program, which was to paint an exotic universe. His universe is sometimes biblical, as you can see, and occasionally it is Aztec. But principally his universe reaches back, by way of the Spanish baroque, into the mists of the Greco-Latin past. The ancient Mediterranean was his world. And he painted himself into the ancient landscape. The whole of his 1,400 pages of poetry (in the Aguilar edition) comprises a grand automythology, doubly mythological: a mythology of himself, dwelling in a world of ancient mythology.
The inspiration to do something of this sort came to him in childhood. In his first book, completed at age 14 in León (though he failed to find anyone to publish it), he addressed the reader:
Lector: si oyes los rumores
de la ignorada arpa mía,
oirás ecos de dolores;
mas sabe que tengo flores
también, de dulce alegria.
—which has a musical quality that you will have to imagine without any help from me:
To the Reader
Reader: if you hear rumors
of my unknown harp,
you will hear echoes of pains;
but know that I have flowers,
too, of sweet happiness.
He was, in short, like Victor Hugo, a child prodigy. In those lines you see his most consistent themes.
Antonio Machado wrote a memorial poem in 1916 describing Darío as Pan, and this was right. Darío did seem to be Pan, inebriated with the musicality of his flute or harp—except that, in Darío’s version, Pan is heart-breaking: a vulnerable Pan, without emotional defenses. The automythology amounts to an extended sob, now ecstatic, now lubricious with desire, now melancholy, and never able to surmount his own injuries. These, too, the injuries, were matters of childhood. At age 15 in Managua (at a moment when the Nicaraguan government, having recognized his talent, was taking charge of him for reasons of national glory), he fell in love with an 11-year old girl named Rosario Murillo. This led some people to conspire to send him quickly out of the country for his own good and led the girl’s family to counter-conspire to force him to go ahead with the marriage, now that he had made a scandal of their daughter. And Darío seems never to have recovered from these early amorous crises. His literary successes led him eventually to Spain, where, because he was Nicaragua’s most prestigious personality, he became the Nicaraguan ambassador. And in Spain he prospered. The poets and literary critics regarded him as a savior of the Spanish language. He took another wife, though he was unable legally to marry her, who is said to have been a simple Spanish peasant. Perhaps she made him happy. But it was not in the vocation of Rubén Darío to be happy, except as a phase of his eternal musical sadness.
His genius as a poet consists of an ability to present his ecstasies and agonies in metaphysical and mythological versions—while performing metrical feats that make him appear to be more than human. Hugo, the greatest automythologist of all, was his model in these regards. He loved Hugo. He translated some lines of Hugo’s; the translations are superior to the original. Only, Hugo’s cosmic mythology of world history proved to be too thin for him—too reasonable, too easily reconciled with ordinary reality. He turned instead to Paul Verlaine and to a mythology that was deliberately distinct from the rational and the reasonable. He borrowed from Verlaine; his borrowings are an improvement on the original—more concentrated, wilder.
He celebrated a cult of Pythagoras, a mysticism of mathematics and of the number One, which he incorporated into the poetry by hinting that somewhere within his verses might be found a mathematical pattern, musically expressed. His best poems have a double quality, with a surface layer that you can understand easily, which perhaps tells a story about himself or sings a song, and a hidden esoteric layer that appears to be non-verbal, which you cannot understand. You could even fail to notice the esoteric layer. But you do notice it.
Clunkily in English:
I am looking for a form that my style does not find,
a bud of thought that seeks to be a rose—
announced with a kiss that my lips impose
on the impossible embrace of the Venus de Milo.
Beautifully in Spanish:
Yo persigo una forma que no encuentra mi estilo,
botón de pensamiento que busca ser la rosa;
se anuncia con un beso que en mis labios se posa
al abrazo imposible de la Venus de Milo
The esoteric layer is abstract, and, then again, Catholic. Then again, it expresses a cult of the ancient gods. Darío is Pan not just because he is musical and ecstatic and therefore reminds us of Pan, but because he seems to be, in fact, a voice from the Greco-Latin past. You feel, reading certain of his poems on ancient themes, that he is flirting with insanity. He seems to gaze up from the page with wide eyes, confessing the pain that insanity is causing him. And yet, he has chosen it. Insanity is the expression of his own vulnerability, as if he were a teenager in love who, unable to bear his wounds any more, has plunged into madness, in search of the Sacred Wood and its consoling nymphs.
Naturally Darío was not too skilled at navigating the practical challenges of everyday life. Nicaragua could probably have found a better ambassador. Alcoholism was a grave problem. In New York during his last months in 1915 he suffered terribly. At the very end, he returned to León, and it was Rosario Murillo, now 45 years old, who took him in. He died at age 49 and is buried in the floor of the magnificent 18th-century cathedral of León. Statues and markers and the names of plazas commemorate him in various parts of the world—in Nicaragua, of course, where a mania for Darío dominates the national culture, but also in Madrid, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Santa Domingo, and probably other places. New York City ought to put up its own plaque or a bust, perhaps on West 14th Street, where he lived for a while, in what used to be the Spanish district in Manhattan. If there were such a plaque or bust, most people would pass it by without a thought, but now and then someone might pause and recite a few lines from memory. Darío’s alexandrines and classical meters have a mnenomic quality, which means that his readers retain what they have read. Readers remember his book Azul, or Blue, and they remember his book Prosas Profanas, or Profane Prose. And everyone remembers this stanza:
Awkwardly in English:
I am he who only yesterday was declaiming
the blue verse and the profane song,
in whose night was a nightingale
who was a skylark of light by the morning.
Gorgeously in Spanish:
Yo soy aquel que ayer no más decía
el verso azul y la canción profana,
en cuya noche un ruiseñor había
qui era alondra de luz por la mañana
—the opening lines of his soul-baring and mystical volume, Cantos de Vida y Esperanza, or Cantos of Life and Hope, from 1905, the greatest moment of his life.
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Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.