World Literature

Vicente Aleixandre

 

BORN: 1898, Seville, Spain

DIED: 1984, Madrid, Spain

NATIONALITY: Spanish

GENRE: Poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

Ambito (1928)

Destruction or Love (1935)

Shadow of Paradise (1944)

 

 

Aleixandre Vicente. Aleixandre, Vicente, 1975, photograph. AP Images.

 

Overview

Vicente Aleixandre is recognized by critics and by the newer generation of Spanish poets as an influential voice. He was awarded the 1977 Nobel Prize for Literature 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. At the time of the awarding of the Nobel Prize, however, Aleixandre’s name was little known outside Spanish literary circles.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Vicente Aleixandre Merlo was born in Seville, Spain, on April 26, 1898, to Cirilo and Elvira Merlo Aleixandre. When he was eleven, his family moved to Madrid, Spain, where he later received degrees in law and business administration. In 1919, after graduating from the university, he began to teach at the School of Business. For a while he devoted himself to his profession and wrote on economic subjects. He never married or had children.

Focused on Poetry Amidst Life-Long Illness. In 1925, Aleixandre contracted tuberculosis, beginning a series of illnesses that plagued him for the rest of his life. His health eventually forced him to abandon his career, and he began to concentrate on writing poetry. In 1926, a few of his friends sent some of his poems to a literary journal. They were published that same year, and his first book of poems, Ambito, came out in 1928.

Around the same time, Aleixandre began to associate with Pedro Salinas, Federico Garcia Lorca, Jorge Guillen, and other poets based in Madrid. This association developed into the innovative literary movement referred to as the Generation of 1927. Writers in this group reacted against what they saw as the provincialism of Spanish literature. They advocated poetry as a means of discovering and exploring the relationship between external reality and the poet’s internal world, and, while they rejected sentimentality, love was a dominant theme.

Created Poetry in a Tumultuous Atmosphere. It was during this time Aleixandre created his major work of surrealist poetry, Earth Passion. Unfortunately for the poet, in the late 1920s Spain was on the verge of tremendous upheaval and civil war that would overshadow his literary achievement. The Spanish king abdicated in favor of a republic. The republic lasted for five years, but Spain remained split by conflict in every part of society. In July 1936, a military uprising threw the country into a civil war that lasted for three years. While Nationalist leader General Francisco Franco had enough control to establish a military dictatorship in October 1936, the fighting between the Republicans and the Nationalists continued and proved brutal. Many of the world’s leading intellectuals and artists sympathized with the Republicans and volunteered for service with them, but despite their efforts, Franco was victorious. He was Spain’s military dictator for forty years.

Although Earth Passion 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. Many members of Spain’s artistic community left the country when the civil war began or shortly thereafter. 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, Earth Passion would likely have become one of the major surrealist books in Spanish literature.

Civil War Affects Output. During the three years of the civil war, Aleixandre wrote sparingly, although he contributed war poems to some publications that supported the government. By the end of the war, Federico Garcia Lorca was dead. Luis Cernuda, Guillen, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and many other poets and writers had left Spain. Unlike other surviving poets of the generation, however, Aleixandre did not leave Spain after the war. He lived, during Franco’s time in power, the interior exile of an intellectual who was opposed to the reigning political dictatorship. His works were banned in the postwar years due to his antifascist beliefs and his independence from the official regime.

Postwar Poems Look Outward. Shadow of Paradise (1944; English translation, 1987), Aleixandre’s first collection following the civil war, is a transitional volume leading to the second phase of his career. Although poems in the middle period, which include those from The Heart’s History (1954) and In a Vast Domain (1962), share with earlier ones a nostalgia for the lost union between humanity and nature, a dramatic shift in focus is evident.

Whereas previously Aleixandre had looked inside the individual, rejecting historical and social reality, he now reached outward, emphasizing connections between the self and the surrounding world and projecting a universal compassion for humanity with these volumes. Surreal imagery and irrationalist techniques gave way to a simpler, more direct approach in which the affirmation of love clearly predominates.

Emphasized Theory and Contemplation. Some of Aleixandre’s most important theoretical texts are from the 1950s and include Some Characteristics of the New Spanish Poetry (1955) and the notes to the anthology Mis poemas mejores. His point of view on poetics became a guiding principle among Spanish poets.

Toward the end of the 1960s, Aleixandre abandoned most of the elements that characterize his realistic work. A more meditative attitude set the tone of his later poems.

Returned to Poetic Roots. Aleixandre’s final period, which produced Poems of Consummation (1968) and Dialogues of Knowledge (1974), is characterized by a return to the structural and metaphysical complexity of his early work. By this time, Spanish society was undergoing another transition, as Franco died in 1975, and Spain temporarily returned to monarchy. King Juan Carlos I wanted his country to become a democracy, and by 1977, Spain had its first democratic parliamentary elections.

When Aleixandre received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1977, 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 of kidney failure and shock from intestinal hemorrhage on December 14, 1984, in Madrid, Spain.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Aleixandre's famous contemporaries include:

Salvador Dali (1904-1989): Spanish surrealist artist and filmmaker; well-known for his painting The Persistence of Memory.

Francisco Franco (1892-1975): authoritarian leader of Spain from 1939 to 1975; pursued a policy of neutrality during World War II, although he helped Nazi Germany in its fight against the Soviet Union.

Jorge Guillen (1893-1984): Spanish poet and one of the Generation of 1927; lived in exile in the United States after 1938.

Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936): Spanish poet and playwright. One of the Generation of 1927, Garcia Lorca was murdered during the Spanish Civil War, his body dumped into an unmarked grave. His work was banned in Spain by Franco's regime until 1953.

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973): Chilean poet and Communist politician; awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.

 

Works in Literary Context

Vicente Aleixandre’s poetry evolved in line 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.

Surrealism and Organic Descriptions. Surrealism, which began in France in the 1920s, can be defined as the principles, ideals, or practice of producing fantastic or surprising imagery in art or literature by means of unnatural combinations. The surrealists tried to combine unconscious and conscious experiences, in a reaction against complete rationalism. Aleixandre frequently relied on surreal imagery in his poetry, even in later years when the surrealist movement had waned. Much of the imagery he used was based on nature and organic objects, revealing his respect for and love of nature and the idea that humankind was cutting itself off from its unity with the natural and spiritual world, to its own detriment.

A Wide Swath of Spanish History. Aleixandre’s life covered a period of Spanish literary history that extends from the masterly Generation of 1898 to the developments of the 1980s, including a period of poetry similar 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 Garcia Lorca and Neruda—Luis Cernuda, Pedro Salinas, Rafael Alberti, and Miguel Hernandez.

As a mature writer, Aleixandre was a mentor and guide to the younger generations searching for a poetic inheritance after the civil war. The younger generation saw in Aleixandre a connecting link with the older, precivil 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.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Aleixandre was famous for his use of surrealistic imagery in his poems. Here are some other surrealist works:

Alphaville (1965), directed by Jean-Luc Goddard. This movie, based on poems by the French surrealist Paul Eluard, combines science fiction and the style of 1940s Hollywood crime movies in its story of a secret agent in a futuristic dictatorship.

The Collected Poems (2002), by Federico Garcia Lorca. This Spanish-English bilingual edition includes newly discovered works, as well as revised translations of well- known poems.

Haunted House (1930), by Pierre Reverdy. One of Andre Breton's favorite books, this long prose poem is now available in a 2007 English translation by the well- known poet John Ashbery.

Selected Poems of Rene Char (1992), by Rene Char. This bilingual volume includes English translations of the French surrealist's work by nineteen poets and writers, ranging from William Carlos Williams to James Wright.

The Surrealist Manifesto (1924), by Andre Breton. This work by the French poet, one of surrealism's founders, outlines and defines surrealism, clearly stating that it should belong to everyone, not just artists.

 

Works in Critical Context

While Aleixandre had been popular with critics in Spain for many years, his Nobel Prize brought his work to the attention of a wider critical audience. His poems are regarded as structurally complex and carefully crafted, perhaps too hard for a general audience to fully appreciate. Critics acknowledged, however, that Aleixandre played a vital role in the evolution of Spanish-language poetry.

Importance of the Subconscious. Many critics, and Aleixandre himself, have noted Sigmund Freud’s influence on his exploration of the hidden passions and driving forces that operate beneath the surface of the mind. Lewis Hyde, one of Aleixandre’s noted translators, observed that a desire to explore ‘‘the strong undertow beneath the accelerating tide of rationalism’’ connects Freud, surrealism, and Aleixandre’s early poetry. Of Aleixandre’s poems Hyde says: ‘‘[They] are not an affirmation. They are not working out of a full and nourishing surreality, but away from the reality at hand. That...is part of their tension—they are the reflective mind trying to think its way out of coherence and precision.’’

Later Works Deemed Significant. Carlos Bousono, the foremost scholar of Aleixandre’s work, considers Poems of Consummation and Dialogues of Knowledge ‘‘possibly the two most intense books of a life rich in masterpieces.’’ Of the latter volume, Bousono states, “Aleixandre inaugurates in [Dialogues of Knowledge] a poetry of deaf and majestic slowness, spoken in the lowest chords, which I believe to be without precedent in our literature.’’

The analysis and evaluation of Aleixandre’s contribution to Spanish and universal literature is an ongoing process; as critical readings enhance with time the quality of his art, Aleixandre’s poetry is becoming an essential component of Spanish culture.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Surrealism tries to integrate the conscious experience with the unconscious. Surrealist works are often described as ‘‘dreamlike.’’ Do you agree with this description? Why or why not? Compare examples of Aleixandre’s descriptions with some examples from your own dreams, if possible.

2. Aleixandre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he is still not a very familiar name to English-speaking readers. Do you think learning a language besides English should be required in American schools? Even if English is a common language for international business, do Americans miss out on other cultures by not being familiar with other languages?

3. Using your library’s resources and the Internet, research Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer who refused to leave her country during a regime she was opposed to. Write an essay comparing and contrasting Gordimer’s and Aleixandre’s reasons for staying in their countries and the reaction they received.

4. Aleixandre was a lawyer and economist before he became a poet. Read the article ‘‘The Remnants of a Lost & Forgotten Library: On Finding the Lawyer Poets’’ by James R. Elkins at http://tarlton.law.utexas.edu/lpop/etext/lsf/30-1-2/elkins.html, and write an essay responding to what Elkins says.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Aleixandre, Vicente. A Longing for the Light: Selected Poems of Vicente Aleixandre. Edited by Lewis Hyde. Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 1985.

________. Twenty Poems. Edited by Lewis Hyde. Madison, Minn.: Seventies Press, 1977.

Daydi-Tolson, Santiago. The Post-Civil War Spanish Poets. Boston: Twayne, 1983.

________, ed. Vicente Aleixandre: A Critical Appraisal. Ypsilanti, Mich.: Bilingual Press, 1981.

Havart, Robert, ed. A Companion to Spanish Surrealism. London: Tamesis, 2004.

Morris, C. B. A Generation of Spanish Poets: 1920-1936. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.