BORN: 1867, Metapa (now Ciudad Dario), Nicaragua
DIED: 1916, Leon, Nicaragua
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
Profane Hymns and Other Poems (1896)
Songs of Life and Hope (1905)
The Autumn Poem and Other Poems (1910)
Ruben Dario. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
One of the great names of Hispanic poetry, Ruben Dario is widely recognized as the embodiment of modernism in Spanish letters. He is best remembered for his innovative poetry, which blended experimental rhymes and meters with elements of classical literature and mythology. He spent most of his life outside his home country, working as a journalist and diplomat. A sense of tragic despair can be found in Dario’s poetry and in his life, which he devoted to poetry in a way that called for almost religious sacrifice.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Child Poet. Ruben Dario was born Felix Ruben Garcia Sarmiento on January 18, 1867, in Metapa (later renamed Ciudad Dario in his honor), Nicaragua. His parents separated when he was two, and he was mostly raised by aunts and uncles because of his mother’s poverty. He displayed a precocious talent for poetry, and one aunt in particular nurtured his literary aspirations. He was a writer by age fourteen; by seventeen, he was working as a clerk in the office of the Nicaraguan president, writing for the capital of Managua’s press, and giving public poetry readings. When his first book, Epistles and Poems: First Notes (1885), was completed, he published it under the pseudonym Rubein Dariio.
Dariio’s early interest in journalism led to his association with members of the intelligentsia. in 1886, he became manager of a Nicaraguan daily newspaper, then embarked for Chile, where he contributed reviews and creative pieces to the daily La Epoca (The Epoch). In 1887, he won a prize in a poetry contest in Valparaiso for his ‘‘Epic Song to the Glories of Chile,’’ a patriotic ode honoring Chile’s military victory over Peru in 1879. This victory presaged Chile’s 1881 occupation of Lima, the turning point in the War of the Pacific and an event that secured Chile’s dominant position in Latin America for years to come.
Dario’s first critically acclaimed work, Blue (1888), was released when he was twenty-one. This volume of prose and verse brought about a revolution in Spanish letters: a bold experimentation with line and meter construction, and a deliberate break with the conventions of Romanticism. Sonnets in unusual meters, the use of alliteration, and a rich association of metaphors, conceits, and wordplay reflect a mastery of the musicality of the poem. Blue marked, as Octavio Paz has written, ‘‘the official birth of modernism.’’
A Bohemian Vagabond and a Diplomat, Too. In 1889, Dario left Valparaiso for Central America. Over the next two years, his journalism work took him from Nicaragua to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. On diplomatic assignments, he sailed to Europe in 1892 and again in 1893. By this time, the vagabond poet, roving correspondent, and diplomat had become a symbol of a new bohemianism in Latin America. The fall of 1893 found him in Buenos Aires, serving as Colombian consul general to Argentina, writing for the daily La Nacion, and partaking of the cosmopolitan capital’s nightlife.
One of Dario’s key poetic works, Profane Hymns and Other Poems, appeared in Buenos Aires in 1896. An expanded edition was published in Paris five years later. This collection, which includes some of Dario’s most celebrated verses, would confirm his leadership of the Modernismo movement in both Spain and the Americas, and his revival of the stagnant poetic tradition in the Spanish language. Thematically, Profane Hymns is a multifaceted work that includes poems about creative freedom, love and eroticism, Christianity and paganism, and the poet’s critical attitude toward materialism and modernity. Stylistically, the book takes liberties with stanza forms and employs free verse, a form that later became prevalent in Hispanic poetry.
Falling Apart and Falling Together. While Dario was traveling and writing, his life was falling to pieces. His first wife died in 1893, after two years of marriage. And very soon after, he was tricked into marrying his first girlfriend, the unfaithful Rosario Murillo. The marriage quickly deteriorated, but they were never divorced. Rosario continued to pursue him, however, and to extract a portion of his income, for many years. In 1899, covering the aftermath of the six-month Spanish- American War of 1898 for the Argentine newspaper La Nacion, he fell in love with a young woman from the Spanish countryside, Francisca Sanchez. The couple had several children, two of whom died in infancy. Dario took to drink, a habit that gradually reduced his faculties and would ultimately lead to his untimely death. These circumstances of his life underlie the poetics of despair in Dario’s verse.
Dario collected his reports from Spain at the cusp of the twentieth century into the book Contemporary Spain (1901). As Nicaraguan consul to France, he resided in Paris from 1903 to 1907. During this period, he wrote perhaps his most important book of poetry, Songs of Life and Hope (1905). In this work, Dario has reached his artistic maturity: No longer ensconced in an idealistic ivory tower, he expresses concern for political unity and explores the tenets of a practical humanism. Poems such as ‘‘To Roosevelt’’ convey the theme of Hispanic cultural solidarity, while other verses insist on the possibility and importance of a future for humanity. Amid the life-affirming verses, however, there is also an undercurrent of disenchantment and despair, movingly expressed in the concluding poem, ‘‘What Gets You.’’
Final Years. In the final decade of Dario’s life, he continued to travel across the Atlantic between Europe and South America, despite economic hardship, and continued to compose verse. As a dedicated spokesman for Hispanic concerns, he urged Spain and Spanish America to unite against the imperialism of the United States. U.S. imperialism was driven, as Dariio saw it, by the arrogance of such leaders as Theodore Roosevelt, who far exceeded his mandate during the Spanish-American War, ordering the invasion of the Philippines. He had praise for some aspects of U.S. culture, however, as he reveals in ‘‘Salute to the Eagle,’’ published in The Wandering Song (1907).
The outstanding achievement of Dario’s final years, however, is the ‘‘Autumn Poem,’’ included in The Autumn Poem and Other Poems (1910). The poem is an exhortation to live, an invitation to the sensual world, and an embrace of death as the pinnacle of life. Here, if nowhere else, Dariio has reconciled his persistent melancholia with his own desire for hope and life.
Following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Dario left Europe for the last time, bound for New York. While there, he fell ill with pneumonia. His book Song to Argentina and Other Poems was published in 1914. A year later, his health declined; he returned to Nicaragua with Rosario Murillo, and died of cirrhosis of the liver in February of 1916.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Dario's famous contemporaries include:
Antonio Machado (1875-1939): Spanish poet, leader of a literary movement called the Generation of '98.
Juan Ramon Jimenez (1881-1958): Spanish poet who helped Dario publish work in Europe; Jimenez won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1956.
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939): Irish poet whose works were fundamental to the Irish literary revival; Yeats won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923.
Paul Claudel (1868-1955): French poet and diplomat known for his passionately Catholic writings.
W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963): African American intellectual and activist, author of The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and cofounder of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926): Spanish architect influenced by modernism.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919): American politician, hero of the Spanish-American War, and president of the United States from 1901-1909.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Ruben Dario's writing conveys a ''poetics of despair,'' a distilled and crafted essence of pain. Poetry is often the preferred medium for cries of anguish, as in the following well-known works.
''Dover Beach'' (1867), a poem by Matthew Arnold. This poetic lament for the human condition—''And we are here as on a darkling plain''—is one of the most famous poems of the nineteenth century.
''The Waste Land'' (1922), a poem by T. S. Eliot. This long, dissonant cry of universal despair is now regarded as a classic of modernist literature.
''It Was Not Death, for I Stood Up" (1924), a poem by Emily Dickinson. This brief poem describes a devastation so complete that it cannot even ''justify despair.''
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924), a poetry collection by Pablo Neruda. The most famous book of verse by one of the most distinguished twentieth-century poets.
''Howl'' (1956), a poem by Allen Ginsberg. The signature poem of the Beat Generation, a furious and freewheeling lament for the stagnant state of American culture.
Works in Literary Context
As a result of Ruben Dario’s education and early interest in poetry, he became familiar with the Western literary canon. French poets such as Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine were an important influence on Dario’s work; the Parnassian movement represented by Verlaine and Stephen Mallarme, for example, with its emphasis on art for art’s sake, is a direct precursor to Dario’s aesthetic. The Cuban poet-revolutionary Jose Marti, another father of Modernismo, is a significant precursor to Dario. In his youth, Dario also wrote some verses in the style of the Spanish Romantic poet Gustavo Becquer.
Modernismo. Dario became the leader of a new Hispanic literary movement called Modernismo, which should not be confused with Anglo-American modernism. This movement responded to a perception that Spanish letters had reached a low point; the new cultural and artistic attitude dominated the arts in Spain and Spanish America as the twentieth century opened. Modernismo adapts and blends the Romantic, Parnassian, and Symbolist movements current in Europe at the time. Its distinct quality is the expression of inner passions in a rhythmically stylized verbal music. Dario revived Spanish poetics with his vibrant language and novel technique, but his contribution goes beyond the formal. He demonstrated that poetry could be more than an aesthetic pleasure, but a vehicle for understanding all of human existence, an adventure in spiritual, social, erotic, and metaphysical experience.
Spiritual Syncretism. One important theme in Dario’s poetry, notably in Songs of Life and Hope, is the relationship between Christianity and paganism. Dario at times believed in God, and at other times did not. Essentially Catholic, he did not reject a deep religious syncretism—or merging of different belief systems—that could allow him to search for an understanding of what he experienced as the mysterious human presence in the universe. He sometimes tried to escape the existential despair that also dogged his footsteps through esoteric doctrines and the occult. And he found some comfort in a belief in the union of all nature, seeing all things as penetrated by a universal soul, in keeping with Eastern mysticism.
Spiritual Sensuality. These spiritual concerns also relate to the pervasive eroticism in Dario’s poetry, for the erotic is often presented in a transcendent or mythological light, as in ‘‘In Spring’’ and ‘‘Venus’’ from Blue. One of Dario’s most celebrated poems is ‘‘Flesh, Celestial Flesh of the Woman....’’ Dario described this poem in The Story of My Books (1912) as ‘‘a hymn to the mysterious feminine enchantment.’’ The poem likens female flesh to ‘‘divine bread / For which our blood is our wine!’’ Such references unite elements of pagan and Christian traditions. Dario considered women’s bodies as a source of the absolute, with the power, like the food of the gods, to bestow immortality. The profane and the sacred, from this perspective, are indistinguishable.
Poetics of Despair. Dario’s body of work can be studied in terms of a modern, existential, tragic despair; it is one of the terms that best define Dariio and other tormented authors of Modernismo. While the Romantics rhapsodized about boredom and ennui, Dariio developed the more modern concept of anguish, which opened the path to twentieth-century literature in Spanish. Dario’s biography surely reveals causes for his profound despair: the death of his young wife, his subsequent forced matrimony to Rosario Murillo, and her relentless pursuit of him; the deaths of two of his children; his economic woes; the loss of his Christian faith; and the debilitating effects of alcohol. He felt homeless and rejected from his own society, and even out of sorts with the era in which he lived. He perceived how art and poetry were devalued in the crassly materialistic process of modernization. All these sources of personal anguish are transformed into a finely wrought aesthetic form in his poems.
The Founder. In the prologue to Profane Hymns, Dariio asserts his unwillingness to serve anyone as a model, much less to imitate anyone else—all in the name of total freedom, of the artist’s need to create. Nevertheless, a century of Spanish poetry has followed in his wake. Most critics credit Dario with initiating a movement with enormous influence on literary works written in the Spanish language. Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz, for instance, referred to him as ‘‘the founder’’ of contemporary Spanish poetry.
Works in Critical Context
Dario achieved critical success very early in his career. The second edition of Blue, published in Europe in 1890, provided him with transatlantic recognition, mainly thanks to praise from Spanish novelist Juan Valera. No provincial writer had ever made such an impact on the European literary scene. Some early critics failed to find transcendent meaning behind his exotic imagery and stylistic virtuosity, but by the time of Dario’s death, he was eulogized worldwide as the fundamental Hispanic poet. Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria writes, ‘‘In Spanish, there is poetry before and after Ruben Dario. The Nicaraguan was the first major poet in the language since the seventeenth century.’’
Off the English-Speaking Radar. Although the volume of writings devoted to Dario is one of the most impressive in the history of Spanish and Spanish American literature, Dario remains largely unknown among English-speaking readers. The unique rhythms and linguistic nuances of his writings make them difficult to translate. In 1974, Keith Ellis published a groundbreaking study that presents the range of methods and perspectives employed by critics to study Dario’s life and works. The need for further editorial interest in Dario’s works is evidenced by the fact that there is no available critical edition of his complete poetry. To date, the only book of his poems to be translated in its entirety is Songs of Life and Hope.
Songs of Life and Hope. Recent critical interest among English-speaking readers spurred Duke University Press’s 2005 bilingual edition of Songs of Life and Hope, to which the response has been positive. Janet St. John observes, ‘‘Translators [Will] Derusha and [Alberto] Acereda have clearly worked hard to present the real Dario, an innovative writer worthy of further examination,’’ noting also that ‘‘Dario’s work is multifaceted and thought provoking.’’
Responses to Literature
1. In what ways does Hispanic literary movement known as Modernismo differ from the Anglo-American version of modernism?
2. What attitudes does Dario express toward modernity, progress, or the future in his work?
3. Syncretism is the merging of different beliefs or principles into a single worldview. Identify and discuss religious imagery and religious syncretism in Dario’s poetry.
4. Contrast ‘‘To Roosevelt’’ with ‘‘Salute to the Eagle.’’ What is Dario’s attitude toward the United States?
5. What is the significance of Dario’s technical and stylistic innovations in poetry?
Acereda, Alberto, and Rigoberto Guevara. Modernism, Ruben Dario, and the Poetics of Despair. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2004.
Brotherston, Gordon. Latin American Poetry: Origins and Presence. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Ellis, Keith. Critical Approaches to Ruben Dario. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1974.
Gonzalez-Gerth, Migue. Ruben Dario Centennial Studies. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970.
Harrison, Helen W. An Analytical Index of the Complete Poetical Works of Ruben Dario. Washington, D.C.: NCR Microcard Editions, 1970.
Ingwersen, Sonya A. Light and Longing: Silva and Dario: Modernism and Religious Heterodoxy. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.
Jrade, Cathy L. Ruben Dario and the Romantic Search for Unity: The Modernist Recourse to Esoteric Tradition. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.
LoDato, Rosemary. Beyond the Glitter: The Language of Gems in Modernista Writers. London: Associated University Presses, 1999.
Ramos, Julio. Divergent Modernities: Culture and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Latin America. Translated by John D. Blanco. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001.
Watland, Charles Dunton. Poet-Errant: a Biography of Ruben Dario. New York: Philosophical Library, 1965.
Gonzalez Echevarria, Roberto, ‘‘The Master of Modernismo.’’ The Nation (February 13, 2006): 29-33.
St. John, Janet, ‘‘Review: Songs of Life and Hope’’ Booklist (April 1, 2004): 1341.