This essay presents a study of the Spanish writer Luis Cernuda and his poetic appropriation of the English Romantic aesthetic and sensibility. A member of the Generation of '27, Cernuda left Madrid in 1938 to deliver lectures at Oxford and Cambridge, traveling to Glasgow, Cambridge, London, and the United States before finally settling in Mexico. As an exile in Scotland and England, Cernuda encounters Romanticism in the midst of the Modernist rejection of the era, negotiating questions of poetical ethics and pertinence during an era of modern warfare. Reading A Defence of Poetry and echoing Shelley a century later, he asks, “What is a poet?” “Poetry is not only useful,” Cernuda decides, “but also has certain social effects.” This essay offers an encompassing view of how Cernuda achieved a sense of unity in his own poetics, negotiating an English tradition with a Spanish one, while balancing his Romantic interests against contemporary Modernist pressures.
Toward Unity: Cernuda and English Romanticism
The Fruit of Exile
1. Luis Cernuda arrived in Great Britain in March 1938, with the lure of a series of lectures that the poet Stanley Richardson had promised to organize for him to escape the dangers of the Spanish Civil War. He remained in Glasgow until 1943, in Cambridge until 1945, and in London until 1947, whereupon he made his way to Massachusetts, always working in educational and university institutions. His stay in these English-speaking countries would be extremely fruitful: during this time the poet wrote numerous essays, several volumes of poems, a collection of short stories, and two books of prose poems (Ocnos and Variaciones sobre tema mexicano).
2. The first thing the years spent in England gave to Cernuda was his knowledge of the English language.  A glance at the texts written during his exile allow the reader to recognize a loss of familiarity with the natural turn of phrases in oral Spanish. His grammatical constructions abound in unusual expressions and anastrophes and it is very common to find in his writings the use of Anglicisms and linguistic loans. A second element to be highlighted is the choice of reading materials. During his first stay at Cranleigh School, Cernuda began to read Shakespeare, Blake, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Housman. Along with the Bible and the Spanish Golden Age classics, the English poets would always be present in his personal library. A third component acquired as a result of the years spent in England and the United States was the opportunity to engage in the translation of canonic works of the English literary tradition. Cernuda undertook the translation of two sonnets by Wordsworth, "The Definition of Love" by Marvell, "A Toccata of Gallupi’s" by Browning, "Byzantium" by Yeats, and Troilus and Cressida by Shakespeare. There are also indications that he was able to translate Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry and Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Finally, it must also be mentioned that he was able to acquire many of the aesthetic criteria and tools for engaging in literary criticism, a task that Cernuda cultivated profusely. Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge and Arnold—names that are also considered by T.S. Eliot among the most eminent literary critics—are some of the critics that he mentions most often in his writings.
3. Of course, the critic to whom Cernuda probably paid most attention was Eliot himself, towards whom he harbored mixed feelings. On the one hand he admired his poetry but, on the other, he lost a certain impartiality in his judgment when his own verses were rejected from Eliot’s Faber & Faber collection.  In this regard it should not be forgotten that Cernuda’s stay in Great Britain coincides with a moment of definitive recognition for Eliot: the last years of The Criterion, his beginnings in theater with the successful Murder in the Cathedral, etc. and with the conclusive backing of the Nobel Prize. In fact, I believe that at least three features of Eliot’s critique attracted Cernuda’s approval: the thesis of "Tradition and Individual Talent", according to which tradition is not inherited “naturally,” which was the criterion that had guided Cernuda himself during his formative years and had led him to expand his reading and to learn languages; the Eliotian “correlative objective” that Cernuda translates as “equivalente correlativo” in Historial de un libro; and the idea that the only legitimate critic is the poet himself, which was recognizably and perfectly embodied in Eliot. In any case, there is no doubt that these years, and especially those spent in England, left their mark on Cernuda. “Perhaps my stay there,” he would write to Edward Wilson from America, “has been the richest phase of my life so far, if not as a mold first, then as a refinement of what I took there with me."  Part of this imprint, no doubt, was his reading of the English Romantic poets.
The Areas of Shadow
4. When Cernuda says that he learned a lot from English poetry, that his stay in England “completed” and “refined” what he had brought with him, he was being very precise. That being said, what did the poet “bring with him” when he arrived in England? What readings, teachings or references are to be found in his poetry from 1927 to 1938? It can be said that his trajectory prior to exile was a kind of journey against the current of time: he moved from the purism of Perfil del aire (1927) to the surrealism of Un río, un amor (1929) and Los placeres prohibidos (1931); from there he shifted towards to the Becquerian Romanticism of Donde habite el olvido (1933) and, finally, geared in the direction of the great European Romanticism, with the watchword of a neo-paganism inherited from the Greek Revival under the guidance of Hölderlin, in Invocaciones (1935). In other words, our poet was already part of a Romantic family tree on the eve of his departure for England.
5. The starting point of that Romanticism—a consequence and a response to eighteenth-century rationalism—was the drama of the splitting of consciousness and the thirst for unity. Hölderlin exclaimed at the beginning of his Hyperion that the highest human aspiration was “to be one with all that is alive, to return to the whole of nature” (25), while Wordsworth encoded in his “Aeolian visitations” a hint of participation in the Spirit of Nature which he reveals in The Prelude. In Palabras antes de una lectura (1935), Cernuda gives an account of his beginnings in poetry:
6. If we look closely at this narrative of the origins, the Romantic affiliation clearly reappears. In Historial de un libro (1958), for example, Cernuda refers to the first time he was pushed to write poetry: during his military service he went out on horseback around the outskirts of Seville every afternoon, and during one of these excursions “things appeared to me as if I were seeing them for the first time, as if I were entering and communicating with them for the first time, and this unusual vision, simultaneously provoked in me an expressive urgency, the urgency to tell of this experience” (Prosa I 626). That was the same attitude that Coleridge had envisioned in his Biographia Literaria, and also that of Wordsworth in his Lyrical Ballads (1798), where this latter explains that the purpose of poetry was “to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom,” which prevents us from seeing everything anew. In short, this Romantic theorization of poetry would be an intimation of the concept of “defamiliarization” that formalist criticism would erect as the cornerstone of literary writing. However, as Cernuda had already said, this attempt to take over the world by word of mouth was invariably bound to frustration:
The Underlying Fire
7. It is worth making a few comments on the significance of this Cernudian reception of English Romanticism. First, we must remember the obvious fact that Spanish Romanticism had historically been very weak and had not produced any noteworthy poet. This would make of Cernuda a sort of “late-yielding fruit,” apparently inactive in an outdated rhetoric, if it were not for his ability to recover elements of that rhetoric in order to build a relevant discourse. Secondly, it should be noted that at the time of this reception, Romanticism had been “dismissed” in the English literary officialdom, due to the anti-Romantic tirades that Pound, Eliot, and modernism in general had launched against the Wordsworthian tradition since the war years, in order to displace some Georgians who were contemplating the exhaustion of that tradition. Thirdly, when Cernuda assimilated the reading of the English Romantic poets, he did not take into account the revision that began with The Mirror and the Lamp (1953) by M. H. Abrams. He could not have read either—as they were yet to be produced—the later interpretations of Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartmann, and Harold Bloom.
8. The Cernudian reading of Romanticism dealt with authors and works that had been subject to prejudice for decades. This was the case, for instance of the Victorian dilemma between the aesthetes, Wilde, Pater, Rossetti, etc., and moralists such as Carlyle, Arnold, and Morris, who tended to assimilate the Romantic legacy to the first group in a biased vision that amputated the Romantic message to the point of denaturing it. This was a dualism that, as Raymond Williams observed, was the result of the false image of the Romantic artist as an isolated aesthete in his individual solipsism (30).  Obviously, this dualism is indebted to the language of the Romantics themselves: think of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s fancy and imagination; or think of Coleridge’s distinction between reason and understanding; or think of the antagonism between reason and imagination in Keats’s "Letters"; or think of the all-pervading logics of dialectics in Blake, with the constant struggle of Los and Urizen. How could Cernuda cope with that?
9. The first half of the essay "Pensamiento poético en la lírica inglesa del siglo XIX" suggests that, according to Cernuda, the temperament and "metaphysical position" of these poets is only understood against the background of industrialization and rural exodus (and also, of course, in the context of the English empiricist tradition). His particular judgment on them confirms it: in Cernuda’s opinion, “the ethical intention is evident in Wordsworth” (Prosa I 295), while in Blake there would be a mystic and a revolutionary that our poet relates to the figures of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Thus, far from sterile aestheticism or inane escapism, Romanticism could have an outcome in the form of civil responsibility. In Río vespertino Cernuda states this in unmistakably Romantic terms when he declares that
10. Interestingly, this recovery of the ethical and political aspect of Romanticism had reached a remarkable milestone during Cernuda’s English years. In 1937 Stephen Spender—whom our poet met in a slightly unpleasant appointment recounted by Rafael Martínez Nadal (86–90)—published a book entitled Forward from Liberalism (1937). What was Spender’s proposal? Between the “anti-heroic” myth of Auden’s generation and the new political urgency caused by the rise of fascism, which would lead Harry Pollitt to wish that with his trip to a Spain at war he would become “a new Byron,” Spender advocated for a development of the Romantic program. In his opinion, this program had been fenced in; it promoted social justice and an idea of the role of the writer that returned to Shelley's famous phrase that poets are "prophets" and "the unacknowledged legislators of the world."  The Cernudian poetry of exile—with its heroic recreation of the figure of the poet, its critical position in the face of events, its evaluation of the Spanish reality, and its historical examination of Spanishness, as well as the warmongering and capitalism that shake his host countries—corresponds with this definition.
11. Of course, this does not mean that the totality of La realidad y el deseo fits within this Romantic image: modalities of discourse such as the doubling, the dramatic monologue, the culturalist piece, or the metaliterary poem of his last years point to other sources. What I want to highlight is that this consideration of Romanticism in all its breadth allows us to resolve the traditional dualism between the “Edenist” interpretation of the Cernudian work (the one defended by Philip Silver, according to which its fundamental meaning, with the “thirst for eternity” as the “unifying theme” (Luis Cernuda 48), corresponds to the Romantic argument of the expulsion from paradise) and the “ethicist” argument (the one fundamentally advocated by Derek Harris (13–14), for whom, as time goes by, there is a distancing "from the Romantic vision of the world" in Cernuda). Why? Because, although it is true that the Edenist thesis (the evocation of paradise, and the longing and the search for restitution, even if vicarious, through writing) is almost exclusively based on Ocnos and a few poems from La realidad y el deseo, if one considers Romanticism in all its aspects, as I have proposed here, the critical attitude is not excluded from the characterization of the Cernudian character as "Romantic." On the other hand, Paz's idea that our poet is "one of the few moralists that Spain has given," but a moralist "who tests the systems of collective morality" (116), fits perfectly into this model, which would provide a channel for Cernuda's temperamental individualism. Of course, the idea of "spiritual biography" that accompanies the ethicist thesis would be perfectly congruent with a Romanticism that, far from the symbolist ideal of full autonomy, always preserves a knot between the poet and the poem.
Toward a Poetic Theory of Unity
12. How does this Cernudian Romanticism manifest in the poems? Of course, it is not difficult to recognize in many moments of La realidad y el deseo an openly Romantic iconography: "Las ruinas" and "Otras ruinas" recreate a motif already used by Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley; "El arpa" obviously invites one to think of "The Eolian Harp" by Coleridge and in Shelley’s Defence; the blackbird of "Río vespertin" whose fate is “purer than that of man” seems to be inherited directly from the nightingales of Coleridge and Keats, from Shelley’s lark and from Wordsworth’s redbreast, and also reissues an eminently Romantic theme such as the affirmation of the superiority of nature over art (Poesía Completa 371); "Violetas," where the spiked flowers are for a moment “norma para lo efímero que es bello” and “vivo embeleso en la memoria,” introduces the theme of anticipating the memory of Wordsworth’s famous "Daffodils;" "El cementerio" and "Otro cementerio" recall the Romantic reflections raised by Gray’s memorable "Elegy." I would, however, like to look at other aspects of the Cernudian writings perhaps less striking or recognizable, but also less anecdotal, insofar as they inform the whole of his poetry of exile. To observe them (and to read in them a poetry of that longed-for Romantic unity), one needs only to reread "Cementerio en la ciudad," one of the poems from the Glasgow period, about the place known as "The Necropolis" in Townhead, adjacent to a local railway line:
13. This sense of expression was accompanied in the Lake poets by a very determined prosody: a discarding of the heroic couplet and a recovery of the Miltonic blank verse, which in the last century had seen notable attempts, such as Young’s Night Thoughts. In Cernuda’s case, the search for a different musicality and a diffuse intensity, scattered throughout the whole poem, which does not privilege that moment of brilliance, is obtained in part from a similar attempt that resorts to a dialogue between grammatical unity and meter (that is, between the phrase and the sentence that strictly coincided with Pope, creating an effect of mere juxtaposition). The “sliding from one verse to another, which in Spanish I believe is called encabalgamiento” (Prosa I 650), in the words of Cernuda himself, will be one of the most constant features of his poetry of exile, as can be seen here in lines 6–7, 12–13, and 19–20. Again, the discursiveness reveals a poetics of unity: the true sign is the poem as a whole, and not a memorable fragment that can be removed from the piece without losing its meaning.
14. This discursiveness often stems from a morose compositio loci, which relates many similar poems to the model that M. H. Abrams (1965) considered characteristic of high Romanticism: the great ode, which after a descriptive start in which the speaker is situated, focuses one’s attention on a detail of the panorama to introduce a reflection and finally returns to the initial stage, as happens in some poems by Shelley, Wordsworth and, above all, Coleridge. In "Historial de un libro," Cernuda linked this procedure with his teaching experience, in which he sought “that my explanations would lead the students to see for themselves what I was going to tell them” (Prosa I 645): in short, it was a question of evading the declarative form and seeking greater objectivity, not to blurt out to the reader a series of sentimental outpourings. It does not take much effort to recognize this series of events in "Cementerio en la ciudad," where the delay in the descriptive phase is accompanied by figures of amplification and argumentation: the parenthesis (line 14), the enumeration (first and third stanzas), the rhetorical question (line 17), conciliation (lines 19–22), the apostrophe (lines 28–30). These are strategies to expand from particular anecdotes to universal themes as, in this case, death (and its paradoxical link with life, in a relationship that is not one of mutual exclusion). This meditative aspect of Cernudian writing—which José Ángel Valente highlighted in Palabras de la tribu (11–12), relating it to the idea of Coleridge’s imagination—would have been a great renewal for a Spanish poetry that Miguel de Unamuno contemptuously defined in his 1904 letter to Juan Arzadun as mere “rhymed eloquence,” since it would allow for the “sensory apprehension” of thought (60–61)—that is, a reconciliation of faculties that was an eminently Romantic aspiration and that Schiller had placed at the core of the aesthetic experience: once again, the search for unity.
15. Finally, it is not too risky to say that, due to a surrealist influence—Vicente Huidobro’s creationism, Ramón Gómez de la Serna’s humor, Ortega’s boldness and approval—the poem was often a succession of metaphors in Cernuda’s generation. His choice of maturity, however, consisted of opting for the image, as can be seen here in the verses 12–13, 22–23 and 26–27. So, what’s the big difference? The key difference is that against the purely tropical technique, against the substitutive game, the image allowed the coexistence of real and figurative elements, and a poet who pursued both the free flight of the imagination and the rescue of the most literal empirical reality thus found the bridge between both kingdoms. Jorge Luis Borges, always such a friend of British literature, agreed in this regard when he advised the Spanish writer to beware of the phrase à effet for ingenuity, which is a danger, in a controversy as old as Aristotle’s Rhetoric. “In the image,” declares Cernuda, “there is more poetic creation than in metaphor” (Prosa I 175). Why? For the very Romantic reason that “imagination is more holistic than wit." Unity, once again. It was not in vain that the task of the poet, as "Río vespertino" outlines, was to “see the scattered being in unity.” Cernuda applied himself to the task with tools that his vernacular tradition could not provide.
Abrams, M. H. "Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric." From Sensibility to Romanticism, edited by Frederick W. Hilles y Harold Bloom, Oxford UP, 1965, 527–60.
Cernuda, Luis. Poesía completa, edited by Luis Maristany y Derek Harris, Siruela, 1994.
———. Prosa I, edited by Luis Maristany y Derek Harris, Siruela, 1994.
Harris, Derek. La poesía de Luis Cernuda. Universidad de Granada, 1992.
Hölderlin, Friedrich. Hiperión. Translated by Jesús Munárriz. Hiperión, 1989.
Martínez Nadal, Rafael. Luis Cernuda: el hombre y sus temas. Hiperión, 1983.
Munarriz, Miguel. "Luis Cernuda entre la Realidad y el Deseo." Miguelmunarriz.com. February 19th, 2015, http://miguelmunarriz.com/2015/02/19/luis-cernuda-entre-la-realidad-y-el-deseo/. Accessed 15 August 2019.
Pope, Alexander. The Poems of Alexander Pope, edited by Audra and Aubrey William, Yale UP, 1961.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Letter to Peacock, January 11, 1822. The Works of Thomas Love Peacock: Essays, Memoirs, Letters & Unfinished Novels, edited by H. F. B. Brett-Smith and C. E. Jones, vol. viii., AMS Press, 1967.
Silver, Philip. Luis Cernuda: el poeta y su leyenda. Castalia, 1995.
———. "Hacia un Luis Cernuda romántico-alegórico." Cien años de Luis Cernuda, edited by Nuria Martínez de Castilla y James Valender, Student residences, 2004, pp. 481–92.
Spender, Stephen. Forward from Liberalism, Gollancz, 1937.
Unamuno, Miguel. "Cartas a Juan Arzadun." Revista Sur. No. 120, año XIX, October 1944, pp. 60–61.
Valente, José Ángel. Las palabras de la tribu, Tusquets, 1994.
Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society: 1780–1950, Chatto & Windus, 1960.
Wordsworth, William. The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850, edited by Jonathan Wordsworth, M.H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill. Norton, 1979.
———. "The Tables Turned." Lyrical Ballads, edited by R.L. Brett and A.R. Jones, Routledge, 1968.
According to testimonies of his years in Glasgow, his English skills were underdeveloped. However, it is fair to assume that with time, and despite his shyness, Cernuda's linguistic skills in this language improved. BACK
The essay "Goethe and Mr. Eliot," for instance, could be read as a direct attack on Eliot. This essay is a direct rebuttal to Eliot’s Goethe, or the Sage (1959). Cernuda also openly contradicts Eliot in "Baudelaire en el centenario de Las flores del mal" (1959). However, the importance of Eliot as the central point of English criticism for Cernuda is undeniable: all the references made by Cernuda in his texts (Herbert Read, I. A. Richards, Lord Houghton, Middleton Murry, Lowes, etc.) match those listed in Eliot’s The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism and On Poetry and Poets. BACK
This information is found, among other sources, in Miguel Munarriz’ account "Luis Cernuda, entre la Realidad y el Deseo" available at: http://miguelmunarriz.com/2015/02/19/luis-cernuda-entre-la-realidad-y-el-deseo/ BACK
In fact, when in The Prelude, Wordsworth apostrophes his friend Coleridge (to whom the poem as a whole was dedicated), he does so with very particular praise:
A brief inspection is enough to refute this: Blake introduced criticisms of labor exploitation and racism in his Songs of Innocence, developed a summary examination of his own homeland in The Daughters of Albion, and proclaimed revolution in America; Wordsworth incorporated his autobiographical account of the march of European civilization in the chapters on the French Revolution included in The Prelude; Coleridge went beyond the subject of defending rural life in poems such as "This Lime-Tree Bower, My Prison" or "Frost at Midnight"; he expressed his disappointment at the revolutionary phenomenon in "France: an Ode" and admonished England against its own social and political ills in "Fears in Solitude"; Shelley adopted an avowedly committed attitude with Queen Mab and The Mask of Anarchy; and Keats, with his ideas on empathy, taken from Hazlitt and moralists from the previous century such as Shaftesbury and Adam Smith, advanced the modern poet's ethical viewpoint. BACK