Toward Unity: Cernuda and English Romanticism

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. [1] 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. [2] 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." [3] 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:

The poetic instinct awakened in me with the sharpest perception of reality, experiencing, with a deep impact, the beauty and attraction of the surrounding world. Its effect was, somewhat similarly to what happens with the desire that love produces, the painful and intense necessity to rise up out of myself, drowning in that vast body of creation. What made this desire even more agonizing was the tacit recognition of its impossible satisfaction. (Prosa I 602) [4]
I believe that with a touch of Freudian language (the urgency of artistic creation as the sublimation of eroticism, the “desire for death” as the path to reintegration into unity), it is easy to recognize in these words the same melancholy that moved Hölderlin and Wordsworth: the urge for communion with nature and the loss of a Kantian lost paradise of immediacy. That is to say, that poetic writing would have in its origin the ascertainment of this rift and would consist of an attempt (inevitably frustrated, suggests Cernuda) to suture it. Poetry, once wrote Novalis, heals the wounds that philosophy inflicts.

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:

I began to distinguish a simultaneous and opposite current within me: towards reality and against reality, of attraction and hostility towards what is real. Desire led me to the reality that offered itself before my eyes, as if only by its possession could I attain certainty about my own life. But like that possession I have never reached it except in a precarious way, hence the opposite current of hostility to the ironic attraction of reality. (Prosa I 602)
Hence, from this conflict, the title that presides over all his poetic work: La realidad y el deseo. Again, a further development of Romanticism: the inescapable tantalizing frustration in which Schopenhauer’s thought ends up. It is not surprising to find that this expression of isolated subjectivity is expressed through allegory. On this topic Philip Silver has observed that allegory is the means by which isolated subjectivity with the environment and nature is usually featured, given that—unlike the language of the symbols—it presupposes a pause, a disjunction ("Hacia"). Finally, this Romanticism had closed ranks around a fundamental idea, that of imagination. This dimension appears as an alternative to a scientific vision of the world, characteristic of the eighteenth-century mentality. It is science that Hölderlin accuses of “having ruined everything,” and it is through it that the poet has learned “to differentiate myself fundamentally from what surrounds me, […] I have thus been expelled from the garden of nature” (26). Wordsworth expresses this idea memorably in "The Tables Turned":
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things
We murder to dissect (lines 25–28; 103).
With its analytical impulse and its proliferation of distinctions, science would thus be reduced to a “scrutiny” of the physical world. [5] Against the inanimate mechanism, Wordsworth would pursue a personal and unitary experience of nature, in which something remains unobtainable through mere analysis. This idea of natura naturans and its correlation to the imagination as an invisible link between nature and the poet’s soul appears in the Ocnos poem meaningfully entitled "La naturaleza," where Cernuda recalls a child’s proximity to the natural environment:
What a joy when I saw the leaves break at last, and their tender color, which by force of transparency almost seemed luminous, accentuating the raised veins, darkened little by little with the strongest sap. I felt as if He himself had worked the miracle of life, of awakening on the fundamental earth, such a god, the form previously dormant in the dream of the non-existent. (Poesía Completa 554)
This passage resonates with the Rousseauian mythology of childhood as well as with Wordsworth’s idea of vision and faculty divine, whose purest expression lies in that of a child's gaze. It is only that this participation in the intimacy of nature takes place in the past perfect and in the third person, as if the poet were inescapably distancing himself from an experience he can no longer share, in a melancholic suggestion. In any case, if Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Keats agreed on something, over and above the nominalist differences, it was in vindicating that the queen among the faculties, imagination, is capable of glimpsing a reality superior to everyday life. Cernuda, who revels the Romantic imagination as the source of the “individualistic attitude” and the “supremacy of the spirit” characteristic of Romantic poets (Prosa I 271–72), is very close to this Romantic idea when he affirms that the essence of the poetic problem “is the conflict between reality and desire, between appearance and truth, permitting us to achieve some glimpse of the complete image of the world that we do not know, of the ‘divine idea of the world that lies at the bottom of the appearance,’ according to Fichte’s phrase” (Prosa I 602). On the other hand, on the marginal nature of this task, (the historic defeat of the Romantic amendment to the unilateralities of enlightened rationalism), our poet is not fooled: “Modern society, unlike those that preceded it, has decided to dispense with the inseparable mysterious element of life. Unable to explore it, society prefers to pretend not to believe in its existence. But the poet cannot proceed in this way and must count on that area of shadow and fog in life that floats around human bodies” (Prosa I 602–4). The Cernudian melancholy therefore exudes a quality that places it unequivocally in the tradition of high European Romanticism. It also places it on the path of some sort of “reactionary” or anti-modern trend: despite the attempt of modern scientificism to “disenchant” the world—according to Weber, and later to Adorno and Horkheimer—the mystery in life remains. And that means that the ultimate truth cannot be grasped through reason, but through imagination.

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). [6] 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

sueño no es lo que al poeta ocupa,
más la verdad oculta, como el fuego
subyacente en la tierra. [7] (Poesía completa, lines 14–16; 371)
The revelation of the imagination is an alternative reality to mere (and unsatisfactory) factuality. Contrary to what the doctrines of the engaged artist proclaimed in the twentieth century, Cernuda’s civil responsibility did not opt for a dissolution of individuality. The task of challenging individualism, which in Byron or Shelley could reach the theatrical, was only the starting point of the Romantic program. Cernuda seems to remember this criterion when he writes in "La visita de Dios" that
por mi dolor comprendo que otros inmensos sufren
hombres callados a quienes falta el ocio
para arrojar al cielo su tormento. [8](Poesía completa, lines 34–36; 92)
In "Palabras antes de una lectura" he had already suggested this privileged (but responsible) place of the poet:
What can the poet do for himself? Never before has society reduced life to such narrow limits. Certainly, the poet is almost always a revolutionary, at least I believe he is; a revolutionary who, like other men, lacks freedom, but who, unlike them, cannot accept this imprisonment and who runs into the walls of his prison countless times. (Prosa I 603)
Poetry, in short, could constitute a sort of ultima ratio, and the poet would be characterized as a being defeated beforehand by the practical world that of mere efficiency, capitalism and Realpolitik. Moreover, Cernuda goes so far as to claim that in expressing man’s reaction to survive in a society where there is no room for him, Blake and Wordsworth would be, even before Baudelaire, the first modern poets. Against this state of affairs (that of “reality”), Cernuda opposes an ethical affirmation, that of “desire,” which is once again Romantic, in the tributes to the figure of the literary hero contained in poems such as "F. G. L," "A Larra, con unas violetas," and "Góngora" among others. In these texts, the poet is shown in constant confrontation with a hostile environment and political dissatisfaction would form part of his case. "Poetry is not only useful," Cernuda deduces from Shelley’s Defence, "but also has certain social effects" (Prosa I 333). This is not to say that our poet is in favor of all the Romantic pronouncements in this sense, and in his reluctance we can see the shadow of the problems and the embarrassment that imprisoned the writer of the twentieth century—fundamentally, the urgency of taking sides but the reticence to a compromise that reduced his voice to a watchword. On Shelley, Cernuda observes that the primacy of action can be guessed in him, and only when this latter failed did the English poet make up his mind to use his forces differently—that is, in an exercise of writing that would be characterized as a substitute for real political activity. The result is a poetic theory that borders on propaganda, as can be seen in the letter to Thomas Love Peacock—written in Naples on January 26th 1819—, which Cernuda mentions: “I consider poetry,” Shelley said there, “to be very subordinate to morality and political science” (Shelley quoted by Cernuda 501). Despite the Victorian caricature, the poetics of political engagement were sometimes not too far from the Romantic sensibility. In fact, the Romantic poets were very often on the verge of preaching such a doctrine. And Cernuda, long before Williams stressed on this aspect, was quite right to underline the moral and political implications of some of these poems.

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." [9] 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:

Tras de la reja abierta entre los muros,
La tierra negra sin árboles ni hierba,
Con bancos de madera donde allá a la tarde
Se sientan silenciosos unos viejos.
En torno están las casas, cerca hay tiendas,
Calles por las que juegan niños, y los trenes
Pasan al lado de las tumbas. Es un barrio pobre.
Como remiendos de las fachadas grises,
Cuelgan en las ventanas trapos húmedos de lluvia.
Borradas están ya las inscripciones
De las losas con muertos de dos siglos,
Sin amigos que les olviden, muertos
Clandestinos. Mas cuando el sol despierta,
Porque el sol brilla algunos días hacia junio,
En lo hondo algo deben sentir los huesos viejos.
Ni una hoja ni un pájaro. La piedra nada más. La tierra.
¿Es el infierno así? Hay dolor sin olvido,
Con ruido y miseria, frío largo y sin esperanza.
Aquí no existe el sueño silencioso
De la muerte, que todavía la vida
Se agita entre estas tumbas, como una prostituta
Prosigue su negocio bajo la noche inmóvil.
Cuando la sombra cae desde el cielo nublado
Y el humo de las fábricas se aquieta
En polvo gris, vienen de la taberna voces,
Y luego un tren que pasa
Agita largos ecos como un bronce iracundo.
No es el juicio aún, muertos anónimos.
Sosegaos, dormid; dormid si es que podéis.
Acaso Dios también se olvida de vosotros.
(Poesía completa 234, lines 1–30) [10]
One of the constants of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s poetry is a sense of expression that rejects the wit-writing of the Augustan poets: that association of wit—“For works may have more wit than does ‘em good, / As bodies perish through excess of blood,” Pope himself warned (303–4)—that in Coleridge's theory is linked to an "inferior" faculty, fantasy. Cernuda takes up this doctrine with no less constancy: in "Tres poetas metafísicos" he warns that the predominance of wit was “a primary condition and instrument of imaginative creation” in seventeenth-century Spanish “conceptismo,” and that “under such a weight of associations the unique reality that the word supposes disappears as something annoying and useless” (Prosa I 512). The verbal fireworks would have an irritating effect that subtracts their substantial reality from things. Hence the accusation of a “wit game” that Cernuda launches against Salinas and, in general, against much of the Spanish tradition. In the face of the rapid and startling succession of parts, Cernuda stressed the unity of the whole. The circularity of "Cementerio en la ciudad," where the fourth stanza picks up and places in time the scene of the first one, where every startling association is eluded to (except, slightly, in the adjectivization of the “clandestine dead”), points in that direction.

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.

Works Cited

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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." February 19th, 2015, 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.


[1]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

[2]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

[3]This information is found, among other sources, in Miguel Munarriz’ account "Luis Cernuda, entre la Realidad y el Deseo" available at: BACK

[4]All translations from Spanish by Gabriel Insausti. BACK

[5]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: thee
Science appears but what in truth is,
Not as our glory and our absolute boast,
But as a succedaneum, and a prop
To our infirmity. No officious slave
Art thou of that false secondary power
By which we multiply distinctions [...]
To thee, unblinded by these formal arts,
The unity of all hath been revealed. (Book II, 211–222)

[6]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


the poet’s business is not slumber,
but the hidden truth, like the fire
underneath the earth. (Poesía completa 14–16; 371)


Through my own grief I understand other men’s grief,
silent men who lack the spare time
to throw their agony to the heavens. (Poesía completa 34–36; 92)

[9]From A Defence of Poetry BACK


"Graveyard in the Town"
Behind the open railing, among the walls,
The black soil with no trees or grass,
With wooden benches where in the afternoon
Sit silent a few old men.
Around are the houses, some shops nearby,
Streets where children play, and the trains
Pass close from the tombs. It is a poor suburb.
As patches of the grey façades,
Rain-wet cloths hang from the windows.
The inscriptions on the stones of those
Who have been dead for two centuries, are blurred,
Without friends to remember them, underground
Dead. But when the sun rises
-because the sun is bright some days in June-
The old bones must feel something deep inside.
Not a leaf, or a bird. Just the stone. The soil.
Is Hell so? There is grief with no oblivion,
With noise and poverty, and a long hopeless chill.
Here is not the quiet sleep
Of death, for life still
Moves among these tombs, like a prostitute
Who pursues her business under the still night.
When the twilight falls from the cloudy sky
And the smoke from the factories stays still
And becomes a grey dust, voices come from the pub
And then a passing train
Shakes the old echoes like an angry bronze.
It is not the Final Judgment, you anonymous dead.
Keep quiet, sleep, sleep if you can.
Maybe God has forgotten you, too.
(Poesía completa 234, lines 1–30)


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