Keatsians in Argentina: Borges’s Nightingale and Cortázar’s Chameleon

This essay focuses on Keats’s reception and critical influence through the eyes of Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, the two giants of Argentine letters. Both writers depicted and identified Keats as a misunderstood figure that needed to be rescued by their intervention. They seek to integrate Keats as a member of their own intellectual community, regarding him “not as a master but as a comrade-in-arms.” Cortázar and Borges’s reading of Keats as a contemporary challenges the colonial view of Latin American literary creations as subsidiary of the European tradition, renegotiating transatlantic dynamics of colonial cultural interactions. The essay traces the theme of Negative Capability in Borges’s 1952 essay "Keats’s Nightingale," and the chameleon figure in Julio Cortázar’s Imagen de John Keats.

Keatsians in Argentina: Borges’s Nightingale and Cortázar’s Chameleon

1.        During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many Latin American writers were fascinated by the aristocratic and legendary lives of British Romantic poets such as Byron and Shelley. Their poetic works had not only a literary but also a political impact in Spanish speaking countries, where they were seen as paradigmatic images of rebellion, independence, and revolution. These figures were incorporated and imported into the Latin American imagination as early as 1850 (as shown in this volume’s essays by Hart, Payán, and Insausti). Keats, however, did not enjoy the same celebrity; his short life was full of financial trouble, and it was very unlikely that he would inspire the imagination of the Latin American writers of the time, so avid of glamorous, Romantic heroism. His afterlives in this continent would not spark until the 1950s, when he was awoken by two Argentinian writers, Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, who portray him as an odd presence of the English Romantic letters. They see in his image a reflection of their own condition as outsiders to the European canon. Although Keats is already established as a pillar of British poetry, they approach him as a sort of “minor” writer who has not yet received proper recognition. By strategically approaching Keats as an “underrated” predecessor, Borges and Cortázar succeed at transplanting him as a living presence into their own time and city of Buenos Aires, decades after the poet’s death in Rome. In Borges’s essay we will meet Keats by the fire of the family’s personal library. We will meet him again, later, walking arm in arm with Cortázar, wandering around the outskirts of the city.

2.        My analysis of these transatlantic dialogues trace two different readings. In Borges’s works, the Romantic poet is the object of celebratory odes and the topic of an insightful essay that underscores his uniqueness and originality. With his characteristic erudite irony, Borges proposes that Keats has been misunderstood by English critics, and offers himself as a poetic defense attorney that pleads for a corrective view of his works. Cortázar, on the other hand, rescues Keats’s image through a lengthy biography written between 1948 and 1952, where he brings the Romantic poet as a pal that walks with him through Buenos Aires. Through an examination of these afterlives, I ask the question of how Cortázar and Borges invent their own image of the British poet in order to engage with him as equals. Subverting canonical and colonial hierarchies, both Argentinians draw portraits of Keats as a “marginal” and misunderstood poet that needs to be rescued by their intervention. They feel entitled to reinterpret and reassess the value of his works, to integrate his presence into their own community of intellectual peers—not as a master, but as a comrade-in-arms.

3.         It is no coincidence that two of the most prominent readers of Keats in Latin America happened to be from Argentina. Historically, this country was shaped and transformed by waves of immigration from the early nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth. During these decades, the immigration of Europeans was not only well regarded, but encouraged and even facilitated by government policies. [1] Like many other South American countries, after declaring its independence, the recently constituted Nation of Argentina sought to find its path towards progress and modernization. The feeling of belatedness in comparison to Europe caused the former colonies to look towards the Old Continent in search of political, intellectual and economic models. Politicians such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento were convinced that by importing goods, products, and ideas, the country would promptly make its way into “civilization.” [2] Following the same logic, he opened the borders and invited citizens from Italy, France, Spain, and England—among others—to settle in Argentina, under the belief that the migratory waves would transform the country into a modern and prosperous European-like state. I will not comment here on the problematic ideology behind these political decisions, nor about its socio-economic consequences. I allude to this historical event only to underline the fact that during these years, there was an important presence of European cultural goods, art objects, and ideas that were brought into the country by the families and individuals who established themselves here. The immigrants who came to Argentina and settled in the country brought with them not only a work force, industrial knowledge, machinery, and economic practices, but also their own languages, objects, and even their private book collections.

4.        This was the case of Jorge Luis Borges’s ancestors. Following the accounts that the author provides about the history of his family in his Autobiographic Essay, Emir Rodriguez Monegal reminds us of Borges’s English origins and alludes to the formative influence of the British grandmother who, “though she had come to Argentina as a young woman and had married an Argentine … continued to inhabit the English speaking world” (15). In his well-documented biography, Rodriguez Monegal tells the story of Fanny Haslam’s arrival to Argentina, her marriage to Francisco Borges, and the years she lived in the same household with both of Jorge Luis’ parents (7–9). Under Fanny’s care, Georgie—as he was called by his relatives—grew up speaking English at home and “learned to read in this language before he did in Spanish” (15). The importance of providing an English education in the Borges family is not to be underestimated: not only was the language used within the household but was also a fundamental part of their schooling. Instead of sending young Jorge Luis to a public institution, his father hired an English governess to oversee the first years of his son’s education (Rodriguez Monegal 98). This decision was not motivated exclusively by a nostalgic—and undoubtedly colonial—attachment to the traditions and culture of Europe. As the Uruguayan biographer observes, it must also be understood within the frame of historical events:

…there was then rampant in Argentina a sort of pro-British snobbery that would dominate Buenos Aires society as the century advanced … This change had an economic base … the independence of the River Plate area was achieved under the aegis of British diplomacy and commerce. Until World War II, Argentina belonged to the pound sterling international trading zone and was virtually part of the Commonwealth. (18)
The role England played in the development of industry, trade, politics, and culture was such that during the last quarter of the century, as Erika Beckman reminds us, Argentina formed part of what historians have called “Britain’s ‘informal’ empire” (112). [3]

5.         In this context of commercial and cultural attachment, where the consumption of European culture and products was equated with the aqcuisition of a “civilized” status, it is not surprising to find spaces that symbolically embody this admiration and dependence. This is the case of Borges’s family collection, full of “unlimited English books,” which Jorge Luis speaks of with marvel: “If I were asked to name the chief event in my life, I should say it was my father’s library. In fact, sometimes I think I have never strayed out of that library” (quoted by Rodriguez Monegal 3). It is in this room—remembered by Borges as a mythical space—that he one night felt the revelation of poetry as he heard his father recite the "Ode To a Nightingale." This is also the moment when his apprectiation for Keats started, as did his life-long dialogue with the poet. In a house of British descendants located on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, amongst an admirable collection of English books, began the first of Keats’s Argentinian afterlives discussed here. [4]

6.         In Otras inquisitionces (1952), Borges includes an essay entitled "El ruiseñor de Keats" ("Keats’s Nightingale"). This text puts forwards an interpretation of the famous ode where Borges underscores an opposition between human transcience and poetic immortality. Borges analyzes this poem as a reflection upon the atemporality of the poetic rapture that is presented as successive across the ages and is, therefore, eternal. The nightingale is adopted as the symbolic image of this phenomenon and when it is perceived, the poetic mystery is momentarily revealed. However, this revelation also brings about awareness of one’s own mortality: when confronted with the sublime feeling of beauty and eternity, humans are reminded of their own death. Though Borges’s interpretation is interesting, there is not much novelty in it. What I want to highlight instead as an original approach in his text is the fact that Borges insists on drawing a portrait of Keats as a “marginal” and misundersood figure. In order to do so, he skillfully combines biographical information with critical readings of the ode to put forward a rather heterodox interpretation.

7.         In the opening lines of the essay, Borges alludes, almost as in passing, to the hardships that defined Keats’s life:

Sick with tuberculosis, poor and perhaps also unfortunate in love, at the age of twenty-three, on one April night of 1819, he composed the "Ode to a Nightingale." In that suburban garden, he heard the eternal nightingale of Ovid and Shakespeare, and he felt his own mortality, and he contrasted it to the tenuous everlasting voice of the invisible bird.” (II: 95) [5]
His appropriation of the Romantic poet emphasizes the elements that make of him an underdog, a “suburbian” presence with regards to his environment and to the English tradition. The insistence on drawing his portrait according to the legend of “poor Keats,” as well as his emphatic location of the poet in a “jardin suburbano,” responds to the centrifugal force by which Borges tries to pull the Romantic poet towards a position of symbolic marginality. And by doing so, he succeeds in locating himself in a position of parity with his English peer. The essay elaborates on this “creative misreading”—using Harold Bloom’s critical term—and uses additional critical materials to reinforce a fringe-reading of Keats. It is not by chance nor a mere adherence to conventions that Borges forefronts this information. The dramatic effect of this presentation moves the reader to interpret his sickness and poverty as signs announcing Keats’s isolation and estrangement. By highlighting this, Borges applies the first brush strokes of a portrait that fits the legend of “poor Keats” which, as Edward Hirsch observes, “comes not only from his early detractors … but also from some of his later admirers” (xvii). What we find in the letters, as well as in the many reliable biographies of the poet (Lowell, Roe, Bate), is that the spring of 1819 was not such a terrible season for Keats. Although the first signs of his illness were already manifest, his health had not yet dramatically deteriorated. Following the death of his brother, he is constantly sourrounded by close friends and keeps a most active social life. Additionally, he has just met Fanny Brawne and they have fallen in love. None of this comes across in the depiction that Borges offers, where we find a much more passive, frail, and isolated character. The Argentine author selects a number of facts that fit into the legend of the feeble and sensitive artist outcasted by his society. By creating a narrative that coherently reinforces this view, the displacement of the English writer to a position of marginality allows Borges to situate himself in a relation of closeness and empathy from which he can advocate for his predecesor.

8.        Simultaneously, as he builds up the case of margnizalization that calls for a corrective intervention, Borges advances a veiled tactic of identification: by pointing out that the place of composition of the ode was a suburban garden, he draws a parallel with his own biography. He wishes to stress the fact that he and Keats are located on the peripheries of their respective cities. Both Keats and Borges are poets of the outskirts. What appears as a seemingly anecdotal remark points to a more complex strategy of shifting towards the margins of cultural centers. Symbolically, Borges is trying to dislodge this celebrated bard from his pedestal and drags him back out to the outposts of the English tradition. While recognizing his centrality for the canon of British poetry, Borges is more interested in emphasizing the image of an isolated Keats who does not fully belong to London society. By placing him back in the suburbs, the Argentine writer starts laying the suggestion that will be developed in further paragraphs: to encounter Keats, to dialogue freely with him, they must meet outside of the charted maps of metropolis. As they move away from the established cultural centers, hierarchies weaken and the stability of literary institutions starts to fade out, allowing for alternative networks of connection to be created and relations of influence to be renegotiated.

9.        Before moving forward with this portrayal of Keats, a note on the notion of Borges’s sense of marginality is needed. The notion of a not-subordinate “periphery” becomes fundamental to understand Borges’s dialogues with other Western cultures and literary figures. In 1992, Beatriz Sarlo presented a series of lectures on the works of the Argentinian writer where she proposed to understand him as a “writer on the edge.” The central concept of her study was that of the “border,” and she analyzed Borges’s literature as one that is issued from gaps, spaces in between frontiers, and blurried limits. Sarlo points out that Borges’s poetry and fictions explore the imaginary spaces dividing the city and the countryside, the idealized epic past and his own present time, mythology and history, fiction and reality. Similarly, she observes how his writings are built upon a dialogue between national and cosmopolitan elements that intertwine and create a territory of exchange, tension, and hybridization. The Argentine author oscillates between local elements with which he does not totally identify, and the “nostalgia for a European culture which can never wholly offer an alternative cultural base” (Sarlo). By locating himself in the margins of his own culture and in the sidelines of other traditions, he makes his literature shift from one border to others, constantly renewing lines of attachment and familiarity to each side:

By reinventing a national tradition, Borges also offers Argentine culture an oblique reading of Western literatures. From the edge of the West, Borges achieves a literature that is related to foreign literature but not in any subordinate way… (Sarlo)
In accordance with Sarlo’s view of Borges as a writer on the margins, I would like to expand her idea and consider the Argentinian intellectual also as a “reader of edges.” From his self-assumed position as an outsider, he reshuffles the networks of literary tradition, bringing to light unexplored faces of canonic writers and uncharted paths of connection between texts that would otherwise remain foreign to each other. The reading of other authors as if they were also in the edges of their own time and space allows for the creation of alternative options of spatial and chronological organization that do not need to conform to the constrains of geographical proximity or linear historicity. What Borges as a reader of peripheries gains is the possibility to playfuly appropriate elements from the central tradition in order to bring them outside of their original circles in order to playfully rearrange them, reinvent new constellations and move around grativational centers.

10.        But let us return now to Borges’s portrayal of Keats and the interpretation of his poetry. After this presentation of the background and biographical information of the English poet, Borges claims that Keats’s "Ode To a Nightingale" has been essentially misunderstood by Anglophone intellectuals and critics. First he points at what, in his opinion, is the most remarkable aspect of the poem: Keats’s intuitive vision of the bird as a platonic archetype. He contrasts his platonic reading of the poem with that of other scholars he deems erroneous. In his essay, Borges quotes Sidney Colvin’s opinion as a first example misinterpretation:

In his monographic work about Keats, published in 1887, Sideney Colvin … perceived or invented a difficulty in the aforementioned [seventh] stanza. I transcribe his curious declaration: “by a breach of logic which is also, I think, a flaw in the poetry, he contrasts the transitoriness of human life, meaning the life of the individual, with the permanence of the song-bird’s life, meaning the life of the type” (II: 95, emphasis added)
With his characteristic irony, Borges labels Colvin’s observation as “voluntary” misperception. As he questions the validity of the division between the individual and the type set by the critic, he also undermines the opinion of other scholars who adhere to this premise: Robert Briges, F.R. Leavis, and H.W. Garrod (95). He is less severe with the opinion of Amy Lowell, for whom the nightingale of the poem should be interpreted only as the “species nightingale,” [6] and not as an individual presence. Borges goes on to drastically deny that there is any opposition whatsoever between the actual bird heard by Keats “on one April night of 1819” and the generic image. [7] To support his opinion, he turns to Schopenhauer’s theory of archetypes and quotes from The World as Will and Representation:
Ask yourself honestly whether the swallow of this year’s spring is an entirely different one from the swallow of the first spring, and whether actually between the two the miracle of creation out of nothing has been renewed a million times, in order to work just as often into the hands of absolute annihilation. (II: 482)
This excerpt provides an endorsement to interpret the nightingale as an embodiment of a platonic form. From the perspective of the German philosopher, the bird heard by Keats repeats the same song as all other nightingales that ever existed. This reading was, to Borges, just too evident, and he is puzzled by fact that no English reader had been able to solve the question sooner: “How did Garrad, Leavis, and the like, not get to this interpretation?” (II: 95). In a provocative statement, he ascribes this blindness to what, in his opinion, is an essential trait of the British character:
Men, says Coleridge, are born Aristotelian or Platonic. One could say that the English mind was born Aristotelian. What is real, for this type of mentality, are not the abstract concepts, but the individualities; not the generic nightingale, but the concrete nightingales. It is only natural, inevitable perhaps, that the Ode to a nightingale was not rightfully understood in England. (II: 96)
Borges adopts Coleridge’s philosophical binary categorization as a tool to emphasize his representation of Keats as a mal compris. Through this reductive division, he is able to disconnect the Romantic writer from the “British” mental sphere, and he offers a depiction of an unfortunate Platonist isolated among Aristotelians. The Argentine even offers an excusatio that reinforces his ultimate goal of detaching Keats from the intellectual habitat of his country: “No one should read in the previously stated ideas a sign of disaproval or disdain … [The Englishman] does not understand the Ode to a Nightingale, but that valuable misunderstanding allows him to become a Locke, a Berkeley, a Hume” (97). This elegant attack, disguised as an encomium, is intended to build up the accusation that will open a necessary space for his own intervention. Reading and speaking from the outside of British tradition, Borges feels entitled to offer a corrective judgement of one of the main English poets and with utmost irreverence he defies the hierarchical organisation that relegates him to a place of subordination. He turns the tables around and locates himself in a position of intellectual superiority that symbolically refutes any colonial dependency or belatedness with regards to Europe. South-American intellectuals, he seems to assert, are sufficiently prepared to beat Europeans at their own games.

11.         In the essay previously analysed, Borges relies on the legend of “poor Keats” to depict a frail and contemplative young boy touched by poetic illumination. Other biographers and intellectuals, however, recognize that there is another side to his life that must be accounted for: that of the lively, energetic, and curiosity-driven young man. Nicholas Roe, for instance, highlights the fact that if, on the one hand, we have a “‘a sickly boy of pretty abilities’ who had missed his path in the world,” it is also necessary to see in him the “sturdy twenty-two-year-old, who strode six hundred miles around Scotland” (xv). Julio Cortázar is very keen to perceive this other facet of Keats, and it is in this light that he will compose his literary biography. For Cortázar, the Romantic writer appears as a presence full of joy, creativity, and poetic intelligence. His depiction is much closer to the impression that Roe gives, where the poet is described as “vigorous, colorful and animated” (xv), “a smart, streetwise creature—restless, pugnacious” (xvi). As we will now see, in his second Argentine afterlife, Keats does not inhabit the library of a suburban house; he appears as an energetic walker and an adventurous explorer.

12.         If Borges identified the nightingale as Keats’s totemic animal, Cortázar opted for the chameleon. The main characteristic that Cortázar highlights is his sympathetic capacity, the ability to become one with the other, and the ability to establish links of identification outside of the realms of one’s own subjectivity. In an attempt to present the Romantic poet as a living presence beyond his short life and the borders of British circles, the literary biography Imagen de John Keats opens up as a complex artifact in which Cortázar is able to relive part of Keats’s existence, and Keats can experience the contemporary Buenos Aires of his interlocutor (Ana Martínez 196). Thanks to a chamaleonic strategy of identification, Cortázar perceives his immediate reality through the eyes of the English poet to which he also lends his words. This sensibility of empathy and synchronicity resonates clearly with the “capacity of trascending the self, which Keats calls negative capability” (Linda Von Pfahl 453). The biographer becomes, then, a sort of “chameleon Poet” who—borrowing a passage from the famous letter to Woodhouse—“is perhaps not speaking from [himself]; but from some character in whose soul [he] now live[s]” (Keats 501). Cortázar engages in a process of identification with this “other” and, by doing so, develops the capacity of adopting “metamorphic identities, which furnish him with constant symapthetic identifications” (Li Ou 6). This aspect of the Keatsian negative capability is clearly recognizable throughout the biography, but I wish to highlight several passages when this phenomenon stands out more vividly.

13.        First, Cortázar draws a parallel between Keats’s journey to Scotland and his own excursion to Chile:

I do not know why the trip to the north that John Keats is about to undertake in 1818 brings me back to my own hiking trip in Chile. It is maybe because the two expeditions were mainly by foot and through landscapes surrounded by mountains and lakes… Upon my return from that trip I understood better Keats’s tour around Scotland and the region of the lakes. Without any touristic sentimentalization of it, I understood his state of mind: alert and vigilant before a reality that only partially captures his attention. (178–79)
By recreating a journey that is comparable to Keats’s hiking tour through Scotland, Cortázar retrospectively remembers his own his trek in the Chilean mountains as a process of “becoming” John. A phenomenon of reflection allows Cortázar to see his life through the lens of Keats’s biography. What this excerpt shows is that the Argentinian, following the practice of emptying out the self, uses this strategy of sympathetic identification as an epistemological tool.

14.         A second example of chameleonism resonates even more clearly with the Keatsian practice of openness and receptivity. As Cortázar recounts his first trip to Italy and recounts the feeling of awe that he experiences before the marvel of Greek sculptures, he borrows the words and the empathetic capacities of Keats himself to narrate this overwhelming experience:

I remember that a year ago I went to the museum in Naples, one morning of powdery light rain. That was my first reencounter with Greece. Annihilated, haunted, I was not thinking, I was not understanding, I was not comparing. Later I had something like a revelation, in which during those hours, I had been nobody, replaced by—how should I say this?—the statues that looked at themselves, that recognized themselves. It was as if they were chasing me away, throwing me out, but not “outside of my own being,” because the one being ousted was precisely my “self,” to the point where there was nothing outside of the marble recognizing one another, looking at each other, and enjoying themselves. (265–66)
This description of the museum shows a striking similarity with Keats’s own ideas and words, to the point where it could almost be read as a personal rewriting of the famous October 1818 letter:
As to the poetical Character itself… it is not itself—it has no self—It is everything and nothing—It has no character— … the poet has none; no identity … When I am in a room with People, if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then, not myself goes home to myself, but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me, so that I am in a very little time annihilated. (Keats 500–501)
Not only does Cortázar copy words, concepts, and even phrasings from this passage, but he also adopts the same philosophy of poetic anihilation. In a two-folded mimetic exercise, the Argentine embodies simultaneously Keats—on a textual level—and the statues he is contemplating—on his circumstantial plane.

15.         Keats’s “negative capability” also has an influence in Cortázar’s world view that goes beyond the biographic identification pointed out earlier. For the Argentinian writer, this empathetic ability also gains aesthetic, political, and ethical resonances. Ana del Castillo and Ana Martínez Santa recognize the fundamental importance that “negative capability” had in the development of Cortázar’s poetics and trace the presence of the “sympathetic imagination” in his novels and shorts stories. Both scholars follow trails of the symbolic presence of the chameleon all the way to the 1967 book La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos, in which Cortázar includes a short piece entitled "Casilla del camaleón" ("Chameleon’s square"). Here, Keats’s poetic theory is subjected to an unexpected political reading. In a heterodox interpretation of the chameleon theory, the author understands Keats’s sympathetic identification as a humanist force with a political implication: the unfailing recognition of other as equal. He frames this interpretation in what he calls a “Latin American time” and defends the importance of a poet like Keats in times when artists and intellectuals are judged based on their historical engagement (La vuelta 189). Cortázar does not hide his leftist affiliations and makes a strong defense of them, but also stands up for the validity and necessity of literary figures who do not restrict their works to ideological objectives. His vindication of Keats is thus very significant within the Latin American context. In the first place, it rehabilitates an aesthetic and sensitive approach to literature in a period when this option was considered out of fashion and socially irresponsible. Secondly, it provides the English poet with a letter of recommendation that grants him an entrance to Latin American circles where he would not have been admited otherwise.

16.         Julio Cortázar also perceived Keats as a “peripheral” figure and highlighted this condition with the purpose of relating to him as an equal. Through an act of creative misreading, the Argentine biographer dislodges Keats outside of the boundaries of his own time and relates to him as a contemporary. In Imagen, Cortázar creates the illusion that they both coexist in the margins of chronological time and meet in a dimension where temporal and geographic distances have been collapsed [8]. As temporal linearity is challenged in the pages of this biography, the sense of belatedness is also contested by Cortázar. From the opening pages of the introduction, it is made evident that the Argentinian does not look up to the British poet from a subsidiary position but speaks to him as an equal and challenges any assumptions of hierarchical subordination. The structure of their interaction does not reproduce a colonial pattern of defferent imitation and submission but, rather, maps a horizontal line of exchange. In the chapter labeled "Methodology," Cortázar states:

[I am going to write with] Keats on my arm; a more natural way to get to know him, rather than the usual manner, where the poor guy is put up on a cloud as the literary critics throw together a couple of chairs and tables to build a stage that he didn’t even need in the first place… And all this forms a part of this Keats, because I’m not going to write about him, I’m going to walk by his side. (19)
Rejecting the academic perspective in favor of a more familiar approach, Cortázar questions chronological lines, geographic divisions, and epistemological categories. Not only does he pretend to inhabit the same time and place as his peer, he also offers an alternative—and very Keatsian—way of access to literary knowledge: an empathetic identification. This is accurately observed by Steven Boldy:
Imagen de John Keats is a competent academic study… but it is also the day-to-day chronicle of an intimate friendship, and of the connections he builds with a poet “friend,” a model he admires. It is, at the same time, the chronicle of this relation and that of the writing of the book: Cortázar walks arm in arm with Keats in the streets of Buenos Aires and Hampstead. The phenomenon of identification is powerful… (18)
In the reconstruction of Keats’s literary biography Cortázar appears as an unapologetic and daring misreader. His goal is not that of rendering a faithful and elegiac homage to an English master. On the contrary, he strives to recognize Keats as a quotidian and tangible presence:
… in the past weeks John’s physical presence has haunted me more and more as I read his letters… All of a sudden he is so close by my side that it frightens me ... I see him, he is here; time yields to this tangential contact that drops me in 1819, in this suburb of time… in the heaths of Hampstead. (Imagen 214)
The text evidences a chronological multidirectionality that drops Cortázar into the Hampstead of 1819 and brings Keats to the Buenos Aires of 1950. This is, for Boldy, one of the most interesting aspects of the book: “the way by which the Romantic English poet becomes a contemporary of … Julio Cortázar. The latter, as a scholar, shows a profound knowledge of Keats and his epoch, as well as of his fellow Romantic writers … but he also affirms that it is necessary to read Keats as a contemporary voice” (19). Bondy recognizes the originality of the particular temporal displacement performed by Cortázar: he does not only transplant himself to the past as a meticulous historian, but also allows this poet from the nineteenth century to live, act, and speak in the present time, where he recognizes him as an active formative presence:
… I cannot feel Keats in the past. I don’t run into Keats on the street, nor do I expect to hear his voice over the phone

(and how beautiful it would have been to hear his voice, seeing him coming, short as he was, a little commoner, treating himself to a laugh)

but sometimes, I’m wandering around and I do run into poets of my own time and John is one of them. (Imagen 52–53)

Cortázar recognizes the limitations of the knowledge he can achieve through intellectual explorations. As a historian and a biographer, he can only draw a partial understanding of the person that was Keats, of his intuitions of beauty, his capacity for irradiating poetry. For he is unable to “feel” Keats in this dimension, he seeks to recognize in his environment the elements and people that evoke his presence. Reversing the direction of Keats’s sympathetic capacity, Cortázar searches for those of whom, in this time, awaken the memory and the presence of Keats.

17.         The dialectic movement in time that structures Imagen de John Keats attests to a search for an alternative idea of contemporaneousness. Instead of relying on temporal coincidence, the Argentinian proposes an idea that is very close to T.S. Eliot’s notion of tradition as a simultaneous order of existence:

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense … and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. (38)
For Eliot, past and present coexist in this imaginary dimension, and Virgil is virtually as close to Baudelaire as he is to Ezra Pound—his Four Quartets and The Waste Land are a faithful testimony and an illustration of this principle. The same functional reorganization of history can be recognized in Imagen, where the categories of temporal and geographic distance have been suspended. If the nineteenth-century poet can be seen as a contemporary it is because, to the eyes of Cortázar, both inhabit a dimension where the notion of proximity is determined by aesthetic, philosophical, and artistic affinities. This flexible notion of time and tradition allows him to knit an elaborate network of synchronicity that brings together otherwise distant authors. Imagen includes a constellation of other poets that the Argentine biographer also declares as citizens of Keats’s time: Rimbaud, Rilke, Valéry, Saint-John Perse, Neruda, and García Lorca, among others. In the chapter "Being in the World," Cortázar identifies, for instance, two of the most remarkable Spanish readers of Keats: Vicente Aleixandre (1898–1984) and Luis Cernuda (1902–1963). Despite the historical, cultural, and temporal gaps that divide them, Cortázar recognizes in them a fundamental “coincidence of attitudes and lyric production” that allow him to conceive them as “kindred Spanish-speaking poets; close to him, similar to him,” to his dear Keats (253).

18.         The two Keatsian afterlives that I have presented in the previous pages continue to be the most remarkable and significant readings of this Romantic poet in Latin America. As I have shown, Cortázar and Borges, writing from outside of the English tradition, claim the right to reappropriate Keats’s works and to integrate him as part of their most intimate and immediate cultural landscape. Both of them compose personal portraits and adapt the image of the nightingale and the chameleon to their own cultural landscape. By doing so, they readjust the divisions between center and periphery, challenging national, cultural, linguistic and academic boundaries. Their gestures of “irreverence” towards the canon and the centrality of the English tradition are far more significant than a playful demystification. What Cortázar and Borges achieve by bringing the dialogue to a familiar level is opening alternative symbolic spaces of interaction between Latin America and Europe.

19.         The sense of arriving belatedly to the “banquet of civilization”—as Alfonso Reyes states it (5)—was particularly acute in Latin America throughout the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, the movement of “modernismo” was the first to claim the right to a cosmopolitan culture and to dialogue with traditions beyond the peninsular Spanish heritage. From this moment on, the debate about the place of Latin America on the map of Western and world culture was remarkably animated. Cortázar and Borges are two examples of cosmopolitan intellectuals who defend the right of Latin American writers, artists and intellectuals to be recognized as part of that “universal” tradition to which, writing from a peripheral space, they did not have full access. Echoing Borges, Cortázar makes a strong defense of the idea that Latin America has as much right to profit from European traditions as any other intellectual from England, France, the United States, or any other country. Their literary dialogues with Keats are an example of the attitude towards culture that Borges described in his famous essay, "The Argentine Writer and The Tradition":

I believe our tradition is all of Western culture, and I also believe we have a right to this tradition, greater than that which the inhabitants of one or another Western nation might have ... I believe that we Argentines, we South Americans in general, are in an analogous situation; we can handle all European themes, handle them without superstition, with an irreverence which can have, and already does have, fortunate consequences. (I: 274)
The self-assumed peripheral condition of Borges and Cortázar, as I have argued, becomes a condition of productivity. The strategy of writing and reading from the margins, allows them to engage differently with the canon of European literary tradition. Instead of perpetuating a logic of submission and imitation, they actively engage in a renegotiation of their place in the broader western and universal tradition.

Works Cited

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Harvard UP, 1996. 

Beckman, Erika. Capital Fictions: The Literature of Latin America’s Export Age. Minnesota UP, 2013.

Boldy, Steven. "Mise en perspective de Imagen de John Keats." Cortázar, de tous les côtés, edited by Joaquín Manzi, La licorne UFR Langues Littératures Poitiers, Maison des sciences de l'homme et de la société, 2002, pp. 13–26.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Obras completas. Emecé, 1974.

Bridger, Gordon. Britain and the Making of Argentina. WIT Press, 2013.

Castillo, Ana. Keats, Poe, and the Shaping of Cortázar's Mythopoesis. John Benjamins, 1981. 

Cortázar, Julio. Imagen de John Keats. Alfaguara, 1996.

———. La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos. Siglo XXI, 1967.

Devoto, Fernando. "Ideas, políticas y prácticas migratorias argentinas en una perspectiva de largo plazo (1852–1950)." Exils et migrations ibériques au XXe siècle, vol. 2, no. 7, 1999. pp. 29–60.

Eliot, Thomas Stearns. Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. Faber and Faber, 1975.

Hirsch, Edward. Introduction. Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats. The Modern Library, 2001.

Keats, John. Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats. The Modern Library, 2001.

Lowell, Amy. John Keats. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925. 2 vols.

Martínez Santa, Ana. "Julio Cortázar y John Keats: hacia una ecología poética." Revista Hispánica Moderna, vol. 45, no. 2, 1992, pp. 193–209.

Moy, Olivia Loksing. "From Hampstead to Buenos Aires and Beyond: Anticipating Worlds in Julio Cortázar’s Imagen de John Keats." Forthcoming in Comparative Literature, vol. 72, no. 4, 2020.

Ou, Li. Keats and Negative Capability. Continuum, 2012.

Pfahl, Linda. "The Ethics of Negative Capability." Nineteenth-Century Contexts, vol. 33, no. 5, 2011, pp. 451–66.

Reyes, Alfonso. Notas sobre la inteligencia Americana. UNAM Cuadernos de cultura latinoamericana, 1978.

Rodriguez Monegal, Emir. Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography. Paragon House, 1988.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats. A New Life. Yale UP, 2012.

Rosarossa, María A. "Keats en Borges." Cuadernos de Literatura Inglesa y Norteamericana, vol. 2, no. 1, 1997, pp. 67–75.

Sarlo, Beatriz. Borges: A Writer On The Edge. University of Pittsburgh. Borges Center. Accessed 31 August 2018.

Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino. Facundo: Civilización y barbarie. Cátedra, 2017.

Schopenhahuer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. Translated by E. F. J. Payne, Dover, 1958. 2 vols.

Wilson, Jason. Introduction. Keats, Borges and The Nightingale. Keats-Shelley House, 2010.


[1] During 1852–1923 Argentina adopted a policy of “libertad de inmigración” which allowed European citizens to migrate to the country and receive the same rights and benefits as the locals. In some occasions the government also helped with the cost of relocation that incentivized the influx of migrants. For more information on this subject, see Fernando Devoto’s "Ideas, políticas y prácticas migratorias argentinas en una perspectiva de largo plazo (1852–1950)." BACK

[2]See Faustino Sarmiento’s Facundo: Civilización y Barbarie and his dycotomic división between European “civilization” and American “barbarism.” BACK

[3]To understand the complexities of the Anglo-Argentinian relationships, see Gordon Bridger’s book Britain and the Making of Argentina. BACK

[4]For critical studies that analyze the relation between Borges and Keats, see María A. Rosarossa’s "Keats en Borges," where she gives a thorough account and analysis of the symbolic presence of the nightingale in several short stories of the Argentine writer. See also Jason Wilson’s essay included in the commemorative book, Keats, Borges and the Nightingale. BACK

[5]All translations of texts from Spanish or French in this article are mine, with the exception of the fragments of Imagen de John Keats, which are a collaborative translation by Olivia Loksing Moy and myself. The original Spanish titles will be used for in-text quotations and references. BACK

[6]The passage by Amy Lowell that Borges refers to is the following: “Stanza seven has been the cause of much foolish chatter. In calling the nightingale ‘immortal bird’ and contrasting its eternity of life with individual man’s short existence, any one with a spark of imaginative or poetical feeling realizes at once that Keats is not referring to the particular Nightingale singing at that instant, but to the species nightingale” (252). BACK

[7]It is interesting to note that Borges incorrectly dates the composition of the poem: he dates it in April while Lowell clearly states, “we know the Nightingale to have been written in May” (237). BACK

[8]Olivia Loksing Moy’s article "From Hampstead to Buenos Aires and Beyond: Anticipating Worlds in Julio Cortázar’s Imagen de John Keats" offers an excellent analysis of the collapsing of temporal references in Cortázar’s texts. Moy cleverly explores the sense of “transtemporality” in Imagen de John Keats through the perspective of Way Chee Dimock’s concept of “deep time,” and offers an interesting take on Cortázar’s position in the map of World Literature. BACK