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.  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.”  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:
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. 
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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 . 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:
(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)
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:
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":
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 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
See Faustino Sarmiento’s Facundo: Civilización y Barbarie and his dycotomic división between European “civilization” and American “barbarism.” BACK
To understand the complexities of the Anglo-Argentinian relationships, see Gordon Bridger’s book Britain and the Making of Argentina. BACK
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
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
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
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
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