SOURCE: “Spanish-American Poet: The Life and Ideas of Gabriela Mistral,” in Commonweal, Vol. 35, No. 7, December 5, 1941, pp. 160–63.
[In the following essay, Finlayson introduces Mistral to North American readers as a poet of sadness, an advocate for the downtrodden, and as a Christian evangelist of Democracy.]
In 1889 there was born in Vicuña, a small town in northern Chile, an infant who in the course of years was destined to be one of the most famous women of our time. Lucila Godoy was of humble parentage. Her family gained its living working in the fields, as did the majority of the neighbors in that agricultural region. Her earliest years were thus spent in the country. At the age of 15 she began her calling as a teacher in a small rural school. For several years, years which were decisive in her development, Lucila Godoy was dealing with children and with the very poorest children in her native land. When she was about 20 years old she went from elementary to secondary school teaching. She remained as a teacher and then as director of a school for 15 years. Throughout that period she visited many of the educational institutions in Chile, teaching at Traiguen, Antofagasta, Andes, Punta Areñas, Temuco and Santiago. Her idealistic and apostolic temperament exercised a strong influence on young people. But no one, or hardly anyone, knew then of her daily labor, heroic, hidden, and most fruitful for the invisible domains of the human soul.
When she was a teacher at Andes, a village near the mountains, she became known throughout her native land through a literary gathering that took place at Santiago, the capital, and was sponsored by the writers' society of that city. Carried away by her admiration for two European poets, Gabriel D'Annunzio and Frederic Mistral, she had submitted to the conference some remarkably beautiful poems entitled “Soñetos de la Muerte” (“Sonnets on Death”). She presented them under the pseudonym of Gabriela Mistral that was to be famous all over the world and bury her real name forever. They were published in Chile in 1922. Immediately there was the greatest enthusiasm for her poetic talents, seldom found in South America in so striking, so appealing, so profound a form. Her lyrical talent was recognized as among the very highest in all Spanish literature.
In Chile as in other Spanish-American countries it is the custom to give great writers commissions or consular posts in foreign lands in order to supply them with the necessary surroundings to develop their talents and thus brilliantly represent their country. It must be borne in mind that the Latin race has great esteem for literature. Especially in South America the leading poets attain a fame often wider and more popular than that of the most noted statesmen. Pablo Neruda, another of our greatest Chilean poets, has read his poems out of doors in public parks before thousands of people. In this way poetry takes on educative values, promoting esthetic sentiments.
In 1922 the Chilean Government gave Gabriela Mistral a commission to go to Mexico to study the founding and organization of libraries. The same year her complete poems were published in a volume entitled Desolación. The first edition was published in New York under the auspices of the Spanish Institute, whose president, Federico de Onis, was professor of Spanish Literature at Columbia University.
In Mexico Gabriela Mistral became associated with the educational work of José Vasconcelos and took the greatest interest in the problem of the Indian. At times her desire to express the sadness found in those original inhabitants of our America appears in her poetry.
Her educational and poetical endeavors were so successful that in 1926 she was appointed the cultural representative of Spanish-America at the League of Nations at Geneva. In Europe she filled the post of Secretary of the Institute for Intellectual Cooperation with its residence in Paris at the Palais Royal. In 1928 she represented Chile and Ecuador at the International University Conference at Madrid. The year before she had been the delegate of the Teachers' Association of Chile at Locarno. From then on Gabriela Mistral belonged to the consular service of Chile and has been Chilean consul at Madrid, Lisbon, Nice and elsewhere. At present she is Chilean consul at Nictheroy, Brazil. Changes in political parties in Chile, when new presidents come in and the whole diplomatic corps is supplanted, have not affected her. So great is her reputation that each successive government feels honored to have Gabriela as its representative abroad.
HER POETRY AND SOME OF ITS QUALITIES
Although her poetry is little known in the English language, it enjoys universal favor among our peoples. Some of her compositions have been translated into French, English, etc., but they have not reached the general public. From here on I shall endeavor to say something about several of her poems. In all of them there is a unique delicacy, gentle resignation and an inclination that is spontaneously ethical. Her principal influences are the Bible, Tagore, the Mexican poet, Amado Nervo, and the outstanding Spanish-American poet, Rubén Darío.
“Decalogue of the Artist,” a kind of “Ars Poetica,” is one of her most famous compositions. Its force is so great that this literary jewel might have appeared over the signature of Paul Claudel. Its religious character makes it particularly profound. Here are these ten commandments:
“Decalogue of the Artist”
1. Thou shalt love beauty which is the shadow of God over the universe.
2. There is no art that is atheistic. Even though thou dost not love the Creator, thou wilt affirm His existence by creating in His likeness.
3. Thou shalt not use Beauty as fodder for the feelings, but as the natural food of the soul.
4. It shall not serve as a pretext for luxury or vanity but only as a spiritual exercise.
5. Thou shalt not seek it in the market place nor put thy talents at the service of the vulgar, for Beauty is virginal and what is found in the market place is not beauty.
6. Beauty will rise from thine heart to thy poem and thou shalt first be cleansed.
7. Beauty shall also bear the name of Pity and will console the hearts of men.
8. Thou shalt bring forth thy work as a child is born, staunching the blood of thine heart.
9. Beauty shall not be for thee an opiate that lulls thee to sleep, but a generative...
The pseudonym Gabriela Mistral chose for herself reveals the two primary sources of her poetic themes and techniques. Gabriela is from the archangel Gabriel, who will sound the trumpet raising the dead on Judgment Day. Mistral is the name of a strong Mediterranean wind that blows through the south of France. Thus, in Mistral’s poems her redeeming Christian faith is united with nature to create a unique vision of human experience. The establishment of unifying relationships between different, often contradictory levels of existence lies at the heart of all her poetry. She spiritualizes the most mundane events of the life and, in turn, expresses moments of transcendence in the most homely and familiar of images. The power that achieves such unity, in poetry and in life, is love.
Mistral’s development as a poet closely parallels the publication of her four volumes of poetry. Desolación, her first book, demonstrates the variety of subject matter and the intensity of feeling that is characteristic of all her work. The collection is divided into sections, including “Life,” “The School,” and “Nature.” The love poems of the “Grief” section are the most strikingly original and the most frequently read. These frank celebrations of physical love, with their heights of passion and depths of sorrow and, above all, the absolute, uncompromising honesty of their feeling, establish the distinctive characteristics of Mistral’s lyric voice. In poems such as “Ecstasy” and “Intimacy,” the lover refines her physical experience to a point at which, having reached its bodily limit, it is transformed into a spiritual encounter. Such extremes of passion are continually accompanied by fears that either the young man or love itself will prove weak and, finally, false. When these fears are realized (her lover betrays her by dying), the poet explores, in poems filled with bitterness and rape, the emotional effects of loneliness and abandonment. Throughout her work, loneliness and the fragility of human feeling remain the chief threats to love, happiness, and fulfillment.
Mistral’s next book, Ternura, is a collection of lullabies and children’s songs. Its simple, innocent verses, meant to be sung to and by children, seem far removed from the fierce and complex love poems of Desolación. Instead of a harmony between man and woman, these songs strive for a similar spiritual harmony between a mother and her child. A lullaby in Ternura may, for instance, build correspondences among the sea rocking its waves, the night wind rocking the wheat, God the Father rocking his thousands of worlds, and a mother rocking her infant to sleep. The motion of rocking and the love that inspires it unite the human, natural, and divine levels of existence, assuring the safety of the child and the dignity of the mother’s vocation.
Mistral’s final two books, Tala and Lagar, are less accessible and therefore less popular than either Desolación or Ternura. They contain the poems most admired by literary critics and by her fellow poets. In many of the poems of her later books, Mistral extends her lyric voice to dramatize the plight of those people, particularly women, whom the modern world ignores or forgets. Exiled from their native lands, destined by an inscrutable fate to outlive all their loved ones, these women must endure a succession of empty, lonely years. They perform for no one the daily rituals of planting, cleaning, and cooking and can only look forward to a death among indifferent strangers. These are not happy poems, but they fulfill Mistral’s promise to give a voice to the millions of people throughout the world who suffer in silence. She once said that “love without words is a knot that strangles.” It was to undo such a knot that Mistral focused upon the outcast and the abandoned. By giving them words, she hoped to bring them once more into a human community united by love.
In her later work, Mistral also attains a full and remarkable mastery of natural imagery. She isolates a single natural object and, by tracing the stages of its organic life, figuratively presents the subtle shifts in her own emotional life. Mistral successfully transforms the world of nature into a symbolic language that gives shape and substance to her emotional and spiritual experiences. Mistral once advised her fellow poets that it was their obligation as artists to mirror in their works the beauty of nature. In this way they would be certain to extend and affirm the creative activity of God, the model for all artists. In her later poetry Mistral frequently comes as close as possible to following her own advice.
“Sonnets of Death”
First published: “Sonetos de la muerte,” 1914 (collected in A Gabriela Mistral Reader, 1993)
Type of work: Poem
The poems trace Mistral’s attempt to overcome the grief and guilt caused by her first failed love affair.
The “Sonnets of Death” are Mistral’s most famous poems. They are also the poems that established her reputation in her native Chile. In 1914, she submitted them to a national poetry contest and won first prize. She was forced out of anonymity and into the literary life of her country.
The poems grew out of Mistral’s love affair with Romelio Ureta, a young man she met in her early years as a rural schoolteacher. The relationship broke off when Ureta became engaged to another woman. Before the marriage, however, he took his own life. The three sonnets trace Mistral’s attempt to sort out and reconcile the grief, remorse,...
(The entire section is 2314 words.)