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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical Introduction by Alfred Coester (1874–1958)

By Latin-American Literature: II. After 1888

IN the history of Latin-American letters the year 1888 will always be memorable because it witnessed the publication of a little collection of poems and poetic prose articles, entitled ‘Azul,’ by Rubén Darío (1867–1916). From that year to the date of the author’s death a well-rounded literary movement took place. The result of the literary labors of these years has been described by Leopoldo Lugones, an Argentine writer of great importance, in this wise. “America ceased to speak like Spain. On the other hand Spain adopted the new manner of speech. The poverty of American literature had consisted in the fact that we insisted on speaking like Spain though our mode of thought was entirely different.”

What in retrospect is a revolution seemed to the first readers of ‘Azul’ a most furious imitation of French Parnassian and symbolist poets. The title ‘Azul’ was explained by a quotation from Victor Hugo by way of epigraph, “L’art, c’est l’azur.” While the symbolic blue meant for Spanish-American poets an escape from the sordid realities of life into a broad cosmopolitanism of art under French leadership, Spanish critics condemned certain tendencies as immoral and their verses as bad Spanish. The term modernista thus applied as a stigma later became a mark of glory.

Of the French poets Verlaine was the favorite among Spanish-Americans but Gautier, Moreas, Rimbaud, and others had translators and imitators. There was thus in the first endeavors of Spanish-American poets to widen the horizon of poetic effort an element of extreme artificiality. Their cult of beauty led them to ancient Greece which they knew only through the medium of French poetry. Their love of elegance carried them to the Versailles of the eighteenth century where they found inspiration in some dainty marquise. They believed that art had a mission to cover, as with a veil, the brutalities of human life. In rebellion against the narrowing influences of regionalism they hoped to find a common basis for their literary art in the theory that their civilization was essentially European.

Certain poets contributed special features to the poetic movement. A Mexican, Salvador Díaz Mirón (born 1855), developed the eleven-syllable quatrain, a popular form of verse for religious poetry, into an instrument for the energetic treatment of social and political themes. So many young poets in Latin America imitated him in form and manner that they have caused the name of Díaz Mirón to be permanently associated with a fiery style of writing.

Another Mexican, Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera (1859–95), excelled in the composition of musical verses. He demanded that poetry should possess the emotional power of music and should convey ideas as much by the sheer flow of verbal sound as by the suggestion of the words. In this respect nothing excels his ‘Serenata de Schubert’ and his masterpiece, ‘A la Corregidora.’

The Cuban, Julián del Casal (1863–93), was America’s foremost exponent of the doctrine that elegance and beauty should be cherished for their own sakes. Though he wrote of a Japanese geisha, of Helen of Troy, or some native Cuban beauty, his art was expended on the details of her elaborate toilet or the effectiveness and color of her elegant costume.

To a Colombian, José Asunción Silva (1860–96), the movement owed the practice of novel and brilliant innovations in the technique of verse. In ‘Los Nocturnos’ he related four love scenes with a tragic note. These poems display Silva’s metrical handling of mingled long and short lines in an attempt to adjust the rhythm of the verse to the inward rhythm of the thought.

But the lyrical genius, Rubén Darío, was able to take the suggestions of these specialists and add something of his own. Born in Nicaragua, he emigrated at an early age to the west coast of South America. In 1892 he was sent by Nicaragua to Spain to represent his native country at the celebration of the fourth centenary of Columbus. In Spain he came closely in touch with the Andalusian poets, especially Salvador Rueda, for whose volume of verse he wrote the now historic ‘Pórtico.’ From this dates Darío’s influence on Spanish verse. When he returned from Europe he was appointed by President Nuñez of Colombia consul general in Buenos Aires.

In this city he became the center of great poetic activity. His own compositions at this period were published in a volume to which he gave the odd title ‘Prosas profanas.’ These poems were written in a variety of metres and forms. In some he attempted to adapt to the Spanish language the peculiarities of French versification; in others he revived metrical usages of early Castilian poets. As for the matter of the poems, they treat so elegantly of topics so far removed from the affairs of every day that they have been symbolized by Darío’s favorite swan, which lives, graceful and elegant, on the water in absolute indifference toward external things as if sufficient unto its own tranquil and majestic beauty.

Among the Argentine group of poets Leopoldo Díaz, born 1862, especially distinguished himself for his sonnets which have been published in two collections, ‘Las Sombras de Hellas,’ dealing with topics drawn from Greek mythology, and ‘Los Conquistadores,’ about the early Spaniards in America. A younger writer who began writing under Darío’s influence was Leopoldo Lugones, born 1874. He has published many volumes of verses, and serious historical works.

With the political events of the end of the nineteenth century, the rebellion in Cuba and the war between the United States and Spain, a new spirit developed in Spanish America. A leader in the literary art which it stimulated was José Santos Chocano, born in Peru in 1875. In one of his poems he proclaimed the theory of his poetic mission thus: “I am the singer of America aboriginal and wild.” There is scarcely any phase of Spanish-American life and history which Chocano has not treated in his very numerous poems. In his own words, “When I feel myself an Inca, I render homage to the sun, which gives me the sceptre of royal power. When I feel my Spanish blood, I evoke colonial days.” Chocano’s gift is to see the spiritual essence of things and places and interpret it in glowing words. For example, in ‘Buenos Aires, Ciudad moderna,’ he presents the symbol of progress; in ‘Lima, Ciudad colonial,’ the symbol of past grandeur; in ‘Ciudad dormida,’ the symbol of sluggish tropical indolence. To one volume of his poems he gave the significant title, ‘Alma América.’

Though Chocano, by stressing things American, departed from the decorative conception of life which characterized the early modernista poets, he did not stand alone. The Colombian, Guillermo Valencia, one of the best of recent poets, sounded the very depths of Christian philosophy in his ‘Anarkos,’ ‘Cigueñas Blancas,’ and other poems.

This tendency to seriousness was phrased in a striking manner by a Mexican poet, Enrique González Martínez, who urged that the time had come “to wring the neck of the swan” and “to consider the wise owl whose eye interprets the mysterious book of nocturnal silence.” The most notable modernista poet among the Mexicans after Gutiérrez Nájera however is Amado Nervo, whose first poems carried extravagance of expression to the limit of terming a poem “an ultraviolet.” He developed a very pantheistic point of view in regard to nature, but in writing so much about natural scenery he followed the best tradition of Mexican poetry which shows from the earliest colonial period a just appreciation of the remarkable beauties of Mexico. One of the most interesting and latest Mexican landscape poets is Luis G. Urbina.

Rubén Darío was strongly influenced by the wave of Hispanic sentiment which swept over America. While the pre-eminent quality of ‘Prosas profanas’ was grace, that of his next volume of collected verse, ‘Cantos de Vida y Esperanza’ (1905), was force. The most original metrical experiment in this volume was the adaptation of the alexandrine to heroic topics. Its most frequently reprinted poem is the ode ‘A Roosevelt’ in whom Darío typified the North American republic, calling us “the future invader.” This feeling was inspired by the apprehension prevalent in Latin America when our army occupied Cuba. Darío however changed his opinion for in the volume, ‘El Canto Errante’ (1907), was included a ‘Salutación al Águila,’ in which he expressed great admiration for the United States; the condor even welcomes the eagle as his brother.


The poetic movement in Latin America was accompanied by serious critical discussion of æsthetic questions. José Enrique Rodó (born 1872) of Uruguay won great popularity by an essay on Rubén Darío in 1899; and a year later offered an idealistic philosophy of conduct in ‘Ariel,’ which was received with immense enthusiasm. His later volumes ‘Motivos de Proteo’ and ‘El Mirador de Próspero’ contain essays which had already caused him to be hailed as “the intellectual director of an epoch.”

Another essayist important for the depth of his ideas is Manuel Díaz Rodríguez of Venezuela. His ‘Camino de Perfección’ is a protest against the absorption of men’s minds by the struggle for material values, what he terms “the progressive and universal yanquizarse of the earth.”


In his novels Díaz Rodríguez attacked the same problem. For example, ‘Idolos Rotos’ is based on the artistic ideals of a sculptor and the unsympathetic crudities of his environment in Caracas. ‘Sangre Patricia,’ ‘Idilio,’ and the ‘Cuentos de Color’ are also studies of various phases of the ideal.

Since Zola set the example, the realistic novel has had many successful practitioners in several Latin-American countries. Social conditions in Venezuela have been satirized by Miguel E. Pardo in ‘Villabrava’ and by Rufino Blanco Fombona in ‘El Hombre de Hierro’ and ‘El Hombre de Oro.’ Blanco Fombona has also written excellent verse and by his establishment of La Revista de América and the publication of works by various Americans in the ‘Biblioteca Andrés Bello’ has done an invaluable service to Latin-American letters. As a picture of country life in Venezuela, however, nothing equals ‘El Sargento Felipe’ by Gonzalo Picón Febres. He also has a long list of volumes of verse and novels to his credit as well as a ‘Literatura venezolana en el Siglo XIX.’

Mexico offers a long list of novelists who depict local conditions in both city and country, Emilio Rabasa, Manuel Sánchez Mármol, Alfonso M. Maldonado, Rafael Delgado, José López Portillo y Rojas, Federico Gamboa, and others. Chile too is a country which has abounded in novelists. Of these Alberto Blest Gana is the veteran who began by imitating Balzac as long ago as 1858. After several years of silence while in the diplomatic service of his country, he published in 1905 ‘Los Trasplantados,’ a study of a rich Spanish-American family in Paris, which according to those who know is a true picture of conditions in the large American colony in that city. Social life in Chile has been depicted by Emilio Rodríguez Mendoza and most brilliantly by Luis Orrego Luco. In Uruguay Eduardo Acevedo Díaz with his romantic type of novel and Carlos Reyles with an almost repulsive naturalism are the leading novelists. In the Argentine Republic novelists have also flourished. The most prolific is Carlos M. Ocantos who has aspired to write a comédie humaine of his country portraying every phase of its cosmopolitan population.


The literature of Brazil, being written in Portuguese, is little influenced by the other Latin-American countries. However, Brazil has given to the world one who stands in the first rank of the world’s novelists though his work like all Brazilian literature is intensely national or even provincial. He is Joachim María Machado de Assis (1839–1908). Though his early volumes of verse, of tales, and of novels were written under the influence of romanticism, he developed great originality and independence of form with an irony similar to that of Anatole France. His novels most worthy of mention are ‘Dom Casmurro,’ ‘Quinas Borba,’ and the masterpiece ‘Memorias de Braz Cubas.’

As the medium of Brazilian publicity is chiefly the daily paper, tales and descriptive articles form a large part of Brazilian literature. Coelho Netto (born 1864) has most distinguished himself in his realistic pictures of northwestern Brazil, the country known as Sertao.

In verse there have been many followers of the symbolist school like Luiz Guimares filho and Tristam da Cunha. But Olavo Bilac (born 1865) has been acclaimed the prince of living Brazilian poets. The artistic quality of his verse shines even in translation, because he so skillfully treats the wonderful beauties of nature in Brazil and man’s reactions to its spell.

In prose of a serious nature José Verissimo has distinguished himself by many volumes of studies of Brazilian literature. Another literary critic and historian of Brazil is Oliveira Lima. By his lectures in Paris and in American universities he has done more than any other to make known the intellect of Brazil among other peoples.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.—Alfred Coester, ‘The Literary History of Spanish America,’ New York, 1916.