Rediscovering Luis Cernuda (1902 - 1963)

[This essay was commissioned by Cyphers, the Irish literary magazine edited by Eiléan Ni ChuilleanáinMacdara WoodsLeland Bardwell and Pearse Hutchinson (who died in 2012: see my previous post on his translation work). It originally appeared in Cyphers in issue 54, winter 2002. Since the magazine is resolutely print only, I decided to post it here to give it a second life. (Photo source: Wikipedia, though its original source is, of course, elsewhere.)]

In April 1931, as the second (left-wing) Republic was born, and King Alfonso XIII of Spain abdicated for having colluded in the rise of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship (1923-1930), Luis Cernuda, a shy, 29 year old poet from Seville, was writing perhaps the first openly homoerotic poetry in the history of Spanish literature: “Diré cómo nacisteis, placeres prohibidos, / Como nace un deseo sobre torres de espanto” (“I will say how you were born, prohibited pleasures, / How a desire is born on towers of dread”). Within a month, he had almost completed Los placeres prohibidos (The Prohibited Pleasures, 1931). Combining social protest with an exploration of homosexual desire, the collection outlines a liberation that even the anarchists did not propose; and, besides, for the most part found repugnant. Given the general ethos of the times, one wonders at his courage.

Just how far Cernuda goes in his radical stance can be seen in the following. Against the forces of reaction, he sets the prohibited pleasures, “Bronce de orgullo, blasfemia que nada precipita… / Una chispa de aquellos placeres… / puede destruir vuestro mundo.” (“Bronzed with pride, blasphemy which nothing casts down… / A spark from those pleasures… / can destroy your world.”) This was a case of Lucifer refusing to be cast down from heaven. Spain had seen nothing like it before; and, indeed, would have to wait until the gay pride of post-Franco democracy to see it again.

Seventy years on, marking the centenary of his birth, Spain is celebrating Cernuda as never before. The extent to which his reputation has come full circle is evident everywhere: there have been dance interpretations of his work, readings, lectures, monographs, a biography (there is even an article on "Luis Cernuda’s Seville" in Iberia's inflight magazine). At a recent reading of the poetry of the Spanish Republic in exile—held in the Circúlo de Bellas Artes in Madrid, and attended by the widow of the great Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas—Cernuda featured heavily.

It is hard to know how he would have taken so much praise, being, as he was, resigned to a kind of enforced obscurity. From the publication of his first book, Perfil del aire (Profile of Air, 1927), which was savaged by the critics, a war of attrition began with the literary establishment. Indeed, before his “physical” exile in 1937 (he was to die in Mexico in 1963), Cernuda endured a spiritual exile within Spain itself. There were several causes. As a person he was notoriously difficult, even by his own admission. Introverted and suspicious, he did not have Lorca’s charm, and never achieved anything like his friend's popular success. However, personalities aside, several important critics have suggested that the chief reason for his lack of success in the literary marketplace was the fact that he never hid his homosexuality.

For this and other reasons, recognition by a close-knit coterie of fellow-poets—the homosexual members of the "Generation of '27", Lorca, Vicente Aleixandre, Emilio Prados, Manuel Altolaguirre—proved vital, both professionally and on a personal level. However, after Cernuda went into exile this support was no longer available, and a curtain of silence fell. This was not helped by his living away from centres of Hispanic culture for so long, in England, Scotland and North America (1937-1951). While this contact with literature in English produced the markedly international flavour of his later work, the decision to avoid Latin America until 1951 also reflected his awareness that he was not welcome among the exile community.

Juan Goytisolo notes in his essay “Homenaje a Luis Cernuda” (“Homage to Luis Cernuda”) that his work was “desatendida… entre numerosos sectores españoles del exilio” (“ignored among many sectors of the Spanish exiles”). Similarly, in her memoir “No me gusta hablar de Luis Cernuda” (“I don’t like to speak about Luis Cernuda”), Elena Garro describes “la cortina invisible que aislaba a Luis Cernuda… era tarde, sus amigos se habían ido” (“the invisible curtain that isolated Luis Cernuda… it was late, his friends had gone”).

Garro recalls Mexican poet Octavio Paz raging, “Es una infamia lo que se hace con Cernuda. ¡Hay que hacer algo!” (“What’s happening to Cernuda is an infamy. We have to do something!”) In the year of Cernuda’s death, Paz wrote “La palabra edificante” (“The Edifying Word”), the essay that began a shift in Cernuda criticism. Before, in the 1940s and 50s, when Cernuda’s poetry was mentioned at all, critics tended to allow prejudice to influence their analyses of the work: a case of praising the poetry, while regretting the sensibility it expressed. Paz turned this on its head by emphasising that the poet’s homosexuality was integral to the work.

Contrary to traditional expectations, rootedness in the homoerotic does not weaken but instead strengthens the poetry. Symbolist and Surrealist techniques allowed Cernuda to express his particular experience, while simultaneously touching on universal truths. In this way, in Un río, un amor (A River, a Love, 1929) he wrote: “Sólo sabemos esculpir biografías / En músicas hostiles” (“All we know is to sculpt biographies / In hostile music”); or, again, in Los placeres prohibidos: “Si un hombre pudiera decir lo que ama, / Si un hombre pudiera levantar su amor por el cielo / Como una nube en la luz” (“If a man could say what he loves, / If a man could raise his love into the sky / Like a cloud in the light”). As intended, these lines function on a number of levels, depending on the reader’s sensitivity to the subtext.

Cernuda titled his lifework La realidad y el deseo (The Reality, and the Desire), adding to it throughout his life (the last edition contained eleven collections). Like Proust and Joyce, he bound his fragmentation into a unifying work that refracted variations on his title, and theme: the gulf between poet and the lovers he attempts to reach; the conflict between self and society; and ultimately the longing, and search, for a lost Eden, or wholeness.

La realidad y el deseo, the book Paz described as Cernuda’s “biografía espiritual” (“spiritual biography”), is, on the level of content, a journey through longing and anguish; on the level of form it reflects extensive reading. In Primeras poesías (a reworked version of Perfil del aire) he absorbed the Symbolists, producing a subtle, deliberately hesistant work. In Un río, un amor and Los placeres prohibidos, key early texts, he learnt from Surrealists such as Aragon, Éluard, Crevel, and precursors like Rimbaud and Lautréamont. Donde habite el olvido (Where Oblivion Lives) married the influence of 19th century Romantic poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer to Surrealist imagery, producing a Spanish “season in hell”.

His later work absorbed influences from Hölderlin to the Romantics, to the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning. Here, the flourishes and exclamations of the lyric tradition are nowhere to be seen. Instead, the poems are longer, though more rhetorical, and more public, achieving the voice he would be celebrated for. While his earlier work represented white-hot transcriptions of crisis, from Las nubes (The Clouds, 1940) on, his poetry took the form of extended meditations on time and exile.

In the poem ‘1936’ (Desolación de la Quimera / Desolation of the Chimera, 1962), addressed to a member of the International Brigades, he wrote: “Gracias, Compañero, gracias / Por el ejemplo. Gracias porque me dices / Que el hombre es noble. …Uno, uno tan sólo basta / Como testigo irrefutable / De toda la nobleza humana.” (“Thank you, Comrade, thank you / For your example. Thank you because you tell me that man is noble. …One, just one is enough / As irrefutable witness / Of all human nobility.”) In the 1960s, a younger generation of writers began to look to Cernuda’s example, for his scrupulous fidelity to his own work, and his integrity in following his own truth through twenty-five years of exile. Now, 39 years after his death, his country is rediscovering him as the definitive voice of their exile, recognising that he stands with Lorca as the most important, and complete, Spanish poet of the twentieth century.

(My 80,000-word MA thesis at University College Dublin (which received First class Honours, 2001) was The Search for a Homosexual Ideal in the Early Poetry of Luis Cernuda. I am currently reshaping it for book publication.)