A dedicated educator and an engaged and committed intellectual, Mistral defended the rights of children, women, and the poor; the freedoms of democracy; and the need for peace in times of social, political, and ideological conflicts, not only in Latin America but in the whole world. She always took the side of those who were mistreated by society: children, women, Native Americans, Jews, war victims, workers, and the poor, and she tried to speak for them through her poetry, her many newspaper articles, her letters, and her talks and actions as Chilean representative in international organizations. Above all, she was concerned about the future of Latin America and its peoples and cultures, particularly those of the native groups. Her altruistic interests and her social concerns had a religious undertone, as they sprang from her profoundly spiritual, Franciscan understanding of the world. Her personal spiritual life was characterized by an untiring, seemingly mystical search for union with divinity and all of creation.
Mistral's writings are highly emotional and impress the reader with an original style marked by her disdain for the aesthetically pleasing elements common among modernist writers, her immediate predecessors. Rhythm, rhyme, metaphors, symbols, vocabulary, and themes, as well as other traditional poetic techniques, are all directed in her poetry toward the expression of deeply felt emotions and conflicting forces in opposition. Love and jealousy, hope and fear, pleasure and pain, life and death, dream and truth, ideal and reality, matter and spirit are always competing in her life and find expression in the intensity of her well-defined poetic voices. In her poems speak the abandoned woman and the jealous lover, the mother in a trance of joy and fear because of her delicate child, the teacher, the woman who tries to bring to others the comfort of compassion, the enthusiastic singer of hymns to America's natural richness, the storyteller, the mad poet possessed by the spirit of beauty and transcendence. All of her lyrical voices represent the different aspects of her own personality and have been understood by critics and readers alike as the autobiographical voices of a woman whose life was marked by an intense awareness of the world and of human destiny. The poetic word in its beauty and emotional intensity had for her the power to transform and transcend human spiritual weakness, bringing consolation to the soul in search of understanding. Her poetry is thus charged with a sense of ritual and prayer.
Although she mostly uses regular meter and rhyme, her verses are sometimes difficult to recite because of their harshness, resulting from intentional breaks of the prosodic rules. This apparent deficiency is purposely used by the poet to produce an intended effect—the reader's uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty and harshness that corresponds to the tormented attitude of the lyrical voice and to the passionate character of the poet's worldview. Even when Mistral's verses have the simple musicality of a cradlesong, they vibrate with controlled emotion and hidden tension. In her prose writing Mistral also twists and entangles the language in unusual expressive ways as if the common, direct style were not appropriate to her subject matter and her intensely emotive interpretation of it. Although she is mostly known for her poetry, she was an accomplished and prolific prose writer whose contributions to several major Latin American newspapers on issues of interest to her contemporaries had an ample readership. Several selections of her prose works and many editions of her poetry published over the years do not fully account for her enormous contribution to Latin American culture and her significance as an original spiritual poet and public intellectual. Her complete works are still to be published in comprehensive and complete critical editions easily available to the public.
Lucila Godoy Alcayaga was born on 7 April 1889 in the small town of Vicuña, in the Elqui Valley, a deeply cut, narrow farming land in the Chilean Andes Mountains, four hundred miles north of Santiago, the capital: "El Valle de Elqui: una tajeadura heroica en la masa montañosa, pero tan breve, que aquello no es sino un torrente con dos orillas verdes. Y esto, tan pequeño, puede llegar a amarse como lo perfecto" (Elqui Valley: a heroic slash in the mass of mountains, but so brief, that it is nothing but a rush of water with two green banks. And this little place can be loved as perfection), Mistral writes in Recados: Contando a Chile (Messages: Telling Chile, 1957). She grew up in Monte Grande, a humble village in the same valley, surrounded by modest fruit orchards and rugged deserted hills. She was raised by her mother and by an older sister fifteen years her senior, who was her first teacher. Her father, a primary-school teacher with a penchant for adventure and easy living, abandoned his family when Lucila was a three-year-old girl; she saw him only on rare occasions, when he visited his wife and children before disappearing forever. This evasive father, who wrote little poems for his daughter and sang to her with his guitar, had a strong emotional influence on the poet. From him she obtained, as she used to comment, the love of poetry and the nomadic spirit of the perpetual traveler. Her mother was a central force in Mistral's sentimental attachment to family and homeland and a strong influence on her desire to succeed. Not less influential was the figure of her paternal grandmother, whose readings of the Bible marked the child forever. An exceedingly religious person, her grandmother—who Mistral liked to think had Sephardic ancestors—encouraged the young girl to learn and recite by heart passages from the Bible, in particular the Psalms of David. Mistral declared later, in her poem "Mis libros" (My Books) in Desolación(Despair, 1922), that the Bible was one of the books that had most influenced her:
¡Biblia, mi noble Biblia, panorama estupendo,
en donde se quedaron mis ojos largamente,
tienes sobre los Salmos las lavas más ardientes
y en su río de fuego mi corazón enciendo!
Sustentaste a mis gentes con tu robusto vino
y los erguiste recios en medio de los hombres,
y a mí me yergue de ímpetu solo el decir tu nombre;
porque yo de ti vengo, he quebrado al destino
Después de ti tan solo me traspasó los huesos
con su ancho alarido el sumo florentino
(Bible, my noble Bible, magnificent panorama,
where my eyes lingered for a long time,
you have in the Psalms the most burning of lavas
and in its river of fire I lit my heart!
You sustained my people with your strong wine
and you made them stand strong among men,
and just saying your name gives me strength;
because I come from you I have broken destiny
After you, only the scream of the great Florentine
went through my bones).
These few Alexandrine verses are a good, albeit brief, example of Mistral's style, tone, and inspiration: the poetic discourse and its appreciation in reading are both represented by extremely physical and violent images that refer to a spiritual conception of human destiny and the troubling mysteries of life: the scream of "el sumo florentino," a reference to Dante, and the pierced bones of the reader impressed by the biblical text.
The poet always remembered her childhood in Monte Grande, in Valle de Elqui, as Edenic. Under the loving care of her mother and older sister, she learned how to know and love nature, to enjoy it in solitary contemplation. There, as Mistral recalls in Poema de Chile(Poem of Chile, 1967), "su flor guarda el almendro / y cría los higuerales / que azulan higos extremos" (with almond trees blooming, and fig trees laden with stupendous dark blue figs), she developed her dreamy character, fascinated as she was by nature around her:
Me tenía una familia
de árboles, otra de matas,
hablaba largo y tendido
con animales hallados
(I had a family
of trees, and another of plants,
and I talked and talked
with the animals I found).
The mountains and the river of her infancy, the wind and the sky, the animals and plants of her secluded homeland became Mistral's cherished possessions; she always kept them in her memory as the true and only world, an almost fabulous land lost in time and space, a land of joy from which she had been exiled when she was still a child. In the quiet and beauty of that mountainous landscape the girl developed her passionate spirituality and her poetic talents. As she evoked in old age, she also learned to like the stories told by the old people in a language that kept many of its old cadences, still alive in the vocabulary and constructions of a people still attached to the land and its past. In Poema de Chileshe affirms that the language and imagination of that world of the past and of the countryside always inspired her own choice of vocabulary, images, rhythms, and rhymes:
Me llamaban "cuatro añitos"
y ya tenía doce años.
Así me mentaban, pues
no hacía lo de mis años:
no cosía, no zurcía,
tenía los ojos vagos,
cuentos pedía, romances,
y no lavaba los platos . . .
¡Ay! Y, sobre todo, a causa
de un hablar así, rimado
(They called me "little four-years"
and I was already twelve.
They called me thus, because
I did not act my age:
I did not sew, I did not darn,
I had a vague gaze,
I asked for stories, narrative poems,
and I did not wash the dishes . . .
Alas! And, above all, because
I spoke thus, in rhyme).
Having to go to the larger village of Vicuña to continue studies at the only school in the region was for the eleven-year-old Lucila the beginning of a life of suffering and disillusion: "Mi infancia la pasé casi toda en la aldea llamada Monte Grande. Me conozco sus cerros uno por uno. Fui dichosa hasta que salí de Monte Grande; y ya no lo fui nunca más" (I spent most of my childhood in the village called Monte Grande. I know its hills one by one. I was happy until I left Monte Grande, and then I was never happy again). This sense of having been exiled from an ideal place and time characterizes much of Mistral's worldview and helps explain her pervasive sadness and her obsessive search for love and transcendence. Her love of the material world was probably also because of her childhood years spent in direct contact with nature, and to an emotional manifestation of her desire to immerse herself in the world."
Among the several biographical anecdotes always cited in the life of the poet, the experience of having been accused of stealing school materials when she was in primary school is perhaps the most important to consider, as it explains Mistral's feelings about the injustice people inflict on others with their insensitivity. Mistral refers to this anecdote on several occasions, suggesting the profound and lasting effect the experience had on her. Throughout her life she maintained a sense of being hurt by others, in particular by people in her own country. This impression could be justified by several other circumstances in her life when the poet felt, probably justifiably, that she was being treated unjustly: for instance, in 1906 she tried to attend the Normal School in La Serena and was denied admission because of her writings, which were seen by the school authorities as the work of a troublemaker with pantheist ideas contrary to the Christian values required of an educator. She had been sending contributions to regional newspapers--La Voz de Elqui (The Voice of Elqui) in Vicuña and El Coquimbo in La Serena--since 1904, when she was still a teenager, and was already working as a teacher's aide in La Compañía, a small village near La Serena, to support herself and her mother."
Mistral was determined to succeed in spite of having been denied the right to study, however. She prepared herself, on her own, for a teaching career and for the life of a writer and intellectual. She also continued to write. Among her contributions to the local papers, one article of 1906--"La instrucción de la mujer" (The education of women)--deserves notice, as it shows how Mistral was at that early age aware and critical of the limitations affecting women's education. "Instrúyase a la mujer, no hay nada en ella que la haga ser colocada en un lugar más bajo que el hombre" (Let women be educated, nothing in them requires that they be set in a place lower than men). Some time later, in 1910, she obtained her coveted teaching certification even though she had not followed a regular course of studies. By studying on her own and passing the examination, she proved to herself and to others that she was academically well prepared and ready to fulfill professionally the responsibilities of an educator. She always commented bitterly, however, that she never had the opportunity to receive the formal education of other Latin American intellectuals."
With the professional degree in hand she began a short and successful career as a teacher and administrator. A series of different job destinations took her to distant and opposite regions within the varied territory of her country, as she quickly moved up in the national education system. These various jobs gave her the opportunity to know her country better than many who stayed in their regions of origin or settled in Santiago to be near the center of intellectual activity. This direct knowledge of her country, its geography, and its peoples became the basis for her increasing interest in national values, which coincided with the intellectual and political concerns of Latin America as a whole. Beginning in 1910 with a teaching position in the small farming town of Traiguén in the southern region of Araucanía, completely different from her native Valle de Elqui, she was promoted in the following years to schools in two relatively large and distant cities: Antofagasta, the coastal city in the mining northern region, in 1911; and Los Andes, in the bountiful Aconcagua Valley at the foothills of the Andes Mountains, about one hundred miles north of Santiago, in 1912. In this quiet farming town she enjoyed for a few years a period of quiet dedication to studying, teaching, and writing, as she was protected from distractions by the principal of her school."
Among many other submissions to different publications, she wrote to the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío in Paris, sending him a short story and some poems for his literary magazine, Elegancias. They appeared in March and April 1913, giving Mistral her first publication outside of Chile. Pedro Aguirre Cerda, an influential politician and educator (he served as president of Chile from 1938 to 1941), met her at that time and became her protector. In 1918, as secretary of education, Aguirre Cerda appointed her principal of the Liceo de Niñas (High School for Girls) in Punta Arenas, the southernmost Chilean port in the Strait of Magellan. This position was one of great responsibility, as Mistral was in charge of reorganizing a conflictive institution in a town with a large and dominant group of foreign immigrants practically cut off from the rest of the country. In this faraway city in a land of long winter nights and persistent winds, she wrote a series of three poems, "Paisajes de la Patagonia" (Patagonian Landscapes), inspired by her experience at the end of the world, separated from family and friends. They are the tormented expression of someone lost in despair. The stark landscape and the harsh weather of the region are mostly symbolic materializations of her spiritual outlook on human destiny."
"Desolación" (Despair), the first composition in the triptych, is written in the modernist Alexandrine verse of fourteen syllables common to several of Mistral's compositions of her early creative period. The poem captures the sense of exile and abandonment the poet felt at the time, as conveyed in its slow rhythm and in its concrete images drawn with a vocabulary suggestive of pain and stress:
La bruma espesa, eterna, para que olvide dónde
Me ha arrojado la mar en su ola de salmuera.
La tierra a la que vine no tiene primavera:
Tiene su noche larga que cual madre me esconde
(Fog thickens, eternal, so that I may forget where
the sea has thrown me in its wave of brine.
The land I have come to knows no spring:
it has its long night that like a mother hides me).
As she had done before when working in the poor, small schools of her northern region, she doubled her duties by organizing evening classes for workers who had no other means of educating themselves. She was always concerned about the needs of the poor and the disenfranchised, and every time she could do something about them, she acted, disregarding personal gain. This attitude toward suffering permeates her poetry with a deep feeling of love and compassion. "Tres árboles" (Three Trees), the third composition of "Paisajes de la Patagonia," exemplifies her devotion to the weak in the final stanza, with its obvious symbolic image of the fallen trees:
El leñador los olvidó. La noche
Vendrá. Estaré con ellos.
Recibiré en mi corazón sus mansas
Resinas. Me serán como de fuego.
Y mudos y ceñidos,
Nos halle el día en un montón de duelo.
(The woodsman forgot them. The night
Will come. I will be with them.
In my heart I will receive their gentle
Sap. They will be like fire to me.
And may the day find us
Quietly embraced in a heap of sorrow).
After two years in Punta Arenas, Mistral was transferred again to serve as principal of the Liceo de Niñas in Temuco, the main city in the heart of the Chilean Indian territory. She was there for a year. Pablo Neruda, who at the time was a budding teenage poet studying in the Liceo de Hombres, or high school for boys, met her and received her advice and encouragement to pursue his literary aspirations. Witnessing the abusive treatment suffered by the humble and destitute Indians, and in particular their women, Mistral was moved to write "Poemas de la madre más triste" (Poems of the Saddest Mother), a prose poem included in Desolaciónin which she expresses "toda la solidaridad del sexo, la infinita piedad de la mujer para la mujer" (the complete solidarity of the sex, the infinite mercy of woman for a woman), as she describes it in an explanatory note accompanying "Poemas de la madre más triste," in the form of a monologue of a pregnant woman who has been abandoned by her lover and chastised by her parents:
Mi padre me dijo que me echaría, gritó a mi madre que me arrojaría esta misma noche.
La noche es tibia; a la claridad de las estrellas yo podría caminar hasta la aldea próxima; pero ¿y si nace a estas foras? Mis sollozos le han llamado tal vez; tal vez quiera salir por ver mi cara
(My father said he would get rid of me, yelled at my mother that he would throw me out this very night.
The night is mild; by the light of the stars, I might find my way to the nearest village; but suppose he is born at such a time as this? My sobs perhaps have aroused him; perhaps he wants to come out now to see my face covered with tears).
In 1921 Mistral reached her highest position in the Chilean educational system when she was made principal of the newly created Liceo de Niñas number 6 in Santiago, a prestigious appointment desired by many colleagues. Now she was in the capital, in the center of the national literary and cultural activity, ready to participate fully in the life of letters. A year later, however, she left the country to begin her long life as a self-exiled expatriate."
During her years as an educator and administrator in Chile, Mistral was actively pursuing a literary career, writing poetry and prose, and keeping in contact with other writers and intellectuals. She published mainly in newspapers, periodicals, anthologies, and educational publications, showing no interest in producing a book. Her name became widely familiar because several of her works were included in a primary-school reader that was used all over her country and around Latin America. At about this time her spiritual needs attracted her to the spiritualist movements inspired by oriental religions that were gaining attention in those days among Western artists and intellectuals. She was for a while an active member of the Chilean Theosophical Association and adopted Buddhism as her religion. This inclination for oriental forms of religious thinking and practices was in keeping with her intense desire to lead an inner life of meditation and became a defining characteristic of Mistral's spiritual life and religious inclinations, even though years later she returned to Catholicism. She never ceased to use the meditation techniques learned from Buddhism, and even though she declared herself Catholic, she kept some of her Buddhist beliefs and practices as part of her personal religious views and attitudes."
Another reason Mistral became known as a poet even before publishing her first book was the first prize--a flower and a gold coin--she won for "Los sonetos de la muerte" (The Sonnets of Death) in the 1914 "Juegos Florales," or poetic contest, organized by the city of Santiago. As a means to explain these three poems about a lost love, most critics tell of the suicide in 1909 of Romelio Ureta, a young man who had been Mistral's friend and first love several years before. Although the suicide of her former friend had little or nothing to do with their relationship, it added to the poems a strong biographical motivation that enhanced their emotional effect, creating in the public the image of Mistral as a tragic figure in the tradition of a romanticized conception of the poet. With "Los sonetos de la muerte" Mistral became in the public view a clearly defined poetic voice, one that was seen as belonging to a tragic, passionate woman, marked by loneliness, sadness, and relentless possessiveness and jealousy:
Del nicho helado en que los hombres te pusieron,
Te bajaré a la tierra humilde y soleada.
Que he de dormirme en ella los hombres no supieron,
Y que hemos de soñar sobre la misma almohada.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Me alejaré cantando mis venganzas hermosas,
¡porque a ese hondor recóndito la mano de ninguna
bajará a disputarme tu puñado de huesos!
(From the cold niche where they put you
I will lower you to the humble and sunny earth.
They did not know I would fall asleep on it,
and that we would dream together on the same pillow.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I shall leave singing my beautiful revenge,
because the hand of no other woman shall descend to this depth
to claim from me your fistful of bones!)."
From then on all of her poetry was interpreted as purely autobiographical, and her poetic voices were equated with her own. Mistral was seen as the abandoned woman who had been denied the joy of motherhood and found consolation as an educator in caring for the children of other women, an image she confirmed in her writing, as in the poem "El niño solo" (The Lonely Child). The scene represents a woman who, hearing from the road the cry of a baby at a nearby hut, enters the humble house to find a boy alone in a cradle with no one to care for him; she takes him in her arms and consoles him by singing to him, becoming for a moment a succoring mother:
La madre se tardó, curvada en el barbecho;
El niño, al despertar, buscó el pezón de rosa
Y rompió en llanto . . . Yo lo estreché contra el pecho,
Y una canción de cuna me subió, temblorosa . . .
Por la ventana abierta la luna nos miraba.
El niño ya dormía, y la canción bañaba,
Como otro resplandor, mi pecho enriquecido . . .
(His mother was late coming from the fields;
The child woke up searching for the rose of the nipple
And broke into tears . . . I took him to my breast
And a cradlesong sprang in me with a tremor . . .
Through the open window the moon was watching us.
The baby was asleep, and the song bathed
Like another light, my enriched breast . . .).It is difficult not to interpret this scene as representative of what poetry meant for Mistral, the writer who would be recognized by the reading public mostly for her cradlesongs."
To avoid using her real name, by which she was known as a well-regarded educator, Mistral signed her literary works with different pen names. By 1913 she had adopted her Mistral pseudonym, which she ultimately used as her own name. As Mistral she was recognized as the poet of a new dissonant feminine voice who expressed the previously unheard feelings of mothers and lonely women. The choice of her new first name suggests either a youthful admiration for the Italian poet Gabrielle D'Annunzio or a reference to the archangel Gabriel; the last name she chose in direct recognition of the French poet Frèderic Mistral, whose work she was reading with great interest around 1912, but mostly because it serves also to identify the powerful wind that blows in Provence. Explaining her choice of name, she has said:
Siento un gran amor por el viento. Lo considero como uno de los elementos más espirituales--más espiritual que el agua. Deseaba, pues, tomar un nombre de viento que no fuese "huracán" ni "brisa," y un día, enseñando geografía en mi escuela, me impresionó la descripción que hace Reclus, del viento, en su célebre obra, y en ella encontré ese nombre: Mistral. Lo adopté en seguida como seudónimo, y esa es la verdadera explicación de por qué llevo el apellido del cantor de la Proveza
(I have great love of the wind. I take it for one of the most spiritual of the elements--more spiritual than water. I wanted, then, to adopt a name of wind, but not "hurricane" or "breeze"; one day, teaching geography in my school, I was impressed by the description of the wind made by Reclus in his famous work, and I found in it that name: Mistral. I immediately adopted it as my pseudonym, and this is the true explanation of why I use the last name of the singer of Provence).In whichever case, Mistral was pointing with her pen name to personal ideals about her own identity as a poet. She acknowledged wanting for herself the fiery spiritual strength of the archangel and the strong, earthly, and spiritual power of the wind."
The year 1922 brought important and decisive changes in the life of the poet and marks the end of her career in the Chilean educational system and the beginning of her life of traveling and of many changes of residence in foreign countries. It is also the year of publication of her first book, Desolación. Coincidentally, the same year, Universidad de Chile (The Chilean National University) granted Mistral the professional title of teacher of Spanish in recognition of her professional and literary contributions. Invited by the Mexican writer José Vasconcelos, secretary of public education in the government of Alvaro Obregón, Mistral traveled to Mexico via Havana, where she stayed several days giving lectures and readings and receiving the admiration and friendship of the Cuban writers and public. This short visit to Cuba was the first one of a long series of similar visits to many countries in the ensuing years."
Once in Mexico she helped in the planning and reorganization of rural education, a significant effort in a nation that had recently experienced a decisive social revolution and was building up its new institutions. In fulfilling her assigned task, Mistral came to know Mexico, its people, regions, customs, and culture in a profound and personal way. This knowledge gave her a new perspective about Latin America and its Indian roots, leading her into a growing interest and appreciation of all things autochthonous. From Mexico she sent to El Mercurio (The Mercury) in Santiago a series of newspaper articles on her observations in the country she had come to love as her own. These pieces represent her first enthusiastic reaction to her encounter with a foreign land. They are the beginning of a lifelong dedication to journalistic writing devoted to sensitizing the Latin American public to the realities of their own world. These articles were collected and published posthumously in 1957 as Croquis mexicano (Mexican Sketch). In Mexico, Mistral also edited Lecturas para mujeres (Readings for Women), an anthology of poetry and prose selections from classic and contemporary writers--including nineteen of her own texts--published in 1924 as a text to be used at the Escuela Hogar "Gabriela Mistral" (Home School "Gabriela Mistral"), named after her in recognition of her contribution to Mexican educational reform."
While she was in Mexico, Desolación was published in New York City by Federico de Onís at the insistence of a group of American teachers of Spanish who had attended a talk by Onís on Mistral at Columbia University and were surprised to learn that her work was not available in book form. Desolación was prepared based on the material sent by the author to her enthusiastic North American promoters. While the invitation by the Mexican government was indicative of Mistral's growing reputation as an educator on the continent, more than a recognition of her literary talents, the spontaneous decision of a group of teachers to publish her collected poems represented unequivocal proof of her literary preeminence. Most of the compositions in Desolaciónwere written when Mistral was working in Chile and had appeared in various publications. As such, the book is an aggregate of poems rather than a collection conceived as an artistic unit. Divided into broad thematic sections, the book includes almost eighty poems grouped under five headings that represent the basic preoccupations in Mistral's poetry. Under the first section, "Vida" (Life), are grouped twenty-two compositions of varied subjects related to life's preoccupations, including death, religion, friendship, motherhood and sterility, poetic inspiration, and readings. The following section, "La escuela" (School), comprises two poems--"La maestra rural" (The Rural Teacher) and "La encina" (The Oak)--both of which portray teachers as strong, dedicated, self-effacing women akin to apostolic figures, who became in the public imagination the exact representation of Mistral herself. "La maestra era pura" (The teacher was pure), the first poem begins, and the second and third stanzas open with similar brief, direct statements: "La maestra era pobre" (The teacher was poor), "La maestra era alegre" (The teacher was cheerful). The second stanza is a good example of the simple, direct description of the teacher as almost like a nun:
La maestra era pobre. Su reino no es humano.
(Así en el doloroso sembrador de Israel)
Vestía sayas pardas, no enjoyaba su mano
¡y era todo su espíritu un inmenso joyel!
(The teacher was poor. Her kingdom is not of this world.
[Thus also in the painful sewer of Israel]
She dressed in brown coarse garments, did not use a ring
And her spirit was a magnificent jewel!).
"Dolor" (Pain) includes twenty-eight compositions of varied forms dealing with the painful experience of frustrated love. "Los sonetos de la muerte" is included in this section. Also in "Dolor" is the intensely emotional "Poema del hijo" (Poem of the Son), a cry for a son she never had because "En las noches, insomne de dicha y de visiones / la lujuria de fuego no descendió a mi lecho" (In my nights, awakened by joy and visions, / fiery lust did not descend upon my bed):
Un hijo, un hijo, un hijo! Yo quise un hijo tuyo
y mío, allá en los días del éxtasis ardiente,
en los que hasta mis huesos temblaron de tu arrullo
y un ancho resplandor creció sobre mi frente
(A son, a son, a son! I wanted a son of yours
and mine, back then in the days of burning ecstasy,
when even my bones trembled at your whisper
and a wide light grew in my forehead).
"Naturaleza" (Nature) includes "Paisajes de le Patagonia" and other texts about Mistral's stay in Punta Arenas. A series of compositions for children--"Canciones de cuna" (Cradlesongs), also included in her next book, Ternura: Canciones de niños (Tenderness: Songs for Children, 1924)--completes the poetry selections in Desolación. An additional group of prose compositions, among them "Poemas de la madre más triste" and several short stories under the heading "Prosa escolar" (School Prose), confirms that the book is an assorted collection of most of what Mistral had written during several years. In 1923 a second printing of the book appeared in Santiago, with the addition of a few compositions written in Mexico."
Mistral's stay in Mexico came to an end in 1924 when her services were no longer needed. Before returning to Chile, she traveled in the United States and Europe, thus beginning her life of constant movement from one place to another, a compulsion she attributed to her need to look for a perfect place to live in harmony with nature and society. In 1925, on her way back to Chile, she stopped in Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, countries that received her with public manifestations of appreciation. By then she had become a well-known and much admired poet in all of Latin America. Her second book of poems, Ternura, had appeared a year before in Madrid. Subtitled Canciones de niños, it included, together with new material, the poems for children already published in Desolación. Because of this focus, which underlined only one aspect of her poetry, this book was seen as significantly different from her previous collection of poems, where the same compositions were part of a larger selection of sad and disturbing poems not at all related to children."
In Ternura Mistral attempts to prove that poetry that deals with the subjects of childhood, maternity, and nature can be done in highly aesthetic terms, and with a depth of feeling and understanding. As she wrote in a letter, "He querido hacer una poesía escolar nueva, porque la que hay en boga no me satisface" (I wanted to write a new type of poetry for the school, because the one in fashion now does not satisfy me). She wanted to write, and did write successfully, "una poesía escolar que no por ser escolar deje de ser poesía, que lo sea, y más delicada que cualquiera otra, más honda, más impregnada de cosas del corazón: más estremecida de soplo de alma" (a poetry for school that does not cease to be poetry because it is for school, it must be poetry, and more delicate than any other poetry, deeper, more saturated of things of the heart: more affected by the breath of the soul). Ternuraincludes her "Canciones de cuna," "Rondas" (Play songs), and nonsense verses such as "La pajita" (The Little Straw), which combines fantasy with playfulness and musicality:
Era que era una niña de cera;
pero ne era una niña de cera,
era una gavilla parada en la era.
Pero no era una gavilla
sino una flor tieza de maravilla
(There was this girl of wax;
but she wasn't made of wax,
she was a sheaf of wheat standing in the threshing floor.
But she was not a sheaf of wheat
but a stiff sunflower).
The book also includes poems about the world and nature. They are attributed to an almost magical storyteller, "La Cuenta-mundo" (The World-Teller), the fictional lyrical voice of a woman who tells about water and air, light and rainbow, butterflies and mountains. "La piña" (The Pineapple) is indicative of the simple, sensual, and imaginative character of these poems about the world of matter:
Allega y no tengas miedo
De la piña con espadas . . .
Por vivir en el plantío
Su madre la crió armada . . .
Suena el cuchillo cortando
La amazona degollada
Que pierde todo el poder
En el manojo de dagas
(Come near, don't be afraid
Of the pineapple and her swords . . .
Because they live in the field
Her mother raised her well-armed . . .
The knife makes a sound as it cuts
The decapitated amazon
Who loses all her power
With her bundle of daggers).
There is also a group of school poems, slightly pedagogical and objective in their tone."
In Ternura Mistral seems to fulfill the promise she made in "Voto" (Vow) at the end of Desolación: "Dios me perdone este libro amargo. Lo dejo tras de mí como a la hondonada sombría y por laderas más clementes subo hacia las mesetas espirituales donde una ancha luz caerá sobre mis días. Yo cantaré desde ellas las palabras de la esperanza, cantaré como lo quiso un misericordioso, para consolar a los hombres" (I hope God will forgive me for this bitter book. I leave it behind me, as you leave the darkened valley, and I climb by more benign slopes to the spiritual plateaus where a wide light will fall over my days. From there I will sing the words of hope, I will sing as a merciful one wanted to do, for the consolation of men). Ternura, in effect, is a bright, hopeful book, filled with the love of children and of the many concrete things of the natural and human world."
Back in Chile after three years of absence, she returned to her region of origin and settled in La Serena in 1925, thinking about working on a small orchard. The same year she had obtained her retirement from the government as a special recognition of her years of service to education and of her exceptional contribution to culture. The rest of her life she depended mostly on this pension, since her future consular duties were served in an honorary capacity. Mistral returned to Catholicism around this time. A fervent follower of St. Francis of Assisi, she entered the Franciscan Order as a laical member. This decision says much about her religious convictions and her special devotion for the Italian saint, his views on nature, and his advice on following a simple life. As a member of the order, she chose to live in poverty, making religion a central element in her life. Religion for her was also fundamental to her understanding of her function as a poet. Her admiration of St. Francis had led her to start writing, while still in Mexico, a series of prose compositions on his life. Fragments of the never-completed biography were published in 1965 as Motivos de San Francisco (Motives of St. Francis). At the time she wrote them, however, they appeared as newspaper contributions in El Mercurio in Chile."
Mistral stayed for only a short period in Chile before leaving again for Europe, this time as secretary of the Latin American section in the League of Nations in Paris. A designated member of the Institute of Intellectual Cooperation, she took charge of the Section of Latin American Letters. In Paris she became acquainted with many writers and intellectuals, including those from Latin America who lived in Europe, and many more who visited her while traveling there. She was the center of attention and the point of contact for many of those who felt part of a common Latin American continent and culture. She started the publication of a series of Latin American literary classics in French translation and kept a busy schedule as an international functionary fully dedicated to her work. She was gaining friends and acquaintances, and her family provided her with her most cherished of companions: a nephew she took under her care. She was living in the small village of Bedarrides, in Provence, when a half brother Mistral did not know existed, son of the father who had left her, came to her asking for help. He brought with him his four-year-old son, Juan Miguel Godoy Mendoza, whose Catalan mother had just died. The young man left the boy with Mistral and disappeared."
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.)