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As Long as We Remember...

January 19, 2011

Rubén Darío, the Prince of Castilian Letters

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Yesterday was the anniversary of the birthday of one of great literary giants of Latin America, Rubén Darío – “El Nino Poeta,” the father of the Spanish language writers’ era, known as “modernismo.”


Or, in Catalan, the term for the literary-artistic movement is “Modernisme.” It lasted from approximately 1885 to around 1915. It is often associated with Art Nouveau and the Edwardian era and romantically remains one of my favorite eras in history, art and literature.


The movement, and the various eras associated with it, arguably and esoterically influence art and writing in many ways, to this very day; although, the recent digital age continues to march art and literature in a new shallow and superficial direction devoid of the depth and feeling of a more passionate involvement with the art of letters.


Of course, the constant politically correct barrage of banality of our contemporary world is enough the beat the daylights out of even the most passionate artist. Give witness to the synthetic, meaningless manifestation of anyone with a keyboard and Internet access is a newly minted microwaved-journalist or a political pundit – or writer.


And everyone with any technological acumen and the ability to color-coordinate a painting or work of art with a beige couch is a plastic-fantastic artist. But I digress into an artistic nether world, known as the banality of beige hell.


I cannot even pretend to be scholarly about the life of Mr. Darío or his work. Just color me curious and vicariously intrigued. Hopefully you are not looking here for a definitive essay on him. I appear before you here, stage right, no more authoritative about Mr. Darío than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were about Hamlet.


I just wish to give him cursory homage and hopefully pique your curiosity enough that you will keep an eye out for his work in the future.


Although Mr. Darío is not well known outside Latin America, he is a household word in most of the Spanish-speaking world. A diplomat, prolific poet, journalist, and novelist, he was a literary genius who lived an outsized adventurous life of epic-Hollywood proportions that may be best described as Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties,” meets Indiana Jones meets Forrest Gump meets Ernest Hemingway – rated “R.”


Irony abounds in the life of Mr. Darío and depending on your predisposition, one may pick so many aspects of his life and be spellbound. Whether it was his constant involvement in political intrigue throughout Central and South America, his x-rated romantic interludes, his descent into alcoholism, his intellectual genius, or his prolific writing, there was certainly nothing boring about his life and times that brings to mind the old quote – “life is stranger than fiction.”


I have been told that when you fly into Managua, Nicaragua, and walk into the airport, you are immediately introduced to Mr. Darío by way of a larger-than-life – as in huge – image of him. Over the years, I have, unsuccessfully, asked several people for a picture of the portrait.


One may find scholarly references to his work in literary and journalism circles, or in a study of the history of the Spanish-American War, or any cursory examination into the politics of Latin America, or the ravages and consequences of philandering and alcoholism – and be amazed.


It you would like a read a quick, somewhat risqué, version of his life, not quite suitable for this publication, you do not want to miss the January 18, 2011 edition of Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac.” After you read it, join me in wondering when he found time to write and how did he manage to have such an enormous impact on literature when one takes into consideration that he only lived to the age of 49 – he died on February 6, 1916.


Mr. Darío was born Felix Rubén Garcia Sarmiento in Matapa, Nicaragua, which has since been renamed Ciudad Darío, on January 18, 1867. He later, according to numerous accounts, chose to take the name “Darío,” an old family name.


Mr. Keillor explains. “Scholars say that there is not a single writer in English that's had as much effect on English literature as Rubén Darío has had on Spanish literature. He's a household name all over Latin America, but Darío is barely known in the English-speaking world because his poems are hard to translate into English.”


According to Mr. Keillor, “New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer spent more than a dozen years as a foreign correspondent in Nicaragua, covering the rise of the Sandinistas. But he said that through all of that the “most magical and most unexpected” adventure of Nicaragua was reading the poetry of Rubén Darío. (Nearly) a century after his death, Darío is revered as a folk hero around Central America.”


Various history accounts of his life mention that Mr. Darío began reading at the age of three and was a published poet by the time he was 12.


Mr. Darío was published between 1879 and 1914. His career involved sleeping, writing and drinking his way throughout Latin America and Europe, working with newspapers from Managua to working for the Biblioteca Nacional de Nicaragua, where in 1884 he was convicted of “vagrancy” and sentenced to eight days of public service.


He was subsequently appointed a consulate by the president of Columbia. During the Spanish American War, he wrote for a newspaper in Argentina. Later he served as the Nicaraguan ambassador to France.


For examples of his work in poetry, look for his 1905 publication, “Azul.” His most celebrated book, "Cantos de Vida y Esperanza" was published in Spain in 1905. “Los Raros,” a collection of his articles about the writers was published in Buenos Aires in 1896 as was “Prosas profanas y otros poemas,” the definitive collection of poems that firmly established and reinforced his stature as the intellectual force behind the Spanish literary movement “Modernisme,” and the “Prince of Castilian Letters.”


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