Ernesto Cardenal

Ernesto Cardenal (born 1925) a Roman Catholic priest, had become a poet of major standing by the end of the twentieth century. His epic works spoke to a proud people of its heritage. They spoke to people around the world, as well, with a human spirit that went beyond pure poetry.

Cardenal's role as a priest and spiritual mentor was evident throughout his more than 35 books of poetry. He wrote poems, and translated the works of others-many speaking out against Anastasio Samoza, the dictator who ruled Nicaragua for decades. His support for the anti-government movement (Sandanistas), led to the overthrow of the Samoza dictatorship in 1979.

Ernesto Cardenal was born in Grenada, Nicaragua, on January 20, 1925. He was the son of Rodolfo and Esmerelda Martinez Cardenal. Ernesto was raised in a middle-class family of 19th century European immigrants. Legend had it that a family member was William Walker, one of many Southern Confederates who defected to Central and South America. Their intention had been to create a slave-holding state in Nicaragua in the way they had been unable to continue to do in the United States. His poem, With Walker in Nicaragua, is his own study of that expedition. Cardenal attended the University of Mexico from 1944 until 1948. He spent the following academic year (1948-1949) at Columbia University in New York City, studying American literature. Following his U.S. studies, Cardenal traveled in Europe, returning to Nicaragua in 1950.

Cardenal soon became involved in his country's political unrest. In 1954, he was one of the participants in what became known as the "April Rebellion," when anti-Samoza forces stormed the presidential palace. His political activities forced Cardenal to flee the country in 1957.

By the time of his return to Nicaragua, Cardenal had already begun publishing his poems, many with political themes. One poem in particular, his famous Hora Zero ("Zero Hour") that dealt with the assassination of Sandino, a revolutionary hero, was published underground. This and other poems had to be distributed clandestinely, evading the Samoza regime's watchful eye. Many of his early works were distributed along with other revolutionary literature.

Cardenal went to the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky as a novice and considered becoming a monk. He spent two years there with the noted author, Thomas Merton, known for his bestseller entitled Seven Story Mountain. In his introduction to Cardenal's spiritual writings published in To Live Is to Love, (1972), Merton talked about Cardenal's time with him at the abbey. "During the ten years that I was Master of Novices at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, I never attempted to find out what the novices were writing down in the note-books they kept in their desks. If they wished to talk about it, they were free to do so. Ernesto Cardenal was a novice at Gethsemani for two years, and I knew about his notes and his poems. He spoke to me about his ideas and his meditations. I also knew about his simplicity, his loyalty to his vocation, and his dedication to love. But I never imagined that some day I was going to write an introduction to the simple meditations he was writing down in those days, nor that in reading them (almost ten years later) I would find so much clarity, profundity, and maturity."

Due to ill health, Cardenal left Gethsemani and returned to Nicaragua. His commitment vocation to the Roman Catholic priesthood did not waiver. He was ordained in 1965 in Madrid, Spain. Cardenal continued his work as a priest as well as his writing. A religious community Cardenal established on the island of Solentiname in Lake Nicaragua included writers, artists, other religious figures, and local peasants. From that commune he continued his work for the revolution. His philosophy and spirituality was an unusual mixture of Catholic Christianity and Marxist Socialism.


Papal Reprimand

Cardenal was one of several key Central and South American priests who attempted to integrate their religious and political views into a new ideology that became known as "liberation theology." The focus of this movement was to join political with spiritual forces, and to preach liberation for all oppressed peoples. Advocates varied in the degree to which they strayed from traditional Roman church law. Some used it as a forum to call for the ordination of married men and women to the priesthood. Some were less radical in that regard, but courted political ideologies in equal standing with their religious function.

The success of the Sandanista revolution in 1979 brought a new role for Cardenal. He held the position of minister of culture until 1988. In 1983, when Pope John Paul II toured Central America, he expressed his concern for the discord in this region. As Richard N. Ostling reported in the March 7, 1983 issue of Time magazine, John Paul's flock in Latin America was "split into at least three factions: the traditionalist right wing, the reform-minded middle, and the radical revolutionary left." In direct defiance of the Roman Catholic code of canon law, (the group of law that exists to govern the operations of the Catholic church around the world) Cardenal and another priest, Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann held government positions. Canon law does not allow a priest to hold a government office without the permission of his local bishops. Even though the bishops withdrew that permission in 1981, Cardenal and Brockmann remained in office.

When John Paul visited Nicaragua in 1983, Cardenal attempted to greet the Pope in the traditional manner of dropping to one knee and kissing his ring. John Paul pulled his hand away from Cardenal and shook his finger at him. The world looked on uncomfortably.

Cardenal left the Sandanista movement in October 1994 when he became disillusioned with the government of President Daniel Ortega. "The truth is," Cardenal said at the time, "that a small group headed by Daniel Ortega has taken over the Sandinista Front. This is not the Sandanista Front we joined. Because of this I have considered it my duty to resign." As minister of culture, Cardenal had become increasingly subject to the control of government officials. He found he had less time to write. The major positive aspect of his work was setting up literacy and poetry workshops throughout the country.


His Work in Words

Cardenal was a poet and writer who produced volumes of work. Much of it was translated into English and published for distribution around the world. Among his works in addition to Zero Hour, were: Flights of Victory, Vida en el Amor, (published in English as To Live Is to Love) in 1972; Psalms of Struggle and Liberation, for which he won the Christopher Book Award, and With Walker. His English translation poetry volumes included, Marilyn Monroe and Other Poems, 1965; Apocalypse and Other Poems, 1977; Nicaraguan New Time, 1988; Cosmic Canticle, 1993; and, The Doubtful Strait, 1995.

With Walker in Nicaragua, Cardenal seemed to be coming to terms with his own past, dealing with the purported familial connection he shared with Walker. As Elman further noted in his review in The Nation, the poem was "narrated by a survivor, in a voice still awed by the jungle, the deaths, the tropics, the wonder of a land, a people. It is a report on a time when the land was unsullied, the air clear, and imperialist either bloody-minded or awestruck." In a book review in The Christian Century, in May 1982, Cardenal's poetry found in Psalms was praised. "In the pages of Psalms can be found hymns of praise, strong paeans expressing exuberance and joy. Yet it is the harsh cry for justice and peace which makes these poems memorable," said the reviewer.

Cardenal brought the Nicaraguan struggle to every reader of his poetry. His vivid portrayals provided a critical glimpse into a society struggling against oppression. Cardenal traveled to Cuba in the early 1970s in order to seek out the history of other struggles. He spent four hours with Castro. Cardenal published notes from his trip, as well as the works of Cuban writers in a 1972 book entitled, In Cuba. Choice, magazine called Cardenal, "one of the world's major poets" who "struggled to convince himself that the underlying force in the universe was divine purpose rather than pure chance. For him, the politics of commitment was essential to the poetic discourse, just as love, the ultimate cohesive principle, was necessary to preserve the oneness of creation."

Cardenal left the government but continued his work for the literary consciousness of his country and the political consciousness that he needed to live a life of universal love. He served as vice president of Casa de Las Tres Mundos, a literary and cultural organization based in Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua. Cardenal also traveled to the U.S. to read and present his work to students and others. American poet, Robert Bly, said that Cardenal continued "the tradition of Pablo Neruda," who had said, "all the pure poets will fall on their face in the snow. Cardenal's poetry is impure, defiantly, in that it unites political ugliness and the beauty of imaginative vision."


The Teacher

Cardenal's poetry was more than poetry alone. Thomas Merton concluded his introduction to To Live Is to Love, with these comments about Cardenal. "Ernesto Cardenal left Gethsemani because of ill health. However, today I can see that this is not the only reason: it did not make sense to continue at Gethsemani as a novice and as a student when actually he was already a teacher." Still Cardenal's own words at the end of that same book pointed to his own spirituality, his own sense of himself. He said, "God knows that what is not good for me today may be good for me tomorrow. And God may not wish something today that He may wish at some future time; or He may wish something to happen at a particular place which He does not wish to happen at another place, or He may wish something for me that He does not wish for others. When Joan of Arc was asked during her trial whether God loved the British, she answered: 'God does not love the British in France.' This hints at the mysterious vocation of us all. God may like a dictator who hails from Nicaragua, but He does not want him to be the dictator of Nicaragua."

Cardenal's life was continually evolving as he continued to answer what he believed to be his call from God. As a priest and poet he served an honest and generous piece of his own talents.


Further Reading on Ernesto Cardenal

Contemporary Authors, Gale, 1998, Volume 66.

The Christian Century, May 26, 1982, p. 638.

The Nation, January 28, 1984, pp. 96-99; March 30, 1985, pp. 372-375.

National Catholic Reporter, February 6, 1981, p. 4; December 9, 1983, p. 3.

Time, March 7, 1983, pp. 52-54.

"Cardenal, Ernesto, biographical profile, New York State Writers Institute," University at Albany-State University of New York website, (April 10, 1999).