Jorge Guillén

The Spanish poet Jorge Guillén y Alvarez (1893-1984) is best known for his work Cantico, which contains radiant Iyrics of impeccable form affirming the joy of living. He was one of the older members of the Generation of 1927.

Jorge Guillén was born on Jan. 18, 1893, in the medieval imperial town of Valladolid in Old Castile and received his early schooling there. He later received a solid classical education in schools in Switzerland, Madrid, Granada, and Germany. In 1917 he became a lecturer in Spanish at the Sorbonne, beginning a distinguished and varied career as a professor.

A somewhat shy person, Guillén was a mature man before he began to write poetry in 1918. In 1921 he married Germaine Cahen in Paris. Their daughter, Teresa, was born in 1922; their son, Claudio, in 1924. As adults, Teresa married Harvard professor Stephen Gilman, and Claudio became a professor. Guillén continued his career with a series of professorships in various schools:Murcia, Oxford, Middlebury, McGill, and especially Wellesley, where he remained for almost 20 years. He retired from Wellesley as Professor Emeritus in 1957.

In 1928, during a very fruitful period for Spanish poetry, Guillén published a first edition of Cántico, containing 75 poems. As he continued to create poems, he chose to expand the book from within, increasing the number of lyrics but retaining the original order. (This was Walt Whitman's procedure in Leaves of Grass. ) A second edition appeared in 1936, a third in 1945; in 1950 Guillén published the completed edition, containing 334 poems, in Buenos Aires, noting that he began it in Brittany in 1919 and finished it in Wellesley in 1950.

In an epoch generally given to negativism and disillusion, Guillén's Cántico (Song of Praise) is an affirmation of the simple act of being, without transcendental overtones. Guillén shows a strong influence of Juan Ramón Jiménez but rejects his persistent tendency toward sublimation of human emotions into transcendental or symbolic values. Not a poet of memory (like Antonio Machado), Guillén prefers to exalt the vital moment, the now; his is a delicate and radiant poetry of the senses. His poems often spring from the simple moments of life; for example, he wrote fine lyrics extolling a glass of water and a favorite armchair. As a poet of the vital, lived moment, Guillén concentrated often on the expression of human love, as in the poem Salvación de la primavera.

Guillén employed the whole range of traditional forms, usually preferring short meters, such as the artistic heptasyllable, often with the subtle music of Spanish assonance. He masterfully used the décima, a tightly rhyming stanza of 10 lines. But he also demonstrated astonishing ability with the sonnet form. Guillén was therefore a traditionalist in form, but within these forms he continued to demonstrate a surprising originality. He was an exponent of "pure poetry, " that is, poetry stripped of anecdote and extraneous elements. Guillén's phrasing and images often show an intellectual tone and are frequently quite difficult, but his poetry is never common and always bears his personal stamp.

With Cántico completed, Guillén began a second major book called Clamor, obviously indicating the darker side of existence, published in three parts:Maremágnum (1951), Que van a dar en la mar (1960), and A la altura de las circunstancias (1963). These books are more "historical" than Cántico; that is, they reflect more normally the vicissitudes of existence. However, Guillén's particular forte is still the elegant and radiant expression of a vital faith in living. In 1967 he published Homenaje, an extensive collection of laudatory poems. Later works include books of poetry, such as Y Ostros Poemas (1973) and Final (1981), and the essay collection El Argumento de la Obra (1969).

In his later years Guillén continued his career as a scholar and lecturer, receiving many prizes and honors. In 1955, he received the Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; he was also the recipient of San Luca Prize, Florence (1964), Cervantes Prize (1976), Alfonso Reyes Prize, Mexico (1978), and Ollin Yolitzli Prize, Mexico (1982). After his first wife died in 1947, Guillén married Irene Mochi Sisimondi in 1961. His permanent residence was in Italy, but he spent much time in the United States. Guillén died of pneumonia, February 6, 1984.


Further Reading on Jorge Guillén y Alvarez

The most important study in English of Guillén's poetry is Frances Pleak, The Poetry of Jorge Guillén (1942). Another work on Guillén, also in English, is Ivar Ivask and Juan Marichal, eds., Luminous Reality (1969).