Luis Cernuda: Exile, Eros and the Sublime

Nearing age fifty, in exile for fourteen years from his native Spain—first in Great Britain, then in New England, both uncongenial climates to his Andalusian blood—Luis Cernuda discovered Mexico.  The warmth of the air, the sound of his own language, the easy sensuality of the people after the austere reserve of Massachusetts Yankees, combined were too much for the poet to resist.  Enamored of a young Mexican man, Cernuda surrendered to the erotic imperative: as soon as possible he quit his teaching job at Mount Holyoke and moved to Mexico.

Born in Seville in 1902, Cernuda gravitated to Madrid in his twenties and, already a promising poet, fell in with the brilliant group of friends that came to be known as the Generation of 1927—fellow Andalusians Pedro Salinas (who had been his professor at the University in Seville), Rafael Alberti, Vicente Aleixandre and Federico García Lorca, the Castilian Jorge Guillén and the Cantabrian Gerardo Diego, among others, including Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.  Before long, Cernuda emerged as one of the brightest stars in this constellation.  Soon after publication of the first edition of his collected poems, La realidad y el deseo (Reality and Desire), the Civil War began and the golden moment of poetry and friendship was over forever.

The murder of Lorca and the scattering of others into exile or into the mountains to defend the Republic against Francisco Franco’s fascist invaders was a cultural cataclysm to match the political and military catastrophe of the next three years—a catastrophe that turned into the protracted nightmare of a four-decades-long dictatorship.  In 1938, when things were looking especially bleak in Spain, Cernuda accepted an invitation to lecture in London and never returned.  He taught there and in Glasgow, Scotland, until 1947 when he took the position at Mount Holyoke—a women’s college where he wouldn’t even have the invigorating experience of lusting after his students.  Openly homosexual in his life and his writing, Cernuda chronicled his misery during these years of exile in the North even as he continued to create some of his best poems and to establish himself as one of his generation’s most astute and respected critics.

Mexico changed his fortunes, and for a while sexual love and the music of the Spanish language restored the poet’s spirit.  Except for brief academic appointments in the early sixties in California, at San Francisco State and UCLA, he chose a life of poverty in the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacán until his sudden death from a heart attack in 1963.  He was sixty-one years old.

This book collects Cernuda’s final harvest of verse, published originally in two volumes, Con las horas contadas (With Time Running Out) and Desolación de la Quimera.  The poems date from 1950 to 1962 and show a master at work with nothing left to prove.  Cut off from his country and from his native audience, he writes as if for himself alone, with little hope that his work will find future readers.  Embittered by exile and despairing of his sorry fate, he is ironically unaware that his poetry is increasingly coming to be seen by younger Spaniards as representative of the best of his generation.  In the intervening years his stature has only risen.  His rootlessness, his alienation, his marginality as a gay man, his cosmopolitan perspective and his estheticism all resonated with the new generations coming of age in Spain under dictatorship, and even more so in the cultural opening since Franco’s death in 1975.

The poems Cernuda wrote during the last dozen years of his life display not only his unbroken devotion to poetry, nor just the anger and gloom of a man denied the fulfillment he felt he had earned through his unswerving commitment to the beautiful, but a sustained engagement with beauty and pleasure—or the memory of pleasure—as well as with the immortal monuments of literature, art and music.  The lives and works of El Greco, Mozart, Keats, Titian, Goethe and other masters are invoked as measures of humanity’s potential despite the bad faith, cruelties and pettiness of politics, war and commerce.  Cernuda identifies with an artistic aristocracy, a kind of secular priesthood, whose vocation and duty it is to nourish the human soul and give life meaning.  He reimagines the lives of sensitive kings—Philip of Spain and Louis of Bavaria, to name two—never suited to the vulgar demands of ruling.  He sympathizes with the plight of these historic misfits whose tragic failures and dissatisfactions mirror his own.

Yet despite the despair of exile and the urgent sense of his own impending doom—as the book title indicates, even in his fifties he could feel his time running out—Cernuda’s muse somehow kept him connected to the consolations of nostalgia, the bittersweet memory of happier times in the Andalucía of his youth and in the brief embrace of his Mexican paramour, who ultimately abandoned him.  The poems invoking the little plazas and orange blossoms of Seville and what Blake called “the lineaments of gratified desire” rescue the poet from abject hopelessness and bring back, in durable form, the afterimages of ephemeral pleasures.  Sensory, spiritual and emotional bliss is partially recovered in the lyric lines of the aging writer’s verse.  His life, bitter as it feels to him, salvages by way of poetry a redeeming sweetness to be savored long after, first by the writer and eventually by others.

These late poems of Cernuda have until now been largely neglected by North American translators, and so are unknown to most readers of English.  The neglect can be explained in part by the classical tenor of his voice and the somewhat lofty formality of his diction—the opposite of the ironic, kinetic, hip and colloquial mannerism that supposedly sounds most “natural” to the contemporary American ear.  Yet Cernuda was out of step with his own contemporaries as well, and his style was nearly as untimely then.

What I have tried to do as a translator is to honor the original tone of Cernuda’s poems while bringing his lyric voice into as speakable a modern American idiom as possible.  I have sought to sustain the tension between his high esthetic ideals and the lived reality of his experience, which might be that of any aging artist who feels he has lost the most vital years of his life stranded in unfriendly circumstances and in pursuit of an unattainable measure of perfection—an artist who, to make matters worse, has failed to attract the attention he’d hoped for when he first embarked on the creative path.

Cernuda’s biographical trajectory, and a lyric-philosophical history of his sensibility, can be traced in his collected prose poems, Written in Water, which City Lights published in my translation in 2004.  His Selected Poems, translated by Reginald Gibbons, was reissued in paperback by Sheep Meadow Press in 2000.  This volume supplements those and begins to bring to light in English a more substantial yet still relatively slim fragment of the work of one of the twentieth century’s most important Spanish-language poets.

The critic Harold Bloom, in his book Genius, calls Cernuda a “saint” of the art of poetry, comparing him in this aspect to Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan.  García Lorca famously complained, shortly before his death in 1936, that Cernuda’s poems set a maddening standard of sublimity.  For the twenty-first century reader the sublime may seem an archaic idea, but my hope in this book is to recover Cernuda’s sense of poetic possibility: that poetry at its best is able not only to record the growth and the existential truth of a proud soul but also to evoke the archetypal forms of timeless inspiration—and their inherent danger—the joyful turmoil and destructive power of a paradoxically chimerical yet authentic vision of poetic creation.  Cernuda served that vision his whole life, and my goal as a translator has been to serve his with something approaching his own fidelity.

This essay is the introduction to Desolation of the Chimera (see Translation).