Jorge Guillén: A Poet of This Time

The author of J.B. and twice the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, ARCHIBALD MACLEISH, an American poet, is a profound admirer of Jorge Guillén, whom he regards as Spain’s foremost living poet. Dr. Guillén came to America in 1938, where for 17 years he was a member of the Wellesley faculty In 1959 he was the Charles Eliot Norton lecturer at Harvard.


THE English imagination, says young Martin Green in his Mirror for Anglo-Saxons, “has been dominated by a feeling of death, decay and hopelessness.” Others would extend that statement beyond Great Britain. We are no longer AngloSaxon in the United States, but the American imagination, according to those who make a profession of observing it, is wandering in the same dark wood, and so too, and by the same authority, is the French. Indeed, it is the current assumption of all accredited intellectuals that our entire generation — or that part of it, at least, which is still free to suffer — is suffering in a common darkness of rejection and denial. But whereas Mr. Green finds this common submission disappointing (“Nobody has shown us a person we can admire and love dealing with life in a way we can admire and love”), nearer observers rather like the view.

And so too, one must confess, do the observed. It gives us a certain sense of accomplishment to be assured that we have faced the dirty facts of a dirty existence more honestly than our deluded ancestors; and when we see the whole era symbolized on Mr. Beckett’s stage by a pair of frustrated bums who cannot even hang themselves for lack of a length of rope, we are gratified. We laugh, of course — but proudly. That, we think, is precisely how posterity will see us — a generation which has learned at last that life is an absurdity, that the world is a gutter, that Godot never comes, that death is the only thing that ever happens, and that not even death will happen when it’s wanted.

But, unhappily, that is not the way in which posterity will remember us. I write with some assurance, not because I know more about posterity than the next man but because I am certain that posterity will not form its opinion of us on the evidence on which we form our opinions of ourselves. We are perhaps the most self-conscious generation which ever lived. We read our daily notices with the avidity of a company of touring actors. We now what the sociologists think of us, what the psychiatrists conclude, what the philosophers opine, what the critics judge. But posterity, it is reasonably certain, will not read the notices; it will read the works. And the works of our generation — those that have the look of surviving — will include some which will give a very different impression.

I am not contending with Mr. Green, who is the first new, fresh, and credible voice in a long time. Mr. Green’s indictment may hold for the British Isles after Yeats withdrew from them. But posterity will not judge us by the works of our contemporaries in one nation only. If it interests itself in our time at all, it will interest itself in the whole of our time. And if it reads the principal works of our time as a whole, it will come upon works which will not fit our portrait of ourselves. One of our seeings and sayings which will almost certainly survive is a poem addressed to the age itself by St. John Perse — his Chronique, which ends: “Grand âge, nous voici. Prenez mesure du coeur d’homme.” And there are other lines of Perse — a poet who knew his time better than most because he was political man as well as poet, and one of those who shaped the world he wrote in — there are other lines of Perse which would sound strange to a bum by a dead tree hunting for a halter:

Bitter! Have our living lips ever been bitter?
I have seen, smiling in the fires offshore, the
great holiday thing: the Sea festive with
our dreams like a green-grass Easter and like
a celebration one celebrates . . .
The drums of nothingness surrender to the fifes of light.

And Perse is not alone. There is another of our contemporaries whose work, if it survives, will contradict the oracles. Nikos Kazantzakis was a Greek who knew as much about suffering and absurdity as those who carve the literary totem poles which celebrate those deities, but Kazantzakis was not himself a worshiper of revulsion and the dark: “My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. My prayer is not the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you. My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general. . . .”

And there are others still: one of them, the Spanish poet some of whose poems are translated here. Jorge Guillén knows this time of ours as Perse knows it and as Kazantzakis knew it. He belongs to the generation of the two wars, and — because he is a Spaniard — of that third war, too, which changed the first into the second. Like Perse, he has lived the life of exile which so many of our contemporaries lived and live. But though he is a man of this time in the historical sense — all the historical senses — he is not a man of the time so many of our critics and philosophers have described to us. He knows the dark, yes. “My certainty is founded in the dark.” But the dark that Guillén knows is anything but the dark of hopelessness and despair: “That strong unknown thing by night will break through . . . whatever seals it and from the deep abyss draw up those finest splendors that are still so far from death.” Dark to him is what a man awakes from into the wonder of the world:

I. Here. Now.
Wide awake. Existing here and now.
Once more, the marvelous adjustment.

And what awakes from night into that ajuste pro-digioso is not a frightened and denying victim but a man who wishes, as the great end of life, to be.

I wish to be . . .
To be. That suffices me —
Absolute happiness.

Guillén is a poet of this time — a great poet of this time. But he is a poet, nevertheless, who has devoted his whole life to the writing of a single book, which has grown slowly from seventy-five poems in 1928 to three hundred and thirty-four in 1950 — a single book, of which the title is Cántico and the theme praise. And what does he praise?

Joy of joys: the soul beneath the skin.

Posterity, if it comes upon the great resounding Yes of Cántico among the tumbled fragments of our time, will not believe that No was all we had to answer to the world.