The Bard of Nicaragua

Reviewed by Gustavo Perez-Firmat
Sunday, December 18, 2005

RUBN DARO

Selected Writings

Translated from the Spanish by

Andrew Hurley, Greg Simon and Steven F. White

Edited by Ilan Stavans

Penguin Classics. 667 pp. Paperback, $16

Next to Borges, the Nicaraguan Rubn Daro (1867-1916) is perhaps Latin America's most cosmopolitan writer. But unlike Borges, Daro -- a cosmopolite who doesn't travel well -- remains mostly unknown outside the Spanish-reading world. Although his lack of success in translation is usually blamed on the difficulty of recasting his ornate, highly stylized verse, it surely has as much to do with the ambiguous nature of his achievement. Universally credited (a credit that he basked in) with liberating Spanish-language poetry from the declamatory Romanticism of his immediate predecessors, Daro became famous for innovations that, in the broader context of late 19th-century European and American literature, were no innovations at all. When placed next to that of Mallarm or Verlaine, whom he readily acknowledged as models, Daro's poetry shares the luster but lacks the depth. When placed next to that of Hugo or Whitman, whom he also admired, his metrical experiments seem little more than salon exercises.

And yet Daro's influence on Hispanic literature has been enormous. There is hardly a modern Spanish or Spanish American poet -- from the Spaniard Juan Ramn Jimnez to the Latin Americans Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz -- who is not indebted to him, if not for details of phrasing or form, then certainly for the desire to lift Spanish poetic diction from the rut into which it had fallen after the "Golden Age" of great baroque poets such as Gngora and Quevedo. But the most influential poetry is not necessarily the most durable (indeed, the opposite is often the case); and although it may be heresy to say this, it is difficult to read some of Daro's best-known poems today without wondering what all the fuss has been about. Whatever their historical importance and technical finesse, compositions like "Sonatina," about a medieval princess who pines for her faraway prince, or "It was a soft air. . . ," about the wicked and beautiful Marquise Eulalia, a femme now fatale only to herself, appeal to us principally as curiosities, the literary equivalents of the heirlooms one sees every week on "The Antiques Road Show." When Daro, in another much-quoted poem, describes the Poet as a "man-mountain chained to a lily," one assents to the thought (perhaps) but winces at the metaphor.

Ironically, Daro is relevant today less for the rococo glitter of the poems that made him a celebrity -- contained in two early books, Azul ( Blue , 1888) and Prosas profanas ( Profane Hymns , 1896) -- than for the unvarnished subject matter of his later work. Published exactly 100 years ago, his bracing diatribe against Teddy Roosevelt -- Hercules in riding boots -- serves up the mixture of awe, fear and envy that has defined the attitude of many Latin Americans toward the Colossus to the north. Less prophetic, but equally powerful, are the poems and articles calling for pan-Hispanic solidarity in the wake of Spain's defeat in the Spanish-American War.

The aging Daro, who had once bragged that Spain was his wife but France his mistress, became a propagandist for what he called "fecund Hispania," composing patriotic odes and extolling "Our Lord Don Quijote." In the prologue to one of his last books of poetry, El canto errante (The Errant Song; 1907), he states that no philosophical imports from England, France or Germany can match the wisdom stored in old Spanish folios.

Daro's turnabout reflects the contradictions in his own life. Born in a small town in Nicaragua and raised by a great aunt after the separation of his parents, the precocious Daro began his literary career when he was 10 or 11 years old by writing verse epitaphs upon request. Leaving Nicaragua when he was barely 20, he wandered throughout Europe and Latin America for the rest of his life, eking out a living by taking occasional diplomatic posts and writing countless articles for newspapers. Declaring in the manifesto that opens Prosas profanas that he hated the world into which he had been born -- including his "drops" of Indian blood -- Daro nevertheless was unable to turn his back on that world without guilt and melancholy. In his last years, the same man who had filled his books with nymphs and satyrs affirmed that Len, the Nicaraguan city where he was raised and where he died, was his Rome and his Athens. It was a long road back home.

Although there have been other recent attempts to make Daro available in English, this new volume is the most ambitious and representative. Especially welcome is the inclusion of generous selections from his fiction and nonfiction, by far the largest segment of his output, yet the least appreciated. As one would expect, the poetry does not fare as well as the prose, though it should have fared better than it does. The inaccuracy of some of Greg Simon's and Steven White's verse translations, compounded by the decision to render Daro in rhymed colloquial English, results in poems that are not poetry and, worse, not Daro. In "Nocturne," a poem in which he speaks of expressing his anguish, this translation has him erasing it; in "To Columbus," when he inveighs against the "writing rabble," the translation, in a bizarre misreading, turns him against the "works of women."

By contrast, Andrew Hurley's versions of Daro's stories and essays are superb, and Ilan Stavans's introduction is lively and informative, in spite of a couple of surprising gaffes (the author of the notorious anti-Daro sonnet that calls for the strangling of the iconic swans was Enrique Gonzlez Martnez, not Manuel Gutirrez Njera).

In "Far Away," a brief lyric written while he was living in Europe, Daro evokes an ox that he remembers from his childhood. Panting under the fiery Nicaraguan sun, the "heavy-footed ox" has little in common with the exotic fauna -- swans, falcons, peacocks, dragons -- of better-known poems and fables. But this ox, he says, is his life. There is not a truer or more exquisite line in all of Daro's work.

Gustavo Prez-Firmat, the David Feinson Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, is the author of a forthcoming collection of poems, "Scar Tissue."


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