LITERATURE: THE POETRY OF THE SPANISH AMERICAN COUNTRIES: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

The revival of poetry in the nineteenth century was marked by a new emphasis on American themes. The nee-classical style of this poetry had an exultant tone. The struggle for political independence produced heroes worthy of song. Even the produce of American soil was not overlooked. The Cuban poet, Manuel de Equeira Arango (1764-1846) praised the pineapple in an ode adorned by many classical allusions while the Venezuelan poet, Andres Bello (1781-1865), combined praise for the products of Latin American agriculture with a didactic survey of the aspirations of Spanish American man. This poet like his Ecuadorian counterpart, Jose Joaquin Olmedo (1780-1847), wanted peace in a united Spanish America.

The first of Olmedo’s two great poems, “La victoria de Junin: Canto a Bolivar” (1825), was written in a period when these aspirations seemed realizable. And to exhort the different Spanish American nations to act in concert for peace, he introduces Huayna Capac, the ‘last of the Inca emperors to rule over the intact empire. With Independence, then, indigenous features began to reappear. Olmedo’s second important poem, “Al general Flores, vencedor en Minarica” (1835), was written in a period when the idea of unity was fast vanishing and civil war had set in.

The themes employed by these poets needed only a slight difference in treatment for romantic poetry to come into being in Spanish America. The Cuban poet, Jose Maria Heredia (1803-1839), provided this treatment in a way that brought him greatness. America-its landscape, its history (including its pre-Columbian history) and indeed the relationship between its troubled human history and its landscape personified as a witness-becomes for him the central focus. The enthusiastic rhetoric of his contemporaries gives way to a mood of lyrical contemplation; and the classical allusions are replaced by language that seems spontaneous because of its closeness to ordinary speech.

All this is displayed in Heredia’s “En el Teocalli de Cholula” (1820), generally regarded as the first romantic poem in the Spanish language. Three years later he wrote “Niagara”, perhaps the best known of his poems. His description of the waterfall and his way of using that spectacle to reveal deep feelings of loneliness and nostalgia for his native country make the poem one of the important productions of Spanish American romanticism.

After Heredia, romanticism, with varying emphases, continued as a constant in Spanish American poetry. The generally held idea that romantic poetry was simply “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling” brought about large scale participation in the writing of poetry. Four romantic poets of achievement are: the Cuban, Diego Gabriel de la Concepsion Valdes, also known as Placido (1809-1844); the Argentinian, Esteban Echeverria (1805-1851); the Peruvian, Manuel Gonzalez Prada (1848-1918); and the Uruguayan, Juan Zorrilla de San Martin (1855-1931), whose poem “Tabare” is one of the most celebrated of the period.

The poetry that deals with the life of the Argentinian gaucho or cowboy existed in the eighteenth century as popular folk poetry of the pampas. Gaucho poetry came into its full flowering during the romantic period when city poets began to imitate it. Bartolome Hidalgo (1782-1822), an Uruguayan, was the first of the urban poets to know the rural poets or payadores well and to write gaucho poetry. He was followed by the Argentinians: Hilario Ascasubi (1807-1875), Estanislao del Campo (183i-188:>), Rafael Obligado (1851-1920) and the most distinguished of them, Jose Hernandez (1834-1886), whose poem, Martin Fierro (1872 and 1879) is one of the major works of Spanish American litarature.

Writing at a time when tension between the urban and the rural sectors of Argentinian society was at a high point, and when the urban writers, following Sarmiento’s lead, tended to identify civilization with the urban way and barbarism with the rural, Hernandez allows the gaucho, speaking in the first person, to present his point of view. The gauchos are shown as a courageous people, passionately devoted to freedom. They are in a struggle against nature for survival, but at the same time they enjoy the boundlessness of the Argentinian pampas. They want no part of a war against Paraguay, waged by the Argentinian government, a government which seems intent on destroying their traditions. In the second part of the poem (1879), the conciliatory tone underlines a hope for unity based on mutual understanding.

Hernandez lived with the gauchos and knew them and their art well. His poem was read by them as their own. He was also well known in Buenos Aires literary circles where debate over the status of gaucho poetry, as representing Argentinian national literature, was widespread before Martin Fierro. With this poem, in which he lifted popular poetry to a high artistic level while dealing with an important subject of national scope, the dispute was virtually resolved.