In the eighteen eighties a new aesthetic sense began to make its demands on the literary production of Latin America. The young poets of “modernism”, as the movement they started came to be called, began to feel the need to filter the flow of romantic expression. Refinement, sophistication and elegance were required now to check the spontaneity, candour and passion evident in a great deal of romantic poetry. The new qualities were acquired by means of sedulous study of achievements in world poetry.
In contemporary French poetry they found two poetic practices which they adopted and combined for their own use: Parnassianism with its plastic impersonal imagery, and symbolism with its delicate suggestiveness, its synesthesia, its musicality.
The Mexican, Manuel Gutierrez Najera (1859-1872), is chronologically the first of the renovators. His poetic vision is limited to esthetic values; and the techniques of his composition are these of the symbolists and Parnassians. The subjects of his poetry are whatever can be represented as monuments of pure beauty. But not all the renovators of Spanish American poetry held his view. The romantic mood of disillusionment and melancholy survived, and it is to be found persistently in the works of two excellent poets who died young and tragically: the Cuban, Julian del Casal (1863-1893), and the Colombian, Jose Asuncion Silva (1865-1896).
Social and political preoccupations prevailed too, and found a powerful representative in the great Cuban, Jose Martf (1853-1895). He realized keenly that, in addition to reforms in poetry, social and political reforms were needed in what he called “nuestra America”. The themes of his major poetry were honesty, sincerity, a common humanity and social justice; and he had a greater regard than his contemporaries for the beauty that lies in simplicity of expression. Some verses of his poetry have been popularized in the Cuban folksong, “Guantanamera”.
But the dominant figure among those poets, the poet in the description of whose work lies the definition of modernism, is Ruben Dario ~ 1867-1916). Ile was born in Metapa, a small Nicaraguan village (it was later declared a city in his honour by the Nicaraguan government, but it nevertheless remains a village); and, after a youthful start on his poetic career, he lived briefly in Guatemala and El Salvador before moving to Chile. There his first important book Azul (1888), a collection of poems and short stories, was published. His mastery of the current French poetic tendencies was immediately admired, and peninsular Spanish critics, notably Juan Valera, indicated their awareness of the fact that poetry in the Spanish language was undergoing a transformation.
His subsequent books of poetry, Prosas profanas (1896), Cantos de oiday esperanza (1905) and El canto errants (1907), solidified his position as the leading poet in the Spanish language in his time. (An indication of the consideration held for him by the Spanish American countries is the fact that Colombia gave him a diplomatic appointment in Argentina at a time when the two countries had minimal relations.)