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  • Ruben Dario

    Ruben Dario | Photo: Archive

Published 15 January 2016
Dario's rejection of bourgeois culture conflicted with his own need to earn money to support his family, and there was tension between his advocacy of Latin American independence and his admiration of both Spanish culture and that of the United States.

Few people in the English speaking world now have even heard of Ruben Dario. Even so, 100 years after his death, he remains a key reference point for Latino-American literature and culture. His life and work are a kind of hinge opening backwards to Latin America's European, especially Spanish, colonial legacy, but also forwards to the neocolonial era dominated by the United States and, beyond, to Latin America's current drive for emancipation and independence. The Mexican writer Octavio Paz once remarked of Dario, “He's a reference point: a point of arrival and departure, a boundary line to be reached or crossed. To be like him or not. Either way Dario is present in the spirit of contemporary poets. He is the founder."That remains true even today.

Dario was born on Jan. 18, 1867 in Metapa, now Ciudad Dario, a tiny provincial town south of Nicaragua's famous coffee growing area of Matagalpa. His parents separated and his mother moved to Honduras leaving him to be brought up by relatives in Nicaragua's university city, Leon. Despite a relatively happy childhood and being an outstanding student, his subsequent life was extremely unsettled, often deeply unhappy, and surprisingly impoverished even at the height of his prestige and fame. His material life was marked by incessant travel, numerous love affairs and the constant anxiety of securing a living. He died relatively young in 1916 aged 49.

That bare bones summary of his life may well explain, along with the language barrier, the lack of knowledge about Dario in the English speaking world, because it is virtually identical to that of any number of writers, musicians or artists. So to English readers, Dario may tend to seem like a banal antique, a relic of interest only to specialists, his ideas outdated, his poetry embarrassingly overblown, his politics overtaken by events, in short, nothing more than a harmless 19th century curiosity. Although perhaps a caricature, that view of Dario is typical even among people who may even have read some of his work. It also indicates the chronic failure of contemporary culture in the English speaking world to understand itself, because it is impervious to understanding other rationalities.

From his earliest adult life onwards, Dario was the key voice of Spanish modernismo, which, although different in some respects, shared fundamental characteristics with its companion North American and European movements which it actually foreshadowed. Thinking of early modernism, most people probably think of figures like Picasso, Kandinksy, Schoenberg, James Joyce, T.S.Eliot and Virginia Woolf, all of them indebted to Euro-centric ideas, literature and art, to European “culture”. Their contemporary, Joseph Conrad, reminded the world of the genocidal horror on which that culture was founded. One of Dario's deepest contradictions was his immersion in the centrality of European culture which his own person and being belied.

That deep contradiction was compounded by others, driving his intellectual production and life as a man of action but which also dictated the dynamics of his constant travelling, his friendships and love affairs, his personal struggle with acoholism. Among those other contradictions is the fundamental conflict between Dario's rejection of bourgeois culture and his own need to earn money to support his family, or the tension between his advocacy of Latin American independence and his admiration of both Spanish culture and that of the United States. Or again, his passionate rebellion against oppressive bourgeois convention and his acknowledgment of Latin America's cultural debt to the Catholic Church.

Working through these contradictions, conflicts and tensions, Dario created a body of literary work of revolutionary power and drive that changed hispanic-american culture for good. In a way not achieved in centuries, Ruben Dario lead a renewal of Spanish language through his most important literary works Azul (1888) Profane Prose (1896) and Songs of Life and Hope (1905). But even that extraordinary literary achievement is only part of his life's work. Dario also made a huge contribution to the development of Spanish and Latin American journalism. His journalistic career began at the age of 18 in Nicaragua, but over the next three years he also worked for newspapers in Chile, and Guatemala. In 1889, after the publication of his groundbreaking collection, “Azul”, he was invited to be the editor of a newspaper in El Salvador. His journalism for newspapers throughout Latin America was his most important source of income throughout his career. For example, over his working life, Argentina's La Nación published over 600 reports and other contributions from Darío.

During his early career, while working in Chile and El Salvador, Dario, who was already a prodigy in terms of his mastery of Spanish literary forms, began to assimilate the forms of French poetry. The encouragement of Juan Valera, a leading Spanish critic, enabled Dario to get in touch with leading Spanish and Latin American literary figures. In this, too, Dario was caught up in the contradictory reality of being a beneficiary of the clerical writing-focused culture of the Spanish colonial legacy and the future-oriented technological innovation of telegrams, as well as much faster postal communications via railways and steam ships. In Chile, for his indigenous complexion, he also faced a more acute experience of racism than even among the white elite in Nicaragua.

Dario was also a man of action in the sense that he played a leading role developing Nicaraguan and Latin American diplomacy. The prestige he enjoyed as a result of his writing supported his work as a diplomat and, in turn, the knowledge and authority he accrued from his diplomacy imbued and enhanced his writing. His first diplomatic appointment came at a time of much personal unhappiness. While living in El Salvador in 1890, Dario married, aged 24, but his wife died in 1893, leaving him with a son. He then married again, only to separate from his new wife soon after. In 1892 he was appointed to represent Nicaragua in Spain for the four hundredth anniversary of what was then called “the Discovery of America”, which in itself indicates the intellectual and ideological conflicts and tensions characterizing Darío's career. The following year he was named Nicaragua's Consul in Argentina but, thanks to his regional contacts, actually served as Consul General of Colombia in Buenos Aires until 1895.

That was the year Cuba's national hero José Martí died, killed in action. Dario had met Marti in New York in 1893. The subsequent intervention in Cuba by the United States in the context of the Spanish-American war made even strong advocates of Cuban independence from Spain, like Darío, side passionately with Spain against the United States. The Treaty of Paris in 1898 represented a traumatic defeat for Spain, with the side effect of creating a literary movement known as the Generation of 1898. That year Dario moved from Argentina to Spain and over the following year and a half wrote regular reports for Argentina's La Nacion newspaper about the effects on Spanish society and culture of the country's defeat in Cuba and the Philippines at the hands of the US. In Madrid, he began a strong and stable relationship with Francisca Sánchez who became his lifelong partner.

Dario's career as a diplomat representing Nicaragua really flourished in the 1900s. In 1904 he represented Nicaragua in France for the homage to that year's Nobel Laureate for Literature, Federico Mistral. In 1905, Dario was invited to form part of Nicaragua's team representing the country over a border dispute with Honduras, submitted for arbitration to the King of Spain. A year later in 1906, Dario again visited France representing Nicaragua for the third centenary of the French dramatist Pierre Corneille. Also in 1906, Dario represented Nicaragua at the Inter-American Conference held that year in Rio de Janeiro. Finally, at the end of 1907, Nicaragua's President Santos Zelaya named Dario Nicaragua's Resident Minister to the Spanish King. After the US government forced President Santos Zelaya from office in 1909, the new President appointed Dario to represent Nicaragua as Minister Plenipotentiary for that year's centenary of Miguel Hidalgo's “Cry of Dolores”, the start of Mexico's war of independence from Spain. Dario's last diplomatic post was in 1912 as Paraguay's Consul in Paris. Despite all his literary prestige and his service to Nicaragua as a diplomat, when he succumbed to pneumonia in 1914, Dario was virtually destitute. He returned to Nicaragua in 1915 and died there on February 6th 1916.

Dario's creative legacy is universal. Some contemporaries criticized what they regarded as his cultural dependence on French literature. But in ways just as radical as writers like Eliot and Pound and well before them, Dario took the poetry of Nerval, Mallarmé, Verlaine and Laforgue (born in Uruguay) and turned it into something new and different. He absorbed German writers like Novalis and Heine as well as writers in English like Whitman and Emerson, following Martí. Among many others, he studied the prose of Flaubert and Zola and the criticism of Anatole France and Remy de Gourmont. All that highly critical and analytical reading enabled him to take Spanish poetry and prose to new levels of clarity and intensity.

In practical political terms, Dario was a liberal, nationalist and anti-colonialist, he strongly supported closer integration among Latin American nations and hoped for peaceful and equitable relations between Latin America and the United States. Whereas his late poem “Greeting the Eagle”, is rather too fulsome in its recognition of US brute force and power, in his poem “To Roosevelt”, Dario is categorical in denouncing US imperial ambitions and asserting the superiority of Latin American culture over US capitalist avarice. A key indication of Dario's ideological sympathies are his writings on the Dreyfus affair, which pitted the progressive movement in France against the reactionary power of the country's institutions and government. There, Dario's sympathies are emphatically on the side of Dreyfus, whose unjust treatment divided intellectual opinion across Europe at the time.

For Nicaragua, Dario has always been a symbol of national pride inspiring Latin American writers and artists across the region. Under the government of Daniel Ortega, Ruben Dario, along with Augusto Sandino, has become a powerful symbol of national unity. For the centenary of his death, the government and national institutions have prepared nationwide events of all kinds to honor Dario giving especial significance to his relevance as an inspiration to young people, especially since his crucially important early work “Azul” appeared when he was barely 21. In a presidential decree in January this year, President Daniel Ortega explains that “We honor Ruben in his unequivocal dimension as both a Nicaraguan and a Universal Citizen, of Our America and of Europe, one who Dreamed of the Great Latin America, Cultured, Cultivated, Rich in Tradition, in Light, in Vigor and all the Glory of his People.” The decree also quotes from Dario's famous poem “Return” :

"If your country is small, you dream it's great.
My illusions and desires and my hopes
Tell me no country is small and Leon
For me today is like Paris or Rome

I wish I could be like the Greek Ulysses
Who mastered bows, and boats and destinies.
For now, I want to say 'Be seeing you!' because
I just can't bring myself to say 'Goodbye!' "

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