It is speculated that Lucila Godoy Alcayaga’s pen name, Gabriela Mistral (mee-STRAHL), comes from the names of two earlier poets, Gabriele D’Annunzio and Frédéric Mistral. “Gabriela” also recalls the angel Gabriel and “Mistral,” the Mediterranean wind. Spiritual and natural forces pervade her work, which generally displays the virtues of simplicity and clarity. Long considered a leading poet of Latin America, she saw her international recognition crowned when she became the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1945.
Mistral came from a humble background. Her father, Jerónimo Godoy, was a village schoolteacher in northern Chile when she was born; he was also known locally as a writer and singer of songs. He abandoned the family when she was three years old. Her childhood was spent in her small town, where she also later attended the local liceo, or high school. Her career as a schoolteacher began early, first by example. Like Mistral’s father, her mother, Petrolina Alcayaga de Molina, was a rural schoolteacher. The future teacher was once expelled from school for having pagan ideas, although she is universally recognized as one of the most spiritual poets of her time. Later she was a student at the pedagogical college at Santiago.
Mistral thought of herself primarily as a teacher rather than a poet. Her teaching career began at the age of fifteen, instructing small children in a rural school. Later she became a teacher in secondary schools. For a short time she was the mentor of young Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, who adopted the pen name of Pablo Neruda and was in 1971 the second Chilean to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1911 Mistral received the post of inspector-general and professor of history at the liceo in Antofagasta. A year later she was appointed inspector and professor of Castilian at the Liceo de los Andes, where she remained for six years.
By that time she had achieved some fame for her “Sonetos de la muerte” (“sonnets of death,” appearing in Desolación), which had won first prize in a national contest. The sonnets grew out of her love for a railroad worker, Romelio Ureta. Their love did not end happily; he left her and later shot himself fatally over a financial debt. The sonnets include such imagery as the poet’s taking and walking with the urn containing her love’s ashes, feeling a sense of contentment because no woman now contends with her for him. In another sonnet she asks Christ to forgive the suicide (the kind of thinking that resulted in her expulsion from school) and asserts that only Christ can judge her. Desolación (desolation) was first published in the United States, appropriately at the initiative of students who read her poetry in the classroom.
Mistral loved children, but she never married or had any of her own, although she adopted a nephew, Juan Miguel Godoy. Ternura (tenderness), especially, is devoted to the spiritual bond and the spiritual greatness of motherhood and childhood. It contains numerous poems that one may call literary works or that may be called lullabies or children’s poems. Children throughout Latin America have sung Mistral’s poems. Ternura also was published at the urging of readers of Mistral’s poetry; Mistral, modest about her art, favored publishing in periodicals.
From 1922 to 1924, already famous as a poet and educator, Mistral was in Mexico, at the invitation of the Mexican government, to assist in the reorganization and development of libraries and schools. She also lectured there on Latin American literature. After travel in Europe, she returned to her native Chile to receive many honors.
As is common in South American culture, she was given, as a leading author, a series of diplomatic posts abroad. One of her assignments was as the Chilean delegate to the Institute of Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations. She also served in her country’s consular service at a number of cities, including Madrid, Lisbon, Genoa, and Nice. In addition, she taught for some months in the United States, at Barnard College and at Middlebury College. She worked diligently at these jobs.
By the time she received the Nobel Prize her fame had been spread by way of the many translations of her work into other languages. The proceeds from Tala (felling of trees), which contains poems honoring the natural beauty of her native region in Chile, were donated to the cause of children left homeless by the Spanish Civil War.
From 1946 to 1948 the poet lived in Santa Barbara, California. Then, at the invitation of Mexican president Miguel Alemán Valdés, she lived for two years in Mexico. In the early 1950’s she served as the Chilean consul at Naples. She had, by a special law, become a “lifetime consul” for her native country wherever she chose to live. Lagar (winepress) includes some of the grief she felt after the suicides of her friends, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig and his wife, and of her adopted son. From 1953 until her death from cancer, she lived in the United States.