Vicente Aleixandre (ahl-ehk-SAHN-dreh) was a prominent member of that avant-garde generation of Spanish poets that also includes Federico García Lorca, Jorge Guillén, Pedro Salinas, Luis Cernuda, Rafael Alberti, and Dámaso Alonso, among others. Aleixandre was born in Seville but spent his childhood in the Mediterranean city Málaga, which later, in Sombra del paraíso, he recalled as the “City of Paradise.” He studied law in Málaga and in Madrid, but delicate health, which was to afflict him for all his adult life, soon interrupted his legal career and encouraged him to devote himself fully to poetry.
His first poems appeared in Revista de Occidente, the prestigious journal edited by José Ortega y Gasset. Like others of the Generation of ’27–a reference to the year when his generation rallied around the tercentenary of death of their idol, Luis de Góngora–Aleixandre began writing poetry that embraces the post-Symbolist line of “pure poetry.” This movement in Spain took as its points of departure the baroque Góngora and the postmodernist Juan Ramón Jiménez. Ámbito was created out of this juncture, but soon after Aleixandre broke radically with that style, which some had begun to consider intellectually exquisite but too cerebral and dry “pure poetry.” Instead his work begins to show some of the “looser” influences of surrealism. In Spain Aleixandre’s hermetic, dreamlike poems in prose, Pasión de la tierra, written “with a minimum of elaboration,” came closest to the surrealist automatic texts. Later the poet came to recognize this as his most difficult work. He saw the evolution of his poetry, starting with the raw materials of his early work, as “a longing for the light.” It was a long process, in part because his aesthetics were complicated by the climate of Spain’s social unrest, which culminated in the civil war and its long aftermath. The next two volumes, Espadas como labios and La destrucción o el amor, were his first attempts to express the same volcanic, visionary, though admittedly negative, inspiration in verse. Despite the success of La destrucción o el amor, which won the Spanish National Literary Prize, his attempts to publish the more hermetic, prosaic Pasión de la tierra in Spain failed, whereupon he published it in Mexico in 1935.
The outbreak of the war and his illness trapped Aleixandre in Spain. His house was almost completely destroyed in the bombing; among the few items he could recover was an autographed book by Federico García Lorca. Aleixandre remained in Spain after the collapse of the republic, but for years his works were banned by Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. He captured some of his despair during this tragic period of Spanish history in Mundo a solas, written between 1934 and 1936 though not published until 1950, where he cries out that “man doesn’t exist. He has never existed, never.” The destruction wrought by the war underlay his writing of Sombra del paraíso between 1939 and 1943. Childhood memories, the immortal elements, and glimpses of the earthly paradise before the birth of humankind represent the only consolations for the suffering poet. The publication in 1944 of Sombra del paraíso, which is generally considered one of Aleixandre’s best works, and of Dámaso Alonso’s Hijos de la ira marked the rebirth of poetry in postwar Spain.
That same year Aleixandre wrote an important foreword to the second edition of La destrucción o el amor, in which he traces the evolution of his poetry up to that point and opens up a new cycle of his writing. He declares that whereas some poets only write for the few–“attending to exquisite and narrow obsessions”–other poets “address themselves to what is permanent in man, to what essentially unites.” According to Aleixandre these are “radical poets speaking to what is primordial, to what is elemental in humanity.” Historia del corazón, written between 1945 and 1953 and published the following year, represents the high point in this new cycle of Aleixandre’s poetry. In 1949 he was elected a member of the Real Academia Española.
Historia del corazón began as a love diary in verse but eventually transcended this first impulse. In some poems erotic love is sublimated into human solidarity; other poems evoke different stages of life or focus on the existential predicament. Here the nightmarish, repulsive visions of the earlier cycle are replaced by images of everyday life. The poet leaves his enclosure and enters the public square, the heart of social life of every Spanish city, and invites his implicit interlocutor, the reader, to do the same.
In Los encuentros he offers lively portraits of twentieth century Spanish writers. Poemas de la consumación and Diálogos del conocimiento are the poetic endgames of a grand old poet, who was nearly unknown outside Spain until he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1977, on the fiftieth anniversary of his Generation of ’27.