Mercedes Matamoros (1851-1906)

Poems and translations: A Aurelia, La Bestia, Invitación, and Las alfileres.

Mercedes Matamoros was a Cuban poet who first published essays and poems in 1867 under the psudonym “Ofelia” (Vallejo 7). Her first book, in 1879, included a poem to Martí. Matamoros was a translator of Byron and Longfellow; she published Cantos y Baladas de Thomas Moore; La joven cautiva by Chenier; El águila y la paloma by Goethe; and Pegaso bajo el yugo by Schiller (Arencibia Rodríguez). She lived part of her life in Mexico.

Matamoros had strong ties with many other poets, including Aurelia Castillo, Juana Borrero, Nieves Xenes, and María Xenes; the women often wrote poems dedicated to each other as well as to male poets. She was part of the intellectual circle that met at the house of the Borrero family in the 1890s, a circle that included the Xenes sisters, the Borrero sisters, Castillo, Pérez de Zambrana, the Urbach brothers, Julián Casal, and other poets and artists. She wrote for many Cuban literary journals such as Revista de Cuba and El Almendares (Randall 15).

Her book El último amor de Safo is a sonnet sequence that I believe pays homage to the sonnet sequence Sappho and Phaon written by Mary Robinson in 1796. It should also be seen in the context of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda’s poems and essays on Sappho, and perhaps also in the light of Pierre Louÿs. In her sonnets, Matamoros tells the story of Sappho’s passions and obsessions, culminating in her legendary leap from the cliff into the sea–a theme also explored by Nydia Lamarque in her poem “Invocación (a la sombra de Safo).” By writing the story of Sappho, and speaking as poets to Sappho, Matamoros establishes her place in a feminine poetic geneology.

Other poems by Matamoros range over lyric, patriotic, feminist, and political themes. Her 1903 patriotic poem “La estatua de la Libertad: a una novia” consoles a woman whose rival in love is Liberty itself. She wrote poems to revolutionaries and workers, antislavery poems, along with her lyrical exaltations of erotic love and the blue and lilies of modernista purity. I have translated three poems from El último amor de Safo, here, but they don’t adequately represent the wide range of her poetry.

Her books include Poesías completas (1892), Sonetos (1902), El último amor de Safo (1902), Mirtos de antaño (1904), and Por el camino triste (1904). She wrote for El País, El Fígaro, Diario de la Marina, and other journals and periodicals. Many Cuban intellectuals, male and female, including José Martí and Juana Borrero, wrote poetry dedicated to her. She was included in many critical analyses and anthologies as a modernista.

Matamoros has also been compared to the modernista poet María Eugenia Vaz Ferreira, because of the violence and passion they both dared express in lyrical language (Vallejo 26). Her Sappho sonnet sequence has also been called an alternative to the myth of Narcisus, a “discurso femenino” which exalts mystic aesthetic madness and inspiration (Melo Pereira).

“A Aurelia” (1892) is considered to be a perfect example of the décima, a popular poetic form. It was answered by Aurelia Castillo in her poem that compares Matamoros to a lark – apparently one of Matamoros’ common nicknames (Vallejo 12).

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