Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957)

Poem and translation: Paisajes de la Patagonia: Desolación.

Mistral’s first book, Desolación, was published in 1922 by the Spanish Institute of Columbia University, where Mistral was teaching. She also taught at Vassar, Middlebury, and the University of Puerto Rico. Her birth name was Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga. Mistral taught and lectured in the United States, Chile, France, Mexico, and Spain. (Valbuena Briones 416). Her first published poem was “Sonetas a la Muerte,” (‘Sonnets to Death’ 1914).

Langston Hughes calls her “influenced by the Chilean modernists and Amado Nervo” but does not consider her a modernista. He makes an effort to separate Mistral from the scandalous Delmira, while linking her with a safely distant mystic ancestress: “She found in Delmira Agustini a kindred desperate soul, but her love was untainted by sensuality. She was more in debt to the Bible and Saint Teresa . . .” (Hughes 9-11).

Other critics disparage Mistral’s work even while reluctantly praising it:

She achieved a sort of stark and uncompromising beauty that came very close to justifying the 1945 Nobel Prize she received at a time when Reyes, Neruda, and Borges were all still very active. (Rodriguez Monegal, 1:484-85)

Hughes published a thin volume of his translations of Mistral in the United States in 1957. In his introduction he emphasizes the myth of Mistral as an unmarried widow, as being sentimental over children because she could never have her own, as being pure, never sensual, writing about mothers and children. Hughes says “For the most part I have selected from the various books those poems relating to children, motherhood, and love . . .”

In The Defiant Muse, Angel and Kate Flores continue this view of Mistral as universal yet sexless mother,

who wrote with matchless intensity of frustrated and suffering womanhood. Her children’s songs and lullabies are among the tenderest in the Spanish language. Without children of her own, she turned her love of children into a universal love for all humanity. She became a sort of world mother, singing about children . . . (xxi)

Bautista Gutiérrez points out that this sanctification was reserved for poets, as poetry was considered to be more erotic and scandalous than novels; women writers like Mistral were labelled “la Santa” or “la Divina” to make them more palatable to readers (xii). In the first half of the twentieth century in Latin America, the assumption of authorial distance between the poem’s speaker and author was not prevalent. The poem’s speaker or narrator was assumed to be the poet herself–unlike the speaker in a novel in which third person creates authorial distance. Thus, a poem with a passionate subject threw direct implications onto the sexuality of the poet, especially a woman poet, and it had to be carefully explained.

Recent United States anthologies stand further back from Mistral’s image as an author: Tapscott’s introduction to her work says, “Mistral in her early poems pursued the creation of an intense Symbolist life-myth . . .” (79). This life-myth told the story that she was passionately in love with a young man when they were teenagers. He was unfaithful to her, she broke up with him, and he shot himself. This was the explanation for Mistral remaining unmarried throughout her life–as well as her explanation for writing love poetry.

Her poems describe exiles and wanderers, women without countries. She wrote poetic manifestos, invocations, and a long conversation with Poetry, “La flor del aire.”

Mistral’s “longtime companion,” Doris Dana, is her literary executor and translates her work into English (Tapscott 79).

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