Juan Ramo´n Jime´nez dominated Spanish poetry for the first three decades of the twentieth century. At the outbreak of the Spanish civil war in 1936 he was still a figure of influence and importance. Later, in exile in the United States and Puerto Rico, he expanded his already considerable influence, making the acquaintance of such esteemed fellow poets as Robert Frost and Ezra Pound.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Privilege Juan Ramo´n Jime´nez Manteco´n was born on December 24, 1881, to Victor Jime´nez and Purificacio´n Manteco´n y Lopez Parejo. The Jime´nez family operated a comfortable business as wine and tobacco merchants, with their own vineyards, ships, and warehouses, and a tobacco monopoly granted by the state. Such commerce enabled the young Juan Ramo´n to enjoy the upbringing of a typical Andalusian sen˜orito (well-to-do young man).
Artistic Aspirations In 1896 the teenage Jime´nez fell in love with Blanca Herna´ndez-Pinzo´n, the daughter of Moguer’s judge. But Blanca’s family, fearful of the impetuous youth who had a tyrannical temper and a penchant for playing with guns, discouraged the association. His father wanted him to be a lawyer, but the young Jime´nez believed he had talent as an artist and wanted to be a painter. It was finally decided that he would begin the course of studies for prelaw at the University of Seville and at the same time take instruction in studio art. In autumn 1896 he enrolled in the university and began his art apprenticeship in the studio of Salvador Clemente, a genre painter from Ca´diz. Jime´nez showed himself an apt pupil in the impressionist style, with its blends of subdued blues, grays, whites, and greens. He continued to paint busily until 1900.
Jime´nez once remarked that of the three great loves of his life—painting, poetry, and music—painting beckoned first when he was fifteen and then gave way a year or two later to poetry. His ambition to be a poet crystallized, and he immersed himself in lyrical verse. Early in 1897 the Programa, a Seville newspaper, accepted one of Jime´nez’s poems, and, thus encouraged, he joined a literary group in Seville called the Ateneo and began to send more poems to provincial magazines and newspapers.
Early Poetry and the Modern Movement Soon he enjoyed a good reputation in the city and started work on a book of poetry to be called ‘‘Clouds.’’ The demands of poetry and painting left him no time for studies, and, upon failing Spanish history, he withdrew from the university at the end of the spring term to devote himself full-time, with the blessing of an indulgent family, to painting and writing. He collaborated on the reviews Hojas Sueltas and Quincena, and in 1899 Vida Nueva, a Madrid review, accepted his poem ‘‘The Beggar’s Lovers’’ for publication. Vida Nueva also sent him, on the basis of his apparent concern with social problems, five pieces by Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, already translated into Spanish, which Jime´nez polished into poetic prose. Thus began a lifelong interest in the art of translation. Vida Nueva published his Ibsen translations in January 1900, and the stage was set for Jime´nez to go to Madrid. A postcard signed by poets Rube´n Dar´ıo and Francisco Villaespesa was Jime´nez’s invitation to come to Madrid and assist in the task of revitalizing Spanish poetry. Needing no urging, he arrived in Madrid on Good Friday of 1900, to be swept up into the bohemian life of the modernistas.
Colorful Versions and Revisions His companions pointed out that the large amount of material in ‘‘Clouds’’ could easily be divided into two books, and he set about to follow their advice. The bohemian life did not suit Jime´nez, and six weeks after his arrival in Madrid he was back in Moguer, busy separating and regrouping the poetry of ‘‘Clouds’’ into Violet Souls and Water Lilies. These, printed respectively in violet and green ink, were published in September 1900. Jime´nez’s father intensely disliked the effusive poetry and destroyed every copy he could get his hands on. The critical reception was almost equally negative.
Phobic Years Jime´nez had been back in Moguer six weeks when, on July 3, 1900, his father died suddenly. The shock caused him to develop an abnormal fear of death. He believed that he, too, would die suddenly like his father, and, in order to prevent this occurrence, he insisted on always being near a doctor, or knowing where one was immediately available. This compelling need ordered all living arrangements for the rest of his life.
During the year following his father’s death, Jime´-nez’s symptoms of hypochondria mounted, and his family sent him to the sanatorium of Castel d’Andorte, near Bordeaux, to be placed under the care of Jean Gaston Lalanne, a noted authority on persecution complexes. The poet arrived at the sanatorium in the first part of May 1901. By the end of August he had left France and soon he settled down in Sanatorio del Rosario, a rest home in Madrid, where he formed a lasting friendship with the neurologist Luis Simarro.
In 1902, his next work, Shadow Rhymes, appeared. The collection was an improvement over Jime´nez’s first two books and met with critical success. For the next two years, Jime´nez was happy; close to doctors and cared for by the sisters of the Sanatorio, he felt protected and cared for and was able to give full vent to his creative interests. Several fellow writers visited him, turning his rooms into a kind of literary salon, coming to talk literature and modernismo, the movement that had taken hold in Spain. They had also come to hatch the plans for a modernista review—to be called Helios, one of the most coherent and successful platforms for Spanish modernism. Helios (April 1903–May 1904) was carefully edited by Jime´nez, who contributed translations as well as many unsigned pieces. In 1903 he also saw the publication of Sad Airs, which includes the poetry he wrote at the Sanatorio. Critics from Jose´ Ortega y Gasset to Dar´ıo praised it, and its success established Jime´nez as a poet of undeniable talent.
The Institucio´n Libre de Ensen˜anza Simarro, the neurologist Jime´nez had met on the way to Bordeaux, began taking on boarders after the death of his wife in 1903. Jime´nez delightedly signed on to stay with him.
Through Simarro, Jime´nez came to know the work of the Institucio´n Libre de Ensen˜anza. Founded in 1876 by Francisco Giner de los R´ıos as a lay school at a time when all education was under the aegis of the Catholic Church, the Institucio´n deeply affected the life of a liberal intellectual minority. Jime´nez accompanied Simarro to its lectures and noted that they always came away with many new ideas. Through such contacts he gradually broadened his outlook and increased his intellectual concerns. In February 1904, Jime´nez published Faraway Gardens, the last part of a trilogy that begins with Shadow Rhymes and includes Sad Airs.
Productive Years of Personal Exile When Simarro fell ill in the fall of 1905, Jime´nez decided to return to Moguer. There he stayed for nearly seven years, living with his family in the semi-seclusion of their Andalusian village. Provincial exile in Moguer turned out to be, except for bouts of depression, incredibly productive for the poet. Jime´nez wrote enough to fill several collections of poetry and one book of prose that were published beginning in 1908, and sufficient material remained to fill seven posthumous volumes. The work included Pla-tero and I, which he began writing in 1906 and which was published in 1914.
In 1911 the Banco de Espan˜a impounded the vineyards of the financially struggling Jime´nez family. Jime´-nez took this situation as a warning that he might need to earn money, and since there were more economic opportunities in Madrid than in Moguer, he returned to the Spanish capital. Given his innate liberalism and his contact with Simarro and the Institucio´n in 1903, Jime´nez found himself quickly attracted to an offshoot of the Institucio´n—the Residencia de Estudiantes, a dormitory set up in 1910 along the lines of a university college at Oxford or Cambridge. By 1912 it had been enlarged by three new buildings and was well on its way to becoming an important intellectual center in Spain and, to a certain extent, a cultural haven in Europe during World War I. Jime´nez attended a lecture at the Residencia in the summer of 1913. In the audience was a twenty-six-year-old named Zenobia Camprub´ı Aymar. Jime´nez fell in love at once, and a long courtship ensued. When Camprub´ı Aymar stipulated that their marriage take place in New York City, she unwittingly supplied the context for one of the most unusual books in modern Spanish poetry. Diary of a Newlywed Poet (1917) is a record in poetry of Jime´nez’s feelings and thoughts about his journey from Ca´diz to New York and his stay in the United States. Diary had considerable influence on the poetry written in Spain during the next decade.
Move to America Jime´nez and his wife lived in Spain after their marriage, but they had often talked of returning to America. The outbreak of the Spanish civil war gave them the motive to do so, and in August 1936 they sailed from Cherbourg to New York. After several teaching stints and moves, the Jime´nezes moved to Puerto Rico in 1951 and remained there until their deaths. The return to a Spanish-speaking environment influenced the poet in the last few active years of his life. He donated his papers and books to the University of Puerto Rico at R´ıo Piedras, taught a course on modernism there in 1953, and continued to write and publish poetry.
Losing Camprubı´ Aymar Camprub´ı Aymar, who had undergone an operation for cancer in 1951, worsened after a period of remission. She died on October 28, 1956, just three days after the Swedish Academy voted to award Jimenez the Nobel Prize in Literature. Jimenez became increasingly withdrawn and more or less ceased to write. He died on May 29, 1958.
Works in Literary Context
Enduring Life and Literary Influences Early in his life, Jimenez had come across the verses of Ruben Dar´ıo, the influential poet from Nicaragua who had managed to inject new life into Spanish language poetry at the turn of the century. Jimenez formed a lasting friendship with Dar´ıo. He saw Valle-Inclan often, met Azor´ın and the playwright Jacinto Benavente (who, like Jimenez, went on to win a Nobel Prize), and became good friends with Gregorio Mart´ınez Sierra, a dramatist who was later an influence on him. Shadow Rhymes (1902) reflects the influences of these moAernistas.
Camprub´ı Aymar also had a large impact on the poet’s life. Bilingual in Spanish and English, she was a cultivated woman who further acquainted him with the world of Anglo-American poetry, which after 1916 replaced French verse as the chief influence on his work. The poet’s birthplace, Moguer, also inspired him: Platero Jimenez then developed what he came to call ‘‘poesia pura’’ (pure poetry), or ‘‘poesia desnuda’’ (naked poetry). The style hinted at in Summer attained full development in Diary and offered the most important contribution of short lines, free verse, suppression of anecdote, and recurring nouns charged with multiple meanings (rose, tree, woman).
Death Obsessions In works such as Eternities (1918), Jimenez explores traditional themes of the poet to poetry; of poetry to the world; and of love, memory, and death. One aspect of Jimenez’s abiding neurosis was his abnormal fear of death. In Violet Souls (1900) at times he leans dangerously toward an unhealthy attraction to a dead little body: ‘‘Elegiac,’’ for instance, focuses on the work of worms as they eat away the small white face and burrow into the heart once inflamed by passion. One of his greatest triumphs, however, was to broach the ultimate theme of death and, in spite of his pathological morbidity, present it in humanistic and noble terms. He believed that life could not be meaningfully lived without the persistent awareness of death. As he says in Poetry (1923), the cord that links one’s life to life in general should bind one to death.
Works in Critical Context
In his introductory speech awarding Jime´nez the Nobel prize, Royal Academy member R. Granit asserted, ‘‘If ever there has been inspired use of words, it is in Juan Ramo´n Jime´nez’s poetry, and in this sense he is a poet for poets. This is probably also the reason why, within the whole Spanish-speaking world, he is regarded as the teacher and master.’’
Platero and I (1914) Platero and I, Jime´nez’s most universally acclaimed book, describes life in a small Anda-lusian town, as seen through the sensitive eyes of the poet/narrator and his inseparable companion, the woolly white donkey Platero. The book has been read with pleasure by schoolchildren, adults, and critics. Graciela P. Nemes, writing in 1961 essay, wrote that the book ‘‘enhance[s] the lesser people and the commonplace through an attitude toward nature and people, which speaks with the greatest tenderness that exists in the hearts of men.’’ Michael P. Predmore, in a 1970 essay, calls it ‘‘one of the most famous prose poems in twentieth-century Spanish literature,’’ and an ‘‘early masterpiece’’ of the author. He continues, ‘‘It has always been popular, even and especially among its critics, who unite unanimously in praising the artistic qualities of the work.’’ The book has reached, after Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605, 1615), perhaps the widest audience of any work in Spanish literature.
Responses to Literature
1. Jime´nez sometimes allowed his preoccupations, phobias, delusions, and apprehensions of a dual personality to enter into his poetry. Study one poem where you find this to be the case and discuss what important questions about identity are raised in his work.
2. In Spaniards of Three Worlds (1942), Jime´nez offers a balance of sarcasm and lyricism. He does so in caricatures, or portrait poems. Try your hand at a portrait poem: Choose a person to write about, someone you know personally who inspires you, or someone from the media who inspires your sarcasm. Write a portrait poem by including physical characteristics of the person, special features, bits of dialogue, or actions of the person to show your readers the person’s character.
3. In his ‘‘pure poetry,’’ Jime´nez aimed for a stark style by stripping anecdote and obvious sentiment from his lines, and by making instead a heavy use of symbols. Before researching further, consider one most important object in your life. Why did you choose this object or image? What did it make you think of? What feelings come from the object/image for you?
What does your choice say about who you are? That is, how does your choice represent your personality? After deciding on your image, reconsider a Jimenez poem, paying close attention to one symbol. What do you think the item represents?
Albornoz, Aurora de, ed. Juan Ramon Jimenez. Madrid:
Taurus, 1980. Cardwell, Richard A. Juan R. Jimenez: The Modernist
Apprenticeship, 1895-1900. Berlin: Colloquium,
1977. Nemes, Graciela Palau de. The Life and Work of Juan
Ramon Jimenez. Madrid: Gredos, 1975.