Where Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer was a narrow poet who did one or two things perfectly – although he died young, so who knows what he might have done – Nicaraguan writer Rubén Darío revolutionized Spanish poetry by doing many things well. I cannot get a fix on him, which makes him hard to write about. Or perhaps I am wrong and he is easy to write about. Pick any poem or story and go, it is bound to be interesting.
So I will ignore his poetry for the moment and look at his stories. Darío first made his mark with the 1888 Azul…, a volume of “9 stories, 6 poems, and some prose sketches about Chile.”* Amazing what 9 stories and 6 poems can do. It “marks the official birth of Modernism,” or so Octavio Paz tells me, although “[t]oday, it is an historical curiosity.”** Paz means Spanish-language Modernism, modernismo. Darío was among the first writers – and was likely the best writer – to bring the innovations of contemporary French writers like Paul Verlaine into Spanish.
The stories, or at least the ten I read, are short, punchy, and a lot of fun. They verge on the prose poem or sketch, but always retain some minimum form of plot and character and visible meaning. “The Case of Miss Amelia” (1894) is a genuine supernatural fantasy story, even if much of it is a parody of supernatural stories (the frame takes up four of the story’s five pages). “The Bale” (1887) is pure Naturalism, a short but detailed account by a father of his son’s death in a workplace accident. No lesson is presented or perhaps even possible. A fairy story, an allegory, a fable about poetry, a bit of Parisian decadence. A little of everything.
What do they have in common? A light touch, aesthetic elegance. The first line of “The Bale”: “Far off there, on the line, seemingly drawn in blue pencil, that separates sea and sky, the sun was setting, with its powdery gold and its whorls of purplish sparks (torbellinos de chispas pupuradas), like a huge disk of white-hot iron.” Every kind of story, even this brutal tale of a meaningless death, is draped with fine writing.
“The Death of the Empress of China” (1890) might be the purest of Darío’s stories. A sculptor and his wife live in a sort of sticky bliss:
Suzette was the name of the little songbird that had been placed in a silk, plush, and lace cage by an artist, a dreamer and a huntsman who had captured her one May morning when the air was full of light and many rosebuds had opened.
Birdsong, flowers, fragrances fill the little story. The woman is a metaphorical caged bird, but she also owns a caged bird, one that “becomes sad and stops singing whenever Suzette plays Chopin.” The sculptor falls in love with a porcelain Chinese empress until the living doll Suzette reasserts her rights; that is the story as such. Everything is aestheticized. Is Darío critiquing the idea of “art for art’s sake” in this fantasy, or indulging it, suggesting that people should be treated like art objects.
I don’t know. Darío’s stories are self-conscious art objects, meant to be admired on occasion and then returned to their jewel case.
The cryptic title is from a different story, "The Nymph (A Parisian Tale)," which is about imagination and inspiration, plus it mentions swans. Darío was obsessed with swans.
* Stories and Poems, the 2002 Dover book edited and translated by Stanley Appelbaum, is my source for the stories. The quote is on p. xi.
** The version of the Paz essay I read is in Selected Poems of Rubén Darío, 1965, University of Texas Press, tr. Lysander Kemp.