According to the textbooks, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the Golden Age of Spanish literature. Juan Ramón Jiménez has said that they were not gold but gilded cardboard. It would be fairer to say that they were the centuries of Spanish rage. During that period the Spaniards wrote, painted, and dreamed in the same frenzy in which they destroyed and created nations. Everything was carried to the extremes: they were the first to circumnavigate the earth, and at the same time they were the inventors of quietism. They rage with a thirst for space, a hunger for death. Lope de Vega was prolific, even profligate: he wrote something over one thousand plays. Sor Juan de la Cruz was temperate, even miserly: his poetical works consist of three longish lyrics and a few songs and ballads. It was delirium of Cervantes, Velázquez, Calderón. Quevedo's labyrinth of conceits. Góngora's jungle of verbal stalactites.
And then, quite suddenly, the stage was bare, as if the whole performance had been illusions rather than historical reality. Nothing was left, or nothing but ghostly reflections. During all of the eighteenth century there was no Swift or Pope, no Rousseau or Laclos, anywhere in Spanish literature. In the second half of the nineteenth century a few faint signs of life began to appear--for instance Bécquer, whom Rubén Darío imitated in his early Rhymes-- but there was no one to compare with Coleridge, Leopardi, Holderlin, no one who resembled Baudelaire. And then, toward the close of the century, everything changed again, just as suddenly, just as violently. The new writers had not been expected (most certainly they had not been invited), and at first their voices were drowned out by the jeers. But a few years later, through the efforts of the very figures whom the "serious" critics had called Frenchified outsiders, the Spanish language was on its feet, was alive again. It was not as opulent as it had been during the Baroque period, but it was stronger, clearer, better controlled.
The last mayor Baroque poet was a Mexican nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Two centuries later, the revival of Spanish literature--and of the language itself--was also accomplished, or at least begun, here in the New World. The movement known as Modernism, of which Rubén Darío became the leader, had a double importance in the literature of the Spanish-speaking world. On the one hand, it produced four or five poets who linked up the great chain that had come apart at the end of the seventeenth century. On the other hand, to change metaphors, it smashed windows and broke doors so that the fresh air of the times could revive the dying language. Modernism was not merely a school of poetry: it was also a dancing class, a gymnasium, a circus, and masked ball. Ever since, Spanish has been able to put up with the most raucous noises, the most dangerous escapades. And the influence of Modernism has not ended: everything written in Spanish afterward has been affected in one way or another by that great renascence.
[...]Rubén Darío was the bridge between the precursors and the second generation of Modernism. His constant travels and his generous activity in behalf of others made him the point of connection for the many scattered poets and groups on two continents. He not only inspired and captained the battle, he was also its observer and critic. The evolution of this poetry, from Blue to Poem of Autumn, corresponds with that of the movement, which began with him and ended with him. But his work did not end with Modernism: he went beyond it, beyond the language of that school and, in fact, of every school. Darío was not only the richest and most ample of the Modernist poets: he was one of the great moderns poets. At times, he reminds us of Poe; at other times, of Whitman. Of the first, in that portion of his work in which he scorns the world of the Americas to seek an otherworldly music; of the second, in that portion in which he expresses his vitalist affirmations, his pantheism, and his belief that he was, in his own right, the bard of Latin America as Whitman was of Anglo- America.
From Selected Poems of Rubén Darío. Translated by Lysander Kemp. University of Texas, Austin, 1988.
With the death of Rubén Darío, the Spanish language loses its greatest poet of today,-the greatest because of the aesthetic value and the historical significance of his work. No one, since the times of Góngora and Quevedo, has wielded an influence comparable, in renewing power, to Darío's. Zorrilla's influence, for instance, was enormous, but not in the sense of a true innovation: when it spread, the romantic movement he represented was already the dominant force in our literature. Darío did much more, in prosody and in style as well as in the spirit of poetry. Darío's victory was not without surprising elements,-especially because, born in the New World, he was unreservedly acclaimed by the intellectual groups of our former metropolis, Madrid. The homage of the Spanish writers to Darío was great and sincere. Even Royal Academicians, in spite of the timidity natural in traditional institutions, paid signal tribute to his genius. Upon the news of his death, the writers and artists of Spain, headed by Valle-Inclán (the greatest literary force in the present generation), organized a movement to erect a monument to his memory in the royal gardens of the Buen Retiro.
Darío began, when very young, writing quite within the traditions of our language and literature. He was a reader of both the classics and the moderns, and essayed such widely different tones as those corresponding to the solemnity of the blank verse and to the fluency of the romance. Soon after, he took up the study of the modern French and, partly, the English literatures; and his poetry, in Azul, began to show the marvelous variety of shading and the preciosity of workmanship which were to be his distinctive traits in Prosas profanas. His most important achievement was the book of Cantos de vida y esperanza. There he attained (especially in the autobiographical Pórtico) a depth of human feeling and a sonorous splendor of utterance, which place him among the modern poets of first rank in any language. His later work did not always rise to that magnificence, but it often took a bold, rough-hewn, sort of Rodinesque form, which has found many admires.
As a prosodist, Rubén Darío is unique in Spanish. He is the poet who has mastered the greatest variety of verse forms. The Spanish poets of the last four centuries, whether in Europe or in America, although they tried several measures, succeeded only in a few. Like the Italians before Carducci, they had command only over the hendecasyllabic, octosyllabic and heptasyllabic forms. A few meters, besides these three, have at times enjoyed popularity, as, for instance, the alexandrine during the romantic period: but they suffered from stiffness of accentuation. Darío, and the modernist groups which sprang into action mainly through his stimulus, gave vogue, and finally permanence, to a large number of metrical forms: either verses rarely used, like the enneasyllabic and the dodecasyllabic (of which there are three types), or verses, like the alexandrine, to which Darío gave greater musical virtue by freeing the accent and the caesura. Even the hendecasyllable acquired new flexibility when Darío brought back two new forms of accentuation that had been used by Spanish poets during three centuries but had been forgotten since about 1800. He also attacked the problem of the classic hexameter, which has tempted many great modern poets, from Goethe to Swinburne and Carducci, and, before these, a few of the Spanish in the XVIIth century, chiefly Villegas. He introduced, finally, the modern vers libre, the type in which the number of feet, but not the foot, changes (as in the Marcha triunfal), as well as the type in which both the number of syllables and the foot vary frequently.
In style, Rubén Darío represents another renewal. He not only fled from the hackneyed, from expressions which, like coins, were worn out by use: it is the natural outcome of every new artistic or literary tendency to do away with the useless remains of former styles. He did much more; together with a few others, like Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera of Mexico, Darío brought back into Spanish the art, all but absent from Spanish poetry during two centuries, had been substituted by the forceful drawing and vivid coloring which foreigners expect to find in all things in Spanish.
In the spirit of poetry, Rubén Darío succeeded in giving "des frissons nouveaux." If not the first, he was one of the first (simultaneously with Gutiérrez Nájera, with Julian del Casal, of Cuba, and José Asunción Silva, of Colombia) to bring into Spanish the notes of subtle emotion of which Verlaine was arch master; thegracefulness and the brilliancy which emerge from the world of Versaillesque court and feigned Arcadies; the decorative sense of a merely external Hellenism, which is delightful in its frank artificiality; the suggestions of exotic worlds, opulent storehouses of imaginative treasures.
But, while he did all this, he never lost his native force: he was, and he knew how to be, American, -Spanish-American, rather. He sang of his race, of his people, -the whole Spanish-speaking family of nations, -with constant love, with tenderness, which at times was almost childlike. If he did not always think that life in the New World was poetical, he did think that the ideals of Spanish America were worthy of his poetry. And, as he upheld the ideals of Spanish America, and the traditions of the whole Spanish race; since he sang hymns to the Cid, founder of the old mother country, and to the master spirits of the new countries, like Mitre of Argentina, both Spain and Spanish America saw in him their representative poet.
Rubén Darío was born near León, in the Republic of Nicaragua, the 18th of January, 1867, and died in that city on the 6th of February, 1916. He received his education there, but went abroad in his twentieth year. He visited nearly all the countries of the Western Hemisphere and traveled extensively in Europe since 1892. He lived many years at Santiago de Chile, Buenos Aires, Madrid and Paris. At Madrid he was at one time the Minister of Nicaragua.
He visited the United States, in a short trip, in 1893, and again during the winter of 1914 and 1915. He was then honored by several literary bodies of New York, such as the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Authors' League. The Hispanic Society of America awarded him its honorary medal. Many of his poems, and some of his short stories and articles, have been translated into English, French, Italian, Portuguese, German and the Scandinavian languages.
from Eleven Porms of Rubén Darío G.P. Putnanm's Sons, New York and London, 1916