The 1880s were years of great political activity, with differences marked by ideologies and a time when great inventions arose: the train, the telegraph, the beginnings of the telephone, new factories and new publications, thanks to more efficient and affordable presses. Undoubtedly, they were times of great hope for the spirit and ideas, as well as economic growth and political expansion. Modernitymarked the rise and growth of the bourgeoisie and the Spanish Americas developed as an entity of its own. In Puerto Rico, however, the situation was different.

After the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States as war booty. This disrupted the island’s relations with the rest of the Spanish Americas. However, Puerto Ricans who studied in France showed an interest in French poetry and translated texts. They were also influenced aesthetically with the artistic tendencies of the times and reflected this in their own work. Therefore, thedramatic political change did not prevent aesthetic currents that departed from romanticism,naturalism and realism and tended toward Parnassianism, symbolism and impressionism that were in vogue.

Parnassianism refers to “art for art’s sake.” It is a poetic search for perfect descriptions, great beauty and Greco-Latin themes. Meanwhile, symbolism creates a semantic world through imagination to represent the mysteries of the world. The symbolist uses rhythm, plasticity, and vivid visual and sensory images to reveal spiritual states and moods of its subjects. Impressionism centers on detailed and precise descriptions of the impression provoked by events, situation, or objects.

Inspired by the search for a new aesthetic language, the modernists dreamed of the exotic (Oriental, pre-Columbian, medieval themes) as a blank canvas that would let them create a new world. Historybecame a constant poetic resource and theme. It was that desire to build a new world that led them to the French movement préciosité and escapism. It should be noted that before Rubén Darío (emblematic modernist writer), José de Jesús Domínguez, in “The White Houris” (1886), recreated the Muslim paradise, a forerunner to modernism in Puerto Rico.

The Puerto Rican modernists, though they worked with the exotic, did not stray far from home, however. Luis Llorens Torres, one of the precursors and best known modernists in Puerto Rico, visually recreated the Antilles (as if he saw them from the air, although the airplane had not yet been invented) and extolled the particular elements of each Antillean country in “Song of the Antilles.” He showed this love for the Antilles in the Revista de las Antillas (1913), a magazine he edited that promoted the modernist aesthetic. The newspaper Puerto Rico Ilustrado was another organ of the movement, from 1913 to 1918.

For Puerto Rican poets, the beauty of nature and love for the homeland were explosive themes for the modernist aesthetic. Poets José P. H. Hernández, Antonio Pérez Pierret, Manuel Osvaldo García, Arturo Gómez Costa, Gustavo Fort, Evaristo Ribera Chevremont, José de Diego, Antonio Nicolás Blanco, Nemesio R. Canales, Enrique Lefebre, Rafael Ferrer and Jesús Marín Lago used the homeland as a theme and were very important authors in their contributions to modernist literature.

The main characteristics of the modernist style in Puerto Rico are: use of the symbol and the préciositéapproach to the homeland, sometimes symbolized as the beloved; the desire to renew poetic forms, but along with a return to high art verses and free verse; the use of exquisite and sensual language through the innovative use of adjectives, the creation of neologisms, and the return to archaisms;symbolism; Parnassianism; the inclusion of pagan and classic themes; an eclectic nature; and Hispanophilia. Although it was a movement that favored poetry, it includes prose pieces that followed the modernist forms, especially in awareness of vocabulary and a trend toward the lyrical. In essays, the focus was on erudite research texts that reaffirmed the heritage through the archaeology, anthropology and history of the island.

The following are some of the outstanding modernist texts. In poetry: Sonetos sinfónicos (Symphonic Sonnets) (1914) by Llorens, Bronces (Bronzes) (1914) by Pérez Pierret, Coplas de la vereda(Couplets of the Bypah) (1919) by J.P.H. Hernández, La última lámpara de los dioses (The Last Lamp of the Gods) (1921 ) by De Diego Padró, Cofre de sándalo (Sandalwood Trunk) by Lago; in essays: articles published in newspapers, such as Puerto Rico Ilustrado by Canales, Oscar Wilde (Translations and Criticism) (1914) by Miguel Guerra Mondragón, the essays by Epifanio Fernández Vanga, later collected in 1931 in an anthology titled The Language of Puerto Rico and the School Language of Puerto Rico; short stories: the stories of Alfredo Collado Martell published in the magazine índice and in Puerto Rican Legends (1924- 1925)as well as Cuentos del cedro Yuyo(Stories of Cedar and Yuyo) (both in 1913) by Miguel Meléndez Muñoz; in the theater: The Grito de Lares (1927) by Llorens, The Galloping Hero by Canales, which appeared in 1923; in academic texts:Dictionary of Provincialisms in Puerto Rico (1917) by Augusto Malaret, Historical Bulletin of Puerto Rico (1914- 1927) by Cayetano Coll y Toste.

The modernist view supposed a formal questioning and a reaffirmation of the identity and the vernacular that was expanded upon by the avant-garde movement that followed. A mature literature, self-defined as “Puerto Rican,” was already manifested in modernism, but at the same time it has universal characteristics which made it part of the aesthetic dialogue of various Spanish-speaking countries.

 

Author: Alexandra Pagán Vélez
Published: August 25, 2015.

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