A dedicated educator and an engaged and committed intellectual, Mistral defended the rights of the downtrodden; the freedoms of democracy; and the need for peace in times of social, political, and ideological conflicts, not only in Latin America but in the whole world. She always took the side of those who were mistreated by society: children, women, Native Americans, Jews, war victims, workers, and the poor, and she tried to speak for them through her poetry, her many newspaper articles, her letters, and her activities as a Chilean representative in international organizations. Above all, she was concerned about the future of Latin America and its peoples and cultures, particularly those of the native groups. Her altruistic interests and her social concerns had a religious undertone, as they sprang from her profoundly spiritual, Franciscan understanding of the world. Her personal spiritual life was characterized by an untiring, seemingly mystical search for union with divinity and all of creation.
Mistral's writings are highly emotional and impress the reader with an original style marked by her disdain for the aesthetically pleasing elements common among modernist writers, her immediate predecessors. Rhythm, rhyme, metaphors, symbols, vocabulary, and themes, as well as other traditional poetic techniques, are all directed in her poetry toward the expression of deeply felt emotions and conflicting forces in opposition. Love and jealousy, hope and fear, pleasure and pain, life and death, dream and truth, ideal and reality, matter and spirit are always competing and find expression in the intensity of her well-defined poetic voices. These voices include the abandoned woman and the jealous lover, the mother in a trance of joy and fear because of her delicate child, the teacher, and the woman who tries to bring to others the comfort of compassion. All of her lyrical voices represent the different aspects of her own personality and have been understood by critics and readers alike as the autobiographical voices of a woman whose life was marked by an intense awareness of the world and of human destiny. The poetic word in its beauty and emotional intensity had for her the power to transform and transcend human spiritual weakness, bringing consolation to the soul in search of understanding. Her poetry is thus charged with a sense of ritual and prayer.
Although she mostly uses regular meter and rhyme, her verses are sometimes difficult to recite because of their harshness, resulting from intentional breaks of the prosodic rules. This apparent deficiency is purposely used by the poet to produce an intended effect--the reader's uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty and harshness that corresponds to the tormented attitude of the lyrical voice and to the passionate character of the poet's worldview. In her prose writing Mistral also twists and entangles the language in unusual expressive ways as if the common, direct style were not appropriate to her subject matter and her intensely emotive interpretation of it. Although she is mostly known for her poetry, she was an accomplished and prolific prose writer whose contributions to several major Latin American newspapers on issues of interest to her contemporaries had an ample readership. Several selections of her prose works and many editions of her poetry published over the years do not fully account for her enormous contribution to Latin American culture and her significance as an original spiritual poet and public intellectual.
She was born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga on 7 April 1889 in the small town of Vicuña, in the Elqui Valley, a deeply cut, narrow farming land in the Chilean Andes Mountains, four hundred miles north of Santiago, the capital: "El Valle de Elqui: una tajeadura heroica en la masa montañosa, pero tan breve, que aquello no es sino un torrente con dos orillas verdes. Y esto, tan pequeño, puede llegar a amarse como lo perfecto" (Elqui Valley: a heroic slash in the mass of mountains, but so brief, that it is nothing but a rush of water with two green banks. And this little place can be loved as perfection), Mistral writes in Recados: Contando a Chile (1957, Messages: Telling Chile). She grew up in Monte Grande, a humble village in the same valley, surrounded by modest fruit orchards and rugged deserted hills. She was raised by her mother, Petronila Alcayaga, and by a sister fifteen years her senior, who was her first teacher. Her father, Juan Gerónimo Godoy Villanueva, a primary-school teacher with a penchant for adventure and easy living, abandoned his family when Lucila was three years old; she saw him only on rare occasions when he visited his wife and children before disappearing forever. This evasive father, who wrote little poems for his daughter and sang to her with his guitar, had a strong emotional influence on the poet. From him she obtained, as she used to comment, the love of poetry and the nomadic spirit of the perpetual traveler.
Her mother was a central force in Mistral's sentimental attachment to family and homeland and a strong influence on her desire to succeed. Not less influential was the figure of her paternal grandmother, whose readings of the Bible marked the child forever. An exceedingly religious person, her grandmother--who Mistral liked to think had Sephardic ancestors--encouraged the girl to learn and recite by heart passages from the Bible, in particular the Psalms of David. Mistral declared later, in her poem "Mis libros" (My Books) in Desolación (1922, Despair), that the Bible was one of the books that had most influenced her:
Biblia, mi noble Biblia, panorama estupendo,
en donde se quedaron mis ojos largamente,
tienes sobre los Salmos las lavas más ardientes
y en su río de fuego mi corazón enciendo!
(Bible, my noble Bible, magnificent panorama,
where my eyes lingered for a long time,
you have in the Psalms the most burning of lavas
and in its river of fire I lit my heart!)
The poet always remembered her childhood in Monte Grande, in Valle de Elqui, as Edenic. Her mother and older sister taught her to know and love nature, to enjoy it in solitary contemplation. There, as Mistral recalls in Poema de Chile (1967, Poem of Chile), she developed her dreamy character, fascinated as she was by nature around her:
Me tenía una familia
de árboles, otra de matas,
hablaba largo y tendido
con animales hallados.
(I had a family
of trees, and another of plants,
and I talked and talked
with the animals I found.)
The mountains and the river, the wind and the sky, the animals and the plants of her secluded homeland became Mistral's cherished possessions; she always kept them in her memory as the true and only world, an almost fabulous land lost in time and space, a land of joy from which she had been exiled when she was still a child.
Having to go to the larger village of Vicuña to continue studies at the only school in the region was for the eleven-year-old Lucila the beginning of a life of suffering and disillusion: "Mi infancia la pasé casi toda en la aldea llamada Monte Grande. Me conozco sus cerros uno por uno. Fui dichosa hasta que salí de Monte Grande; y ya no lo fui nunca más" (I spent most of my childhood in the village called Monte Grande. I know its hills one by one. I was happy until I left Monte Grande, and then I was never happy again). This sense of having been exiled from an ideal place and time characterizes much of Mistral's worldview and helps explain her pervasive sadness and her obsessive search for love and transcendence.
Among the several biographical anecdotes always cited in the life of the poet, the experience of having been accused of stealing school materials when she was in primary school is perhaps the most important to consider, as it explains Mistral's feelings about the injustice people inflict on others with their insensitivity. Mistral refers to this anecdote on several occasions, suggesting the profound and lasting effect the experience had on her. Throughout her life she maintained a sense of being hurt by others, in particular by people in her own country. This impression was strengthened by several other situations in her life when the poet felt, probably justifiably, that she was being treated unfairly: for instance, in 1906 she tried to attend the Normal School in La Serena and was denied admission because of her writings, which were seen by the school authorities as the work of a troublemaker with pantheist ideas contrary to the Christian values required of an educator. She had been sending contributions to regional newspapers--La Voz de Elqui (The Voice of Elqui) in Vicuña and El Coquimbo in La Serena--since 1904, when she was still a teenager, and was already working as a teacher's aide in La Compañía, a small village near La Serena, to support herself and her mother.
Mistral was determined to succeed in spite of having been denied the right to study. She prepared herself, on her own, for a teaching career and for the life of a writer and intellectual. She also continued to write. Among her contributions to the local papers, one article of 1906--"La instrucción de la mujer" (The Education of Women)--deserves notice, as it shows how Mistral was at that early age aware and critical of the limitations affecting women's education: "Instrúyase a la mujer, no hay nada en ella que la haga ser colocada en un lugar más bajo que el hombre" (Let women be educated, nothing in them requires that they be set in a place lower than men). In 1910 she obtained her coveted teaching certification even though she had not followed a regular course of studies. By studying on her own and passing the examination, she proved to herself and to others that she was academically well prepared and ready to fulfill professionally the responsibilities of an educator. She always commented bitterly, however, that she never had the opportunity to receive the formal education of other Latin American intellectuals.
With the professional degree in hand she began a short and successful career as a teacher and administrator. A series of different job destinations took her to distant and opposite regions within the varied territory of her country, as she quickly moved up in the national education system. These various jobs gave her the opportunity to know her country better than many who stayed in their regions of origin or settled in Santiago to be near the center of intellectual activity. This direct knowledge of her country, its geography, and its peoples became the basis for her increasing interest in national values, which coincided with the intellectual and political concerns of Latin America as a whole. Beginning in 1910 with a teaching position in the small farming town of Traiguén in the southern region of Araucanía, completely different from her native Valle de Elqui, she was promoted in the following years to schools in two relatively large and distant cities: Antofagasta, the coastal city in the mining northern region, in 1911; and Los Andes, in the bountiful Aconcagua Valley at the foothills of the Andes Mountains, about one hundred miles north of Santiago, in 1912. In this quiet farming town she enjoyed for a few years a period of quiet dedication to studying, teaching, and writing, as the principal of her school protected her from distractions.
Among many other submissions to different publications, she wrote to the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío in Paris, sending him a short story and some poems for his literary magazine, Elegancias. These pieces appeared in March and April 1913, giving Mistral her first publication outside of Chile. Pedro Aguirre Cerda, an influential politician and educator (he served as president of Chile from 1938 to 1941), met her at that time. In 1918, as secretary of education, Aguirre Cerda appointed her principal of the Liceo de Niñas (High School for Girls) in Punta Arenas, the southernmost Chilean port in the Strait of Magellan. This position was one of great responsibility, as Mistral was in charge of reorganizing a conflictive institution in a town with a large and dominant group of foreign immigrants practically cut off from the rest of the country. In this faraway city she wrote a series of three poems, "Paisajes de la Patagonia" (Patagonian Landscapes), inspired by her experience of being separated from family and friends. They are the tormented expression of someone lost in despair. The stark landscape and the harsh weather of the region are mostly symbolic materializations of her spiritual outlook on human destiny.
"Desolación" (Despair), the first composition in the triptych, is written in the modernist alexandrine verse of fourteen syllables common to several of Mistral's compositions of her early creative period. The poem captures the sense of exile and abandonment the poet felt at the time, as conveyed in its slow rhythm and in its concrete images drawn with a vocabulary suggestive of pain and stress:
La bruma espesa, eterna, para que olvide dónde
Me ha arrojado la mar en su ola de salmuera.
La tierra a la que vine no tiene primavera:
Tiene su noche larga que cual madre me esconde.
(Fog thickens, eternal, so that I may forget where
the sea has thrown me in its wave of brine.
The land I have come to knows no spring:
it has its long night that like a mother hides me.)
As she had done before when working in the poor, small schools of her northern region, she doubled her duties by organizing evening classes for workers who had no other means of educating themselves. She was always concerned about the needs of the poor and the disenfranchised, and every time she could do something about them, she acted, disregarding personal gain. This attitude toward suffering permeates her poetry with a deep feeling of love and compassion. "Tres árboles" (Three Trees), the third composition of "Paisajes de la Patagonia," exemplifies her devotion to the weak in the final stanza, with its obvious symbolic image of the fallen trees:
El leñador los olvidó. La noche
Vendrá. Estaré con ellos.
Recibiré en mi corazón sus mansas
Resinas. Me serán como de fuego.
Y mudos y ceñidos,
Nos halle el día en un montón de duelo.
(The woodsman forgot them. The night
Will come. I will be with them.
In my heart I will receive their gentle
Sap. They will be like fire to me.
And may the day find us
Quietly embraced in a heap of sorrow.)
After two years in Punta Arenas, Mistral was transferred again to serve as principal of the Liceo de Niñas in Temuco, the main city in the heart of the Chilean Indian territory. She was there for a year. Pablo Neruda, who at the time was a budding teenage poet studying in the Liceo de Hombres, or high school for boys, met her and received her advice and encouragement to pursue his literary aspirations. Witnessing the abusive treatment suffered by the humble and destitute Indians, and in particular their women, Mistral was moved to write "Poemas de la madre más triste" (Poems of the Saddest Mother), a prose poem included in Desolación in which she expresses "toda la solidaridad del sexo, la infinita piedad de la mujer para la mujer" (the complete solidarity of the sex, the infinite mercy of woman for a woman), as she describes it in an accompanying explanatory note.
In 1921 Mistral reached her highest position in the Chilean educational system when she was made principal of the newly created Liceo de Niñas number 6 in Santiago, a prestigious appointment desired by many colleagues. Now she was in the capital, in the center of the national literary and cultural activity, ready to participate fully in the life of letters. A year later, however, she left the country to begin her long life as an expatriate.
During her years as an educator and administrator in Chile, Mistral was actively pursuing a literary career, writing poetry and prose and keeping in contact with other writers and intellectuals. She published mainly in newspapers, periodicals, anthologies, and educational publications, showing no interest in producing a book. Her name became widely familiar because several of her works were included in a primary-school reader that was used all over her country and around Latin America. At about this time her spiritual needs attracted her to the spiritualist movements inspired by oriental religions that were gaining attention in those days among Western artists and intellectuals. She was for a while an active member of the Chilean Theosophical Association and adopted Buddhism as her religion. This inclination for oriental forms of religious thinking and practices was in keeping with her intense desire to lead an inner life of meditation, and it became a defining characteristic of Mistral's spiritual life, even though years later she returned to Catholicism. She never ceased to use the meditation techniques learned from Buddhism, and even though she declared herself Catholic, she kept some of her Buddhist beliefs and practices as part of her personal religious views and attitudes.
Another reason Mistral became known as a poet even before publishing her first book was the first prize--a flower and a gold coin--she won for "Los sonetos de la muerte" (The Sonnets of Death) in the 1914 "Juegos Florales," or poetic contest, organized by the city of Santiago. As a means to explain these three poems about a lost love, most critics tell of the suicide in 1909 of Romelio Ureta, a young man who had been Mistral's friend and first love a few years before. Although the suicide of her former friend had little or nothing to do with their relationship, it added to the poems a strong biographical motivation that enhanced their emotional effect, creating in the minds of the public an image of Mistral as a tragic figure in the tradition of a romanticized conception of the poet. With "Los sonetos de la muerte" Mistral presented a clearly defined poetic voice, one that belongs to a tragic, passionate woman, marked by loneliness, sadness, and relentless possessiveness and jealousy:
Del nicho helado en que los hombres te pusieron,
Te bajaré a la tierra humilde y soleada.
Que he de dormirme en ella los hombres no supieron,
Y que hemos de soñar sobre la misma almohada.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Me alejaré cantando mis venganzas hermosas,
¡porque a ese hondor recóndito la mano de ninguna
bajará a disputarme tu puñado de huesos!
(From the cold niche where they put you
I will lower you to the humble and sunny earth.
They did not know I would fall asleep on it,
and that we would dream together on the same pillow.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I shall leave singing my beautiful revenge,
because the hand of no other woman shall descend to this depth
to claim from me your fistful of bones!)
From then on, all of her poetry was interpreted as purely autobiographical, and her poetic voices were equated with her own. Mistral was seen as the abandoned woman who had been denied the joy of motherhood and found consolation as an educator in caring for the children of other women, an image she confirmed in poems such as "El niño solo" (The Lonely Child). The scene represents a woman who, hearing from the road the cry of a baby at a nearby hut, enters the humble house to find a boy alone in a cradle with no one to care for him; she takes him in her arms and consoles him by singing to him, becoming for a moment a succoring mother. It is difficult not to interpret this scene as representative of what poetry meant for Mistral, the writer who became recognized by the reading public mostly for her cradlesongs.
To avoid using her real name, by which she was known as a well-regarded educator, Mistral signed her literary works with different pen names. By 1913 she had adopted her Gabriela Mistral pseudonym, which she ultimately used as her own name. As Mistral she was recognized as the poet of a new dissonant feminine voice who expressed the previously unheard feelings of mothers and lonely women. The choice of her new first name suggests either a youthful admiration for the Italian poet Gabrielle D'Annunzio or a reference to the archangel Gabriel; the last name she chose in direct recognition of the Provençal poet (and 1904 Nobel Prize winner) Frédéric Mistral, whose work she was reading with great interest around 1912, but mostly because it serves also to identify the powerful wind that blows in southern France. Explaining her choice of name, she has said:
Siento un gran amor por el viento. Lo considero como uno de los elementos más espirituales--más espiritual que el agua. Deseaba, pues, tomar un nombre de viento que no fuese "huracán" ni "brisa," y un día, enseñando geografía en mi escuela, me impresionó la descripción que hace Reclus, del viento, en su célebre obra, y en ella encontré ese nombre: Mistral. Lo adopté en seguida como seudónimo, y esa es la verdadera explicación de por qué llevo el apellido del cantor de la Proveza.
(I have great love of the wind. I take it for one of the most spiritual of the elements--more spiritual than water. I wanted, then, to adopt a name of wind, but not "hurricane" or "breeze"; one day, teaching geography in my school, I was impressed by the description of the wind made by Reclus in his famous work, and I found in it that name: Mistral. I immediately adopted it as my pseudonym, and this is the true explanation of why I use the last name of the singer of Provence.)
In either case, Mistral was pointing with her pen name to personal ideals about her own identity as a poet. She acknowledged wanting for herself the fiery spiritual strength of the archangel and the strong, earthly, and spiritual power of the wind.
The year 1922 brought important and decisive changes in the life of the poet and marks the end of her career in the Chilean educational system and the beginning of her life of traveling and of many changes of residence in foreign countries. It is also the year of publication of her first book, Desolación. Coincidentally, the same year, the Universidad de Chile granted Mistral the professional title of teacher of Spanish in recognition of her professional and literary contributions. Invited by the Mexican writer José Vasconcelos, secretary of public education in the government of Alvaro Obregón, Mistral traveled to Mexico via Havana, where she stayed several days giving lectures and readings and receiving the admiration and friendship of the Cuban writers and public. This short visit to Cuba was the first of a long series of similar visits to many countries in the ensuing years.
Once in Mexico she helped in the planning and reorganization of rural education, a significant effort in a nation that had recently experienced a decisive social revolution and was building up its new institutions. In fulfilling her assigned task, Mistral came to know Mexico, its people, regions, customs, and culture, in a profound and personal way. This knowledge gave her a new perspective about Latin America and its Indian roots, leading her into a growing interest and appreciation of all things autochthonous. From Mexico she sent to El Mercurio (The Mercury) in Santiago a series of newspaper articles on her observations in the country she had come to love as her own. These pieces represent her first enthusiastic reaction to her encounter with a foreign land. They are the beginning of a lifelong dedication to journalistic writing devoted to making the Latin American public aware of the realities of their own world. These articles were collected and published posthumously in 1957 as Croquis mexicano (Mexican Sketch). In Mexico, Mistral also edited Lecturas para mujeres (Readings for Women), an anthology of poetry and prose selections from classic and contemporary writers--including nineteen of her own texts--published in 1924 as a text to be used at the Escuela Hogar "Gabriela Mistral" (Home School "Gabriela Mistral"), named after her in recognition of her contribution to Mexican educational reform.
While she was in Mexico, Desolación was published in New York City by Federico de Onís at the insistence of a group of American teachers of Spanish who had attended a talk by Onís on Mistral at Columbia University and were surprised to learn that her work was not available in book form. Desolación was prepared based on the material sent by the author to her enthusiastic North American promoters. While the invitation by the Mexican government was indicative of Mistral's growing reputation as an educator on the continent rather than a recognition of her literary talents, the spontaneous decision of a group of teachers to publish her collected poems represented unequivocal proof of her literary preeminence. Most of the compositions in Desolación were written when Mistral was working in Chile and had appeared in various publications. As such, the book is an aggregate of poems rather than a collection conceived as an artistic unit. Divided into broad thematic sections, the book includes almost eighty poems grouped under five headings that represent the basic preoccupations in Mistral's poetry.
Under the first section, "Vida" (Life), are grouped twenty-two compositions of varied subjects related to life's preoccupations, including death, religion, friendship, motherhood and sterility, poetic inspiration, and readings. The following section, "La escuela" (School), consists of two poems--"La maestra rural" (The Rural Teacher) and "La encina" (The Oak)--both of which portray teachers as strong, dedicated, self-effacing women akin to apostolic figures, who became in the public imagination the exact representation of Mistral herself. "La maestra era pura" (The teacher was pure), the first poem begins, and the second and third stanzas open with similar brief, direct statements: "La maestra era pobre" (The teacher was poor), and "La maestra era alegre" (The teacher was cheerful).
"Dolor" (Pain) includes twenty-eight compositions of varied forms dealing with the painful experience of frustrated love. "Los sonetos de la muerte" is included in this section. Also in "Dolor" is the intensely emotional "Poema del hijo" (Poem of the Son), a cry for a son she never had because "En las noches, insomne de dicha y de visiones / la lujuria de fuego no descendió a mi lecho" (In my nights, awakened by joy and visions, / fiery lust did not descend upon my bed):
Un hijo, un hijo, un hijo! Yo quise un hijo tuyo
y mío, allá en los días del éxtasis ardiente,
en los que hasta mis huesos temblaron de tu arrullo
y un ancho resplandor creció sobre mi frente.
(A son, a son, a son! I wanted a son of yours
and mine, back then in the days of burning ecstasy,
when even my bones trembled at your whisper
and a wide light grew in my forehead.)
"Naturaleza" (Nature) includes "Paisajes de le Patagonia" and other texts about Mistral's stay in Punta Arenas. A series of compositions for children--"Canciones de cuna" (Cradlesongs), also included in her next book, Ternura: Canciones de niños (1924, Tenderness: Songs for Children)--completes the poetry selections in Desolación. An additional group of prose compositions, among them "Poemas de la madre más triste" and several short stories under the heading "Prosa escolar" (School Prose), confirms that the book is an assorted collection of most of what Mistral had written during several years. In 1923 a second edition of the book appeared in Santiago, with the addition of a few compositions written in Mexico.
Mistral's stay in Mexico came to an end in 1924 when her services were no longer needed. Before returning to Chile, she traveled in the United States and Europe, thus beginning her life of constant movement from one place to another, a compulsion she attributed to her need to look for a perfect place to live in harmony with nature and society. In 1925, on her way back to Chile, she stopped in Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, countries that received her with public manifestations of appreciation. By then she had become a well-known and much admired poet in all of Latin America. Her second book of poems, Ternura , had appeared a year before in Madrid. It included, together with new material, the poems for children already published in Desolación. Because of this focus, which underlined only one aspect of her poetry, this book was seen as significantly different from her previous collection, where the same compositions were part of a larger selection of sad and disturbing poems not at all related to children.
In Ternura Mistral attempts to prove that poetry that deals with the subjects of childhood, maternity, and nature can be done in highly aesthetic terms, and with a depth of feeling and understanding. As she wrote in a letter, "He querido hacer una poesía escolar nueva, porque la que hay en boga no me satisface" (I wanted to write a new type of poetry for the school, because the one in fashion now does not satisfy me). She wanted to write, and did write successfully, "una poesía escolar que no por ser escolar deje de ser poesía, que lo sea, y más delicada que cualquiera otra, más honda, más impregnada de cosas del corazón: más estremecida de soplo de alma" (a poetry for school that does not cease to be poetry because it is for school, it must be poetry, and more delicate than any other poetry, deeper, more saturated of things of the heart: more affected by the breath of the soul). Ternura includes her "Canciones de cuna," "Rondas" (Play Songs), and nonsense verses such as "La pajita" (The Little Straw), which combines fantasy with playfulness and musicality:
Era que era una niña de cera;
pero ne era una niña de cera,
era una gavilla parada en la era.
Pero no era una gavilla
sino una flor tieza de maravilla.
(There was this girl of wax;
but she wasn't made of wax,
she was a sheaf of wheat standing in the threshing floor.
But she was not a sheaf of wheat
but a stiff sunflower.)
The book also includes poems about the world and nature. They are attributed to an almost magical storyteller, "La Cuenta-mundo" (The World-Teller), the fictional lyrical voice of a woman who tells about water and air, light and rainbow, butterflies and mountains. There is also a group of school poems, slightly pedagogical and objective in their tone.
In Ternura Mistral seems to fulfill the promise she made in "Voto" (Vow) at the end of Desolación: "Dios me perdone este libro amargo. Lo dejo tras de mí como a la hondonada sombría y por laderas más clementes subo hacia las mesetas espirituales donde una ancha luz caerá sobre mis días. Yo cantaré desde ellas las palabras de la esperanza, cantaré como lo quiso un misericordioso, para consolar a los hombres" (I hope God will forgive me for this bitter book. I leave it behind me, as you leave the darkened valley, and I climb by more benign slopes to the spiritual plateaus where a wide light will fall over my days. From there I will sing the words of hope, I will sing as a merciful one wanted to do, for the consolation of men). Ternura, in effect, is a bright, hopeful book, filled with the love of children and of the many concrete things of the natural and human world.
Back in Chile after three years of absence, she returned to her region of origin and settled in La Serena in 1925, thinking about working on a small orchard. That same year she had obtained her retirement from the government as a special recognition of her years of service to education and of her exceptional contribution to culture. For the rest of her life she depended mostly on this pension, since her future consular duties were served in an honorary capacity. Mistral returned to Catholicism around this time. A fervent follower of St. Francis of Assisi, she entered the Franciscan Order as a laical member. This decision says much about her religious convictions and her special devotion for the Italian saint, his views on nature, and his advice on following a simple life. As a member of the order, she chose to live in poverty, making religion a central element in her life. Religion for her was also fundamental to her understanding of her function as a poet. Her admiration of St. Francis had led her to start writing, while still in Mexico, a series of prose compositions on his life. Fragments of the never-completed biography were published in 1965 as Motivos de San Francisco (Motives of St. Francis). At the time she wrote them, however, they appeared as newspaper contributions in El Mercurio in Chile.
Mistral stayed for only a short period in Chile before leaving again for Europe, this time as secretary of the Latin American section in the League of Nations in Paris. A designated member of the Institute of Intellectual Cooperation, she took charge of the Section of Latin American Letters. In Paris she became acquainted with many writers and intellectuals, including those from Latin America who lived in Europe, and many more who visited her while traveling there. She was the center of attention and the point of contact for many of those who felt part of a common Latin American continent and culture. She started the publication of a series of Latin American literary classics in French translation and kept a busy schedule as an international functionary fully dedicated to her work. She was gaining friends and acquaintances, and her family provided her with her most cherished of companions: a nephew she took under her care. She was living in the small village of Bedarrides, in Provence, when a half brother Mistral did not know existed, son of the father who had left her, came to her asking for help. He brought with him his four-year-old son, Juan Miguel Godoy Mendoza, whose Catalan mother had just died. The young man left the boy with Mistral and disappeared.
A few months later, in 1929, Mistral received news of the death of her own mother, whom she had not seen since her last visit to Chile four years before. In a series of eight poems titled "Muerte de mi madre" (Death of My Mother) she expressed her sadness and bereavement, as well as the "volteadura de mi alma en una larga crisis religiosa" (upsetting of my soul in a long religious crisis):
Madre mía, en el sueño
ando por paisajes cardenosos:
un monte negro que se contornea
siempre, para alcanzar el otro monte;
y en el que siempre estás tú vagamente,
pero siempre hay otro monte redondo
que circundar, para pagar el paso
al monte de tu gozo y de mi gozo.
(Mother, in my dream
I walk purplish landscapes:
a black mountain that sways
trying to reach the other mountain;
and you are always in it vaguely,
but there is always another round mountain
to be walked around to pay the toll
to get to the mountain of your joy and mine.)
The dream has all the material quality of most of her preferred images, transformed into a nightmarish representation of suffering along the way to the final rest. In this poem the rhymes and rhythm of her previous compositions are absent, as she moves cautiously into new, freer forms of versification that allow her a more expressive communication of her sorrow. When still using a well-defined rhythm she depends on the simpler Spanish assonant rhyme or no rhyme at all. The strongly physical and stark character of her images remains, however, as in "Nocturno de la consumación" (Nocturne of Consummation): "Tantos años que muerdo el desierto / Que mi patria se llama la Sed" (I have been biting the desert for so many years / That Thirst is the name of my homeland).
In 1930 the government of General Carlos Ibáñez suspended Mistral's retirement benefits, leaving her without a sustained means of living. The most prestigious newspapers in the Hispanic world offered her a solution in the form of regular paid contributions. She had to do more journalistic writing, as she regularly sent her articles to such papers as ABC in Madrid; La Nación (The Nation) in Buenos Aires; El Tiempo (The Times) in Bogotá; Repertorio Americano (American Repertoire) in San José, Costa Rica; Puerto Rico Ilustrado (Illustrated Puerto Rico) in San Juan; and El Mercurio, for which she had been writing regularly since the 1920s. Also, to offset her economic difficulties, in the academic year of 1930-1931 she accepted an invitation from Onís at Columbia University and taught courses in literature and Latin American culture at Barnard College and Middlebury College. That same year she traveled in the Antilles and Central America, giving talks and meeting with writers, intellectuals, and an enthusiastic public.
By 1932 the Chilean government gave her a consular position in Naples, Italy, but Benito Mussolini's government did not accept her credentials, perhaps because of her clear opposition to fascism. In 1933, always looking for a source of income, she traveled to Puerto Rico to teach at the University in Río Piedras. The Puerto Rican legislature named her an adoptive daughter of the island, and the university gave her an honorary doctorate, the first of many she received from universities in the ensuing years. Several of her writings deal with Puerto Rico, as she developed a keen appreciation of the island and its people. In June of the same year she took a consular position in Madrid. As had happened previously when she lived in Paris, in Madrid she was constantly visited by writers from Latin America and Spain who found in her a stimulating and influential intellect. Neruda was also serving as a Chilean diplomat in Spain at the time.
In spite of all her acquaintances and friendships in Spain, however, Mistral had to leave the country in a hurry, never to return. In characteristically sincere and unequivocal terms she had expressed in private some critical opinions of Spain that led to complaints by Spaniards residing in Chile and, consequently, to the order from the Chilean government in 1936 to abandon her consular position in Madrid. Mistral was asked to leave Madrid, but her position was not revoked. She left for Lisbon, angry at the malice of those who she felt wanted to hurt her and saddened for having to leave on those scandalous terms a country she had always loved and admired as the land of her ancestors. In 1935 the Chilean government had given her, at the request of Spanish intellectuals and other admirers, the specially created position of consul for life, with the prerogative to choose on her own the city of designation.
Included in Mistral's many trips was a short visit to her country in 1938, the year she left the Lisbon consulate. It coincided with the publication in Buenos Aires of Tala (Felling), her third book of poems. In solidarity with the Spanish Republic she donated her author's rights for the book to the Spanish children displaced and orphaned by the war. In Tala Mistral includes the poems inspired by the death of her mother, together with a variety of other compositions that do not linger in sadness but sing of the beauty of the world and deal with the hopes and dreams of the human heart. These poems are divided into three sections: "Materias" (Matter), comprising verse about bread, salt, water, and air; "Tierra de Chile" (Land of Chile); and "America." Particularly important in this last group are two American hymns: "Sol del trópico" (Tropical Sun) and "Cordillera" (Mountain Range). These poems exemplify Mistral's interest in awakening in her contemporaries a love for the essences of their American identity.
Because of the war in Europe, and fearing for her nephew, whose friendship with right-wing students in Lisbon led her to believe that he might become involved in the fascist movement, Mistral took the general consular post in Rio de Janeiro. After living for a while in Niteroi, and wanting to be near nature, Mistral moved to Petropolis in 1941, where she often visited her neighbors, the Jewish writer Stefan Zweig and his wife. The suicide of the couple in despair for the developments in Europe caused her much pain; but the worst suffering came months later when her nephew died of arsenic poisoning the night of 14 August 1943. For Mistral this experience was decisive, and from that date onward she lived in constant bereavement, unable to find joy in life because of her loss. Although it was established by the authorities that the eighteen-year-old Juan Miguel had committed suicide, Mistral never accepted this troubling fact. In her pain she insisted on another interpretation, that he had been killed by envious Brazilian school companions. She composed a series of prayers on his behalf and found consolation in the conviction that Juan Miguel was sometimes at her side in spirit.
Despite her loss, her active life and her writing and travels continued. She was still in Brazil when she heard in the news on the radio that the Nobel Prize in Literature had been awarded to her. It was 1945, and World War II was recently over; for Mistral, however, there was no hope or consolation. She traveled to Sweden to be at the ceremony only because the prize represented recognition of Latin American literature. In the same year she published a new edition of Ternura that added the children's poems from Tala, thus becoming the title under which all of her poems devoted to children and school subjects were collected as one work. As a consequence, she also revised Tala and produced a new, shorter edition in 1946. Minus the poems from the four original sections of poems for children, Tala was transformed in this new version into a different, more brooding book that starkly contrasts with the new edition of Ternura.
These changes to her previous books represent Mistral's will to distinguish her two different types of poetry as separate and distinctly opposite in inspiration and objective. While the first edition of Ternura was the result of a shrewd decision by an editor with expertise in children's books, Saturnino Calleja in Madrid, these new editions of both books, revised by Mistral herself, should be interpreted as a more significant manifestation of her views on her work and the need to organize it accordingly. The same creative distinction dictated the definitive organization of all her poetic work in the 1958 edition of Poesías completas (Complete Poems), edited by Margaret Bates under Mistral's supervision.
Not wanting to live in Brazil, a country she blamed for the death of her nephew, Mistral left for Los Angeles in 1946 and soon after moved to Santa Barbara, where she established herself for a time in a house she bought with the money from the Nobel Prize. Ciro Alegría, a Peruvian writer who visited her there in 1947, remembers how she divided her time between work, visits, and caring for her garden. Mistral liked to believe that she was a woman of the soil, someone in direct and daily contact with the earth. In all her moves from country to country she chose houses that were in the countryside or surrounded by flower gardens with an abundance of plants and trees. According to Alegría, "Todo el panteísmo indio que había en el alma de Gabriela Mistral, asomaba de pronto en la conversación y de manera neta cuando se ponía en contacto con la naturaleza" (The American Indian pantheism of Mistral's spirit was visible sometimes in her conversation, and it was purest when she was in contact with nature).
Mistral's love of nature was deeply ingrained from childhood and permeated her work with unequivocal messages for the protection and care of the environment that preceded present-day ecological concerns. She had a similar concern for the rights to land use in Latin America, and for the situation of native peoples, the original owners of the continent. After two years in California she again was not happy with her place of residence and decided in 1948 to accept the invitation of the Mexican president to establish her home there, in the country she loved almost as her own. Her failing health, in particular her heart problems, made it impossible for her to travel to Mexico City or any other high-altitude cities, so she settled as consul in Veracruz. The Mexican government gave her land where she could establish herself for good, but after building a small house she returned to the United States.
The beauty and good weather of Italy, a country she particularly enjoyed, attracted her once more. War was now in the past, and Europe appeared to her again as the cradle of her own Christian traditions: the arts, literature, and spirituality. For a while in the early 1950s she established residence in Naples, where she actively fulfilled the duties of Chilean consul. These duties allowed her to travel in Italy, enjoying a country that was especially agreeable to her. In part because of her health, however, by 1953 she was back in the United States. This time she established her residence in Roslyn Harbor, Long Island, where she spent her last years. While in New York she served as Chilean representative to the United Nations and was an active member of the Subcommittee on the Status of Women.
Besides correcting and reediting her previous work, and in addition to her regular contributions to newspapers, Mistral was occupied by two main writing projects in the years following her nephew's death and the reception of the Nobel Prize. These two projects--the seemingly unending composition of Poema de Chile , a long narrative poem, and the completion of her last book of poems, Lagar (1954, Wine Press)--responded also to the distinction she made between two kinds of poetic creation. In the first project, Mistral continued to explore her interest in musical poetry for children and poetry of nature. Both are used in a long narrative composition that has much of the charm of a lullaby and a magical story sung by a maternal figure to a child:
Vamos caminando juntos
Así, en hermanos de cuento,
Tú echando sombra de niño,
Yo apenas sobra de helecho.
(We are walking together,
Thus, like brothers in a story,
Yours is the shadow of a boy,
Mine barely resembles the shadow of a fern.)
The delight of a Franciscan attitude of enjoyment in the beauty of nature, with its magnificent landscapes, simple elements--air, rock, water, fruits--and animals and plants, is also present in the poem.
The aging and ailing poet imagines herself in Poema de Chile as a ghost who returns to her land of origin to visit it for the last time before meeting her creator. Inspired by her nostalgic memories of the land of her youth that had become idealized in the long years of self-imposed exile, Mistral tries in this poem to conciliate her regret for having lived half of her life away from her country with her desire to transcend all human needs and find final rest and happiness in death and eternal life. In characteristic dualism the poet writes of the beauty of the world in all of its material sensuality as she hurries on her way to a transcendental life in a spiritual union with creation. Poema de Chile was published posthumously in 1967 in an edition prepared by Doris Dana. This edition, based on several drafts left by Mistral, is an incomplete version.
Lagar , on the contrary, was published when the author was still alive and constitutes a complete work in spite of the several unfinished poems left out by Mistral and published posthumously as Lagar II (1991). A book written in a period of great suffering, Lagar is an exemplary work of spiritual strength and poetic expressiveness. It follows the line of sad and complex poetry in the revised editions of Desolación and Tala. In Lagar Mistral deals with the subjects that most interested her all of her life, as if she were reviewing and revising her views and beliefs, her own interpretation of the mystery of human existence. As in previous books she groups the compositions based on their subject; thus, her poems about death form two sections--"Luto" (Mourning) and "Nocturnos" (Nocturnes)--and, together with the poems about the war ("Guerra"), constitute the darkest aspect of the collection. At the other end of the spectrum are the poems of "Naturaleza" (Nature) and "Jugarretas" (Playfulness), which continue the same subdivisions found in her previous book. Other sections address her religious concerns ("Religiosas," Nuns), her view of herself as a woman in perpetual movement from one place to another ("Vagabundaje," Vagabondage), and her different portraits of women--perhaps different aspects of herself--as mad creatures obsessed by a passion ("Locas mujeres," Crazy Women).
In 1951 Mistral had received the Chilean National Prize in literature, but she did not return to her native country until 1954, when Lagar was published in Santiago. She had not been back in Chile since 1938, and this last, triumphant visit was brief, since her failing health did not allow her to travel much within the country. The following years were of diminished activity, although she continued writing for periodicals as well as working on Poema de Chile and other poems. Late in 1956 she was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. A few weeks later, in the early hours of 10 January 1957, Mistral died in a hospital in Hempstead, Long Island. Her last word was "triunfo" (triumph). After a funeral ceremony at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, the body of this pacifist woman was flown by military plane to Santiago, where she received the funeral honors of a national hero. Following her last will, her remains were eventually put to rest in a simple tomb in Monte Grande, the village of her childhood. Her tomb, a minimal rock amid the majestic mountains of her valley of birth, is a place of pilgrimage for many people who have discovered in her poetry the strength of a religious, spiritual life dominated by a passionate love for all of creation. Inscribed on her tombstone is her statement that "What the soul is to the body, so is the artist to his people."
Almost half a century after her death Gabriela Mistral continues to attract the attention of readers and critics alike, particularly in her country of origin. Her poetic work, more than her prose, maintains its originality and effectiveness in communicating a personal worldview in many ways admirable. The strongly spiritual character of her search for a transcendental joy unavailable in the world contrasts with her love for the materiality of everyday existence. Her poetic voice communicates these opposing forces in a style that combines musicality and harshness, spiritual inquietudes and concrete images, hope and despair.
From: Daydí-Tolson, Santiago. "Gabriela Mistral." Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature, Part 3, Gale, 2007. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 331.