John R. Burt
The poetry of Delmira Agustini, a twentieth century Uruguayan poet (1886-1914), has been discussed frequently because of some of the unusually polemical themes she espoused, including feminine eroticism (Lima, Sergio Visca) as well as the concept of a Nietzschean super race (Rosenbaum, Gómez Gil). With her treatment of these topics, she was one of the earliest Spanish American poets to deal with two of the twentieth century's major themes. At the same time, paradoxically, much of the artistic and intellectual focus of her tutorial education was typical of that normally taught well-to-do young women at the turn of the century. In addition to embroidery, art and music, she read poetry, fables and myths (Álvarez 8-11). Absorbing the myths she read as a child and developing them in later years into a kind of personal storehouse of fantasies, Agustini recreates them again in her poetry from a personal perspective as if they were tales about herself. This unusual reading of classical mythology (overlooked by earlier critics) has played an important role in her formation as a poet and may be demonstrated especially well in her characteristic use of the muse.
A good example of such usage occurs in the first line of the puzzling poem, «El surtidor de oro» (48-49), from Los cálices vacíos (1913), when Agustini addresses as though she were her personal servant. She commands her to vibrate the golden fountain: «Vibre, mi musa, el surtidor de oro / la taza rosa de tu boca en besos», because in doing so the ideal lover will spring forth. He is a mysterious, eternal being, sculpted «en prodigios de almas y de cuerpos», and the inspiration for him is almost certainly taken from Agustini's reading of Nietzsche:
The vital essence for the «dios nuevo» comes from within, making her the creator of a creator. While he has creative abilities, it is she who has created him and who now nourishes him: «Las culebras azules de sus venas / se nutren de milagro en mi cerebro...». In a striking metaphor, the «culebras azules» of his veins derive their sustenance from her brain. The life-providing veins which create his growth underline his total dependence on her and also suggest that this love may result in a draining of her strength.
Having created an unusually dependent god, Agustini suddenly commands the muse to seal the fountain of gold: «Selle, mi musa, el surtidor de oro / la taza rosa de tu boca en besos». The moment of creation has passed, and she now turns to face her masterpiece. In this moment she is like Pygmalion, having sculpted an ideal lover. The lover's first act, in keeping with the menace suggested by his serpent-like veins, is to dig his nails into her (arraigando las uñas extrahumanas / en mi carne), while his second act is to sob in her dreams (solloza en mis ensueños). The lover then explains what he wishes from her, and because he is a creation of hers, a Galatea-like figure, he likely expresses desires that she shares. He pleads, «¡déjame bajo el cielo de tu alma, / en la cálida tierra de tu cuerpo!». This impassioned exclamation pleases her so much in her apparent role as archetypal earth mother as outlined by Erich Neumann (44-49, 95-98) and Robert Graves (61-73) that she brings the poem to an end, repeating her command for the muse to seal the golden fountain: «¡Selle, mi musa, el surtidor de oro / la taza rosa de tu boca en besos!».
In this poem, the muse plays assistant creator in calling the ideal lover from «el surtidor de oro». Both fountain and cup reflect the vessel imagery of the earth-mother association, and reveal the muse's expected ability to provide a fountain of inspiration. The imagery, reminiscent of the legend of Narcissus, reveals that the lover created in Agustini's poem, like the image Narcissus saw of himself, is more a golden reflection of the lover's desires than the portrait of any living being. The muse in this poem plays a role akin to that of the pool in which Narcissus saw his own reflection. As with the pool, Agustini's muse does not truly create a new image, but is able to turn the fountain on and off.
In the last section of the poem, the muse again like the pool serves as a silent witness to the lovers' mini-dialogue. At the same time the presence of the muse (an unreal figure) creates a greater sense of illusion that makes the relationship (as with a reflected image) ultimately unachievable. The muse provides a means of creating an ideal lover. Because the muse is partly culpable, Agustini is able to endow her lover more fully with unusual qualities.
A second poem in which Agustini makes use of a muse is «Misterio: Ven...» (81-82) from El libro blanco (1907). She addresses a new, unknown lover, commenting on the muse's role at the same time: «Ven, oye, yo te evoco / extraño amado de mi musa extraña». She then repeats the evocation and continues the epigramatic condemnation of the muse a second time four lines later.
Agustini's muse, as in the previous poem, serves as assistant creator. When the poet attempts to evoke her mysterious beloved, the strangeness of her lover is matched by the strangeness of her muse. She deliberately incriminates the muse in this way in order to conceal the true, highly personal, creative force. Under this guise, it will be possible to assume less responsibility for the morbid visitation to come: «Ven, tú, el que imprimes un solemne ritmo / al parpadeo de la tumba helada; / el que dictas los lúgubres acentos...». The mysterious lover moves with the solemn rhythm of the tomb, and Agustini seems to have an irresistible desire to taste the unknown from his lips, a wish supposedly inspired by the muse. As if she were in a trance, the poet repeats, almost chanting, for him to come closer:
The evocation of this macabre lover represents perhaps a prophetic death-wish, for her mad pursuit of such a deathly-cold lover suggests at the very least that she is intrigued by dark mysteries. If not a death-wish directly, this kind of evocation hints at the kind of metaphysical search also to be found in witchcraft and voodoo.
The refrain, «Ven, oye, yo te evoco, / ¡extraño amado de mi musa extraña!» now seems the incantation of a witch calling to the underworld. It is as if Agustini were trying to create a spell strong enough to hold her demon-like lover.
The muse in this poem, like the witch's intimate, receives the culpability for anything which may go amiss, functioning here as Agustini's scapegoat. She serves to protect Agustini from criticism for having created a monster. By inculpating the muse, Agustini seeks to appear as participating only with an incidental role. The underlying truth is just the reverse, for it is Agustini's desires alone which have brought the mysterious lover to life.
In a poem quite distinct from those already examined, Agustini addresses a sonnet to her muse in «La Musa», (103), from El libro blanco. She describes this muse not as a participant in the creation of a mysterious lover but simply as a living figure with a number of fanciful qualities:
Agustini's consistent fascination with mystery (misterio, cambiante), and complexity (compleja, abismo) remains. To this she adds sensual qualities (fruta, miel) in order to combine them suggestively. The terminology of fruits and perfume, while normal for lovers, and at the same time deriving inspiration from the Song of Songs (and the Spanish mystics -giving rise to a hint of the element of Agustini's poetry which some critics call «mysticism»), is used here to reflect her love for what is sensual. The muse becomes a harmony of opposites:
The muse's nature, replete with sharp, hyperbolic antitheses, reflects Agustini's quintessential preoccupation with anxieties so immense that even the universe may fit inside them (que el Universo quepa en sus ansias divinas). Through her muse with all these great and contradictory powers, Agustini conveys the suggestion that the underlying meaning for her poetry is deep and powerful as well.
Agustini uses this muse as her voice in order to be able to step outside herself, enabling her to express a dilemma in words in order to understand it more clearly and to comment on it as though she were more distantly removed from the problem. This may have been the technique which Agustini used to try to help preserve her sanity, while offering at the same time what might be construed as the suggestion of latent schizophrenia. Any mind constantly struggling to fit the universe and the gods into its nightly activities, while having to survive the daily smothering of a doting mother, is bound to show some evidence of strain (Álvarez 29-32).
A fourth muse appears in «Mi oración», (107-108) in El libro blanco. This muse is an errant, outdoors pagan, inspired in nature: «va mi musa errabunda, abriendo un horizonte / en cada ademán».
The golden embodiment of pure light, adorned only with a few jewels (representing nature's beauty) and singing in the fresh voice of a wild bird, the muse is received warmly by Agustini at first. Later, however, not content to leave this muse as a creature in harmony with nature, the poet rearranges her few adornments, and the muse as a result, less happy, gravely wanders through empty rooms. The irony of the empty rooms stands in direct contrast to the richly ornate natural world described in the early part of the poem.
Nature clearly forms the heart of this poem, enabling the poet to emphasize the purity of inspiration derived from it and to provide at the same time a source for Agustini's omnipresent sensuality. Parisian gala («Yo peinéla y vestíla sus parisinas galas,») only serve to cover what is already present and natural. The scene may serve also as a metaphor in which the raiment of the muse expresses the quality and fashionable style of Agustini's education while the natural part of the muse reflects Agustini's underlying character. The personality of the muse in this poem embodies much that is Agustini's as well, a personality which is at the same time natural, changeable, complex and restless. There is variety enough in this muse to match the poet's various moods.
A final muse appears in «Fragmentos» (143-144), Cantos de la mañana (1919). Agustini has dedicated the poem to «Un poeta español», and it is clear that the unnamed poet is Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. Agustini and Bécquer share a Teutonic-Spanish ancestry which is an ancestry both of spirit as well as of flesh and blood.
Her identification with Bécquer is very close when she exclaims with sympathy and understanding that Bécquer fits better into a line of poetry than into the universe: «¡Alma que cabe en un verso / mejor que en un universo!» Agustini feels a kindredship with him, and observes that she is his natural heir:
She carries the same burning ember inside her which the masses cannot understand, «La plebe es ciega, inconsciente». She sees genuine inspiration in his poetry which is like striking two pieces of flint, «un choque de pedernales / a veces hace una luz», producing a spark that creates the light and fire of her own poetry.
The key to the muse in this poem is to be found primarily in the lines where Agustini describes her muse as «bruma e hispana» and her own blood as «sangre gitana / en rubio vaso teutón». The antithetic qualities of the images she chooses («misty and Hispanic»; «Gypsy and Germanic»; «earthy and ethereal»), summarize the inspiration she derives from Bécquer, and reveal part of her paradoxical nature.
Agustini uses a muse here and elsewhere to provide her readers with a means of understanding her poetic inspiration. She creates various muses so that the difficult, paradoxical nature of the figures and motifs she presents in her poetry could be attributed as much to the muses as to herself. The muses give form to Agustini's conscious and unconscious desires, and also stand as mediators between Agustini and the superhuman powers she brought forth.
Deriving from classical mythology, the figure of a muse reflects her traditional inspiration. At the same time Agustini's choice of unusual muses shows the intellectual independence she attained early in life.
As she does with other figures from mythology, Agustini treats her muses with familiarity and alters each muse's personality to suit her own wishes. She makes one muse an accomplice and another even a scapegoat.
The muse, ultimately, as a semi-deity, serves to raise Agustini's field of endeavor to a higher plane, and once there the muse's focusing role allows Agustini to envision the immensities of the universe.
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- Álvarez, Mario. Delmira Agustini. Montevideo: Arca, 1979.
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- Lima, Robert. «Cumbres poéticas del erotismo femenino en Hispanoamérica», Revista de Estudios Hispánicos, 18, 1 (1984): 41-59.
- Neumann, Erich. The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Bollingen Series XLVII. 1955. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1974.
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- Rosenbaum, Sidonia Carmen. Modern Women Poets of Spanish America: The Precursors -Delmira Agustini, Gabriela Mistral, Alfonsina Storni, Juana de Ibarbourou. New York: Hispanic Institute, 1945.
- Sergio Visca, Arturo. «Delmira Agustini: Esquema de su itinerario vital y lírico». La mirada crítica y otros ensayos. Montevideo: Academia Nacional de Letras, 1979. 111-142.