Gabriela Mistral’s “Death Sonnets”

Gabriela Mistral’s “Death Sonnets”

Chile’s Mother Buries Her Lover

Outside of Latin America, Pablo Neruda is the face Chilean poetry. But Chile had a national poet before him, one who also won the Nobel Prize for Literature (in fact the first one awarded to a Latin American), one after whom streets, plazas, schools throughout the country and even a university are named: Gabriela Mistral, mythologized as the Mother of her Country.

Neruda’s fame in the North is understandable: His lyrical poetry is filled with graceful expression, usually delivered in a soothing tone, easily set to music (and it has been, repeatedly, by, for example Samuel Barber, Peter Lieberson, Mikis Theodorakis, Ezequiel Viñao, and even more recently by heavy metal groups and rappers). There are no hard symbols or obscure references. His usual topic, erotic heterosexual love, is the central literary interest of the bourgeoisie of developed countries. And perhaps most crucially he was a Communist, an ambassador under Allende, who died under the regime that crushed the hopes of all intellectuals in Chile. The lost cause is the most romantic of all causes for intellectuals.

The frontispiece to Mistral’s first collection, Desolación (1922).

Mistral’s work has none of those advantages. None of it fits neatly within conventional Latin American traditions. From early on she often portrayed a troubled narrator, melancholic and inconsolable. Her early (pseudonymous) published works in rural Chilean newspapers gave voice to such unhappiness that newspapers subscribers wrote letters filled with concern with her state of mind. In early journalistic essays she denigrated marriage (los repugnantes matrimonios modernos, “repugnant modern marriages”) and doubted the concept of long-term mutual love (to her it was simply la venta indigna de su honra, “the indignant sale of her honor”). She did not shun depicting desire, but the object of that desire is frequently abstract or metaphorical. She never wrote conventional paeans to love. In the rare case she dealt with love in her poetry, it was often thwarted or necessarily hidden or complicated by obscure circumstances. Mistral explored damaged psyches and extreme emotions. One of her last sets of poetry was entitled Locas mujeres (“Mad Women”), which featured women encountering catastrophic loss. Moreover, she disregarded conventional prosody (even in conventional forms like sonnets) and dispensed discordant images. And especially in her early poetry she hinted at actions, often violent, not described and seemed to only half describe a world known only to her. She was not, in short, a poet for the middlebrow.

Notwithstanding what seems her intentional solipsism (or at least her frequent targeting of only like-minded melancholic “hearts” as she called them), Mistral longed for popular acceptance in Chile and even molded her public persona to court it. She lamented in her diary of her lack of appreciation. She even regretted that Neruda seemed to have eclipsed her. This must have been especially difficult since she early encouraged him (before he was even a teen) and later championed him.

It is true Mistral was not much celebrated in Chile during her lifetime. In fact, it wasn’t until 1951, six years after she won the Nobel Prize that she received the Premio Nacional de Literatura, Chile’s official literary prize which accompanies a monetary award and a life-time monthly stipend. (It was Pablo Neruda who won the National Prize in 1945, the year Mistral received the Nobel Prize.)

Mistral at the Nobel ceremonies on December 10, 1945. (Photographer unknown.)

And yet despite this (and some other things that we will see momentarily) Gabriela Mistral’s death began a process of national beatification that was quite remarkable. And this process began with abrupt energy as soon as Mistral died in Hempstead, Long island, where she had lived for several years. Despite the fact that Mistral had made only two short visits to Chile in the last three and a half decades of her life, the Chilean Foreign Ministry arranged to transport her body (after her funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan), from New York to Lima. From there the Chilean Air Force brought her body to Santiago, where it met with a full military honor guard. Professor Elizabeth Horan continues:

The Ministry of Education (Mistral’s employer for the first half of her life) presided over the wake, which celebrated Mistral as a beloved maestro. For the three days of official mourning the corpse lay in state at the University of Chile. The pallbearers, chosen from the Consejo Universitario, were led by the University Rector. Documentation of the mourning constituted a “Who’s Who” of national citizenship: newspaper photo spreads record the presence of then-President Carlos Ibañez with his wife, prominent churchmen, bureaucrats and university officials alongside the coffin. Recorded with equal care, although on separate pages, are long lines of thousands of Chilean citizens, including children (some barefoot, others in their school uniforms) who lined up for hours, in the scorching January sun, to file past the one casket, which lay in the University’s Salon de Honor. With numerous close-ups of the open casket from sundry angles, an inventory of its effects, lengthy excerpts from the speeches of dignitaries, press coverage embraced the hagiographic discourse that has subsequently dominated Gabriela Mistral’s reputation.” (Horan, 1997, p. 22.)

Mistral StampWithin months a museum was opened in her hometown of Vicuña, a rural town about 240 miles north of Santiago. It was not much of an affair—it was a reconstruction of the one-room school she first taught at near her (now demolished) house. It wouldn’t be until 1971 before an architect was retained to put together a museum for displaying items associated with Mistral. And it wouldn’t be until 2010 before the collection of Doris Dana, Mistral’s last secretary and (presumed) long time lover, was donated to the museum by her executor. But the museum was only a start. The government began a long project of making Mistral into a national figure, and specifically to fashion her image into the modern political equivalent of the Virgin Mother. Her work as a teacher and education writer was emphasized. And it was portrayed as though it were a divine mission. The two stamp issues that carried her image have her close eyed as though meditating or receiving an epiphany.

President Carlos Ibáñez del Campo with First Lady Rosa Quiroz de Ávila Graciela Letelier Velasco (to his left) view the body of Gabriela Mistral (photo: El Mercurio.)
President Carlos Ibáñez del Campo with First Lady Rosa Quiroz de Ávila
Graciela Letelier Velasco (to his left) view the body of Gabriela Mistral (photo: El Mercurio.)

The greatest boost to her renown in Chile came (after she was long dead) from Pinochet, who pushed her as the anti-Neruda. She was promoted as a poet of tradition, of patriotism, of matronly submission, as (in the words of novelist Diamela Eltit): “una especie de útero que ha partido hijos para la patria” (a sort of uterus that has birthed children for the fatherland).

Mistral’s image today is a testament to the effectiveness of the effortless (and often trivial) lies of the Pinochet regime. Almost nothing about the “official” version of Mistral’s life resembles her. She was not a fascist or a traditionalist in any way. Mistral (whose real name was Lucila Godoy Alcayaga) grew up in poverty and was able to claw out a bourgeois life only because she followed the profession of her older sister (and the father that abandoned her early on)—she became a school teacher. And although she put much effort into teaching, and school administration and thinking about how education should be accomplished, it is unlikely that she would have chosen the profession had she not needed to support herself and her mother. When she was young, she aspired to be an avant-garde writer, a modernists, heavily influenced by the French Symbolists as transferred to Latin culture by Rubén Darío.

Mistral with Duhamel and Manuel Unamuno. (Date and photographer unknown.)

Mistral was not much of a patriotic uterus either. She never bore any children; she never even married. She did adopt a boy named Juan Miguel Godoy, a nephew on her father’s side, whom she called Yin-Yin. She took him to Europe with her, but with the outbreak of war, she travelled with him to Petrópolis, Brazil to live. There Stefan Zweig and his wife also lived in exile, but in 1942, overcome by despair for Europe, they jointly committed suicide with barbiturate overdose. The next year Yin-Yin committed suicide at 17 by swallowing arsenic, an event Mistral took responsibility for, telling her diary, “I killed my son.”

Mistral was in all probability lesbian, despite her denial (even in her secret diary) and despite the efforts that she made to conform to the typically Latin patriarchal view of her poetry as odes to romantic heterosexual love. The evidence for her sexual orientation is indirect, possibly inappropriately culture-bound (her appearance, her dowdy clothes, her chain-smoking), and precarious inferences, supposedly autobiographical, taken from her literary work. As for deriving biography from literary works, suffice it to say that it was the same procedure (perhaps less self-consciously) that led to the conclusion that the Death Sonnets (below) were her threnody on her dead male lover.

Finally Mistral was hardly an ardent patriot. She complained in her diary over the lack of respect she received from Chileans. She was resentful, or at least hurt, over the adulation showered on Neruda (whom she encountered as a teacher when he was a student and whose writing she encouraged) and not her. Although her rise as an educational administrator in Chile was quite rapid, it was also complicated by the need for mentors and the contingencies of politics. So in 1922, she accepted the offer by the new revolutionary government of Mexico to assist in the reform of public education. Even though the Obregón government made strides in effecting civil rights for women, Mistral must have bristled at the vision the nation had for education of girls, which, revolution or not, still conceived women as domestic workers rather than equal citizens.

After two years in Mexico Mistral travelled the United States and Europe, before returning to Chile briefly in 1925. By mid-year she had accepted a position in France in connection with the League of Nations. And the rest of her life was spent almost exclusively in Europe, with occasional teaching positions in the United States. She lived her last years on Long Island, where she died.

The “Death Sonnets” come not from the end of her life, but from the beginning. It was the first work of any note published by Mistral. In fact, it won the 1914 Juegos Florales, a national literary competition modeled on similar competitions in Spain, which trace their origin to rewards given to medieval Occitan troubadours in Catalonia. Mistral, 25 at the time, was so shy that she had the work read by a man. One of the three judges, as the story goes, was incensed after the vote in finding out the poem was written by a woman. Either the story is fictitious or the judge was not paying attention because there is at least one clue that the narrator’s love is a man. In any event, it did not take long for another myth to develop around the poems; namely, that it was a paean to a lover who had committed suicide. Romelio Ureta, a railway worker who killed himself in 1909, was long claimed (and usually still is) to be the object of the poem. But that is almost certainly a falsehood. Mistral denied it and her diaries make no mention of him. Her close friends, later asked about it, said that Mistral never mentioned him. Mistral, however, never contradicted the association, possibly because the truth would have scandalized the country. The received story became part of Mistral’s popular public persona, so it was not expedient to correct it. But likely she never made much effort to correct the record because she never interpreted any of her poetry. In fact, the poems themselves are frequently obtuse, and often it seems Mistral attempts to mislead the reader. The poems below on the surface appear unequivocal, but they are capable of several interpretations and their details are ultimately unknowable. Before looking at the details, here are the poems:

Los Sonetos de la Muerte

by Gabriela Mistral

From Desolación (New York: Instituto de las Españas del los Estados Unidos, 1922)


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.

Te acostaré en la tierra soleada, con una
dulcedumbre de madre para el hijo dormido,
y la tierra ha de hacerse suavidades de cuna
al recibir tu cuerpo de niño dolorido.

Luego iré espolvoreando tierra y polvo de rosas,
y en la azulada y leve polvareda de luna,
los despojos livianos irán quedando presos.

Me alejaré cantando mis venganzas hermosas
¡porque a ese hondor recóndito la mano de ninguna
bajará a disputarme tu puñado de huesos!


Este largo cansancio se hará mayor un día,
y el alma dirá al cuerpo que no quiere seguir
arrastrando su masa por la rosada vía,
por donde van los hombres, contentos de vivir.

Sentirás que a tu lado cavan briosamente,
que otra dormida llega a la quieta cuidad.
Esperaré que me hayan cubierto totalmente . . .
¡y después hablaremos por una eternidad!

Sólo entonces sabrás el porqué, no madura
para las hondas huesas tu carne todavía,
tuviste que bajar, sin fatiga, a dormir.

Se hará luz en la zona de los sinos, oscura;
sabrás que en nuestra alianza signo de astros había
y, roto el pacto enorme, tenías que morir . . .


Malos manos tomaron tu vida, desde el día
en que, a una señal de astros, dejara su plantel
nevado de azucenas. En gozo florecía.
Malas manos entraron trágicamente en él . . .

Y yo dije al Señor: “Por las sendas mortales
le llevan. ¡Sombra amada que no saben guiar!
Arráncalo, Señor, a esas manos fatales
o le hundes en el largo sueño que sabes dar!

¡No le puedo gritar, no le puedo seguir!
Su barca empuja un negro viento de tempestad.
Retórnalo a mis brazos o le siegas en flor.”

Se detuvo la barca rosa de su vivir . . .
¿Que no sé del amor, que no tuve piedad?
¡Tú, que vas a juzgarme, lo comprendes, Señor!

Death Sonnets

by Gabriela Mistral

(translated by DK Fennell)


From out of the frozen vault where men had placed you,
I will lower you into the earth, both humble and sun-blest.
Those men did not know that I needed to sleep in it too,
and that we must always dream upon the same headrest.

I will put you to bed in the sun-blest ground, with the sweetness
and care that a mother betrays towards her child who is sleeping,
and the earth will spread itself into a cradle of softness
to receive the corpse of your youth in pain and weeping.

Then I’ll go scattering earth and roses’ dust,
And in the flimsy flecks of bluish moonlight,
Your slight remains will never flee its cell.

I’ll leave singing of beautiful vengeance so just
for no hand will reach so low to claim my right
in that hidden depth to your earthy shell!


This growing tiredness will culminate some day,
and the soul will tell the body of its craving to desist
from dragging its heavy weight though that rosy way,
where men continue going, simply to exist.

You will feel at your side men digging urgently,
and another slumberer arrive at your noiseless door.
I will wait until I am covered totally . . .
And afterward we shall talk forevermore!

Only then will you know the reason, though immature
your flesh yet remains for such abysmal shrine,
you had to go down to sleep, with open eye.

Where fates are fixed there will be light, obscure;
you will learn that our connection bore an astral sign
and, with the vast pack broken, you had to die.


Wicked hands took your life that day
when, at a signal from the stars, I went from
his snowy bed of lilies, joyous in display.
Wicked hands, and tragedy with them, had come . . .

And I said to the Lord, “Over deathly hopeless pathway
he is led. Beloved shadow without guide!
Snatch him, O Lord, away from these hands that slay
or bury him in the slumber you provide!

I cannot shout to him, much less attend!
A stormy wind impels his bark in blindness.
Return him to my arms or harvest him florescent.”

His rosy bark of life is at its end . . .
Did I not know love? Or even kindness?
Know this Lord when you pronounce my judgment!

The first thing to note is that these poems violate the unwritten rules about sonnets. Sonnets, especially in traditional Spanish poetry, are a very conservative form. They require certain rhyme schemes, a particular meter and of course 14 lines. But they are supposed to be stand-alone poems, as they had been since Petrarch and Shakespeare. These three poems obviously interconnect. Each contain allusions that require references to one or both of the other poems for explanation. Moreover, although Spanish poets writing sonnets did not confine themselves (as did Petrarch and Shakespeare) to love apostrophes, the sonnet was never used for the kind of threnody that it is here—a trilogy of reactions to a loved one’s death: first, a planned memorial; second, an imagined reconciliation after death; and, third, a lamentation over the loss. The poems turn the sonnet inside out. In the guise of a love poem, each is a separate reaction to the loss of love.


Categories: Chile, Reseña