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1921

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Bryn Mawr Notes
AND Monographs

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A CITIZEN OF
THE TWILIGHT





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AND MONOGRAPHS

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A CITIZEN OF THE TWILIGHT



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A CITIZEN OF THE TWILIGHT

JOSE ASUNCION SILVA



By
GEORGIANA GODDARD KING, M.A.

Professor of the History of Art in Bryn Mawr College
Member of the Hispanic Society of America




BRYN MAWR COLLEGE
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

LONGMANS. GREEN AND CO.
Xew York, Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras



1921



Copyright, 1921, by
BRYN MAWR COLLEGE



JOSfi A. vSILVA



I



A CITIZEN OF THE TWILIGHT

''Bogota is a city of the Andes, 8000 feet
above the sea. There the atmosphere is
cold and dry. The air is dehcate: the sky
is of disconcerting purity and transparency.
Forty or fifty miles away the profile of the
mountains stands out brilliant and ghtter-
ing, as in ombres chinois. Under this Hght,
colour becomes provisional: soft tones be-
come sharp, keen tones become half-tones.
Neither black nor white can resist the
light; the black takes a greenish tinge im-
mediately, the white is spoiled by shades of
grey. In this dry and rarefied air," con-
tinued Silva, "always at the same tem-
perature, the nerves are in constant ten-
sion.'*/ Here is neither summer nor winter,
but always chill and sun, or drizzling mist
and dragging skirts of cloud: there are no
long nights of winter, no long summer days,
for night and day are alike the year around;
and always it is either day or night, for
there is no twilight in the courts of the sun.
To the rest of the world it would seem life






No twilight



n.



a / /V



B R Y N M A W R NOTES



in the
courts of
the sun



IV









' \ l ) 1 ' » I -* !— »4-^-



Tension



Culture



IV






A CITIZEN OF



there must be in itself abnormal, exacting,
troubled. For the poet who gave this ac-
count of his own land, the tension of the
nerves was torture, and in the end they
snapped.

Silva was a citizen of the twiHght.
There are many sorts of pessimism, and
not all pessimists have haunted the City of
Dreadful Night. This younger brother of
Leopardi and James Thomson is deter-
mined by his temperament toward a sort
of twilight land, a land of shadows and
voices, vague forms that pass, shades that
elude the grasp, fluttering moths and
fleeting echoes, where the dark is but dim-
ness, the nights are full of murmurings,
perfumes and music of wings.

Jose Asuncion Silva was born on the
27th of October, in 1865; and at the age
of thirty- 'he shot himself: on May 24th,
1896. His father, D. Ricardo Silva, was a
cultivated man, whose friends were poets
and savants, journalists, orators, or else
connoisseurs of literature. Jorge Isaacs
was a familiar of the house. The literary
atmosphere of Bogota, as recalled by those



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who breathed it, in the last quarter of the
nineteenth century, suggests that of Edin-
burgh in the first. Don Ricardo himself
wrote little essays of which his club thought
well. He was a man of taste, and appar-
ently of heart: his son was to mourn him.
Brought up in the best society of Bogota,
educated like other gentlemen's sons, now
at one school and now at another, and at
last quitting school definitively because of
his interest in books, Jose w^ent to France
on a journey with his father which had
business as its excuse but resulted in a
swifter and richer maturing of his genius
than if he had been sent there to study.
To Paris in those days all South America,
like Italy, like England, looked for ideals of
art, for idols in letters, for the wind of in-
spiration, whereby the Muse became a
P3rthoness. He made the acquaintance
and felt the^^power of Jean Richepin, but
the strongest influence upon his style was
less any one man's than, rather, that of a
school, the Symholiste. He came home not
so much changed as formed.

He will have been what old women call



AND MONOGRAPHS



and travel



IV



A gentle
child



A CITIZEN OF



A good son
and brother



a nursery child; not unkind to tlie dolls,
or alien to his little sister's pleasure at
bringing in a cocoon and laying it up to
wait for the butterfly; content with the
fairy-tale and the singing-game, satisfied
with books, hushed and exalted by the First
Commuaiaji»r Certain poems are steeped
in the atmo^^ere of a sheltered life at
home, the warm sweetness and safety of
the nursery, the lamp-light, the drawn cur-
tain, and the far-off sounds from the
street. »

He was about twenty-three when Don
Ricardo died, leaving his affairs in a sad
state, and Jose as eldest son took up the
business in the hope of paying off the
debts. His mother's beauty and brilliancy
and worldly gifts, the rare loveliness and
charm of his sister Elvira, the Httle ones,
still in the nursery, for the three brothers
in between had died in infancy — all these
were but so many irresistible demands upon
him, constituted rights for so many help-
less people. Thenceforth he looked on his
literary preoccupations as a sort of criminal
vice, to be hidden from all but his friends.



IV



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THE TWILIGHT



In this episode of the business and its
matter of course, appears a trait entirely
American, setting him off from others of
his temperament whose tragical lives were
determined by their troubled spirits,
Leopardi and James Thomson. Only in
our hemisphere may a man combine the
functions of a shopkeeper and a gentleman.
Leopardi was a man of rank, and though
he was much put to it at times for means
of subsistence, he could earn none except
by teaching or writing; Thomson was bom
in the lower middle class and could not be
admitted to the conversation or personal
consideration of what are technically called
gentlemen; but Silva. like his father,
moved among the best people, in a capital,
while dealing in dry goods and notions.
"Out of the necessities of his trade he drew
material for romance, and the list of his
importations reads like what came to Solo-
mon in the ships of Hiram king of Tyre:
silks from Jirganor, jars from China,
Murano glass, Atkinson's perfumes, and
Lalique jew^ellery.

His poems meanwhile were handed



A shop-
keeper



AND MONOGRAPHS



IV



A poet



Personal
charm



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about in manuscript, copied, recopied, and
miscopied; learned by heart, recited, and
repeated, as fast as written, in the literary
clubs of Bogota. Some came out in news-
papers and provincial Illustrated Weeklies,
some were never published and were re-
constructed after his death from scraps of
paper and half-forgotten recollections in
the memory of his intimates.

Like Tennyson, Silva himself could re-
member and recite what he had composed:
his voice was fine with rare beauty of
timbre, his cadences were rich and well
adapted, the magic of his poetry was ex-
traordinary. He had, moreover, great
personal charm, with the especial friendly
and gentle grace which is confined usually
to those who have been delicate as chil-
dren, or for some reason have needed more
care and caressing than most — the indis-
position to hurt anything alive. Personal
beauty as marked as Byron's but graver,
appears in his portrait and in reminiscence
of him. The great pale brow, the great
chestnut beard, the great luminous eyes,
are all romantic and maladif. He was ex-



BRYN MAWR NOTES



THE TWILIGHT



pressly fashioned, as his friend Sanin Cano
was to say, for an exquisite instrument of
suffering. The sister nearest to his own
age seems to have suppHed in these years
what he most craved, the complete under-
standing, the intimacy, in a certain sense
the protection, rarely to be found except
within the bounds of kindred. Some other
experience he had at this time of what the
name of love also includes: "a sordid busi-
ness in which he became, against his will,
the central figure. " but which left him im-
spoiled.

The handful of poems that are called
GotasAmargas, Bitter Drops, which were
the outcome chiefly of the experience, he
would never consent to print, but indeed
they contain nothing that he needed to
regret, except youth. Grossness is not
there, coarseness is rare, and, like a boy's
smoking, studied rather than instinctive.
Throughout his short time of working, the
verses upon sentimental themes are aloof,
ironic, and indifferent. It would almost
appear that the only love he knows in a
strength which can be called passion, is



The hearth



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8



Fin de siicle



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that of kindred: mother and daughter,
brother and sister, betrothed or wedded
lovers. The sanctity of the hearth is over
all. Even in the Gotas A mar gas the sa-
tirical impulse very soon yields to the
mere malady of living; his Lazarus, who
when the Saviour raised him had wept for
joy, four months later was found in the
place of tombs, weeping alone and envying
the dead.

The malady of the century's end was his.
"When you come at your last hour, to
your last lodging," so he concludes a long-
ish piece, finely chiselled, called Philos-
ophies, "you will feel the killing anguish
of having done nothing." ' 'It would be a
mistake, however, to diagnose this disease
as the same with Leopardi's; it is not the
futility of accomplishment which besets
him, but the impossibility. As his doctor
pronounces in El Mai de Siglo, *'What ails
you is hunger" — the famished need for all
that is out of reach and then, furthermore,
for all that the constitution of this par-
ticular world denies. "Sacrifice yourself
to art, combine, refine, carve, toil on.



BRYN MAWR NOTES



THE TWILIGHT



strive, and into the labour that is kiUing
you — canvas, bronze or poem — put your
essence, your nerves, your whole soul.
Terrible vain emprize! The day after to-
morrow your work will be out of fashion."
The trouble here lies not in the nature of
things but in the perversity of life.

What ailed him was hunger. Like other
young men of parts, ardent and ambitious,
he was dazzled and dizzied by the un-
guessed possibilities of the universe. The
immense spectacle of human knowledge, of
modern science, of speculative thought,
burst upon him; and for him as for how
many, Herbert Spencer's First Principles
was like the draught of Lucretius. As they
overpassed the flaming ramparts of the
world, as they watched the atoms drop-
ping through the void and saw the stars
whirling through infinitude, as they felt the
enormous cosmical process knit up into
worlds and dissolve again through recur-
rent eternities, the burning concepts
scorched the brain, the swelling appre-
hensions with which it ached "made havoc
among those tender cells." Like his



The cosmic
spectacle



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IV



10



Sudden
death



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friends, who, what with books and what
with talk, had come to this new Ught, had
shared with him this all but intolerable
initiation, he had to unlearn old notions
and acquire new ones. Others took it
lightlier. In their study, as one of them
says, they gained, in default of other
knightly discipline, a diversion and a noble
aim. He plunged into Herbert Spencer
and foimd, or fancied, that he must learn
mechanics, natural history, chemistry,
ethnography and the exact sciences. What
for his companions was an orgy of acquisi-
tion, was tortiire for him; Business pressed
him, his family claimed him, and society,
and life.

Misfortune was to come again: suddenly,
in a January night, his sister died of a
malady of the heart. When she was
dressed for the grave, he covered her body
with lilies and roses, drenching it with per-
fume, and turned every one else out of the
room except a single friend. As he stayed
there long in silence, in the very profound
of grief he found his anodyne.

Then he was for a time Secretary of



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Online LibraryGeorgiana Goddard KingA citizen of the twilight, José Asuncion Silva → online text (page 1 of 2)