Milanés, a small man inside a frock coat

On the poet’s bicentennial.

A few years ago a monument to poet José Jacinto Milanés (1814-1863) was placed just in front of the Matanzas cathedral. For passers-by he has always been a very small man, something like a child dressed in a large frock coat. What is curious is that the stories of literature have not taken the trouble of denying that image, which has accompanied him until the year of his bicentennial.

For the practical men of his time José Jacinto was a fragile man who was not pragmatic, who never was aware that he formed part of a family that had many children and where money was in short supply. Despite this, he did not know how to use the influence of his uncle-in-law, Don Simón Ximeno, who got him a job in his mercantile office in Matanzas, afterward in a Havana hardware store and lastly in the railroad company of his birthplace. On the other hand, he let himself be seduced by Domingo del Monte and the members of his gatherings and dedicated his scarce good sense to writing poems, dramas and vernacular articles. To top it off, he had the little social tact of sustaining for a decade a marriage engagement with Miss Dolores Rodríguez Valera, to break it in the end, full of a senseless passion for the daughter of his benefactor, his cousin Isabel Ximeno Fuentes. Unrequited in that effort, he sank into the shadows of madness, with brief improvements and long relapses, until his death in 1863.

He was frequently reprimanded in the offices where he worked, because he placed in the hateful accounting registries the Tesoro del Pamaso español by Quintana or a comedy by Lope de Vega, or if instead of copying numbers and reflecting memorials he translated some verses by Victor Hugo or by Ariosto. He was self-taught, with a special sensitivity for letters and none for accounting.

In the strict sense of the word his literary career lasted barely seven years, from 1836, when he started visiting the literary gatherings of Domingo del Monte in Havana and concluded in 1843, when his first major nervous breakdown took place. He extended his readings of classic literature and of the authors of the Spanish Golden Centuries in the library of that cultural animator.

Something was set off inside him when he started sending continuous poetic collaborations not just to the Matanzas daily La Aurora, but also to the Havana magazines El Albúm, El Plantel and La Cartera cubana. The biggest of his endeavours was the writing of the drama El Conde Alarcos, based on an anonymous romance that had already served as inspiration for Lope and Mia de Amescua. The play was premiered in the Tacón Theatre on September 11, 1838, with considerable public success. It was a denunciation of the arbitrariness of the Spanish feudal honour and replaced the conventional neoclassical eloquence with an exorbitant romanticism. The production unleashed a controversy about the aesthetic ideas of its author, especially between Ramón de Palma, fearful of the influence in Cuba of the European romantic, and Antonio Bachiller y Morales, a fervent defender of the new style.

What is interesting is that the playwright refused to attend the premier of his work and that the environment generated around it caused in him a strong nervous crisis. According to his relative Dolores María de Ximeno, he received 11 ounces of gold for the production. But his theatre career would be very brief: the drama Un poeta en la corte, concluded in 1839, was attacked by the censorship and it was only represented six years later – in addition, it did not have the force or reach of Alarcos. To this would be added the dramatic proverb A Buena hambre no hay pan duro and the playful comedy Ojo a la finca. The vernacular portraits in verse titled El Mirón cubano could also be considered. Milanés had provided Cuban culture with a battle for romanticism as occurred around Victor Hugo’s Hernani in Paris, but his theatre career was as ephemeral as his literary career.

In his poetry, José Jacinto knows how to use the freshness of the old Spanish collection of ballads and the popular fluidity  of Lope to leave behind the cold and conventional tone of neoclassicism, from which at certain times other great figures of the island’s poetry like Heredia, Avellaneda and Plácido did not free themselves. His adhesion to romanticism was not theoretical and reflexive like in the case of Bachiller y Morales, but spontaneous and free. That explains that he doesn’t feel comfortable in the emphatic ode to the civic event and much less in the praises to monarchs or nobility of the tropics. His verses are reserved for nature, for the feminine ideal, for the love to the elevated and intangible. In his poetry, which fits in a single volume, there is a very authentic intimism, together with a sort of localism, which not only contributes to his meagre biography, but also means a special capacity for observation of his environment to make poetry flourish where others only discover the daily prose.

If in Heredia nature is associated almost always with his majestic side (the ocean, the waterfall), in Milanés, surrounded by the Yumurí Valley, the bucolic atmosphere of the Cuban countryside predominates, as well as a special capacity to personify what he sees.

The critique that came after his death has strongly labelled an area of his creation, the one that comprises texts with a moralistic purpose: “La ramera,” “La madre impura,” “El poeta envilecido” – the latter has unleashed many controversies regarding its possible dedication to Plácido – and “El mendigo.” They pay tribute to an erroneous concept that Domingo del Monte wanted to impose on the poets of his circle: the need to moralise European romanticism, since for this intellectual, for example, there was negative side in the Byron of Don Juan that should not be imitated in the nascent Cuban literature, rather it had to contribute to reorganising society with criticism of the customs. However, it cannot be denied that even with these limitations, some of those poems have a powerful effect. Such is the case of “El mendigo,” where Milanés uses his resource as a playwright: the image of the beggar who is denied alms at the entrance to the dance takes over his conscience and already in the solitude of his bedroom becomes a horrific vision. This poem is one of the best translations of the obsessions that disturbed his mind way before his final entry into dementia.

It is not strange that the poet was fascinated by the ballet functions of Fanny Elssler in Cuba in 1842. The pure, incorporeal being was before his eyes, almost incapable of touching the ground. That explains why he dedicated two love poems to the Austrian dancer, a sonnet in Spanish and “A la misma,” formed by seven Alexandrian quartets in French. In the sonnet he expresses the elegance and weightlessness of the sylph, which is more an ideal than a woman.

That same year he wrote another sonnet, “A ida,” dedicated to the cousin, who, without aiming to, became the object of his definitive obsession. It is not one of his best achieved texts, but the final verse moves us, while a look at the rest of his life allows us to confirm that the writer was not pronouncing a conventional phrase when he affirmed: “It is always time to love only you!.” That was a sort of definitive sentence.

The best known poem by Milanés is the song “La fuga de la tórtola,” which has been included throughout several generations not only in anthologies, but also in school books. In the five quintets of the text the author achieves a purely poetic environment, the flight of the bird is sung with musicality and a notable absence of rhetoric, be it that coming from the neoclassical tradition or the one from foreign romanticism. It is undeniable that the creator deluges in the treasure of the old popular Spanish poetry, but he has been able to Cubanise his expression, make its language somewhat different from that of the Spanish colleagues, when he calls the turtledove “red-feet runaway slave,” when he includes among the dangers it must avoid “the cautious jubo snake from the woods,” we perceive that with such slight brushstrokes he can achieve a truly Cuban text. Is it true that, as we were told at school, it was a separatist poem, an invitation to act like a runaway slave and the insurrection? Perhaps it was, but Milanés was creating the foundations for a diverse way of approaching what is ours.

These virtues go on in those “Cuban glosses” which he included in the volume Los cantantes del montero, published in Matanzas in 1841, and which also include verses by his brother Federico. The absolutely easygoing tone corresponds to a country atmosphere viewed with love and complicity. The naive farmer girls dancing in the guateque, the farmer playing the tres, the lover who wants to tell his troubles to the girl, the autochthonous flora and fauna from the island like an ideal framework for the idyll that parades before our eyes. The language gains a very visual ductility, the music is in the air.

Unknowingly, the poet is taking to great heights that poetry of a farmer theme cultivated before him by other poets like Vélez Herrera and Pobeda, but which has gained with him an authenticity that will only be equalled in the following generation by Juan Cristóbal Nápoles Fajardo, El Cucalambé. His air is that of the Marquis of Santillana and of Lope when he glosses a popular romance in the monologue of “La niña sola.”

Milanés’ poetry grows in stature to the extent that he abandons all the will to exterior grandeur to stop in the apparently minor. Cintio Vitier has affirmed in Poetas cubanos del siglo XIX that: “The morning, naive, clean Milanés will always be the strongest.” Curiously, those scarce trips, his forceful roots to his birthplace, give a special flavour to his writing and it even influences the very image of his context, which is why Martí was able to speak of a Matanzas “as sad as the heart of Milanés.” The small poet inside his frock coat of an intellectual conserves his importance two centuries after his birth. (2014)

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