Colombia’s most celebrated poet was born in Bogotá, into a rich family, and after a pampered although unhappy childhood, led a tormented life. He was additionally morbidly sensitive and this, along with his difficult life, inspired his melancholy poetry, collected and published after his death. His partly autobiographical novel De sobremesa (After-Dinner Chat) was also published posthumously. Silva had great influence on Latin American poetry during his lifetime. The third of his ‘Nocturnes’ is one of the most famous poems in the Spanish language.
“By nature and family sturdy and good-looking, but ghostly pale, of exquisite manners, great human and artistic sensibility, a lucid intelligence, a seductive verbal fluency, and an armoured dignity.” This is how Gabriel García Márquez describes Colombia’s best-loved poet. García Márquez also mentions Silva’s “precocious literary formation” — his father was a wealthy merchant and good writer who had an excellent library and held literary gatherings in his luxurious home — and his “almost supernatural facility for languages”.
Silva was not happy at school in the isolated, melancholy, and provincial Bogotá. His classmates envied his intelligence and mocked his manners and his appearance. He was already a dandy at a precocious age. At twelve, he wore a velvet suit, leather gloves, bouffant silk ties, a silver watch hanging from a gold chain, and he had an ivory case for his visiting cards. Naturally, he was given a nickname that stuck: ‘José Presunción’ (José Presumption). But there was another more powerful reason for the sadness that would impregnate his poetry. Death haunted his family; an uncle had committed suicide, his paternal grandfather had been murdered, and at ten, when he wrote his first poem, he had witnessed the deaths of three of his five siblings.
At nineteen, the poet travelled to Paris where he read voraciously and is said to have visited Mallarmé. He returned eleven months later, laden with books and ever more a dandy, praising the decadent symbolists for their cult of death, aristocratic outlook, tendency to suggest rather than name, use of words for their sound value, excessive self-analysis, and mystical idealism. Inspired by Poe, he thought that the “final achievement of a poet, would be a perfect music”. However, he rejected the “artificial paradises”, and the complex suggestions and images of some symbolists and Parnassians. He experimented with innovative rhythms in order to better express his intimate, emotional experience but his poetic style remained unaffected and natural.
During his absence, a civil war had been fought, gravely affecting his father’s business. On his death, a year later, Silva became the legal head of his family and had to face, with very little money, fifty-one lawsuits of a bankruptcy proceeding. During this time, he published very few poems. These were years of great suffering in the small city, stifled as he was by its atmosphere, “most propitious for madness” according to a critic friend of his, and a victim of the derision of envious machistas who took his elegance and refinement for effeminateness.
Another great misfortune was the death, in 1891, of his beloved sister Elvira. It is said that he had an incestuous fixation on her and inspired by her death wrote the third ‘Nocturne’, his most famous poem. On the basis of this and others, he became known as one of the first modernismos, the movement that, led by the Nicaraguan Rubén Darío, revolutionized poetry written in Spanish.
Adversity pursued José Asunción Silva. After a few happy months in Caracas, during which time he wrote the first draft of his curious novel, De sobremesa, he lost this and other manuscripts in a shipwreck during his return passage to Colombia. Dejected, he did not return to his diplomatic post in Venezuela, but worked feverishly on the reconstruction of his novel, and killed himself in 1896, before his thirty-first birthday.
For the Reader’s Ear
The Woodsmen of San Juan
Poesías(Poems),Editorial Maucci, Barcelona,1908.
Poesías completas(Complete Poems), Aguilar, Madrid, 1951.
Obras completas (Complete Works), Banco de la República, Bogotá, 1965.
Obras completas (Complete Works), Buenos Aires, Plus Ultra, 1968.
Poesías (Poems), Cosmos, Bogotá, 1973.
Obra completa (Complete Oeuvre), Biblioteca Ayacucho, Caracas, 1977.
Anthology of great Hispano-American poets. Gives a detailed biography and a selection of 40 of Silva’s poems.
A Media Voz
Twenty-three selected poems.
A Media Voz, Poesía de Oro
Thirteen selected poems.
Faculty of Social Sciences at University of Chile
Prose in Spanish
Fifty-two selected poems, as well as the short novel De Sobremesa.
Anthology in Spanish
The Poetry Archive
The poems, ‘Nocturne’, ‘A Poem’ and ‘The Serenade’, reprinted from Hispanic Anthology: Poems Translated from the Spanish by English and North American Poets. Ed. Thomas Walsh.