“Modernismo: A literary movement that arose in Spanish America in the late 19th century and was subsequently transmitted to Spain, In their quest for pure poetry, the modernists displayed a dazzling technical virtuosity and technical perfection that revolutionized Spanish literature.

According to some critics, the publication of Jose Marti’s Ismaelillo (1882) marks the beginning of the movement. Others assert that, while Marti exerted enormous influence on Spanish-American writing and thought, his poetry is so individual that he cannot be considered even a precursor of modernism. There is no disagreement, however, as to the dominant role of Ruben Dario, whose work defined and stimulated modernism in America and in Spain. The publication of his Azul (1888) is sometimes said to signify the birth of modernism, and Prosas profanas (1896) is held to show modernism at its zenith. Other early modernist poets (often considered precursors of this movement) were Manuel Gutierrez Najera, Jose Ascuncion Silva, and Julian del Casal, the Cuban. Modernists of the later, post-1896 phase include Leopoldo Lugones, Jose Enrique Rodo, Julio Herrera y Reissig, Jose Santo Chocano, Amado Nervo, and Rufino Blanco Fombona.

In rebellion against romanticism, from which, however, they were not always able to free themselves, the modernists drew their initial inspiration and technique from European, particularly French, sources. From French Parnassians and symbolists, such as Gautier, Coppee, and Verlaine, came their pessimism and melancholy, their belief in art for art’s sake, their zeal for technical excellence and musicality, their love of exotic imagery and a vocabulary in which swans (one of Dario’s favorite symbols), peacocks, gems, and palaces abound. Another distinctive characteristic of the modernists was their unceasing experimentation with old and new verse forms, In their desire to escape from the sordidness of reality, the early modernists usually shunned political and native themes. Their successors, however, inspired no doubt by impassioned verses that Dario hurled at Theodore Roosevelt in his ode to Argentina, turned increasingly to American subjects, as exemplified by Chocano’s Alma America (1906). In prose writing, particularly the essay, modernismo fostered a new simplicity and elegance, the finest examples of which are to be found in the works of Rodo.”

Excerpted from: Murphy, Bruce, ed. Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

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