Biographical sketch of


José María Heredia y Heredia


Outstanding figure of the Cuban literature


by  Armando Palma Laterrade


(First part)


Sail has been hoisted; the wind pushed away the vessel, with José María Heredia y Heredia on board, one of the Cubans who most loved his fatherland. With the body hurt and soul destroyed, was voyaging to Mexico for the last time, who Martí said was the first poet of America.


And meanwhile the prow was cutting the gulf weaves, he was remembering his father: José Francisco Heredia, died in October 1820 in Aztec land; and how, some months after, he returned with his mother, María Mercedes Heredia Campuzano, and his four younger sisters, to live in La Havana; then in Matanzas, where he worked as a lawyer.


For Domingo del Monte, another well known Cuban, Heredia was an extraordinary poet. Applauded and admired for the gleaming of his genius, he visited, in Matanzas, together with his friend Del Monte, the literary  gathering   of   Ignacio  Valdés  Manchuca;    but he was also a conspirator at nineteen years old; he loved the liberty as much as the applauses; and because of that, he saw himself implicated in the Bolivar’s conspiracy: Soles y Rayos. His aim was to obtain Cuban independency from Spanish colonialism, but he was denounced; and, in 1823, he fled the USA to share his suffering with father Varela. Another enemy of him was the winter that hurt his lungs. That wound, added to the exile and sorrow to see Cuba remaining a Spanish slave, would part him from life some years later, in the same land where his father died.


In the USA, he admired the figure of father founder, Washington, and national politic institutions. He published his first book of poems in 1825 and a certain quantity of copies circulated in Cuba.  In 1828, Domingo del Monte asked a well known Spanish critic, Alberto Lista, to make a statement on Heredia’s poetry.  And that is what he said: “… The fire of his soul went to his verses and is transmitted to the readers, passing to form part of their sorrows and pleasures: they see the same objects with the same aspect than the poet does. He feels and paints, which are the two more important attributions of the great Homer disciples: I am saying Mister Heredia is not only a poet, but a great poet…”.


But nostalgia was hurting him; and, in front of the desolation of the land provoked by the cruel winter, he synthesized his sorrow in the following fragment of his poem “A Emilia”:


… Naked, they moan,

they moan everywhere the trees

while the cruel wind hit them. No alive being

is seen in the land.  Immense solitude

is reining; and desolation, and the stiffed world

suffering the tyranny of winter.


Is this the dwelling I have to substitute

to fields of light, pure sky,

immortal green, eternal flowers;

to the balmy air of where

first sun shined to my eyes

between sweetness and peace…?


In 1825, after staying in the USA for one year and a half, he began his voyage to Mexico and the ship passed in front of Cuban coast.  By seeing it, he composed his “Himno del desterrado” (Hymn of the exiled), a hymn for the combat, repeated by the Cubans from generation to generation, in which Heredia clamours in his ultimate strophe:


Cuba! you will be free and pure

as the luminous air you respire,

like the warm weaves you regard

kissing the sand of your beaches.

Despite villain traitors the tyrant serve,

useless shall be their viciousness.

Not in vain between Cuba and Spain

the immense sea extends its waves.


In Mexico, where he went at the request of President Guadalupe Victoria, he was journalist, professor, judge – it would be accurate to mention the post of Minister of the Audience in Toluca --, soldier, politic and poet.


Corrected and divided in two volumes, a second publication of his poetry appeared in 1832.


Heredia dazzles as poet descriptor; nobody like him has painted the Niagara with words causing so great emotion, neither translated the soul of the landscape so accurately. By contemplating the waterfall, he filled his lyre with his feelings, making his verses grow like a spring:


Though they arrive … jump … Horrific

the abyss devours the falling torrents

crossed by thousand iris; and deafened

the forest returns the tremendous clamour.

At violent hits on the cliffs

water breaks and jumps; and some clouds

of revolving vapour whirl

and cover the abyss; raise,

turn around, then up to the sky

like an immense pyramid;

and from over the forest that fence him,

the lone hunter they frighten. 1


At seventeen years old, he wrote the poem “En el teocalli de Cholula” (In the temple of Cholula); his strophes bring us in full the marvel the spectacle offers.


How beautiful is the land

where the valiant Aztecs dwell!

Concentrated in a narrow zone of its bosom;

with amazement all climates existing

from Pole to Equator, are seen.

Near the golden grain fields,

delicious canes are growing.


Orange, pineapple, banana,

suns of the equinoctial ground,

mix with luxuriant vine, wild pine;

and from Minerva, the majestic tree.

Eternal snow is covering the heads

of Iztaccihual, so pure; and Orizaba

and Popocatepetl; without winter

never touching with destructive hand,

the fertile lands that joyful

the Indian contemplate: moving

from red to golden colours, reflecting

the shining sun in Occident, serene

into eternal ice and perennial green.

He saw torrents of light boiling in life

Nature, within their sweet warm. 2


In “La Tempestad” (The Tempest), another of his great creations, it is like if next to his verses the rain would fall torrentially on us and the wind of the hurricane would carry us towards the majesty of the creation.


He arrives now … Don’t you see?

Don’t you see how he displays

a scaring and majestic mantle … !

Giant of the airs, I greet you  !

In fierce confusion the wind shakes

the borders of the grey vesture…


What rumor? Is this the rain …?

that loosed falls torrentially, darkening the world;

and all becomes confusion, horror profound,



Being deputy in Mexico, he subscribed to ideas that brought him to fight for human freedom; then, seeing the usurpation and tyranny in which general Santa Anna was plunging the population, he renounced.


A light emerged from the darkness when Heredia knew he was able to meet the benefice of an amnesty allowing him to return to his mother and visit his fatherland. He aimed all his hopes to achieve that purpose and wrote a polemic letter to Capitan General Tacón in order he let him return to Cuba; a letter in that moment disapproved by the majority of the Cubans who in former times admired him. Only Domingo del Monte received the poet in La Havana. Heredia visited his family in Matanzas and remained in Cuba from the fourth of November, 1836; to the fifteenth of January, 1837. Then, he returned, very ill, to die in the land that received him like a son; passing away on May the seventh, 1839.


These different facets, that could confound the poet’s fans on his attitude versus Spain, are only showing the transparence of his ideas and the unlimited love he had for his fatherland. From the Seminary of San Carlos, Father Varela taught the Cubans to think, with his philosophical works and the example of his life; but it was Heredia, with his poetry, who taught the Cubans to think freedom for the man as the supreme concept of all kind of liberty. It was not because of any hesitancy in his ideas he wrote that letter to Tacón; he did it to be secure from any stumble erasing what he was bequeathing to posterity.



1 – Strophe of the poem: “Niagara

2 – “En el teocalli de Cholula” (In the temple of Cholula

3 – Fragment of the poem “En una tempestad” (In a tempest)



 (Second part)


In Cuba, the origin of the literature goes back to the arrival of the Spaniards, in October, 1492.


Distinct aboriginal cultures, from Arawak origin, were dwelling on the island: Tainos, Siboneys and Guanahataboyes.  Unlike other American regions, where societies like Aztec, Maya or Inca existed -- with an economic, social and cultural development, which would leave their imprint on the nations formed after the meeting of the two worlds --, Cubans aborigines could bring very little, apart the slavery to which they were submitted, some words and agricultural products that the conquerors would incorporate to their language and diet, and that are still used in our days.


The first literary manifestations in and about Cuba, are the ones of the Spanish chroniclers. These writings are giving us a general appreciation of the life on the Island at the end of XV century and on the XVI century. Through their works, we know how almost the totality of the aborigine population disappeared in just some decades; and the fighting of Father Las Casas aiming to save the Indians from the genocide.


The first epic poem written in Cuba that is conserved appeared in 1608: Espejo de Paciencia (Miror of Patience). His author, Silvestre de Balboa, was coming from Canaries Islands and living in Puerto Príncipe. He tells us about the rescue of Bishop Juan de las Cabezas Altamirano, from Corsair Gilberto Girón, where Salvador Golomón, a black slaver, was let free for killing the corsair.  For scholars, this is a work of little poetic value.


“After Mirror of Patience, and before the first qualified first poets, versification was consisting in Cuba in rhetoric exercises, festive and satiric compositions. This last tendency would continue during the whole XVIII century and pursue in the XIX” tells Cintio Vitier, in his book: Cuban performance in Poetry”, and he follows:


“The first important nucleus of our poetry is constituted by the following poets: Manuel Justo de Rubalcava (1769-1805), Manuel de Zequeira (1764-1846) and Manuel María Pérez y Ramírez (1781-1853)”. Literary scholars of the Cuban literature consider them as poets of little imagination and incorrect compositions, who had some happy periods in their poesy and reached a certain impact in their epoch.





(Third part)


“The first poet of America is Heredia. He is the only one to have poured into verses the sublimeness, grandeur and fire of his nature. He is volcanic like its* entrails and serene like its* heights”. These words from the Apostle of Cuba, José Martí, give us a vision of how extraordinary was the figure of José María Heredia y Heredia, born on 31nce December, 1803, in Santiago de Cuba. At eight years old, he was already translating from Latin; and in the adolescence, also from French. In his childhood he composed sublime verses and read them to his parents and friends.


Cintio Vitier begin the third lection in his book Cuban performance in Poetry  -- already mentioned in this paper – with the words:


“Because of his lyric gifts, culture and patriotic sensibility, José María Heredia (1803-1839) is our first accomplished poet …

… This profound and delicate identification between his intimacy and ideals, between his emotional life and political convictions, is what makes from Heredia, without dispute, the first lyric poet of the fatherland, the first poetical invigorator of the nation as a necessity of soul”.



Note from the translator:

* I put “its” thinking entrails and heights are from Cuba.





No doubt Heredia belongs to the highest of the Cuban Literature. Not only he manifested himself as a poet, but his intellectual activity brought him to the theatre, he founded reviews, directed journals, wrote literary articles, pronounced discourses; was professor of Spanish in a New York’s college, accepted to enter in the Mexican Academy of Spanish Language, was one of the founders of the National Academy of  History in Mexico, etc. …


Enrique Piñeyro, who was one of the best literary critics in the XIX century, told us referring to Heredia: “Calling him the first poet of America would perhaps be adventurous and could provoke unnecessary comparisons; but we do not vacillate affirming that we do not know another bard, in the North or in the South, that would climb higher than he did in his best moments: Bryant or Longfellow, Bello or Olmedo could not consider themselves superior to him.”


So much has already been written about Heredia, that to do it today would be a repetition of what about his life and work was told by many admirers and scholars, from the XIX century to our days. My intention in this very brief biographical sketch, means no more than to present an outline of the figure of one of the principal poets of Cuba; and, as Martí said, to: “… remember he was a son of Cuba, the bard whose lips issued some of the more beautiful accents ever modulated by human voice, …”.


                                                  Author: Armando Palma Laterrade

                                                                                  English version by Mariette Cirerol


See bibliography and a picture of José M. Heredia in the Spanish version