Biographical sketch of
José María Heredia y Heredia
Outstanding figure of the Cuban literature
by Armando Palma Laterrade
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.
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.
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…”.
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”:
they moan everywhere the trees
while the cruel wind hit them. No alive being
is seen in the land.
is reining; and desolation, and the stiffed world
suffering the tyranny of winter.
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…?
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.
villain traitors the tyrant serve,
useless shall be their viciousness.
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.
and divided in two volumes, a second publication of his poetry appeared in
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:
they arrive … jump … Horrific
the abyss devours the falling torrents
crossed by thousand iris; and deafened
the forest returns the tremendous clamour.
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.
beautiful is the land
where the valiant Aztecs dwell!
in a narrow zone of its bosom;
with amazement all climates existing
from Pole to Equator, are seen.
golden grain fields,
delicious canes are growing.
suns of the equinoctial ground,
mix with luxuriant vine, wild pine;
and from Minerva, the majestic tree.
is covering the heads
of Iztaccihual, so pure; and Orizaba
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.
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.
arrives now … Don’t you see?
see how he displays
a scaring and majestic mantle … !
the airs, I greet you
confusion the wind shakes
the borders of the grey vesture…
rumor? Is this the rain …?
that loosed falls torrentially, darkening the world;
and all becomes confusion, horror profound,
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.
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.
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
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)
In Cuba, the
origin of the literature goes back to the arrival of the Spaniards, in October,
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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
Cintio Vitier begin the third
lection in his book Cuban performance in Poetry --
already mentioned in this paper – with the words:
of his lyric gifts, culture and patriotic sensibility, José María
Heredia (1803-1839) is our first accomplished poet …
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.”
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
version by Mariette Cirerol
See bibliography and a picture of José M. Heredia in the Spanish version