Spanish poet Jorge Guillén is accompanied by his second wife Irene in a photo taken in the 1970s.
An old legend at the English Cemetery in Malaga says that the last person to be buried there becomes the guardian of the other souls until the next burial comes along. In February 1984, the cemetery received possibly its most acclaimed and revered guardian yet in Spanish poet Jorge Guillén.
Born in Valladolid, Guillén was described by Jorge Luis Borges, a fellow poet and critic, as “beyond dispute the greatest living Spanish poet”. His often-challenging work describes jubilantly the world and nature; later poems would however also include scathing critiques of society and Franco.
His magnum opus, Cántico (1928), is a collection of joyful poetry which was revised and added to numerous times by its author. A perfectionist, it took him until he was 35 to release a collection of his own but following Cántico the poet became more consistent and prolific.
Other acclaimed collections written by Guillén such as Clamor (1957) and Homenaje (1967) would follow, the latter showing Guillén reflecting on his personal life while still maintaining the wonder at the beauty of the universe so characteristic of his work.
The instant acclaim of his poetry led to Guillén becoming a key member of the ‘Generation of ‘27’, a prestigious group of Spanish avant-garde poets whose prominence peaked around the late-1920s.
The movement was curtailed by the Spanish Civil War with many of the poets including Guillén going into exile. Their influence waned in the following years as their tendency to write more abstractly couldn’t relate to the bleak reality Franco’s authoritarian rule brought.
During the Franco era
Guillén himself was a victim of the new autocratic system being implemented during the Spanish Civil War, the poet being briefly imprisoned in Pamplona in 1936.
His work during Franco’s dictatorship became more and more politically charged, something that was rarely seen in his earlier work. Guillén suggested that the joyful nature of his early work was due to how happy he felt in Valladolid. “Everything I know I learnt there including language and my feelings towards life,” he said when talking about his city of birth.
He studied in Madrid and Granada and, following his exile, became a lecturer in the USA, being invited in 1958 to teach at Harvard University.
In 1976, Guillén received the Cervantes prize, the highest literary prize in Spain. Giving the award to Guillén symbolised Spain’s attempt to embrace those poets who were exiled during Franco’s reign, the dictator having died just a year earlier. Spain’s delicate transition to democracy was enough to persuade Guillén to return to his homeland.
Guillén moved to Malaga to live quietly for the final seven years of his life. He had previously visited Malaga and Torremolinos during a sabbatical year and came to visit his good friend and professor, Antonio A. Gómez Yebra, often in the years which followed the move.
He bought a flat on the Paseo de la Farola with his wife Irene. Guillén settled well in the area saying that “Malagueños excite me”. In 1980 Malaga’s town council decided to make the poet an ‘adoptive son’ of the city just before the University of Malaga gave him an honorary doctorate.
He died in Malaga in 1984 at the age of 91. The inevitability of death which he wrote so vividly about in his work Aire Nuestro (1968) had finally caught up with him.
He is buried in the English Cemetery alongside his second wife, their graves being simple and of a slate-grey colour. It is not known why a Spaniard who was born and raised a Roman Catholic would want to be buried in a cemetery intended to bury non-Roman Catholics. Guillén was a secretive man whose work was coded and subtle. The reason behind the burial has most likely been lost with him.
The cemetery is located very close to where Guillén lived and the reason behind the decision could be as simple as the cemetery pleased Guillén aesthetically.
It is said at the cemetery however that the real reason behind Guillén’s burial there is that he was an atheist and therefore didn’t want to be buried in a cemetery associated with the Roman Catholic Church. His collection ‘Clamor’ touches on the idea of atheism and the sadness that it brings but Guillén is never explicit in renouncing his faith.
Whether Guillén abandoned Christianity or not, it only adds to the enigma and complexity surrounding one of Malaga’s most admired adoptive sons.