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By Gabriel Mistral
Translated by Langston Hughes
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957
119 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
April 2014


Gabriel Mistral was born in 1889 as Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga . However, she worried that her strongly emotional poetry would damage her career as a teacher so she chose a pseudonym. She chose Gabriel after the archangel and Mistral, the sea wind, thus becoming Gabriel Mistral.

She was from a small Chilean village. She was in love but her lover committed suicide and she wrote her first series of poems. She was soon well-known. She was first published in 1922.

Langston Hughes chose the poems for this volume:

“. . . I have selected from the various books those poems relating to children, motherhood, and love, including the famous Poem of the Son and Prayer written during her period of complete desolation…”

In addition to her writing poetry she had many different posts in educational institutions and also worked in diplomatic service in various places in the world.

She won the Nobel Prize in 1945 and died in 1954. In the Nobel Prize citation for her we read:

“From her maternal hand this poet offers us her potion, which has the savor of earth and which quenches the thirst of the heart. It is a part of that source that flowed from the Isles of Greece for Sappho and for Gabriela Mistral in the valley of the Elqui the source of poetry that never dries up on the earth.”


The book opens with short poems called “Cradle Songs” from her book DESOLATION. This section has 14 short poems in which 13 of them speak of a male child and only one, “Fear,” speaks of a female child. In that poem she worries that the world will turn her child into a princess, hidden away in an artificial life away from everyday life. The poet mother doesn’t want that.

The selected poems in the whole volume must be close to 50% about children, yet only 4 or 5 of the children mentioned in these poems are girls. There must be a nearly 10 to 1 ratio of male to female children. Curious. Some of this is because there are a lot of Christ-child references, but there is more than that going on here. I’m not sure what.

It is also interesting to note that she never had a child herself.

The second section, Poems for Mothers, is 17 selections also from DESOLATION. Along the way of this section Gabriela Mistral offers this prose comment:

“One afternoon, walking through a poor street in Temuco, I saw a quite ordinary woman sitting in the doorway of her hut. She was approaching childbirth, and her face was heavy with pain. A man came by and flung at her an ugly phrase that made her blush. At that moment I felt toward her all the solidarity of our sex, the infinite pity of one woman for another, and I passed on thinking, ‘One of us must proclaim (since men have not done so) the sacredness of this painful yet divine condition. If the mission of art is to beautify all in an immensity of pity, why have we not, in the eyes of the impure, purified this?’ So I wrote these poems with an almost religious meaning.”

The short section, “For the Saddest of Mothers” there are only two poems, both profoundly sad. One is of an unwed mother rejected by her family and the child neglected by the father. She speaks very powerfully of women going through childbirth and motherhood without support of family, friends or husband.

In the section GRAIN DIVINE is the poem “Prayer.” It is a fantastic poem in which she pleads, begs and cajoles God for forgiveness for the man whom she so loved, but who so grievously sinned against the mother who bore his child. I suspected this might well be a poem about her own lover who committed suicide.

She tells us that she worked with children in lieu of raising her own children.

The poem “Richness” seems to me to catch the essence of her poetry. Her joy for and with her world is there, but also tempered by her loss of love. I quote this late poem in full:


I have a true happiness
and a happiness betrayed,
the other like a thorn.
To that taken from me
I was not betrothed;
I have a true happiness
and a happiness betrayed.
And I am rich in purple
and rich in melancholy.
How well loved the rose!
And what a lover the thorn!
Like a double image
of fruits that are twins,
I have a true happiness
and a happiness betrayed.

Over all I found the earlier poems, while a good deal repetitive in theme, to be the most powerful of the selected poems. I did enjoy some of the variety of the later selections which move a bit away from poems of children.

It is a book of poetry well worth reading, and the level of her passion is amazing.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett