José Gautier Benítez: Life of an Iconic Romantic Poet

El Adoquín Times on 19th century Puerto Rican lyrical poet José Gautier Benítez (April 12, 1848-January 24, 1880). [Through the years, there has been some discrepancy about his birthdate.]

José Gautier Benítez (1851-1880) was the chief representative of the second period of Romanticism in Puerto Rico. His poems—mainly inspired by the poet Spanish Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer—are characterized by a sentimental sophistication concerning the themes of love, homeland, and death. As a journalist, he wrote in the framework of liberal reformist ideals.

José Gautier Benítez was born in Caguas, son of Rodolfo Gautier y de Castro and Alejandrina Benítez y de Arce. José was encouraged by his mother to pursue his love for poetry. Both his mother and his aunt, María Bibiana Benítez—considered the first female poet on the island—were poets; when his father died in 1856, he was taken in by his mother and his sisters and became involved in literary and political activities at their home in Old San Juan. His first attempt at poetry was made as a child in the poem “A la llegada de las Hermanas de la Caridad” [On the Arrival of the Sisters of Charity], written to commemorate the event.

To support his mother and his sisters, he chose a military career. In 1865, in his third year, he entered the military academy in the capital. He graduated in 1868 and joined the garrison sent to quell the Lares rebellion. By 1870, he moved to Madrid to receive further military training and reached the rank of infantry captain. In 1869, he was assigned to the military academy of the capital, and in 1870, he was assigned to the military academy of the city of Madrid. Later, while visiting relatives, he met his niece Cecilia Benítez, whom he married in January 1874. He then settled on the farm “La Alejandrina” in Caguas to dedicate himself to agriculture.

Two years later, his sisters Camelia and Josefa died of tuberculosis. The poet wrote several poems for La Crónica de Ponce. That year, a hurricane hit the island and devastated the Benítez family farm in Caguas. José then took refuge in literature and in 1878 he founded, together with Manuel de El Sable, La Revista Puertorriqueña. He also suffered from tuberculosis and his condition worsened after the death of his mother.

José Gautier Benítez also worked as a journalist for publications such as El Progreso and La Revista Puertorriqueña, but his prose is sparse. Nevertheless, he made a great impression with a series of articles entitled Cuadros Sociales, signed with the pseudonym “Gustavo” and aimed at harshly criticizing the colonial environment. [. . .] The poet seemed destined to follow the path of his literary model Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer.

A wonderful lyrical poet, Gautier Benítez wrote about friendship, love, homeland, and death. He was Puerto Rico’s foremost post-romantic poet, reaching true romantic fervor in the poems “A Puerto Rico” and “La barca.” Other titles like “Insomnia,” “Mi flor de un día,” and “Dios” reflect different aspects of his romantic themes. He has also translated into French works by Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi and Polish poet Adam Bernard Mickiewicz.

Gautier Benítez’s poetry is representative of late Romanticism during the second half of the 19th century, as it emphasizes subjectivity, individuality, and a passionate love for women and the homeland. In addition to Bécquer, he received influences from various other poets, such as the [Romantic] Spanish poet José de Espronceda. His journalistic work was overshadowed by his satirical poems, in which he criticized political and social issues in Puerto Rico.

This sentiment is expressed in a vivid eight-part poem titled “A Puerto Rico,” in which the poet laments his past indifference and, in a way, apologizes to his beloved and distant homeland. Moreover, his stay in Spain left a deep mark on his soul. The poems “Ausencia” and “Retorno” reflect lyrically on these events in his life.

In 1879, already quite ill with tuberculosis, he won one of the first literary prizes, awarded by the Puerto Rican Athenaeum [Ateneo Puertorriqueño], for “A Puerto Rico.” At this time that he expressed his commitment to the theme of death in the poems “Insomnio,” “Apariencias,” and “Renacimiento,” which reveal traces of pre-modernism. Gautier Benítez died on January 24, 1880, in San Juan. After his death, his friend Manuel de Elzaburu published Poesías, a selection of poems gathering all his lyrical work. [. . .]

Excerpts translated by Ivette Romero. For full, original article, see https://www.eladoquintimes.com/2023/01/08/jose-gautier-benitez-la-vida-del-poeta-icono-del-romanticismo-en-puerto-rico/

[Photo of José Gautier Benítez from Archivo General de Puerto Rico/Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña.]

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