The more I learn about the dapper dude on the front of the 5,000 Colombian Pesos note, the more I identify with him. First of all, just look at that beard. That is something to aspire to. I mean, he’s gotta be up pretty high on the rankings of Poets by Beard Weight. The languid sweep of his moustache ends; the definition; the sheer audacious heft of the beard – well, I’m a little proud of my manifestation of the Friendly Muttonchops, but Jose’s triumphant facial hair is something else again. He won me over with this feature of his existence alone.
Hearing that he also was a poet just made me want to learn more. To learn that a typical costume for him at the age of twelve consisted of “a velvet suit, leather gloves, bouffant silk tie, a silver watch hanging from a gold chain, and an ivory case for his visiting cards,” I must admit I went into barely contained raptures. This is a man – even when still a boy – with STYLE. Just imagine it: amongst the grimy rough and tumble of Bogota in the 1870s – a city nothing like the cosmopolitan “Athens of Latin America” it would later become – struts this melancholy, bearded dandy, wondering exactly how he came to be in such a place.
Such dandyism came at a cost. Most people in Bogota in the second half of the nineteenth century were more interested in making a buck to survive in this remote frontier town; and not so much about the metrical techniques of Victor Hugo or just how best to trim a moustache. I can feel his pain – returning to the Australian country town of my youth in red check pants, purple paisley shirt, green hat and black and white two-toned shoes afforded me some fairly outraged stares from the good farming people of rural South Australia.
But enough of me. After a trip to Europe to visit the bohemian Paris that haunted his youth (and reportedly hanging with Mallarme), Jose returned home, dandier than ever, and felt even more out of place. Accustomed to the death of those around him from an early age; it was the death of his father that forced his return, as he had to take over the family business and associated debts. Another tragedy would give our bearded hero a savage blow: his (possibly almost creepily) beloved sister, Elvira passed away, robbing Jose of his closest confidante. After finding it impossible to sort out the mess left behind, he took a post in Caracas for a few months. On his return to Bogota, he survived a shipwreck. Sadly, most of his written work wasn’t so lucky: he lost the bulk of his manuscripts in the wreck. All of these disasters took their toll on our man, who was already predisposed to melancholy. Not being able to sleep, he went to a doctor, and, during the visit, and somewhat out of the blue, he asked his obliging doctor to mark the exact position of his heart on his chest.
The next morning, just before his 31st birthday, the man with the glorious beard would be found dead in his bed, a bullet piercing his heart with brutal accuracy.
OK; so maybe I don’t aspire to all his achievements. Sure; the clothes, the beard, the poetry – oh yeah: he just happened to write influential, haunting, innovative poetry, too – all of these things are worthy of admiration and emulation. Maybe not the early death thing, though.
Right in the heart of La Candelaria stands Jose Asuncion’s final home. It’s now called the Silva House of Poetry, and is well worth the visit. Apart from memorabilia from this first of Colombian poets, there are also photos and manuscripts from a selection of the legion of the poets that would follow in his wake. On the wall facing the street, someone has scrawled “One night,/One night all full of murmurs…” in Spanish; the beginning of his most famous poem, “Nocturne III,” which is thought to be in part an elegy to his beloved sister. A fitting salute to one of the finest dandies of all time.