The masculine resonance of the Castilian tongue, like the melodious grace of Tuscan Italian, lent itself willingly to music and rhyme; and the spirit of the people responded more congenially to poetry than to prose. Poets were as plentiful as priests. In his Laurel of Apollo (1630), Lope de Vega described a feast and joust of poetry, where, in his fancy, the three hundred poets of contemporary Spain fought for the laurel crown. Such poetical contests were almost as popular with the people as the burning of heretics. There were soporific didactic poems, homilies in verse, romances in rhyme, pastoral poetry, mock-heroic poetry, ballads, lyrics, epics; and not all authors had the courage of Francisco de Figueroa, who condemned his verses to an auto-da-fé.

The best of the epics was La Araucana (1569–89), describing the revolt of an Indian tribe in South America; it was written by Alonso de Ercilla y Zuñiga, who fought with distinction as a Spanish soldier in that war. Perhaps the finest of the lyric poets was an Augustinian monk, Luis Ponce de León, whose partly Jewish ancestry did not prevent him from expressing the tenderest aspects of Christian piety. More remarkable was the union in him of poet and theologian; at thirty-four he was appointed professor of divinity at Salamanca, and he never ceased to be attached to that university; yet his scholarly pursuits and austere life did not stop his lyric flights. The Inquisition hailed him before its tribunal (1572) for translating the Song of Songs into the form of a pastoral eclogue. For five years he suffered imprisonment; released, he resumed his lectures at the university with wry words: “As we remarked when we last met …”35 He agreed with his superiors that poetry did not become a theologian; he left his verses unpublished, and they did not reach print till forty years after his death. They are by common consent the most nearly perfect productions of the Castilian tongue.

Luis de Góngora and Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Villegas were still more famous, for they stirred the air with controversy as well as rhymes, and left behind them the warring schools of gongorismo and conceptismo as philosophies of style. Cervantes, who had a good word to say for all his rivals except Lope and Avellaneda, called Góngora “a rare and lively genius, without a second.”36 We catch a distant echo of the poet’s cry of hate in this stanza from his “Ode to the Armada”:

O Island! once so Catholic, so strong,

Fortress of faith, now Heresy’s foul shrine,

Camp of train’d war, and Wisdom’s sacred school;

The time hath been, such majesty was thine,

The luster of thy crown was first in song.

Now the dull weeds that spring by Stygian pool

Were fitting wreath for thee. Land of the rule

Of Arthurs, Edwards, Henries! Where are they?

Their mother where, rejoicing in their sway,

Firm in the strength of Faith? To lasting shame

Condemned, thou guilty blame

Of her who rules thee now.

O hateful Queen! so hard of heart and brow,

Wanton by turns, and cruel, fierce, and lewd,

Thou distaff on the throne, true virtue’s bane,

Wolf-like in every mood,

May Heaven’s just flame on thy false tresses rain!37

Here was a pen worth wooing. No wonder Philip IV made the fiery poet (now become a priest) his royal chaplain, binding his talents to the throne. Góngora labored to acquire polish of style and subtlety of phrase; he declared war upon such hasty writing as Lope de Vega’s, and insisted that every line should be filed and purified into a gem. In his fervor he carried art to artificiality, burdened his lines with extravagant metaphors, epithets, inversions, and antitheses, outdoing the euphuism of Lyly and the affectations of Marini. So, of a lass’s entrancing charms:

Her twin-born sun-bright eyes

Might turn to summer Norway’s wintry skies;

And the white wonder of her snowy hand

Blench with surprise the son of Ethiopian land.

Spanish poets now divided into three camps: those who followed gon-gorismo (or cultismo); those who adopted the conceptismo of Quevedo; and those who, like Lope de Vega, resisted both plagues.

At Alcalá Quevedo took honors in law, theology, Latin, Greek, French, Arabic, Hebrew, and dueling. Though he was shortsighted and clubfooted, he was a peril with both rapier and pen, and his satires were as cutting as his sword. After killing several opponents, he fled to Sicily and Naples. At thirty-five he served there as finance minister; he shared in Osuna’s plot against Venice (1618); when it failed he was imprisoned for three years. Back in Madrid, he was not silenced by a sinecure as secretary to Philip IV; his verses scalded the King, the Pope, Olivares, women, and monks. His scandalous little book El perro y la calentura—The Dog and the Fever—(1625) barked at all things, poured upon them a storm of proverbs thicker than Sancho Panza’s and sourer; and his final advice, which he never took, was to stand aside from the battle and “let the swill pass.”38 Greedy for enemies and butts, Quevedo attacked the cultismo of the gongoristas and countered it with conceptismo: instead of hunting for fanciful phrases and words, the poet should seek ideas—and not obvious notions staled with time or soiled by common use, but concepts of subtlety, grandeur, dignity, and depth.

He was wrongly charged with writing letters that warned the King to cease extravagance and dismiss incompetent ministers. He was imprisoned for four years in a damp cell; when he was freed his health was ruined, and three years later he died (1645). This was no peaceful literary career, but a life in which ink was blood and poetry was war. Ending it, he warned his country that it too was dying:

I saw the ramparts of my native land,

One time so strong, now dropping in decay,

Their strength destroyed by this new age’s way

That has worn out and rotted what was grand.

I went into the fields; there I could see

The sun drink up the waters newly thawed;

And on the hills the moaning cattle pawed;

Their miseries robbed the light of day for me.

I went into my house, I saw how spotted,

Decaying things made that old home their prize;

My withered walking-staff had come to bend;

I felt the age had won; my sword was rotted;

And there was nothing on which to set my eyes

That was not a reminder of the end.39

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