1902 Encyclopedia > Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas

Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas
Spanish satiric writer and humorist

FRANCISCO QUEVEDO Y VILLEGAS (1580-1645), the greatest satiric writer of Spain, was born in 1580 at Madrid, where his father, who came from the mountains of Burgos, was secretary to Anne of Austria, fourth wife of Philip II. Early left an orphan and without other protection than that of his guardian, D. Agustin de Villaneuva, prothonotary of Aragon, the young man educated himself and chose his owncareer. Full of zeal to conquer all knowledge, he betook himself to Alcala, the nearest university to Madrid, where is a few years he covered a vast field of study, acquiring a knowledge of classical and modern tongues – of Italian and French, Hebrew and Arabic, of philosophy (or what passed by that name), theology, civil law, and economics. His masters were astounded at his erudition, and his fame reached beyond Spain; at twenty-one he was in correspondence with Justus Lipsius on questions of Greek and latin literature, and the great scholar loaded him with praises and treated him as an equal. These years of study left a great and permanent influence on Quevedo’s style; to them are due the pedantic traits and mania for quotations which strike and offend us in most of his works.

The licentiate of Alcala next betook himself to the court and mingled with the corrupt society that surrounded Philip III., or rather the duke of Lerma, then the real ruler of Spain. The cynical greed of the ministers, the meanness of their flatterers, the corruption of all the royal offices, the financial scandals, the shamelessness of the women, brutalized by the low place given to them in family life and by the practices of a purely formalist religion, formed a spectacle which soon awoke in Quevedo his talent as a painter of manners. At Madrid or at Valladolid, where the court resided from 1601 to 1605, he mingled freely with these intrigues and disorders, and soon lost the purity of his morals, but not his independence, his uprightness and integrity. From this period date his first Dreams (Suenos), satirical fantasies in which the spirit and manner of Lucian and Dante are combined. "Dream of Skulls," "The Possessed Alguazil," "The Stables of Pluto,,,," "The Madhouse of Love," such are the titles of these earliest writings composed in 1607-8, which in some degree recall the "Dances of Death" of the later Middle Ages; the author is transported in sleep to hell, where he assists at the long and lamentable procession of men of all conditions, profession, and trades who move toward their punishment, clad in their most characteristic vices and absurdities. The series was continued from 1612 to 1622 by "The World as it is" and the "Review of Witticisms." With the Dreams may be associated certain works of similar scope and tone e.g., To every one according to his Works, and Fortune made Reasonable, where Jupiter in concert with Fortune, whom he has caused to stop her wheel, orders all kinds of men instantly to resume their true nature and the condition they deserve: thus the physician becomes a hangman, the accused a judge, the painted lady a duenna and witch, and so forth.

In 1609 Quevedo entered into relations with the famous D. Pedro Tellez Giron, duke of Osuna, with whom his fortunes were linked for more than ten years. The duke, celebrated for his bold enterprises of wear against the Queen of the Adriatic, for his hare in the conspiracy of Venice in 1618, for the luxurious splendor of his viceregal rule in Sicily and Naples, and finally for his terrible disgrace, recognized Quevedo’s unusual merits and made him his secretary. Thus between 1611 and 1611 and 1620 he learned politics, - the one science which he had perhaps till then neglected, - initiated himself into the questions that divided Europe, and penetrated the designs and ambitions of the neighbors of Spain as well as the secret history of the guilty intriguers protected by the favor of Philip III. The result was that he wrote several political works, particularly a lengthy treatise, The Policy of God and the Government of Christ, in which he lays down the duties of kings by displaying to them how Christ has governed His church. The disgrace of the duke of Osuina (1620) reached Quevedo, who was arrested and exiled to La Torre de Juan Abad in New Castile, where he possessed lands and of which he afterwards became seignior. Quvedo, though involved in the process against the duke, remained faithful to him in his misfortunes, and bore exile and prison with resignation. On the death of Philip III. (31st March 1621), he recommended himself to the first minister of the new king by celebrating his accession to power and saluting him as the vindicator of public morality in an elegant epistle, in the style of Juvenal, on The Present Habits of the Spaniards. Olivares recalled him from his exile and gave him a charge in the palace, and from this time quevedo resided almost constantly at court, where he acquired a position of great weight, only comparable to that of Voltaire in the France of last century. Like Voltaire, he became a sort of oracle, and exercised in Spain a kind of political and literary jurisdiction due to his varied relations and knowledge, but especially to his biting and unbridled wit, which had no respect of persons and laid bare every sore. General politics, social economy, war, finance, literary and religious questions, all fell under his dissecting knife, and he had a dissertation, a pamphlet, or a song for everything. One day he is defending St James, the sole patron of Spain, against a powerful coterie that wished to associate St Teresa with him, and meeting these antagonists with the vehemence of a warm patriot and the learning of a professional theologian; next day he is writing against the duke of Savoy, the hidden enemy of Spain, or against the measures taken to change the value of the currency; or once more he is engaged with the literary school of Gonora, whose affectations and designed obscurity of style seem to him to sin against the genius of the Castilian tongue. And in the midst of this incessant controversy on every possible subject he finds time to compose a comic romance, Don Pablo of Segovia (1626) – a masterpiece of sparkling verve and fun, which admirably continues the series of Lazarillo de Tormes and Guzman de Alfarache,- to pen a dissertation on The Constancy and Patience of Job (1631), to translate St Francis de Sales and Seneca, to compose thousands of verses, and to correspond with Spanish and foreign scholars of verses, and to correspond with Spanish and foreign scholars.

But Quevedo was not to maintain unscathed the high position won by his knowledge, talent, and biting wit. The government of Olivares, which he had welcomed as the dawn of a political and social regeneration, made things worse instead of better, committed fault upon fault, and led the country to ruin. Quevedo saw this and could not hold his peace. An anonymous petition in verse enumerating to the king in strong terms the grievances of his subjects was found in the early part of December 1639 under the very napkin of Philip IV. It was shown to Olivares, who exclaimed, "I am ruined"; but before his fall he sought vengeance on the libeler. His suspicious fell on Quevedo, who had enemies glad to confirm them. Quevedo was arrested on December 7, and carried under a strong escort to the neighboring convent of Leon, where he was kept in rigorous confinement till the fall of the minister (23d January 1643) restored him to light and freedom, but not to the health which he had lost in his dungeon. He had little more than two years to live, and these were spent in inactive retreat, first at La Torree de Juan Abad, and then at the neighboring Villanueva de los Infantes, where he died September 8, 1645.

Quevedo was of middle height, with black, somewhat crips hair, a very fair complexion, a broad forehead, and very sharp eyes always furnished with spectacles. The upper part of his body was well built but the lower part deformed: he limped, and his feet turned inwards. Though of very dissolute manners, he loved study most, and lived surrounded by books. He had a table on wheels for reading in bed and a stand that enabled him to read at table. His conversation, as one might guess from his books, was sparkling, full of unexpected turns and slyness, and many bon-mots are ascribed to him. A few days before his death, as he was about to dictate his last will, the curate who attested it invited him to assign a sum for music at his funeral. "Music!" said the dying man; "let those who hear it pay for that."

As a satirist and humorist Quevedo stands in the first rank of Spanish writers; his other literary work does not count for much. I. I. Chifflet, in a letter of February 2, 1629, calls him " a very learned man to be Spaniard," and indeed his erudition was of a solid kind, but he merits attention not as a humanist, philosopher, and moralist, but as the keen polemic writer, the pitiless mocker, the profound observer of all that is wicked and absurd in human nature, and at the same time as a finished master of style and of all the secrets of the Spanish tongue. His style indeed is not absolutely pure, and already belongs to the period of decadence. Quevedo, who ridiculed so well the bad taste of "cutltism," fell himself into another fault and created the style called "conceptism," which hunts after ambiguous expressions and "double entendres." But, though involved and overcharged with ideas, his style is of singular force and originality; after Cervantes he is the greatest Spanish writer of the 17th century.

There is an excellent collected edition of Quevedo’s prose works with a good life of the author by D. Aureliano Fernandez-Guerra (Bibl. Ribadeneyra, vols. xxiii. And xiviii); his poetical works in vol. lxix of the same collection are badly edited by D. Florenzio Ianer.
(A. M.-F.)

The above article was written by: Alfred Morel-Fatio, Professor of Southern European Languages and Literature at the Collège de France; Director of Dept. of Philology of the Romance Languages, Ecole des Hautes Etudes; Secretary of the Ecole Nationale des Chartes.

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