1902 Encyclopedia > Spain > Castilian Spanish Literature - Classic Age: 16th and 17th Centuries

(Part 41)


Castilian Spanish Literature - Classic Age: 16th and 17th Centuries

Classic age - 16th and 17th centuries. The golden age of Spanish literature, as it is called belongs to the 16th and the 17th centuries, extending approximately from 1500 to 1650. Previous to the reign of the Catholic sovereigns there exists, strictly speaking, only a Castilian literature first of France and then of Italy; the union of the two crowns of Aragon and Castile, and afterwards the advent of the house of Austria and the king of Spain’s election as emperor, proved the creation at once of the political unity of Spain and of Spanish literature. After the death of Philip IV. (1165) this fair-shining light went out; the nation, exhausted by distant expeditions, the colonization of America, Continental wars, and bad administration, produced nothing; its literary genius sank in the general decline, and Spain is destined ere long to be subjected again to the influence of France, to which she had submitted during all the first period of the Middle Ages. In the 16th and 17th centuries the literature is eminently national. Of course all is not equally original, and in certain kinds of literature the Spaniards continue to seek models abroad.

Lyric poetry. Lyric poetry, especially that of the highest order, is always inspired by the Italian masters. An irresistible tendency leads the Spanish poets to rhyme in hendeca-syllabics—as the marquis of Santillana had formerly done, though his attempts had fallen into oblivion—and to group their verses in tercets, octaves, sonnets, and canciones (canzoni). Garcilaso de la Vega (1503-1536), Juan Boscan (1493-c. 1550), and Diego de Mendoza (1503-1575) are the recognized chiefs of the school al italico modo, and to them belongs the honour of having successfully transplanted to Spain those different forms of verse, and of having enriched and improved the poetic language of their country. The few uncouthnesses of which Mendoza and Boscan more especially are guilty (such as certain faults of rhythmic accentuation) were corrected by their disciples Gutierre de Cetina, Gregorio Silvestre, Hernando de Acuña, by the poets of the so-called school of Seville, headed by Fernando de Herrera (died 1597), and also by those of the rival school of Salamanca, rendered famous mainly by the inspired poetry of Fr. Luis de Leon (1528-1591). Against those innovators the poets faithful to the old Castilian manner, the rhymers of redondillas and romances, hold their own; under the direction of Cristóbal de Castillejo (1556) they carry on a fiece war of the pen against the "Petrarchists." But by the last third of the 16th century the triumph of the new Italian school is assured, and no one any longer thinks of reproaching it for its foreign flavour. Only a sort of schism is effected from that period between the higher poetry and the other varieties: the former employs only the hendecasyllabic and the heptasyllabic (quebrado), while the popular poets, or those who affect a more familiar tones, preserve the national metres. Almost all the poets, however, of the 16th and 17th centuries have tried their powers in both kinds of versification, using them in turn according to the nature of their subjects. Thus Lope de Vega, first of all, who wrote La Jerusalem Conquistada (1609), La Dragontea (1602), La Hermosura de Angélica (1602), in Italian verses and in octaves, composed his long narrative poem on Isidore, the husbandman patron of Madrid (1599), in quintils of octosyllabic verse, not to mention a great number of "romances." As regards this last form, previously disdained or almost so by artistic poets, Lope de Vega gave it a prestige that brought it into favour with the literates of the court. A host of poets were pleased to recast the old "romances" or to compose new ones. The 17th century, it may be said, is characterized by a regular surfeit of lyric poetry, to which the establishment of various literary academies in the Italian style contributed not a little. Of this enormous mass of verses of all sorts and sizes very little still keeps afloat: the names of three-fourths of the versifiers must be forgotten, and in addition to those already cited it will be sufficient to mention Luis de Góngora (1561-1626) and Francisco de Quevedo Villegas (1580-1645). Góngora is especially famous as the founder of the "cultist" school, as the introducer into Castilian poetry of a flowery, bombastic, and periphrastic style, characterized by sonorous vocables and artificial arrangements of phrase. The Spaniards have given the name of culto to this pompous and manneristic style, with its system of inversions based on Latin syntax. The Soledades of Góngora are the monument per excellence of Spanish mannerism, which made numerous victims and inflicted on the poetry of the Peninsula irreparable injury. But Góngora, a poet of really great powers, had started better, and as often as he cares to forget about being sonorous and affected, and is contended to rhyme romances, he finds true poetic accents, ingenious ideas, and felicitous expressions. Quevedo, much greater, moreover, in his prose works than in his verse, displays real power only in satire, epigram, and parody. There are in some of his serious pieces the stuff of a Juvenal, and his satiric and burgesque romances, of which several are even written in slang (germania), are in their way little masterpieces. Another commonplace of Spanish poetry at this period was epic poetry after the style of Tasso’s Gerusalemme. None of those interminable and prosaic compositions in octavas reales come near their model; none of them could even be compared in style, elevation of thought, and beauty of imagery to the Lusiadas. They are in reality only rhymed chronicles, and consequently, when the author happens to have taken part in the events he narrates, they have a genuine historical interest. Such is the case with the Araucana of Alonso de Ercilla (1533-1594), of which it may be said that it was written less with a pen than with a pike. In burlesque historical interest. Such is the case with the Araucana of Alonso de Ercilla (1533-1594), of which it may be said that it was written less with a pen than with a pike. In burlesque poetry the Spaniards have been rather more successful: La Gatomaquia of Lope de Vega and La Mosquea of Villaviciosa (died 1658) are somewhat agreeable pieces of fun.

Romances. The departments of imaginative literature in which the genius of the new Spanish nation revealed itself with most vigour and originality are the novela and the drama. Bu novela must be understood the novel of manners, called picaresca (from picaro, a rogue or "picaroon") because of the social status of the heroes of those fictions; and this kind of novel is quite an invention of the Spaniards. Their pastoral romance, on the other hand—the best known examples of which are the Diana Enamorada of Jorge de Montemayor (died 1516), continued by Alonso Perez and Gaspar Gil Polo, the Galatea of Cervantes, and the Aracadia of Lope de Vega, as well as their novel of adventure, started by Cervantes in his Novelas Ejemplares (1613), and cultivated after him by a host of writers—is directly derived from Italy. The Arcadia of Sannazaro is the source of the Diana and of all its imitations, just as the Italian novellieri alone are the masters of the Spanish novelistas of the 17th century. The picaresque novel starts in the middle of the 16th century with the Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes, sus Fortunas y Adversidades (1554), the work of a very bold intellect whose personality unfortunately remains unknown, there being no satisfactory reason for assigning this little book, which is as remarkable for the vigour of its satire as for the sobriety and firmness of its style, to Diego Hurtado de Mendoza. A supplement to the adventures of Lazarillo appeared at Antwerp in 1555; it is probably however, not the production of the author of the original romance. The impetus was given, and the success of Lazarillo was so great that imitators soon appeared. In 1599, Aleman published under the title of Atalaya de la Vida Humana, the first part of the adventures of another picaroon, Guzman de Alfarache; and, as he was in no hurry to finish this narratives, another writer, jealous of his success, took possession of it and issued in 1603, under the pseudonym of Mateo Luxan, a continuation of the first Guzman. Aleman, not to be thwarted, resumed his pen, and published the second part of his romance in 1605. Quite unlike that of the Lazarillo, the style of Mateo Aleman of Seville is eloquent, full, with long and learned periods, sometimes diffuse. Nothing could be more extravagant and more obscure than the history of Justina the beggar woman (La Picara Justina) by Francisco Lopez de Ubeda (1605), an assumed name which concealed the person of the Dominican Andrés Perez de Leon. The other picaresque romances are—Alonso Mozo de muchos Amos, by Geronimo de Alcalá (two parts, 1624 and 1626); the Historia y Vida del Gran Tacaño Pablo de Segovia (1626), in which Quevedo has made his most brilliant display of style and wit; the Garduña de Sevilla (1634) of Alonso de Castillo Solorzano; La Vida y Hechos de Estebanillo Gonzalez (1646), described as compuesto por el mesmo, but an Estéban Gonzalez is unknown in the literary history of the 17th century.

By degrees the picaresque romance was combined with the novel of Italian origin and gave rise to a new type,—half novel of manners, half romance of adventure,—of which the characteristic example appears to be the Relacion de la Vida y Aventuras del Escudero Marcos de Obregon (1618), by Vicente Espinel, one of the most genial and best written works of the 17th century. To the same class belong almost all the novels of Alonso Gerónimo de Salas Barbadillo, such as La Ingeniosa Helena, Don Diego de Noche, El Caballero punctual, &c. Luiz Velez de Guevara’s Diablo Cojuelo (1641), the model of Lesage’s Diable Boiteux; and Francisco Santos’s highly popular pictures of life in Madrid, Dia y Noche de Madrid (1663), Periquillo, el de las Gallineras, &c. On the contrary, the novels of Tirso de Molina (Los Cigarrales de Toledo, 1624), Perez de Montalban (Para Todos, 1632), Maria de Zayas (Novelas, 1637), are more in the manner of the Novelas Ejemplares of Cervantes, and consequently of the Italian type. Among the so-called historical romances one only deserves to be mentioned,—the Guerras Civiles de Granada by Gines Perez de Hita, which deals with the last years of the kingdom of Granada and the insurrection of the Moors of the Alpujarras in the time of Philip II. Don Quixote, the masterpiece of Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra (1547-1616), is too great a work to be treated along with others; and, besides, it does not fall strictly within the limits of any of the classes just mentioned. If it has to be defined, it may be described as the social romance of 16th and 17th century Spain. Cervantes undoubtedly owed much to his predecessors, notably to the picaresque romancers, but he considerably enlarged the scope of the type, and, what had as yet been done by no one, supported the framework of the story by a lofty moral idea. His main purpose was, as we are beginning to realize, not to turn ridicule the books of chivalry, which were already out of fashion by his time, but to show by an example pushed to absurdity the danger of hidalgism, of all those deplorable prejudices of pure blood and noble race with which three-fourths of the nation were imbued, and which, by the scorn of all useful labour which they involved, were destined to bring Spain to ruin. The lesson is all the more effective as his hidalgo, although ridiculous, was not put beyond the pale of the reader’s sympathy, and the author condemns only the exaggeration of the chivalrous spirit, and not true courage and devotion when these virtues have a serious object. The same thing happened to Don Quixote which had happened to Guzman de Alfarache. After the publication of the first part (16056), Cervantes allowed his pen to lie too long idle; and so it occurred to some one to anticipate him in the glory of completing the story of the heroic deeds of the knight of La Mancha. In 1614 a second part of the adventures of Don Quixote made its appearance—the work of a certain Avellaneda, a pseudonym under which people have sought to recognize the inquisitor Luis de Aliaga. Cervantes was thus roused from inactivity, and the following year gave to the world the true second part, which soon effaced the bad impression produced by Avellaneda’s heavy and exaggerated imitation.

Drama of the 17th century. The stage in the 17th century in some measure took the place of the romances of the previous age; it is, as it were, the medium of all the memories, all the passions, and all the aspirations of the Spanish people. Its style, being that of the popular poetry, made it accessible to the most illiterate classes, and gave it an immense range of subject. From the books of the Bible, the acts of the martyrs, national traditions, the chronicles of Castile and Aragon, and foreign histories and novels, down to the daily incidents of contemporary Spanish life, the escapades and nightly brawls of students, the gallantries of the Calle Mayor and the Prado of Madrid, balcony escalades, sword thrusts and dagger strokes, duels and murders, fathers befooled, jealous ladies, pilfering and cowardly valets, inquisitive and sprightly waiting-maids, sly and tricky peasants, fresh country girls,—all are turned to dramatic account. The enormous mass of plays with which the literature of this period is inundated may be divided into two great classes—a secular and a religious, the latter again subdivided into (1) the liturgical play, i.e., the auto either sacramental or al nacimiento, and (2) the comedia divina and the comedia de santos, which have no liturgical element and differ from secular play in the fact the subject is religious, and frequently, as one of the names indicates, derived from the history of a saint. In the secular drama, classification might be carried almost to any extent if the nature of the subject be taken as the criterion. It will be sufficient to distinguish the comedia (i.e., any tragic or comic piece in three acts) according to the social types brought on the stage, the equipment of the actors, and the artifices resorted to in the representation. We have (1) the comedia de capa y espada, which represents any everyday incident, the actors belonging to the middle class, simple caballeros, and consequently wearing the garb of ordinary town-life, of which the chief items were the cloak and the sword, and (2) the comedia de teatro or de ruido, or again de tramoya or de aparencias (i.e., the theatrical, spectacular, or scenic play), which prefers kings and princes for its dramatis personae and makes a great display of mechanical devices and decorations. Besides the comedia, the classic stage has also a series of little pieces subsidiary to the play proper: the loa or prologue, the entremes, a kind of interlude which afterwards developed into the saynete, the baile, or ballet accompanied with singing, and the zarzuela, a sort of operetta thus named after the royal residence of La Zarzuela, where the kings of Spain had a theatre. As to the dramatic poets of the golden age, even more numerous than the lyric poets and the romancers, it is rather difficult to group them. All are more or less pupils of imitators of the great chief of the new school, Lope Felix de Vega Carpio (1562-1635); everything has ultimately to be brought back to him whom the Spaniards call the "monster of Nature." Among Lope’s contemporaries, only a few poets of Valencia (Gaspar de Aguilar, Francisco Tarrega, Guillem de Castro (1569-1631), the author of the Mocedades del Cid (from which Corneille derived his inspiration), formed a small school, as it were, less subject to the master than that of the public by copying as exactly as possible the manner of the great initiator. Lope left his mark on all varieties of the comedia, but did not attain to equal excellence in all. He was especially successful in the comedy of intrigue (enredo), of the capa y espada class, and in dramas whose subjects are derived from national history. His great and most incontestable merit is to have given the Spanish stage a range and scope of which it had not been previously thought capable, and of having taught his contemporaries to find dramatic situations and to carry on a plot. It is true he wrote nothing perfect: his prodigious productiveness and facility allowed him no time to mature anything; he wrote negligently, and, besides, he considered the stage an inferior department, good for the vulgo, and consequently did not judge it worthy of the same regard as lyric or narrative poetry borrowed from the Italian. Lope’s first pupils exaggerated some of his defects, but, at the same time, each according to his own taste, widened the scope of the comedia. Antonio Mira de Amescua and Luis Velez de Guevara (died 1644) were successful especially in tragic histories and comedias divinas. Fr. Gabriel Tellez (1570-1648), better known under the pseudonym of Tirso de Molina, one of the most flexible, ingenious, and inventive of the dramatists, displayed no less talent in the comedy of contemporary manners than in historical drama. El Burlador de Sevilla (Don Juan), the most celebrated of his plays since the Italians and the French have taken possession of the subject, is reckoned his masterpiece; but he showed himself a much greater poet in El Vergonzoso en Palacio, Don Gil de las Calzas Verdes, Marta la Piadosa. Finally Juan Ruiz de Alarcon (died 1639), the most serious and most observant of Spanish dramatic poets, successfully achieved the comedy of character in La Verdad Sospechosa, closely followed by Corneille in his Menteur. The remaining play-writers hardly did anything but increase the number of the comedias; they added nothing to the real elements of the drama. The second epoch of the classical drama is represented mainly by Pedro Calderon de la Barca (1600-1681), the Spanish dramatist who has obtained most celebrity abroad, where his pieces have been studied and admired (perhaps extravagantly) by certain critics who have not feared to rank him with Shakespeare. It is Calderon who first made honour, or more correctly the point of honour, an essential motive in the conduct of his personages (e.g., El Médico de su Honra); it is he also who made the comedia de capa y espada uniform even to monotony, and gave the comic "part" of the gracioso (confidential valet of the caballero) a fixity which it never previously possessed. There is depth and poetry in Calderon, but vagueness also and much bad taste. His most philosophic drama, La Vida es Sueño, is a bold and sublime idea, but indistinct and feebly worked out; that his autos sacramentales give ebidence of extensive theological knowledge is all that can be said in their favour. Calderon was imitated, as Lope has been, by exaggerating his manner and perverting his excellencies. Two poets only of the second half of the 17th century deserve to be cited along with him—Francisco de Rojas, author of the fine historic play Del rey abajo ninguno, and Agustin Moreto (1618-1622), author of some pleasant comedies. Among those who worked in secondary forms mention must be made of Luis Quiñones de Benavente, a skilful writer of entremeses, and in fact the greatest master of the form.

History. A new manner of writing appears with the revival of learning: the purely objective style of the old chronicles, with their tagging on of one fact after another, without showing the logical connexion or expressing any opinion on men of things, begins to be thought puerile. An attempt is now made to treat the history of Spain in the manner of Livy, Sallust, Tacitus, whose methods of narration were directly adopted. The 16th century, however, still presents certain chronicles of the mediaeval type, with more erudition, precision, and a beginning of the critical elements. La Crónica General de España by Ambrosio de Morales, the Compendio Historial of Estéban de Garibai, the Historia General de las Indias Occidentales by Antonio de Herrera, are, as far as the style is concerned, continuations of the last chronicles of Castile. Gerónimo de Zurita (1512-1580) is emphatically a scholar; no one in the 16th century knew as he did how to turn to account documents and records for the purpose of completing and correcting the narratives of the ancient chronicles; his Anales de la Corona de Aragon is a book of great value, though written in a painful style. With Juan de Mariana (1536-1623) history ceases to be a mere compilation of facts or a work of pure erudition, in order to become a work of art and of thought. The Historia de España by the celebrated Jesuit, at first written in Latin in the interest especially of foreigners, was afterwards rendered by its author into excellent Castilian; as a general survey of its history, well-planned, well written, and well thought out, Spain possesses nothing that can be compared with it; it is eminently a national work, steeped throughout in the prejudices of the race. Various works of less extent,—accounts of more or less important episodes in the history of Spain,—may take their beside Mariana’s great monument: for example, the Guerra de Granada by Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (a history of the revolt of the Moors of the Alpujarras under Philip II.), written about 1572, immediately after the events, but not published till about thirty years later, after the author’s death; the narrative of the expedition of the Catalans in the Morea in the 14th century by Francisco de Moncada (died 1635); that of the revolt of the same Catalans under the reign of Philip IV. by Francisco Manuel de Melo (died 1666), a Portuguese by birth; and that of the conquest of Mexico by Antonio de Solis. Each of these writers has been more or less inspired by some Latin author, one preferring Livy, another Sallust, &c. These imitations, it must be admitted, have something artificial and stilted, which in the long run proves as fatiguing as the unskilfulness and heaviness of the chronicles of the Middle Ages. On the other hand, the historians of the wars of Flanders, such as Carlo Coloma, Bernardino de Mendoza, Alonso Vazquez, Francisco Verdugo, are less refined, and for that very reason are more vivid and more thoroughly interest us in that struggle of the two races, so foreign to each other and of such different genius. As for the accounts of the trans-Atlantic discoveries and conquests, they are of two kinds,—either (1) memoirs of the actors or witnesses of those great dramas, as, e.g., the Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of the companions of Cortes, and the Historia de la Indias by P. Bartolomé de las Casas, the apostle of the Indias; or (2) works by professional writers, such as Francisco Lopez de Gomara,—official historiographers who wrote in Spain on information sent to them from the newly-discovered lands.

Letter writers. Letter writers, a rather numerous body in Spanish literature, are nearly related to the historians; in fact, letters written to be read by others than the persons addressed, or in any case revised afterwards, are only another method, a little more familiar, of writing history. Fernando del Pulgar appended to his Claros Varonos, a series of letters on the affairs of his time; and at the commencement of the 16th century Antonio de Guevara (died 1545) collected, under the title of Epistolas Familiares, his correspondence with his contemporaries, which throws a great light on the early part of the reign of Charles V., although it must be used with caution because of the numerous rifacimentos it has undergone. A celebrated victim of Philip II., Antonio Perez (died 1611), revenged himself on his master by relating in innumerable letters, addressed during his exile to his friends and protectors, all the incidents of his disgrace, and by selling to the ministers of France and England, the secrets of these letters are little masterpieces of sprightliness and gallantry.

Philosophy. Philosophy is rather poorly represented in the 16th and 17th centuries in the literature of the vernacular. The greater number of the Spanish thinkers of this epoch, whatever the school to which they belonged,—scholastic, Platonic, Aristotelian, or independent,—wrote in Latin.

Mysticism. Ascetic and mystical authors alone made use of the vulgar tongue for the readier diffusion of their doctrine among the illiterate, from whose ranks a good number of their disciples were recruited. Fr. Luis de Granada (died 1588) the great preacher, Juan de la Cruz (1542-1591), Fr. Luis de Leon (1528-1598), Teresa de Jesus (1515-1582), and Malon de Chaide are the brighter lights of this class of writers. Some of their books, like the Guia de Pecadores of Fr. Luis de Granada, the Confessions of St Teresa, Malon de Chaide’s Conversion of the Magdalen, have obtained a brilliant and lasting success beyond the limits of the Peninsula, and have not been without some influence on the development of mysticism in France. The Spanish mystics are not only remarkable for the depth or subtlety of their thoughts and the intensity of the divine love with which they are inspired; many of them are masters of style; some, like Juan de la Cruz, have composed verses which rank with the most delicate in the language.

Moralists. A notable fact is that those men who are regarded as illuminati profess the most practical ideas in the matter of morality. Nothing is more sensible, nothing less ecstatic, than the manual of domestic economy by Fr. Luis de Leon—La Perfecta Casada. Lay moralists are very numerous in the 16th and 17th centuries. Some write long and heavy treatises on the art of governing, the education of princes, the duties of subjects, &c. Pedro Fernandez de Navarrete’s Conservacion de Monarquias, Diego de Saaverda Faxardo’s Idea de un Principe Cristiano, Quevedo’s La Politica de Dios y Gobierno de Cristo, give a correct idea of the ability which the Spaniards have displayed in this kind of didactic and perceptional literature—ability of no high order, for the Spaniard, which he means to teach and work our a doctrine, loses himself in distinction and rapidly becomes diffuse, pedantic, and obscure. But there is a kind of morality in which he indubitably excels, namely, in social satire, which, under all its forms—dialogue and dream in the style masterpieces and a host of ingenious, caustic, and amusing compositions. Juan de Valdes, the most celebrated of the Spanish Protestants, led the way by his Dialogo de Mercurio y Canon, where all the great political and religious questions of the first half of the 16th century are discussed and resolved with admirable vigour and freedom. The king in the department of social satire, as in those of literary and political satire, is Quevedo. Nothing escapes his scrutinizing spirit and pitiless irony. All the vices of the society of his time are, in his Sueños and many other little pamphlets, remorselessly placed in the pillory and cruelly cut to pieces. While this great satirist, in philosophy a disciple of Seneca, imitates his master even in his style of writing, he is none the less one of the most vigorous and original writers of the 17th century. The only serious defect in his style is that it is too full, not of figures and epithets, but of thoughts. His phrases are of set purpose charged with a double meaning, and we are never sure on reading whether we have taken in all that the author meant to convey. Conceptism is the name that has been given to this refinement of thought, which was doomed in time to fall into the ambiguous and equivocal; it must not be confounded with the cultism of Góngora, the artifice of which lies solely in the choice and arrangement of words. This new school, of which Quevedo may be regarded as the founder, had its Boileau in the person of Baltasar Gracian, who in 1642 published his Agudeza y Arte de Ingenio, in which all the subtleties of conceptism are very exactly reduced to a code. Gracian, who had the gift of sententious moralizing rather than of satire, produced in his Criticon animated pictures of the society of his own day, while he also displayed much ingenuity in little collections of political and moral aphorisms which have procured him a great reputation abroad,—El Heroe, El Politico Fernando el Catolico, Oraculo Manual y Arte de Prudencia.

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