1902 Encyclopedia > Spain > Castilian Spanish Literature - 18th Century

(Part 42)


Castilian Spanish Literature - 18th Century

Spanish thought as well as public spirit and all other forms of national activity began to decline towards the close of the 17th century. The advent of the house of Bourbon, and the increasing invasion of French influence in the domain of politics as well as in literature and science, confirmed this decay by rendering abortive the efforts of a few writers who had remained faithful to the pure Spanish tradition. In the hands of the second-rate imitators of Calderon the stage sank over lower and lower; lyric poetry, already compromised by the pomp and galimatias of Góngora, was abandoned to wretched rhymesters, who tried without success to make up by extravagance of style for meanness of thought. In a word, everything was suffering from anaemia. The first symptoms, not of a revival, but of a certain resumption of intellectual production appear in the department of linguistic study. In 1712 there was created, on the model of the French academies, La Real Academia Española, intended to maintain the purity of the language and to correct its abuses. This Academy set itself at once to work, and in 1726 was able to commence the publication of its dictionary in six volumes folio, the best little of this association to the gratitude of men of letters. The Gramatica de la Lengua Castellana, drawn up by the Academy, did not appear till 1771. For the new ideas which were introduced into Spain as the result of more intimate relations with France, and which were in many cases repugnant to a nation for two centuries accustomed to live a self-contained life, it was necessary that fully sanctioned patrons should be found. D. Ignacio de Luzan, well read in the literatures of Italy and France, a disciple of Boileau and the French rhetoricians, yet not without some originality of his own, undertook in his Poetica (1737) to expound to his fellow-countrymen the rules of the new school, and, above all the principle of the famous "unities" accepted by the French stage form Corneilles’ day onward. What Luzan had done for letters, Benito Feyjoo (1676-1764), a Benedictine of good sense and great learning, did for the science. His Teatro Crítico (1726-1729) and Cartas Erúditas y Curiosas (1742-1760), collections of dissertations in almost every department of human knowledge, introduced the Spaniards to the leading scientific discoveries of foreign countries, and helped to deliver them from many superstitions and absurd prejudices. The study of the ancient classics and the department of learned research in the domain of national histories and literatures had an eminent representative in Gregorio Mayans y Siscar (died 1782), who worthily carried on the great traditions of the renaissance; besides publishing good editions of old Spanish authors, he gave to the world in 1757 a Retórica which is still worth consulting and a number of learned memoirs. What may be called the literature d’agrément did not recover much lost ground; it would seem as if the vein had been exhausted.

Romance. Something of the old picaresque novel came to life again in the Historia del Famoso Predicador Fray Gerundio de Campazas of the Jesuit José Francisco de Isla, a biographical romance which is also and above all—to the detriment, it is true, of the interest of the narrative—a satire on the follies of the preachers of the day; the history of Fray Gerundio is merely a pretext, as it were, for displaying and holding up to ridicule the eloquence of the pulpit at the sorry pass to which it had then been brought by the ignorance and bad taste of the Spanish clergy. Isla is known also by his translation of Gil Blas, a work which he professed to restore to his native country, trying to make out—unsuccessfully, of course—that Le Sage had no other merit than that of rendering it into French.

Poetry. The lyric poetry of this period is very pale and colourless when compared with its dazzling splendour in the preceding century. Nevertheless one or two poets can be named who were possessed of refinement of taste, and whose collections of verse, though wanting in genuine inspiration, at least show respect for the language and will always meet some appreciation. At the head of the new school is Juan Menendez Valdés (1754-1817), and with his are associated the names of P. Diego Gonzales (1733-1794), José Iglesias de la Casa (1748-1791), known especially by his letrillas, Nicasio Alvarez de Cienfuegos (1764-1809), and some others. Among the verse writers of the 18th century who produced odes and didactic poetry it is only necessary to mention Leandro Fernandez de Moratin (1760-1828) and Manuel José Quintana (1772-1857), but the latter belongs rather to the present century, during the first half of which the published his most important works. To poverty of the period in lyric poetry is even exceeded by that of the stage. Here no kind of comedy or tragical drama arose to take the place of the ancient comedia, whose platitudes and absurdities of thought and expression had ended by disgusting even the least exacting portion of the public. The attempt was indeed made to introduce the comedy and the tragedy of France, but the stiff and pedantic adaptations of such writers as Agustin de Montiano y Luyando (1697-1764), Tomas de Iriarte (1750-1791), Garcia de la Huerta, and the well-known economist Gaspar de Jovellanos (1744-1811) were unable to interest the great mass of play-goers. The only one who was really successful in composing on the French pattern some pleasant comedies, which owe much of their charm to the great purity of the language in which they are written, is Leandro Fernandez de Moratin; his best pieces are La Nueva Comedia, a parody on the extravagant work of Comella, a playwright of the period, El Viejo y la Niña, El Baron, and particularly El Sí de las Niñas. It has to be added that the saynete was cultivated in the 18th century by one writer of genuine talent, Ramon de la Cruz; nothing helps us better to an acquaintance with curious Spanish society of the reign of Charles IV. than the intermezzos of this genial and light-hearted author.

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