1902 Encyclopedia > Spain > Castilian Spanish Literature - 19th Century

(Part 43)


Castilian Spanish Literature - 19th Century

The terrible struggle of the War of Independence (1808-1814), which was destined to have such important consequence in the world of politics, did not exert any immediate influence on the literature of Spain. One might have expected as a consequence of the rising of the whole nation against Napoleon that Spanish writers would have given up seeking their inspiration form those of France, and would have tried to resume the national traditions which had been broken at the end of the 17th century. But nothing of the sort occurred. Not only the afrancesados (as those were called who had accepted the new régime), but also the most ardent partisans of the patriotic cause, continued in literature to be the submissive disciples of France. Quintana, who in his inflammatory odes preached to his compatriots the duty of resistance and revenge, has nothing of the innovator about him; by his education and by his literary doctrines he remains a man of the 18th century. The same be said of Francisco Martinez de la Rosa (1789-1848), who, however, from his intercourse with Horace, whom he translated with skill into good Castilian verse, had a greater independence of spirit, and a more highly trained and classical taste. And, when romanticism begins to find its way into Spain and to enter into conflict with the spirit way into Spain and to enter into conflict with the spirit and habits of the 18th century, it is still to France that the poets and prose writers of the new school turn, much more than either to England or to Germany. The first decidedly romantic poet of the generation which flourished about 1830 was the duke of Rivas, Angel de Saavedra (1791-1856); no one succeeded better in reconciling the genius of Spain and the tendencies of modern poetry; his epic poem El Moro Espósito and his drama of Don Alvaro ó la Fuerza del Sino belong as much to the old romances and old theatre of Spain as to the romantic spirit of 1830. On the other hand, José de Espronceda (1808-1842), who has sometimes been called the Spanish Musset, savours much less of the soil than the duke of Rivas; he is a quite cosmopolitan romanticist of the school of Byron and the French imitators of Byron; an exclusively lyric poet, he did not live long enough to give full proof of his genius but what he has left is certainly exquisite. José Zorilla (born 1817) has a more flexible and exuberant but much more unequal talent than Espronceda, and if the latter has written too little it cannot but he regretted that the former should have produced too much; nevertheless, among a multitude of hasty performances, brought out before they had been matured, his Don Juan Tenorio, a new and fantastic version of the legend treated by Tirso de Molina and Moliére, will always remain as one of the most curious specimens of Spanish romanticism. In the dramatic literature of this period it is noticeable that the tragedy more than the comedy is modeled on the examples furnished by the French drama of the Restoraiton; thus, if we leave out of account the play of Garcia Gutierrez (born 1813) entitled El Trovador, which inspired the well-known opera of Verdi, and Los Amantes de Teruel of Juan Eugenio Hartzenbusch (born 1806), and a few others, all the dramatic work belonging to this date recalls more or less the manner of the professional playwrights of the boulevard theatres, while on the other hand the comedy of manners still preserves a certain originality and a genuine local colour. Manuel Breton de los Herreros (1796-1873), who wrote as many as a hundred comedies, some of them of the first order after their kind, apart from the fact of their being written in language of great excellence, adheres with great fidelity to then tradition of the 17th century; he is the last of those writers who have preserved the felling of the ancient comedia. One prose writer of the highest talent must be mentioned along with Espronceda, with whom he has in the moral aspect several features in common,—namely, D. José de Larra (1808-1837), so famous by his pseudonym of "Figaro," with which he signed the greater number of his works. Caustic in temper, of a keenly observant spirits, remarkably sober and clear as a writer, he was specially successful in the political pamphlet, the article d’actualités; to this category belong his Cartas de un Pobrecito Hablador, in which he ridicules without pity the vices and oddities of his contemporaries; his reputation is much more largely due to these letters than either to his somewhat feeble play of Macias or to his not very attractive novel El Doncel de Enrique el Doliente. With Larra must be associated two other humoristic writers. The first of these is Ramon Mesonero Romanos, "El Curioso Parlante" (born 1803), whose Escenas Matritenses, although not possessed of the literary value of Larra’s articles, give pleasure by their good-natured gaiety and by the curious details they furnish with regard to the contemporary society of Madrid. The other is Serafin Estébanez Calderon, "El Solitario" (1799-1867), who in his Escenas Andaluzes sought to revive the manner of the satirical and picaresque writers of the 17th century; in a uselessly archaic language of his own, patches up from fragments taken from Cervantes, Quevedo, and others, he has delineated with a peculiar but somewhat artifical grace various piquant scenes of Andalusian or Madrilenian life. The most prominent literary critics belonging to the first generation of the century were Alberto Lista (1775-1848), whose critical doctrine may be described as a compromise between the ideas of French classicism and those of the romantic school, and Agustin Duran (died 1862), who made it his special task to restore to honour the old literature of Castile, particularly its romances, which he had studied with unequalled thoroughness, and of which he published highly esteemed collections.

If the struggle between classicists and romanticists continued even after 1830, and continued to divide the literary world into two opposing camps, it is plain that the new generation—that which occupied the scene from 1840 till about 1868—had other preoccupations. The triumph of the new ideas is now assured; only a few reactionaries are still seen to cling to the principles bequeathed by the 18th century. What was now being aimed at was the creation of a new literature which should be truly national and no longer a mere echo of that beyond the Pyrenesa. To the question whether contemporary Spain has indeed succeeded in calling into existence such a literature, we may well hesitate to give an affirmative answer. It s true that in every species of composition, the greatest as well as the lightest it can show works of genuine talent; but many of them are strikingly deficient in originality; all of them either bear unmistakable traces of imitation of foreign models, so show (more of less happily) the imprint of the older literature of the 17th century, to which the historical criticism of Duran and the labours of various other scholars had given a flavour of novelty. With this observation before him, the student can divide the authors of this period into two groups,—the one composed of those who, won by modern ideas, are more or less liberal in politic, and draw their inspiration in all they write form France or from what they are able to assimilate of other literatures through France; the other consisting of ultra-conservatives, whose dream in every sphere—letters, art, and politics—is the restoration of the Spain of the past. Nowhere does this antagonism manifest itself more clearly than in the drama. A play of Aureliano Fernandez Guerra might have been conceived and written by a contemporary of Lope or of Calderon, while a comedy of Adelardo Lopez de Ayala is moulded in the pattern given by the younger Dumas and by Augier. In the department of romance, on the other hand—much neglected by the writers of the first half of the century—the Spaniards have recovered something of the genius of Cervantes and their 17th century novellas picarescas. The art of constructing a story and of telling it in an agreeable way, which seemed for a long time to have been lost, is recovered in such authors as Fernan Caballero, Antonio de Trueba, Pedro Antonio de Alarcon, Juan Valera, Perez Galdos, and Pereda. These novelists are far from alike in method or in spirit; how widely separated, for example, are the somewhat banal facility and the sentimental Catholicism of Fernan Caballero on the one hand, and the searching psychological analysis and the fine skepticism of Juan Valera on the other. But all have this in common, that they understand how to interest their readers, and how to make their characters live and speak. Incontestably the novel is the triumph of contemporary Spanish literature; it is almost the only kind of composition that actually lives with a life of its own and makes steady progress. One cannot say as much of lyrics poetry, represented feebly enough by Ramon de Campoamor, Nuñez de Arce, and some others. Deficient inspiration, diffuseness of style, and want of precision in language characterize them all; it is unfortunately very easy to make mediocre verses in Spanish, and too many people give themselves over to the pursuit. Passing from the literature of amusement, we have still some very distinguished names to enumerate. Philosophy, indeed, has but one representative of merit, the traditionalist Jaime Balmes—for the Krausist school, and importation from Germany, may be ignored here—but history and literary criticism have been cultivated during the last thirty years or so with genuine success. Modesto Lafuente is in some sort the Mariana of the 19th century; much inferior as a writer to the celebrated Jesuit, he has, however, always manifested the same passion for his subject, the same persevering determination to raise a worthy monument of his fatherland; his Historia de España, in spite of all its defects, deserves respect, and is at least readable. Although primarily a politician, Antonio Cánovas del Castillo has many of the qualities which go to the making of a good historian; he has evinced greater acuteness and larger acquirements than Lafuente, and his Ensayo sobre la Casa de Austria en España, founded upon a careful examination of a large number of documents, gives evidence of a correct judgment and praiseworthy impartiality. The literary history of old Spain has been treated in a masterly manner by Aureliano Fernandez Guerra in various studies devoted to the great writers of the 17th century, notably Quevedo, and also quite recently by a young and talented scholar, Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, whose Historia de las Ideas Estéticas en España, a work as solid in its substance as it is pure n its style, would do honour to nay veteran in literature. As regards criticism of contemporary literature, no one shows more spirit and taste than Juan Valera, whose delicate Andalusian nature has been matured by a refining education and by an adequate knowledge of foreign literatures.

Read the rest of this article:
Spain - Table of Contents

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries