1902 Encyclopedia > Spain > Catalan Literature

(Part 45)


Catalan Literature

Poetry of Middle Ages. Although the Catalan language is simply a branch of the southern Gallo-Roman, the literature, in its origin at least, ought to be considered as a mere appendix of that of Provence. Nay more, until about the second half of the 13th century there existed in the Catalan districts no other literature than the Provençal, and the poets of north-eastern Spain used no other language than that of the troubadours. Guillem de Vergadan, Uc de Mataplana, Ramon Vidal de Besalú, Guillem de Cervera, Serveri de Gerona, and several other verse writers of a still more recent date are all genuine Provençal, poets, in the same sense as are those of Limousin, Quercy, or Auvergne, since they write in the langue d’oc and make use of the forms of poetry cultivated by the troubadours north of the Pyrenees. Ramon Vidal (end of 12th century and beginning of 13th) was a grammarian as well as a poet; his Rasos de Trobar became the code for the Catalan poetry written in Provençal, which he called Lemosi, a name still kept up in Spain to designate, not the literary idiom of the troubadours only, but also the local idiom—Catalan,—which the Spaniards choose to consider as derived form the former. The influence of R. Vidal and other grammarians of his school, as well as that of the troubadours we have named, lasted for a very long time; and even after Catalan prose—an exact reflexion of the spoken language of the south-east of the Pyrenees—had given evidence of its vitality in some considerable works, the Catalan poetry remained faithful to the Provençal tradition. Form the combination of spoken Catalan with the literary language of the troubadours there arose a sort of composite idiom, which has some analogy with the Franco-Italian current in certain parts of Italy in the Middle Ages, although in the one case the elements of the mixture are more distinctly apparent than are the romance of Italy in the other. The poetical works of Raymond Lully (Ramon Lull) (died 1315) are among the oldest examples of this Provençalized Catalan; one has only to read the fine piece entitled Lo Desconort ("Despair"), or some of his stanzas on religious subjects, to apprehend at once the eminently composite nature of that language. Muntaner in like manner, whose prose is exactly that spoken by his contemporaries, becomes troubadour when he writes in verse; his Sermó on the conquest of Sardinia and Corsica (1323), introduced into his Chronicle of the kings of Aragon, exhibits linguistically quite the same mixed character as is found in Lully, or, we may venture to say, in all the Catalan verse writers of the 14th century. These are not very numerous, nor are their works of any great merit. The majority of their compositions consist of what called noves rimades, that is, stories in octosyllabic verse in rhymed couplets. There exist poems of this class by Pere March, by a certain Torrella, by Bernat Metge (an author more celebrated for his prose), and by others whose names we do not know; among the works belonging to this last category special mention ought to be made of a version of the romance of the Seven Sages, a translation of a book on good breeding entitled Facetus, and certain tales where, by the choice of subjects, by various borrowings, and even occasionally by the wholesale introduction of pieces of French poetry, it is clearly evident that the writers of Catalonia understood and read the langue d’oui. Closely allied to the noves rimades is another analogous form of versification—that of the codolada, consisting of a series of verses of eight and four syllables, rhyming in pairs, still made use of in one portion of the Catalan domain (Majorca).

Poetry of 15th century. The 15th century is the golden age of Catalan poetry. At the instigation and under the auspices of John I. (1387-1395), martin I. (1395-1410), and Ferdinand I. (1410-14160, kings of Aragon, there was founded at Barcelona a consistory of the "Gay Saber," on the model of that of Toulouse, and this official protection accorded to poetry was the beginning of a new style much more emancipated form Provençal influence. It cannot be denied, indeed, that its forms are still of foreign importation, that the Catalan verse writers accept the prescriptions of the Leys d’Amor of Guillaume Molinier, and the names which they have to their cobles (stanzas) are all borrowed from the same art de trobar of the school of Toulouse; but, a very noteworthy fact, their language begins to rid itself more and more of Provençalisms and tends to become the same as that of prose and of ordinary conversation. With Pere and Jaume March, Jordi de Sant Jordi, Johan de Masdovelles, Francesch Ferrer, Pere Torroella, Pau de Bellviure, Antoni Vallmanya, and, above all, the Valencian Auzias March (died 1459), there flourished a new school, of which the éclat lasted till the end of the 15th century, and which, as regards the form of its versification, is distinguished by its almost exclusive employment of eight-verse cobles of ten syllables, each with "crossed" or "chained" rhymes (cobla crohada or encadenada), each composition ending with a tornado of four verses, in first of which the "device" (divis or senyal) of the poet is given out. The greater number of these poems are still the cançoners, where they had been collected in the 15th century. Auzias March alone, the most inspired, the most profound, but also the most obscure of the whole group, had the honour to be printed in the 16th century; his cants d’amor and cants de mort contain the finest verses ever written in Catalan, but the poet fails to keep up to his own high level, and by his studied obscurity occasionally becomes unintelligible to such a degree that one of his editors accuses him of having written in Basque. Of a wholly different class, and in quite another spirit, is the Libre de les Dones of Jaume Roig (died 1478), a Valencian also, like March; this long poem is a nova rimada, only comediada, that is to say, it is in quadrisyllabic instead of octosyllabic verse. A bitter and caustic satire upon women, it purports to be a true history,—the history of the poet himself and of his three unhappy marriages in particular. Notwithstanding its author’s allegations, however, the Libre de les Dones does not seem to be other than a fiction; but it derives a very piquant interest from its really authentic elements, its vivid picture of the Valencia of the 15th century and the details of the manners of that time. After this bright period of efflorescence Catalan poetry rapidly fell off, a decline due more to the force of circumstances than to any fault of the poets. The union of Aragon with Castile, and the resulting predominance of Castilian throughout Spain, inflicted a death blow on Catalan literature, especially on its artistic poetry, a kind of composition more ready than any other to avail itself of the triumphant idiom which soon came to be regarded by men of letters as the only noble one, and alone fit to be the vehicle of elevated or refined thoughts. The fact that a Catalan, Juan Boscan, inaugurates in the Castilian language a new kind of poetry, and that the Castilians themselves regard him as the head of a school, is important and characteristic; the date of the publication of the works of Boscon (1543) marks the end of Catalan poetry.

Prose of 13th-15th centuries. The earlier prose works in Catalan are later indeed than the poems of the oldest Catalan troubadours of the Provençal school, not dating farther back than from the close of the 13th century, but they have the advantage of being entirely original; their language is the very language of the soil which we see appearing in charters from about the time of the accession of James I. (1213). This is true especially of the chronicles, a little less so of the other writings, which, like the poetry, have difficulty in escaping the influence of the more polished dialect of the country to the north of the Pyrenees. Its chronicles are the best ornament of mediaeval Catalan prose. Four of them,—that of James I., apparently reduced to writing a little after his death (1276) with the help of memoirs dictated by himself during his lifetime; that of Bernat Des Clot, which deals chiefly with the reign of Pedro III. of Aragon (1276-1286); that of Ramon Muntaner (first half of the 14th century), relating at length the expedition of the Catalan company to the Mores and the conquest of Sardinia by James II.; finally that of Pedro IV., The Ceremonious (1326-1387), genuine commentaries of that astute monarch, arranged by certain officials of his court, notably by Bernat Des Coll,—these four works are distinguished alike by the artistic skill of their narration and by the quality of their language; it would not be too much to liken these Catalan chroniclers, and Muntaner especially, to Villehardouin, Joinville, and Froissart. The Doctor Illuminatus, Raymond Lully, whose acquaintance with Latin was very poor,—his philosophical works were done into that language by his disciples,—wrote in a somewhat a Provençalized Catalan various moral and propagandist works,—the romance Blanquerna in praise of the solitary life, the Libre de les Maravelles, into which is introduced a "bestiary" taken by the author from Kalilah and Dimnag, and the Libre del Orde de Cavalleria, a manual of the perfect knight, besides a variety of other treatises and opuscula of minor importance. The majority of the writings of Lully exist in two versions,—one in the vernacular, which is his own, the other in Latin, originating with his disciples, who desired to give currency throughout Christendom to their master’s teachings. Lully—who was very popular in the lay world, although the clergy had a low opinion of him and in the 15th century even set themselves to obtain a condemnation of his works by the Inquisition—had a rival in the person of Francesch Ximenez or Eximeniz, a Franciscanm born at Gerona some time after 1350. His Crestiá (printed in 1483-84) is a vast encyclopaedia of theology, morals, and politics for the use of the laity, supplemented in various aspects by his three other works—Vida de Jesu Christ, Libre dels Angels, and Libre de les Dones; the last-named, which is at once a book of devotion and a manual of domestic economy, contains a number of curious details as to a Catalan woman’s manner of life and the luxury of the period. Lully and Eximeniz are the only Catalan authors of the 14th century whose works written in vulgar tongue had the honour of being translated into French shortly after their appearance.

We have chiefly translators and historians in the 15th century. Antoni canals, a Domincian, who belongs also to the previous century, translates into Catalan Valerius Maximus and a treatise of St Bernard; Bernat Metge, himself well-versed in Italian literature, present some of its great masters to his countrymen by translating the Griselidis of Petrarch, and also by composing Lo Sompni ("The Dream"), in which the influence of Dante, of Boccaccio, and, generally speaking, of the Italy of the 13th and 14th centuries is very perceptible. The Feyts d’Armes de Catalunya of Bernat Boades, a knightly chronicle brought to a close in 1420, reveals a spirit of research and a conscientiousness in the selection of materials which are truly remarkable for the age in which it was written. On the other hand, Pere Tomich, in his Histories é Conquestes del Reyalme d’Aragó (1438), carries us back too much to the manner of the medieaval chronicles; his credulity knows no bounds, while his style has altogether lost the naïve charm of that of Muntaner. To the list of authors who represent the leading tendencies of the literature of the 15th century we must add the name of Johanot Martorell, a Velencian, author of the celebrated romance of chivalry Tirant to Blanch (finished in 1460), which the reader has nowadays some difficulty in regarding as that "treasury of contentment" which Cervantes will have it to be.

16th-18th centuries. With the loss of political was bound to coincide that of literary independence in the Catalonian countries. Catalan fell to the rank of a patois and was written less and less; lettered persons ceased to cultivate it, and the upper classes, especially in Valencia, owing to the proximity of Castile, soon affected to make no further use of the local speech except on familiar conversation. The 16th century, in fact furnished literary history with hardly more than a single poet at all worthy of the name—Pere Serafí, some of whose pieces, in the style of Auzias March, but less obscure, are graceful enough and deserve to live; his poems were printed at Barcelona in 1565. Prose is somewhat better represented, but, to tell the truth, it is only the erudite who persist in writing in Catalan—antiquaries and historians like Pere Miguel Carbonell, compiler of the Chroniques de Espanya (1547), Francesch Tarafa, Pere Anton Beuter, also chroniclers, and some others not so well known. In the 17th and 18th centuries the decadence becomes still more marked. A few scattered attempts to restore to the Catalan, now more and more neglected by men of letters, some of its old life and brilliance, fail miserably. Neither Hieronim Pujades the historian, author of a Coronica Universal del Principat (Barcelona, 1609), nor even Dr Vicens Garcia, rector of Vallfogona (1582-1623), a verse-writer by no means destitute of verse or humour, but whose literary talent and originality have been very greatly exaggerated by the Catalans of the present day, was able to bring back his countrymen to a cultivation of the local idiom. Some sermons, some lives of saints, some books of devotion, some relations, and complaints for the use of the people, exhaust the catalogue of everything written in Catalan throughout the whole area of its domains down to the beginning of the present century; not a single book of importance can be mentioned. Writers who were Catalan by birth has so completely unlearned their mother-tongue that it would have seemed to them quite inappropriate, and even ridiculous, to make use of it in serious works, so profoundly had Castilian struck its roots in the eastern province of Spain, and so thoroughly had the work of assimilation been carried out to the advantage of the official language of the court and of the Government.

Revival of Catalan language and literature. In 1814 appeared the Gramática y Apologia de la Llengua Cathalana of Joseph Pau Ballot y Torres, which may be considered as marking the origin of a genuine renaissance of the grammatical and literary study of Catalan. Although the author avows no object beyond the purely practical one of giving to strangers visiting Barcelona for commercial purposes some knowledge of the language, the enthusiasm with which he sings the praises of his mother-tongue, and his appended catalogue of works which have appeared in it since the time of James I., sufficiently show that this was not his only aim. In point of fact the book, which is entitled to high consideration as being the first systematic Catalan grammar, written, too, in the despised idiom itself, had a great influence on the authors and literary men of the principality. Under the helping influence of the new doctrines of romanticism twenty years had not passed before a number of attempts in the way of restoring the old language had made their appearance, in the shape of various poetical works of very unequal merit. The Oda á la Patria (1833) of Buenaventura Carlos Aribau is among the earliest if not actually the very first of these, and it also the best; the modern Catalan school has not produced anything either more inspired or more correct. Following in the steps of Aribau, Joaquin Rubió y Ors (Lo Goyter del Llobregat), Antonio de Bofarull (Lo Coblejador de Moncada), and soon afterwards a number of other verse writers took up the lyre which it might have been feared was never to sound again since it fell form the hands of Auzias March. The movement spread from Catalonia into other provinces of the ancient kingdom of Aragon; the appeal of the Catalans of the principality was responded to at Valencia and in the Balearic Isles. Later, the example of Provence, of the felibritge of the south of France, accelerated still further this renaissance movement, which received official recognition in 1859 by the creation of the jochs florals, in which prizes are given to the best competitors in poetry, of whom some succeed in obtaining the diploma of mestre en gay saber. It is of course impossible to foresee the future of this new Catalan literature—whether it is indeed destined for that brilliant career which the Catalans themselves anticipate. In spite of the unquestionable talent of poets like Mariano Aguiló (Majorca), Teodoro Llorente (Valencia), and, among the younger of them, Jacinto Verdaguer (Catalonia), author of an epic poem Atlantída and of very fascinating Cants Mistichs, it is by no means certain that this generation will be succeeded by another to follow in its footsteps, or that such a restoration of a provincial literature has mush chance of permanence at the very moment when all the peoples of Europe are tending rather towards unity and centralization in the matter of language. At all events, in order to secure even a comparative success for such a revival, it would be well if the language serving as its instrument were somewhat more fixed, and if its writers would no longer hesitate, as they at present do, between a pretentious archaism and the incorrectness of the most vulgar colloquialism. The few attempts of modern Catalans in the direction of romance writing and dramatic composition have not hitherto been particularly felicitous, and have not led to anything noteworthy.

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