(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Appraised by many critics to be among the greatest love poets, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer had not published any books before his death at age thirty-four. Although Bécquer had little money for his education because of the death of his parents when he was nine years old, he read voraciously and was writing odes by the time he was twelve. Bécquer obtained literary recognition when he was twenty-four with the beginning of the serial publication of Cartas literarias a una mujer (Letters to an Unknown Woman, 1924) in 1860 in the periodical El Contemporáneo. After Bécquer’s death, his friends collected the poet’s poems that had been printed in periodicals and published them in a book. The poems in The Rhymes represent the poet’s major work.

Bécquer’s poetry reflects a tendency toward Romanticism, a literary tendency advocated by the liberals upon their return to Spain in 1833 after the death of Fernando VII, who had exiled them. The desire of the Spanish people to depose this oppressive Bourbon monarch corresponded with their desire to free themselves from French classicism, which, as Spanish artists saw it, represented the point of view of the cultured elite of another country and restricted artists’ freedom to compose works in their own styles. Romanticism directly opposes such classical restraints as using plots or subjects taken strictly from ancient sources and using formal language in a highly stylized format. Bécquer’s poetry treats one of the themes characteristic of Romanticism: love. He shows the multiple facets of love: a longing for the ideal woman, disillusionment, and intense despair. Bécquer’s poems expose the states of his soul as it wavers between light and darkness. His poems do not necessarily relate to real love affairs; Bécquer even indicates that he has mixed fact with fiction in his memory. Bécquer is so focused on love that he considers it an enigmatic power enlivening nature and permeating the universe.

The structure of The Rhymes reflects Bécquer’s inner life. His work can be divided into sections that represent different spiritual states. Bécquer’s work begins with his supreme attraction toward art in rhymes 1 through 8, in which he hopes to attain glory through the immortality of his creation. Rhyme 2 compares his spiritual state with a flickering light whose final spark may guide his footsteps to glory, and rhyme 7 refers to his underdeveloped talents; he, like Lazarus, is waiting for a voice to call him.

The next section, consisting of rhymes 9 to 12, reveals the vague foreshadowing of the proximity of love. Rhyme 9 portrays the image of the kisses that nature gives to her surroundings, such as the radiant clouds becoming purple and gold from the sun’s kiss. Rhyme 11 is presented in the form of a dialogue; each of two women relates her attributes in the first-person singular, and the poet responds. Bécquer rejects the passionate dark-haired woman full of desires that transcend shame and the tender blond woman longing to make his dreams come true. He chooses the woman who is a fleeting phantom of light and mist. This phantasmic woman with whom Bécquer is enamored represents the feminine ideal of Romanticism, for she is not a physical being but a spiritual projection: a shadow, a phantom, or a dream. Bécquer thus embarks on an impossible quest for an inaccessible woman.


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The Rhymes Bibliography

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Bell, Aubrey F. G. Contemporary Spanish Literature. New York: Russell & Russell, 1966. Briefly discusses Bécquer’s poetic techniques. Shows how his poetry marks a transition from Romanticism to the modernist innovations of the twentieth century.

Brenan, Gerald. The Literature of the Spanish People: From Roman Times to the Present Day. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976. Describes the characteristics of the poetry of the nineteenth century. Appraises the poetry of Bécquer and examines his place in Spanish literary history.

Bynum, B. Brant. The Romantic Imagination in the Works of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993. Aptly explains how Bécquer utilizes Romantic techniques in The Rhymes. Includes an excellent list of consulted works.

Moss, Joyce, ed. Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times: The Iberian Peninsula. Vol. 5 in World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Group, 2002. Reference work presents analyses of both The Rhymes and the Bécquer collection The Infinite Passion (1924).

Pattison, Walter T., and Donald W. Blezniek. Representative Spanish Authors. Vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963. Concisely relates a brief history of Spanish literature in the nineteenth century and the tenets of Romanticism. Gives an excellent introduction to The Rhymes.

Turnbull, Eleanor L. Ten Centuries of Spanish Poetry: An Anthology in English Verse with Original Texts, from the Eleventh Century to the Generation of 1898. 1955. Reprint. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. Presents the Spanish and English texts of the best-known poems of Bécquer. Contains a brief but informative introduction to Bécquer’s poetry by the renowned scholar Pedro Salinas.

Walters, D. Gareth. “Love Poetry.” In The Cambridge Introduction to Spanish Poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Survey of poetry from Spain, Portugal, and Latin America is organized by genre; the section on love poetry discusses Bécquer’s work.