Few writers have left so decisive a stamp upon the literature of their own and of successive ages as Luis de Góngora y Argote. Góngora is the embodiment of the Spanish baroque. His name also survives as a style, gongorismo, or Gongorism. Born in the city of Córdoba into a prosperous and cultivated family, he indifferently studied canon law at the University of Salamanca, although he is said to have led there the life of a dissolute poet rather than that of a student of theology. Returning to Córdoba, he took deacons’s orders and in 1577 was made a prebendary of the cathedral. However, he seems to have remained incorrigibly devoted to the pursuit of pleasure, since, in 1589, he is recorded as having received a reprimand from his bishop for a disreputable lifestyle, which included too-frequent attendance at bullfights and consorting with actors of both genders.
By then, he had already attracted the notice and approbation of Miguel de Cervantes for his writing, but with the circulation of his Romancero general of 1600, his reputation as a poet was assured. In 1612, he left Córdoba for Madrid, seeking, like other Golden Age writers and artists, the fount of patronage at the royal court. He was appointed chaplain to Philip III, no discriminating judge of literature, and, following the latter’s death, served Philip IV in the same capacity. The real source of patronage became the royal favorite, the count-duke of Olivares, who seems to have recognized Góngora’s merits, but by whom the poet seems to have felt neglected in his last, rather unhappy years in the capital city, where he failed to acquire the material rewards he felt were his due.
Góngora’s writing is generally opulent and baroque. He adopted the theory of culteranismo, first enunciated by the soldier, scholar, and poet Luis de Carrillo y Sotomayor. Culteranismo, as conceived by Carrillo, advocates the elevation of literature and especially of poetry. The hallmarks of culteranismo are excessive Latinization of the Castilian language, profound erudition, and learned allusion, that, together with deliberate obscurity, restrict comprehension to only the most learned readers. Perhaps no other Spanish poet has been so reviled, so praised, and so imitated. In approaching The Solitudes, it is important to be aware of culteranismo and gongorismo; the reader must work to understand Góngora’s intricate, complex, and highly allusive work.
Góngora’s years in Madrid, although less rewarding than he anticipated and leading eventually to decay of his physical and mental capacities, saw the composition of his most notable works. Góngora’s writings circulated anonymously and were not published under his name until after his death, although everyone knew they were by him. Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea (1627; Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea, 1961) and The Solitudes began to circulate in 1613. Perhaps his greatest achievement, the “Fábula de Píramo y Tisbe,” began to circulate in 1618. In these works, his pursuit of culteranismo was further honed by his adoption of the theory of conceptismo. Conceptismo, which originated with Alonso de Ledesma, and which at times is difficult to distinguish from culteranismo, seeks to achieve in prose, as much if not even more than in poetry, flashes of wit (concepto). Such flashes of wit are excessive and often of obscure subtlety. Again, they are aimed primarily for intellectual effect and addressed to a refined readership accustomed to epigram and wordplay. In conceptismo, it is the idea that is all-important, while in culteranismo, it is the use and play of language: figures of thought, it has been suggested, in contrast to figures of speech. Conceptismo appealed to many of the greatest writers of the Spanish Golden Age—for example, Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Villegas, Baltasar Gracián y Morales, and Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Conceptismo also was a pervasive fascination for Góngora, whose many admirers and imitators applied the word gongorismo to his uniquely complex melding of culteranismo and conceptismo. Góngora’s famous style is displayed conspicuously in The Solitudes. His complexity, obscurity, Latinizations, and neologisms were denounced by some contemporaries such as Quevedo, despite his use of his own version of conceptismo, and Lope de Vega Carpio. Vega Carpio, it should be acknowledged, sometimes emulates Góngora’s style. For centuries, Góngora’s writings have been mined by critics and commentators who, perhaps only in the first quarter of the twentieth century, began a consistent interpretation of his intentions.
Góngora’s great aspiration was to so expand the possibilities of Spanish poetry that the Spanish language could reach the same state of “perfection and sublimity” he believed characteristic of Latin, and he believed that in The Solitudes he was accomplishing his goal. Indeed, he is said to be the particular voice that fully and finally changed Spanish literature at a time when the readership was demanding more from poetry. In Spanish poetry, one idiom had until Góngora’s time prevailed—the Italianate, in accord with Renaissance poetic dictates. With the publication of The Solitudes and Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea, a new school of poetry was introduced, and few if any poets of Góngora’s language have not since been influenced by his aristocratic, elevated poetic style.
The first modern edition of The Solitudes was brought out in 1927, the tercentenary of...
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