Catalan Poetry Analysis

Medieval Period

Catalan, a romance language that serves as a bridge between the Ibero-Romanic and the Gallo-Romanic languages, is spoken today mainly in Spain, in the regions of Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands. In addition, it is the official language of the tiny nation of Andorra, which lies in the Pyrenees Mountains on the border between Spain and France. Although clearly related to its sister Romance languages, it is not a dialect but a fully developed language with a venerable history and literature of its own. It flourished from the Middle Ages through to the twentieth century, but during Francisco Franco’s totalitarian rule (1939-1975), it was banned from use in schools, government agencies, and the media. It did not die, however, but was reborn, along with a sometimes radical sense of nationalism, in the late 1970’s after Franco’s death. In 1979, both Spanish and Catalan were officially recognized in Catalonia, and in 1983, the Linguistic Normalization Act reinvigorated the language’s use in official and commercial contexts. In 1997, the Catalan Language Act actually required broadcast media in Catalonia to offer programming in Catalan. Schools expose children to Catalan from a young age. This rebirth of the language has given rise to a revived interest in Catalan poetry both new and old.

Middle Ages

Catalan first produced its own poetry in the thirteenth century. Before that time, and for the next two hundred years, many powerful poets whose vernacular was Catalan chose instead to write in Provençal. The Provençal poets, neighbors geographically, had provided the forms and the lexicon of courtly love and had developed the prestige of amour courtois in lyric poetry. Although some Catalan poets of this period did occasionally write in Catalan, their best-known works are in the more prestigious Provençal. The troubadour Catalan school began to flourish in the late twelfth century; among its members were Count Ramon Berenguer IV, Guillem de Cabestany, Guerau de Cabrera, Guillem de Bergadà, Cerverí de Girona, and Ramon Vidal de Besalú. The latter two were jongleurs or troubadours. Their sensitive love lyrics and highly sophisticated rhyme schemes were faithful to earlier Provençal models; among their themes were amour courtois of a political nature and satiric social verse.

Provençal, the language of art, was noticeably different from daily speech in Catalan. An important factor in maintaining the predominance of Provençal was the poetic Consistory of Toulouse, “de la Gaya Sciencia,” at which Catalan poets writing in Provençal were winning contestants more often than not. This poetic contest, later named the Jocs Florals, has been revived in Toulouse and Barcelona since the nineteenth century, although Provençal is no longer the requisite language.

Raymond Lull

A chronological study of the masterpieces of Catalan poetry begins with the Cancó de Santa Fe (c. 1075), which represents an early, still formative Catalan that nevertheless resembles modern Catalan much more closely than the language of the Chanson de Roland (twelfth century; The Song of Roland, 1880) resembles modern French. Into the formless genre of Catalan poetry, there suddenly burst the most brilliant, fecund author and thinker of all Catalan literature, Raymond Lull (c. 1235-1316). His stature in Catalan letters is comparable to that of Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Petrarch in Italian literature.

Although Lull’s writings encompass a broad literary range, he is particularly appreciated for his poetry, including Libre d’amic e amat (c. 1285; The Book of the Lover and Beloved, 1923), Lo desconhort (c. 1295; lamentation), and Cant de Ramon...

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The Renaissance

The Catalan Renaissance began with the reign of Martí L’Humà in 1396, extending to 1516 and covering the reigns of Ferdinand Alfons IV of Catalonia, Alfons V of Aragon, Joan II, and Ferdinand II. Under Alfons, the center of the Catalan kingdom was Naples, which served as a meeting ground for Catalan and Italian poets and other intellectuals. Italian poets and writers, particularly Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, were influential in the middle and late phases of the Catalan Renaissance in both poetry and prose. Provençal influences continued to be dominant in the early stage of the Renaissance, especially in the poems of Gilabert de Pròixita and Andreu Febrer, the latter also a translator of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) in terza rima.

Jordi de Sant Jordi

Jordi de Sant Jordi (c. 1400-1424), poet, courtier, and soldier, was the outstanding poet of the young Catalan Renaissance. His love poetry appears in his collection Estramps (c. 1420; free verses). The flavor of his unrhymed, decasyllabic verse is Petrarchan, though still with a hint of Provençal. He was much appreciated for his adaptation of Italianate love themes, reminiscent of the dolce stil nuovo. The elegance of his Catalan was innovative and raised Catalan poetic diction and versification to new heights of expressiveness and sensitivity, achieved through sophisticated harmonizing of vocabulary and syntax.

Ausiàs March

The greatest poet of the Catalan Renaissance was Ausiàs March (1397-1459). His influence has been so far-reaching that he is still the most highly respected poet of classic Catalan literature. Catalan poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries continuously studied, imitated, and drew inspiration from March’s controlled emotional torment. Among the...

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The decadence

In the fifteenth century, Catalan literature and culture fell into a decline that continued into the nineteenth century. With the ascendancy of Castile, power shifted away from the Catalan-speaking lands. As a result, Catalan poetry suffered; typical was the case of Juan Boscán (c. 1490-1542), a Catalan who wrote only in Castilian. Only Pere Serafí (c. 1505-1567), Francesc Vicenç Garcia (1582-1623), and Francesc Fontanella (1622-1685?) attempted to keep formal Catalan poetry alive during the decadence. Poetry continued on the popular level, however, particularly in the sixteenth century. It has survived in the anonymous Romancer/Canconer (poem collection), which contains many famous ballads, such as “Els estudiants de Tolosa” (the students of Tolosa), “El testament d’Amelià” (Amelia’s will), “El Comte Arnau” (Count Arnau), and “La dama d’Aragó” (the lady of Aragon); many of these ballads are written in a fourteen-syllable line of rhyming couplets with a caesura at the hemistich.

The Renaixença

The nineteenth century brought a renewed sense of patriotism to Catalonia, and this renewal had intellectual overtones. Poetry was to play a great part in the Catalan cultural resurgence; indeed, it can be said that the lifeblood of modern Catalan literature is its poetry, which has nourished the culture with regular infusions of contemporary masterpieces.

One must begin an appreciation of modern Catalan poetry with the remarkable poetic event that initiated the Renaixença (rebirth) of Catalan letters: the newspaper publication in 1833 of “La Pàtria,” an ode by Bonaventura Carles Aribau (1798-1862). After a lapse of three centuries, Aribau had captured the spirit of Catalonia in a nostalgic, Romantic evocation of landscape. The Catalan population had continued speaking Catalan during the three centuries since Serafí, and scholarly interest in the language had increased in the eighteenth century. The nineteenth century brought a renewed interest in the Middle Ages and in past grandeur; in this climate, “La Pàtria” provided the necessary impulse for the Renaixença. Once under way, the Catalan cultural revival was eagerly supported by intellectuals, scholar-poets such as Milà i Fontanals, archivists, and the Catalan people in general.

One consequence of the Renaixença was the reestablishment of the Jocs Florals in 1859, with the stipulation that Catalan be used exclusively. One of the winners was the epic and lyric poet Jacint Verdaguer (1845-1902). Verdaguer, often called Mossén Cinto, is the best known and most highly esteemed poet of the Renaixença. His complete works were available during his lifetime, and he was a living inspiration to and symbol of the Catalan people during the nineteenth century. Catalan scholars now consider Verdaguer’s works to represent the long first flowering of the Renaixença, with its Romantic, religious, patriotic, and epic tendencies. Verdaguer’s Franciscan humanism, his enrichment of the Catalan language, and his evocation of Catalan history and landscape combine in a formula that has given him a unique place as the patriarch of modern Catalan literature.

The Mallorcan school

While Verdaguer was writing near Barcelona, Maria Aguilo was laying the foundations for poetry and literature in Mallorca in the nineteenth century, influencing Valencian poetry as well. Teodor Llorenc and Vicent Querol were nineteenth century poets of the simple life. Josep Lluis Pons i Gallarça, another Mallorcan poet, led the way for Miquel Costa i Llobera (1854-1922), the most famous Mallorcan poet of the early twentieth century. Costa i Llobera, a priest and admirer of Horace, combined a sensitivity to the beauty and serenity of Mallorca with Christian fervor. His poetic intensity is refined, controlled, but deeply felt. Joan Alcover, Gabriel Alomar, Llorenç Riber, Miquel dels Sants Oliver, Maria Antònia Salvà, Bartomeu...

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Maragall’s influence brought about an explosion of Catalan poetry in the early and mid-twentieth century; Josep Carner, Jaume Bofill i Mates, and Josep Maria López-Picó were particularly indebted to Maragall. Joaquim Folguera (1894-1919), Joan Salvat-Papasseit (1894-1924), and the Mallorcan Bartomeu Rosselló-Pòrcel (1913-1938) were unable to fulfill their great potential; all three died young. Salvat-Papasseit’s soul-wrenching intensity gives his verse a peculiarly modern flavor and makes it among the most powerful in Catalan literature of any period. Other outstanding poets who were contemporaries of Salvat-Papasseit are Agustí Esclasans, Clementina Arderiu, J. V. Foix, Marià Manent, Josep Maria de Sagarra, Tomàs...

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Revival of interest

What is most significant about Catalan poetry is that it has been able to renew itself after a significant historical lacuna. In the 1980’s, the Spanish government agreed to the demands of Catalan nationalists, supported by a majority of the Catalan-speaking populace, to make Catalan the official language of their region, and legislation since then, such as the Catalan Language Act of 1997, has furthered those goals. Even though Spanish remains dominant, Catalan poets have continued to appear on the scene: Maria Ángels Anglada (1930-1999), Miquel Martí i Pol (born 1929), Marta Pessarrodona (born 1941), and Francesc Parcerisas (born 1944) are only a few.

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Barkan, Stanley H., ed. Four Postwar Catalan Poets. Rev. ed. Translated by David H. Rosenthal. Merrick, N.Y.: Cross-Cultural Communications, 1994. Provides translations of and critical commentary on twentieth century Catalan poets.

Carner, Josep. Nabi. Translated by J. L. Gili, edited by Jaume Coll. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 2001. Offers a translated version of Carner’s Christian-themed poetry and an introduction by Arthur Terry.

Crowe, Anna, ed. Light off Water: Twenty-five Catalan Poems, 1978-2002. Translated by Iolanda Pelegri. Manchester, England: Carcanet Press, 2007. Twenty-five poems,...

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