Jorge Manrique, regarded as among the most accomplished of late medieval Spanish poets, belonged to an aristocratic Castilian family, one that left its mark upon the cultural as well as the political history of the fifteenth century. His father, Rodrigo, Count of Paredes, rose to be Master of Santiago and Constable of Castile. Jorge’s uncle, Gómez Manrique, was one of the finest poets of the reign of King Enrique IV (1454-1474). Among more distant kinsmen, Jorge could claim as a great-uncle the celebrated writer Iñigo Lopez de Mendoza, Marquis of Santillana. Thus, Jorge Manrique was part of a brilliant vein of literary culture that marked at least certain individuals and families among the fifteenth century warrior aristocracy of Castile. Characteristic of his time, he was torn among the claims of a soldier’s, a courtier’s, and a poet’s life, eventually dying in battle in 1479 fighting on behalf of Queen Isabel.
Coplas on the Death of His Father has been called the greatest poem in the Spanish language, but even without it, Manrique’s approximately fifty canciones (lyric poems) and decires (narrative, panegyric, or satirical poems) would have established him among the leading poets of his time. As it was, Coplas on the Death of His Father so touched the imagination of subsequent generations that for more than two hundred years, criticism was written that sought to discover new and esoteric meanings in Manrique’s masterpiece. Lope de Vega Carpio esteemed it so highly that he declared that it should have been written in letters of gold. Manrique’s most eloquent English translator, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, thought it to be the most beautiful “moral” poem in the Spanish language, and Pedro Salinas wrote that the poem represents the culmination of the elegiac lyric in Spanish. Manrique’s critics concur that in this work he excels all other poets of the fifteenth century in Spain.
The poem, which consists of approximately five hundred lines divided into forty-two coplas (or stanzas), is a memorial to Manrique’s father, Rodrigo, who died in 1476 at the height of his fame. An intensely emotional poem, it integrates the poet’s personal loss, the medieval worldview, concern for the passing of time, the vagaries of fortune, the inevitability of death, and the hope of salvation. Its uniqueness lies in Manrique’s ability to employ familiar and rather well-worn themes in such a way as to extend their aesthetic potential. A mark of Manrique’s greatness is his ability to render the grief of one individual in such a way that it becomes a grief universally shared by his readers.
The poem uses the form known as the copla de pie quebrado, familiar in Spanish poetry from the time of Juan Ruiz, the Archpriest of Hita, in the fourteenth century. In the pie quebrado, the tetrasyllablic (four-syllable) line is used with the octosyllabic (eight-syllable) line, thus reducing some lines to half the metrical length of the others, in mixed trochaic meter. These half-lines, when handled by a master, create an effect of suspense or hesitation. Manrique’s use of the pie quebrado form became so famous that thereafter the term copla manriqueña (after Manrique), or simply the copla de Jorge Manrique, became as distinctive as the Shakespearean sonnet became in English letters.
The dominant motifs in the Coplas on the Death of His Father reflect characteristic medieval themes: the ubi sunt qui ante nos in mundo fuere? (what has become of those who have gone before us?); the memento mori (in the middle of life we are in...
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