Fifteenth-Century Spanish Poetry Essay - Critical Essays

Fifteenth-Century Spanish Poetry


Fifteenth-Century Spanish Poetry

The beginning of the fifteenth century witnessed a considerable outburst of poetic activity in Spain, particularly so in the kingdom of Castile, which would become the dominant power on the Iberian peninsula. As literary composition in the Portuguese-Galician dialect declined in favor of Castilian, a spread in literacy among the laity prompted an expansion of writing in the central Spanish vernacular. Politically, the deterioration of feudal divisions from the medieval era led to a consolidation of power within the hands of a few families, such as the influential Mendozas, while the burgeoning authority of the Castilian monarch King Juan II furthered interest in polite, courtly verse composed in Spanish. Meanwhile, a newfound attention to humanistic culture that spread outward from the intellectual centers of Italy had reached Spain. Transitional figures such as Francisco Imperial and the later Marqués de Santillana, both of whom had been strongly influenced by Italian literary models, encouraged a new awareness of the styles, subjects, and rhetorical methods of classical antiquity, contributing to a proto-Renaissance in the region. Among the concrete results of this period of flourishing vernacular humanism was a rapid development in the composition of cancionero (“songbook”) verse, typified by the contents of the poetic anthology Cancionero de Baena (c. 1425). Its editor, Juan Alfonso de Baena, royal secretary to King Juan II, is also credited with naming this intermediary epoch in Spanish cultural history, calling it the gaya ciencia (“gay science”; the Spanish terms for art and science being used almost interchangeably at the time). Admiration for the cancionero persisted throughout the fifteenth century and into the next. The influence of such verse and of related vernacular poetry composed by the major Castilian writers of the fifteenth century can hardly be overstated, with numerous scholars acknowledging its decisive impact on the subsequent course of Spanish literature.

The cancionero lyric, a general term for Castilian poetry of the late medieval period, enjoyed a position of unrivalled popularity in Spanish letters during the 1400s. Its principal metrical form, verso de arte mayor, typically features stanzas of eight twelve-syllable lines, each with a floating caesura and frequent variations in stress. While not particularly pleasing to modern ears, the arte mayor lent itself aptly to the mood of courtly recitation favored during the period. In decline by about the middle of the fifteenth century, it was eventually displaced by regular octosyllabic meter as the dominant form of Spanish verse composition. The thematic concerns of the cancionero, while allowing for some variations, were predominately medieval in orientation. Moral topics, however, occasionally gave way to modern intellectual or philosophical interests. Subtle political themes appeared, while innovations in symbolism, allegory, rhetoric, and allusion drawn from classical Latin sources can also be found among more accomplished works. The Cancionero de Baena, the first and most well-known of the cancionero anthologies, was compiled according to the dictates of the Castilian monarch King Juan II in about 1425. Other collections were to follow, including the Cancionero general (1511), which marks the end of this literary phase. Baena's anthology contains nearly six hundred poems from fifty-five authors, works that, scholars have noted, generally exhibit a rather pedestrian taste, including examples of decadent but popular Galician-Portuguese troubadour verse together with a few more thematically and stylistically inventive pieces. As many of the poems were untitled, the compilation also features Baena's notorious epigraphs: largely extra-poetic material ranging from introductions and anecdotes to vitriolic proclamations against individual authors. Modern critics have acknowledged that this collection generally failed to record the finest examples of cancionero poetry, but have stressed the volume's historical significance. Later compilations have also elicited the attention of modern scholars, who have begun to study the cultural implications of such works, such as their suppressed representation of women and occasional eruptions into strongly anti-Semitic sentiment.

Included among Juan Alfonso de Baena's collection of cancionero poetry can be found one particularly notable piece, usually attributed to the Genovese poet Francisco Imperial (d. 1409), a resident of Seville who wrote in Spanish. This work, entitled Decir a las siete virtudes (c. 1396), follows a Dantesque allegorical narrative concerned with moral and spiritual decay. Rather than forwarding a Christian theme as Imperial had, Enrique de Villena (1384-1434), another historically notable poet, looked to classical mythology for inspiration in his Los doze trabajos de Hercules (1417; “The twelve labors of Hercules”). This poem attests to the growing awareness of antique subjects that would begin to inform Spanish poetry in the early fifteenth century. The influence of classicism via its Italian adherents was a determining factor in the poetic oeuvre of aristocrat, scholar, and statesman Iñigo López de Mendoza, Marqués de Santillana (1398-1458). Generally noted for his didactic and allegorical verse, Santillana was also said to personify the ideal of the soldier-poet, combining the intellectual and military virtues (sapientia et fortitudo) viewed as supremely laudable in the late medieval period. The impact of Dante's work on Santillana was profound, while the Castilian's sonnets draw heavily upon the poetic innovations of Petrarch. Santillana's famous serranillas (“pastoral songs”) center on a courtier's seduction of a country girl and are deemed significant transitional works in the tradition of the love lyric. Scholars generally consider his Proemio e carta al condestable de Portugal (1449), a letter-introduction to his own writings formally addressed to the Constable of Portugal, the earliest work of literary criticism in Spanish. In it, Santillana classified three levels of literary style: high, associated with classical pieces in Greek or Latin; middle, vernacular compositions of formal merit and significance; and low, informal songs and ballads. Acknowledged as a notable early assay into the field of literary history, the Proemio has prompted an array of differing scholarly opinions. In addition to his varied personal contributions to Spanish literature, featuring a full range of poetic composition, Santillana commissioned translations of the great works of classical antiquity, including the epics of Homer and Virgil. He also directed Enrique de Villena to render Dante's Divina commedia into Castilian in 1427. A somewhat younger contemporary of Santillana, Juan de Mena (1411-1456) was a member of the court of Juan II of Castile and composed his works chiefly in verso de arte mayor. His long, Latinate poem El laberinto de fortuna (1444) recapitulates a medieval allegorical theme that foregrounds this poet's debt to Dante, and likewise shares a concern with elements of political and cultural propaganda found in the great works of his Italian forerunner. A final figure of major significance, Jorge Manrique (c. 1440-1479) is usually associated with one lyric, his Coplas por la muerte de su padre (from a surviving cancionero anthology of about 1482). A moving elegy on the death of Manrique's father, the work praises the transcendent glory of Christian salvation and is recognized as one of the outstanding works of the Spanish tradition. It has continued to attract the attention of modern critics for its rich suggestiveness, including the striking political and psychological undertones that adjoin its religious subject.

Representative Works

Juan Alfonso de Baena
Cancionero de Baena (poetry anthology) c. 1425
Dezir que fizo Juan Alfonso de Baena (poetry) c. 1430

Hernando del Castillo
Cancionero general (poetry anthology) 1511

Fernán Pérez de Guzmán
Confesión rimada (poetry) early 15th century
Coplas de vicios y virtudes (poetry) early 15th century
Coronación de las cuatro virtudes cardinals (poetry) early 15th century
Proverbios (poetry) 1425

Francisco Imperial
Decir a las siete virtudes (poetry) c. 1396

Jorge Manrique
Coplas por la muerte de su padre (poetry) c. 1482

Juan de Mena
El laberinto de fortuna (poetry) 1444

Iñigo López de Mendoza, Marqués de Santillana
El Sueño (poetry) early 15th century
Comedieta de Ponça (poetry) early 15th century
Infierno de los enamorados (poetry) early 15th century
Triunphete de Amor (poetry) early 15th century
Defunsión de D. Enrique de Villena (poetry) 1434
Proverbios (poetry) 1437
Proemio e carta al condestable de Portugal (criticism) 1449
Poesías completas (poetry) 1983-1991

Other Cancionero Anthologies
Cancionero Ilamado de Fray Iñigo de Mendoza (poetry anthology) c. 1482
Cancionero de Oñate-Castañeda (poetry anthology) c. 1485
Cancionero musical de Palacio (poetry anthology) c. 1500

Enrique de Villena
Los doze trabajos de Hercules (poetry) 1417

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Carl Ralph Borgia (essay date May 1984)

SOURCE: Borgia, Carl Ralph. “Notes on Dante in the Spanish Allegorical Poetry of Imperial, Santillana, and Mena.” Hispanófila 27, no. 81 (May 1984): 1-10.

[In the following essay, Borgia traces the influence of Dantean allegory on the poetry of Francisco Imperial, Juan de Mena, and the Marqués de Santillana.]

Historical critics have used the presence of symbolic dreams or visions in the poetry of Francisco Imperial, the Marqués de Santillana and Juan de Mena to study the relationship of these poets with the previous body of allegorical literature in Spain, Italy and France.1 The major concern has been to decide which country had most influence on the...

(The entire section is 4168 words.)

Julian Weiss (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Weiss, Julian. Introduction to The Poet's Art: Literary Theory in Castile c. 1400-60, pp.1-24. Oxford: The Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, Weiss surveys the social and theoretical principles expressed in Castilian poetry of the fifteenth century.]


The fifteenth century in Castile saw an astonishing outburst of poetic creativity which, at least in terms of quantity, was unmatched by any other European country.1 The early decades of the period also witnessed important changes both of a literary and a linguistic nature. Galician finally gave way to...

(The entire section is 10998 words.)

Criticism: The Cancioneros

Dorothy Clotelle Clarke (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Clarke, Dorothy Clotelle. “The verso de arte mayor” and “General Comments.” In Morphology of Fifteenth-Century Castilian Verse, pp. 51-61; 219-222. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1964.

[In the following excerpt, Clarke analyzes the verso de arte mayor—the dominant metrical form of cancionero poetry—and examines its decline in relation to octosyllablic verse.]


The verso de arte mayor is a metrically simple but rhythmically complex form. It may be roughly defined as a verse whose time measure is 6 + 6 syllables,1 and whose basic pattern is:...

(The entire section is 6156 words.)

Theodore L. Kassier (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Kassier, Theodore L. “Cancionero Poetry and the Celestina: From Metaphor to Reality.” Hispanófila 56 (1976): 1-28.

[In the following essay, Kassier stresses the influence of the conventions of cancionero verse on the seminal Spanish realist novel, the Tragicomedia de Calixto y Melibea.]

The poetry contained in the Castilian cancioneros compiled in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, consolidated by Foulché-Delbosc in his Cancionero Castellano del Siglo XV,1 unites the conventions of the Galaico-Portuguese, Provençal, and courtly love poetical traditions, as well as Petrarchian influences.2 To...

(The entire section is 11406 words.)

Jane Whetnall (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Whetnall, Jane. “Lírica femenina in the Early Manuscript Cancioneros.” In What's Past is Prologue: A Collection of Essays in Honour of L. J. Woodward, edited by Salvadore Bacarisse, et al., pp. 138-50. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Whetnall studies the feminine lyric tradition—featuring the poetic laments of grieving, betrayed, and wronged women—in cancionero verse.]

There is a small number of poems en boca femenina in the manuscript cacioneros that collect the lyric output of the first half of the fifteenth century.1 They are so few and so unobtrusive that they have attracted...

(The entire section is 6392 words.)

Ian Macpherson (essay date January 1985)

SOURCE: Macpherson, Ian. “Secret Language in the Cancioneros: Some Courtly Codes.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 62, no. 1 (January 1985): 51-63.

[In the following essay, Macpherson highlights strong suggestions of coded signification and innuendo in cancionero poetry.]

The title of this article contains a conscious stylistic device. By ‘code’ I wish to suggest not only ‘código’, a conventionalized set of principles, but also ‘cifra’, a system whereby meaning may be transferred from one person or one group of persons to another in a way which will deliberately exclude any person who does not have access to the key to an agreed system. By...

(The entire section is 7525 words.)

Michel Garcia (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Garcia, Michel. “In Praise of the Cancionero: Considerations on the Social Meaning of the Castilian Cancioneros.” In Poetry at Court in Trastamaran Spain: From the Cancionero de Baena to the Cancionero General, edited by E. Michael Gerli and Julian Weiss, pp. 47-56. Tempe, Ariz.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1998.

[In the following essay, Garcia concentrates on the importance of evaluating cancionero verse in collective form as poetic anthology.]

Nothing could be more timely than this collection of studies, now that Brian Dutton's compilation of cancioneros (1990-91) is finally completed, and now...

(The entire section is 5271 words.)

Regula Rohland de Langbehn (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: de Langbehn, Regula Rohland. “Power and Justice in Cancionero Verse.” In Poetry at Court in Trastamaran Spain: From the Cancionero de Baena to the Cancionero General, edited by E. Michael Gerli and Julian Weiss, pp. 199-220. Tempe Ariz.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1998.

[In the following essay, de Langbehn explores a combined interest in moral and political themes in cancionero verse, with particular regard to the concept of justice and the social position of the aristocracy and monarchy in fifteenth-century Spain.]


Many of the...

(The entire section is 10925 words.)

Criticism: Major Figures

David H. Darst (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Darst, David H. “Poetry and Politics in Jorge Manrique's Coplas por la muerte de su padre.Medievalia et Humanistica 13 (1985): 197-205.

[In the following essay, Darst emphasizes the political motivation behind Jorge Manrique's elegy Coplas por la muerte de su padre.]

Jorge Manrique's moving elegy to his father has been a perennial favorite with the masses as well as the critics since its diffusion shortly after the soldier poet's own death in 1479.1 Since the appearance of Pedro Salinas's fundamental study of the poem in 1947,2 this monument of fifteenth-century Spanish poetry has received an especially large number of...

(The entire section is 3624 words.)

Giovanni Caravaggi (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Caravaggi, Giovanni. “Petrarch in Castile in the Fifteenth Century: The Triunphete de Amor by the Marquis of Santillana.” In Petrarch's Triumphs: Allegory and Spectacle, edited by Konrad Eisenbichler and Amilcare A. Iannucci, pp. 291-306. Ottawa: Dovehouse Editions, Inc., 1990.

[In the following essay, Caravaggi identifies Petrarchan structural, stylistic, and thematic features in Santillana's Triunphete de Amor.]

The fortune of Petrarch in Spain is usually linked to the meeting in the autumn of 1526 between the poets of Charles V's court in Granada (that is, Juan Boscán, Garcilaso de la Vega and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza) and the ambassadors...

(The entire section is 5453 words.)

Dorothy Clotelle Clarke (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Clarke, Dorothy Clotelle. “The Decir de Micer Francisco Imperial a las siete virtudes: Authorship, Meaning, Date.” In Hispanic Medieval Studies in Honor of Samuel G. Armistead, edited by E. Michael Gerli and Harvey L. Sharrer, pp. 77-83. Madison Wis.: The Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, Ltd., 1992.

[In the following essay, Clarke explicates the poem Decir a las siete virtudes from the fifteenth-century collection Cancionero de Baena.]

The longest (465 verses), undoubtedly the best known, the most scribe-garbled, and the least understood and variously interpreted poem contained in the fifteenth-century Cancionero de Baena is the...

(The entire section is 3476 words.)

Further Reading


Deyermond, Alan. “Women and Gómez Manrique.” In ‘Cancionero’ Studies in Honour of Ian Macpherson, edited by Alan Deyermond, pp.69-87. London: Queen Mary and Westfield College Department of Hispanic Studies, 1998.

Examines Gómez Manrique's poems addressed to women, particularly as they circumvent the gender conventions of cancionero love poetry.

Dutton, Brian. “Spanish Fifteenth-Century Cancioneros: A General Survey to 1465.” Kentucky Romance Quarterly 26, no. 4 (1979): 445-60.

Presents preliminary observations on the manuscript status of fifteenth-century cancionero verse,...

(The entire section is 904 words.)