Fifteenth-Century Spanish Poetry Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.