Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer was born in Seville, in the south of Spain, on February 17, 1836, the son of José María Domínguez Insausti, a painter, and Joaquina Bastida Vargas. The surname Bécquer had come to Spain from Flanders during the seventeenth century as Becker. Although the direct line of the name had ended with the poet’s great-grandmother, the whole family was still known as the Bécquers. One month before young Bécquer turned five, his father died, and four years later his mother died also, leaving Bécquer and his seven brothers to the responsibility of their surviving relatives. While under the care of his mother’s uncle, Don Juan de Vargas, Bécquer began to study at the Colegio de San Telmo in Seville, in order to become a sea pilot. When this school was closed a short time later, he went to live with his godmother, Doña Manuela Monchay. It was decided that Bécquer should take up his late father’s profession, and he began to study painting at the school of the Sevillian artist Antonio Cabral Bajarano. Bécquer devoted his free time to reading in his godmother’s library, where he developed his preference for Horace and for the Spanish Romantic José Zorrilla and where he became fond of literary studies in general.
Bécquer also studied painting with his uncle Joaquín Domínguez Bécquer. Nevertheless, his interest in literature had continued to grow, and when his uncle expressed doubts about Bécquer’s potential to become a great artist, Bécquer decided, in 1854—against his godmother’s advice—to go to Madrid and seek his fortune as a writer.
If in Seville Bécquer had found little happiness, he found even less in Madrid, where he always had economic difficulties and where he was soon diagnosed as having tuberculosis, the sickness that would take him to an early grave. Bécquer quickly ran out of the little money he had brought from Seville, and when he could no longer pay rent in the boardinghouse of Doña Soledad, she generously allowed him to continue residing there anyway. During his early years in Madrid, he worked in collaboration with various friends, turning out translations from French and writing original dramas and zarzuelas (musicals). These pieces for the stage, largely hackwork, did not command good payment, and some were not even produced. Needing to find another source of income, Bécquer obtained an insignificant position as a public servant, but he was soon fired, after being caught during working hours drawing a picture of William Shakespeare’s Ophelia. In those days, he also contributed to a number of Madrid’s newspapers and magazines, and he even tried, unsuccessfully, to found some new ones. These activities neither produced sufficient income for a comfortable life nor contributed to Bécquer’s fame, since his works were often published without his name.
In the year 1858, Bécquer began to publish his “legends” in the newspapers of Madrid; in the same year, he met Julia Espín, a beautiful girl who later became an opera singer. It is said that, although Bécquer’s love for this girl was unrequited, she inspired many of the entries in The Rhymes. It was at this time that Bécquer experienced his first health crisis. In 1859, a poem later included in The Rhymes was published under the title “Imitación de Byron” (“Imitation of Byron”); it was the first of fifteen of The Rhymes that appeared in Madrid periodicals during Bécquer’s lifetime.
In 1860, Bécquer began publishing Letters to an Unknown Woman in serial form and met Casta Esteban Navarro, his doctor’s daughter, whom Bécquer married the following year; the marriage would eventually produce two sons. In that same year, Bécquer’s brother, Valeriano, a notable painter, came with his two children to live in Madrid and soon moved in with Gustavo and his wife. Throughout his married life, the poet and his wife spent several periods near Soria, where his father-in-law had a house. Between 1863 and 1864,...
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