Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer Biography


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

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...

(The entire section is 975 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Orphaned as a young child, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (BEHK-ur) was raised in Seville by his godmother, who possessed a considerable library in which Bécquer became familiar with the works of François-René de Chateaubriand; E. T. A. Hoffmann; George Gordon, Lord Byron; Victor Hugo; and many others. Bécquer published a few works in a Seville newspaper before moving to Madrid at the age of eighteen to pursue a literary career.

During his early years in Madrid, Bécquer devoted his attention to composing a work called Historia de los templos de España (history of the temples of Spain), an ambitious project intended to be a comprehensive catalog of churches and religious art in Spain. The project was never completed, but in the portions that were published, Bécquer anticipates modern prose by imbuing technical descriptions of architectural monuments with symbolism.

Bécquer undertook other projects during his early years in Madrid to make ends meet. He wrote, adapted, and translated works for the theater, wrote journalistic articles, and eventually became director of a newspaper. He even worked as a government bureaucrat, including a time as a censor of novels, work that invites speculation upon Bécquer’s political sympathies. He seems to have been essentially apolitical, conservative in his desire to preserve Spanish folklore and traditions but liberal in his acceptance of new ideas and innovations ushered in by the Industrial Revolution.

Bécquer is best known for his poetry, most of which was published posthumously. Between December, 1860, and April, 1861, he published in a Madrid newspaper four letters called Letters to an Unknown Woman, in which he elaborates his theory of poetry. He considers poetry something apart from the poet, an objective work of art distinct from the biography of the creator, an anticipation of later directions in poetry. Another concern addressed by Bécquer in these letters is his sense of frustration at the inadequacy of poetry, the insufficiency of words to express what he intends. Bécquer...

(The entire section is 850 words.)