Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The poems that made Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer famous, and that make up practically his entire production, are those included in his book The Rhymes. Only eight or ten other poems have been found, almost all juvenilia and not of high quality. When Bécquer’s friends published the first edition of his works in 1871, The Rhymes consisted of seventy-six untitled poems as well as the previously published prose works. Another manuscript of the collection was later found, containing three more poems, for a total of seventy-nine. The discovery and publication of other poems raised the number to ninety-four, but later it was proved that many of the new poems actually had been written by Bécquer’s contemporaries or had been fraudulently attributed to him.

The single most important influence on Bécquer’s poetry was Heinrich Heine, whose impact on Bécquer is universally acknowledged. In addition, critics have pointed out a wide variety of lesser influences, ranging from George Gordon, Lord Byron and Edgar Allan Poe to the German poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and Anastasius Grün (pseudonym of Anton Alexander, count of Auersperg) and the Spanish poets Eulogio Florentino Sanz (the translator of Heine into Spanish), José María de Larrea, and Augusto Ferrán. Nevertheless, Bécquer’s poetic genius was so powerful that he was capable of fusing these influences with that of the popular Andalusian tradition to create his own distinctive style.

The most important characteristics of Bécquer’s poetry are its simplicity and its suggestive, ethereal inwardness. It should be noted that the great majority of his poems are very short; his verse lines are generally short as well, and he prefers assonance to rhyme. Bécquer’s language is elegant but simple, lacking exotic and high-sounding words, and he uses a minimum of rhetorical techniques. His preference for suggestion rather than explicit statement is reflected in his frequent use of incorporeal motifs such as waves of light, the vibration of air, murmurs, thoughts, clouds, and sounds. Anecdotes are absent from his poetry, except for some extremely short ones that are indispensable to the communication of emotions. Nature appears in his poems impressionistically, mirroring the poet’s interior drama. Above all, Bécquer is an eminently subjective poet who uses his poetry to express his inner feelings with almost complete indifference to the objective reality of the world.

The above-mentioned characteristics, as well as others, place Bécquer as a precursor of the Symbolist movement. Traditionally, he has been considered a late Romantic, and to a certain extent this classification is correct. In Bécquer’s poetry, it is easy to observe the cult of the individual, the exaggerated sensitivity, the centering of the world on the subjectivity of the poet—all typical of the Romantic movement. Nevertheless, these characteristics appear in Bécquer in conjunction with others that typify the Symbolism of Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud. For Bécquer, emotions or feelings are the true object of poetry. Feelings cannot be expressed with exact and precise words, and to represent his interior world, the poet must rely on suggestion and evocative symbolism. In the first poem in The Rhymes, Bécquer says that he would like to express the “gigantic and strange hymnal” that he knows, by “taming the rebel, and miserly language,/ with words that are at the same time/ sighs and laughs, colors and notes.” In these lines, it can be seen that Bécquer conceived of the possibility of the correspondence of sensations, also typical of Symbolism. For him, as for the Symbolists, there is an ideal, absolute, and perfect world, of which the familiar physical world is an imperfect representation, significant not for itself but only for the impressions of a higher reality that it conveys. Finally, Bécquer, like the Symbolists, made frequent allusions to music and struggled to make his language as musical as possible.

The Rhymes

In the manuscript of The Rhymes, the poems do not follow a chronological order; indeed, they seem to follow no logical order at all. The most widely accepted critical opinion is that, having lost the original manuscript (which he gave to a friend for publication right before the revolution of 1868), Bécquer had to reconstruct the collection from memory, adding some new poems. It is speculated that in the new copy, the majority of the poems appear in the order in which the poet remembered them, interspersed with those newly created. In any case, when Bécquer’s friends decided to publish his works, they rearranged the poems, placing them in the order in which they have appeared in all of their subsequent publications.

The sequence imposed on the poems, justifiably or not, gives the collection a “plot.” Early poems in the sequence reflect the enthusiasm of a young poet who seeks to explain the mystery of his art and who discovers the mysterious connections between poetry and love. In later poems, however, celebration of love gives way to disillusionment with the beloved. In the final poems in the sequence, the poet is increasingly preoccupied with death.

Thus, with few exceptions, the poems collected in The Rhymes can be divided into four sequential groups. The first group consists of poems that consider the poet per se and the nature of poetry; the second, of poems dealing with love; the third, of poems expressing disillusionment with love; and the fourth, of poems dealing with anguish and death.

Included in the first group are poems 1 through 8—except for poem 6 (a pathetic description of Shakespeare’s Ophelia)—and poem 21. In poems 2 and 5, Bécquer focuses his attention on the poet per se, trying to explain what it means to be a poet and to describe the intimate nature of the poetic spirit. In the first of these two poems, Bécquer employs a series of similes to define himself both as a poet and as a human being. To suggest the narrow limits of man’s control over his own destiny, Bécquer imagines himself to be an arrow, a dry leaf, a wave, and a ray of light, saying in the last stanza that he is crossing...

(The entire section is 2553 words.)