Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer Bécquer, Gustavo Adolfo - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer 1836-1870

(Born Gustavo Adolfo Dominguez Bastida) Spanish poet and short story writer.

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, renowned as Spain's first modern poet, is most widely recognized for his collection of tales in Leyendas (1857-64; Legends) and his volume of poetry, Rimas (1871; Poems). Writing bitter lyrical poetry during the late Romantic period, Bécquer was set apart from his contemporaries, not by his themes of perfection, love, life, and death, but by his unique, restrained style. He is credited with having had enormous influence on many other acclaimed authors, including Rubén Darío, Miguel de Unamuno, and Juan Ramón Jiménez.

Biographical Information

Bécquer was born February 17, 1836, in Seville, Spain, and lived with his father, Don José Domínguez Bécquer, a prominent painter, until the age of ten when his father died. He then lived with a series of relatives before coming to reside with his wealthy godmother. She financed his education at the College of San Antonio Abad and the College of San Telmo, where he began to write his first novel and, with the help of a classmate, a play. When the Spanish government closed the school, Bécquer began a four-year apprenticeship with the painter Antonio Cabral Bejarano. In spite of his godmother's aspirations for him to begin a career in mercantilism, Bécquer moved to Madrid in 1854 to pursue his literary dreams, thus forfeiting his inheritance in her will. There he held a succession of jobs in journalism, translation, and governmental posts. From 1864 to 1868, he served as the official censor of novels under the reign of Queen Isabel. In his spare time, Bécquer frequently contributed anonymous poems and articles to the newspapers El contemporáneo and El museo Universal. He also joined a small ring of writers, artists, and musicians directed by Joaquin Espin y Guillen, a professor at the Conservatoire in Seville. At that time, Bécquer became enamored with Guillen's daughter, Julia. However, his love was not returned and many believe she was the basis for the poems in his Rimas, many of which focused on love. In 1861, he married Casta Esteban y Navarro, the daughter of the doctor who treated him for his continuing bouts of tuberculosis. Together they had three sons. The couple's marriage was strained immensely, however, when Bécquer's brother, Valeriano, moved in with them. Bécquer left the family in 1864 and travelled to a monastery at Veruela in northern Spain, where he hoped to overcome his ill health. There he wrote Cartas desde mi celda (1864), or his spiritual autobiography—his only major work to be published during his lifetime. In 1868 Bécquer began collecting his poems for Rimas; unfortunately, most had been previously purchased by the minister Gonzalez Bravo. The plundering of Bravo´s house during the Spanish Revolution resulted in the loss of these manuscripts, forcing Bécquer to reconstruct them from memory over the course of several years. Following his brother's death in September 1870, Bécquer became extremely ill and returned to be with his wife until he died from pneumonia and hepatitis on December 22, 1870. On December 23, a group of his friends published a two volume collection of his works to aid his widow and three sons.

Major Works

Bécquer's first book, Historia de los templos de España (1857), was a factual work about churches in Spain that included his own illustrations. His second major book, Cartas desde mi celda, known as his “spiritual autobiography,” represented a radical shift from his first work as he wrote and analyzed his innermost emotions while recuperating in the Veruela monastery. The best of Bécquer's posthumous publications are compiled in two books. His most renowned prose is a collection of tales in Leyendas. This accumulation of legends is marked by its supernatural quality and eerie, mystical themes, a style that has led modern critics to compare Bécquer to authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and E. T. A. Hoffmann. He is also considered to be a precursor in the modernist movement, as his unique style helped revolutionize current views of literature. Bécquer's compilation of poems in Rimas contains seventy-six verses about a poet's struggle for perfection and eventual failure in both love and art. The language, written in a colloquial style, alternates between rhymed meter and speech-rhythms. The poems are organized into four categories, each respectively concentrating on poetry as an art, a love affair, antagonism through suffering, and hopelessness. As the collection progresses, the tone also shifts from frustration and despair to detachment and solace in death.

Critical Reception

While Bécquer had a modest, obscure career as a writer during most of his life, he has recently gained international recognition for his work. Bécquer is considered unique among his Romantic contemporaries due to his understated style, which stands in stark contrast to their opulent use of emotion; yet simultaneously, Bécquer, too, uses his literature as a forum for imparting his view of the world to his readers. Critics have thoroughly examined his poetic theory and use of dominant themes such as idealism, love, spirituality, and the supernatural. His verse reveals his experience with true heartbreak, his strong religious beliefs, his own endeavor for perfection as a poet, and his frustration and final acceptance of suffering and death. Bécquer is considered to be Spain's first modern poet, and continues to be distinguished in Latin American literary circles for his original insights into life and literary style.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

*Historia de los templos de España (nonfiction) 1857

Leyendas [Legends] (short stories) 1857-64

Cartas literarias a una mujer [Literary Letters to a Woman] (letters) 1861

Cartas desde mi celda [Letters from My Cell] (spiritual autobiography) 1864

Obras de Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (prose and verse) 1871

Rimas [The Infinite Passion] (poetry) 1871

*Bécquer also provided the illustrations for this work.

Henry Charles Turk (essay date 1959)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Analysis of the Leyendas,” in German Romanticism in Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer's Short Stories, Allen Press, 1959, pp. 19-55.

[In the following excerpt, Turk offers an analysis of Leyendas in the context of German Romanticism.]

… We have observed definite features of German Romanticism that must have influenced Bécquer's thinking from earliest childhood, beginning with Hoffmann, then Heine (early in Madrid), and probably also Schiller and Goethe. Bécquer had to be acquainted with Schiller and Goethe, if we are to believe the information in his Obras completas. If he had not died so young, we can be sure that he would have produced...

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Miguel González-Gerth (essay date 1965)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Poetics of Gustavo Adolfo Becquer,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 80, No. 2, 1965, pp. 185-201.

[In the following essay, González-Gerth reviews Bécquer's Rimas in light of the author's poetic philosophy.]

During his short life, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (Seville 1836—Madrid 1870) wrote about seventy-five short poems or Rimas which were not published in book form until after his death. They are now numbered among the lesser treasures of Spanish literature. Into these generally brief lyrics, Bécquer projected tremendous intensity of feeling without resorting to the verbal effusiveness so characteristic of his time. He made the poems...

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A. D. Inglis (essay date 1966)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Real and the Imagined in Bécquer's Leyendas,” in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1, 1966, pp. 25-31.

[In the following essay, Inglis examines the theme of ineffability in Bécquer's Leyendas.]

The question of Bécquer's treatment of ‘lo inefable’ in his Leyendas has recently been raised again, in an article1 in which special attention is paid to ‘la mujer inalcanzable’ as a theme used in this connexion. The ineffable is important also in other ways, and helps to explain certain variations in quality to be found within the Leyendas. To show how this is so will be the main aim of the present article....

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John H. Hartsook (essay date 1967)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Bécquer and the Creative Imagination,” in Hispanic Review, Vol. 35, No. 3, July, 1967, pp. 252-69.

[In the following essay, Hartsook presents an overview of Bécquer's philosophy of creative imagination, focusing on both his poetry and prose.]

During the last fifty years there has been a growing interest in that field of psychology which deals with the creative uses of the imagination. Recent works in this field provide us with data collected from poets, artists, musicians, and scientists revealing their own imaginative processes in artistic creativity and scientific discovery.1 But these works lament the scarcity of material for such...

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Margaret E. W. Jones (essay date 1970)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Role of Memory and the Senses in Bécquer's Poetic Theory,” in Revista de Estudios Hispánicos, Vol. IV, No. 2, November, 1970, pp. 281-91.

[In the following essay, Jones presents an overview of Bécquer's works, tracing his poetic theory through his writings.]

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer did not enjoy fame in his own lifetime, but at his death in 1870 he left behind a small body of literature which has earned him a place in the foreground of nineteenth-century Spanish letters.1 Today he stands between Romanticism and the more modern literary tendencies. The abundance of supernatural and mysterious elements, his fascination with ruins, the...

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Robert M. Fedorchek (essay date 1971)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “An essay on Becquer's La Ajorca de oro,” in Romance Notes, Vol. 13, No. 2, Winter, 1971, pp. 276-79.

[In the following essay, Fedorchek discusses imagery in Becquer's “La Ajorca de oro.”]

“La ajorca de oro” is the story of a sacrilege committed in the cathedral of Toledo. The protagonists are the beautiful María and her lover, the superstitious and valiant Pedro. María is irresistibly attracted to a gold bracelet on the arm of the statue of the Virgin. Pedro, fully aware that he will be violating the patroness of the city, contrives to be alone in the cathedral, makes off with the bracelet, and goes mad as a consequence of his act.


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Julian Palley (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Becquer's ‘Disembodied Soul,’” in Hispanic Review, Vol. 47, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 185-92.

[In the following essay, Palley discusses the history of the “disembodied soul” motif in literature and comments on Becquer's use of it in his Rimas.]

The myth or image of the disembodied soul, leaving the body during sleep or in a death-like trance, is a pervasive motif of classical, medieval and romantic thought and art. It is taken up by Plato, Cicero and Macrobius, and becomes the basis for the dream-vision of medieval literature, whose paragon is Dante's Divine Comedy. In Western tradition it was Plato who first wrote of the winged and soaring...

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David G. Billick (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The ‘Existential Wave’ in Bécquer's Rimas,” in Revista de Estudios Hispánicos, Vol. 13, 1986, pp. 25-31.

[In the following essay, Billick contends that Bécquer, more than any of his predecessors, formulated in his poetic work Rimas a sophisticated exposition of the existential problem of being.]

In What is Existentialism? William Barrett writes that although metaphysical concerns have traditionally been the domain of philosophy, in the twentieth century poetry “has raised the fundamental problem of man and his destiny in a startling form.”1 He further observes that “from the contemporary poets who are anxious...

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Armand F. Baker (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Self Realization in the Leyendas of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer,” in Revista Hispanica Moderna, Vol. 44, No. 2, 1991, pp. 191-206.

[In the following essay, Baker examines Bécquer's Leyendas in the context of Jungian philosophy, focusing specifically on the functioning of the subconscious in the process of creation.]

There is ample evidence that Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer was greatly affected by his unconscious fantasies. In the “Introducción” to his Libro de los gorriones he refers to “este otro mundo que llevo dentro de la cabeza,”1 and in “Hojas Secas” he describes a trance-like state when his spirit explores the...

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B. Brant Bynum (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Romanticism, Imagination, and Bécquer,” and “The Ways of the Imagination,” in The Romantic Imagination in the Works of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, University of North Carolina Department of Romance Languages, 1993, pp. 9-22, 71–122.

[In the following excerpts, Bynum presents an overview of Bécquer's writing in the context of the philosophical and aesthetic orientation of European Romanticism and then explains Bécquer's view of the imagination's significance.]

There are words of a superficially romantic character in which the imagination is used simply to provide a holiday from reality. But the true romantic fancy constitutes a...

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James Mandrell (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Poesía … Eres tú,’ or the Construction of Bécquer and the Sign of the Woman,” in Culture and Gender in Nineteenth-Century Spain, Clarendon Press, 1995, pp. 53-73.

[In the following essay, Mandrell explains Bécquer's use of women as a theme in his Rimas.]

The dictum ‘Poesía … eres tú’ [Poetry … is you] (59; 549)—found both in the last line of the twenty-first rima (LG 21) and in the first of the Cartas literarias a una mujer—sums up what has long been considered one of the more pressing questions with respect to Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer and his poetry and prose.1 This question is nothing less than the...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Arboleda, Joseph R. “Mi conciencia y yo, Becquer's First Prose Work.” Studies in Romanticism 11, No. 1 (Winter 1972): 26-35.

An overview of Mi conciencia y yo as a precursor to Bécquer's Rimas and Leyendas.

Bécquer, Gustavo Adolfo. A Concordance to the Poetry of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, compiled by Enrique Ruiz-Fornells. Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1970, 207 p.

A study of concordance in Bécquer's poetry. Includes reprints of many of his poems.

Boyer, H. Patsy. “A Feminist Reading of ‘Los Ojos Verdes.’” Theory and Practice of Feminist...

(The entire section is 459 words.)