José Zorrilla y Moral

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806

José Zorrilla y Moral left an unparalleled chronicle of his life in his works, his letters, and his autobiography. If to these sources is added the information provided by contemporary newspaper accounts of the productions of his plays and of the many public readings he gave of his poetry, it is possible that more is known of him than of any other Spanish author of his time.

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He was born in Valladolid, Spain, in 1817, into a middle-class family. His father was a lawyer who worked for the government in different capacities, and the young Zorrilla y Moral moved with his family first to Seville in 1826, then to Madrid in 1827. In both cities, the boy was enrolled in prestigious schools but was not a good student. A hyperactive imagination, sensitive personality, and precocious capacity for versifying drove him to write and to recite verses at twelve years old. He began the study of law in Toledo in 1833 but experienced little interest and even less success in the field. Two years later, he published both his first poem and short story. It was then that his very strict father decided to take direct control of Zorrilla y Moral’s life, and as a result, the young poet fled to Madrid without a cent. This obscure existence would soon change, however, and for an unusual reason: After attending the burial of the great satirist José de Larra y Sánchez de Castro, the young Zorrilla y Moral stepped forward and read with trembling voice a deeply expressive poem much in the spirit of Larra’s work. Some of the writers present at the funeral offered him work in literary magazines and solicited his collaboration.

Zorrilla y Moral soon enjoyed the friendship of the most important writers of the day, and in 1837, he published one of his his first plays, Vivir loco y morir más (to live crazy and die crazier). In 1839, he was married to Florentina O’Reilly, a woman several years his senior, who brought him a son from a previous marriage. The same year, he began a highly prolific period of writing, and his fame and popularity grew accordingly. His works touched a responsive chord in his readers and spectators, who were already familiar with the traditions and legends he used in his writing and who appreciated the musicality of his verse. Zorrilla y Moral was soon considered to be the national poet of Spain and was the recipient of many official honors. In 1843, the government bestowed on him the Cross of Carlos III, and in 1848, he was offered membership in the Royal Spanish Academy, although at that time he refused. In 1844, he wrote and produced what was to become his most famous work, Don Juan Tenorio, and in 1846, he left for France, where he contracted with editor Fréderic Baudry for the publication of his complete works (Obras de Don José Zorrilla, 1847). During his stay in Paris, he met the most important French writers of the day. In 1849, he produced and published his masterpiece Traidor, inconfeso y mártir, acclaimed by both the critics and the general public. This play marks the high point of his dramatic production, though he continued to write narrative and lyric poems of arresting beauty.

In 1855, Zorrilla y Moral sailed for America, where he spent eleven years in Mexico and Cuba. Everywhere he went, he was accorded great honors. On his return to Spain in 1866, he was welcomed with delirious enthusiasm in every city he visited. The poet himself contributed to this excitement by giving emotional public readings of his old and new poems. On several of these occasions, his plays were restaged in his honor in the city he happened to be visiting.

Commissioned by the Spanish government, Zorrilla y Moral traveled to Italy in 1871 to find Spanish properties in Italian libraries. The task was neither suitable nor appealing to him, however, and he soon abandoned the mission and went to France. Five years later, he returned to Spain and tried his hand again at drama. The results were two notable failures: Pilatos (Pilate), and the libretto for a new Don Juan Tenorio set to music. His fame, however, was not diminished nor was the affection, admiration, and gratitude of his countrymen. In 1885, he was offered again, and accepted, membership in the Royal Spanish Academy.

The greatest tribute the poet received was his coronation as the national poet in Granada in 1889. It was fitting homage to a true and great poet, as well as a humble and exemplary citizen, who had given poignant and masterful literary form to so many elements of Spanish history and civilization. The triumphant scenes of this coronation had their counterpart in the outpouring of grief and in the deep sense of loss felt throughout the Spanish-speaking world when the poet died in Madrid in 1893.

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