Luis de Góngora y Argote 1561-1627
Góngora is among the best-known poets of the Spanish Golden Age and is sometimes considered Spain's greatest poetic genius. Although his early sonnets, romances, and letrillas are often collected in anthologies of Spanish poetry, Góngora is most often remembered for the dense yet highly musical poetry of his mature years, in particular the Soledades (1613-14; Solitudes) and Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea (1618; Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea), poetry which is marked by obscure references to classical mythology and a tendency to latinize Spanish syntax and vocabulary. The complexity of Góngora's poetry has led some critics, past and present, to complain that his work is difficult to understand; however, his ornate style, which came to be known as Gongorism, has exerted a profound influence throughout the centuries and has spawned a host of imitative works. In the twentieth century a group of Spanish poets and intellectuals, who called themselves the “Generation of '27” in honor of the tercentenary of Góngora's death, rekindled interest in the poet and celebrated what they perceived as his poetic “purity.”
Góngora was born on July 11, 1561 in Córdoba, the son of a judge of the Inquisition. In 1576 Góngora entered the University of Salamanca, where he studied ecclesiastic law and classical literature. In 1585 Góngora took religious orders and was made prebendary at the Cathedral of Córdoba. Two years later Góngora was reprimanded by church officials for neglecting his religious duties, writing profane poetry, attending bullfights, and, in general, leading a frivolous life. For the next 20 years Góngora traveled widely throughout Spain on church business, while continuing to write poetry and associate with literary figures. In 1602 Góngora traveled to the Spanish court in Valladolid, where he gained favor with several nobles, including the Duke of Lerma and the Count of Villamediana. Continuing his poetic endeavors in Córdoba, Góngora completed Polifemo y Galatea and the first volume of the Soledades in 1613, both of which he sent to his literary friends in Madrid for review. In 1617, through the influence of Lerma, Góngora was appointed the royal chaplain to Philip III, inspiring him to compose Panegírico al Duque de Lerma (1617; Panegyric to the Duke of Lerma), in praise of his benefactor. The following year Góngora was ordained a priest. The royal patronage from which Góngora benefited evaporated in 1621 as Lerma and others lost their political influence with the accession of Philip IV. For the remaining years of his life, Góngora wrote little, though he did begin to collect his poems for publication, an effort cut short by his death in Córdoba on May 23, 1627.
Góngora experimented with a broad range of poetic styles. His early work, and that which is most often found in anthologies of Spanish poetry, falls into several broad categories: romances, similar in form to the ballad and typified by eight-syllable lines arranged in verses; letrillas, short and often humorous poems based on folk traditions; and sonnets, of which “A Córdoba” (1585; “To Córdoba”), with its tribute to his home town, is considered an early masterpiece. In 1603 the editor Pedro Espinosa included much of Góngora's early work along with that of other notable Spanish poets in a volume of poetry entitled Flores de poetas ilustres (Flowers of Illustrious Poets), bringing Góngora to national prominence. The poetry of Góngora's later life, with which he is most closely associated, is much more complex than his early work, both because of the poet's attempt to ennoble Spanish literature by inclusion of Latin vocabulary and syntax and because the metaphors and allusions of this later work require deep familiarity with classical Greek mythology. Both Polifemo y Galatea and Fábula de Píramo y Tisbe (1618; Fable of Pyramus and Thisbe) are major examples of Góngora's reworking of classical stories. Góngora's most famous work, the Soledades, was intended to comprise four parts, but only Soledad primera was finished; Soledad segunda, scholars believe, was nearly completed. The poem, composed in a complex metaphoric latinized language arranged in a complicated stanza system, tells the story of a shipwrecked man who joins a group of goatherds and highlanders on an island paradise. With its theme of the evil inherent in human ambition, coupled with its superb underlying musicality, the Soledades is the most commonly imitated and studied of all of Góngora's works.
Góngora's early romances, letrillas, and sonnets gained critical acclaim during the poet's life, leading to patronage from some of Spain's most important court officials, including the Count of Lemos and Rodrigo Calderón, in addition to Lerma and others. While many of his contemporaries were greatly influenced by the latinization and imagery of his later poetry, the circulation of his Polifemo y Galatea and the Soledades typically drew heavy criticism, most notably from Góngora's rival Francisco Quevedo, who parodied Góngora's elaborate style in his La culta latiniparla (The Learned Latin-speaking Lady) and Aguja de navegar culto, con la receta de hacer “Soledades” en un día (The Compass for Navigating Learnedly, with the Recipe for Concocting “Solitudes” in one Day). Others censured Góngora's poetry as lacking any moral point of view. After Góngora's death in 1627 and the publication of his complete works in 1633, however, his legend as a poetic genius grew alongside his increasing influence on subsequent Spanish poetry. The 300th anniversary of Góngora's death occasioned a renewed interest in his work by Spanish poets who believed that only a return to Gongorism could help modern Spanish poetics escape what many viewed as an over-abundance of sentimentality. Critics today, while admitting the difficulty of Góngora's complex style and imagery, generally concur that Góngora was a master of poetic form, and they rank his work among Spain's greatest in terms of its musicality and lyrical beauty.