During the Golden Age of Spain, drama was the most prestigious literary form. Lope de Vega Carpio had developed Spain’s national comedia, and Luis de Góngora y Argote, like almost every other Spanish writer, tried his hand at theater. Góngora’s plays met with little success. He completed two comedias: Las firmezas de Isabela (pr. 1610) and El doctor Carlino (pr. 1613). A third play, “Comedia venatoria,” was left unfinished. Góngora’s plays were unsuccessful because of their excessive difficulty; he was primarily a lyric poet, and therein lies his importance. Ironically, his greatest achievement in poetry constituted his main fault in drama: The dialogue was so complicated that the audience was unable to follow the plot, and the long lyrical sequences in the plays diverted attention from the main action.
The figure of Luis de Góngora y Argote has prompted critical polemics for the last three centuries. For a long time, critics divided his poetry into two categories: the easy-to-understand popular poems and the culteranos, complex works that are difficult to comprehend because of distorted syntax and a new poetic language. To quote a famous expression, Góngora became known as “Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness.” Research indicates, however, that his poetry developed in one constant line, culminating in the integration of opposing stylistic tendencies. The year 1613 marked the beginning of a literary controversy, yet unresolved, when the first manuscript copies of Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea were distributed at court. Literary circles in Spain were shocked, and opinion was drastically divided. On one hand, Góngora’s ardent admirers proclaimed him to be the prince of poets. On the other hand, his enemies accused him of destroying both language and poetry. It is important to mention that among his severest critics were two of the leading Spanish poets of the Golden Age: Lope de Vega and Francisco de Quevedo. With Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea and the first part of The Solitudes of Don Luis de Góngora, distributed in 1613, Góngora nevertheless became the central figure of Spanish poetry. The impact of his complex style, culteranismo, was so powerful that even his worst enemies were ultimately influenced by...
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Góngora was the author of at least 166 sonnets; some fifty more are attributed to him. The sonnets, like the romances, span his entire literary life. It is important to remember that the sonnet form had not only a literary function in the Golden Age, but also a social one. Poets were expected to write for various special occasions, and most of the time the sonnet was the chosen form; it was short and had a flavor of enlightenment and culture. Thus, Góngora often was compelled to write occasional sonnets. Many such poems were written for special festivities, such as births, weddings, and hunting parties, or were merely encomiastic compositions to celebrate sayings or actions of the nobility. Góngora managed to overcome the limitations imposed upon him, composing masterpieces based on these stock themes. Not all of his sonnets, however, were occasioned thus; many were born in the soul of the poet and offer lyrical expressions of his persona.
It is impossible to consider the sonnets individually, but the “Inscripción para la tumba de El Greco” (“Epitaph for the Tomb of El Greco”) deserves mention. Critics have noted that there is a relation between Góngora’s poetry and El Greco’s art. Both responded to a distorted vision of the world that was typical of the Baroque period. Góngora’s admiration for El Greco’s painting is easy to understand in the light of his poetry. Both artists were successful in creating a new code and a new mode of expression.
Góngora frequently employed traditional Renaissance topoi. The carpe diem and brevitas vitae themes combine in a sonnet written in 1582 to create a typically Baroque worldview. The poet describes a beautiful woman in the spring of her life; the Baroque spirit emerges in the last stanza, when the poet asserts that the gold of her hair will become silver, that the freshness of her face will become a crushed violet, that beauty, youth, and the lady herself will become “earth, dust, smoke, shadow, nothingness.”
Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea
Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea is Góngora’s masterpiece. The text is a recreation of Ovid’s fable of Acis and Galathea. Góngora transforms the 159 Latin hexameters into sixty octaves. The poem also contains an introduction of three octaves, for a total of sixty-three (504 hendecasyllabic lines). The argument of the poem is basically the same as Ovid’s: The horrible Polyphemus loves Galathea, a beautiful nymph, but she falls in love with the young and beautiful Acis. In a jealous rage, the Cyclops grabs a gigantic rock and crushes Acis under it. The young lover is changed into a river by Galathea’s mother, Doris.
In Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea, Góngora created a completely new poetic language. The border between everyday and lyrical language had never before been so clearly delineated. Góngora found his tools in the rhetorical devices of the classical Roman and Greek writers, learning from them not only a new vocabulary but also a new syntax. His use of this new grammar offered the best means of giving the language a new...
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Alonso, Dámaso. Estudios y ensayos Gongorinos. Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1982. A collection of essays and critical studies of Góngora’s works published in Spanish.
Alonso, Dámaso. Góngora y el Polifemo. Madrid: Gredos, 1980. A three-volume biographical and critical study of Góngora focusing on his Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea. Published in Spanish.
Foster, David William, and Virginia Ramos Foster. Luis de Góngora. New York: Twayne, 1973. A standard biography. Contains a good annotated bibliography, including entries for several studies in English.
Gates, Eunice Joiner. “Góngora’s Polifemo and Soledades in Relation to Baroque Art.” Texas Studies in Language and Literature 2 (1960): 61-77. Situates Góngora’s work within the idiom of the visual arts of his time. Examines the ways in which The Solitudes is a baroque work.
Guillén, Jorge. “Poetic Language: Góngora.” In Language and Poetry: Some Poets of Spain. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961. Printed copy of an essay on Góngora delivered at Harvard by one of the great poets of the Generation of’27.
Jones, R. O. Introduction to Poems, by Luis de Góngora y Argote. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1966. This edition has an introduction by a noted expert on Spanish literature.
McCaw, R. John. Transforming Text: A Study of Luis de Góngora’s “Soledades.” Potomac, Md.: Scripta Humanistica, 2000. An extensive critical interpretation of Soledades. Includes bibliographical references.
Salinas, Pedro. “The Exaltation of Reality: Luis de Góngora.” In Reality and the Poet in Spanish Poetry. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1940. Another of the Generation of ’27, greatly appreciative of and influenced by Góngora, provides insights. This short essay is a good starting place in the appreciation of Góngora’s artistry.
Vilanova, Antonio. Las fuentes y los temas del Polifemo de Góngora. Barcelona: PPU, 1992. A two-volume, in-depth critical study of Góngora’s Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea. Published in Spanish.
Woods, Michael. Gracián Meets Góngora: The Theory and Practice of Wit. Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, 1995. A critical study of the use of humor in the works of Góngora and Baltasar Gracián y Morales. Includes bibliographical references and indexes.