(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The poetry of Luis de León presents the pursuit of knowledge as a form of spiritual exultation. For him, the intellectual’s contemplation of creation constitutes a joy approaching mystic rapture. In almost all of his original poems, he holds Neoplatonic philosophy and medieval Christianty in a tenuously balanced, unstable harmony which creates tremendous aesthetic tension. During his early years, his poems circulated in random manuscript form until he collected them at the request of his friend Don Pedro Portoarrero as a defense against misinterpretation. He divided his work into three books: original poems; translations from Horace, Vergil, Pindar, and Pietro Bembo; and translations of Holy Scripture.

In 1631, a similarly spirited poet, Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, published all of Fray Luis’s poetry. Quevedo recognized Fray Luis’s depth and clarity, qualities which contrasted strongly with the elaborate Baroque preciosity of the style that was to become known as Gongorismo. Quevedo likewise recognized that Fray Luis’s translations were in keeping with the classical orientation which informed his theory of language in The Names of Christ and which had led him to conclusions often dangerously at variance with those of his colleagues. In The Names of Christ, Fray Luis asserts that language when used by true and sound minds will reflect reality accurately without distortion; the triple complexity of words—in thought, speech, and writing—can obtain absolute truth. This absolute, shared by many minds, leads to a harmonious world. Within this essentially Neoplatonic framework, Fray Luis includes the tradition of the Cabala and attributes to words an unconscious depth of meaning, realized through secret references and arbitrary associations.