Luis de León is considered the greatest Spanish prose writer of the sixteenth century as well as one of Spain’s greatest poets. His prose masterpiece, Los nombres de Cristo (1583; The Names of Christ, 1926), is a treatise on the various names given to Christ in Scripture. La perfecta casada (1583; The Perfect Wife, 1943) is a commentary on Proverbs 31, with observations on marriage customs pertaining to medieval and sixteenth century women. His translations include the Song of Solomon, El cantar de los cantares (1561; The Song of Songs, 1936) and the Book of Job, El libro de Job (wr. c. 1585, pb. 1779).
Luis de León’s life and work have come to symbolize for generations of Spaniards and Latin Americans the struggle for truth within the intellectual tradition of the Spanish Golden Age (1492-1680), a tradition which valued faith above knowledge. During his career of forty-seven years at the University of Salamanca, in all his writings in Latin and Castilian, this Augustinian friar (frequently referred to as Fray Luis) fought valiantly to reconcile the Humanist tradition of the Renaissance with faith in the medieval Scholastic tradition based upon the authority of Aristotle and the church fathers.
In theology and exegesis, the two principal disciplines of the medieval university, the new learning implied for Fray Luis an uncompromising literalist position regarding sacred and classical texts. His insistence on an untranslatable spirit made concrete in language, his virulent criticism of his peers’ imperfect understanding of texts, and the occasional unorthodox position that was a consequence of his understanding of Hebrew and Greek resulted in five years of prison while the Inquisition investigated his work for signs of heresy. Legend, unfounded in fact, has it that after his exoneration, he resumed his university lectures in the usual manner with the words, “As we were saying yesterday. . . .” Fray Luis has grown to represent the quality of forgiveness of those who misunderstood his passionate dedication to the pursuit of knowledge.
Fray Luis’s translations from Greek, Latin, and Italian into Spanish, which constitute two-thirds of his poetic production, attest eloquently his knowledge of the nature of language and the art of translation. His work within the Augustinian Order and his prose writings reveal his belief in the perfectibility of man and man’s institutions as well as the strength of his faith. Most important, however, Fray Luis’s original verse established the Salamancan school of Spanish poetry, which rejected the full aesthetic force of the language in favor of a simplicity of style and profundity of thought which would lay bare the poet’s struggle to reconcile modern concerns with awesome traditions.
In Fray Luis’s religious poetry, there is an intimacy of feeling and an occasional self-doubt that appear nowhere else in his work. The poem “En la fiesta de todos los santos” (“On the Holiday of All Saints’ Day”) illustrates the characteristic antithetical organization of his verse. The greatness of the remote past contrasts so strongly with the inadequacies of the present that the devotion to the early Christian saints continues to increase with each generation. A sense of being abandoned imbues his poem “En la ascensión” (“On the Ascension”), in which the poet asks Christ where his sheep will turn now that he has left them.
In one of his songs dedicated to the Virgin, “A Nuestra Señora” (“To Our Lady”), Fray Luis, in the depths of his despair at the persecution he has suffered, calls upon the Virgin Mary and, protesting his innocence and declaring his unworthiness, beseeches her to intercede for him against the hatred of his enemies and against their deceptions. He asks her to free him from the prison in which their misunderstanding has cast him. In this poem, Fray Luis expresses self-doubt, saying that if indeed he has succumbed to evil unknowingly, the Virgin’s virtue will shine more brightly in forgiving a darker sin.
“To Christ Crucified”
The song “A Cristo crucificado” (“To Christ Crucified”), by virtue of the brutal realism of the imagery and the poet’s legalist perspective, reveals Fray Luis’s faith in the law. While (for Fray Luis) the Virgin is the summa of the Divine Essence, Christ’s humanity and suffering make him humble in Fray Luis’s eyes and, therefore, accessible. The poem elaborates the theme of Christ the advocate fulfilling the law by granting pardon to all who call on him. He cannot flee because his feet are nailed. His heart is revealed through hs gaping wounds, and two words from a thief are...
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For Fray Luis, in The Names of Christ and The Perfect Wife, perfection consists simply of fulfilling well one’s station in life. In his own life, as a friar and scholar, service to the Church was of paramount importance. The poem “A la vida religiosa” (on the religious life) reveals through a dream the nature of Fray Luis’s vocation. In the pastoral setting he so often prefers, he is called to exchange the glory of Earth for the glory of Heaven by renouncing present contentment, comfort, and wealth. Rather than follow the career of his father and uncles, the rewards of which he believes are feigned, he chooses the monk’s bare cell, plain frock, hair shirt, and flagellation in order to free himself of vice, the world, the Devil, and the flesh. Thus freed, Fray Luis believes he will have everything the secular man strives for simply by serving God.
The ascetic life for Fray Luis does not lead, as for Saint John of the Cross, to mystic union with God. Rather, it frees him to engage in intellectual pursuits unencumbered by personal concerns. Through acquired rather than infused knowledge, he hopes to envision, enjoy, and realize in a social context his ideal of peace. His most famous and successful poems present this theme of peace through knowledge. This peace is obtained by achieving the Neoplatonic ideal of harmony, first within the soul, next between the individual and nature, and, finally, between the individual and a...
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Bell, Aubrey. Luis de León. Oxford, England: Clarendon, 1925. A biographical study in the context of the Spanish Renaissance.
Durán, Manuel. Luis de Léon. New York: Twayne, 1971. An introductory biography and critical study of selected works by Fray Luis. Includes bibliographic references.
Fitzmaurice-Kelly, James. Fray Luis de León: A Biographical Fragment. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1921. A brief biography issued by the Hispanic Society of America.
Hildner, David Jonathan. Poetry and Truth in the Spanish Works of Fray Luis de León. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell & Brewer, 1992. A critical analysis of selected works by de León. Includes bibliographical references.
Thompson, Colin P. The Strife of Tongues: Fray Luis de León and the Golden Age of Spain. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. A critical study of Fray Luis’s works with an introducton to the history of Spain in the sixteenth century.
Vossler, Karl. Fray Luis de León. Buenos Aires: Espasa-Calpa Argentina, 1946. A short biography of Fray Luis.