Rosalía de Castro 1837–1885
Spanish poet and novelist.
Castro is counted among the outstanding Spanish poets of the nineteenth century. She composed verse chiefly in the vernacular of her native Galicia (a dialect similar to Portuguese) and incorporated the folk themes, political ideology, and longings of the Galician people into her poetry. To these she added her own deep nostalgia, love of nature, and pervasive melancholy. Her poetry, while simple in form, is mystical, religious, and highly symbolic in content. As an examination of the human soul it offers universality, despite its regional concerns. As for her prose fiction, Castro wrote five novels and a few shorter works in Castilian, which have only in the latter half of the twentieth century been considered for their merit as social criticism. Overall, contemporary reassessment of Castro's works has shown her to be a major figure in Spanish letters, influential as a versifier and as a progenitor of the Galician cultural renaissance in nineteenth-century Spain.
Born on 25 February, 1837, in the Galician town of Santiago de Compostela, Castro was the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish noblewoman, Teresa Castro, and a priest, José Martínez Viojo. Raised by her aunt until Castro reached age eleven, she received her education at the Liceo de San Agustín and Sociedad Económica de los Amigos del Pais in Santiago, where she was educated in languages and the arts. Demonstrating an early talent in music, art, and writing, Castro composed her first poem at the age of twelve. Castro's early life was characterized by deepening sadness, thought by some critics to have been brought on by her illegitimacy, which forced her separation from her mother. In 1856 she moved to Madrid, where her involvement in literary circles led to the publication of her first small book of poems, La flor (1857). The following year, she married Manuel Martinez Murguía, a historian and champion of the Galician literary renaissance. Although their marriage was troubled by financial difficulties, ill health, and the deaths of two of their seven children, Marguía's encouragement prompted Castro to publish Cantares gallegos (1863; Galician Songs), the verses that brought her first acclaim as a poet. In the years that followed, Castro produced another collection of Galician poems, Follas novas (1880; New Leaves), and
a series of controversial novels. It was not until the publication of En las orillas del Sar (1884; Beside the River Sar), however, that Castro won national attention as a poet. She died of cancer on 15 July, 1885 in Padrón, Galicia.
Castro's first collection of verse, La flor, contains conventional love poetry, and is thought by critics to be of little consequence. A mi madre (1863) is, like La flor, a small book of Castilian poems. Its title piece, written in response to the death of Castro's mother, celebrates a woman's sacrifices for her daughter. In the larger Cantares gallegos Castro employed the language of the Galician peasantry for the first time to evoke the traditions and people of her homeland. Among its subjects are the cultural beliefs of Galicia, the natural beauty of its countryside, and the struggles of its poor. The unadorned Galician verses of Follas novas continue in the vein of Cantares gallegos by portraying Castro's passion for Galicia and her defense of its people and way of life. Castro's final collection of poetry, En las orillas del Sar, offers a somewhat darker tone than her previous works and a return to the Castilian dialect. It includes a variety of political verses in support of Galician culture, as well as poems suffused with a deep sense of loneliness and the desolation of love. Castro's five novels—La hija del mar (1859), Flavio (1861), Ruinas (1866), El caballero de las botas azules (1867), and El primer loco (1881)—contain elements of romantic fantasy blended with social criticism and Castro's incipient feminism. Each is generally focused on the struggles of women in paternalistic society. Having never known her parents, Esperanza, the persecuted heroine of La hija del mar, ends her desperate life by casting herself into the ocean. In El caballero de las botas azules, Castro presents a satire of the dominant literature of Spain and explores its degrading effects on women.
Due in large part to perceptions of her as a regionalist poet, Castro failed to achieve substantial literary esteem for most of her lifetime. An ongoing critical reassessment of her work begun in the twentieth century, however, has demonstrated the enduring significance of Castro's poetry and, to a lesser degree, opened her prose works to serious critical consideration. Scholars have since acknowledged that while her contemporaries adhered to a rigid poetic structure in their works, Castro sought a fluid metrical style. Her simple, musical prosody, emotional themes, and natural symbols and motifs have been seen as influences on the writing of such modern poets as Rubén Dario, Amado Nervo, and Federico Garcia Lorca. Additionally, the publication of Castro's Cantares gallegos in 1863 is now thought to mark the inauguration of the Galician literary revival in Spain. Most recently, scholars have begun to look beyond the ostensible regionalism of Castro's works and her marginalization as a female writer, to acclaim the universal import of her poetic achievements. Summarizing this view of Castro, Gerald Brenan has stated: "Had she written in Castilian rather than in her native Galician dialect, she would, I feel sure, be recognized as the greatest woman poet of modern times."