Rosalía de Castro Castro, Rosalía de (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Rosalía de Castro 1837-1885

Spanish poet and novelist.

Castro is considered one of the most influential Spanish poets of the nineteenth century. Much of her poetry was written in the traditional language of Galicia, the northwest region of Spain where she was born. Her verse, while simple in form, is mystical and highly symbolic in content, incorporating themes of cultural longing, love of nature, religious fervor, and deep melancholy. Although she received little literary recognition before her death, a reassessment of her works since the mid-twentieth century elevated Castro as a major figure in Spanish literature.

Biographical Information

Castro was born in the Galician town of Santiago de Compostela in February 1837. She was the illegitimate daughter of María Teresa da Cruz de Castro y Abadía, a noblewoman born into a once-prominent family in Padrón, and a seminarian, José Martínez Viojo, who later became a priest. Castro's childhood years were spent on an estate in the countryside outside Santiago, where she was raised by a paternal aunt. She joined her mother in Santiago sometime after her tenth birthday. Some scholars believe that the sadness that characterizes her literary works had its roots in the early years of separation from her mother. In Santiago Castro attended the Sociedad Económica de los Amigos del País, where she studied music, art, and languages, and was active in the Liceo de San Agustín, a cultural gathering place for young artists and writers. She is reported to have written her first poem at the age of twelve. In 1856, she moved to Madrid, where she was exposed to other young Galician writers, including Manuel Martinez Murguía, whom she married in 1858. Her first volume of poetry, La flor (1857), was published during this period of her life. During their marriage, Castro and Murguía endured financial problems and Castro's persistent ill health. Still, Murguía, a historian who championed the cultural renaissance of Galicia, encouraged Castro to write. In 1863, Castro published Cantares gallegos, for which she received her first recognition as a regional poet of her day. Castro's second collection of Galician verse, Follas novas (1880), was written during a ten-year period during which she gave birth to five of her seven children, losing two of them to early deaths. Castro received national recognition as a poet with the publication of En las orillas del Sar (1884; Beside the River Sar), which she wrote in Castilian, the predominant language of Spain. This final collection of verse was composed during her long struggle with cancer. She died in July 1885.

Major Works

Castro's first two volumes of poetry, La flor and A mi madre (1863) were both written in Castilian. The first collection contains conventional love poetry and is thought by critics to be of little consequence. The title piece of the second volume, which celebrates a woman's sacrifices for her daughter, was written in response to the death of the poet's mother. In Cantares gallegos Castro first celebrates her Galician heritage, using the folk language of her homeland to portray the natural beauty of the region and to evoke empathy for the poor of Galicia who struggled to preserve their traditions and political identity. These themes are revisited in Follas novas in unadorned verse that taps into a deepening cultural affinity for Galicia. Cantares gallegos and Follas novas are credited by contemporary critics with having contributed to the preservation of the cultural and linguistic heritage of the people of Galicia. In her final collection of poetry, En las orillas del Sar, Castro expresses an awareness of her own mortality in verse steeped in a pervasive sense of loneliness and loss. During her career, Castro also published five novels and numerous short stories. Only since the latter half of the twentieth century have these works received scholarly attention for their merit as social criticism.

Critical Reception

Castro did not receive significant attention as a literary figure during most of her lifetime. Contemporary critics theorize that her gender and her reputation as a regional poet and defender of the Galician culture limited her acceptance within wider Spanish literary circles of her day. In the century after her death, however, scholars began to reassess the significance of her poetry within the context of Spanish letters. The publication of Castro's Cantares gallegos is now thought to mark the inauguration of the Galician literary revival in Spain. Castro's fluid, lyrical style of verse is notable as a contrast to the more formal, rigid structures favored by her male contemporaries. Once marginalized as a feminine approach to poetry, her independent style is now considered to be a precursor of symbolist poetry of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Critics trace the influence of her themes and motifs on the work of later poets including Rubén Darío (1867-1916), Amado Nervo (1870-1919), and Federico García Lorca (1898-1936).

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

La flor 1857

A mi madre 1863

Cantares gallegos 1863

Follas novas 1880

En las orillas del Sar [Beside the River Sar] 1884

Poems: Rosalía de Castro 1964

La hija del mar (novel) 1859

Flavio (novel) 1861

El caballero de las botas azules (novel) 1867

El primer loco (novel) 1881

Robert G. Havard (essay date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Havard, Robert G. “Image and Persona in Rosalía de Castro's En las orillas del Sar.Hispanic Review 42, no. 4 (1974): 393-411.

[In the following essay, Havard examines themes of intimacy, illegitimacy, and melancholy in Castro's final collection of poetry.]

Whereas Cantares gallegos (1863) is considered as Rosalía's supreme evocation of the Galician Volksgeist (a feature which continues to attract somewhat disproportionate attention), her mature works, Follas novas (1880) and particularly En las orillas del Sar (1884), represent an advancement in subjective lyricism which, in turn, indicates that her status as a poetess is much above regionalismo and in the mainstream of Spanish Post-Romanticism. A certain propensity on the part of critics to concentrate on regional characteristics in Rosalía's work, coupled with a prudish deference for female privilege, have resulted in the glossing over of those intimate and darker levels of her poetry which ultimately contain her crise de coeur, her womanhood, and her universality as a poet. However, in an entirely convincing biographical study, upon which this paper leans heavily, Machado da Rosa has carefully assembled the significant details of Rosalía's life, and it is his account of two love affairs, in particular, which makes much of the poetry intelligible1 Machado da Rosa recognizes and utilizes the “excepcional propensión autobiográfica”2 in Rosalía's work, and in his main study arrives at the important conclusion that “a angustia sexual é sobretudo o eixo sobre o qual gira o mundo complexo da sua obra.”3 It will be the object of this paper to corroborate this point in relation to En las orillas del Sar by placing emphasis upon the interpretation of image values, and thus to complement the earlier study by adopting an essentially literary rather than biographical approach. In addition, as opposed to isolating the question of eroticism, an attempt will be made to show how this dominant motif is thoroughly integrated into the whole and is of vital concern to the other major motifs, such as her evocation of the patria, her attachment to youth, her awareness of Celtic roots, her religious dilemma, and her sense of utter loneliness. It is argued that the point of integration is to be found only in appreciating that Rosalía's fundamental poetic system is that of expressing her thoughts and moods, complex and diverse as they are, in the context of her most intimate experience as a woman.4

First, on account of their considerable influence upon the text, one or two of the most salient biographical points are recalled. Rosalía's illegitimate birth is a determinative factor, causing various psychological reverberations in her poems. Apart from its ensuing social stigma, the more cutting in a provincial society where Rosalía herself would become an outsider, the unfortunate circumstances of her birth also contrived to make her childhood one that was deficient in family life. Rosalía grew up in the house of a paternal aunt, and it is likely that she knew something about her father, who was a sacristan, and that she even met him occasionally. Later, Rosalía was to spend some adolescent years in her mother's home in Santiago, but while these appear to have been her happiest years, the doting relationship of mother and child probably came too late, or was too short-lived, to cure Rosalía of her sense of being an orphan. In the predominantly reflective mood of En las orillas del Sar this bitter awareness of loss is sufficiently apparent as to be considered a psychological complex, or, in turn, a poetic motif. Rosalía refers to herself “Huérfana y sin arrimo” (p. 47),5 “para siempre huérfana” (p. 132), and to her “alma desolada y huérfana” (p. 50), and “alma / Huérfana, triste, enamorada y sola” (p. 125).6 This complex, which is one of the more tangible components of her saudades, is nevertheless of an eminently psychic nature, and it will find expression in a variety of cognate topics, such as in her religious dilemma, when she thinks of one “desheredado” (p. 61), and outcast, “Me destierran del cielo” (p. 40), and again in her identification with the forgotten people of Galicia, “pobres desheredados / Para quienes no hay sitio en la hostigada patria” (p. 91). Rosalía's orphan-complex is an initial though lasting feature of her poetic persona, and it helps to distinguish her Romanticism. In the first place, the accident of her birth, with its attendant suffering, leads her to think in terms of a harsh fate. Besides many general references of the kind “mundo cruel” (p. 83), “amarga realidad” (p. 75) and “dura injusticia” (p. 59), Rosalía's last volume of poems often specifically evokes the notion of fate: “fatal estrella” (p. 40), “suerte enemiga” (p. 66), “mi destino inconstante” (p. 154), and “Me abandonó inconstante la fortuna” (p. 140). In this way Rosalía often characterizes herself, as she does her people who have also suffered unjustly, as a victim: “En verano o en invierno, no lo dudes: / Adulto, anciano o niño, / Y hierba y flor, son víctimas eternas / De las amargas burlas del destino” (p. 168); and “buscan / Un ídolo o una víctima a quien hieran” (p. 108); again, “el río desbordóse / arrastrando en sus aguas a las víctimas” (p. 51); and finally in the revealing poem “Santa escolástica”: “Así del dolor víctima, el espíritu / Se rebela contra cielo y tierra … / Mientras mi pie inseguro caminaba” (p. 132). This last extract not only instances Rosalía's sense of persecution, but it also introduces another conspicuous Romantic feature which is at least partly inspired by her orphan-complex. This is found in the image “mi pie inseguro caminaba.” In her Castilian poetry the motifs of insecurity and of wandering come to characterize Rosalía as a vagrant spirit, a tragic waif. While sharing the fate of her emigrant countrymen, Rosalía depicts her persona “Siempre andando al azar, con aquel paso / Errante del que busca en donde pueda / De sí arrojar el peso de la vida” (p. 131). Images of the traveler are extremely common: “El sediento viajero que el camino atraviesa,” “Ya el viajero nunca va su sed a apagar” (p. 85), and they create a sense of a profoundly temporalized landscape which anticipates Antonio Machado.7 The nomadic quality of many poems stems naturally from the real experience of expatriation, but at a more intimate level the movement correlates the notion of a quest. Her thoughts too, may become elusive, “Inquietos vagabundos” (p. 207), but she pursues: “Mas yo prosigo soñando, pobre, incurable sonámbula, / Con la eterna primavera de la vida” (p. 137). In this quest Rosalía experiences desperation: “Alma que vas huyendo de ti misma, / ¿Qué buscas, insensata, en las demás?” (p. 71), for like Bécquer's, her goal often appears to be illusory, “Loca ilusión” (p. 120), untenable in the present or future: “Felicidad, no he de volver a hallarte / En la tierra, ni en el aire ni en el cielo” (p. 128). The object of her quest may be to recapture happy moments of her youth, “aquellos días hermosos y brillantes” (p. 38), or to find comfort in religion, “Busco a tu Padre en el espacio inmenso” (p. 211), or more commonly, to experience authentic love, which she both craves and yet believes is fatally denied her: “Yo no ne nacido para odiar, sin duda; / Ni tampoco he nacido para amar” (p. 201). As the reflective journey of En las orillas del Sar leads us at random through her fragmented experience, the very multiplicity of Rosalía's quest renders it indeterminable at times, ultimately only dependent upon a profound, impalpable sense of loss:

Yo no sé lo que busco eternamente
En la tierra, en el aire y en el cielo;
Yo no sé lo que busco, pero es algo
Que perdí no sé cuándo y que no encuentro,
Aun cuando sueñe que invisible habita
En todo cuanto toco y cuanto veo.

(pp. 127-28)

To some considerable extent, then, it may be argued that Rosalía's melancholy and sense of isolation was pathological and, ironically, inherited. Further evidence of an unkind providence is found in Rosalía's poor health, which, having reached its extreme during the years of the composition of her last volume, when she suffered from a fatal cancer, must have contributed towards her general pessimism, though the connection is difficult to establish specifically in the text.8 However, neither of these points fully explains the note of profound anguish in her poetry, much less her practice of self-incrimination. A second crucial biographical point, outlined by Machado da Rosa, concerns Rosalía's loss of honor at the hands of an anonymous seducer in Padrón.9 The affair was disastrous for Rosalía because it not only terminated her courtship by the charming young Romantic, Aurelio Aguirre, and obliged her to flee to Madrid, but it also came later to embarrass her married life with the less charming Manuel Murguía, whom Rosalía had no doubt turned to in despair. The illicit affair cannot be explained rationally, and indeed, the evidence of the poems suggests, as we shall see, that it was entirely founded upon physical passion. It is tempting to surmise that Rosalía's innate craving for love was of such intensity that it could discover no reasonable outlet. In one of many poems to her anonymous lover we find the dialogue: “—Te amo … ¿por qué me odias? / —Te odio … ¿por qué me amas?” The answer which Rosalía provides reveals certain pathological and even masochistic tendencies: “—Me odias, porque te amo; / Te amo, porque me odias” (p. 96). This kind of expression makes En las orillas del Sar a most passionate document of a personal tragedy, but it does not necessarily reveal Rosalía's special qualities as a poetess. Like many Romantics, Rosalía suffers at times from overexposure, from too frank a disclosure of intimacies, so that some poems may be demeaned virtually as cathartic confessions. In the majority of poems, however, a fine balance is maintained, and it is particularly when she relies upon imagistic expression that we are led more meaningfully into her confidence, as well as into a rich poetic experience.

Turning to those poems which recall her amorous experience we find Rosalía continually in a state of emotional flux, at times eager to relive moments of erotic excitement, and at other times, more commonly, brooding with an irreparable sense of guilt. In this connection two separate patterns of imagery are prominent and are often instrumental in constructing poetic tension. The first of these concerns the highly traditional imagery of darkness and shadow, so much in evidence that a characteristic setting of En las orillas del Sar is the nocturnal. One of the best poems on the theme of illicit love is “Margarita” (p. 53), where we have a graphic picture of a woman tormented at night by sexual desire. The insidious aspect of her passion is well evoked in the opening stanza with its references to animals: “¡Silencio, los lebreles / De la jauría maldita! / No despertéis a la implacable fiera / Que duerme silenciosa en su guardia.” The young woman dreams of her lover: “Duerme el anciano padre, mientras ella / A la luz de la lámpara nocturna / Contempla el noble y varonil semblante / Que un pesado sueño abruma.” Though plagued by her conscience (“Negras hijas de la duda,” and “la conciencia / Contra las pasiones lucha”), the young woman goes out to meet her lover:

Y él sigue en reposo, y ella,
Que abandona la estancia, entre las brumas
De la noche se pierde, y torna al alba,
Ajado el velo …, en su mirar la angustia.

(p. 54)

The mood of the poem is one of guilt (“culpada,” “crimen,” “traición,” “ante las negras aras”), though with the persona presented as a victim, subjected to a fatalistic passion: “Fiel a su mal, de su dolor esclava.” The motifs of this poem frequently recur elsewhere.10 On occasions we find Rosalía fascinated by the night's beckoning mystery:

Tan honda era la noche,
La obscuridad tan densa,
Que ciega la pupila
Si se fijaba en ella.

(p. 150)

or tomented by it:

Pensamientos de alas negras!, huíd, huíd azorados,

(p. 143)


          De la noche en el vago silencio
Cuando duermen o sueñan las flores,
Mientras ella despierta, combate
Contra el fuego de ocultas pasiones.

(p. 122)

The passion itself is bitter-sweet, “un placer que duele” (p. 73); while even the images of her lover may be evoked in terms of shadow, correlating the sense of heaven and hell:

          En sus ojos rasgados y azules,
Donde brilla el candor de los ángeles,
Ver creía la sombra siniestra
          De todos los males.
          En sus anchas y negras pupilas,
Donde luz y tinieblas combaten,
Ver creía el sereno y hermoso
Resplandor de la dicha inefable.
                                                                                ¡qué grandes
Son las sombras que envuelven las almas!

(p. 95)

Here the remorseful and strictly sacrilegious paradox is of such force as to indicate an authentic personal commitment on the part of Rosalía; for her the experience of love is essentially ambiguous and deceitful. Paradox is also found in Rosalía's use of lunar imagery, an important feature of her nocturnal landscapes. The moon can either stir her passion (“despierta en mi memoria / Yo no sé qué fantasmas y quimeras”), or chastise her with its purity (“con sus dulces misteriosos rayos / Derrama en mis entrañas tanta hiel”) (p. 97). In “A la luna” (p. 153), the value of the moon (“imagen de la cándida inocencia, / No tiene mancha ninguna” and “Todo lo ves desde tu cenit puro, / Casta virgen solitaria”) is deliberately contrasted with the plight of the poetess herself; and it embarrasses her: “Y yo, … / … / Correr quisiera un misterioso velo / Sobre tu casto semblante” (p. 154).11 Rosalía clearly relates herself to a darker value, as we see in her development of the traditional theme of the morena:

          A las rubias, envidias
Porque naciste con color moreno
Y te parecen ellos blancos ángeles
          Que han bajado del cielo.
                    ¡Ah!, pues no olvides, niña,
          Y ten por cosa cierta,
Que mucho más que un ángel siempre pudo
          Un demonio en la tierra.

(p. 176)

Gumersindo Placer draws attention to these important lines in his useful article “La danza del demonio en las obras de Rosalía de Castro,12 which catalogues Rosalía's numerous allusions to the diabolical. The critic, however, overlooks the poetic vitality of these lines and gets bogged down in determining Rosalía's orthodoxy; for her argument is “contrario al dogma católico; y no se puede suponer ese error en Rosalía, tan instruida en cosas de la fe.”13 The real point is that Rosalía is deliberately constructing, here as elsewhere, an unorthodox and anti-heroic persona, and this is in fact very much in the literary spirit of her time. Mario Praz has shown how the theme of tainted or corrupted beauty was fundamental to the Romantic movement. In the pertinent chapter, “The beauty of Medusa,” Praz incorporates the morena theme, reminding us of the Song of Solomon (“I am dark but comely”),14 and relates it to his main argument that the Romantics looked for a degree of ugliness, whether moral or physical, in all beauty, and that they found pure beauty insipid.

Returning to the image patterns of En las orillas del Sar, we find that Rosalía's sense of guilt is often totally identified with the nocturnal atmosphere:

          Y como ahuyenta la aurora
          Los vapores soñolientos
De la noche callada y sombría,
Así ahuyenta mis malos deseos.

(p. 100)

The most successful development of this motif is found in the poem beginning “Cuido que una planta bella / Que ama y busca la sombra” (p. 125),15 where Rosalía compares her condition to that of a flower which only blooms at night. Here the central image is appropriate at many levels, shaping a poem of rare cohesion, while the illusory quality of passion is again evoked in the typical contrast of darkness and light

          Ya que otra luz más viva que la del sol dorado
Y otro calor más dulce en mi alma penetrando
Me anima y me sustenta con su secreto halago
Y da luz a mis ojos por el dolor cegados.

(p. 126)

The images compress an ambivalent psychic experience, a chain of contradictions which shapes Rosalía's dilemma. First, we perceive that “sol dorado” (which may be understood as an ideal, pure, or even Christian love) has been superseded by another force (“otra luz,” “otro calor”), which is altogether more attractive and more penetrating. This second force, or love, which is erotic and almost certainly clandestine (“secreto halago”), has the effect of relieving the persona's manifest grief. However, the word “dolor” is ambivalent; for we remember in “Margarita” that it constituted the persona's very weakness before sexual temptation, “Fiel a su mal, de su dolor esclava.” The tragic argument in the above poem, then, is that erotic love is the narcotic which momentarily relieves pain but essentially induces...

(The entire section is 7295 words.)

Kathleen Kulp-Hill (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Kulp-Hill, Kathleen. “Follas novas (New Leaves).” In Rosalía de Castro, pp. 52-76. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

[In the following essay, the critic provides an examination of Castro's second collection of Galician verse.]

From 1863 to 1880, Rosalía produced several works in prose. A short story in Galician, “Conto gallego” (“Galician Tale”), was written in 1863, but was not published until 1923.1 This is her only prose piece in dialect (except for the prefaces to the two books of poetry in Galician) and may have been intended as part of a collection of tales which she never compiled. In 1866, two prose pieces,...

(The entire section is 8351 words.)

Kathleen Kulp-Hill (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Kulp-Hill, Kathleen. “En las orillas del Sar (On the Banks of the River Sar).” In Rosalía de Castro, pp. 77-99. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

[In the following essay, Kulp-Hill discusses Castro's final collection of poetry, comparing its structure and style to Follas novas.]


The collection of poetry En las orillas del Sar (On the Banks of the River Sar), 1884, is Rosalía's last book of poetry and last published work. Between the publication of Follas novas (New Leaves) in 1880, and the appearance of The Sar, she had published a novel, El primer loco (The...

(The entire section is 7851 words.)

John C. Wilcox (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilcox, John C. “Rosalía de Castro.” In Women Poets of Spain, 1860-1990: Toward a Gynocentric Vision, pp. 44-83. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Wilcox discusses the context of political, social, and esthetic marginalization within which Castro's poetry was written.]

Unlike her sisters, Rosalía de Castro has established a secure reputation in Peninsular literature, but such was not the case during her lifetime (1837-85), when she fluctuated between being a “Nobody” (Emily Dickinson's word) and a “santiña” (dear little saint).1 Few have noted her “monstrous” qualities, to use Gilbert and Gubar's...

(The entire section is 16040 words.)

Louis J. Rodrigues (essay date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Rodrigues, Louis J. “Rosalía de Castro's Galician Poems: ‘Nasín Cand'’ … and ‘Negra Sombra’.” In Independent Authors from Around the World. (22 March 2001): <>.

[In the following essay, Rodrigues discusses two of Castro's Galician poems, examining texts translated from Galician to English, Spanish, and Catalan.]

Rosalía de Castro (1837-85) was born at Santiago de Compostela, the daughter of María Teresa de Cruz de Castro e Abadía, a descendant of an old and noble Galician family; her father was unknown but is believed to have been a seminarian, José Martínez Viojo....

(The entire section is 6223 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Aldaz, Anna-Marie, and Barbara N. Gantt. “Introduction to Rosalía de Castro.” In Rosalía de Castro: Poems, pp. 1-24. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Offers an overview of Castro's poetry and discusses their approach to translating her work into English.

Courteau, Joanna. The Poetics of Rosalía de Castro's Negra Sombra. Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995, 119 p.

A linguistic and cultural analysis of Rosalía de Castro's contribution to the preservation of Galician culture through her writings in both the Castilian and Galician languages.

Dever, Aileen....

(The entire section is 304 words.)