Spanish Poetry Since 1400 Analysis

Fifteenth and sixteenth centuries

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The two men most responsible for introducing Spain to a new spirit ofHumanism via Greek, Latin, and Italian literary traditions were Juan Boscán (c. 1490-1542) and Garcilaso de la Vega (1501-1536).

Whereas 1492 marked the political birth of modern Spain, the year 1543 may be said to have marked Spain’s cultural rebirth into the Humanistic tradition that had been eclipsed until its rediscovery a century earlier by the great fifteenth century Italian poets. With the publication of Las obras de Boscán y algunas de Garcilasso de la Vega repartidas en quatro libros (1543; the works of Boscán and some of Garcilaso de la Vega), a wholly new poetic vision was introduced into Spanish literature. To appreciate the magnitude of change that Boscán and Garcilaso brought to sixteenth century Spanish poetry, both in its form and in its content, one must recall the tradition from which their revolutionary poetics were born.

Not until the fifteenth century did the Spanish literary lyric first appear as an independent written work of art. Prior to that time, Castilian verse was dominated, for the most part, by the fourteenth century romance (ballad) and the thirteenth century villancico. While traveling troubadours sang of the joys and woes associated with courtly love, clerics were creating their own tradition, focused on more spiritual themes, such as the many miracles of the Blessed Virgin. In 1445, the first important collection of Castilian verse was published, the Cancionero de Baena (songbook of Baena). Here were recorded numerous canciones de amor (love songs) which echoed the earlier ballads in both theme and form.

Two exceptions to these traditions were the marquis of Santillana and Juan de Mena. They transcended the traditional compositions that were recorded in the Cancionero general (1511; general songbook), a collection of fifteenth century verse filled with villancicos and ballads that reflected the love songs of the earlier troubadour tradition. Santillana is credited with the first sonnets written in a language other than Italian, while Mena’s allegorical and philosophical poems are sprinkled with frequent classical allusions and a Latinized vocabulary.

The poetic revolution that was to characterize sixteenth century Spain, however, did not truly begin until 1526, when the Spanish poet Boscán...

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Seventeenth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

During the seventeenth century, as Spain’s political and economic prowess began to show the first signs of vulnerability, the stylistic innovations first introduced into Spanish literature by Boscán and Garcilaso were embellished and brought to their ultimate poetic fruition—to the point of excess. The simplicity and clarity of the Renaissance gradually gave way to the complexity and obscurity of the Baroque.

Encouraged by literary academies and an ever-increasing number of literary competitions, poets began to create newer and more unusual images, to experiment with traditional word order, and to search for subtler allusions. In particular, two main currents came to dominate seventeenth century poetic expression:culteranismo and conceptismo. The former is characterized by its emphasis on ornate and complex images, its revolutionary syntax, and its obscure mythological allusions; the latter is characterized by its intellectual and philosophical sophistication. The many puns and double entendres which one encounters in this poetry reveal the conceptistas’ fundamental cynicism and disillusionment with life. For the culteranistas, beauty was to be found in the most complex of metaphors, whereas for the conceptistas truth was to be expressed in satire and wit.

Of the many poets associated with these two literary tendencies, four overshadow the others because of the quality and depth of their work. The driving force behind the culterano style of poetry was Luis de Góngora y Argote (1561-1627); his very name has become synonymous with intricately complex metaphors and tantalizingly obscure images. Góngora’s influence on seventeenth century Spanish verse was monumental; like Garcilaso de la Vega a century earlier, Góngora was imitated by virtually all of his fellow poets, even those who were most vocal in their criticism of his stylistic intricacies.

Although the termGongorism is frequently used today to describe a type of poetry characterized by excessive ornamentation and artificially complex syntax, Góngora himself was not guilty of such literary failings. The negative connotations associated with his name more accurately describe the many less gifted poets who attempted to emulate the master’s unique gift for expressing beauty in startling metaphors that both dazzled and amazed the sensitive reader. His ability to juxtapose vibrant, concrete...

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Eighteenth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

As the eighteenth century approached, Spanish poetry, like the other major literary genres of the time, was in a state of decline. Poets, for the most part, attempted to imitate dominant styles of the seventeenth century. Just as political decline ultimately led to a change of royal families (the House of Bourbon inherited the Spanish throne in 1700), so, too, the decadence to which Spanish literature had fallen led to serious attempts at literary reform. For example, in 1713, the Royal Academy was founded with the responsibility of protecting and guiding the Spanish language, and was commissioned to produce an authoritative dictionary and grammar.

In 1732, there appeared a journal titled Diario de los literatos de España (diary of the writers of Spain), which, until its demise in 1742, attempted to review and to evaluate the literary merit of all the books being printed in Spain at that time. In one of its last editions, it published a work titled Sátira contra los malos escritores de este siglo (satire against the poor writers of this century), which condemned the Baroque excesses associated with the poetry of the day. The inclusion of French terms in this critical diatribe suggests a knowledge of the French neoclassical critic, Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux.

The most significant evidence of literary reform, however, appeared in 1737 with the publication of Ignacio de Luzán’s La poética o reglas de la poesía (poetics or rules of poetry). In it are criticized the inordinate use of artificially contrived metaphors, unnecessarily complex syntax, and unusually difficult puns characteristic of many contemporary poets. Rejecting the sophisticated cynicism of Gabriel Alvarez de Toledo (1662-1714) and the bitterly satirical language of Diego de Torres Villarroel (1694-1770), Luzán advocated a clear and concise language. Literature, besides pleasing and entertaining the reader, should instruct him. Above all,...

(The entire section is 800 words.)

Nineteenth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The first two decades of the nineteenth century saw the total collapse of Spain’s traditional political system, which is perhaps best described as a form of enlightened despotism. There followed an onslaught of radical political and social changes that combined to undermine the many years of apparent prosperity and stability associated with eighteenth century Bourbon Spain.

In 1807, heeding the unwise advice of his prime minister, Manuel de Godoy, Bourbon monarch Charles IV allowed Napoleon’s forces to enter Spain (Napoleon’s ostensible target was Portugal). Six years of foreign rule and a brutalizing civilian-led revolution followed Napoleon’s entry into Spain. Once having ousted the foreign monarch (Joseph Bonaparte) and having restored the legitimate Bourbon heir (Ferdinand VII) to the Spanish throne, Spain experienced even greater political turmoil. Ferdinand ruled with the absolutism of his predecessors but lacked their vision and dedication. The liberal revolutionary groups that had fought so valiantly for restoration felt betrayed by their conservative monarch. After six years of absolutist rule, a coup d’état in 1820 ushered in three years of liberal reforms. With France’s help, Ferdinand managed to regain his throne and ruled uncompromisingly until his death in 1833. After his death, although the pendulum was to swing in favor of the liberals, Spain suffered no less than three civil wars (the Carlist Wars) over royal succession. What was once a well-organized and well-integrated society soon found itself polarized into opposing camps: afrancesados (French supporters) versus those in favor of restoration, absolutists versus constitutionalists, conservatives versus liberals. The resulting chaos found its intellectual and aesthetic expression in the Romantic movement, which reflected both in its form and in its content the turbulent reality of early nineteenth century Spain.

In the field of Spanish poetry, two men in particular foreshadowed the literary revolution of the nineteenth century. Manuel José Quintana (1772-1857) and Juan Nicasio Gallego (1777-1853), although trained in the rigors of neoclassicism, infused new vigor into their verse by unabashedly singing the praises of their homeland. Quintana, in his “A España” (“Ode to Spain”), and Gallego, in his “Al dos de Mayo” (to the second of May), took the first steps in the transition from a poetics dominated by reason to one that was primarily an expression of deep emotion.

Not until Ferdinand VII’s death, however, did Spanish poetry begin to free itself in earnest from the artificial bonds imposed on it by the neoclassical demand for moderation in the name of good taste. With Isabel II’s accession to the throne in 1833, many of the liberals who were formerly living in exile in England, France, and Germany returned to Spain, bringing with them a radically uninhibited style of poetry.

Nineteenth centuryRomanticism was unquestionably a love affair with freedom....

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Twentieth century: 1898-1936

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

European Romanticism during the latter part of the nineteenth century had been dominated by Bécquer. During his reign, Romanticism attained a particularly Spanish style. Current European literary trends, including French liberalism, had influenced Spanish Romantic poets. Bécquer’s style eventually gave way tocostumbrismo, the depiction of customs and manners, and realism replaced Romanticism as prose began to become the dominant form. Realism characterized Spanish prose fiction during the early twentieth century.

The literary movements of the fin de siglo passage from the nineteenth to the twentieth century were marked by political, philosophical, and artistic turbulence. In 1898, Spain lost its...

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Mid-twentieth century onward

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Miguel Hernández (1910-1942) represents the transition from the Generation of ’27 to the succeeding generation. His poetry was influenced by the Golden Age genius Góngora. Henández blended formal structure with surreal imagery. He befriended García Lorca, Aleixandre, and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, among others. After serving with the losing army of the Republicanos during the Spanish Civil War, Hernández fled to Portugal. He was captured and imprisoned until his death. When offered his freedom only if he would be exiled forever from Spain, Hernández refused. His most original poetry, written while in prison, reveals unwavering compassion and faith in the human spirit. It was published posthumously as Cancionero y...

(The entire section is 488 words.)


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Bellver, Catherine G. Absence and Presence: Spanish Women Poets of the Twenties and Thirties. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2001. The reception of major women poets of Spain is examined from a feminist perspective. The work and literary status of Concha Méndez, Josefina de la Torre, Rosa Chacel, Carmen Conde, Ernestina de Champourcin, Blanca Andréu, and others are analyzed within their social and historical contexts.

Davis, Elizabeth B. Myth and Identity in the Epic of Imperial Spain. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000. Davis discusses the cultural role of the epic poem during the era of Spanish...

(The entire section is 643 words.)