The Golden Age of Spanish Literature



The Golden Age of Spanish Literature


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The Golden Age of Spanish Literature


Poetry in the Golden Age

    The poetry of the GA is plentiful and varied.   There is religious poetry and there is secular poetry; there is Christian mystical poetry (that of San Juan de la Cruz: St John of the Cross) and Christian devotional poetry; there is secular lyric poetry, narrative poetry, moral poetry, satirical poetry, jocular poetry, poetry that uses medieval forms of versification, poetry that uses Renaissance forms adapted from Latin and Italian, poetry that is indebted to popular oral traditions, poetry written for reading, poetry written to be read aloud, and poetry written to be sung. 

    There is also dramatic poetry, for the period's major dramatic forms are verse plays which deploy poetic techniques.  Golden Age dramatists were generally referred to as poetas in their day.  Some of them were great poets in the non-dramatic as well as the dramatic forms.

Two Major Golden Age Poets: Garcilaso (c.1501-36) and Góngora (1561-1627)

    Although there are other world-class poets, there are two key figures in the development of Golden Age poetry.  One is Garcilaso de la Vega (c. 1501-36) and the other is Luis de Góngora (1561-1627).  Both were responsible for major reforms in Spanish poetry and their achievements affected the poetic style of drama.

Garcilaso de la Vega

    Garcilaso de la Vega was a nobleman, courtier, and soldier in the army of Charles V.  He spent part of his life in Italy.  He died of battle wounds in 1536 when he was about 35 years of age.  By courtly standards Garcilaso was the ideal man: courtier, soldier, refined man of letters.

    It was he who established Renaissance poetry--sometimes called Italianate poetry--in Spain.  He drew his inspiration from Classical poetry and from the new Italian poetic tradition which had been founded in the 14th century by the Italian humanist and love-poet Francesco Petrarca, whom we now call simply 'Petrarch'.

    He was not the first Spaniard to experiment in the Italian style (the Marqués de Santillana was probably the first, in the 15th century) and his own work continued that of a friend, a Catalan nobleman called Juan Boscán.  Garcilaso was the more talented of these two poets and it was his example that achieved the breakthrough, establishing a new poetic fashion. 

    The basic technical breakthrough was the introduction of the Italian eleven-syllable line, a ponderous metrical form that Garcilaso handled more gracefully than earlier Spanish poets who had experimented with it.  This was the metre used in the Italian or 'Petrarchan' sonnet, and Garcilaso's own success with this compact, highly disciplined type of poem established it in Spain, making it the major vehicle of the new poetic style.

    A sonnet is easily recognizable.  It consists of fourteen eleven-syllable lines divided into two quatrains (two 4-line stanzas) and two tercets (3-line stanzas) the second of which delivers a memorable conclusion, often a kind of punch-line.

    Below are two sonnets by Garcilaso and Góngora respectively.  Garcilaso's sonnet is a version of the 'Gather ye rosebuds whilst ye may' theme derived from the Roman poet Ausonius.  Góngora's is a more novel, philosophical, and shocking version of the same theme.  Both poems are 'intertextual'; i.e. they call to mind other poems on the same theme and beg to be compared with them.  Góngora's poem is more boldly intertextual, for it is implicitly accusing earlier versions of understating their own significance.  Góngora transforms the theme of ageing into a shocking meditation on extinction--the extinction of the woman's beauty, and by implication the extinction of the self.  In the final tercet he implicitly associates the woman's sense of her own identity with her physical/sexual beauty.  His poem belongs to a more disillusioned, hard-hitting age than that of Garcilaso.

Garcilaso de la Vega

En tanto que de rosa y azucena

se muestra el color en vuestro gesto,

y que vuestro mirar ardiente, honesto,

enciende el corazón y lo refrena,

y en tanto el cabello, que en la vena

del oro se encogió, con vuelo presto,

por el hermoso cuello blanco, enhiesto,

el viento mueve, esparce y desordena;

coged de vuestra alegre primavera

el dulce fruto, antes que el tiempo airado

cubra de nieve la hermosa cumbre.

Marchitará la rosa el viento helado,

todo lo mudará la edad ligera,

por no hacer mudanza en su costumbre.

‘Whilst the colours of rose and lily reveal themselves in your face, and whilst your burning, chaste glance inflames and restrains the heart,/and whilst the sudden wind stirs, scatters, and disarranges your hair, which was gathered in a golden strand, as it blows on your fair, white neck;/pluck the sweet fruit of your happy Spring, before angry Time covers your fair brow with snow./For the frozen wind will wither the rose; light-foot Age, to make no change in his own customs, will alter everything.’


Mientras por competir con tu cabello

oro bruñido el Sol relumbra en vano,

mientras con menosprecio en medio el llano

mira tu blanca frente el lilio bello;

mientras a cada labio, por cogello,

siguen más ojos que al clavel temprano,

y mientras triunfa con desdén lozano

del luciente cristal tu gentil cuello;

goza cuello, cabello, labio y frente,

antes que lo que fue en tu edad dorada

oro, lilio, clavel, cristal luciente,

no sólo en plata o víola troncada

se vuelva, mas tú y ello juntamente

en tierra, en humo, en polvo, en sombra, en nada.

‘Whilst, in competition with your hair, the sun, like burnished gold, gleams in vain, whilst your white brow gazes with scorn on lilies fair amidst the plain;/whilst more eyes follow each lip, to catch it, than follow the early carnation, and whilst your fine neck triumphs with gentle disdain over lucent crystal waters,/enjoy your neck, hair, lips, and fair brow before what was, in your golden age, gold, lily, carnation, crystal,/not only turns to silver or to plucked violet, but you and it together become earth, smoke, dust, shadow, nothing.’ 

    Garcilaso's contribution to the development of poetry was not simply metrical.  The Italianate poetry was richer in its range of rhetorical figures (stylistic devices), had a broader vocabulary, and was more influenced by the themes, imagery, and mythology of Classical poetry.  It had a broader and more subtle emotional range.  It also introduced the natural world into love poetry, both as a source of imagery (metaphor and explicit comparison) and as a setting.

    Its most conservative aspect was its predominant theme, love.  Garcilaso, like Petrarch and his Italian followers, was primarily a love-poet who drew his personal inspiration from his relationship with Isabel Freyre, a Portuguese member of the Court of Charles V who died in child-birth after marrying a man whom she probably did not love.  Garcilaso himself was a married man and both he and she appear to have been victims of the un-sentimental marriage customs of their period, without which love poetry would have been very different and possibly less abundant.

    Garcilaso is one of the best poets of the European Renaissance, and had he not died at an early age he would doubtless be as famous today as the great poets of Renaissance Italy.  Today he is possibly less well known than Góngora.

    One of the reasons why Góngora is better known is that his reformist poetry is more sensationally poetic: it is further removed from spontaneous discourse.  We speak of gongorismo to talk about Góngora's more distinctive poetry, whilst few people talk about garcilasismo.  (That said, a group of 20th century Spanish poets who imitated Garcilaso are called garcilasistas.)

Luis de Góngora (1561-1627)

    Góngora created a poetic language which made literary as distinct from popular poetry more different from ordinary speech and thought than it had ever been before. 

    The most noted aspects of this effort were those which were labelled cultoCulteranismo is a kind of poetic humanism which consists of imitating the syntactical structures of Classical Latin, using latinate words, coining words from Latin, and using many Classical allusions.  Góngora's stated purpose as a culto poet was to distance poetry from the ignorant.  We must take this claim seriously.  In principle, poetry was the most refined and noble form of writing.  (Cervantes likened poesía to a beautiful, precious woman.)  But Góngora's poetry has other purposes  which we now find more respectable.  These include renewing the power of Spanish poetry to startle its public, and increasing its flexibility, expressiveness, and auditory sensuousness.

    The most typical result of the imitation of Latin syntax is a structural feature known as hyperbaton.  This occurs when conventional sentence-structure is disturbed, the parts of speech being ordered on lines which breach the conventions of Spanish sentence-structure.  The syntactical surprise of Góngora's poetry is greater now, in our less Classical age, than it was in his own age.  On the other hand, the power of his latinate vocabulary has waned.  This is because many of the culto  words which startled his contemporaries have long since been assimilated into normal educated Spanish.  In this sense Góngora contributed to the making of the present-day language.   Examples are the words purpúreo, meaning purple, or nocturno, meaning nocturnal, or crepúsculo, meaning twilight or dusk.  None of these words was normal in Góngora’s day.  His poetry made them part of the language.

    Note, however, that Góngora does not conserve his distinctive style for high subject-matter.  One of the things this poet does is to dignify simple natural things, like, for example, milk, or fowl, by describing them in culto and other ways that allow us to see them from extraordinary points of view.  In this sense Góngora's poetry marks the early rise of the ordinary--what Cervantes called 'common reality'--as subject-matter in serious, dignified poetry.  In this respect it is a landmark in the development of modern poetry.

    Gongorismo is more than the use of an extremely culto language.  It also involves more frequent and extreme uses of standard rhetorical figures.  Of these, Góngora especially likes paraphrase, metaphors, and conceits.  All of these are indirect ways of describing the world which allow the writer to manipulate perspective.  All of them were essential aspects of Renaissance poetic technique, but in Gongoran poetry they are used more frequently and more boldly.

    In poetry, paraphrase is the description of things, people, scenes etc in terms of their attributes or associations.  Metaphor is inexplicit analogy--not saying, for example, that the evasive limbs of a beautiful woman are comparable to water, but actually using a water image as a way of naming them; or not saying that her white breasts look like apples of snow, but actually calling them that.  See the following extract from Góngora's mythological poem, the Fábula [Mythic tale, Fable] de Polifemo y Galatea, where Galatea's limbs are described as 'fugitivo cristal' and her breasts as 'pomos de nieves' (apples or pomes of snow):

Entre las ondas y la fruta, imita

Acis al siempre ayuno en penas graves:

que, en tanta gloria, infierno son no breve,

fugitivo cristal, pomos de nieve.

Amidst the waves and the fruit, Acis resembles the one who ever fasts in grievous suffering: for, in such a paradise, a hell without end are fugitive crystal, apples made of snow.

The same passage illustrates paraphrase.  In this case the paraphrase involves a mythological allusion: 'el siempre ayuno en penas graves' ('the one who ever fasts in grievous suffering') is a paraphrase reference to the mythical Tantalus, from whose legend we get the word 'tantalize'.  Look him up in Everyman's Classical Dictionary if you want to find out more.

    An important aspect of Gongoran style is wit, or agudeza, a gift much prized in 17th century Spain.  Wit was understood as a surprising manipulation of conceptos: ideas or mental images.  A modern term for it, when referring to the 17th century, is conceptismo.  Agudeza or conceptismo is found in any correlation which surprises commonsense.  It may consist of an antithesis (contrast) but it normally consists of what English calls a conceit.  A conceit is a surprising likening of two or more things which would normally be regarded as very unlike each other.  The analogy may be explicit, metaphorical, or, in extended conceits, a mixture of the two.

    The logic of a conceit can be very abstract, and in the hands of 17th moralists the logic can be moral.  But most conceits appeal to the senses in some degree and Gongoran conceits tend to do so powerfully.  See the following extract from his Soledades.  In this passage he likens the bow-wave on a fishing-boat (a simple, ordinary thing) to pearls around the neck of an Inca princess.  This is witty because we would not normally associate the two things:

el mar . . . cuya espuma cana

su parda aguda prora

resplandeciente cuello

hace de su augusta Coya peruana,

a quien hilos el Sur tributó ciento

de perlas cada hora.

the sea . . . whose hoary foam makes its sharp dark prow the glittering neck of an illustrious Empress of Peru, to whom the Southern sea a hundred strings paid of pearls in tribute every hour.

For a conceit to achieve the maximum impact, it has to be original.  Góngora was very good at devising original conceits.  One mark of lesser poets who imitated the Gongoran style is their lack of originality.

    Góngora's most ambitious work is his unfinished Solitudes or Soledades.  He probably conceived them as four long poems loosely based on a four-part journey of personal discovery undertaken by a young, shipwrecked courtier (shipwrecked literally and metaphorically), the four parts corresponding to four different settings: the countryside, the coast, woodland, and wilderness.  It is a kind of unfinished symphony: he completed only the first poem and part of the second before he died.  What he wrote is a meditation on the beauty, permanence, and innocence of nature.  It is also at times an explicit meditation on the vanity and greed of advanced (urban, civic) civilization.  One of its more political passages is a jaundiced view of the transatlantic voyages of discovery:

    The salient themes of Góngora's poetry are the transience of the man-made world, the instability of human affairs, the inevitability of death, the superiority of simple and humble pleasures, and the permanence and beauty of the natural world.  The intellectual traditions which are most apparent are the Court and Country theme, Neo-Platonism, and Neo-Stoicism.

    In the Soledades he is the first great poet of Nature.  Garcilaso had celebrated Nature in his Eclogues, but on nothing like the scale of Góngora in his Soledades and with nothing like Góngora's descriptive interest in it.  Garcilaso's natural world is more hazy, more intellectualized, and is essentially a setting and sounding-board, not a subject in its own right.

    Below is an extract from the scene-setting lines of Garcilaso's third Eclogue, followed by the opening lines of Góngora's first Solitude.  Comparison will give you some measure of the difference between the two poets when Góngora is writing in full-blown Gongoranstyle.  Both poets are referring to Spring:

Peinando sus cabellos de oro fino,

una ninfa, del agua, donde moraba,

la cabeza sacó, y el prado ameno

vió de flores y de sombra lleno.

Movióla el sitio umbroso, el manso viento,

el suave olor de aquel florido suelo. . . .

En el silencio sólo se escuchaba

un susurro de abejas que sonaba.

Combing her hair of finest gold, a nymph, from the water, where she lived, appeared, and saw the pleasant meadow, full of flowers and shade.  The shady place, the light breeze, the gentle scent of the flowered earth, moved her. . . . In the silence, all that was heard was the buzzing sound of bees.

Era del año la estación florida

en que el mentido robador de Europa

- media luna las armas de su frente,

y el Sol todo los rayos de su pelo -,

luciente honor del cielo,

en campos de zafiro pace estrellas.

'It was of the year the season of flowers in bloom, in which the dissembling raptor of Europa - half-moon the arms he bears upon his brow and the whole Sun the radiance of his hide - bright glory of the sky, in sapphire fields, grazes upon stars.'  The sun is in Taurus.  Góngora is describing the constellation, and also its zodiacal sign.  The Classical allusion is to Jupiter's abduction of Europa, transformed into a bull.


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