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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By José Zorrilla y Moral (1817–1893)

ALTHOUGH the golden period of Spanish literature lies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it would be a mistake to suppose that modern Spain is deficient in literature. On the contrary, the recent and present activity is vigorous and productive. Especially is this true since 1876, when the Carlist wars ended, and society entered upon an era of progress and prosperity. The dominant literary form that has developed under these improved conditions is that of fiction,—which is true of Spain in common with all other modern nations in which letters are cultivated. The novel, both in its popular appeal to the public and in the talent it commands, is a form which throws history and the essay, poetry and the drama, into comparative insignificance. Zola hardly exaggerated when he said the novel was modern literature. In Spain, such novelists as Alarcón, Valera, Valdés, Galdós, de Pereda, and Bazán, overmatch in prominence and power any writers representing other divisions of literature, and have an international importance.

Nevertheless, writers of great ability and wide reputation, particularly in the fields of history and criticism, exist. The historical writings of the eminent politicians Castelar and Cánovas, the criticism of Menéndez, the poetry of Ventura de la Vega, Nuñez de Arce, Selgas, Campoamor, and Zorrilla, need no apology, and are familiar and honored in their own country. In the group of poets, Zorrilla occupies a conspicuous place as a singer of Spain’s departed grandeur. He belongs with the conservatives rather than with the liberals of literature. He prefers to hark back to bygone glories and invoke the spirit of his ancestors. In this sense he may be said to be reactionary. But his influence is altogether noble and high. It is natural that one who has studied and reproduced the old legends so faithfully should sing as a man—

  • “Mourning the worship of more Christian years.”
  • José Zorrilla y Moral first came into reputation in a dramatic way. The brilliant Madrid journalist and poet Larra committed suicide in 1837 under romantic circumstances; and at his funeral Zorrilla, newly come to the city and quite unknown to fame, read some verses which at once set him in the public eye. This dirge remains one of his finest short lyrics. Its immediate effect was heightened by the situation. The maker of it was so overcome by emotion that he broke down, and the poem had to be finished by another. As an eye-witness reported: “The same procession which had attended the remains of the illustrious Larra to the resting-place of the dead, now sallied forth in triumph to announce to the living the advent of a new poet, and proclaimed with enthusiasm the name of Zorrilla.” It is seldom that the man and the occasion are thus found.

    José Zorrilla y Moral was born at Valladolid, Spain, on February 21st, 1817; received his early education in the Madrid Seminary; studied jurisprudence, spending a couple of years at the universities of Toledo and Valladolid; and held a position in the magistracy of the latter town before coming to Madrid to live. He took up his residence there at a time when the new ideas—romanticism, democracy, socialism—were beginning to seethe, and the principles of the eighteenth century were felt to be dead. The feeling that modern Spain must develop an independent literature, uninfluenced by what was being done on the other side of the Pyrenees, was spreading. Zorrilla believed in Spain and loved it, and his genius led him to recall its past in his poetry. Hence his work was an appeal to nationality, and in this sense a salutary force. His first book of verse, however,—promptly published after the incident of his début at Larra’s grave, and soon followed by another of like character,—was not of this nature. Both volumes were imitative, showing the influence upon the writer of French literature, and not yet indicating his real bent. He found this in the collection of historic legends called ‘Songs of a Troubadour,’ which appeared in 1840–1. These, like the ‘Lost Flowers’ following in 1843, mingled romantic and Christian elements in the epic style. The two-part ‘Don Juan Tenorio’ (1844), a religious drama which in some ways recalls ‘Faust,’ is regarded as one of his strongest works, and retains its place on the modern Spanish stage. His great unfinished epic, ‘Granada, an Oriental Poem,’ was published in 1853–4 at Paris, whither the poet had gone because his verse sold better there than at home. This master-work was not a financial success,—the usual fate of epics. In 1854 Zorrilla went to Mexico and met with a warm reception, Maximilian putting him in charge of the court theatre. But he was called back to Spain a year before Maximilian’s downfall,—an event which ended all thoughts of a return,—and thereafter was obliged to depend upon government aid and employment: he was given a literary mission to Italy, a pension, and the post of chronicler of his province. Of his later works, the most important are the comedies in the manner of the classical dramatic period of Spain; the two most popular being ‘The Shoemaker and the King,’ and ‘To Good Judge and Better Witness.’ Zorrilla was crowned poet in 1889 in Granada,—an honor testifying to the national attitude towards him,—and died at Madrid, January 22d, 1893.

    At the time of his death he was esteemed the leading poet of his country. His treatment of the native legends, most of which are religious, is full of fervent and lofty spiritual feeling; and it was his purpose as a poet to summon his countrymen to a consideration of ideal principles, and to stimulate them to an enlightened patriotism. He lived to see the triumph of realism in fiction; and his latest work in the drama might seem to imply that he felt the spirit of the age and in some degree yielded to it. But in his song he remained the reviver of old deeds and beliefs, essentially a poet of religion and tradition.