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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 Federico de Onís (1885–1966)

By Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo (1856–1912)

MENÉNDEZ Y PELAYO was born in Santander, a center of Old Castile, and he died in Madrid. His life was entirely devoted to books. His first works were published when he was barely twenty years old; and coming from one so young, they occasioned great surprise for the amount of reading they presupposed. His death, forty years later, occurred in his splendid library in Santander, one of the best in the whole world of Spanish books. The fact seems symbolic of his regret at leaving the world when so many books still remained to be read. Much of his writing, especially of his early production, is bound up with the passions and quarrels of politics. To this is due in large measure the rapid popularity he attained—a success far greater than usually comes to scholars and men of science. However he never came to take an active part in politics. His whole energy was consecrated to his literary studies, to the writing and publication of his own volumes.

In the work of Menéndez y Pelayo there is no unifying system of philosophical thought, nor is there any original method of literary criticism. As regards his ideas we have the two cardinal points of his traditionalism and his Catholicism; but they present neither the consistency nor the rigorousness that might be expected. At bottom he was a tolerant person, much more deeply sensitive to æsthetic beauty than interested in purely rational questions: he finally settled down, in his Spanish environment, as an avowed enemy of uncompromising scholasticism, as a prudent and amiable eclectic. Indeed his religious feeling seems to have arisen in his mind largely as an attitude toward a problem of Spanish history: Catholicism is the essence of Spanish civilization, of Spanish mentality; in defending it, therefore, we defend our racial, our national tradition.

This nationalistic spirit, combined with a deep intuitive sense of beauty and art, is the only unifying bond of Menéndez y Pelayo’s work. When he appeared before the public, Spanish literary studies were in the hands of a few scholars more or less deserving, but who lacked the power of creating general ideas capable of interpreting as a whole the vast field of Spanish bibliography. This was the task Menéndez y Pelayo set himself; and he performed it with a success equalled neither before nor since.

His first publications were polemical works directed to the defense of Spanish traditions against the attacks leveled against them, before and during his time, both by Spanish and foreign writers. Thus his ‘History of Spanish Heretics’ was written to prove that the genuine thought of Spain is Catholic, and that outside of Catholicism, only by rare exception have works of any value been produced. Catholicism, far from being the cause of the national backwardness, is on the contrary the inspiration of the best and noblest elements of Spanish culture. Similarly his ‘Spanish Science’ is a response to the long-standing accusation that Spain has not contributed as much as other peoples to the development of the scientific civilization of modern times. These “theses,” these “apologies” of Spanish life, brought their author rapidly into the public eye. They have the merits and defects of all such works. They possess emotional tone and enthusiasm but they are not always statements of the exact truth. It may well be that the two theses there sustained by Menéndez y Pelayo are true, or indeed true with certain restrictions. It is apparent however that the method used by the author—that of passionate affirmation—is not the best adapted to carrying conviction. In fact, to prove his point Menéndez y Pelayo would have been obliged to undertake the for him impossible task of writing the whole history of Spanish science and Spanish religion in its minutest details. That is why these works remain valuable exclusively for the rich bibliography they contain, for the precious citations of rare documents made in them.

On the other hand, in the field of literary criticism, the work of Menéndez y Pelayo is less debated and less debatable. We may say that there is no important point of Spanish literature about which he has not said something decisive, something which will, at least, have to be reckoned with as the interpretation of a man of fine taste and extraordinary insight, who is the most illustrious and representative writer of an epoch of Spanish criticism. It was he who broke the almost virgin soil of Spanish literature, establishing an order and a hierarchy in the midst of a vast chaos of writings, fixing evaluations which have hitherto stood as the most exact and discerning yet attained. Some of his subjects were treated with the greatest detail, and all his work shows a vast erudition. He clothed his learning with a noble Castilian style which makes many of his pages models of Spanish prose. This critical work he supplemented with original productions in prose and verse. His volume of elegant verse, of classic tendencies, is far from being without interest.

Among these critical works, above referred to, an important place is occupied by the ‘History of Æsthetic Ideas in Spain.’ This was a study made by the author as, to his notion, a necessary preliminary to a general history of Spanish literature which he had in view, but which was never completed, though many of the chapters written for it appear in other works. The ‘History of Æsthetic Ideas’ however remains perhaps the most important general study of Spanish literature that we possess, though the greater part of the work is devoted to the history of æsthetic ideas outside of Spain. Such a comprehensive work could hardly be of equal value in all its parts. Critics usually consider the portions devoted to the early periods of Christianity and to modern Romanticism as the most solid.

The most important chapters of his history of Spanish literature, left complete by Menéndez y Pelayo, are the studies on the novela (prefaces to the relative volumes in his ‘New Library of Spanish Authors’) and on Spanish poetry (preface to his ‘Anthology of Spanish Lyric Poets’). The fact that mere prefaces constitute the most valuable portion of his work gives some idea of the spontaneity of his disorganized talent, so exuberant and rich, so incapable of method and system. These prefaces, both as regards scope and preparation, form real treatises, easily capable of extension into one or several volumes. The other subjects of the history were conceived along vast lines—so comprehensively in fact that almost all of them, though begun many years ago, remained incomplete at the author’s death.

The same may be said of another monumental work planned by Menéndez y Pelayo, his critical edition of the works of Lope de Vega, published by the Spanish Academy. While the text-constitution of this edition is not overscrupulous, the introduction to each of the comedies is a treasure-store of erudition and a masterpiece of criticism. Taking these introductions together, and in view of the extraordinary wealth of suggestion in an author like Lope, we get another surprising result, though here again the disorder that reigned in the critic’s mind mars the utility of his work. Another great work on the Spanish theatre is his study on Calderón.

Barely to mention the bibliographical studies on ‘Horace in Spain’ and on classic Latin letters in Spain, we come to the ‘Studies in Literary Criticism’ which complete Menéndez y Pelayo’s varied production. Here in short essays and lectures, brilliant and eloquent in execution, we have discussions of the most diverse themes of Spanish literature. These essays are of quite general competence, though the author, in his inattention to an occasional detail, cannot be called a “specialist” in the modern sense of the term. Here his mind plays freely with all its power of suggestiveness and vision, running over wide territories, without ever losing the sense of perspective. In his erudition Menéndez y Pelayo is neither a compiler nor a synthetizer. He does indeed use to advantage the studies of other scholars, but in reality the subjects he attacks are most often new. In this work lay his special gift, his distinctive originality. He had the power of rapid evaluation, the faculty of erecting solid structures in criticism from among the scattered relics of the whole civilization of a people. On this kind of work rests the title of Menéndez y Pelayo as the greatest Spanish historian of the nineteenth century. The advance of modern learning may perhaps render much of this labor antiquated to future generations of scholars, as far as the groundwork of erudition and documentation on which it rests is concerned. But they have then a generous residue of artistic merit on which to rely. The permanent elements in the writing of Menéndez y Pelayo are his passionate national spirit and his intense love of beauty.