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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 Mary Jane Christie Serrano (1840–1923)

By José de Espronceda (1808–1842)

IN the year 1810 all Spain was in arms, disputing Spanish soil inch by inch with the soldiers of Napoleon, who, including in his plan of universal conquest the crown of Spain, had decoyed into France and then perfidiously imprisoned the Spanish King Ferdinand, and placed his brother Joseph by force of arms upon the vacant throne.

José de Espronceda was born in the little town of Almendrajo, in the province of Estremadura, during a halt of the cavalry regiment of which his father was colonel, his mother having accompanied her husband in the marches of the campaign.

Nursed amid the din of battle waged in defense of national rights, drawing in with every breath the spirit of national liberty that filled the air, and that continued to fill it during his childhood and youth, as an aspiration towards national regeneration, it was not strange that this spirit of liberty, converted by the workings of his poet’s imagination into a spirit of revolt against all restraint, should have fermented in his blood and should remain a ruling influence in his short and agitated existence.

Thus it is that almost all Espronceda’s poems, whatever their subject, are an aspiration toward freedom, whether from the bonds of spirit or of matter, or a passionate protest against the injustice of man or of fate. But in Espronceda’s cynicism, unlike that of Byron,—whom he so strongly resembled both in his genius and his character,—of Heine, of Leopardi, or of Musset, there is nothing of egotism or of affectation, defects from which his sincere and generous nature was altogether free; and while his expression of feeling is intensely personal, as for instance in the cry of passionate regret for lost illusions which he calls ‘Canto to Teresa,’ and which stands as the second canto of ‘El Diablo Mundo’ (The World Spirit), the feelings he expresses are the common feelings of humanity; as the injustice against which he protests is the injustice suffered by his fellow-men. Thus, in ‘The Mendicant,’ ‘The Executioner,’ and ‘The Condemned Criminal,’ he arraigns human society for the inequalities of station and of fortune which array man against his fellow-man, and for the indifference with which it regards the victim of its own defective organization, while sanctioning, in decreeing his death, the crime for which it condemns him to die.

The ‘Song of the Cossack’ and ‘The Pirate’ reflect vividly the free life of nature, the freedom of the desert and of the sea—the dash across the plain of the Cossack horseman, the wild sweep in which the steed responds to the will of the rider as the hand responds to the brain; the wide solitude of the boundless sea, the invigorating saltness of the breeze murmuring through the sails, the shimmer of the moon on the blue waters; and through and above all the intoxicating sense of conscious power, of strength unconquered and defiant.

Another note is struck in the poem ‘To Jarifa in an Orgy.’ Here the freedom aspired to is freedom from law, the unescapable law that ordains that satiety shall inevitably attend upon excess. But when the poet’s soul, steeped in the dregs of pleasure, abandons itself unresistingly to its fate, a sudden touch of human sympathy, of pure feeling, stirs it with regenerating power and so saves it from moral death.

In ‘The Student of Salamanca,’ one of Espronceda’s two long poems,—for of ‘Pelayo,’ an epic poem written in his boyhood, and a remarkable production thus considered, only a few fragments remain,—the prevailing note is one of defiance; defiance of all authority, human or Divine. The poem is based on the legend of Don Juan Tenorio; and in the character of the hero, Espronceda, like Byron in Don Juan, is supposed to have depicted his own. Imaginative power of the highest order, and an extraordinary skill in the employment of the resources of poetic expression, characterize this work, in which earth and heaven and hell, the natural and the supernatural, are brought together on a single canvas without dissonance or disproportion of line or color. The solitary landscape bathed in the mellow light of the moon; the branches of the trees outlined darkly against the softly luminous midnight sky; the brook murmuring its plaintive song; the touching figure of the gentle and unfortunate Elvira, whose illusions have been scattered to the wind by the ruthless hand of her faithless lover, like the petals which she pulls, in the abstraction of her grief, from the flowers; the gambling-house, with its exhibition of cynicism and depravity; the graves giving up their dead to celebrate ghastly festivities—all form a picture of surpassing power and extraordinary artistic beauty.

‘El Diablo Mundo,’ Espronceda’s most important composition, recalls in its plan the legend of Faust. The hero, an old man who becomes endowed with immortal youth, has scarcely put on his new form when he is seized by the police as a fugitive from justice, and cast into prison. Here he finds a companion in a hardened criminal who indoctrinates him in his own cynical philosophy of life, for the mind of the new Adam is the blank mind of a child. The daughter of his mentor comes to visit her father in the prison, and Adam conceives a violent passion for her, which she returns with equal vehemence. In the prison Adam meets some thieves who induce him to join in the midnight robbery of a beautiful and wealthy countess. The alarm is given, but Adam makes his escape. He wanders through the city streets, and at last enters a house where an orgy is going on in one room, while in another the daughter of the house lies dead. Touched by the mother’s lamentations, Adam’s heart is filled with the desire to restore the dead girl to life. Here ends the poem, which the author did not live to finish.

In Espronceda’s poems the spirit of the man is reflected: a spirit of fire, a flame lurid and obscured at times by smoke, but a flame that always aspires. In his poems, too, is to be found the best history of his unsettled and adventurous life; of which the chief events to be recorded are his journeyings, now voluntary, now as an exile, to Lisbon, to Paris, to London, and back again to Madrid, and the part he took in the political movements of which they were in general the result.

An incident characteristic of the poet is related of his first visit to Lisbon. When the vessel on which he was a passenger arrived in port, the health officer, boarding her, proceeded to collect a small tax which it was the custom to demand from the passengers. When Espronceda’s turn arrived, the poet took from his pocket a dollar, all the money he possessed, and handed it to the officer, who returned him the change. The poet tossed the coins lightly into the water, in order, as he said, that he might not “enter so great a capital with so small a sum of money.”

During his residence in London, Espronceda devoted himself with ardor to the study of the English poets, more particularly of Byron, whose influence is clearly traceable in his works. Here the passionate lament entitled ‘Elegy to Spain’ was written. Here, too, the unhappy passion which inspired the ‘Canto to Teresa’ reached the fatal culmination which was to prove a source of unending remorse to both the guilty lovers.

The accession to power in 1840 of the liberal party, whose principles he advocated, seemed to promise Espronceda at last leisure to take his just place in literature; a place, according to the judgment of Valera,—a cautious critic,—beside Goethe, Byron, and Leopardi. The promise, however, was never realized. His health had been undermined by a life often of privation and always irregular; and before he could take his seat he was attacked by an inflammation of the larynx, and died after four days’ illness, on the 23d of May, 1842, at the age of thirty-two years.