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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 Maurice Francis Egan (1852–1924)

By Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–1681)

THE REPUTATION of Pedro Calderón de la Barca has suffered in the minds of English-speaking people from the injudicious comparisons of critics, as well as from lack of knowledge of his works. To put Calderón, a master of invention, beside Shakespeare, the master of character, and to show by analogies that the author of ‘Othello’ was far superior to the writer of ‘The Physician of His Own Honor,’ is unjust to Calderón; and it is as futile as are the ecstasies of Schultze to the coldness of Sismondi. Schultze compares Dante with him, and the French critics have only recently forgiven him for being less classical in form than Corneille, who in ‘Le Cid’ gave them all the Spanish poetry they wanted! Fortunately the student of Calderón need not take opinions. Good editions of Calderón are easily attainable. The best known are Heil’s (Leipzig, 1827), and that by Harzenbusch (Madrid, 1848). The first edition, with forewords by Vera Tassis de Villareal, appeared at Madrid (nine volumes) in 1682–91. Commentaries and translations are numerous in German and in English; the translations by Denis Florence MacCarthy are the most satisfactory, Edward Fitzgerald’s being too paraphrastic. Dean Trench added much to our knowledge of Calderón’s best work; George Ticknor in the ‘History of Spanish Literature,’ and George Henry Lewes in ‘The Spanish Drama,’ left us clear estimates of Lope de Vega’s great successor. Shelley’s scenes from ‘El Magico Prodigioso’ are superb.

No analyses can do justice to the dramas, or to the religious plays, called “autos,” of Calderón. They must be read; and thanks to the late Mr. MacCarthy’s sympathy and zeal, the finest are easily attainable. As he left seventy-three autos and one hundred and eight dramas, it is lucky that the work of sifting the best from the mass of varying merit has been carefully done. Mr. Ticknor mentions the fact that Calderón collaborated with other authors in the writing of fourteen other plays.

Calderón was not “the Spanish Shakespeare.” “The Spanish Ben Jonson” would be a happier title, if one feels obliged to compare everything with something else. But Calderón is as far above Ben Jonson in splendor of imagery as he is below Shakespeare in his knowledge of the heart, and in that vitality which makes Hamlet and Orlando, Lady Macbeth and Perdita, men and women of all time. They live; Calderón’s people, like Ben Jonson’s, move. There is a resemblance between the autos of Calderón and the masques of Jonson. Jonson’s are lyrical; Calderón’s less lyrical than splendid, ethical, grandiose. They were both court poets; they both made court spectacles; they both assisted in the decay of the drama; they reflected the tastes of their time; but Calderón is the more noble, the more splendid in imagination, the more intense in his devotion to nature in all her moods. If one wanted to carry the habit of comparison into music, Mozart might well represent the spirit of Calderón. M. Philarète Chasles is right when he says that ‘El Mágico Prodigioso’ should be presented in a cathedral. Calderón’s genius had the cast of the soldier and the priest, and he was both soldier and priest. His comedias and autos are of Spain, Spanish. To know Calderón is to know the mind of the Spain of the seventeenth century; to know Cervantes is to know its heart.

The Church had opposed the secularization of the drama, at the end of the fifteenth century, for two reasons. The dramatic spectacle fostered for religious purposes had become, until Lope de Vega rescued it, a medium for that “naturalism” which some of us fancy to be a discovery of M. Zola and M. Catulle Mendès; it had escaped from the control of the Church and had become a mere diversion. Calderón was the one man who could unite the spirit of religion to the form of the drama which the secular renaissance imperiously demanded. He knew the philosophy of Aristotle and the theology of the ‘Summa’ of St. Thomas as well as any cleric in Spain, though he did not take orders until late in life; and in those religious spectacles called autos sacramentales he showed this knowledge wonderfully. His last auto was unfinished when he died, on May 25th, 1681,—sixty-five years after the death of Shakespeare,—and Don Melchior de Leon completed it, probably in time for the feast of Corpus Christi.

The auto was an elaboration of the older miracle-play, and a spectacle as much in keeping with the temper of the Spanish court and people as Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ or Ben Jonson’s ‘Fortunate Isles’ was in accord with the tastes of the English. And Calderón, of all Spanish poets, best pleased his people. He was the favorite poet of the court under Philip IV., and director of the theatre in the palace of the Buen Retiro. The skill in the art of construction which he had begun to acquire when he wrote ‘The Devotion of the Cross’ at the age of nineteen, was turned to stage management at the age of thirty-five, when he produced his gorgeous pageant of ‘Circe’ on the pond of the Buen Retiro. How elaborate this spectacle was, the directions for the prelude of the greater splendor to come will show. They read in this way:—

  • “In the midst of this island will be situated a very lofty mountain of rugged ascent, with precipices and caverns, surrounded by a thick and darksome wood of tall trees, some of which will be seen to exhibit the appearance of the human form, covered with a rough bark, from the heads and arms of which will issue green boughs and branches, having suspended from them various trophies of war and of the chase: the theatre during the opening of the scene being scantily lit with concealed lights; and to make a beginning of the festival, a murmuring and a rippling noise of water having been heard, a great and magnificent car will be seen to advance along the pond, plated over with silver, and drawn by two monstrous fishes, from whose mouth will continually issue great jets of water, the light of the theatre increasing according as they advance; and on the summit of it will be seen seated in great pomp and majesty the goddess Aqua, from whose head and curious vesture will issue an infinite abundance of little conduits of water; and at the same time will be seen another great supply flowing from an urn which the goddess will hold reversed, and which, filled with a variety of fishes leaping and playing in the torrent as it descends and gliding over all the car, will fall into the pond.”
  • This ‘Circe’ was allegorical and mythological; it was one of those soulless shows which marked the transition of the Spanish drama from maturity to decay. It is gone and forgotten with thousands of its kind. Calderón will be remembered not as the director of such vain pomps, but as the author of the sublime and tender ‘Wonderful Magician,’ the weird ‘Purgatory of St. Patrick,’ ‘The Constant Prince,’ ‘The Secret in Words,’ and ‘The Physician of His Own Honor.’ The scrupulous student of the Spanish drama will demand more; but for him who would love Calderón without making a deep study of his works, these are sufficiently characteristic of his genius at its highest. The reader in search of wider vistas should add to these ‘Los Encantos de la Culpa’ (The Sorceries of Sin), and ‘The Great Theatre of the World,’ the theme of which is that of Jacques’s famous speech in ‘As You Like It’:—

  • “En el teatro del mundo
  • Todos son representados.”
  • (“All the world’s a stage,
  • And all the men and women merely players.”)
  • On the principal feasts of the Church autos were played in the streets, generally in front of some great house. Giants and grotesque figures called tarascas gamboled about; and the auto, which was more like our operas than any other composition of the Spanish stage, was begun by a loa, written or sung. After this came the play, then an amusing interlude, followed by music and sometimes by a dance of gipsies.

    Calderón boldly mingles pagan gods and Christ’s mysteries in these autos, which are essentially of his time and his people. But the mixture is not so shocking as it is with the lesser poet, the Portuguese Camões. Whether Calderón depicts ‘The True God Pan,’ ‘Love the Greatest Enchantment,’ or ‘The Sheaves of Ruth,’ he is forceful, dramatic, and even at times he has the awful gravity of Dante. His view of life and his philosophy are the view of life and the philosophy of Dante. To many of us, these simple and original productions of the Spanish temperament and genius may lack what we call “human interest.” Let us remember that they represented truthfully the faith and the hope, the spiritual knowledge of a nation, as well as the personal and national view of that knowledge. In the Spain of Calderón, the personal view was the national view.

    Calderón was born on January 17th, 1600,—according to his own statement quoted by his friend Vera Tassis,—at Madrid, of noble parents. He was partly educated at the University of Salamanca. Like Cervantes and Garcilaso, he served in the army. The great Lope, in 1630, acknowledged him as a poet and his friend. Later, his transition from the army to the priesthood made little change in his views of time and eternity.

    On May 25th, 1881, occurred the second centenary of his death, and the civilized world—whose theatre owes more to Calderón than it has ever acknowledged—celebrated with Spain the anniversary at Madrid, where as he said,—

  • “Spain’s proud heart swelleth.”
  • The selections have been chosen from Shelley’s ‘Scenes,’ and from Mr. MacCarthy’s translation of ‘The Secret in Words.’ ‘The Secret in Words’ is light comedy of intricate plot. Fabio is an example of the attendant gracioso, half servant, half confidant, who appears often in the Spanish drama. The Spanish playwright did not confine himself to one form of verse; and Mr. MacCarthy, in his adequate translation, has followed the various forms of Calderón, only not attempting the assonant vowel, so hard to escape in Spanish, and still harder to reproduce in English. These selections give no impression of the amazing invention of Calderón. This can only be appreciated through reading ‘The Constant Prince,’ ‘The Physician of His Own Honor,’ or a comedy like ‘The Secret in Words.’