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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: Spanish Literature

By Irving Henry Brown (1888–1940)

Introduction. THE TWO main currents of realism and idealism seldom fuse in Spanish culture. Like Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, they go their way together but distinct. In the paintings of El Greco there is a vast difference between the fantastic other-worldly beauty of his Christs and the realistic portraiture of the secondary figures. The greater part of what is best in Spanish literature is in the realistic vein. We need not be disappointed if we look unavailingly for metaphysics, music, and lyric poetry as it is understood in the North, for we will find, on the one hand, beautiful expressions of the religious sentiment, as in Santa Teresa, and on the other, a body of realistic literature as rich as any.

For the reader in other countries, a vast portion of Spanish literature is marred by bombast, emphasis, words and more words, and fantastic imaginings that have no bond with inner or outer realities, and also by a dependence, for æsthetic expression, on social conventions and on absurd “points of honor.” But in realism we find a Latin clearness of vision that makes us shudder or laugh at the world of reality within and without, or sympathize with all of it that expresses the essentially human. If the artist is he who has eyes and sees, and to whom experience is an end in itself, how many Spaniards are artists in prose and poetry as well as in painting! In Spanish literature there are frequent counterparts to Murillo’s lifelike beggar boys, to ‘The Drunkards’ by Velasquez, to the satiric, royal portraits by Goya, and, to-day, to Sorolla’s beach scenes.

The Epic. The first great monument in Spanish literature is the ‘Poem of the Cid’ (c. 1132). It is the Spanish ‘Iliad’ or, rather, the Spanish ‘Chanson de Roland.’ French epic poetry apparently influenced its outer form, the expression of a warlike and feudal phase of the Middle Ages, the fight against the Moors. To feel its force we must remember that fighting in those days was an end in itself, to be enjoyed vicariously in song. We must also remember that the religious emotions contributed strongly to the joy of fighting the Moorish infidels, and that the social fabric of the times made loyalty a passion as well as a duty. It is the Cid who never despairs of driving out the Moors, who in hunger and exile does not fail in his loyalty to an ungrateful king. His clemency to the prisoners whom he takes contrasts with his desire for vengeance on his cowardly sons-in-law, and serves to emphasize his passion for loyalty and bravery. Critics have liberally conceded to the ‘Poema del Cid’ a simple grandeur and an ardent spirit. The story itself has taken many forms: it appears again in the ‘Rhymed Chronicle’ (‘Cronica Rimada’) as well as in many ballads. Many of the epic ballads or “Cantares” of this period have been lost. Those that remain, such as the ‘Gesta de los Infantes de Lara’ (twelfth century), ‘Fernan González’ (c. 1250), and the ‘Libro de Alexandre’ are of interest more especially to historians of literature and philologists. So also are the religious narrative poems such as the ‘Libro de Apollonio’ (of early though uncertain date), and the ‘Vida de Sancta Oria, virgen,’ the latter by Gonzalo de Berceo (1180–1246), who is supposed to be the author of the ‘Alexandre’ as well. Berceo is the earliest writer of whom we have definite biographical information.

Romances. Closely allied to the “cantares,” in which they find in part their origin, are the shorter narrative poems, romances, or ballads, written at a later period, in verses of sixteen syllables, using a single assonance throughout. They form a field of unusual richness: they are full of character and possess a dramatic intensity which has insured their popularity even to-day. To the English reader they are known through the ‘Spanish Ballads’ of Lockhart. Among the most characteristic are: ‘A Calatrava la vieja,’ dealing with the tragic story of the ‘Infantes de Lara,’ and the ‘Juramento llevan hecho,’ based on the ‘Fernan González,’ as well as ‘Entre las gentes se dice,’ relating to Pedro the Cruel, and ‘Ya cabalga Diego Ordóñez,’ one of a large group which tells in ballad form the adventures of the Cid.

Romances of Chivalry. Related to the epics and chronicles are the romances of chivalry, generally in prose, which ran riot in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They may be regarded as a sort of degeneration of the former, the process of which is already observable in the ‘Cronica Rimada.’ Real deeds of knights and warriors give way to the fabulous and fantastic adventures of the knight-errants. Much of the inspiration and material comes from the ‘Breton Cycle,’ and love and magic are often the leading motives. They interest us chiefly as a target for the wit of Cervantes in Don Quixote.

The best example and one worthy of study for its own sake is the ‘Amadis of Gaul’ (1508) composed, in its ultimate form at least, by Garcia Ordoñez de Montalva, with considerable art. The characters are interesting, and the action, though it drags at times, is cleverly handled.

History. Prose. The first great figure in Spanish letters is that of Alfonso the Wise (1221–1284), historian, lawgiver, poet, who gave a tremendous impulse to intellectual and literary pursuits. His ‘General Chronicle,’ or ‘History of Spain,’ shows at times grace and simple charm in spite of the naïve awkwardness of the work as a whole. The ‘Siete Partidas’ is more than a code which laid the foundations of Spanish law, still in vogue in such parts of the United States as Florida and Louisiana, for it is a picture of the times as well.

The first prose writer with an individual style is Juan Manuel (1282–1347), author of ‘Count Lucanor,’ a work in the manner of ‘The Arabian Nights,’ but largely didactic, an amalgam of tales from many sources, told with an artlessness that has a certain rough strength. Pérez de Guzmán (1376?–1460?), a historian, has left us in ‘Generaciones y Semblanzas,’ portraits, clear and picturesque, which have been compared to those of Saint-Simon. ‘La Guerra de Granada’ by Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (1503–1575) is highly esteemed in Spain as a monument of classic prose; but the true historian of Spain is Juan de Mariana (1536–1624). His ‘History of Spain’ is as valuable for its colorful, eloquent, vigorous exposition as for its documentation.

Juan de Valdés (c. 1500–1541) is considered the first great master of Castilian prose. His ‘Diálogo de Mercurio y Caron,’ in the manner of Lucian, is written with frankness, clarity, and vigor. “I write as I speak,” he said; “I have no other preoccupation than to use the words which mean precisely what I wish to say.” The best example of the historical novel is the ‘Guerras Civiles de Granada,’ written about 1600 with a Moorish setting, by G. Pérez de Hita, whose poetic qualities are suggestive of Scott.

Lyric Poetry. The earliest specimen of what might be called lyric poetry is the ‘Razon feita d’Amor,’ by an unknown writer of the Middle Ages. Juan Ruiz (still living in 1351) is the first, however, definitely to express his own personality. He was a scapegrace at heart, a priest in love with life, and his principal work, the ‘Libro de buen Amor,’ is a curious mixture of absorptions from many sources and actual observation, satire, moralizing, and a veiled expression of delight in the world and the flesh, through all of which we feel his personal sentiments, much as one does in Villon’s ‘Testaments,’ and La Fontaine’s ‘Fables.’ Just as Juan Ruiz mixes realism with a personal note, López de Ayala (1332–1407) boldly expresses in ‘Las Maneras de Palacio’ his feeling of bitter indignation at the corruption he sees in society.

The beginning of a new era is marked by the lyrics of the Marquis of Santillana (1398–1458). He is the first of Spanish sonneteers, an initiator of imitating, of the following of Italian models which had a long but not altogether fortunate vogue. He is charming, when he follows his own more native and popular inspiration in his “decires,” “serranillas,” and “vaqueiras.” Jorge Manrique (1440?–1479) is a poet of universal interest, who owes his fame to a single poem, on the ‘Death of his Father,’ well known to English readers through Longfellow’s good translation. Commonplaces on the instability of life are given reality and force by the depth of the poet’s somber melancholy. Garcilaso de la Vega (1503–1536), a virile soldier, is regarded by many Spaniards as their most brilliant poet; but one feels on reading his languorous verse that it did not spring from his whole soul, and his sweetness tires. The head of the Sevillian school, Fernando Herrera (1534?–1597), was a sort of lesser Ronsard.

Some of the best and worst in Spanish lyrism is associated with the name of Luis de Argote y Góngora (1561–1627). Certain of the poems in his second manner are masterpieces, spontaneous, graceful, and delicately imaginative; but he lost himself in an effort to startle. The grandiloquence and emphasis of his first manner led to obscurity, and an extravagance that is often ludicrous. His name was given to a widespread movement known as “gongorism” or “culteranismo,” and related to “Seicentismo” in Italy, “Preciosity” in France, and “Euphuism” in England. Gongorism, together with “conceptism,” which is the artificial expression of the idea of an emotion rather than an emotion, is, however, a more permanent trait in Spain. Another vice of Spanish poetry—facility or wordiness—Góngora strove to combat, for with all his faults he was an artist. Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Villegas shows extraordinary versatility, and power too often ill-directed. Aside from his ‘Buscon,’ a picaresque novel, he is at his best in the ‘Visions,’ a satirical fantasy, biting, amusing, and full of life and feeling.

Mysticism. The expression of mysticism ranks high in Spanish literature. One finds it in the works of many writers, classic and contemporary, but cultivated most intensively by Santa Teresa (1515–1582), an admirable organizer, a tender woman, and a prose poet. Her ‘Inner Castle’ realizes in a simple, vigorous, and definite form the profound emotions of her spiritual life. One of her disciples was San Juan de la Cruz (1542–1591), whose verses are rich in imagery of his tender religious ecstasies. It is the poet in Luis de León (1527–1591) that we admire rather than the hair-splitting analyst. The harmonious prose of ‘Los Nombres de Cristo’ contains some admirable poetic flights.

La Celestina (1492) by Fernando de Rojas (?), unique both in form and content, is one of the most valuable contributions of Spanish literature. Written in dialogue divided into many acts, it is more like a novel than a play. The somber imagination of the author portrays with admirable fidelity and power, scenes from low life, and the passions of real men and women. It is written in the truest vein of Spanish literature, the realistic.

The Picaresque Novel. Much has been written about the Novel of Roguery and its influence. Undoubtedly it is one of the most characteristic of the Spanish fields. There is much of the picaresque in Juan Ruiz and in ‘La Celestina,’ while the tales of Cervantes are largely of this type. It is a reflection possibly of the disordered life subsequent to the quest for gold in America and to the Spanish wars.

The first of these novels of low life is ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’ (1554 or earlier), of disputed authorship. Its picturesque incidents are described with alertness and a dry wit. The realism of ‘Guzmán de Alfarache’ by Mateo Alemán (1547–1614?) is characteristic, but humor gives place to moralizings which, like its digressions, are in no sense an organic part of the book which is otherwise rich in highly colored escapades. It was well translated in 1623 by Mabbe, and its vogue in England and on the continent was great. Better composed is the ‘Marcos de Obregón,’ by Vicente Martinez Espinel (1550?–1624), himself a picaresque figure. The ingenious, amusing adventures are told in a manner that makes them enjoyable reading. The ultimate in the picaresque is the ‘Buscón’ or ‘El gran Tacaño,’ by Quevedo (1580–1645), author of the ‘Visions.’ In spite of the fact that the ‘Buscón’ is confusing and difficult to read, it is written with extraordinary verve, and clearly manifests the genius of the author and his powers of observation.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616) so completely eclipses other Spanish writers, and ‘Don Quixote’ his other works, that Spain appears to the foreigner as a nation with a single book. His drama ‘La Numancia’ has scenes of tragic power, and his ‘Exemplary novels’ alone would insure his fame. Of these the ‘Coloquio de los perros’ contains some of his profoundest and most animated pages, while ‘Rinconete y Cortadillo’ is a little masterpiece of the picaresque. ‘Don Quixote’ is both the most Spanish and the most universal of books. In it, the body and soul of a nation and an epoch are laid bare, but at the same time it mirrors all mankind. The work has certain artistic blemishes, but it lies so close to life that something is expressed for all of us, in every land, at every age. Its intense humanity is no small merit.

Drama. The earliest date is that of a miracle play, the ‘Misterio de los Reyes Magos’ (c. 1220). The “patriarch of Spanish drama” is Juan del Encina (1468–1529?), while Torres Naharro (after 1530) is the first dramatist to produce real character. Gil Vicente, a close contemporary of Encina, also wrote in dramatic form. His ‘Autos da Fé’ have a delicate, lyric mysticism.

Less deep and human than Cervantes, less powerful than Quevedo, and less poetic than Calderón, Lope de Vega (1562–1635), a poet, with a keen sense of dramatic effect, is the most prolific, versatile, and brilliant of Spanish writers. Some of the best of his innumerable writings are his historical dramas, such as ‘El mejor Alcade el Rey’ and ‘La Estrella de Sevilla,’ as well as his comedies of manners or “capa y espada” plays, such as ‘La Dama de Cántaro.’ Though his talent was prodigious, his immense popularity is largely confined to Spain and to the Golden Century.

A poet in temperament, Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–1681) had also the ability to construct a clear and swiftly moving plot. As a whole, his characters do not seem as human and lifelike as those of Shakespeare for example, and often his poetry is spoiled by “conceptism”; yet many of his plays possess a deeply lyric vein of purest gold. For religious plays, or “autos sacramentales,” he is unrivaled. ‘El Divino Orfeo’ is a masterpiece of its kind. For plot and character the ‘Alcade de Zalamea’ is perhaps the best of his dramas, while ‘La Vida es Sueño’ (Life is a Dream) and ‘El Magico Prodigioso’ (The Marvelous Magician) contain his finest passages.

Minor Dramatists. Lope de Rueda (1510–1565), actor-director and author, is the father of Spanish comedy. His “pasos,” short plays, scenes from life, such as ‘Las Aceitunas’ (The Olives), are amusing and spirited. Guillén de Castro y Bellvis (1569–1631) is known for his ‘Mocedades del Cid,’ the work which inspired Corneille’s ‘Cid,’ to which it is inferior in most, but not all, respects. Gabriel Tellez (1571?–1648), better known as Tirso de Molina, is a dramatist of genius and the creator of extraordinary, living types. Imaginative sense of reality and depth of feeling make him in some respects the equal and even the superior of Lope and Calderón. Taking the point of view of the author in ‘El Condenado por desconfiado,’ the reader will feel that it is one of the most original and expressive of plays. In the ‘Burlador de Sevilla’ he has fixed the type of Don Juan, a creation that he has made universal. His women are the most natural in all Spanish drama. Juan Ruiz de Alarcón (1580?–1639) is a thorough classicist. His only fault is that he has no unusual merit. The same might almost be said of Fernandez de Moratín (1760–1828); whose ‘Sí de las Niñas’ is carefully, ingeniously composed. Ramón de la Cruz (1731–1794), the “Goya of the stage,” was a lively, clever playwright, popular with all.

The Nineteenth Century

Romanticism. The romantic period in Spain is less a revolution than a restoration. In common with the same period in the rest of Europe, it is a time of intense emotional expression. There is also a return to nature expressed in the realistic novel, which is Spain’s richest vein.

Lyrism. The impulsive José de Espronceda (1808–1842) is the most characteristic of Spanish lyric poets, and typical of his age. ‘El Diablo Mundo,’ full of bitter observation, and idealism colored with his artistic personalism, expressed with power and brilliancy, is a chaotic masterpiece. Gustavo Bécquer (1836–1870), born in Seville, is a deeply inspired poet in his romantic fantasies in prose as well as in his beautiful ‘Rimas,’ concise, poignant verse with the tender wistfulness and whimsicality of the words and music of an Andalusian “copla,” a “Malaguëña,” or a “seguidilla.” Other poets are Campoamor (1817–1901), known for his maxims in verse, ‘Doloras’; Querol (1837–1889), whose ‘Cartas á María’ show deep feeling; Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (1814–1873), authoress of the harmonious ‘Poes÷as liricas’; Núñez de Arce (1834–1903), the liberal poet of the ‘Gritos de Combate.’ In the sphere of political satire Mariano José de Larra (1809–1837) stands out in sharp relief.

Drama. For the theatre, Angel Saavedra’s ‘Don Alvaro’ (1835) is a literary milestone, with its picturesque staging. The jovial fecundity of Breton de los Herreros (1796–1873) makes his name important. ‘Marcela ó Cúal de los tres?’ has kept its popularity. It is the lyric qualities of José Zorrilla (1817–1893) that distinguish his dramas. His fantastic-religious ‘Don Juan Tenorio’ was the most successful Spanish drama of the nineteenth century. Though carelessly composed, it has spontaneity and a certain power. Manuel Tamayo y Baus (1829–1898) is a good playwright, and his ‘Drama nuevo’ is moving and sympathetic. ‘El gran Galeoto’ by José Echegaray (1832–1916) is also a masterpiece of its kind. The characters are more real than in his other plays, and the moral is a more integral part, while his somber imagination has produced an intense tragic effect. Of living dramatists, the most interesting are the brothers Serafin (1871) and Joaquin (1873) Quintero, masters of sparkling dialogues, rich in feeling.

The Modern Novel. In spite of the sentimental and didactic tendencies of Fernán Caballero (1796–1877), her novel ‘La Gaviota’ is charming. She knew the Andalusian village and paints it with a candid sympathy. There is much of the “sal andaluz,” and its graceful wit in the tales of Pedro Antonio de Alarcón (1833–1891), especially in the quaint, amusing ‘Sombrero de tres picos.’ Juan Valera (1824–1905), critic, poet, and philosopher, is famed as the writer of ‘Pepita Jiménez,’ a psychological study, subtle and poetic, ‘Doña Luz,’ and the more moving ‘El Comendador Mendoza.’ With a warm heart, José María de Pereda (1833–1906) draws in sharp relief, against a wonderful background of sea and mountains, the simple people he has known. Benito Pérez Galdós (1843–1920), prolix and observing, has covered almost every field of the novel with artistic conscientiousness. ‘Doña Perfecta’ and ‘Angel Guerra’ are studies of the religious question. ‘Fortunata y Jacinta’ is a vigorous picture of the changing bourgeoisie. Emilia Pardo Bazán (1852–1921) is a woman of unusual talents, whose novels ‘La Madre Naturaleza,’ an epic glorification of the primal instincts, and ‘Los Pazos de Ulloa’ show rare insight and descriptive power. There is a convincing humanity in the characters of Armando Palacio Valdés (1853–1938) that makes him highly esteemed abroad as well as in Spain, for his ‘Marta y María’ and ‘La Hermana San Sulpicio.’ The present-day master of realism, of the accumulation of essential detail, is Vicente Blasco Ibañez (1867–1928), whose vivid novels give life to a host of types and landscapes. ‘La Barraca’ and ‘Cañas y Barro’ are powerfully dramatic.

It is fitting that we should close this outline with the name of Spain’s greatest critic Menéndez y Pelayo (1856–1912). Intelligent, sympathetic, and carefully documented, he has analyzed the development of Spanish letters, with a discrimination and surety, too sure at times, but always alert and penetrating.

Reading Recommended

There is a wealth of accurate information in a small compass in Fitzmaurice-Kelly’s work on Spanish literature. A classic on the subject is Ticknor’s ‘History of Spanish Literature’ in three volumes. For the Poem of the Cid,’ consult the interesting preface to the Ormsby translation. See also F. W. Chandler’s ‘The Romances of Roguery.’ For the poets, read the Spanish section of Longfellow’s ‘Poets and Poetry of Europe,’ and Kennedy’s ‘Modern Poets and Poetry of Spain.’ Havelock Ellis in ‘The Soul of Spain’ gives a stimulating interpretation of Spanish life and culture.

Chronology of the Literature of Spain

  • c. 1132?‘Poema del Cid’
  • ??‘Razon feita d’Amor’
  • 1180–1246Gonzalo de Berceo‘Vida de Sancta Oria’
  • 1221–1284Alfonso X of CastileHistory, Law, Poetry
  • 1282–1347Juan Manuel‘El Conde Lucanor’
  • c. 1351Juan Ruiz‘Libro de buen Amor’
  • ?1400?‘Dance of Death’
  • 1376?–1460?Pérez de GuzmánHistorical portraits
  • 1398–1458Marquis of SantillanaSonnets, vaqueiras, etc.
  • 1440?–1479Jorge ManriquePoetry
  • 1445Cancionero de Baena
  • 14th–17th centuriesRomances (ballads)
  • 1468–1529?Juan del EncinaPlays
  • c. 1470–c. 1536Gil VicentePlays
  • c. 1492Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo‘Amadis of Gaul’
  • 1499Fernando de Rojas‘La Celestina’
  • 1503–1536Garcilaso de la VegaPoetry
  • ?–1530B. Torres NaharroPlays
  • 1503–1575Diego Hurtado de Mendoza
  • 1510–1565Lope de RuedaComedies
  • 1515–1582Santa Teresa‘The Inner Castle’
  • 1527–1591Luis de León‘Los Nombres de Cristo’
  • 1534?–1597Fernando HerreraPoetry
  • 1536–1624Juan de MarianaHistory of Spain
  • 1540–16211Antonio PérezLetters
  • c. 1500–1541Juan de ValdésDialogues
  • 1542–1591Juan de la CruzMystic Poetry
  • 1547–1616Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra‘Don Quixote,’ ‘Novelas Ejemplares’
  • 1547–1614?Mateo Alemán‘Guzmán de Alfarache’
  • 1550?–1624Vicente Martinez Espinel‘Marcos de Obregón’
  • 1503–1575Diego Hurtado de Mendoza‘Lazarillo de Tormes’
  • 1561–1627Luis de Argote y GóngoraPoetry
  • 1562–1635Lope de VegaPlays, poems
  • 1569–1631Guillén de Castro y Bellvis‘Las Mocedades del Cid’
  • 1571?–1648Tirso de MolinaPlays
  • 1580–1645Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Villegas‘Buscón, Visions’
  • 1600–1681Pedro Calderón de la Barca‘La vida es sueño,’ Plays
  • 1544?–1619?Ginés Pérez de HitaGuerras civiles de Granada
  • 1702–1754Igncio de LuzánCriticism
  • 1760–1828Fernandez de MoratínComedies
  • 1772–1857M. J. QuitanaPoetry
  • 1731–1794Ramón de la CruzComedies
  • 1791–1865Angel de SaavedraPlays
  • 1796–1873Breton de los HerrerosDrama
  • 1796–1877Fernán CaballeroNovels
  • 1809–1837Mariano José de LarraPolitical Satire
  • 1808–1842José de EsproncedaPoetry
  • 1817–1893José Zorrilla y MoralPoetry, Drama
  • 1817–1901Ramón de CampoamorPoetry
  • 1824–1905Juan ValeraNovels, ‘Pepita Jiménez’
  • 1829–1898Tomayo y Baus‘Un Drama nuevo’
  • 1832–1916José EchegarayPlays, ‘El gran Galeoto’
  • 1833–1891Pedro Antonio de AlarcónTales
  • 1833–1906José Maria de PeredaNovels, ‘Sotileza’
  • 1834–1903G. Núñez de Arce‘Gritos de Combate’
  • 1836–1870Gustavo A. BécquerTales, ‘Rimas’
  • 1843–1920Benito Pérez GaldósNovels
  • 1852–1921Emilia Pardo BazánNovels, ‘La Madre Naturaleza’
  • 1853–1938Armando Palacio ValdésNovels
  • 1856–1912M. Menéndez y Pelayo‘Criticism’
  • 1867–1928Vicente Blasco IbañezNovels, ‘La Barraca’