From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The term Spanish literature refers to literature written in the Spanish language, including literature composed in Spanish by writers not necessarily from Spain. For Spanish American literature specifically, see Latin American literature. Here, in this article we use the notion of Spanish literature as the literature of Spain. It includes Spanish poetry, prose and novels.
Early Spanish Literature and the Middle Ages
Earliest Manifestations (Prehistory to Muslim Spain)
While actual written evidence has never been found, it is almost certain that the distinctive peoples inhabiting the Iberian Peninsula from as far back as the last Paleolithic era (30,000-15,000 BCE) engaged in a variety of oral lyric traditions. Originally, these lyrical songs would have been closely associated with fertility rights, the hunt, or other key life stages. Later, primitive love ballads and heroic tales would have arisen. These popular, vernacular forms would have rarely if ever been written down.
The Roman conquest and occupation of the peninsula, spanning from the 3rd century BCE to the year 409 C.E., brought a fully developed Latin culture to Spanish territories. The Roman philosopher Seneca (1 BCE-65 CE) was born in Spain as were the poets Martial (41-104 CE), Quintilian (35-100 CE), and Lucan (39-65 CE). While the invasion of Germanic tribes in the fifth century C.E. put an end to Roman Spain, the tribes’ relative lack of advanced culture, including any kind of literary tradition, meant that any written literature produced in the Iberian Peninsula continued along Romanized lines. Outstanding amongst the works produced is Saint Isidore of Seville’s (c. 560-636) Etymologiae, an attempted summa of all classical knowledge. Called “the last scholar of the ancient world”, St. Isidore penned theological and proto-scientific treatises, letters, and a series of histories that would serve as models for the rest of Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages.
The arrival of Muslim invaders in 711 CE brought the cultures of the Middle and Far East to the Iberian Peninsula and ultimately to all of Europe. During the era of relative religious tolerance that followed writers such as the Jewish theologian Maimonides (1135-1204), or the Muslim polymath (1126-1198) Averroes penned works of theology, science, philosophy, and mathematics that would have lasting impacts on Hebrew and Muslim philosophy and prove essential to the flowering of the European Renaissance centuries later. While none of their works can be considered direct ancestors of a Spanish literary tradition, it was out of the cultural milieu fostered by such intellectual energy that the first written manifestations of a Spanish literature proper arise.
The earliest recorded examples of a vernacular Romance-based literature date from the same time and location, the rich mix of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian cultures in Muslim Spain, in which Maimonides, Averroes, and others worked. The Jarchas, dating from the 9th to the 12th centuries C.E., were short poems spoken in local colloquial Hispano-Romance dialects, known as Mozarabic, but written in Arabic script. The Jarchas appeared at the end of longer poetry written in Arabic or Hebrew known as muwashshah, which were lengthy glosses on the ideas expressed in the jarchas. Typically spoken in the voice of a woman, the jarchas express the anxieties of love, particularly of its loss, as in the following example:
Vayse meu corachón de mib.
ya Rab, ¿si me tornarád?
¡Tan mal meu doler li-l-habib!
Enfermo yed, ¿cuánd sanarád?
(translated into modern Spanish)
Mi corazón se me va de mí.
Oh Dios, ¿acaso se me tornará?
¡Tan fuerte mi dolor por el amado!
Enfermo está, ¿cuándo sanará?
This combination of Hispano-Romance expression with Arabic script, only discovered in 1948, locates the rise of a Spanish literary tradition in the cultural heterogeneity that characterized Medieval Spanish society and politics. However, the Mozarabic language of the Jarchas appears to be a separate Romance language whose evolution from Vulgar Latin paralleled that of Castilian Spanish rather than deriving from or fusing into the latter. Hence, while the relatively recent discovery of the Jarchas challenges pride of chronological place that belonged for so long to the Poema del Cid (El Cantar de mío Cid) (1140 CE) in the history of Spanish literature, they cannot be seen as a precursor to Spain's great epic poem. What the discovery of the jarchas makes clear instead is that from its origins, the literature of Spain has arisen out of and born witness to a rich, heterogeneous mix of cultures and languages.
Cantar del Mio Cid
The epic poem Cantar de Mio Cid was written about a real man--his battles, conquests, and daily life. The poet, name unknown, wrote the epic in about 1140 and Cid supposedly died forty years before in 1099. This epic represents realism, because nothing was exaggerated and the details are very real, even the geography correctly portrays the areas in which Cid traveled and lived. Unlike other European epics, the poem is not idealized and there is no presence of supernatural beings. It has assonance instead of rhyme and its lines vary in length, the most common length being fourteen syllables. This type of verse is known as mester de juglaria (verse form of the minstrels). The epic is divided into three parts, also known as cantos.
- Part I is about Ruy Diaz de Vivar, who is called Cid (meaning my Lord) by the Moors. His current task is to collect the tributes from the Moorish territory owed to his king, Alfonso VI of Leon. Cid's enemy accuses him of taking some of these tributes and the king exiles him from Leon and Castilla. Before he leaves, he places his wife, Doña Jimena, and his two daughters, Doña Elvira and Doña Sol, in the Monastery of Cardeña. The canto then accounts of raids in the Moorish territory in which Cid and his men get rich off of the spoils.
- Part II begins with Cid's capture of the city of Valencia. He brings his family to live with him. It is discovered that the Infantes (princes) de Carrión, the nephews to the king, are the enemies who caused Cid's exile. They plot to marry his daughters to take some of his wealth. The king acts on behalf of his nephews and pardons Cid and allows the marriages. Cid suspects that something bad will happen from the marriages.
- Part III shows that the Infantes are cowards in battles with the Moors. They are made fun of and decided to get revenge by attacking their wives. They set out for Carrión with their wives and an escort, Felix Muñoz, the cousin of the daughters. Once on the journey, they send the escort ahead of them, steal their wives' great dowries (including two beautiful swords) and beat them and leave them for dead. Muñoz suspects trouble and returns to his cousins and takes them to receive help. Cid seeks to right the wrongs done to his daughters and a trial is held. A duel is held between some of Cid's men and the Infantes in which the Infantes lose. In the middle of the trial, a message was sent from the kings of Navarra and Aragon, proposing to marry their sons to Cid's daughters. These marriages take place after the defeat of the Infantes.
Mester de Juglaría
Medieval Spanish poets recognized the Mester de Juglaría as a literary form written by the minstrels (juglares) and composed of varying line length and use of assonance instead of rhyme. These poems were sung to uneducated audiences, nobles and peasants alike.
Mester de Clerecía
This Castilian narrative poetry known as the Mester de Clerecía became popular in the thirteenth century. It is the verse form of the learned poets, usually clerics (hence the name 'clerecía'). These poets carefully counted the number of syllables in each line and strived to achieve perfect lines. The line form is the Alexandrine line (14 syllables) with consonantal rhyme in stanzas of four lines each. This form is also known as the cuaderna vía or the fourfold way, and was borrowed from France and was popular until the late fourteenth century. Popular themes of these poets were: Christian legends, lives of saints, and tales from classical antiquity. The poems were cited to villagers in public plazas. Two traits separate this form from the mester de juglaría: didacticism and erudition. Castilian priest and poet Gonzalo de Berceo was one of the greatest followers of the mester de clerecía. All of his works were religious and two of the most well-known are Milagros de Nuestra Señora (about the miracles worked by the Virgin Mary) and Vida de Santa Oria. Fourteenth century poet Juan Ruíz, also known as the Arcipreste de Hita, used the cuadernia vía in parts of his famous work Libro de buen amor. He introduced sixteen syllable lines.
Spanish prose gained popularity in the mid-thirteenth century when King Alfonso X el Sabio of Castilla gave support and recognition to the writing form. He, with the help of his groups of intellectuals, directed the composition of many prose works including Las siete partidas, the first modern book of laws of the land written in the people's language. Another work was La primera crónica general which accounted for the history of Spain from the creation until the end of Alfonso's father's reign, San Fernando. It is the first national history ever written. For his direction of these works and many others he directed, Alfonso X is called the father of Spanish prose. His nephew, Don Juan Manuel is famous for his prose work El Conde Lucanor which is a frame story or short stories within an overall story. In this work, the Conde Lucanor seeks advice from his wise counselor, Patronio, who gives the advice through the telling of stories. Juan Manuel also wrote lesser-known works such as El libro de los estados on the social classes and El libro del caballero y escudero on philosophical discussions. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, writer Fernando del Pulgar (1436-1490?) created a new type of prose named the verbal portrait. This form is demonstrated by Pulgar's work Claros varones de Castilla in which he represents the detailed lives of twenty-four distinguished contemporaries. He explores their moral and psychological natures as well as physical traits. Pulgar was the official historian of the monarchs Fernando and Isabel, the famous Catholic Monarchs of Spain. This position gave him close encounters with the characters in this book, making the work realistic and detailed.
Lyric Poetry of the Middle Ages
Lyric poetry in the Middle Ages can be divided into three groups: the jarchas, the popular poems originating from folk-songs sung by commoners, and the courtly poetry of the nobles. Alfonso X el Sabio fits into the third group with his series of three hundred poems, written in Galician: Las cantigas de Santa María. Another poet, Juan Ruiz, or the Arcipreste de Hita is an outstanding lyricist of the fourteenth century. His only work, Libro de buen amor is a framework tale in which he includes translations from Ovid, satires, little poems called serranillas, twenty-nine fables, a sermon on Christian armor, and many lyric poems that praise the Virgin Mary. Poet Íñigo López de Mendoza, the Marqués de Santillana (1398-1458) begins to show the movement away from the traditions of the Middle Ages. He shows a knowledge of Latin authors and familiarity with the works of Dante and Petrarch. Mendoza was also the first to introduce the sonnet into Spanish literature. The last great poet of the Middle Ages is Jorge Manrique. He is famous for his work which laments the death of his father, Coplas a la muerte de su padre. In this piece, Manrique shows classical feelings by expressing himself in a universal manner (all things come to an end). He is still considered a poet of the Middle Ages in that he finds peace and finality in religion.
During the 15th century the pre-Renaissance occurs. Literary production increased very greatly. Some outstanding poets of this century are Juan de Mena and Íñigo López de Mendoza (Marquess of Santillana). The Spanish literature of the Middle Ages concludes with the work La Celestina by Fernando de Rojas.
In the Renaissance important topics are: the Renaissance poetry, with Garcilaso de la Vega and Juan Boscán; the religious literature, with Fray Luis de León, San Juan de la Cruz, and Santa Teresa de Jesús; and the Renaissance prosa, with the anonymous El Lazarillo de Tormes. The principal features of the Renaissance were the revival of learning based on classical sources, the rise of courtly patronage, the development of perspective in painting, and the advancements of science.
The most important characteristics of the Renaissance are:
- The language in this age is dominated by the naturalness and simplicity, which avoids the affectation, the amaneramiento and the over-searched phrase. Thus the vocabulary and the syntax will be simple.
- The preferred themes are, fundamentally, love, conceived from the platonic point of view; nature, as somewhat idyllic (bucolic); pagan mythology, from which the histories of gods and the female beauty are reflected, following always the same classical ideal. In relation to these themes mentioned, various Renaissance points exist, some of them taken from the classical world:
- The Carpe Diem, whose translation would be "seize the day" or "take advantage of the moment". It advises the enjoyment of the life before the arrival of old age.
- The female beauty, described always following the same plan: blond youth, of serene, clear eyes, of white skin, red lips, rosy cheeks, etc.
- The Beatus Ille or praise of the life in the field, apart from the material things, as opposed to the life in the city, with its dangers and intrigues.
- The Locus Emoenus or description of a perfect and idyllic nature.
In the Baroque of the 17th century important topics are: the prose of Francisco de Quevedo and Baltasar Gracián; also the theater is remarkable (Lope de Vega, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, and Tirso de Molina), as well as the poetry with Luis de Góngora (who is a Culteranist) and Francisco de Quevedo (who is a Conceptist). In the works of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra remarkable novels are: La Galatea, and Don Quixote de la Mancha. The Baroque style used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, literature, dance, and music.
The Baroque is characterized by the following points:
- Pessimism: The Renaissance did not obtain its purpose of imposing the harmony and the perfection in the world, just as the humanists intended, neither had done the man happier; the wars and the social inequalities continued to be present; the pain and the calamities were common in the whole Europe. An intellectual pessimism got installed, which accentuated as time passed; this shows united to the unangry character that the comedies of that epoch give testimony and the rascality in which the picaresque novels are based.
- Disillusion: As the Renaissance ideals failed and in the case of Spain, the political power was being dispelled, the disillusion continues and arises in the literature, that in many cases recalls that of two centuries before, with the Dance of the Death or the Manrique's Couplets to the death of its father. Quevedo says that life is formed by "successions of deceased" : in them get converted the born, since the diapers to the mortise with the weak bodies are covered. In conclusion, nothing has importance, only one must obtain the eternal salvation.
- Worry about the passing of time.
- Loss of confidence in the Renaissance ideals.
In the Enlightenment of the 18th century, with the arrival of "the lights" to Spain, important topics are: the prose of Fray Benito Jerónimo Feijoo, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, and José Cadalso; the lyric of the Salmantine school (with Juan Meléndez Valdés), the lyric of the Madrilenian group (with the story-tellers Tomás de Iriarte and Félix María Samaniego), and the lyric of the Sevillian school; and also the theater, with Leandro Fernández de Moratín and Ramón de la Cruz. Enlightenment thinkers sought to apply systematic thinking to all forms of human activity, carrying it into to the ethical and governmental spheres in exploration of the individual, society and the state.
Three phases in the Spanish literature of the 18th century are distinguished:
- Anti-Baroquism (approximately until 1750): It fights against the style of the last Baroque, which is considered excessively rhetorical and twisted. The recreational literature is not cultivated, but they are more interested in the essay and the satire, utilizing the language with simplicity and purity.
- Neoclassicism (until the end of the 18th century): It is strongly influenced by the French and Italian classicism. The writers also imitate the old classics (Greek and Roman); its boom extended since the reign of Fernando VI until the end of the century.
- Pre-Romanticism (final of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century): The influence of the English philosopher John Locke, together to that of the French Étienne Bonnot of Condillac, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Denis Diderot, will cause a new feeling, dissatisfied with the tyranny of the reason, that emphasizes the right of the individuals to express their personal emotions (repressed then by the neoclassicals), among which them figures fundamentally the love. This current announces the decadence of the Neoclassicism and opens the doors to the Romanticism.
In the Romanticism (principle of the 19th century) important topics are: the poetry of José de Espronceda and other poets; the prose, that can have several forms (the historical novel, the scientific prose, the description of regional customs, the journalism —where Mariano José de Larra can be mentioned—); the theater, with Ángel de Saavedra (Duke of Rivas), José Zorrilla, and other authors. In the latter romanticism (post-romanticism) some appear:Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer and Rosalía de Castro. Some anti-romantic poets are Ramón de Campoamor and Gaspar Núñez de Arce. In part a revolt against aristocratic, social, and political norms of the Enlightenment period and a reaction against the rationalization of nature, in art and literature Romanticism stressed strong emotion as a source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror, and the awe experienced in confronting the sublimity of nature. It elevated folk art, nature and custom.
The characteristics of the works of the Romanticism are:
- Refusal of Neoclassicism. Contrary to the scrupulous severity and order with which the rules were observed in the 18th century, the romanticist writers combine the genres and verses of different measures, at times mixing the verse and the prose; in theater, the rule of the three units (place, space and time) is despised and they alternate the comedy with the drama.
- Subjectivism. No matter which be the kind of the work, the exalted soul of the author pours in it all their feelings of dissatisfaction against a world that limits and breaks the flight of his desire about the love, the society, the patriotism, etc. They do so that the nature fuses with their state of spirit and it shows melancholic, tetric, mysterious, dark... as opposed to the neoclassicals, that barely showed interest about the landscape. The longings for passionate love, desire of happiness, and possession of the infinite, cause a discomfort in the romanticist, an immense deception that from time to time carries them to the suicide, as is the case of Mariano José of Larra.
- Attraction by the nocturnal and mysterious. The romantics situate their aching and defrauded feelings in mysterious or melancholic places, like ruins, forests, cemeteries... In the same way that feel attraction toward the supernatural, that which escapes from any logic, like the miracles, apparitions, visions of ultratumba, the diabolic and the witch-like...
- Escape from the world that surrounds them. The refusal of the bourgeois society in which they are forced to live, makes the romanticist be evaded from their circumstances, imagining passed epochs in which their ideals prevailed over the others, or being inspired in the exotic. Against the neoclassicals, who admired the Greco-Latin antiquity, the romanticists prefer the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. As more frequent kinds of works, they cultivate the novel, the legend and the historic drama.
Various are the themes of the romanticist works:
- Oneself. In Espronceda's Song to Teresa, a heartwrenching confession of love and disillusion, who has managed to poeticize his feelings with most success.
- Passionate love, with sudden, total deliveries, and quick abandonments. The exaltation and the distaste.
- They are inspired in legendary and historic themes.
- Religion, although it is often in defiance with the consequent compassion and even exaltation of the devil.
- Social demands (revaluation of the marginal types, like the beggar).
- Nature, shown in all its modalities and variations. Usually set in mysterious places, like cemeteries, storms, the rough sea, etc.
- Satire, connected with political or literary events.
In Realism (final of the 19th century), which is mixed with Naturalism, important topics are: the novel, with Juan Valera, José María de Pereda, Benito Pérez Galdós, Emilia Pardo Bazán, Leopoldo Alas (Clarín), Armando Palacio Valdés, and Vicente Blasco Ibáñez; the poetry, with Ramón de Campoamor, Gaspar Núñez de Arce, and other poets; the theater, with José Echegaray, Manuel Tamayo y Baus, and other dramatists; and the literary critics, emphasizing Menéndez Pelayo. Realism offered depictions of contemporary life and society 'as they were'. In the spirit of general "Realism," Realist authors opted for depictions of everyday and banal activities and experiences, instead of a romanticized or similarly stylized presentation.
The realistic works of this period are characterized by:
- Objective vision of the reality through the direct observation of customs or psychological characters. They eliminate any subjective aspect, fantastic events, and every feeling that moves away of the reality: "The novel is the image of the life" (Galdós), "an artistic copy of the reality" (Clarín).
- Defense of a thesis: the narrators write their works focusing the reality from their moral conception. They are the so-called omniscient narrators. The defense of a thesis usually compromises the objectivity of the novel.
- Themes that are familiar to the reader: marital conflicts, infidelity, defense of the ideals, etc.
- The popular and colloquial language acquires great importance since it situates the characters in their real environment.
In Modernism several currents appear: Parnasianism, Symbolism, Futurism, and Creationism. Literary Modernism in Spain was influenced by the "disaster of '98", Regenerationism, and the Free Institution of Education (founded by Giner de los Ríos). Modernism was rooted in the idea that "traditional" forms of art, literature, religious faith, social organization, and daily life had become outdated; therefore it was essential to sweep them aside. The intellectual movement that thinks objectively and scientifically about the causes of the decadence of Spain as a nation between the 19th and the 20th century is called Regenerationism. It expresses a pessimist judgement about Spain. The regenerationist intellectuals divulgated their studies in journals with a big diffusion, so the movement expanded. Some important Modernist authors are Juan Ramón Jiménez, Miguel de Unamuno and Rubén Darío.
20th century literature
The destruction of Spain's fleet in Cuba by U.S. gunboats in 1898 provoked a general cultural crisis in Spain. The "Disaster" of 1898 led established writers to seek practical political, economic, and social solutions in essays grouped under the literary heading of "Regeneracionismo." For a group of younger writers, among them Miguel de Unamuno, Pío Baroja, and José Martínez Ruíz (Azorín), the Disaster and its cultural repercussions inspired a deeper, more radical literary shift affecting both form and content. These writers, along with Ramón de Valle-Inclán, Antonio Machado, Ramiro Maeztu, and Ángel Ganivet, came to be know as the 'Generation of the 98.' The label from its outset was controversial and even Azorín, the source of its origin, came to reject it. Nevertheless, it stuck as a way to describe a group of writers who turned in content from the more general exploration of universal middle class values characteristic of Nineteenth Century Realism to an obsession with questions of a more particularly national nature. Their articles, essays, poems, and novels exploring Spanish history and geography carried existential overtones.
The resurrection of a fallen Spanish nation was inseparable from the individual Spaniard's discovery of personal meaning. Spain's steady three-hundred year decline from Golden Age greatness was inseparable from the Spanish citizen's inertia and indifference towards life. Renewal would be found as Spanish citizens rediscovered the adventurous, idealistic spirit of Don Quijote, trapsing, like the heroes of Pío Baroja and Azorín's novels, out into the Spanish countryside to encounter the deep, hidden history of the Spanish "pueblo." This intellectually and politically restless generation of writers produced an equally restless shift in Spanish literary form. While not radically experimental, their sober, paired-down style, their exploration of alternating narrative voices and points of view, and their challenge of traditional genre divisions paved the way for a rising generation of avant-garde writers. Indeed, Unamuno's play with narrative authority in his 1907 novel, Niebla, in which the protagonist finds himself face-to-face with his author, a Salamanca don named Miguel de Unamuno, actually predates many of its more famous uses, and with its prologues and epilogues, actually goes much further than many later experiments in blurring ontological frontiers.
After the Generation of 1898 came Novecentism; Generation of 1927; and Literature subsequent to the Civil War (1936-1939), that can be during the pro-Franco dictatorship (1939-1975) or subsequent to it. The authors in lyric, novel, and theater abound. Postmodernity refers to a movement of ideas contrary to those of modernism.
Some important authors in the Generation of '98 are Ángel Ganivet, Miguel de Unamuno, Antonio Machado, Ramón del Valle-Inclán, Azorín, Pío Baroja, Ramiro de Maeztu, Ramón Pérez de Ayala; and some in the Generation of '27 are Rafael Alberti, Vicente Aleixandre, Dámaso Alonso, Manuel Altolaguirre, Luis Cernuda, Gerardo Diego, Federico García Lorca, Jorge Guillén, Emilio Prados, Pedro Salinas, Agustín Díaz Pacheco.