To Judge through Verse: The Sonnets of Lope De Vega's la Circe and His Engagement with Literature

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In Lope de Vega's collection of poetry, La Circe (1624), a number of sonnets offer observations on different aspects of poetry writing. The specific themes which Lope treats in these less-studied poems range from the linguistic and intellectual qualities of poetry, to the everyday behavior of poets, and, at times, the lyrical qualities of certain poets, who may be real or imagined. This collection reflects a more mature Lope, who had progressed from his early collection of the Rimas (1602), in which a more youthful style is evident and in which the poet often imitated Petrarchist conventions in portraying female beauty. By the time La Circe was published, however, Lope had already begun to witness the establishment of other literary currents, notably culteranismo, in the Peninsula. This phenomenon forced Lope to engage more seriously the profession of poetry writing and its implications both for himself as an individual creator of literature, and for the Spanish reading public as a whole. Lope treats this and other poetic issues in La Circe, and what will emerge from this study is a poet whose varied engagement with literature evinces his intense concern with proper discourse, ethical literary behavior, and the quality of writing, whether that of others or his own. In sum, La Circe offers a set of sonnets that demarcate the literary boundaries between what is permissible and admirable, and what is not.

The first poem to be analyzed from this collection, "Claro cisne del Betis que, sonoro" (1186), treats Luis de Gongora, perhaps Lope's greatest rival and coetaneous critic. For most of his career, Lope maintained an attitude of hostility toward Gongora for what he saw as an ostentatious and hermetic lexicon, that of culteranismo. Gongora, naturally, assumed an equally hostile position in attacking Lope. Yet, there were breaches in the literary war, times in which Lope appears to offer genuine praise for the very rival with whom he had typically been engaged in mutual offensives. (1) This sonnet is a prime example of a poem which fits into this respite from hostilities. It contains a dual function: to praise Gongora for his poetic genius and contribution to the nation's lyric, and to condemn his imitators who attempt to achieve his grandeur yet fail by writing poorly and artificially.

   Claro cisne del Betis que, sonoro
   y grave, ennobleciste el instrumento
   mas dulce, que ilustro musico acento,
   banando en ambar puro el arco de oro,
   a ti la lira, a ti el castalio coro
   debe su honor, su fama y su ornamento,
   unico al siglo y a la envidia exento,
   vencida, si no muda, en tu decoro.
   Los que por tu defensa escriben sumas,
   propias ostentaciones solicitan,
   dando a tu inmenso mar viles espumas.
   Los icaros defiendan, que te imitan,
   que como acercan a tu sol las plumas
   de tu divina luz se precipitan. (1-14)

The poem is divided into two parts: while the quatrains offer high praise for Gongora's poetic mastery, the tercets shift focus to his imitators and present them as second-rate and vain poets who lack originality. It is here that Lope offers what shall be seen so frequently in poems even later in his life: his opinions regarding the use and abuse of lyrical language. While Gongora is not the object of scorn for his culterano lexicon (as he is elsewhere), his imitators "propias ostentaciones solicitan" (11)--their language is the eternally inhibitive and superficial language of their new school of poetry. Gongora is thus a master who has spawned offspring which try to arrogate his uniqueness but fail in doing so.

Gongora is the "cisne" (1) whose song illumines not only the "Betis", or Guadalquivir River, but also the intangible space of Spanish poetry as a whole. He is "sonoro" (1), a word appropriately rhymed with "arco de oro" (4), as the impression of both gratifying sound and sight is produced. Gongora is a unique man for his time--"unico al siglo y a la envidia exento" (7)--to whom, implicitly, other poets owe respect. …