Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Re-Evaluating Herrera's Sonnet XXXVIII: Notes on Sense and Intellect in the Lyric Persona of Algunas Obras

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Re-Evaluating Herrera's Sonnet XXXVIII: Notes on Sense and Intellect in the Lyric Persona of Algunas Obras

Article excerpt

The purpose of this study is to question some received ideas about sonnet XXXVIII ("Serena Luz, en quien presente espira") of Fernando de Herrera's 1582 collection Alqunas obras, and in turn to question some common preconceptions about the collection itself. Sonnet XXXVIII is usually cited as an exemplary contemplation of the divine in the mortal beauty of the beloved-"de adorar a Dios por medio de su amada" (Garcia xvi)-or as evidence of Herrera's ability to transcend matter in search of the Neoplatonic ideal, to "alcanzar la cima del extasis en su denodada busqueda de la belleza divina" (Vilanova 727). Frequently citing only the poem's final tercet, literary critics and historians claim that the lady's beauty "fulfills a redemptive role" (Maglione 52), leading some to generalize that Herrera "jamas evoca mas delcitcs que los del espiritu . . . su platonismo se inclina hacia lo mistico, aspirando a la union espiritual" (Romera Navarro 159), and that "Por amor a la Poesia y no precisamente a la mujer Herrera empieza a cantarla. Una y otra se confunden en la aspiracion platonica a la Belleza" (Celaya 25). For most critics and literary historians, though, "Herrera's poetry has little thematic originality" (Jones 96), while his erudition and technical "perfection" give the impression of a "cold, astute, and overly urbane" poet (Stamm 91), "reflecting a primarily literary experience within an aristocratic, scholarly setting" (Rivers 20). The poet/critic Gabriel Celaya refers to Herrera's poetry in general as "la aspiracion de un nombre entregado a la mistica laica del intelectualismo platonico" (26) and to his platonic love as a "convencion aceptada, juego de sociedad y juego poetico" (31). These generalizations and preconceptions have led one critic to state, unfortunately, that Herrera "understood everything about poetry except how to do it" (Bianchini 65). Returning to Sonnet XXXVIII, then, most readers will naturally find a poet seeking divinity in mortal beauty, perhaps following Pietro Bembo's prescriptions for the ideal courtier-lover (as related by Castiglione), simply an empty exercise of the intellect. Even those critics who have recognized the inaccuracy of these generalizations when applied to Herrera's whole collection, continue to refer to sonnet XXXVIII as an example of the poet's conventional Neoplatonism (Lopez Bueno 51; McGinnis 154).

My contention in the analysis that follows is not that these are necessarily misconceptions about sonnet XXXVIII. The sonnet does indeed reveal a lyric persona aspiring to spiritual purification in addition Lo a poet aspiring Lo stylislic perfection. Rather than misconceptions, I would argue that they are insistent preconceptions that seem to have discouraged stronger readings not only of this sonnet but of much of el Divino's poetry, ironically at a time when post-structuralist approaches to early-modern poetry have reinvigorated our readings of other poets. Indeed, valuable studies have been written on subjectivity and voice in Garcilaso, Gongora, and Quevedo-from a variety of theoretical perspectives (see, for example, Cascardi, Gaylord, and Mariscal respectively)-while criticism on Herrera has shifted its attention almost entirely away from his poetry in the last twenty-five years, preferring instead to analyze his monumental prose Anotaciones of Garcilaso (1580). This shift is due in part to the perception that Herrera's verses are coldly intellectual, with a technical precision that "conveys the poetic object more vividly to the reader as it weakens our sense of the poet as an individual, speaking voice" (Smith 63). This study, however, will demonstrate that when we read sonnet XXXVIII closely in the context of the collection in which it appears, attentive to what and how it says what it says, a much more nuanced poetic voice emerges, a lyric persona that encompasses the sensual as well as the intellectual. By design, Herrera allows a sensual individual to slip through the cracks in the discursive surface of his consciously (coldly? …

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