Academic journal article Hispanic Review

VIRGIN RHETORIC: Fray Luis De León and Marian Piety in Virgen, Que El Sol Más Pura

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

VIRGIN RHETORIC: Fray Luis De León and Marian Piety in Virgen, Que El Sol Más Pura

Article excerpt

Despite the declaration in Fray Luis de León's "Virgen, que el sol mas pura" that he has been a devotee of Mary since his earliest years, one might well question the consensus among critics that this poem should be read simply as a sincere expression of Marian piety.1 Even though this is the only Marian poem we can confidently attribute to Fray Luis, and although in his prose works there is no equivalent celebration of Mary's semi-divine status, most critics have routinely asserted that there is no reason to doubt the poetic voice in this song when he says that he has always hoped to deserve the Virgin's protection "dende mi tierna edad."2 This agreement among critics can be attributed in broad terms to the fact that most modern readings of this poem have understood it to be a rather straightforward and simple piece, reflecting the poet's feelings during his imprisonment by the Inquisition between 1571 and 1576.3 Like the other "prison poems" assumed to have been written during or shortly after Fray Luis's incarceration, this song to the Virgin has been judged to express a passion so often deemed lacking in his more serene metaphysical or ethical writings.

For many modern critics, in fact, these supposedly biographical poems written in or about prison have been one of Fray Luis's saving graces, because in them he seems to move towards a more Romantic subject position, showing us a poet who is writing from the heart rather than from the head or from tradition. Together with other tidbits gathered from Fray Luis's texts, from his inquisitorial trial or from legends about his life, the Marian piety expressed in this poem has thus been judged sincere and autobiographical by critics ranging from Aubrey Bell and Oreste Macri to Rosanna Soriani and Juan Francisco Alcina. Many of these 2Oth-century critics, even when they acknowledge the poem's obvious debt to Petrarch's final cancion, "Vergine bella, che di sol vestita," take Fray Luis's apostrophe to the Virgin as the authentic voice of an imprisoned poet, finally stripped of his artificial and overly intellectualized metaphysics.4 It is almost as if such readers accept the Inquisitorial assumption that the soul bears itself most fully under the duress of incarceration and the threat of torture, and that from mental and physical anguish there emerge plain unadulterated truths.

And yet, it is just as plausible to assume the opposite: that torture and incarceration breed dissimulation and duplicity, not clarity and self-expression. Charged with heresy and racial impurity in great part for his radically Christological Humanist faith, Fray Luis finds a voice in this poem by turning to a type of faith that would shield him from his enemies' accusations that he was both too Jewish and too intellectually critical to be a good Spanish Catholic. This poem's appeal to the holy name of the Virgin may have been meant to provide just such a politically savvy shield for a prisoner of the Inquisition, who despite his imprisonment was far from being a victim cowed by the power of the institution whose decrees he had flaunted and whose case against him he continued to contest.5 In any case, it seems prudent at least to consider the possibility that this poem is one more example of his combativeness under fire, veiled by the ironic appropriation of a popular spirituality that is alien to most of his other works. Seen in this light, the long apostrophe to the Virgin can be shown to be a much more subtle piece than has commonly been recognized. There is no need to deny that it is, at least superficially, a moving dramatization of Marian piety. In it Fray Luis's poetic persona is an imprisoned devotee of the Virgin who turns to Mary for aid and comfort when all other routes have been blocked. But when the poem's intertextual links to Petrarch, its unusual espousal of Mary's immaculacy and its own ironic structure and portrayal of the poetic voice's turn to the Virgin are all taken into account, there is also ample reason to reconsider and appreciate anew the poetic richness of "Virgen, que el sol más pura. …

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