Spanish Literature

Spanish literature, the literature of Spain.

Iberian Literature before Spanish

Literature flourished on the Iberian Peninsula long before the evolution of the modern Spanish language. The Latin writers Seneca, Lucan, Martial, and Quintilian are among those who were born or who lived in Spain before the separation of the Romance languages. Twentieth-century research has uncovered texts of the 10th and 11th cent. written by Muslims and Jews living in Spain.

Early Works in Castilian Spanish

The famous early classic of Spanish literature, the sober and unornamented epic poem Cantar de Mío Cid (12th cent.), deals with the life and deeds of the national hero, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, called the Cid Campeador. In the 13th cent. many other epic poems as well as the oldest popular lyrics appeared in the different provinces of the Iberian Peninsula. The first Spanish poet whose name is known is the priest Gonzalo de Berceo. Under the patronage of King Alfonso X (1221–84), himself a writer, Castilian prose was developed and many Arabic and Hebrew works were translated into Castilian.

In the 14th cent. the most important writers were López de Ayala, whose poem Rimado de palacio satirized the customs of the age; Fán Pérez de Guzmán, author of the historical Generaciones y semblanzas; the prince Don Juan Manuel, nephew of King Alfonso X, whose Libro de los exemplos del conde Lucanor et de Patronio was the first book of short stories in Spanish; and the satirical poet Juan Ruiz.

During the reign of John II of Castile in the first half of the 15th cent., two important poets were Juan de Mena and the marqués de Santillana, both of whom wrote under Italian influence. The Italian poetic forms were to be of great importance in aiding Spanish verse to grow beyond folk art and pseudo-Provençal, but they were not assimilated into Spanish letters for another century. The outstanding prose work of the period was the novel La Celestina (1499), attributed to Fernando de Rojas.

The Renaissance and the Golden Age of Spanish Literature

The first known novel of chivalry, Amadis of Gaul, was printed in Zaragoza in 1508 and served as a model for the novels of chivalry that became (16th cent.) the most popular genre in Spain, together with the anonymous ballads (romances) that were sung and recited everywhere. Meanwhile the spirit of the Renaissance had been invading Spanish letters, and Spain had also become a dominant European power. In the reign of Emperor Charles V, the first picaresque novel, Lazarillo de Tormes, was published (1554); the identity of its author has remained a mystery.

The latter part of the 16th cent. and most of the 17th cent. made up the great era of Spanish literature, known as the Golden Age. At the start of this period the poet Garcilaso de la Vega, stimulated by the work of Juan Boscán Almogáver, succeeded in mastering the meter and essence of Italian verse and in acclimating it to the Spanish spirit, thus revolutionizing Spanish poetry. The chief prose monument of the Golden Age, and one of the masterpieces of world literature, is the novel Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The picaresque novel flourished; notable examples are those of Mateo Alemán and Francisco de Quevedo. Baltasar Gracián was a leading didactic prose writer.

The Golden Age also produced many superb playwrights. Lope de Vega Carpio, one of the most prolific authors of all time, wrote a multitude of dramas, comedies, and religious plays. Tirso de Molina, Guillén de Castro y Bellvís, and Juan Ruiz de Alarcón were also outstanding playwrights. Calderón de la Barca was the last and probably the best dramatist of the epoch.

Also part of the Golden Age were the great Spanish mystics St. Theresa of Ávila, author of an inspired spiritual autobiography, and her disciple St. John of the Cross, one of Spain's finest lyric poets. Fray Luis Ponce de León wrote exquisite pastorals and Fernando de Herrera left stirring odes, but the most influential poet of the period was Luis de Góngora y Argote, whose precious, ornate verse was the most extreme expression of the baroque in Spanish literature; a cultivated, affected style known as Gongorism dominated Spanish letters in the latter half of the 17th cent.

The Eighteenth Century

In the 18th cent. French neoclassicism exerted a powerful—and inhibiting—influence on Spanish literature. The Poética of Ignacio de Luzán reflected the academic principles of the epoch. An important essayist was Benito Gerónimo Feyjóo y Montenegro, a Benedictine who helped to usher the Enlightenment into Spain.

Three authors stood out as notable exceptions in the midst of a general decline in literary creativity: Leandro Fernández de Moratín, a writer of plays in the neoclassic vein; Ramón de la Cruz, author of popular playlets called sainetes; and the poet Juan Meléndez Valdés. While Manuel Quintana's patriotic verse was neoclassical in form, it anticipated romanticism in its emotion.

The Nineteenth Century and Romanticism

During the first years of the 19th cent. the rigors of the Napoleonic occupation virtually snuffed out intellectual creativity in Spain. Then in 1833, with the death of Fernando VII, romanticism swept the country like a grass fire; its ascendancy was dramatic but superficial. Much of the work of the leading romantic authors—Ángel de Saavedra, duque de Rivas, José de Espronceda, and José Zorrilla y Moral—echoed French and English models, but Mariano José de Larra displayed originality in his admirable satirical sketches.

Two gifted post-romantic poets were Rosalía de Castro (writing in Galician) and Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. Larra's sketches were outstanding examples of costumbrismo—the literary depiction of local color, customs, and types—a genre that in Spain led to and was intimately associated with naturalism and realism.

Late-Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth-Century Movements

The towering figure of Benito Pérez Galdós dominated the realistic novel during the second half of the 19th cent., but Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, José María de Pereda, Armando Palacio Valdés, Juan Valera y Alcalá Galiano, and Emilia Pardo Bazán also wrote notable fiction. Realism continued to have leading exponents well into the 20th cent., notably Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, but at the turn of the century the intellectual and literary life of Spain underwent a deep transformation. With the loss of its colonial empire and the disastrous effects of the Carlist wars, Spain was economically and culturally bankrupt.

At the end of the century the writers of the Generation of '98, stimulated by French and German influences and by Rubén Darío and the modernismo movement in Spanish America, set out to reevaluate and revitalize the cultural life of Spain. Ángel Ganivet, a precursor, had foreshadowed their work in his Idearium español. Miguel de Unamuno, as essayist, poet, novelist, and educator, emphasized the quixotic aspect of Spanish values and exerted great influence on Spanish youth. Azorín (see Martínez Ruiz) created memorable impressionistic sketches. Ramón del Valle Inclán brought a poetic sense of the fantastic and the bizarre to his novels and plays. Pío Baroja y Nessi infused his novels with a fierce independence of spirit that rejected all traditional values and sought to arouse people to action.

The drama, whose only notable exponent in the late 19th cent. had been José Echegaray, was revitalized in the early 20th cent. by Jacinto Grau, Gregorio Martínez Sierra, and especially by Jacinto Benavente y Martínez. A major role in the Spanish cultural revival was played by the great educator Francisco Giner de los Ríos.

After World War I the intellectual currents set in motion by the Generation of '98 merged with other forces in the European avant-garde to create a mainstream that fertilized Spanish cultural life until the outbreak of the civil war. Criticism, which had flourished at the turn of the century under the erudite Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, reached new heights in the works of the distinguished medievalist Ramón Menéndez Pidal. The humorist Ramón Gómez de la Serna wrote his inimitable greguerías.

It was in poetry, however, that Spanish literature produced its greatest achievements. The lyrics of Antonio Machado and of the great Juan Ramón Jiménez are among the finest in the language. José Moreno Villa, Rafael Alberti, Vicente Aleixandre, Luis Cernuda, Jorge Guillén, Dámaso Alonso, and many others formed a brilliant constellation of poets, but the most engaging figure was that of the poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca.

Parallel to these developments in poetry was the work of one of Spain's most gifted essayists—José Ortega y Gasset. The novelist Ramón Pérez de Ayala used his novels as a forum for intellectual discussion, whereas Gabriel Miró Ferrer wrote novels that can be considered lyric prose poems, and Benjamín Jarnés produced surrealist novels. The novels of Ramón Sender marked a return to social criticism.

The Spanish Civil War to the Present

The Spanish civil war (1936–39) truncated the cultural evolution of the country. Many writers went into exile. Salinas, Guillén, Juan Larrea, and others distinguished themselves abroad. Among the novelists to emerge after the Spanish civil war were Nobel Prize winner Camilo José Cela, Carman Laforet, and José María Gironella. Salvador de Madariaga became known as a biographer and historian. In the 1950s and 60s a gradual return to political and literary normality was noticeable.

Writers whose literary reputations have been established since World War II include the novelists Max Aub, Miguel Delibes, Juan Goytisolo, Ana María Matute, Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, Luís Martín-Santos, and Gonzalo Torrente-Ballester; the poets Manuel Altoaguirre and Gerardo Diego; and the playwrights Antonia Buero Vallejo, Alejandro Casona, and Alfonso Sastre.

Reflecting Western European developments, post-Franco Spanish writing has been marked by a great deal of formal experimentation. Among the important novelists are Juan Benet, Carmen-Martín-Gaite, Eduardo Mendonza, Soledad Puértolas, Carmen Riera, and Ana Maria Moix. Dramatists include Férnando Arrabel, Antonio Gala, Fermín Cabal, and Alonso de Santos. Among the poets are Ana Rossetti, Antonio Carvajal, Guillermo Carnero, Jaime Silas, and Antonio de Villena.


See A. Flores, ed., Masterpieces of the Spanish Golden Age (1957); S. Resnick and J. Pasmantier, An Anthology of Spanish Literature in English Translation (2 vol., 1958). For histories of Spanish letters see R. E. Chandler and K. Schwartz, A New History of Spanish Literature (1961); G. Brenan, The Literature of the Spanish People (2d ed. 1965); A. Díaz-Plaja, A History of Spanish Literature (1971); M. Schneider and I. Stern, Modern Spanish and Portuguese Literatures (1988); W. S. Merwin, tr. and ed., From the Spanish Morning (1985).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Spanish Literature: Selected full-text books and articles

Critical Reflections: Essays on Golden Age Spanish Literature in Honor of James A. Parr By Barbara Simerka; Amy R. Williamsen; Shannon Polchow Bucknell University Press, 2006
Spanish Picaresque Fiction: A New Literary History By Peter N. Dunn Cornell University Press, 1993
Contemporary Spanish Fiction: Generation X By Dorothy Odartey University of Delaware Press, 2008
Six Masters of the Spanish Sonnet: Essays and Translations By Jorge Luis Borges; Federico García Lorca; Miguel Hernández; Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; Antonio Machado; Francisco de Quevedo; Willis Barnstone Southern Illinois University Press, 1997
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Romances of Chivalry in the Spanish Golden Age By Daniel Eisenberg Juan De La Cuesta, 1982
Contemporary Spanish Poetry: The Word and the World By Cecile West-Settle; Sylvia Sherno Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005
Reflection in Sequence: Novels by Spanish Women, 1944-1988 By Sandra J. Schumm Bucknell University Press, 1999
The Spanish Pastoral Romances By Hugo A. Rennert Biblo and Tannen, 1968
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