The Literature of the Spanish People: From Roman Times to the Present Day

By Gerald Brenan | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIV
NINETEENTH-CENTURY POETRY AND POETIC DRAMA

LITERATURE suffered a long eclipse in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars and the clerical reaction that followed it. Not till Ferdinand VII died in 1833 could the writers, who were all Liberals, return from exile and renew their activity. We feel the agitation of these years in their works. Exaltados in politics, they were feverish, rhetorical and shallow in their poetry and drama. And of course romantics, because romanticism, as they saw it, was the expression of the Liberal ideal in literature.1

The first of these poets to appear was Angel Saavedra ( 1791- 1865), a nobleman from Cordova who later became the Duque de Rivas. A Radical abroad, his experience of Liberal politics at home quickly converted him to Conservatism. His poetry expresses a romantic glorification of the past, more particularly of the Middle Ages and of the period of the Catholic Kings. This was of course a common attitude of Romantic writers everywhere, but it was also in keeping with the ideology of the Spanish Liberals, who aimed at restoring the greatness of Spain to what it had been before (as they thought) the tyranny of Philip II and the religious bigotry of the clergy had ruined it. Rivas' best known poems are his Romances on historical subjects: unevenly written, often diffuse, but abounding in highly coloured descriptive passages, they can be compared not too unfairly to Scott Lay of the Last Minstrel. His Leyendas, 'Legends' -narrative poems composed in a variety of metres--owe something to Lamartine and Victor Hugo. If the general quality of his verse is not high, he writes with energy and brio. We remember as we read him that he was a man of action who had fought with

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1
Manuel José Quintana ( 1772- 1857) is an exception to this, because he belonged to an older generation. An Encyclopaedist and Liberal down to 1835 and then a Conservative, he continued in his verse the eighteenth-century tradition of classicism. Once regarded as a great poet, he is today seen to be empty, turgid and rhetorical, without any of the stuff of poetry in him.

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