Muses and Masks: Some Classical Genres of Spanish Poetry

By Elias L. Rivers | Go to book overview

PREFACE

THE PROBLEM OF genres has for a long time seemed to me fundamental to the study of literature, whether we approach it from a formal or from an historical point of view. The attempt to define literature itself can be posed as a generic question, simultaneously formal and historical: what kinds of discourse, if any, have been considered to be "literary" by different cultures and social groups during different periods? I take this to be a pragmatic question: the kinds of discourse are defined by their uses or functions in society. And Tynianov has convincingly argued that the general field of literary discourse is not an unbroken continuum, but that versification itself marks a clear binary opposition between what we usually call "poetry" and what we call "prose," a formal and functional opposition that has important semantic consequences: versified words, in poetry, do not convey meaning in the same way that they do in prose.

The arguments concerning versification and genre that are presented in the following pages will be based on evidence that is specific with respect to language, culture, and historical period: the language is Castilian, the culture and period those of the Spanish Empire (with major centers in Madrid, Barcelona, Naples, Seville, Mexico City, Lima) during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the genres chosen are associated with the Renaissance classical tradition: the sonnet, the verse epistle, the silva. None of these genres existed prehistorically, that is, before the invention of writing; they are all literally literary. The sonnet is one of the best examples in modern Western poetry of a genre (but Wellek and Warren might question whether it could even be called a genre) that is defined wholly by the material shape of its signifier. The verse epistle, on the other hand, depends on the pre-existence of letter-writing and letter-reading as a social

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