World Literature

Gustavo Adolfo Becquer

 

BORN: 1836, Seville, Spain

DIED: 1870, Madrid, Spain

NATIONALITY: Spanish

GENRE: Fiction, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

Leyendas (Legends, 1857-1864)

Rimas (Rhymes, 1871)

 

 

Gustavo Adolfo Becquer. Becquer; Gustavo, photograph. Hulton Archive/ Getty Images.

 

Overview

Best known for his poetry collection Rimas (1871) and short stories collected as Leyendas (1857-1864), Gustavo Adolfo Becquer is considered one of the most important spanish lyric poets of the nineteenth century. Although his melancholic themes suggest comparisons with the Romantics, his restrained and understated style is decidedly un-Romantic. He has been called Spain’s first modern poet.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

An Orphan with Artistic Aspirations. Gustavo Adolfo Dominguez Bastida was born February 17, 1836, in Seville, Spain to Don Jose Dominguez Becquer, a well-known painter, and Joaquina Bastida de Vargas. Orphaned at the age of ten, Becquer lived with various relatives and trained to be an artist. He moved to Madrid in 1854 to pursue a career in literature. He would remain there the rest of his life.

Becquer became active early on in a circle of writers, artists, and musicians under the tutelage of composer and literary editor Joaquin Espin y Guillen. Becquer fell in love with Guillen’s daughter Julia—who is widely considered the inspiration for his Rimas—but his feelings were unrequited. Becquer found some success with the publication of his Leyendas (Legends, 1857-1864). In 1861, he married Casta Esteban y Navarro, daughter of a physician who had treated him for tuberculosis. They had three children, but their marriage ended in separation.

The Glorious Revolution. During his lifetime, Becquer published a number of his poems and short stories in journals, particularly El Contemporanio, in which he also published his ‘‘spiritual autobiography,’’ Letters from My Cell (1864). He supported himself largely through journalism, translating, and minor government posts, including official censor of novels—a position he held from 1864 to 1868, when the government of Queen Isabella was overthrown by the Glorious Revolution, which established a Spanish republic instead of a monarchy.

At the time of the Glorious Revolution in 1868, Becquer was collecting his Rimas for publication. The manuscript was lost in the turmoil, and he was forced to reconstruct it from memory. Becquer died of pneumonia and hepatitis on December 22, 1870, in Madrid. The poems were published as a collection in 1871, the year following his death, under the direction of Becquer’s friend and biographer Ramon Rodriquez Correa. Rimas consists of a sequence of seventy-six poems that relate the poet’s quest and failure to achieve an ideal in either art or love.

 

Works in Literary Context

Critics have noted Gustavo Adolfo Becquer’s profound influence on such later writers as Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario, Spanish poet and novelist Miguel de Unamuno, and Nobel Prize-winning Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jimenez. Others, such as Jorge Guillen, have noted his relationship to German literature. Guillen writes: ‘‘Becquer’s predecessors are undoubtedly those poets in Germany who, at the end of the eighteenth century, proclaimed the primordial importance of dreams.’’

The Grotesque. In calling the supernatural elements in Legends representative of the Romantic ‘‘grotesque’’ style, Paul Ilie argues: ‘‘To isolate [the grotesque mode] as a sensibility is to reveal Becquer’s place in the development of the grotesque esthetic in Spain, from [Spanish golden age poet Francisco de] Quevedo and [eighteenth-century Spanish painter Francisco] Goya before him, to Spanish surrealism afterwards.’’ Ilie continues by suggesting that ‘‘Becquer’s works are not only the most important in Spanish Romantic literature, but they raise questions that are fundamental to European esthetics in the second half of the nineteenth century.’’

The Disembodied Soul. Critic Julian Palley finds a strong literary heritage for the out-of-body experiences included in Rhymes, from classical writers Plato and Cicero through Italian Renaissance poet Dante’s Divine Comedy to the pre-Romantics and Romantics. Palley argues: ‘‘This particular kind of oneiric [dream] experience, in which the disembodied soul rises, soars, travels vast distances, in an indeterminate time, becomes one of the characteristic forms that dreams take in Becquer’s Rimas.... Yet in Becquer’s dreams, as well as in those of [German Romantic writer] Novalis and [English writer Thomas] De Quincey, the flight itself (so common in recorded dreams) is subordinated to an effortless transportation to higher or distant regions; they do not give us the sensation of flight, but rather its result.’’ Palley also notes that ‘‘[t]he diaphanous, ethereal, airy images and metaphors, which are characteristic of nearly all of Becquer’s Rimas, can thus be better understood as relating to the central dream vision of the ‘disembodied soul,’ with its ascension and weightlessness.’’

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Becquer's famous contemporaries include:

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928): An English novelist and poet in the naturalist style, Hardy is well known for his themes that expose and comment on social constraints.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865): While president of the United States, Lincoln presided over the Civil War and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order abolishing slavery in the Union states. He was assassinated in 1865.

David Livingstone (1813-1873): A Scottish missionary and explorer, Livingstone unsuccessfully searched for the source of the Nile River in Africa and was the first European to see Victoria Falls, which he named after the British queen.

Claude Monet (1840-1926): A French painter, Monet founded the impressionist style of painting in contrast to the popular style of realism.

Emile Zola (1840-1902): A French writer of the naturalist school, Zola is also famous for accusing the French government of obstruction of justice and anti-Semitism for falsely convicting a Jewish soldier to life imprisonment, which resulted in justice finally being done in the case.

 

Works in Critical Context

Widely regarded as a founder of modern Spanish poetry, Becquer was popular among his contemporaries, although the poems in Rimas were not published as a collection when he died. Instead, after his death, his poems were passed along by word of mouth from poet to poet until a complete collection was published. Commentators have remarked on the progressiveness of his poetic style. Written in colloquial language, the poems in Rimas are characterized by half-rhyme and speech-rhythms.

Rimas and Leyendas. Critics of Becquer’s works have focused on his Rimas and Leyendas, noting his concern with such themes as idealism, love, spirituality, and the supernatural. According to Gabriel Lovett, for example, ‘‘A constant in Becquer’s work [is] the pursuit of the unattainable,” specifically in Leyendas, where ‘‘the supernatural once more plays the decisive part [as the] protagonist tries to reach for something beyond man’s possibilities.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. In Becquer’s time, most poetry was not written in colloquial, or everyday, language. Today, however, poetry is generally written like everyday speech. First, think about whether you believe poetry should be elevated in order to show the poetic skill involved or whether you believe poetry should be more accessible, demonstrating subtler skill. Then, using resources at your library or on the Internet, find a short poem (ten to twenty lines) that illustrates your opinion. Using the poem you found to support your ideas, write a short essay exploring your side of the issue.

2. Becquer worked as a censor for the royal government. At that time, books could be censored if they might corrupt someone. Go to Banned Books Online (http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/banned-books.html) and look at some of the books that have been censored. Write a personal statement that explores the following questions: Do you think people should be protected from reading certain things, or should people be able to judge for themselves? If people should be protected, who should decide what is suitable and what is not?

3. Using the Internet or your library’s resources, research the ‘‘grotesque’’ style popular in Becquer’s time. Write an essay describing it and explaining why Becquer may have felt it important to include it in his work.

4. With a classmate, visit the Alba Learning Web site (http://albalearning.com/audiolibros/Bec- quer.html) and click on ‘‘Leyendas’’ to read Becquer’s story ‘‘Maese Perez the Organist’’ in English.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Gustavo Adolfo Becquer's use of the grotesque in his short stories is part of a long literary tradition that continues to this day. Here are some examples:

Duma Key (2008), a novel by Stephen King. After an accident that took his arm and ended his marriage, Edgar Freemantle moves to Florida and becomes obsessed with—or perhaps possessed by—painting.

''The Fall of the House of Usher'' (1839), a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. Roderick Usher believes that his house is a living creature; after he buries his dead sister, ominous events occur.

The Golden Pot (1814), a novella by E. T. A. Hoffman. In this masterpiece of German Romantic literature, a young student struggles with the supernatural seemingly woven into his daily life.

The Phantom of the Opera (1986), a musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Based on Gaston Leroux's 1909 novel by the same name, this popular musical tells of the haunting of the Paris Opera by the ''Opera Ghost,'' a disfigured man who lives below the building and falls in love with one of the singers.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In this work by the English poet, a sailor kills an albatross after his ship is blown off course during a storm, and is tormented by enraged supernatural beings as a result.

After you read the story, discuss what you think really happened.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Atkinson, Dorothy M., and Anthony H. Clarke, eds. Hispanic Studies in Honour of Joseph Manson. New York: Dolphin, 1972.

Guillen, Jorge. ‘‘The Ineffable Language of Dreams:

Becquer.’’ In Language and Poetry: Some Poets of Spain. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961. King, Edmund L. Gustavo Adolfo Becquer: From Painter to Poet. Mexico City: Editorial Porrua, 1953.

Peers, E. Allison. A History of the Romantic Movement in Spain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1940.

Periodicals

Baker, Armand F. ‘‘Self Realization in the Leyendas of Gustavo Adolfo Becquer.’’ Revista Hispanica Moderna 94 (December 1991): 191-206.

________. ‘‘The ‘Strange, Gigantic Hymn’ of Gustavo Adolfo Becquer.’’ Hispanic Journal 21 (Spring 2000): 25-35.

Heerrzberger, David K. ‘‘The Contrasting Poetic Theories of Poe and Becquer.’’ Romance Notes 21 (1980): 323-28.

Ilie, Paul. ‘‘Becquer and the Romantic Grotesque.’’ PMLA 83 (May 1968): 312-31.

Lovett, Gabriel H. ‘‘Patriotism and Other Themes in Becquer’s ‘El Beso.’’’ Modern Language Quarterly 29 (September 1968): 289-96.

Palley, Julian. ‘‘Becquer’s ‘Disembodied Soul.’’’ Hispanic Review 47 (Spring 1979): 185-92.