World Literature

Rosalia de Castro

 

BORN: 1837, Santiago de Compostela, Spain

DIED: 1885, Santiago de Compostela, Spain

NATIONALITY: Spanish

GENRE: Poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

Cantaresgallegos (Galician Songs; 1863)

En las orillas del Sar (Beside the River Sar; 1884)

 

Overview

Rosalia de Castro was an acknowledged master of Spanish poetry who wrote intimate, musical verse mainly in her native Galician (a dialect similar to Portuguese), incorporating the folk themes, political problems, and longings of her people in her poetry.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Personal and Political Turmoil. Castro was born to an unwed Spanish noblewoman. Raised by an aunt to age eleven, she spent her teens in her grandparents’ home, where she was educated in languages and the arts. Despite her talent in music, art, and writing (she composed her first poem at age twelve), Castro was an unhappy youth. Many critics attribute her melancholy, which deepened year by year, to the stigma surrounding her birth, which forced her to be separated from her mother.

Castro lived in an era of political turmoil in Spain. In the decades before her birth, France—under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte—had taken control of the Spanish monarchy and ruled the country as a client state. While Spanish rebels ultimately defeated the French occupying forces in 1814, Spain’s economy was devastated by the occupation and conflict. Social unrest was common for the next fifty years, and in 1868 the Spanish monarchy was once again driven out—this time by rebels—during the Glorious Revolution. Such unrest may have fueled interest in traditional Spanish and Galician culture, which was viewed with nostalgia by those who longed for simpler times. This interest ultimately shaped Castro’s work and enduring popularity.

The Flowering of a Galician Poet. At age nineteen, Castro moved to Madrid, where she became involved with literary circles and published La flor (The Flower), an inconsequential collection of poems in Spanish. The following year, she married Manuel Murguna, a historian and a champion of the Galician literary renaissance. Although their marriage was troubled by financial difficulties, ill health, and the deaths of two of their six children, Murguna always encouraged his wife’s writing. It was through his prompting that Castro agreed to publish Galician Songs, the Galician verses that brought her acclaim as an important poet.

Her skill increased in Follas novas (New Leaves), another book on Galician themes, which is tinged with a darker and more personal tone than Galician Songs. With Beside the River Sar (1884), written in Spanish rather than Galician, she won national attention. This collection, which was composed when Castro was suffering from cancer, reflects a more personal and subjective tone. She died in 1885.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Castro's famous contemporaries include:

Queen Victoria (1819-1901): Victoria was the queen of England from 1937 until 1901, making her the longest- reigning British monarch in history.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886): Dickinson is considered to be one of the most important nineteenth-century American poets, though almost none of her poems was published during her lifetime.

Eduardo Pondal (1835-1917): Pondal was a Galician poet who attempted to restore the status of the Galician language.

W. S. Gilbert (1836-1911): Gilbert, an English theatrical writer, is best known for his collaboration with Arthur Sullivan on comic light operas.

Paul Cezanne (1839-1906): Cezanne, a French postimpressionist painter, marked a transition from nineteenth-to twentieth-century art.

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908): Machado was a Brazilian writer widely recognized as the most important figure in Brazilian literature.

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928): Hardy was an English writer whose poetry was part of the naturalist movement.

 

Works in Literary Context

Galician Concerns. Castro composed chiefly in her native Galician, writing poetry about the Galician countryside and longings of the Galician people. Castro added to these her own deep nostalgia, love of nature, and a pervasive melancholy. Her poetry, while simple in form, is mystical, religious, and highly symbolic in content. The subject matter of her works is primarily regional concerns, yet her poetry also probes the human soul in a manner that makes it universally relevant.

While her contemporaries adhered to a rigid poetic structure in their works, Castro used a lilting, fluid metrical style. Her simple, musical prosody, emotional themes, and natural symbols and motifs are seen by critics as influences on the work of such modern poets as Ruben Dario, Amado Nervo, and Federico Garcia Lorca.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Castro composed her final collection of poems while suffering from cancer; the poems in this collection show her attempting to make sense of this experience. Here are some other works that show authors attempting to deal with illness and dying:

''Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night'' (1951), a poem by Dylan Thomas. In this poem, the speaker urges his father to fight against his impending death.

''Kaddish'' (1961), a poem by Allen Ginsberg. This poem is about the death of the author's mother.

Can You Come Here Where I Am? (1998), edited by Rita Busch. This collection of poetry contains works by authors fighting and coping with breast cancer.

 

Works in Critical Context

Castro is widely considered one of the greatest practitioners of regionalism in Spanish literature. Critics consider that her studies of the Galician province, which brought her into literary prominence, have broader value because of her universal concerns.

According to L. A. Warren, Castro ‘‘is the greatest of modern Spanish poets, [Gustavo Adolfo] Becquer being the only alternative, and ranks level with the two greatest mystical lyrical poets of the golden century, Fray Luis de Leon and San Juan de la Cruz.’’ Gerald Brenan stated: ‘‘Had she written in Castilian rather than in her native Galician dialect, she would, I feel sure, be recognized as the greatest woman poet of modern times.’’

Galician Songs. Critics usually cite Galician Songs as the catalyst for the Galician cultural revival that took place in the nineteenth century. Recent critical attention has focused on feminist aspects of Castro’s writing. Michelle C. Geoffrion-Vinci points out that Galician Songs contains poems that ‘‘decry the mistreatment of women and Galicia, both of which occupied highly marginalized positions within the framework of 19th- century Spanish society.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Castro wrote her final collection of poems Beside the River Sar while suffering from cancer. In what ways can you see despair over this illness in these works? What aspects of the poetry demonstrate her efforts to soothe herself and cope with dying?

2. Does Castro’s depiction of women as caregivers resonate with present-day women? In what ways are her female figures a product of the time, and in what ways are they universally relevant?

3. Castro’s admirers assert that she has universal relevance despite her regional Galician themes. Write an argumentative essay that defends or attacks this assertion.

4. Castro depicted outdoor settings with a strong sense of the peace and serenity that they brought. Write a poem or short descriptive essay that re-creates an outdoor setting in a similar manner.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Balbontin, Jose Antonio. Three Spanish Poets: Rosalia de Castro, Federico Garcia Lorca, Antonio Machado. London: Alvin Redman, 1961.

Kulp, Kathleen K. Manner and Mood in Rosalia de Castro: A Study of Themes and Style. Madrid: Ediciones Jose Porrua Turanzas, 1968.

Kulp-Hill, Kathleen. Rosalia de Castro. Boston: Twayne, 1977.

Robaato, Albert, and Matilde Robaato. Rosalia de Castro y la condicion femenina. Madrid: Partenon, 1981.