IX. THE IBERIAN MUSE: 1515–55

This was a lively time in the literature of Portugal. The exciting stimulus of the explorations, the spreading wealth of expanding commerce, the influence of Italy, the humanists at Coimbra and Lisbon, the patronage of a cultivated court, joined in an efflorescence that would soon culminate in the Lusiads (1572) of Camoëns. A merrv battle raged between the Eschola Velha—Old School—of Gil Vicente, who cherished native themes and forms, and Os Quinhentistas—The Men of the Fifteenth (our Sixteenth) Century—who followed Sá de Miranda in enthusiasm for Italian and classic modes and styles. For thirty-four years (1502–36) Gil Vicente, “the Portuguese Shakespeare,” dominated the theater with his simple autos, or acts; the court smiled upon him, and expected him to celebrate every royal event with a play; and when the king was quarreling with the pope Gil was allowed to satirize the papacy with such freedom that Aleander, seeing one of Vicente’s plays in Brussels, “thought I was in mid-Saxony listening to Luther.”51 The fertile dramatist wrote sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in Portuguese, sometimes in both, with scraps of Italian and French, Church Latin and peasant slang, thrown in. Often the action of the piece was interrupted, as in Shakespeare, with lyrics that crept into the hearts of the people. Like Shakespeare, Gil was actor as well as playwright; he was stage manager as well, and directed the settings. For good measure he was one of the best goldsmiths of the age.

In 1524 Francisco Sá de Miranda returned from a six years’ stay in Italy, and brought with him the classical fever of the Renaissance. Like Ronsard and the Pléiade in France, like Spenser and Sidney in England, he proposed to dignify the national literature by modeling its subjects, meters, and style on classical lines; like Joachim du Bellay, he included Petrarch among the classics, and introduced the sonnet to his countrymen; like Jodelle he wrote the first classical tragedy in his native tongue (1550); and he had already (1527) written the first Portuguese prose comedy in classic form. His friend Bernardim Ribeiro composed bucolic poetry in the style of Virgil, and lived a tragedy in the manner of Tasso: he made such a stir with his passion for a lady of the court that he was banished; he was forgiven and restored to royal favor, and died insane (1552).

A school of colorful historians recorded the triumphs of the explorers. Caspar Correa went out to India, rose to be one of Albuquerque’s secretaries, denounced official corruption, and was murdered in Malacca in 1565. Amid this active life he wrote in eight volumes what he called “a brief summary” of the Portuguese conquest of India (Lendas da India), full of the color of that expansive era. Fernäo Lopes de Castanheda traveled for half a lifetime in the East, and labored for twenty years on his Historia do descobrimento e conquista da India pelos Portuguezes. Joao de Barros served in several administrative capacities at India House in Lisbon for forty years, and disgraced his predecessors by amassing no fortune. He had access to all the archives, and gathered them into a history which he called simply Asia, but which acquired the name of Decades because three of its four huge volumes covered periods of some ten years each. In order, accuracy, and clarity it bears comparison with any contemporary historical composition except the works of Machiavelli and Guicciardini. The proud nation would have rejected the exceptions, and gave Barros the title of “the Portuguese Livy.”

The Castilian tongue had now become the literary language of Spain. Galician, Valencian, Catalonian, Andalusian dialects survived in the speech of the people, and Galician became Portuguese; but the use of Castilian as the language of state and Church under Ferdinand, Isabella, and Ximenes gave that dialect an insuperable prestige, and from their time to ours its masculine sonority has carried the literature of Spain. An infatuation with language appeared in some writers of this age. Antonio de Guevara set an example of linguistic conceits and rhetorical flourishes, and the translation of his Reloj de principes (Dial of Princes, 1529) by Lord Berners helped to mold the euphuism of John Lyly’s Euphues, and the silly wordplay of Shakespeare’s early comedies.

Spanish literature sang of religion, love, and war. The passion for romances of chivalry reached such a height that in 1555 the Cortes recommended that they be prohibited by law; such a decree was actually issued in Spanish America; had it been enforced in Spain we might have missed Don Quixote. One of the romances spared by the curate in the purification of the Knight’s library was the Diana enamorata (1542) of Jorge de Montemayor; it imitated the Arcadia (1504) of the Spanish-Italian poet Sannazaro, and was itself imitated by Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590). Montemayor’s prose-and-poetry romance was one of a thousand instances of Italian influence on Spanish literature; here again the conquered conquered the conquerors. Juan Boscan translated Castiglione’sCortigiano into prose quite worthy of the original, and accepted the suggestion of the Venetian poet Navagero to popularize the sonnet form in Spain.

His friend Garcilaso de la Vega almost at once brought the form to perfection in Castilian. Like so many Spanish writers of this period, he came of high lineage; his father was ambassador of Ferdinand and Isabella at Rome. Born at Toledo in 1503, Garcilaso was early dedicated to arms. In 1532 he distinguished himself in the repulse of the Turks from Vienna; in 1535 he was twice severely wounded in the siege of Tunis; a few months later he shared in Charles V’s futile campaign in Provence. At Fréjus he volunteered to lead an attack upon an obstructive castle; he was the first to mount the wall; he received a blow on the head from which he died a few days later, aged thirty-three. One of the thirty-seven sonnets which he bequeathed to his friend Boscan struck a note that has echoed in every war:

And now larger than ever lies the curse

On this our time; and all that went before

Keeps altering its face from bad to worse;

And each of us has felt the touch of war-

War after war, and exile, dangers, fear—

And each of us is weary to the core

Of seeing his own blood along a spear

And being alive because it missed its aim.

Some folks have lost their goods and all their gear,

And everything is gone, even the name

Of house and home and wife and memory.

And what’s the use of it? A little fame?

The nation’s thanks? A place in history?

One day they’ll write a book, and then we’ll see.52

He could not see, but a thousand books commemorated him fondly. Historians recorded his death among the leading events of the time. His poems were printed in handy volumes which were carried in the pockets of Spanish soldiers into a dozen lands. Spanish lutenists put his lyrics to music as madrigals for the vihuela, and dramatists turned his eclogues into plays.

The Spanish drama marked time, and could not know that it would soon rival the Elizabethan. One-act comedies, farcical satires, or episodes from popular romances were performed by strolling players in a public square or the corrale—yard—of an inn, sometimes at a princely seat or royal court. Lope de Rueda, who succeeded Gil Vicente as chief provider of autos for such troupes, made his fame—and gave us a word—with his bobos, clowns.

Historians abounded. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo was appointed historiographer of the New World by Charles V, and acquitted himself indifferently well with a voluminous and ill-ordered Historia general y natural de las Indias Occidentales (1535). During forty years of residence in Spanish America he grew rich from mining gold, and he resented the Brevisima relacion de la destruycion de las Indias (1539 f.), in which Bartolomé de las Casas exposed the merciless exploitation of native slave labor in the American mines. Las Casas sailed with Columbus in 1502, became Bishop of Chiapa in Mexico, and gave nearly all his life to the cause of the Indians. In Memorials addressed to the Spanish government he described the rapidity with which the natives were dying under the arduous conditions of work imposed upon them by the settlers. The Indians had been accustomed by their warm climate and simple diet to only casual labor; they had not mined gold, but had been content to derive it from the surface of the earth or the beds of shallow streams, and used it only as an ornament. Las Casas calculated that the native population of the “Indies” had been reduced from 12,000,000 (doubtless too high a guess) to 14,000 in thirty-eight years.53 Dominican and Jesuit missionaries joined with Las Casas in protesting against Indian slavery,54 and Isabella repeatedly denounced it.55 Ferdinand and Ximenes prescribed semi-humane conditions for the conscription of Indian labor,56 but while these gentlemen were engrossed in European politics their instructions for the treatment of the natives were mostly ignored.

A minor debate concerned the conquest of Mexico. Francisco López de Gómara gave a very Cortesian account of that rape; Bernal Díaz del Castillo, in protest, composed (1568 f.) his Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España, which, while giving due praise to Cortes, condemned him for taking all the honors and profits of the conquest, leaving little for such brave soldiers as Bernal. It is a fascinating book, full of the lust of action, the joy of victory, and honest amazement at the wealth and splendor of Aztec Mexico. “When I beheld the scenes that were around me, I thought within myself that this was the garden of the world.” And then he adds, “All is destroyed.”57

The most mature Spanish history and the most famous Spanish novel of this period have been attributed to the same man. Diego Hurtado de Mendoza was born at Granada some eleven years after its conquest by Ferdinand; his father had won laurels in the siege, and had been made governor of the city after its fall. Educated at Salamanca, Bologna, and Padua, Mendoza acquired a wide culture in Latin, Greek, and Arabic, in philosophy and law; he collected classic texts with the zeal of a Renaissance prince; and when Suleiman the Magnificent bade him name his reward for certain good offices he had performed for the Porte, he asked only for some Greek manuscripts. He rose to high place in the diplomatic service of Charles V at Venice, Rome, and the Council of Trent. Rebuked by Paul III for conveying some harsh message from Charles to the Pope, he answered with all the pride of a Spanish grandee: “I am a cavalier, my father was one before me, and as such it is my duty to fulfill the commands of my royal master, without any fear of your Holiness, so long as I observe due reverence to the vicegerent of Christ. I am minister to the King of Spain .... safe, as his representative, even from your Holiness’s displeasure.”58

Recent research questions Mendoza’s authorship of the first picaresque novel in European literature—The Life and Adventures of Lazarillo de Tormes. Though not printed till 1553, it had probably been written many years before. That a scion of a family only less noble than the king’s should make a thief his hero would be startling; more so that a man originally intended for the priesthood should include in his story such sharp satires of the clergy that the Inquisition forbade any further printing of the book until it had been expurgated of all offense.59 Lazarillo* is a waif who, as guide to a blind beggar, acquires the tricks of petty larceny, and rises to higher crimes as servant to a priest, a friar, a chaplain, a bailiff, a seller of indulgences. Even the worldly wise young thief is impressed with some of the marvels arranged by the indulgence peddler in promoting his wares. “I must confess that I, amongst many others, was deceived at the time, and thought my master a miracle of sanctity.” 60 This rollicking narrative set the gusto picaresco, or “style of the rogue,” in fiction; it evoked innumerable imitations, culminating in the most renowned of picaresque romances, the Gil Bias (1715–35) of Alain Lesage.

Exiled from the court of Philip II for drawing his sword in an argument, Mendoza retired to Granada, composed incidental verses too free to be printed during his lifetime, and recounted the Moorish revolt of 1568–70 in an Historia de la guerra de Granada so impartial, so just to the Moors, that this too could not find a publisher, and saw print only in 1610, and then only in part. Mendoza took Sallust for his model, rivaled him, and stole a theme or two from Tacitus; but all in all, this was the first Spanish work that advanced beyond mere chronicle or propaganda to factual history interpreted with philosophical grasp and presented with literary art. Mendoza died in 1575, aged seventy-two. He was one of the most complete personalities of a time rich in complete men.

Always, in these hurried pages, conscience runs a race with time, and warns the hurrying pen that, like the hasty traveler, it is but scratching surfaces. How many publishers, teachers, scholars, patrons, poets, romancers, and reckless rebels labored for half a century to produce the literature that here has been so narrowly confined, so many masterpieces unnamed, nations ignored, once immortal geniuses slighted with a line! It cannot be helped. The ink runs dry; and while it lasts it must be enough if from its scratches and splashes some hazy picture unfolds of men and women resting a while from theology and war, loving the forms of beauty as well as the mirages of truth and power, and building, carving, painting words until thought finds an art to clothe it, wisdom and music merge, and literature arises to let a nation speak, to let an age pour its spirit into a mold so fondly fashioned that time itself will cherish’ and carry it down tnrough a thousand catastrophes as an heirloom of the race.

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