from The Solitudes, Luis de Góngora, translated by Edith Grossman
The fluctuating fate of certain writers seems to depend not as much on their work itself (which, after all, remains more or less unchanged throughout the centuries) as on the expectations of their readers, on the notions these readers have of what literature should or should not do. Depending on who we are, and where and when we read, a given text will appear to have been written in one of two different kinds of language, or, rather, with what one might call different attitudes toward language. In the first, language seems to hide behind the story, to work unnoticed in the background of what is being said; in the second, language takes center stage and shows itself off with all its flourishes and trappings. Though most texts rely on a safe balance between the two, this ongoing tension between language invisible and language apparent mirrors not only our aesthetic but also our ethical and political imaginations.
Because we see in literature what we want or need to see, especially in literature that demands an effort of investigation and reflection, the fate of Luis de Gongóra y Argote has been a succession of exaltations and denigrations. He was called by his contemporaries "the Spanish Homer"(1) and also the perpetrator of "Pestilential Poetry,"(2) he was ignored by the Romantics and rescued by the Modernists,(3) he deeply influenced poets as different as Stéphane Mallarmé and Federico García Lorca, and novelists such as Gabriel García Márquez and Juan Goytisolo. Jorge Luis Borges, not the dullest of readers, expressed, throughout his life, both a fervent devotion and an equally fervent aversion to Gongóra, depending on how the master's overwhelming style suited Borges's own.
In his time—late sixteenth-century and early seventeenth-century Spain—Gongóra was considered both the greatest of poets and a pretentious fool who squandered his poetic gifts on deliberately abstruse conceits. His mastery of portentous imagery and rhetorical devices, his disrespect for the conventional limits of serious literature, his interest in the everyday, banal reality of the world around him, irritated his rivals, and helped stir the animosity of his two greatest opponents, Lope de Vega and Francisco de Quevedo, who nevertheless expressed their admiration for his genius.
To degrade Gongóra's style, his enemies invented the term culteranismo, which associates the notion of culto, affectedly cultivated, with luteranismo, Luther's heretic doctrines. Conceptismo, the opposing school, was led by Quevedo, and was supposed to dwell on literary wordplay and wit rather than on the intricacies of form. This established opposition, though certainly true in the personal dealings of its members, is less evident in their literary production: Quevedo's poetry can be exquisitely convoluted and Gongóra's of heartbreaking plainness. Those who imagine Gongora's verse to be a thicket of impenetrable artifice might be unwilling to believe that these limpid lines are also his:
Carthage confesses it. And you will not?
You are in danger, Licius, if you insist
on chasing shadows and embracing masks.
No mercy from the hours should you expect,
the hours that are grinding down the days,
the days that keep on gnawing at the years.(4)
Luis de Gongóra y Argote was the son of a noted lawyer and bibliophile from Cordoba. After a rowdy youth spent in Salamanca, he received, thanks to his father, an ecclesiastical benefice that allowed him to travel frequently throughout Spain. He finally settled in the Madrid court of Philip III, where, with the support of his patron, the Duke of Lerma, he became the royal chaplain. During this time, Gongóra wrote a large number of classical sonnets and popular, humorous songs, several of which were published in two anthologies of contemporary poets that made him well known among the lettered classes. Then, reaching the age of fifty and feeling that court life was becoming increasingly hostile, he moved to Andalusia and, from 1609 to 1617, lived in almost complete isolation in a country house near Cordoba. Here Gongóra began writing poetry of a much greater linguistic complexity than before, taking to almost unthinkable extremes the tenets of baroque poetry.
Though it is impossible to say why and how a poet alters his voice, an inkling of explanation might be found in the disillusioned political climate of Spain in the first decades of the 1600s. During the previous century, Spain had invented for itself several different official identities. It was the imperial power par excellence, conqueror of the seas and discoverer of the New World, of which, thanks to the Treaty of Tordesillas, it possessed the lion's share. It was a nation of pure Christian blood, having taken over the province of Granada and expelled both Jews and Arabs from its territories. It was the true defender of the Christian faith and the papal authority, a steadfast bastion against the Protestant Reformation. As a consequence, according to the nineteenth-century novelist Benito Perez Galdós, "traditional hypocrisy served to cover up moral meanness, and corruption of the soul was transformed by priestly art into virtue and spiritual fortitude."(5)
To maintain this triple mask, Spain developed, in various exaggerated manifestations, a complex baroque style in which language itself appears to be the main protagonist of the text and also its justification, allowing the words to enclose and occlude what they are meant to reveal, sometimes to the point of annihilation. The Cuban novelist Severo Sarduy noted that the traditional etymology of "baroque" stems from the Portuguese term barroco used to designate an irregular pearl; eventually, the elaborate jewel made from that pearl (the artifact, the jeweler's handicraft) superseded the natural creation it was meant to name and acquired a connotation of artificiality rather than craftsmanship, and intricacy rather than depth.(6)
The baroque opposed, with its ornamentation and bombast, the plain tone of ordinary discourse and also the measured rules of sober classicism. It was a style ideally suited for the purposes of the Counter-Reformation: ideologically, it served to withdraw from public inspection the tenets of the Catholic dogma by surrounding and layering them until they effectively disappeared from view; aesthetically, to elevate, through artifice and conceit, the subjects of art and poetry so as not to confuse what is basely human with the aspirations of the divine. For precisely these reasons, the Reformation, in England, for instance, had stripped the altars and reduced worship to its simplest, barest form. In 1667, several decades after the baroque had established itself in the Spanish peninsula, Bishop Sprat denounced from his pulpit in London the outrage of the baroque style, and explained why the Royal Society was determined to suppress its appearance in Protestant Britain:
They have therefore been most rigorous in putting in execution the only Remedy that can be found for this extravagance, and that has been a constant Resolution to reject all amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity and shortness, when men deliver'd so many things almost in an equal number of words.(7)
Amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style: these were the sins the critics of the baroque attributed to its practitioners, and, together with elegant wordplay, syntactic conceits, grammatical infringements, and all manner of rhetorical devices, they became the essential components of baroque language. Gongóra exacerbated these almost to the point of parody. Metaphors, similes, and allegories were an essential part of a baroque construction, stretching as far as possible the terms of comparison; for his part, Gongóra protracted his metaphors to such an extent that the described object became almost lost in a whirlwind of complex images. With uncanny virtuosity, Gongóra constructed edifices of words that presented but did not replicate or mirror his intended subjects.
Dámaso Alonso, perhaps Gongóra's most passionate defender, spoke of the landscape in Gongóra's poetry as one that is "aesthetically transformed." Certainly, it is the nature of the countryside Gongóra knew, but changed through his images to a mosaic of crystal, precious stones, silk, feathers, and brocades; his bodies are human, no doubt, but in his verse they have become roses, ivory, ebony, pearls. It is obvious that Gongóra demonstrates, as few other poets, an absolute trust in the creative powers of language: he does not use words merely to name or echo reality; he uses them to reconstruct reality according to his poetic eye and ear. In some sense, his is the absolute act of translation: that of taking not a verbal construction but a material one and transforming it into something perfectly equivalent and yet utterly separate.
At this point, an example may be useful. Alluding to the poetic convention that spring is the season of new things, Shakespeare, Gongóra's contemporary, asks:
"Who are the violets now
that strew the green lap of the new come spring?"(8)
Gongóra too uses this literary trope but only as a distant inspiration. In the first verses of The Solitudes, he transforms this poetic triteness into a marvelously convoluted depiction of astronomical time, mythological narrative, and a wealth of mixed metaphors. Spring is not mentioned; instead, we are told of the flowery season of the year in which the sun enters the constellation of Taurus, the bull, the beast into which Jupiter transformed himself to kidnap Princess Europa. This bull, his forehead armed with a crescent moon of horns, radiant through the effect of the rays of the sun that mingle with its bristles, seems to be grazing on stars that pale in his luminous presence, in heavenly fields as blue as sapphire:
It was the flowering season of the year
when Europa's false-hearted abductor
—a half moon the weapons on his brow,
the Sun's rays all the strands of his hair—
oh bright glory of heaven,
grazes on stars in fields of sapphire blue ... (1-6)
It is obvious to most readers that the essence of these verses is not in the story but in the telling of the story, in the voluptuous verbal construction that somehow, through sounds and images, constructs a musical picture that, like a riddle, must be disentangled for sense. But this disentanglement is, as it were, a posthumous operation. The first, the immediate experience of the reader is one of pure verbal pleasure, an erotic play of tongue and ear before soliciting our intelligent reflection. This is not to say that Gongóra is not telling anything: he is telling much, and most precisely. But he is not interested in delivering "so many things almost in an equal number of words." On the contrary, his interest lies in multiplying and magnifying the things he wants to say so as to extend their meaning in space and time. Spring is, certainly, as Shakespeare reminds us, the season in which all things bloom, but it is also the season of cosmic astrological changes, of transformations of the dark into the light, of renewed links between the different cosmic and earthly elements, of a reappraisal of quotidian sights such as flowers and sheep and fields and skies, of recalling ancestral memories of founding myths. All this, and more, come into play in Gongóra's account.
To restructure and enrich the language he was using for poetic purposes, Gongóra returned to the Latin roots of Spanish, which allowed him greater freedom of syntax and wordplay. Borges saw in this "nostalgia of Latin"(9) a destructive tendency. "Gongorism," Borges wrote, "was the attempt by grammarians urged by a plan to dislocate the Spanish sentence into Latin disorder, without wanting to understand that this disorder is merely apparent in Latin, and was to become effective among us through a lack of declensions."(10)
And yet, Gongóra's excesses were not merely formal. While it is true that Spain used the rhetoric and style of the baroque for its own purposes, it is also true that Spanish writers, by and large, subverted them. Cervantes created with Don Quixote a reverse image of the Spain promoted by officialdom: the supposed author of the novel is Cide Hamete Benegeli, one of the converted Moors expelled from Spain in 1610, thus bringing back one of the forbidden cultures to the very core of his story. Like Cervantes, Gongóra witnessed, throughout his life, the ups and downs of the Spanish Empire, from the victory of Lepanto and the annexing of Portugal to the defeat of the Armada and the forced peace with England. Lucid, critical, and disillusioned, Gongóra too rejected Spain's attempt to invent for itself false identities. In this he was extraordinarily successful. In 1627, the year of his death, the Spanish Inquisition prohibited the sale of his poetry. Obviously, something had been read in the baroque edifice of Gongóra's verse that gravely offended the official ear.
Rather than the supposed glory of the Empire, Gongóra's subject, in The Solitudes above all, is the life outside the court, the everyday activities of peasants, fishermen, and shepherds, not the protagonists of an artificial pastoral novel but ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Like Cervantes, he also had no patience with the Empire's supposed aristocratic purity. One of his rustics in The Solitudes tells of the conquest of the New World in harsh, critical terms that recall denunciations such as Bartolomé de las Casas's Brief Description of the Destruction of the Indies, depicting the imperial enterprise as both a political and a moral failure. The conquista, according to Gongóra, is due not to worthy ambitions but to greed, and Spain has not learned the lesson of King Midas, condemned to starvation because everything he touches turns to inedible gold.
Greed sent second barks to a second pole
in a new sea that offered him not only
the beautiful white daughters of its shells,
but murderous metals Midas never learned
to possess successfully. (I, 430-434)
Certain critics (11) speak of "the temptation of the epic" in Gongóra's great poems, notably in The Solitudes. If there was such a thing (and no doubt the epic is a recurrent temptation indulged in by Torquato Tasso, Milton, and other of his near contemporaries), then Gongóra seems to have conceived a particular version of the epic, something more akin to a pilgrimage in a world not of fabulous dangers and prodigious events, but of ordinary things, a world outside the scope of the great cities, a world of laborers, fishermen, and peasants. Thus in The Solitudes, Gongóra took the classical contrast between country and city, that commonplace of Latin poetry recovered by the Renaissance, and converted it into an epic of the quotidian. A contemporary defender of Gongóra, Díaz de Rivas, suggested that "his intention is not to treat of pastoral things (these matters are accidental circumstances of the work's main purpose) but the pilgrimage of a Prince, a highly placed personage, his absence and the painful affects of his exile."(12)
The poem, Gongóra himself explains in a letter, was imagined as four Solitudes; this has led readers to imagine a correspondence between each part (those that Gongóra finished and those that he did not) and a different landscape, a different state of mind, or a different human age. What we know for certain is that Gongóra completed the 37 lines of the dedication to the Duke of Bejar, the 1091 lines of the First Solitude and only 979 of the Second Solitude, all of which circulated in manuscript from about 1613, and were not published until fourteen years later. Of the supposed other two sections we know nothing.
Are The Solitudes incomplete or deliberately left open? It may be that, like other unfinished works such as Kafka's The Castle or Coleridge's Kubla Khan, the expectation of conclusion is ours, not the author's. The pilgrims in all three works (Coleridge's narrator can be read as a dream traveler) undertake a journey whose purpose is the journey itself, not the arrival. The Castle must remain unreachable, the vision of Xanadu incomplete, the travels of the shipwrecked wanderer must never end. In Gongóra's poem, only the city that the pilgrim has left is a limited space, confined by its walls; the wilderness beyond it, sea and land, are infinite, more pagan than Christian, and its fruits will always be, like Midas's viands, useless in the greedy hands of conquerors.
If Gongóra's poem has a subject, other than the ongoing exploration of the natural world and its inhabitants, then it is the construction of solitude, the search for that state of mind and body in which a person may find some kind of understanding and peace of mind. Though the quest carries echoes of prophetic Biblical literature and the crying in the wilderness, The Solitudes are not jeremiads; they are not conceived as lamentations but rather as songs of praise for the wonders of the world encountered by the exile, from humble human artifacts such as a wooden bowl and fishing nets, to the return of the tired falcons at the end of the Second Solitude:
Though idle, no less fatigued,
on the glove came complaining
the rapid whirlwinds from Norway. (943-945)
Another contemporary, Francisco de Córdoba, Abbot of Rute, noted that Gongóra's poetry resembles "a talking picture" that represents, "as in a Flemish painting," a variety of human types and activities. (13) If so, The Solitudes paints a meticulously realistic picture of the natural world in which every character, every object, every landscape, presented through a mesh of metaphors and images, is essentially and vividly factual.
Except perhaps for the pilgrim himself. To suit the perfect search for solitude, Gongóra's pilgrim has no specific identity: he is a man almost without qualities; his only known characteristics are the beauty of Jupiter's Ganymede, an amorous despondency caused by a "beloved enemy," and a silent curiosity. Unlike the usual protagonist of the "village versus court" trope that invariably privileges pastoral life, the pilgrim, though aware of the merits of the country, is incapable of forming part of any society, whether urban or rustic. Longingly searching for solitude, he seems unaware that he carries his solitude within him, like an attribute of his being, akin to the foreigner that Charles Baudelaire was to describe centuries later, a man who has no family, no friends, no country, and loves nothing but the clouds, "the marvelous clouds."(14) Part Gongóra himself, part the reader, the pilgrim is in a sense a dual creature: his body travels through the realms of his exile while his mind travels through a different landscape, one constructed for him out of words and learned mythological references and sophisticated cultural codes. Only once does the pilgrim take an active part in the story: when he intervenes on behalf of the young lovers in the fisherman's hut, in the Second Solitude. Otherwise, he is merely a witness to the world that unfolds before him.
Not everything in Gongóra is perfectly understandable for the reader today, not even in translation, which tends to ease complexities and clarify obscurities. This is partly because he sometimes wrote verses in which the sound of the majestic syllables overrides the need for sense, and partly because, even with the guidance of erudite notes, our poetic vocabularies are far poorer now than they were for his seventeenth-century readers. I don't think this matters. Borges, writing in 1925 about that other culterano, James Joyce, said that he wanted to appropriate for the author of Ulysses Lope de Vega's "respectful words" on Gongóra: "Be what it may, I will always esteem and adore the divine genius of this Gentleman, taking from him what I understand with humility and admiring with veneration what I am unable to understand."(15)
I mentioned the virtues of translation when reading a difficult work. If a literary text is basically something made of certain words placed in a certain order, following or contravening certain grammatical laws, chosen for their sense but often mainly for their music, then what becomes of that text when it is stripped of all these things and rebuilt with other words, another grammar, a different music? Particularly, what becomes of a text such as Gongóra's Solitudes when translated into another language, another perception of the world, another state of mind? Mysteriously, in a good translation, as if under a new skin, the work comes back to life.
In Latin America, Gongóra influenced much of the writing of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, of Borges, and (in lesser measure) of Gabriel García Márquez. Above all, he is the "origin and source" of the great Cuban literature, that of Alejo Carpentier, Severo Sarduy, and Lezama Lima. In Spain, he became the precursor of the best poets of the early twentieth century, from García Lorca to Luis Cernuda. Perhaps, in the brilliant translation of Edith Grossman, he might have a similar effect. Read today in this new version, Gongóra's masterpiece may remind English-language writers of the new millennium that, whatever their new subjects and preoccupations, their craft is still one of words, in all their astonishing, intricate, illuminating, and artificial complexity.
1. Luis de Góngora y Argote, Obras en verso del Homero español que recogió Juan López de Vicuña (1627), quoted in Dámaso Alonso, ed., Luis de Góngora, Las Soledades (Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1927).
2. Juan de Jáuregui, Antidoto contra la pestilente poesia de las "Soledades" (1614), in Eunice J. Gates, Documentos gongorinos (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1960).
3. The reception of Góngora has been carefully analyzed in Joaquín Roses, Góngora: Soledades habitadas (Málaga: Universidad de Málaga, Collección Thelma, 2007).
4. Last tercets of the sonnet "De la brevedad engañosa de la vida," in Luis de Góngora, Obra completa, vol. I (Madrid: Fundación José Antonio de Castro, 2000), p. 584.
5. Benito Pérez Galdós, Doña Perfecta (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, Biblioteca Pérez Galdós, 1983).
6. Severo Sarduy, "El barroco y el neobarroco," in César Fernández Moreno, ed., América latina en su literatura (Mexico City: Unesco, 1972).
7. Bishop Sprat, History of the Royal Society of London, quoted in Northrop Frye, The Harper Handbook of Literature (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), p. 350.
8. William Shakespeare, Richard II, 5.2.46, in The Oxford Shakespeare: Complete Works, W. J. Craig (ed.) (London: Oxford University Press, 1969).
9. Jorge Luis Borges, "Sir Thomas Browne," in Inquisiciones (Buenos Aires: Proa, 1925), pp. 33-41.
11. Robert Jammes, Etudes sur l'oeuvre poétique de Don Luis de Góngora (Bordeaux: Féret éditeur, Bibliotèque de la l'Ecole des hautes études hispaniques, 1967).
12. Diaz de Rivas, Discursos apologéticos por el estylo del "Poliphemo" y "Soledades," in Eunice J. Gates, Documentos gongorinos (Mexico City: El Colegio de México), pp. 51-52.
13. Francisco de Córdoba, Exámen del "Antidoto" o apología por las "Soledades," in M. Artigas, Don Luis de Góngora y Argote (Madrid: Revista de Archivos, 1925), p. 406.
14. Charles Baudelaire, "L'étranger," in Le spleen de Paris (1864), in Oeuvres complètes, vol. I (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1975).
15. Jorge Luis Borges, "El Ulises de Joyce," in Inquisiciones (Buenos Aires: Proa, 1925), pp. 22-23.
About the Author
Alberto Manguel is an essayist and the bestselling author of dozens of books including A History of Reading and A Dictionary of Imaginary Places. A Guggenheim Fellow and an Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, he was raised in Tel Aviv and in Buenos Aires, where Jorge Luis Borges was one of his early mentors. He now lives in the Poitou-Charentes region of France.