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The Interdependence of Literature
Spanish Literature
by Curtis, Georgina Pell

For six centuries before the advent of the Arabs in Spain the country was under the Roman yoke, and had adopted the language and arts of the Romans; but in the eighth century the overthrow of the Romans, the coming of the Arabs, and contact with Arabian civilization--as well as the struggle against their Moorish invaders--began to develop in the Spaniards a spirit that was the foundation of their national literature. No other people have ever possessed in so strong a degree the true national feeling- -no other has produced such a uniformly pure, deeply religious, and elevated tone, in poetry and literature. Their poetry remained at all times free from any foreign influence, and is entirely romantic, while the Christian chivalric poetry of the Middle Ages remained with them longer than with any other nation, and received from their hands a more finished and elegant polish.

After the Moorish conquest the Spaniards withdrew to the mountains of Asturias; they took with them a corrupted form of the Latin language, as they had received it from the Romans; reaching these mountains, they found themselves thrown with the Iberians (the earliest of the Spanish races). These people had remained half barbaric, had resisted both Romans and Goths, and retained their original or Basque language. Coming now in contact with them, the Christian Spaniards learned their language. Later they met with another tribe of their own race who had remained with the Arabians, known as the Mocarabes, a people of superior refinement and civilization. Hence a new dialect from these contending elements was gradually formed, and became known, like the other languages of southern Europe, as the Romanic. The distinguishing feature of Spanish literature, from its birth, to the time of Ferdinand and Isabella, is religious faith and knightly loyalty. Qualities which sustained the whole nation in its struggle against the infidel Moors.

The first great Spanish work is the poem of the Cid. It is the only epic Spain has ever produced, and is the most ancient of any in the Romance language. It is also valuable as a faithful picture of the manners and characters of the eleventh century. Indeed, the chief characteristic of Spanish song and poetry is its delineation of the national life. It is said that the Cid is the foremost poem produced in Europe from the thousand years that marked the decline of Greek and Roman civilization, to the appearance of the Divine Comedy. The Count Lucanor, a work of the fourteenth century, was one of the earliest prose writings in the Spanish tongue, as the Decameron, which was written about the same time, was the first in Italian. Both are narrative tales; but their moral tone is very dissimilar--the Decameron was written to amuse, while the Count Lucanor is addressed to a grave and serious nation. These stories have frequently been dramatized, and one of them gave Shakespeare the outline of his Taming of the Shrew.

Alfonso the Wise, in the thirteenth century, was the author of a legislative code known as Las Sieta Partides, or the Seven Parts. It forms the Spanish common law, and has been the foundation of Spanish Jurisprudence ever since; and being used also in the colonies of Spain, it has, since the Louisiana Purchase, become in some cases the law in our own country.

Juan Ruiz, who lived in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, wrote a poem, partly fiction and partly allegorical, called the Battle of Don Carnival, which strongly resembles Chaucer; both poets found their material in northern French verse.

Santob, a Jew in the fourteenth century, wrote a poem called the Dance of Death, which became a favourite subject with both painters and poets for several succeeding ages.

The literature of Spain may be divided into four classes--the old Ballads, the Chronicles, the Romances of Chivalry, and the Drama. The most interesting of the old ballads are historical; but there are also ballads that have to do with private life wherein appear the effusions of love, the shafts of satire, the descriptions of pastoral life, and the oddities of burlesque. One and all, however, faithfully represent Spanish life. No such popular poetry is found in any other language. The English and Scotch ballads belong to a more barbarous state of society, and their verse is less dignified and lofty than that of the Spaniards, who were uplifted by a deep religious sense, and an unswerving loyalty to their sovereign. A state of feeling that elevated them far above the men and events of border feuds, and the wars of rival Barons.

The great Spanish heroes, the Cid, Bernardo del Carpo, and Pelayo, are to this day a vital part of the belief and poetry of the lower classes in Spain, and are revered as they were hundreds of years ago. The wandering Mulateers still sing of Guarinos and of the defeat at Roncesvalles as they did when Don Quixote heard them on his way to Toboso; and the street showmen in Seville rehearse to this day the same wonderful adventures that the Don saw in the Inn at Montesinos. The Chronicles developed among the more refined and educated classes. The most celebrated is the Chronicle of Spain, written by Alfonso the Wise. It starts with the creation of the world, and ends with the death of Alfonso's father, St. Ferdinand. It contains all the time-honored traditions of the country, as well as exact historical truth. The story of the Cid is supposed to be taken from this work.

From the time of Alfonso the Wise to the accession of Charles V (or from the thirteenth century to the sixteenth), Spain was flooded by romantic chronicles. The most celebrated is that of Don Roderick, or an account of the reign of King Roderick in the eighth century, the conquest of the country by the Moors, and the efforts to wrest it from them. On this chronicle Robert Southey has founded most of his poem of Roderic the Last of the Goths. Whether resting on truth or fable, these old records struck their roots deep down in the hearts of the people; and their romance, their chivalry, their antique traditions, and their varied legends, form a rich deposit from which all the nations of Europe have drawn material for their own literature. It was not until the fourteenth century that the romances of chivalry--known in France two centuries earlier in the stories of Arthur and the Round Table, and the deeds of Charlemagne--found their way across the Pyrenees.

Spain, so essentially the land of knighthood, welcomed them eagerly, and speedily produced a number of like romances which were translated into French and became famous. The most celebrated is Amadis, written by de Lobeira, a Portuguese. Its sole purpose is to set forth the type of a perfect knight, sans peur et sans reproche. Amadis is an imaginative character; but he is the first of a long line of doers of knightly deeds, culminating in Don Quixote, whose adventures have charmed and delighted the Spaniards, as well as the men of other nations.

Provencal literature began to have an influence on the Spanish in 1113, after the crown of Provence had been transferred from Arles to Barcelona by the marriage of the then Provencal heiress to Beranger, Count of Barcelona. This introduction of the Provencal literature into northeastern Spain had a beneficial result on the two literatures, fusing them into a more vigorous spirit.

Spain had always maintained the closest relations with the See of Rome, and numerous Spanish students were educated at the Italian Universities, hence the Italian literature had some influence on the Spanish, more lasting as a whole than the effects of Provencal literature. From 1407 to 1454 King John II tried to form an Italian school in Spain, gathering around him a poetical court. This Italian influence extended into the sixteenth century. Diego de Mendoza, during the reign of Charles V wrote a clever satirical prose work called Lazarillo de Tormes, which became the foundation of a class of fiction of which Gil Blas, by Le Sage, is the best known and most celebrated example.

Except for the Cid, Spain had no historical narrative poems of any account, and her prose historical works, especially on the discovery and conquest of America, are of a purely local character, and had no influence outside of Spain. The beginning of the eighteenth century saw the accession to the throne of Philip V, a grandson of Louis XIV; and this brought a strong French influence into the country, which for a time dominated the national literature.

A new poetical system founded on Boileau was introduced by Luzan in his Art of Poetry; but it did not seem to bring about any real advance in literature; and it was not until Spain threw off this foreign yoke, that any revival in her literature took place. It is due to a monk, Benito Feyjoo, in the middle of the eighteen century that a renaissance in Spanish literature took place. Feyjoo, a devout Catholic, labored to bring to light scientific truths, and to show how they harmonized with the true Catholic spirit. In the same century Isla, a Jesuit, undertook with entire success, to purify the Spanish pulpit, which had become lowered both in style and tone. His history of Friar Gerund, which slightly resembles Don Quixote, aimed a blow at bombastic oratory, causing it soon to die out. Proverbs which Cervantes had styled "short sentences drawn from long experience," have always been a distinctive Spanish product, and can be traced back to the earliest ages of the country. No fewer than 24,000 have been collected, and many more circulate among the lower classes which have not been recorded in writing.


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