Beside the River Sar

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Beside the River Sar

by Rosalía de Castro


A collection of poems set primarily in the Galician countryside of northwestern Spain; published in Spanish (as En las orillas del Sar) in 1884, in English in 1937.


In a series of intimate, lyrical poems, the author explores personal experiences, the regional landscape, and character and identity in the Galician countryside, as well as larger questions of religion, spirituality, and social injustice.

Events in History at the Time of the Poems

The Poems in Focus

For More Information

Rosalía de Castro was born in 1837 in the northwestern region of Spain known as Galicia, where she lived much of her life. As the child of an unwed mother, she resided for most of her youth with various members of her extended family until she was finally reunited with her mother in 1852 in Santiago de Compostela, the city of her birth. One of her first collections of poetry, To My Mother, was written and published privately in response to her mother’s death in 1862. Though her formal education—she studied French, drawing, music, and acting—was limited, Castro showed an aptitude for writing in her early years. After moving to Madrid at the age of 19, she published her first collection of poetry, The Flower. During her brief period of residence in Madrid, she also married the young Galician writer and critic Manuel Murguía, an admirer of her work who would later be instrumental in its publication and, perhaps more importantly, in its promotion after her death. The couple returned to Galicia to raise six children, the youngest of whom died in infancy. It was from her home in Galicia, amid considerable poverty and domestic hardship (most scholars agree the marriage was not a particularly happy one for either spouse) that Castro completed most of her writing, which includes five novels and five collections of poetry, as well as several shorter pieces. She wrote two of her poetry collections, Galician Songs (1863) and New Leaves (1880) in Gallego, the native language of the region, rather than in Castilian Spanish, as part of a general revival of the Galician cultural heritage that was taking place in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In 1884, one year before the poet’s death, she published Beside the River Sar, a loose collection of poems written over a considerable time span. Most of them untitled, the poems represent her intimate, lyrical reflections on themes ranging from the beauty and power of nature, to religion, justice, reality and illusion, and death. Though the content stems from personal reflections, the poems reflect shifting cultural attitudes, especially to religion and politics, as well as longstanding regional tensions in late-nineteenth-century Spain.

Events in History at the Time of the Poems

Revolution, republic and restoration

Rosalía de Castro’s published writings cover a relatively short span of time, roughly three decades, but they correspond chronologically to several events of major importance in Spanish history. While Castro does not generally comment directly on political events and concerns in Beside the River Sar, it is important to consider the general political and cultural climate of Spain at the time of its publication, since the broad-ranging results of political and cultural reform of the era colored and shaped her experiences, perspective, and artistic vision.

The nineteenth century in Spain was the scene of ongoing tensions between conflicting political ideologies. While the nation was slow to adopt the democratic ideals that took root in other parts of Europe and in America in the late eighteenth century, by the early nineteenth century Spain began moving toward the idea of a constitutional monarchy, one that would grant governmental representation to the populace without completely dismantling the monarchical system. In Spain the movement toward a constitutional government began during the War of Independence against revolutionary France (1808–14), but such a system of government was not actually possible until 1833, when Ferdinand VII died and his young daughter, Isabella II, ascended to the throne. Even then, the constitutional monarchy was achieved at considerable cost. Upon Isabella’s succession to the throne, the first of several civil wars known as the Carlist Wars (named for the arch-conservative, absolutist faction that initiated them) broke out in opposition to her legitimacy as her father’s successor. Isabella brought to power a liberal government controlled by prominent generals in the Spanish Army. The government under their control proved relatively unstable: in Isabella’s 45 years as queen, six different constitutions were drafted. Meanwhile, liberal reforms included a rather aggressive program of weakening the longstanding power of the Catholic Church in Spain, largely through the appropriation and redistribution of land and property owned by the Church.

Isabella’s reign was brought to an end by the Glorious Revolution of 1868, led by various prominent military figures such as General Juan Prim. Isabella was exiled to France, and the rebels replaced her with Amadeo of Savoy, the son of the Italian king. After a brief rule, Amadeo abdicated, unable to control the political tensions and intrigues that still plagued the nation. His abdication set the stage for a short-lived experiment in secular, democratic government known as the First Republic (1873–74). Unstable from its inception (in only 22 months there were four different presidents), and facing fierce opposition both from another Carlist War and from rising anarchist activity in the South, this government was ultimately brought down by the powerful military in an effort to restore order to the nation.

With the end of the First Republic in 1874, the Bourbon monarchy came back into power under Isabella II’s son, Alfonso XII. The country returned to constitutional monarchy, albeit in a more moderate form than the one that existed under his mother’s reign. While the new government did ostensibly restore a semblance of order to a divided society, it did not put a stop to the many underlying tensions that had intensified over the course of decades. Although Rosalía de Castro did not examine specific political events in her poetry, it is important to recognize that the political atmosphere within which she lived and wrote was one of both promise and disillusionment, of shifting ideologies, and of relative uncertainty. The instability of the central government invigorated alternative political movements and also intensified regional cultural identities, as reflected in many of the poems in Beside the River Sar.

Liberalism, secularization, and Krausism

In the wake of far-reaching political and cultural change, Spain as a nation saw a general shift in the nineteenth century toward a more liberal and secular society than had been the traditional norm. The liberal reforms of several decades created a plurality of political voices and ideologies in what became a reestablished social order. An important and influential element in the latter half of the nineteenth century was the introduction of the liberal philosophy of Krausism, imported into Spain by the influential Madrid scholar Julian Sanz del Río, who became acquainted with the doctrines of the German philosopher Karl Christian Friedrich Krause while studying in Germany on a government scholarship. The main thrust of Krausist doctrine, as interpreted by Sanz del Río, is that man is meant to be a harmonious compound of nature and spirit and thus should strive to achieve maximum harmony within himself and with the rest of humanity. The philosophy is often referred to as a form of “pantheistic idealism,” stemming from its view that the world and all it contains exists within, rather than apart from, the “higher synthesis” known as God (Lipp, p. 25). Stressing moral perfection through a rational knowledge of God, Krausism can be considered “less a question of ideas than of an attitude toward life,” from which “emerged a lay spiritualism with rigid principles and a faith in education which fired the men of the First Republic” (Vilar, p. 81). By the 1880s, the Krausists had initiated a program of educational reform far different from the traditional system controlled by the Catholic Church, encompassing “projects, excursions, coeducation, a passion for nature study and a preference for biology and sociology” (Vilar, p. 82). The rational character of Krausism provided “a religious alternative to Catholicism [sic]” (Hennessy, p. 79), suggesting that “faith that is blind and rejects reason can only lead to the degradation of the human spirit” (Lipp, p. 24). This philosophy was met with much resistance from conservative Catholics in Spain, who saw the new philosophical system as a threat to their traditional authority in Spanish society. Indeed, Krausism is representative of widespread anticlerical sentiment among late-nineteenth-century Spanish liberals. Another expression of this sentiment can be found, for example, in the writings of Benito Pérez Galdós. His novel Doña Perjecta (1876) alludes to the repressive and intolerant nature of the Catholic Church in the face of liberal reforms. Though the Church regained much of its authority during the Bourbon Restoration, these anticlerical trends were hard to reverse.

Krausism also advocated “political, social and intellectual freedoms”; its followers were opposed to “the intervention of the church in civic affairs” and “the excessive power of the state, to the extent that it threatened the autonomy of the individual” (Lipp, p. 24). Most importantly, the movement offered a sense of “open-mindedness … essential to Spain’s political and cultural rejuvenation” and unseen prior to this era (Lipp, p. 42).

In general, the traditionally conservative and religious character of Spanish society began to shift toward a more progressive and secular one in the late nineteenth century:

Catholic control over Spanish thought progressively lost strength over the course of the century. The abolition of the Inquisition, the disentailment of Church lands, the increasing—though still far from total—secularization of education, the growing calls for religious tolerance and separation of church and state, the intellectual prestige of the liberal Krausist movement as well as the religious indifference of the urban working class reflect a breakdown of religious unity.

(Bretz, pp. 3–4)

In the face of these significant sociocultural changes it is not surprising that many of Castro’s poems in Beside the River Sar exhibit a sense of disillusionment with systems of “justice,” both human and divine, secular and spiritual. Such is the case in the following brief poem from Beside the River Sar:

Human justice! I search for you only to find
 that you are a glorious “promise”
which is always denied by “deeds.”
In anguish, I ask myself
if divine justice even exists
since sin takes but a moment
     and horrid penance
     lasts as long as Hell.
          (Castro, Poems, p. 183)

“This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”

“This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”


Galicia is a rather unique region of Spain. Situated on the northwestern Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula, its landscape is lush and green, and its rolling hills and valleys present a sharp contrast to the country’s central plateau, in its early history, before the birth of Christ, Galicia, unlike other regions of Spain, was inhabited by Celts, and to this day one can visit remnants of ancient Celtic villages along its coastline and hear traces of this heritage in the folk music, which, to name one such trace, relies heavily on the bagpipe (la gaita).


Rosalía de Castro is generally considered to be a post-Romantic poet. This is a label that is applied in order to distinguish her from an earlier generation of Spanish Romantic poets, best represented by José de Espronceda (1810–42), who tended to write in a more exalted, passionate tone and created memorable, highly subversive characters (in the vein of British poet Lord Byron). Examples are Espronceda’s unyielding, self-indulgent pirate and the arrogant, womanizing “student” of Salamanca, their purpose being to explore the often dark and libertine character of the Romantic vision, which stressed the liberty of the individual over the demands of social order, and encouraged the uninhibited exploration of the diversity of human emotions and the internal reality of the individual. Poets like Castro began to write in a more lyrical and understated tone, though she continued to emphasize the individual self and to feature the full range of her intimate and often unusual emotional experiences. “Simple they are and brief she says of her poems, but such simplicity can be deceptive (Castro, p. 3). Two of Castro’s contemporary translators suggest that her poetic style consists of a “personal, intimate, and suggestive lyricism which is imbued with melancholy and yearning” while her first translator credits her with “utilizing] rare lines and combinations of lines” and “divest [ing] herself of the traditional Hispanic magniloquence” (Aldaz and Gantt in Castro, Poems, p. 6; Morley in Sar, p. ix). In other words, Castro was divesting herself of a prevailing emphasis on pre-established, often erudite poetic forms and structures and a preference for the grandiose over the mundane that characterize much of Spain’s poetic tradition. Through her rhythmic experimentation and intimate, understated use of the language, Castro forged an innovative style within the Spanish poetic tradition.

The Poems in Focus

“This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”

“This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”

“This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”


While Rosalía de Castro’s novels were written in Spanish, Beside the River Sar is her only major collection of poetry written in Spain’s official national language. (Two other minor collections, The Flower and To My Mother, were also written in Spanish.) Her other poetry collections were written in Gallego, the regional language of Galicia, which draws on the forms and rhythms of its oral traditions.

Galicia’s language, which resembles Portuguese, has an illustrious history dating back to the Middle Ages. Medieval lyrics, among them those of Alfonso el Sabio, were written in Galician-Portuguese, probably the earliest literary language of the Iberian Peninsula. By the fifteenth century, however, Castiiian had become the dominant literary language of Spain, and Galician was relegated to everyday usage, surviving in purely oral form.

(Aldaz and Gantt in Castro, Poems, pp. 2–3)

At the time of their publication, Rosalía’s Galician collections were the first full-length texts in Galician to be printed in several centuries.

“This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”

“This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”

“This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”

“This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”


Castro’s poems are of particular interest as a type of historical document evoking a very real experience at the time Beside the River Sar was published. While they reflect the Romantic preference for lyricism and the subjective expression of feelings and experiences, they bring these artistic tendencies to bear upon a situation of social import for the poet and her fellow Galicians. As a traditionally rural and relatively poor region of Spain, Galicia lost many of its residents to emigration in the latter half of the nineteenth century as the nation made a slow transition toward a more industrial economy. A study published in 1909 laments the emigration, “that terrible wound that is exhausting Galicia.” Highlighted in the study are a tradition of economic stagnation, misuse of resources, lack of effective agriculture techniques, overpopulation, unequal distribution of wealth, and a system of excessive taxation, all of which resulted in mass emigration not only to other parts of Spain and to Portugal, but also to the Americas. Ricardo Mella, a political activist and anarchist of the late nineteenth century cited statistics in 1885 (only a year after Beside the River Sar was published) “to the effect that twenty thousand Gallegans emigrated annually to South America” (Meakin, p. 172). This situation was a harsh economic and political reality for the entire region. Despite its strong sense of regional identity, Galicia in the latter half of the nineteenth century was a population facing economic hardship and a loss of morale, realities that find their way into many of the poems in Beside the River Sar.

“This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”

“This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”


It is somewhat of a challenge to discuss the immediate critical reception of Beside the River Sar, largely because the collection, like its author, was initially marginalized from the mainstream of literary culture in Spain in the late nineteenth century. There is a general consensus among scholars of Spanish literature that Castro’s reputation grew slowly, and that while she was an almost immediate success in her native region of Galicia, and particularly when she began publishing poetry in Galician, she was generally either ignored or harshly criticized by the literary establishment of the time, which had its center in Madrid. Emilia Pardo Bazán, an influential novelist of the period who was also a native of Galicia (see House of Ulloa , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times), was particularly critical of Castro, referring to her poetry as “sickly complaints” (Pardo Bazán in Stevens, p. 34).

Shelley Stevens argues that the first wave of criticism regarding Castro’s work, shortly after her death, was primarily headed by her husband and other members of the Royal Galician Academy. These writers, she suggests, paint her as the “embodiment of the Galician soul and as a symbol of virtue and saintliness. They mention pain and suffering only in the context of a selfless martyrdom” (Stevens, p. 23).

In an essay titled “Rosalía de Castro,” the Spanish writer Azorín “complains about the exclusion of her poetry from anthologies and the unmerited critical neglect of her work” (Aldaz and Gantt in Poems, p. 7). It was primarily due to the attention paid to her by Spanish writers of subsequent decades, such as Azorín, Unamuno, and Antonio Machado, that Rosalía de Castro would become firmly established in the canon of Spanish Peninsular literature. More recently, a number of scholars such as Shelley Stevens, Susan Kirkpatrick, and Catherine Davies have examined Castro’s poetry in light of contemporary feminist theory in an attempt to revise the image created by earlier critics, mostly male, of the poet as a modest and abnegated female writer. These studies generally see Castro as a strong figure working within but ultimately transcending the societal constraints placed upon women writers of her time.

—James Wojtaszek

For More Information

Bretz, Mary Lee. Voices, Silences and Echoes: A Theory of the Essay and the Critical Reception of Naturalism in Spain. London: Tamesis, 1992.

Castro, Rosalía de. Beside the River Sar. Trans. S. Griswold Morley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1937.

_____. Poems. Ed. and trans. Anna-Marie Aldaz, Barbara N. Gantt, and Anne C. Bromley. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Dever, Aileen. The Radical Insufficiency of Human Life: The Poetry of R. de Castro and J. A. Silva. London: McFarland, 2000.

Hennessy, C. A. M. The Federal Republic in Spain. Oxford: Clarendon, 1962.

Kirkpatrick, Susan. Las Románticas: Women Writers and Subjectivity in Spain, 1835–1850. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

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

Lipp, Solomon. Francisco Giner de los Ríos: A Spanish Socrates. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1985.

Meakin, Annette M. B. Galicia: The Switzerland of Spain. London: Methuen, 1909.

Smith, Angel. Historical Dictionary of Spain. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1996.

Stevens, Shelley. Rosalía de Castro and the Galician Revival. London: Tamesis, 1986.

Vilar, Pierre. Spain: A Brief History. Trans, by Brian Tate. Oxford: Pergamon, 1967.