The Infinite Passion (Rimas)
The Infinite Passion (Rimas)
by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer
THE LITERARY WORK
Poems set in mid-1800s Spain; written in the late 1850s to early 1860s; published in Spanish (as Rirnas [lyrics]) in 1871; in English in 1924.
In a series of lyric poems, the speaker explores love, longing, disillusionment, and death, as well as the nature of poetry and the role of poet. The verse represents an unsatisfying search for the ideal, often closely tied to the search for romantic love.
Born in Seville in 1836, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer was the son of painter José Dominguez Bécquer, who died when Gustavo was five. Orphaned at an early age, he was raised by his godmother, a pious woman who apparently hoped he would be a merchant but nonetheless provided him with a good education. At 17, Bécquer boarded a train to Madrid in pursuit of a literary career. He founded various publications, but all of them failed. Despite these setbacks, Bécquer managed to eke out an existence as a freelance journalist and translator. Between 1860-68, he contributed poems and stories to the newspaper El Contemporáneo and worked as a government censor. In 1868 Bécquer produced an edition of his best pieces, collected under the title Book of the Sparrows (Libro de los gorriones), purchased by the Prime Minister González Bravo (sometimes written “Brabo”) but then lost when the Prime Minister’s house was raided during the Revolution of 1868. Plagued by ill health and an unsuccessful marriage to his physician’s daughter, Bécquer separated from his wife in 1868 and, with his two young children, set up house in Toledo with his older brother Valeriano Bécquer, a painter. During this period, Bécquer became editor of La Ilustración de Madrid and rewrote his own lost poems, relying partly on memory, partly on rough drafts and previously published versions. Despite these achievements, poverty and illness took their toll on him as well as his brother: Valeriano Bécquer died in September 1870, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer three months later. Before his passing, he asked his friend Ferráran to burn some of his writings, primarily letters, probably because he felt they would dishonor him. Bécquer had led something of a double life, contributing articles to the satiric newspaper Gil Blas under a pseudonym, a common practice during his day. His authorship of these articles was revealed only after his death. Their satiric nature is far different from that of the lyrical pieces most often associated with Bécquer. In 1871, Bécquer’s friends published a collection of his writings in two volumes. The Rimas, a series of over 70 poems, are perhaps his best-known work, owing to their delicate treatment of timeless themes—love, longing, the nature of poetry itself—and the simple, musical lyricism that was Bécquer’s particular contribution to Spanish literature. Aside from his poetry, he composed over two dozen legends (leyendas) based on medieval lore and other sources. His works are replete with a range of emotions, an apropos quality in the production of a pre-eminent figure of Spanish Romanticism.
The rise of Romanticism
Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, most of Europe was dominated by a philosophical and aesthetic movement that became known as Romanticism. While no single, authoritative definition of the term is likely to be formulated, Romanticism as an aesthetic project is associated with such characteristics as imagination, emotion, spirituality, intuition, sentimentality, and subjectivity. Philosophically, the movement represents a fundamental shift in the perception of the self, as well as its relationship to external experience, meaning its relationship to nature, God, and the universe. This shift can be viewed largely as a rejection of eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought—which privileged reason as the road to happiness and human progress. In contrast, the Romantics favored subjective experience and the exploration of the irrational.
During the eighteenth century, intellectuals and artists had subscribed to the neoclassical school of thought, which emphasized the ideals and standards of ancient Greece and Rome. Poems and plays were judged by reference to their forms, their mastery of rhyme and meter, and their adherence to classical dramatic unities. Intellect and reason held sway over imagination and emotion.
The Neoclassicism of eighteenth-century Europe represented a mind-set in which the human being was seen as part of a well-ordered universe, overseen by a deity whose existence had been reaffirmed by Cartesian logic. This philosophical sense of hierarchy and structure influenced the aesthetic principles of the era. The advent of Romanticism, however, reversed those standards, making the emotions the central criteria for evaluating a literary work.
Does the work evoke an overwhelming emotion of terror or of joy? Does it communicate the writer’s deepest passions and desires. Thus, the cleverness and sophistication of the well-balanced and reflective intellectual—the writer par excellence of the Age of Reason—give way to the wild and impassioned lyrics of the disordered, suffering, emotional genius.
(Stamm, p. 128)
In short, the Romantic’s rejection of a sense of reason and order, valued in the eighteenth century, generated a shift in perceptions about literature and its central role in the human experience.
As an aesthetic and philosophical influence, Romanticism originated in England—through the works of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats—and in Germany, where the main representatives included composers Richard Wagner and Ludwig von Beethoven and writers such as Johann Goethe and Heinrich Heine. By degrees, Romanticism reached France, Italy, and Spain, where it was most directly influenced by German models.
Romanticism in Spain
Spanish Romanticism is generally viewed as consisting of two distinct waves. In the first wave, roughly spanning the 1830s to the 1850s, Writers such as Mariano Jose de Larra and José de Espronceda figure prominently. The second phase of Spanish Romanticism, often called Post-Romanticism, is characterized by writers such as Gaspar, Núńez de Arce, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer and the Galician poet Rosalia de Castro. (See Beside the River Sar , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times.)
The first wave of the movement contained a strong political element, a direct response to conditions marked by the repressive government of Ferdinand VII. In the Spanish War of Independence (1808–14), the Spaniards ousted Joseph Bonaparte, who had been placed on the Spanish throne through the influence of Napoleon. During the war, Ferdinand VII, the legitimate Bourbon heir to the throne, lived in exile in France. Upon his return to Spain, the king promptly reversed the liberal democratic reforms that had been achieved during the course of the war, most notably the creation of the nation’s first constitution, and imposed a government based on traditional notions of monarchy and conservative Catholicism.
The liberal-traditional controversy affected romanticism, some of whose practitioners called for “a regenerative and revolutionary romanticism which proclaimed liberalism in politics and advocated Europeanizing Spain. They asserted that traditionalism was the basic cause of the nation’s decadence’ (Díaz-Plaja, p. 244). Issues of national identity and political freedom dominated the first wave of Spanish Romanticism. Consequently, in this phase, the emphasis on creative powers and imaginative faculties typical of Romanticism in other cultures is less prominent, though not totally absent. The Spanish poet José de Espronceda, for one, overtly celebrates the freedom of the individual in works like “The Song of the Pirate,” and both he and the essayist Larra explore themes of human subjectivity in a rather innovative way.
Bécquer, a figure of the second wave of Spanish Romanticism, represents a different approach to literature. His poems are emotional, visionary, and highly subjective, written with a simple lyricism that is in sharp contrast to the energetic and exorbitant tone of first-phase Romantic writers like Espronceda. In general, Post-Romanticism features a more introspective exploration and expression of the self, of the diverse and often intangible emotional experiences of which the human being is capable. Post-Romantic texts are written in a more subdued tone, using simple language that often explores complex emotions and concepts. These characteristics surface in the poetry of Bécquer. He was in these ways an innovative voice in Spanish literature, as well as a precursor to modern modes of thinking and writing in Spain and elsewhere.
Isabella II and the Revolution of 1868
Although Bécquer’s poetry ignores the social and political events of the time to concentrate on an individual’s dreams and emotions, contemporary politics did, in fact, have a significant impact on the fate of Bécquer’s writings. Since 1833, Spain had been ruled by Queen Isabella II, who had acceded to the throne at the age of three. Isabella’s mother, Maria Cristina of Naples, and General Baldamero Espartero governed successively as regents until the young queen came of age in 1843.
THE EVOLVING CONCEPT OF THE SELF
While the individual or “self” plays a prominent role in Romantic and Post-Romantic poetry, it also becomes a problematic element for the writer of the period. In the eighteenth-century Enlightenment view, largely influenced by the French philosopher René Descartes, the self is presumed to be the basis for one’s experience of reality. It is privileged as the source of reason and certainty in the world. Though commonly explored and exalted in Romantic and Post-Romantic writing, the self is not necessarily viewed with the same sense of certainty shown in the Enlightenment By the early nineteenth century, the German philosopher G. W. F, Hegel had initiated a shift in the concept of the self. Hegel spoke about its active interrelationship to the world, introducing terms like “empathy” and “praxis,” which placed the self in a dynamic of action and interaction with external reality.
The self only becomes self through action. That which is externalized is then internalized, and the self that becomes itself in interaction with other selves and in the projection onto the world of its inwardness reintegrates that which flowed out to reach its next stage of development. No longer abstract thinker, detached observer, patched-together identity, grammatical fiction, or prerequisite of any possible experience, this self unfolds, acts, creates, develops, struggles, and finally identifies with the results of its actions, creations, developments and struggles.
(Levin, p. 45)
Hegel’s approach leads to a more dynamic and problematic view of the self, a view visible in the often paradoxical and pessimistic images of the poet in Bécquer’s verse. By the late nineteenth century, the rise of positivism, a more pragmatic view of a person as a rational entity capable of resolving social problems through scientific reason, would reassert the integrity and certainty of the self. But the concept would later be probed anew by many twentieth-century artists and thinkers.
Political unrest and a series of uprisings marred the years of Isabella’s personal rule (1843–68). Dominating her government were military politicians—particularly, General Ramón Maria Narváez and General Leopoldo O’Donnell; it changed hands approximately 60 times during her reign, each time exacerbating the nation’s political instability. Meanwhile, liberal opposition to the authoritarian policies of the royal regime continued to grow, especially in light of Isabella’s obstinate refusal to admit progressive parties to power. Foolish decisions in her personal life also undermined Isabella’s popularity with her subjects. Although she had married her cousin Don Francisco de Asis, heir to the duke of Cadiz, in 1846, the royal couple set up separate households and the promiscuous Isabella had many indiscreet love affairs, mostly with army officers. Paradoxically, she at the same time fell under the influence of religious fanatics, including Sor Patrocinio, a nun, and Father Antonio Claret, a Catalan evangelical.
Between 1863 and 1866, student demonstrations and clashes with the soldiers flared up throughout Spain, and in June 1866, a full-scale attempt at mutiny—at the San Gil Barracks near the royal palace in Madrid—led to bloody street fighting and the loss of over 200 out of an estimated 500 mutineers. An additional 76 were executed by firing squad. The deaths of O’Donnell in 1867 and Narváez in 1868 left Isabella without a strong military ally, on top of which the administration of her new prime minister, Luis González Bravo, was plagued from the outset by economic problems. Attempting to balance the budget, González Bravo reduced military expenditures, alienating both the army and navy, and posted the more political generals to distant sites in the Canary and the Balearic Islands. In defiance of these policies, liberal military forces and progressive political parties banded together against the monarchy. Led by General Francisco Serrano and General Juan Prim, rebel troops defeated the government’s army and in September 1868 they marched into Madrid, where the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy was proclaimed. Receiving the news at San Sebastian, Isabella fled with her family to France, where she lived in exile until her death in 1904.
While none of these events are chronicled in Bécquer’s Rimas, the poet’s life was nonetheless significantly affected by these shifts in political power. Appointed as a censor of novels—a position obtained for him by his friend and patron, prime minister González Bravo—during Isabella’s reign, Bécquer afterward found himself without a position and, consequently, without income. Even more significantly, Bécquer lost the first manuscript of his poems, which González Bravo had purchased, when the prime minister’s house was ransacked during the Revolution of 1868. As noted, the poet reconstructed his lost poems based on memory and on earlier manuscripts. Eventually, after his death, his friends would arrange and publish the version of the Rimas that exists today.
Bécquer’s observance of the goings-on at Isabella II’s court, and the unstable and hypocritical nature of her government, may have affected his often pessimistic, skeptical attitude toward love and the search for the ideal. In 1986 an anonymous party offered some watercolors to Madrid’s National Library—erotic watercolors of 1868–69. Attached to the pseudonym “SEM,” the watercolors have been attributed to the Bécquer brothers. The pictures satirize Queen Isabella, her indiscreet love affairs, and prominent personages in her court. Caricatured are the king, Sor Patrocinio, Father Claret, and Bécquer’s own benefactor, González Bravo, as well as the Carlists, among others. In certain images, the queen and her family are depicted in a ridiculous vein, either as circus performers or dancing the Can-Can. In many of the prints, there are rather graphic pictures of the queen having sexual relations with government ministers and religious figures, and of the king sprouting horns (a sign that he has been cuckolded) or being sodomized by Father Claret. While sexual iconography, anticlericalism, and antimonarchical sentiments were somewhat common in Europe around 1860, these views were expressed with somewhat more hesitancy in Spain, given its cultural and, at times, official censorship. The prints attributed to SEM, indicative of their authors’ liberal politics and scandalous enough to merit publication under a pseudonym, provide useful insight into the nature of the conflict between liberalism and conservatism that dominated much of nineteenth-century Spanish politics. They meanwhile broaden a reader’s perspective on the sociopolitical context within which Bécquer composed his Rimas.
The evolution of nineteenth-century society
By the latter half of the nineteenth century, Spanish society was undergoing significant change. Most notably, the period saw increasing industrialization and urbanization, which led to considerable migration and subsequent population growth in cities such as Madrid. The growth of cities in this period naturally had important effects on social relations, cultural production, and the general collective consciousness of the times. According to the historian Eric Lampard, this general trend in population growth led to “a higher degree of segregation of work, residence, class, occupation, and ethnicity than had existed in the early modern cities or colonial towns” (Lampard in Ugarte, p. 13). On one hand, the changing urban environment fostered the sense of alienation and desperation commonly associated with the modern city, which sometimes leads to suicide. On the other hand, it fostered, at least in the artistic sphere, the exaltation and exploration of the individual—often marginalized and rebellious, sensual and self-absorbed—central to Romanticism and, in the case of Bécquer, to Post-Romanticism. In Spain, this heightened sense of individuality relates as well to the continued growth of liberal politics and democratic ideals in the last half of the nineteenth century, albeit in the face of strong resistance from conservative political groups.
The growth of the cities created both new problems and new opportunities. In the arena of public health, sanitation was generally poor and outbreaks of tuberculosis and venereal diseases became more common; Bécquer himself would contract syphilis. Alcohol and drug addiction grew. A need for escapism led to a rise in the consumption not only of minor stimulants like tea and coffee, but also to an increased consumption of liquor and opium. At the same time, the growing urban population led to the creation of new communities, such as the bohemian artistic community to which Bécquer belonged. It also created a growing population of readers, a
Dynastic conflicts had surrounded the 1843 accession of the child-queen Isabella II, who was the eldest daughter of Ferdinand VII and Maria Cristina of Naples. The king’s younger brother, Don Carlos Maria Isidro, disputed his niece’s claim on the basis of the Salic law—passed by Philip V in 1713—that barred women from the throne. Although female inheritance had been reinstated in 1789 by the Cortes (Spanish parliament), Charles IV, who was king at that time, had not published that new law. Thus, most Spaniards continued to regard the Salic law as the law of the land until 1830, when the 1789 decree was finally made public. Taking issue with the timing, Don Carlos insisted that this decree was put into effect only to prevent him from claiming the throne. In 1833, he declared himself Charles V; his supporters became known as Carlists. Adherents to the Carlist cause included staunch Catholics—many of whom inhabited the Basque and Navarrese regions of northern Spain—and political conservatives who feared the small but present liberal element in King Ferdinand’s courts. During the early years of the First Carlist War (1833–38), the Carlists enjoyed several military victories and established their own state, which extended from Galicia on the west to Catalonia on the east and as far south as lower Aragon. Rejection by the Spanish propertied classes, which had profited from liberal confiscation of Church lands, weakened the Carlist cause, however. The revolt failed to spread beyond the north and a truce, the Convention of Vergara, was established in 1838. Peasant unrest after the marriage of Isabella II fueled the Second Carlist War in 1848, but the uprising was quelled a year later. Not until Isabella II was deposed in 1868 did the Carlist movement become fully reactivated. The Third Carlist War (1870–76), growing out of uprisings in the Basque provinces, Navarre, and parts of Catalonia, contributed to the collapse of Spain’s first republic and the restoration of Isabella’s son, Alfonso XII, to the throne in 1874. Two years later, the king mounted a large-scale offensive against the Carlists that prompted many of them to flee to France.
phenomenon that gave rise to a more extensive and rapid system of print journalism. This development, in turn, allowed writers like Bécquer to be both “artists” in the traditional sense and professionals who could make a more pragmatic living at the craft.
It has been argued that Bécquer’s 76 rimas form a loosely woven narrative. Certainly, the speaker’s situation and state of mind undergo a series of changes from the first to the last poem. However, it is important to keep in mind that the ordering of the poems in the collection was done by Bécquer’s friends after his death and does not necessarily represent the order in which the poems were written or the order in which the poet had placed them. It is more accurate to view the succession of poems as a reflection of the friends’ vision of the Romantic trajectory—from discovery of the ideal, to loss, to despair. In this sense, the collection can be regarded as a reflection of Romanticism’s general vision of life rather than an attempt by the poet to construct a linear narrative of his experience. At the same time, the rimas also seem to convey the complex process of self-exploration typical of the Romantic poet, through which the self occupies a series of diverse positions and perspectives and becomes more multifaceted and problematic. This is an indicator of Bécquer’s incipient modernity in terms of the poetic process. Robert Havard suggests that one of the defining contributions of Bécquer’s poetry is his “modern reflexivity,” that is, his “acute awareness of his medium, and with it, his vocational urge as a poet to discover himself—his own Self—within that medium, his will to unearth meaning by virtue of his activity as a poet” (Havard, p. 3). Rima 2 conveys the poetic speaker’s sense of unsettled subjectivity, concluding with these lines: “Such am I, by chance / In the world, unknowing / Whence come I, nor whither / My steps are going” (Bécquer, The Infinite Passion, 2. 17–20)
Throughout the collection, the poetic voice of the rimas is consumed with an ecstatic yearning to create poetry, to “[w]rite it in words that were at the same time / Sighing and laughter, color and notes’ (Infinite Passion, 1. 7–8). The speaker’s love of poetry and the creative process affect his perceptions of nature and fuel his dreams of a poetic muse who generally takes the form of an imaginary woman: “’What is poesy?’ you ask me, gazing / Into mine eyes with your eyes blue. / What is poesy? And do you truly ask me? / Poesy … are you” (Infinite Passion, 21. 1–4).
Other poems in the collection represent more directly the relationships of flesh-and-blood human beings, often ultimately leaving the speaker to brood bitterly over the end of a romance and his lingering devotion to a woman he now sees as unworthy. In the well-known Rima 53, the speaker turns from passions of the mind to passions of the flesh, specifically the unhappy resolution of his romance with an unnamed woman. The speaker evokes the cyclical changes of the natural world in his bittersweet farewell to his beloved, describing how once again swallows will nest on her balcony and honeysuckle bloom in her garden. But the particular swallows and blossoms that witnessed the course of their love affair are, like her love for him, gone forever. The poetic speaker assures the one who has left him that she will never again be loved in the same way as he has loved her:
From Rima 53
Burning words of love will come
Again full oft within thine ears to sound;
Perchance thy heart will even be aroused
From its sleep profound;
But mute and prostrate and absorbed,
As God is worshipped in His holy fane,
As I have loved thee … undeceive thyself:
Thou wilt not be thus loved again!
(Infinite Passion, 53. 17–24)
At other moments, the poetic voice reflects upon the nature of death, speculating upon the loneliness of the dead and the possibility of an afterlife. After beholding the sculpted effigy of a beautiful woman on a tomb, he finds consolation in contemplating his own eventual death: “Oh, what love is serene as that of death! / What sleep so tranquil as the sepulcher!” (Infinite Passion, 76. 43–44).
The nature of poetry and the role of the poet
Havard suggests that “[n] ot until Bécquer had poetry been the subject of poetry, at least not so conspicuously and at least not in Spain” (Havard, p. 2). Likening him to the sixteenth-century mystic San Juan de la Cruz (see “Dark Night” and Other Poems , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times), Havard sees Bécquer as “a modern secular visionary” who “struggles openly and tormentedly with what in his first rima he calls ’el rebelde, mezquino id-ioma’ (’the rebellious, mean language’)” (Havard, p. 2). This exploration of the nature of poetry and the role of the poet becomes a central theme in Bécquer’s Rimas.
In Rima 7, the speaker, on beholding a dusty, abandoned musical instrument, imagines the songs imprisoned in its strings, waiting to be freed by the touch of “the master.” He compares the silent lute to the dormant poetic imagination, which—like the dead Biblical figure Lazarus—must be awakened by a greater power, a divine hand or voice, implying that this is one of the important functions of the poet.
In a shadowy nook of the chamber,
All covered with dust and mute—
Forgotten, perhaps by its master—
Was seen the lute.
What tones in its strings were sleeping,
As birds in the branches sleep,
Awaiting the master’s snowy hand
Its chords to sweep.
How oft, I thought, thus sleepeth
In the soul’s depths genius’ worth,
Like Lazarus waiting for a voice
To say, “Come forth!”
(Infinite Passion, 7. 1–12)
However, the relationship of the poet to the poem is not necessarily as simple as that of the master to his creation; it is not just an exercise in form or technique. Rima 4, another well-known piece from the collection, proclaims in its first stanza that “There may be no poets, but forever / Poesy will be” (Infinite Passion, 4.3–4). Again beginning with the image of the lute, suggesting the musical and intangible nature of poetry, the speaker suggests that the instrument will never be silenced, that poetry exists as a force of nature, independent of the creative hand of the poet. The poem goes on to enumerate a series of elements of human experience that, even in the absence of the poet, would still be the source of poetry.
The poetic speaker begins by evoking a series of natural elements: waves, sunlight, clouds, breezes, and aromas, suggesting these as basic elements of poetry. The speaker then goes on to invoke one of the fundamental tenets of the Romantic vision—the rejection of scientific reason in favor of the irrational and intangible, a powerful source of poetry in itself:
From Rima 4
As long as by science the well of life
Has not been found,
And in seas or in heavens an abyss remains
That men cannot sound;
While ignorant whither, but forward yet,
As long as one mystery remains for man,
Poesy will be!
(Infinite Passion, 4.13–20)
Finally, in Romantic fashion, the poem delves into the realm of emotional experiences such as joy, sorrow, hope, and memory, and suggests their importance to the nature of poetry: “As long as the heart and head battle still, Poesy will be!” (Infinite Passion, 4.27–28). Ultimately it is the experience of love and sensuality that marks the inspiration of true poetry:
As long as eyes mirror the tender gaze
Of other eyes;
As long as a sighing mouth still responds
To a mouth that sighs;
As long as two souls in a kiss can feel
As long as one beautiful woman is…
Poesy will be!
(Infinite Passion, 4.29–36)
Woman—the elusive ideal
Women figure prominently in Bécquer’s Rimas. Indeed, even from the first poem of the collection, which ostensibly addresses the mystery of poetry, the presence of a female other can be felt, since the poet ultimately intends to share the poem with her: “Vain the essay: no characters are there / That can contain it;—scarcely, O my own! / Clasping thy hands in my hands might I, / Hearing it, sing it to thee alone” (Infinite Passion, 1.9–12). The writing of poetry seems inextricably linked to the idea of woman, whether she be the one to which the poetic voice is addressed, the muse who inspires it, or the metaphorical representation of the ideal to which poetry aspires.
In nineteenth-century bourgeois culture, the ideal woman tended to be very feminine, devoted to her husband and children, skilled at running her household, and, above all, chaste. During Bécquer’s lifetime, women from most social classes married young—in their late teens to early 20s—and settled into lives of tranquil domesticity. Romanticism challenged this dutiful female image with a second, less respectable ideal: the woman who placed passion and love above social acceptance. Such a woman was more a literary figure than a reality, more the exception than the rule.
It is perhaps indicative of Bécquer’s airy Romanticism that the “ideal woman” in his poems is not a sweet domestic dove but a distant, often unattainable fantasy, not unlike those in the love poems of the Italian masters Petrarch and Dante Alighieri. The ongoing conflict between the ideal and the real fuels much of the interaction between the poetic voice and the female figures in Bécquer’s Rimas.
The nature of the female figures in the Rimas, and their relationships to the poetic speaker, vary widely throughout the collection. There are certainly a number of poems in which the speaker evokes the concrete romantic relationship, as in the case of the previously cited Rima 53, in which the speaker laments the loss of what was presumably a meaningful love. In Rima 55, he suggests a more fleeting interaction, which takes place amid an orgy, and the female figure is referred to as simply his “darling for the day” (Infinite Passion, 55.9). Rima 41 evokes a turbulent, unsuccessful emotional relationship that also hints at its sexual nature by means of phallic symbolism: “Thou wert the hurricane; I the lofty tower / That did defy its power: / Needs must thou spend thyself or shiver me! … / It could not be!” (Infinite Passion, 41.1–4).
In many cases in Bécquer’s Rimas, however, the speaker yearns not after any flesh-and-blood woman but after an elusive, intangible fantasy that somehow unites his love of poetry, his appreciation of nature, and his awareness of feminine charms. This fusion of woman with nature and poetry is in fact characteristic of Romantic literature. In the famous Rima 11, the speaker rejects first a woman of passion and then a woman of tenderness, in favor of a misty phantasm who baldly warns him, “I cannot love thee” :
“I am dark-tinted and ardent as fire,
I am the symbol of fervency;
My heart runneth over with joyous desire.
Searchest thou for me?”—No; not for thee.
“Pale is my brow and golden my tresses;
Endless felicity I can bestow;
I guard a treasure of rare tendernesses.
Callest thou for me?”—Not for thee; no.
“I am a dream, I am an impossible
Fantasy hollow of luster and gloom;
I am impalpable, I am intangible;
I cannot love thee.”—Oh, come thou; come!
(Infinite Passion 11.1–12)
The sentiments expressed in Rima 11 are reinforced in Rima 15 when the speaker describes his eternal pursuit of that bodiless ideal: “You, airy shadow, who, when I endeavor / Only to touch you, disappear ever / Like unto flame, like unto sound, / Like unto mist, like the murmur profound / Of the lake blue” (Infinite Passion, 15.7–11).
In Rima 27, the speaker’s preference for the ideal woman over the real one is manifested through his desire to keep his beloved in a state of slumber: “Awake, I tremble to behold thee, / But I am bold to gaze on thee, asleep; / So, spirit of my spirit, whilst thou slumb’rest / My watch o’er thee I keep” (Infinite Passion, 27.1–4). Throughout the poem, though the speaker finds beauty in his beloved in both her dreaming and wakened states, he invariably prefers her in the former, repeating the command “Sleep!” at the close of each stanza. This is reaffirmed in the concluding stanza as well: “Already at the balcony have I drawn / The curtains, to keep / Without the dawning’s wearying splendor, / Lest it awake thee” (Infinite Passion, 27. 36–39)
There are moments, however, when the ideal woman reveals herself as flawed, and the speaker reacts cynically at the recognition that there is a sometimes enormous distance between the ideal and the real, as in Rima 34. The speaker notes that the woman he observes “has light, and color, and perfume, / And line has she; / And form, engenderer of desires; expression, / The everlasting fount of poesy” (Infinite Passion, 34.13–16). However, his concluding comment, with its derogatory tone, reveals a recognition that the ideal is unattainable and artificial: “But she is stupid? … Bah! While, silent, she keeps / The secret, always / To me what she holds silent will be worth / More than all that anyone else can say” (Infinite Passion, 34.17–20).
At other moments further disillusionment sets in. In Rima 39, the speaker admits that he is aware that the female he idealizes is flawed, even as he ruefully accepts his continuing devotion to her:
Why tell me so? I know it: she is fickle,
Capricious, she is arrogant and vain;
Before true feeling from her heart would spring,
Water would gush forth from the sterile plain.
I know there is no fiber that responds
To love within her heart, a serpent’s lair:
That she is an inanimate statue … but …
She is so fair!”
(Infinite Passion 39.1–8)
In various poems placed near the end of the collection, thoughts of death and the afterlife preoccupy the poetic speaker. Ultimately, he undergoes an epiphany when he beholds the statue of “a lovely woman—/ A marvel of the chisel” lying on a Gothic tomb: “Quickened in my spirit / The thirst for infinity / And all the yearnings of this life for death, / To which the centuries but an instant be” (Infinite Passion, 76.33–36). The speaker thus finds a full range of
BÉCQUER IN LOVE
The prominence of the theme of love and the intense subjectivity in Bécquer’s poems lead to inevitable speculation on the poet’s own love life. Bécquer’s biographers are sharply divided on this issue but most agree that while living in Madrid, Bécquer fell in love with Julia Espin y Guillén. Daughter of the orchestra director at the Teatro Real and herself a successful opera singer, she may be the inspiration for his poems. The exact details of their relationship are unknown. One account relates that Bécquer often visited Julia’s residence but she openly rebuffed him; another maintains that Bécquer met Julia socially only a few times and was content merely to worship her from afar, like a medieval courtly lover. Certainly, Julia’s elevated social position (she was from a well-known family in social circles of the time) may have intimidated Bécquer, discouraging him from declaring his feelings in any direct fashion. Whatever the circumstances, Bécquer’s love remained unrequited. Julia eventually married an influential politician.
Not much more is known about Casta Esteban y Navarro, whom Bécquer married in 1861. From the province of Soria, she was the daughter of a country physician, a specialist in venereal diseases who had treated Bécquer in the past. (As noted earlier, Bécquer suffered from syphilis.) The marriage was apparently unhappy from the start, and the couple parted in 1868, Bécquer taking their two children with him. His wife, who seems to have had an affair, was pregnant with a third child; though recognized as Bécquer’s, the baby remained with her. Explanations for the failure of Bécquer’s marriage vary. Some sources argue that Casta did not understand Bécquer’s sensitive nature. Others trace the marital strife to friction between Casta and Bécquer’s beloved brother, Valeriano, who lived with the family. A third set speaks of Casta as an unfaithful wife, referring to the claims of Bécquer’s daughter Julia that her father was jealous of a former suitor of Casta’s, Esteban, whom Casta did marry shortly after Bécquer’s death. Whatever the explanation, all sources concur on the unhappiness of the marriage. How greatly this affected the content of his Rimas is matter of conjecture. Though not necessarily autobiographical, his own bittersweet loves no doubt influenced his poetic depiction of unhappiness in love.
emotional and subjective experience in the course of the Rimas—from loving the intangible, to desiring the physical, and, finally, to yearning after the infinite, all three of which are represented by women.
Sources and literary context
Many scholars and biographers have attempted to discern whether a particular woman provided Bécquer with the inspiration for some of the verse in Rimas. These specialists disagree as to what extent Bécquer’s own romantic experiences may have shaped those of the poetic speaker of his Rimas. While it is likely that Julia Espin y Guillén or even Casta, Bécquer’s own wife, provided some of the inspiration for the unhappy romantic threads in Rimas, his own words suggest that the often cruel beloved who spurns the speaker’s love is equally a product of his imagination. According to Bécquer, the women in his imaginative universe are a complex mix of the real and the ideal:
It costs me labor to determine what things I have dreamed and what things have happened to me. My affections are divided between the phantasms of my imagination and real personalities. My memory confuses the names and dates of women and days that have died or passed away with the days and women that have never existed save in my mind.
(Bécquer, Legends, Tales, and Poems, p. xxxv)
The question of poetic influences on Bécquer’s work poses another conundrum. Since none of Bécquer’s contemporaries or precursors in his native Spain appear to have written in the same poetic vein, he is often compared with other continental Romantics, such as the German poet Heinrich Heine and the French poet Alfred de Musset. It is unclear whether Bécquer read the works of either poet, although Heine’s verses, at least, had started appearing in Spanish in 1857.
BÉCQUER ON POETRY
Like many Romantics, Bécquer formulated distinct ideas about poetry and poetry’s purpose. In a prologo (prologue) to a collection of poems by his friend Augusto Ferrán y Forni6$, Bécquer wrote about two kinds of poetry: “There is a poetry which is magnificent and sonorous, the offspring of meditation and art, which adorns itself with all the pomp of language, moves along with a cadenced majesty…” (Legends, Tales, and Poems, p. xxxvi). He then described the second kind of poetry: it is “natural, rapid, terse” and “springs from the soul as an electric spark, which strikes our feelings with a word, and flees away” (Legends, Tales, and Poems, p. xxxvi).
Bare of artificiality, free within a free form, it awakens by the aid of one kindred idea the thousand others that sleep in the bottomless ocean of fancy. The first [kind of poetry] has an acknowledged value; it is the poetry of everybody. The second lacks any absolute standard of measurement; it takes the proportions of the imagination that it impresses; it may be called the poetry of poets.
(Legends, Tales, and Poems, p. xxxvi)
According to Bécquer, his friend’s poetry belongs to this second category. The description, which reflects Bécquer’s own Post-Romantic, pre-modernist aesthetic, can also be applied to his own verse—famous for its elegant simplicity and naturalness of expression.
However much scholars diverge on the subject of Bécquer’s love life or literary influences, all agree about his importance to the second phase of Spain’s Romantic movement. Bécquer’s most enduring contributions to Post-Romanticism are represented by his simple but beautiful language; his delicate, dreamlike imagery; and his willingness to create and explore different kinds of poetry. Literary scholars Richard E. Chandler and Kessel Schwartz observe that Bécquer’s poetry “has risen in popularity and esteem with twentieth century poets and critics.… Many now feel that his poetry although slight in quantity, is the greatest poetry of the century, principally because of his ability to foresee and to predict, in a sense, the modern schools of poetry” (Chandler and Schwartz, p. 352).
The fame that eluded Bécquer in life was bestowed upon him posthumously, thanks in large part to friends who collected his work for publication. One such friend, Ramón Rodríguez Correa, was especially influential; his prologue to the first edition of Bécquer’s works provided most of the known facts regarding the poet’s life. According to literary scholar Everett Ward Olmsted, the collection of Bécquer’s works in 1871 apparently “caused a marked effect, and their author was placed by popular edict in the front rank of contemporary writers” (Olmsted in Bécquer, Legends, Tales, and Poems, p. xxix). Within seven years of Bécquer’s death, four editions of his work had been published, all of which found an eager readership not only in Spain but in other countries as well. By the 1920s, some 400 editions of Bécquer’s Rimas alone had been published in Spanish, two of those editions in the United States.
Nineteenth-century literary scholars found much to commend in Bécquer’s work. P. Francisco Blanco Garcia marveled at how different Bécquer’s poetic sensibility was from those of his Spanish literary compatriots, wondering, “How could a Seville poet, a lover of pictorial and sculptural marvels, so withdraw from the outer form as to embrace the pure idea, with that melancholy subjectivism as common in the gloomy regions bathed by the Spree [River, in Germany] as it is unknown on the banks of the Darro and Guadalquivir [Rivers, in southern Spain]?” (Blanco García in Bécquer, Legends, Tales, and Poems, p. xxxiv). Written by Mrs. Humphrey Ward for Macmillan’s Magazine in 1883, another early assessment praises Bécquer for the uniqueness of his poetic voice:
His literary importance indeed is just beginning to be understood. Of Gustavo Bécquer we may almost say that in a generation of rhymers he alone was a poet.
(Ward in Bécquer, Legends, Tales, and Poems, p. xxxiv)
—James Wojtaszek and Pamela S. Loy
Bécquer, Gustavo Adolfo. The Infinite Passion. Trans. Young Allison. Chicago: Walter M. Hill, 1924.
______.Legends, Tales, and Poems. Boston: Ginn, 1907.
Bécquer, Valeriano, and Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. SFM: Los Borbones en pelota. Madrid: Ediciones El Museo Universal, 1991.
Bynum, B. Bryant. The Romantic Imagination in the Works of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. Chapel Hill: North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures, 1993.
Chandler, Richard E., and Kessel Schwartz. A New History of Spanish Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1961.
Clinkscales, Orline. Bécquer in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean Countries. Madrid: Editorial Hispanonorteamericana, 1970.
Guillén, Jorge. Language and Poetry: Some Poets of Spain. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961.
Havard, Robert G. From Romanticism to Surrealism: Seven Spanish Poets. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1988.
King, Edmund L. Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer: From Painter to Poet. Mexico: Editorial Porrua, S. A., 1953.
Levin, Jerome D. Theories of the Self. New York: Hemisphere, 1992.
Stamm, James R. A Short History of Spanish Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1979.
Ugarte, Michael. Madrid 1900: The Capital as Cradle of Literature and Culture. University Park, Penn.: Penn State University Press, 1996.