The Student of Salamanca
The Student of Salamanca
by José de Espronceda
THE LITERARY WORK
A narrative poem set in the Spanish city of Salamanca around the beginning of the seventeenth century; published in Spanish in 1840 (as El Estudiante de Salamanca), in English in 1953.
Don Félix de Montemar, a rake and a womanizing student, is led to his death by a phantom after he seduces and abandons a young virgin and kills her brother in a duel.
José de Espronceda y Delgado (1808–42) came into the world while his father, a Spanish cavalry officer, was riding to repel the French invasion of Spain during the Napoleonic Wars that shook Europe in the early nineteenth century. Espronceda’s mother, accompanying her husband’s regiment in a carriage, suffered such a jolting on the hurried journey that the boy was born prematurely—in a shepherd’s hut, legend has it, but more likely (scholars suggest) in the mansion of a hospitable aristocrat nearby. The rest of Espronceda’s life matched the turbulence of his birth. At age 15 he joined several friends in plotting against the Spanish government. The rebellious act marked the beginning of a continuing defiance; Espronceda would engage in political agitation right up to his premature death from tuberculosis at age 34. His intrigues resulted in years of exile, and critics have traced his Romantic literary style to influences encountered in London and Paris in the 1820s and 1830s. Returning to Spain in the mid-1830s, Espronceda was celebrated as the leading Spanish poet of his generation. His poetry was collected and published in 1840 as Poesias (Poems). The long poem El diablo mundo (The Devilish World), unfinished when he died, was to have included the shorter Canto a Teresa (Song for Teresa), written in 1839, which recounts Espronceda’s despair after the death of Teresa Mancha, his estranged lover. Scholars believe that Teresa Mancha also inspired the young virgin Elvira in The Student of Salamanca, a supernatural tale of horror and shattered illusions considered to be the fullest expression of Espronceda’s Romantic sensibility. The Romantic period’s defiant spirit is perfectly exemplified in the uncompromising individuality of the poem’s main character, Don Félix de Montemar.
Sex, violence, and honor in Golden Age Spain
The text of The Student of Salamanca does not establish the precise time of the poem, but the behavior and accouterments of its characters suggest that it takes place in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, during the period known as Spain’s Golden Age. Don Diego, a Spanish noble who is killed in a duel by the main character, Don Félix, is said to have fought in Flanders, and Spanish military troops campaigned there intermittently throughout the period. Spain’s military might in this era was matched only by its cultural splendor. As Spain’s armies imposed Spanish rule on much of Europe, the conquistadors took that rule beyond Europe, carving out a worldwide Spanish empire. Meanwhile, painters such as Diego Velazquez (1599–1660) and writers like Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616) rendered brilliant artistic portrayals of the glories achieved by Spain and the foibles of its society.
Especially characteristic of Spanish society in this period was the idea of honor, la honra, which historians have described as the national obsession of Golden Age Spain. While a man’s honor could be offended in a variety of ways—a slur on his ancestry or courage, for example—a woman’s honor resided primarily in her chastity (if she was unmarried) or her fidelity (if she was married). The works of the period’s major dramatists, Lope de Vega (1562–1635) and Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–81), reflect this social preoccupation, for they generally turn on the theme of revenge for a male character’s offended honor, and most commonly on an offense to his honor arising from the sexual behavior of a female family member. (See Lope’s Fuente Ovejuna , also in WLAIT: 5 Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times.) As these dramas suggest, a woman’s honor was significant only as a essential component of the more important honor of her male family members, be they husband, father, or brothers.
Carefully secluded in the home, women were regarded as precious possessions to be jealously preserved against the sexual predations of outsiders. A woman’s seduction was a stain on the honor of all her male relatives, one that remained in place until they took revenge—which could be achieved only when one of them killed the seducer. On stage as in real life, such revenge usually took the form of a duel between two swordsmen. Of the many Golden Age plays that turn on this dramatic combination of sex, violence, and honor, none has had greater resonance through history than Tirso de Molina’s El burlador de Sevilla (1630; The Trickster of Seville , also in WLAIT: 5 Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times), which gave the world a timeless character in its classic version of the womanizing rake, Don Juan. The Student of Salamanca would be one of many retellings of this popular tale, and the character of Don Juan himself would provide the model for the poem’s hero-villain, the handsome but cold-hearted libertine Don Félix.
Another element of Golden Age culture, one less central than honor but equally familiar to later generations through vivid depictions in literature, was the colorful and often debauched life of the male university student. (Women generally had no access to higher education.) Education played an increasingly important role in Spanish public life in the Golden Age, until Spanish centers of learning began declining around the middle of the seventeenth century. Founded in the Middle Ages in the northern city of Salamanca, the university there was the largest, oldest, and most prestigious of Spain’s educational institutions. Though universities arose in the other major cities during the Golden Age, none threatened Salamanca’s top position. The university at Al-cala, located near the capital, Madrid, and known for its aristocratic student body, was Salamanca’s closest rival in academic quality, but, catering to no more than 2,000 students, Alcalá was only about a quarter the size. As one modern historian of the Golden Age notes, “the phrase ‘student of Salamanca’ doubtless meant in real life as well as in the literature of the time,
THE LEGEND OF DON JUAN
The legend of Don Juan originated in medieval folktales but was given permanent definition in Tirso de Molina’s play The Trickster of Seville (1630), in which the handsome rake Don Juan Tenorio seduces and abandons four different women, including an aristocratic young virgin. The girl’s father challenges Don Juan to a duel to avenge the family’s honor, and Don Juan kills him; later the father’s ghost escorts Don Juan to eternal damnation in hell. The tale has inspired the imaginations of countless European artists over the centuries, in addition to Espronceda. It has been retold in many versions, including Wolfgang Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (1787; Austrian), Lord Byron’s poem Don Juan (1819–24; British), Alexander Dumas the elder’s play Don Juan de Marana (1836; French), and George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman (1903; British). Spain itself would invoke the character In literary successors to Molina’s play and Espronceda’s poem, among them Don Juan Tenorio (1844; also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times) by José Zorrilla.
the very embodiment of the student’s way of life” (Defourneaux, p. 165).
In addition to academic learning, that way of life included a regular round of festivals and ceremonies, of which graduation was the largest, with a lavish banquet served at the students’ expense. The examination of a doctoral candidate was in some cases preceded by a formal procession of faculty and students in their best finery, and followed by feasting and bullfights (again at the candidate’s expense; doctoral candidates would often pool their resources and share the cost). In The Student of Salamanca, however, Don Félix is never shown participating in classes, festivals, official ceremonies, or indeed any academic activities. Instead, despite the poem’s title, Espronceda describes Don Félix exclusively in a non-academic context, skulking through the streets at night, playing cards, and engaging in sexual escapades. It is true that cards, dice, and sexual liaisons were all common features of student life as depicted in Golden Age literature (though explicitly banned by university statute). Unlike most Golden Age literary depictions, however, Don Félix gambles with men who do not seem to be fellow students. It is also true that, like Don Félix in the poem’s opening lines, many students settled their differences with swords, but then so did other males in the honor-obsessed and often violent culture of the Golden Age. In any case, such details matter little in the poem, for regardless of how typical or atypical of a student he is, Don Félix functions here as a symbol of humanity’s desire to know.
As published in its final version in 1840 (see below), The Student of Salamanca runs to just over 1,700 lines and is divided into four parts of unequal length. Part 4 consists of more than 1,000 lines; it is longer than the other three parts combined. Preceding each part is an epigraph, a brief literary quotation that touches on the dominant theme or action. The poem’s narrative structure varies, so that some sections seem addressed to the reader and others to specific characters, while Part 3 (the gambling scene) unfolds in dramatic form, complete with scene divisions and stage directions in the text. The versification varies even more widely, reflecting the disdain for rules and high regard for freedom, including freedom of expression, that typified Espronceda and his peers. Espronceda employs at least 11 distinct meters (ranging from two syllables per line to 12), changing between these meters almost 60 times.
Part 1 opens with an extended and darkly atmospheric description of Salamanca after midnight, when (the narrator tells us in the first few lines) corpses appear to be alive and spectral footsteps can be heard on the streets. Witches meet in a ruined belfry, and a “gothic castle” looms, “its lofty ramparts bristling” over “the tomblike ancient city” (Espronceda, The Student of Salamanca, pp. 43–45). Suddenly “a clash of swords” is heard followed by “a shriek of death,” as if someone were dying, and as the echo fades a man emerges from the shadow, “his hat brim down, / Thus to evade / Recognition” (The Student of Salamanca, p. 45). Sword in hand, the man moves softly along the gloomy, boxed-in street, called Coffin Street after its appearance. A wispy phantom appears, which this “second Don Juan Tenorio” faces fearlessly with his still bloody sword (The Student of Salamanca, p. 47). The swordsman is Don Félix de Montemar: a lover who leaves the women who love him, a gambler who revels in drunken orgies, famous throughout Salamanca for his boldness and fine looks, arrogant, proud, charming, impious. With a change from short, choppy verses to long flowing lines, the poet then introduces “luckless Elvira,” more beautiful and pure than the blue of the sky, once loved by Don Félix but now abandoned and unhappy, her “virgin soul.… betrayed by love” (The Student of Salamanca, pp. 49–51).
Part 2 consists of another nighttime scene, but now supernatural gloom has given way to starry skies and rustling trees with softly moonlit blossoms. Appearing in a white dress and flowing braids, Elvira walks alone in the moonlight, pining for her lost love. As the dawn begins to break, she addresses the moon: what use is its beauty if it cannot heal her heartbreak? By dusk, the poet tells us, Elvira will be dead, her lost reason briefly restored by the knowledge of her approaching death. As she feels the “icy hand” of death, she addresses Don Félix in farewell, calling on him to “Mourn for me, yes; but may thy heart beat free, / Let no remorse knaw [sic] at its liberty” (The Student of Salamanca, pp. 63–65).
Part 3 opens with six gamblers seated at a table playing cards in silence, which is broken only by the jangle of gold coins and the gamblers’ occasional curses. Don Félix enters, his left hand resting jauntily on the pommel of his sword, and declares that he’s tired of love affairs and ready to win some money. He removes a chain he is wearing and demands 2,000 ducats for it, a large amount of cash that he insultingly bullies the others into putting up. When he loses this stake, he wagers a jeweled frame with a portrait of a beautiful woman that the other gamblers admire enviously. Losing the frame, he then wagers the portrait itself. Winning the subsequent bets, he coolly ignores Don Diego, who has entered and approached the table with hatred in his eyes.
Don Diego identifies himself as Elvira’s brother and says that his sister is dead, implying that Don Félix is responsible for her death. He challenges Don Félix to a duel, and Don Félix accepts but tells Don Diego to wait while he, Don Félix, counts his winnings. Elvira was beautiful, he says as he counts, and she fell in love with him, but he is not to blame for her death. More important, he has won 1,300 ducats. As they leave to fight their duel, the other gamblers suspect that Don Diego is doomed.
Part 4 returns to the scene at the beginning of Part 1, as Don Félix walks haltingly at night along darkened Coffin Street, having—we now discover—just vanquished Don Diego, who presumably gave the “shriek of death” heard in the opening lines. In the murky gloom Don Félix hears a sound like a sigh and stops, but no one answers his inquiring call. As he starts again, however, the “fateful shape” of the phantom, shrouded in white, emerges from the shadows, leaving a trail of mist behind it (The Student of Salamanca, p. 97). The only light comes from a lamp illuminating a statue of Christ, which flares up as Don Félix boldly challenges either God or the Devil, whichever of the two is trying to scare him. In the flaring light he sees a woman in white kneeling before the statue, but when he comes closer, the statue, the lamp, and the woman seem to recede. Tears stream from the eyes in the sculpted face of Jesus, and the scene reels—for a moment Don Félix suspects that he must be drunk—when the lamp suddenly goes out in the wind and the kneeling figure rises and moves away, its white raiment billowing in the mist.
He challenges the apparition, demanding to know if she is beautiful or ugly, since his reputation demands that he follow her if she is beautiful. The phantom glides silently away after answering with only a ghostly groan, which leads the narrator to reflect on the sorrows of shattered love. Lured by the phantom’s refusal to answer, Don Félix again challenges her, and this time she answers in a voice that evokes “an immaculate maid’s first acquiescence” but that delivers words of warning, which he ignores (The Student of Salamanca, p. 105). She can no longer know earthly love, she says. Calling him by name, she warns that he pursues her at his peril, risking the anger of heaven and eternal damnation in hell. He dismisses the warnings, telling her to be done with her sermons. Her coldness only interests him further. Life is for living, he says, and let tomorrow look after itself:
Is it my concern if tomorrow I perish
In bad hour, or good one, as the saying is?
Why! ‘Tis the joy in harvesting now that I cherish,
When dead, then the Devil can have me at will.
(The Student of Salamanca, pp. 107–09)
A long nightmarish pursuit follows, as the phantom leads the willing but increasingly disoriented Don Félix down street after street, through square after square, over walls and past strange, fantastic towers that leave their foundations and move around him. He encounters cursing witches and sees cavorting spectral skeletons; then without warning this surreal cityscape vanishes and he finds himself in the middle of a stark and desolate plain, lightless, airless, skyless. As lightning flashes, he catches sight of the ghostly woman’s eerily lit face. Just as suddenly he is back on the streets of Salamanca again, where a muted, torch-lit procession approaches. It is a funeral procession, bearing the corpses of two men—one is Don Diego’s, and the other, Don Félix is amazed to see, is his own dead body. Just for a moment he feels fear, but then he recovers his nerve, laughing aloud on understanding that he and Diego have, it seems, killed each other in the duel. (Presumably, the clash of swords heard in the opening lines spelled both of their deaths, and the reader has been following Félix’s disembodied spirit through the course of the poem’s action.)
As glowing eyes watch from the darkness, Don Félix follows the phantom lady into an infernal mansion, and along its long deserted galleries, lit only by a few candles. Now enjoying his adventure, for hours he trails behind her, down the mansion’s corridors, as spectral apparitions swirl around him, glaring with hostile eyes. Like “a second Lucifer” Don Félix has grown proudly determined to go out in a blaze of defiance, determined to uncover the phantom’s face.
At last they come to a narrow spiral staircase of black marble, and without hesitation he follows her down. Disoriented, he seems to tumble down the steps, whirling in a shrieking tempest of sensation until he comes to rest. He gets to his feet and sees the lady alone by a stone tomb that resembles a bed. He approaches her and asks her politely to remove her veil so that he can see her face, and says he would like to know whether he is in the hands of God or the devil. Several lengthy stanzas then evoke a slowly rising crescendo of sights and sounds as Don Félix prepares to pull the veil away. Just as he reaches for it he hears the surrounding apparitions proclaim, “Tis her husband!” and “At last the consort of the bride is here” (The Student of Salamanca, p. 137). Beneath the veil he finds not the face of a beautiful lady but “a grim repulsive skull” (The Student of Salamanca, p. 139).
Don Diego appears and reveals that the ghostly woman is Elvira, and that Don Félix must now accept her as his wife. He agrees to do so, and the stinking skeleton embraces him as he drips with sweat. Skeletal apparitions surround them and begin a fantastic dance, whirling like dead leaves in a gale. Elvira’s skeleton continues to embrace him ever more tightly, and he begins to lose strength as his senses fade to unconsciousness like a flickering, dying flame.
Meanwhile the city awakes to its normal hubbub, except for a quickly spreading rumor that the Devil, dressed as a pretty woman, had come to Salamanca that night for Don Félix de Montemar. That was the rumor, and to the reader who doesn’t believe it, the narrator protests that he has only told the tale as it was told to him.
THE DANCE OF DEATH
The skeletons’ dance in Part 4 of The Student of Salamanca exemplifies the medieval artistic and literary motif called the danse macabre or Dance of Death, in which ghostly skeletons are depicted dancing around the newly dead and escorting them to the underworld. Originating in thirteenth- or fourteenth-century poetry, the concept was popularized during the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century, an outbreak of bubonic plague in which much of Europe’s population perished. The Dance of Death was one of many medieval motifs rediscovered and adapted by Romantic writers and artists in nineteenth-century Spain.
The individual in rebellion against the world
In calling Don Félix “a second Lucifer,” the narrator compares him to the rebel archangel of Christian lore, the brightest angel in heaven who arrogantly challenged God and was cast down in defeat to hell, where he became Satan. “A rebel soul who beats fear with disdain,” the speaker continues, “Beaten down, yes, but never marred” (The Student of Salamanca, p. 125). His self-consciously exultant rebelliousness distinguishes Don Félix from the Don Juan of medieval and Renaissance legend, who was merely an impious libertine, for the rebel who rebels for the sake of rebellion alone is a quintessentially Romantic figure.
Rebellion for its own sake is not as simple as may appear at first glance. Tirso de Molina’s seventeenth-century Don Juan is given specific and explicit warnings about his behavior based on Catholic religious doctrine, and he is punished for his refusal to repent for that behavior. While Don Félix certainly seems to share this attitude of sinful and deliberate self-indulgence, in fact he goes far beyond it to question the very foundations of ideas such as sin in the first place. Repeatedly Don Félix claims to find little difference between God and the devil. Even after his unveiling of Elvira’s skeleton, for example, he still demands to know whether it is God or the devil who has orchestrated his ordeal: “Happy I’d be,” he asserts, “to see if not both, then either” (The Student of Salamanca, p. 139). Don Félix insists not upon doing evil, but upon following his own will, and his rebellion is not against God but ultimately against a world that continually acts to restrict his autonomy.
Significantly, Don Félix’s will is expressed mainly through his curiosity, his desire to learn the truth about the phantom lady, which represents his general desire to know. Like Faust, another medieval hero who captured the imaginations of Romantic poets, Don Félix risks damnation to pursue knowledge that turns out to be illusory and unobtainable. According to the Romantics, one seeks but cannot find the truth, the answer to life’s key questions. In their adaptations of such legends as Faust and Don Juan, Romantic poets like Espronceda reflect not only their age’s exaltation of the individual and the individual will, but also their age’s abandonment of earlier certainties about religious faith, absolute morality, and the existence of rational explanations for all life’s questions. “In the Romantic mind,” writes one critic of The Student of Salamanca, “any foundation for firm belief or rational conduct is impossible” (Card-well, p. 45). The absence of such foundations gives Don Félix no reason to prefer the world’s standards of conduct to his own.
Sources and literary context
Many critics have suggested that in Don Félix, Espronceda presents an idealized version of himself, and that Don Félix’s relationship with Elvira similarly offers Espronceda’s own interpretation of his tempestuous and ultimately unhappy love affair with Teresa Mancha. A girl of 17 when the affair began in 1827, Teresa Mancha married an older man in accordance with her father’s wishes, but continued the affair, ultimately leaving her husband and having a child with Espronceda. By 1839 he had abandoned her and the child, and shortly after falling into the life of a prostitute, she became ill and died. Espronceda expresses his guilt and misery over this situation in the poem Song for Teresa (1839).
Critics have established that Espronceda drew on a number of literary sources for The Student of Salamanca in addition to Tirso de Molina’s
REBELLION AND ROMANTIC HEROES
Born in the years following the French Revolution of 1789, Romanticism was closely linked to the idea of rebellion against established authority. The movement can be traced back to Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”), a literary movement of mid-to-late 1700s Germany that rejected rationalism and celebrated instead emotion, intuition, and nature. An early hero of the Romantics was the French revolutionary general Napoleon Bonaparte, who, for many Romantics, symbolized the dynamic potential of the spirited individual. When Napoleon seized dictatorial power and embarked on wars of conquest, however, he himself came to stand for the oppressive power of authority. Romantics found another hero in English poet Lord Byron, who inspired them with his support for the underdog Greek nationalists in their struggle for independence from the Turks. The colorful Byron became the stereotype of the Romantic poet, and people often called Espronceda “the Spanish Byron.” Both wrote poems based on the legend of Don Juan, both engaged in political intrigues, and both carried on numerous love affairs—each even had a famous and adulterous relationship with a woman named Teresa.
original seventeenth-century Don Juan story, The Seducer of Seville. The poem’s major plot elements can all be traced to these sources, the most important of which probably include:
• A story in Spanish author António de Torquemada’s Garden of Curious Flowers (1570) about a student of Salamanca University named Lisardo, who commits a murder, sees a phantom procession that turns out to be his own funeral, and follows a mysterious female figure to a confrontation with his dead victim.
• Juan de Cárdenas’s Miguel de Mañara (1680), recounting a libertine’s encounter with his own funeral after a duel, and featuring a road named Coffin Street and supernatural apparitions.
• Agostin Moreto’s play Franco de Sena (1654), a tale of rape and murder that features a gambling episode, a ghostly sigh, and an illuminated statue of Christ. Espronceda quotes from this work at the beginning of The Student oj Salamanca’s gambling scene.
• Various traditional tales of Spain featuring an alluring female phantom who leads a male hero on a ghostly journey, only to be revealed as a decaying corpse or a skeleton.
• Two contemporary French versions of Cárdenas’s 1680 story (see above): Prosper Mérimée’s The Souls of Purgatory (1834) and Alexandre Dumas’s Don Juan de Mar ana (1836), the latter incorporating elements of the Don Juan legend as well.
All of these literary sources end with the main character’s repentance, however, and even de Molina’s Don Juan intended to repent, but was cast into hell before he could do so. Don Félix, in contrast, unrepentantly preserves his triumphal individualism to the end.
Espronceda worked entirely within the influential European literary and artistic movement known as Romanticism, which is commonly judged to have lasted from roughly the French Revolution (1789) to around the middle of the nineteenth century. Goethe’s Faust (1790) was the movement’s first major literary landmark on the continent; in England the first major Romantic work is considered to have been William Wordsworth’s and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s collaboration, Lyrical Ballads (1798). While Romanticism was a highly complex phenomenon, Romantic works tend to exalt the potential of the individual, to evoke mysterious or exotic settings in foreign lands (or glorious past eras in an appeal to nationalistic sentiments), and often to involve supernatural forces. Romanticism came late to Spain; in fact, Espronceda and others are sometimes said to have imported it with their return in the 1830s from exile in London and Paris. Some 1,000 Spanish liberal families are thought to have lived in England in the decade 1823–33, after fleeing political persecution in Spain. During the same decade, countless liberals along with some 8,000 afrancesados (literally “Frenchified ones”) lived in Paris. Together, these two refugee classes comprised nearly all of Spain’s intellectual class, which returned only with the death of King Ferdinand in 1833.
In 1834, shortly after his return, Espronceda founded a literary review called El Siglo (The Century), in which he and his circle of writer friends published poetry, literary criticism, and political commentary. Outside of Espronceda’s own poetry, however, Romanticism in Spain during the 1830s is usually considered best represented by dramatists. Examples include Ángel de Saavedra, whose play Don Alonso or The Force of Destiny (1835) entailed, like The Student of Salamanca, a conscious reworking of themes from Golden Age literature.
Revolution and reaction
The Spanish Golden Age ended with Spain’s decline in the middle of the seventeenth century. By the end of that century, France had replaced Spain as Europe’s leading cultural and political power. This shift in leadership was reflected in the early eighteenth century by Spain’s receiving representatives of the French royal family, the Bourbons, as monarchs on the Spanish throne. The French Bourbons were themselves overthrown in the French Revolution of 1789, a pivotal event that often marks the beginning of the modern period in European history. Joining in the reaction of the horrified monarchical governments of Europe, Spain opposed the revolutionaries, but in the so-called French Revolutionary Wars of 1792–1800 the coalition of these horrified governments was defeated. Spain, vanquished early in these wars, was a French satellite by 1796. Despite the defeat, however, in Spain, as in the rest of Europe, a rebellious spirit arose in the political realm, and it would be paralleled by a similar impulse in literature.
A series of tumultuous and militarily aggressive revolutionary republican governments ruled in France until Napoleon Bonaparte, France’s most successful and charismatic general, seized power and established a military dictatorship called the Consulate in 1799. In 1804 Napoleon had himself crowned as Emperor Napoleon I, after which he launched a series of further wars that brought much of Europe under his and France’s rule within the next decade. Opposing France and its satellites in these Napoleonic Wars was Britain, joined intermittently by Austria. However, by 1809 Austria had surrendered and Napoleon ruled virtually all of continental Europe.
In Spain, meanwhile, popular resentment against French rule had led to an independence movement that would ultimately play a central part in Napoleon’s downfall. Forcing the Spanish King Ferdinand VII to abdicate, Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808 and named his own brother Joséph Bonaparte as the country’s new ruler on May 5 of that year. Already on May 2, however, the people of the Spanish capital of Madrid had revolted against the invading French. Though harshly and rapidly suppressed in Madrid, the insurrection soon spread to the rest of Spain, with Spanish guerrilla fighters receiving aid from British troops that operated from Portugal under the Duke of Wellington. Fighting continued into 1812, when Napoleon invaded Russia, where he was forced to divert needed manpower from the front in Spain and was disastrously defeated. In 1813 Wellington defeated the French army in Spain at the battle of Vitoria, and the following year Ferdinand returned to claim the Spanish throne. The year after that, in 1815, Wellington defeated Napoleon, decisively and finally, at the battle of Waterloo in Belgium.
Romanticism and liberalism
The turbulent aftermath of the Napoleonic era gave rise to a political philosophy called liberalism that would become a fixture on the European scene for the next century. In Spain liberal ideals were embodied in the Constitution of Cadiz, proclaimed in that Spanish city by the Cortes, or parliament, in 1812, while Ferdinand was still a prisoner in France. The constitution’s liberal framers aimed to democratize and modernize the Spanish government, inspired by the egalitarian French revolutionary constitution of 1791. They also wished to minimize the role of the Catholic Church, long a powerful influence in Spanish politics and society. Among other measures, the new constitution abolished the Spanish Inquisition, strictly limited the powers of the monarchy, and established a single-chamber parliament without the parliamentary privileges that the clergy and aristocracy had previously enjoyed.
With the support of a conservative backlash and of the powerful Catholic and military establishments, Ferdinand overturned the Constitution of Cadiz on his return in 1814, ejecting the liberals from power and persecuting the liberal leaders. Ferdinand spent the rest of the decade in an abortive attempt to resurrect Spanish colonial power in the Americas. With the failure of that attempt clear by 1820, and supported by the now-disillusioned army, the liberals regained power and forced the king to accept the Constitution of Cadiz. Again the liberals failed to maintain their position, however, as popular resentment at their curtailment of the Church allowed Ferdinand to repudiate the constitution once more. During the so-called “ominous decade” (1823–33), the king resumed his persecution of liberal leaders and critics of the government. It was during this decade that Espronceda, one of those critics, was exiled in London and Paris, where he was under constant surveillance by Spanish intelligence for his part in conspiracies to overthrow Ferdinand.
Other European artists and writers had already forged a natural alliance between the political ideals of liberalism and the aesthetic ideals of the Romantic movement, an alliance that Espronceda was exposed to while in exile. With Ferdinand’s death in 1833, Spanish liberals found a cause in the succession of his young daughter Isabella, proposing that her mother Queen María Cristina act as regent. Conservatives themselves had grown disillusioned with Ferdinand’s rule, and already during the king’s last years supported his brother Don Carlos as rightful heir to the throne. This struggle would be played out during the rest of the 1830s, but Spanish liberalism as a political force was already spent. On returning to Spain in 1834, Espronceda led the way in attempting to reproduce the alliance between liberal political ideals and the Romantic literary sensibility that he had found in London and Paris. His writings of the period betray a growing disillusionment with Spanish liberalism’s inability to gain popular support among the staunchly Catholic Spanish populous.
Critics have suggested that Espronceda’s political commentary finds much to rail against but little to put forward in the way of realistic solutions. In his later poetry, too, critics have found a profound disenchantment with the possibility of political progress, a world-weary cynicism that itself harmonized with the Romantic spirit. Richard Cardwell, for example, writes that in the character of Don Félix, who rebels against everything and believes in nothing, “Espronceda translates his disillusioned political revolutionism into the literary response of metaphysical revolt” (Cardwell, p. 60).
Parts of the poem that became The Student of Salamanca appeared in several literary journals between 1836 and 1839 before the final version was published with Espronceda’s other works in the collection Poesías (Poems) in 1840. On its publication the poem was praised in a review by Espronceda’s friend, the Spanish Romantic critic Enrique Gil y Carrasco, who singled out its remarkable poetic versatility, linguistic virtuosity, and forceful imagery. In an influential essay in 1854, however, the literary critic Juan Valera suggested that both the poem and Espronceda’s style in general were in places artificial and insincere. These two contradictory lines of criticism have been echoed by later reviewers and scholars, with Espronceda’s defenders praising the poem’s colorful language and poetic variety, and his detractors claiming that the poem is in places shallow, overblown, and bombastic. This ongoing scholarly debate has been complicated by related academic disputes over the nature and impact of Romanticism in Spain. It has also been colored by the idea that the character of Don Félix is an idealized portrait of Espronceda himself, and that Espronceda therefore endorsed what critics have seen as Don Félix’s antisocial qualities.
Cardwell, Richard A., ed. Espronceda: El Estudiante de Salamanca and Other Poems. London: Tamesis, 1980.
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