Gustavo Adolfo Dominguez Bécquer

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Gustavo Adolfo Dominguez Bécquer

The Spanish lyric poet Gustavo Adolfo Dominguez Bécquer (1836-1870) is noted for his Rimas, a collection of short lyric poems. This work had such a profound influence that it is considered the starting point of Spanish contemporary poetry.

Gustavo Bécquer was born in Seville on Feb. 17, 1836. Orphaned when he was 11, he went to live with his godmother, whose extensive library and affectionate care encouraged an early love for poetry and music. In 1852 he began to study at his uncle's art studio. Painting, however, did not suit Bécquer's introspective temperament. A shy, painfully sensitive boy, he preferred to walk alone, delve into folklore and art, and consort with other young poets. In 1854, against the wishes of his godmother, he went to Madrid in search of literary fame.

But fame was not forthcoming, and Bécquer had to turn to journalism. He translated newspaper articles and wrote literary and theater criticism. During this period, however, he did publish one volume of a cherished project, Historia de los templos en España (1857; History of the Churches in Spain), and collaborated under a pen name in writing plays, some verses of which foreshadow the later Rimas.

By 1860 Bécquer had fallen hopelessly in love with Julia Espin y Guillén, but the relationship ended bitterly a year later. He then married Casta Esteban Navarro, with whom he had three children. The suffering and anguish caused by his unhappy love affair and disastrous marriage constitute the emotional background of Rimas. Written during the 1860s, these short poems voiced Bécquer's longing for love and for the realization of perfect beauty. Like the mystics, he aspired to express intelligibly a vision of ineffable beauty, glimpsed in the person of his beloved.

Unlike the inflated style of his contemporaries, Bécquer's diction is spare and simple, his verses delicate and light. Yet he achieves in each poem a maximum resonance by attending to the phonetic structure of words and by using images which affect the reader's sensibility and demand his active collaboration. Bécquer's ability to make words express much more than their conventional meanings anticipates the techniques of modern symbolic poetry.

Bécquer wrote most of his prose works from 1860 to 1865. These include 22 legends, which are based upon regional folklore and exploit the supernatural. While at the monastery of Veruela in 1864, he wrote a collection of nine letters entitled Desde mi celda, cartas literarias (From My Cell, Literary Letters). That same year he directed an important journal and was appointed official censor of novels.

In 1868 Bécquer separated from his wife and, in the wake of the revolution that ended the rule of Isabella II, went to Paris. He returned to Madrid in 1869, rewrote from memory the lost manuscript of Rimas, and resumed newspaper writing. The sudden death of his brother Valeriano in September 1870 depressed him abysmally, and he died only 3 months later, on December 22, exhausted by tuberculosis. His collected works were published posthumously in 1871.

Further Reading

The most comprehensive book on Bécquer is in Spanish: José Pedro Diaz, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer: Vida y poesia (2 vols., 1953; rev. ed. 1964). An informative English work is Edmund L. King, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer: From Painter to Poet (1953). □