Góngora y Argote, Luis De (1561–1627)

views updated Jun 11 2018


GÓNGORA Y ARGOTE, LUIS DE (15611627), Spanish poet of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Luis de Góngora y Argote was born into a privileged family in Córdoba on 11 July 1561. Góngora was destined for a career in the church from childhood. He took minor orders in 1575, studied canon law at the University of Salamanca 15761581, and became a deacon of the Cathedral of Córdoba in 1585. As a representative of the cathedral, Góngora traveled widely in Spain, and made frequent trips to the court of Philip III. He finally moved to the court at Madrid in 1617, was ordained in 1618, and subsequently became chaplain to the king. During his years at the court of Philip III and Philip IV, Góngora enjoyed powerful patrons, became a member of the cultural elite, gained access to the innermost circles of the crown, and acquired the reputation of a gifted poet and esteemed man of letters. Ill health and financial exigency forced him to leave the capital in 1626 to return to Córdoba, where he died on 23 May 1627.

Góngora was a lifelong experimenter with poetry who composed in a variety of poetic formsballads, songs, rondelets, and sonnets, among others. He also was the author of the play Las firmezas de Isabela (1610) as well as the unfinished drama El doctor Carlino (1613). Góngora is primarily known, and remembered, however, as the creator of gongorismo, a style of discourse identified with his poetic masterpieces the Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea (1612) and the Soledades (16121614). Both are hybrid works, difficult to classify by type. The Polifemo is based on the story in Book Thirteen of Ovid's Metamorphoses that tells of the ill-fated love of the cyclops Polyphemus for the nymph Galatea, enamored of the handsome Acis. The Soledades mix epic and pastoral motifs in two poems totaling about two thousand lines in length that detail the wanderings of a mysterious, shipwrecked pilgrim through the dreamlike countryside of an unknown land. Góngora authorized the publication of only a few of his poems during his lifetime, although collections of his works started to appear shortly after his death.

When the Polifemo and Soledades first circulated at court, they unleashed a firestorm of controversy over the innovative poetic language employed by Góngora. Gongorismo, also called cultismo or culteranismo, that is, the cultured or cultivated style, refers to elegant discourse replete with rhetorical ornamentation: hyperbata (inversions of natural word order), neologisms, latinate words and syntax, elaborate conceits, mythological allusions, and so forth. Gongorism is a self-consciously challenging and at times enigmatic style directed at an erudite, aristocratic audience, able and willing to decipher the linguistic puzzles posed in verse. Góngora's vociferous detractors, who included such important writers as Lope de Vega and Francisco Quevedo, objected to what they saw as the affectation and deliberate obscurantism of Gongorine style. The great Góngora debate, which played out in well-known exchanges in caustic letters, satirical verse, and at the literary academies, was essentially a battle over which kind of poetic style would become the predominant onea simpler, clearer type of discourse, more accessible to a wide range of readers, or the more ornate language of Gongorism, which appealed to a smaller, more intellectually engaged audience. Cultismo, often associated with mannerism and the baroque, and frequently compared to marinism in Italy and euphuism, the elegant and artful style identified with the Elizabethan English writer John Lyly, ultimately won the day and many disciples. The powerful influence of Gongorism was eclipsed in the eighteenth century, only to be resurrected by Spain's Generation of 1927 poets, a group so-named in honor of the tricentennial anniversary of the death of Góngora, whose complex metaphors they particularly admired.

Over the years, Góngora has been called both the "Prince of Darkness" and the "Angel of Light." Not surprisingly, to this day, the poet's works and Gongorism remain a subject of considerable debate. While some critics see in Gongorism the construction of an independent world of words that has nothing to do with the realm of everyday experience, and in some ways anticipates postmodern literature, others envision in the poet's cultismo a cryptic language employed to create allegories critical of imperial Spain. Still another group of scholars views Gongorism as an attempt to restore to poetic language the visionary power of the vates, the poet-prophet of classical antiquity, and to make poetry a vehicle for exploring the mysteries of the universe. Although these critical viewpoints differ greatly, they all show a heightened interest in Góngora and Gongorism as a poet and poetic style closely tied to the court culture of Habsburg Spain and of Europe in general at the time.

See also Philip III (Spain) ; Philip IV (Spain) ; Spanish Literature and Language ; Vega, Lope de .


Primary Sources

Góngora, Luis de. Polyphemus and Galatea. Introduction by Alexander A. Parker. Translated by Gilbert F. Cunningham. Austin, 1977. Translation of Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea (1612).

. The Solitudes. Translated by Gilbert F. Cunningham. Baltimore, 1968. Translation of Soledades (16121614).

Rivers, Elias L., intro. and ed. "Luis de Góngora." In Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, pp. 157198. New York, 1966. Prospect Heights, Ill., 1988. Selection of poems with prose translations.

Secondary Sources

Beverley, John. Aspects of Góngora's "Soledades." Amsterdam, 1980.

Collins, Marsha S. The "Soledades," Góngora's Masque of the Imagination. Columbia, Mo., 2002.

Gaylord [Randel], Mary. "Metaphor and Fable in Góngora's Soledad primera. " Revista Hispánica Moderna 40 (19781979): 97112.

McCaw, R. John. The Transforming Text: A Study of Luis de Góngora's "Soledades." Potomac, Md. 2000.

Smith, Paul Julian. "Barthes, Góngora, and Non-Sense." PMLA 101 (1986): 8294.

Terry, Arthur. "Luis de Góngora: The Poetry of Transformation." In Seventeenth-Century Spanish Poetry: The Power of Artifice, pp. 6593. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1993.

Marsha S. Collins

Luis de Góngora y Argote

views updated May 23 2018

Luis de Góngora y Argote

The Spanish poet Luis de Góngora y Argote (1561-1627) caused a furor with his use of complex metaphor, Latinized vocabulary, unconventional syntax, and metaphysical subtleties. His baroque style became known as Gongorism.

Born in Cordova on July 11, 1561, Luis de Góngora was educated there and at the University of Salamanca, where, without much enthusiasm, he studied law while preferring literature and music. No evidence exists that he obtained his degree. An unfortunate love affair is said to have given origin to one of his best-known sonnets, LXXXVI, La dulce boca que a gustar convida ("The sweet mouth that invites one to taste"), a caustic prognostic to lovers that "all that is ever left of love is its venom."

As early as 1580 Góngora manifested some predilection for culto, or euphuistic, poetry—as is shown by his use of proparoxytonic verse, his Latinizations, and his exploitation of classical mythology. Even so, during these early years and later, he retained a liking for the popular, for the picaresque, and even for waggery.

By his middle 20s the precocious Góngora was well enough known to be complimented by Miguel de Cervantes in a poem of literary criticism, Canto de Calíope (1585; "Song of Calliope"). Sponsored by an uncle, and after providing the customary evidence that he was a cristiano viejo (that is, untainted with Jewish or Moorish blood), Góngora obtained remunerative prebendaries and took minor orders toward the priesthood. Income now assured, he began to live a rather carefree life, to which an austere bishop soon put a stop. The bishop accused Góngora of unchurchly fondness for bullfighting, music, and theater, fined him 4 ducats, and forbade his further attendance at bullfights.

A Góngora maturer in years, if not in financial practices, moved in 1601 to Valladolid, temporary seat of the royal court, where he wrote a great deal of festive verse, fell out with Francisco de Quevedo, spent money too freely, and plunged into debt. Vicissitudes, however, did not check his growing prestige, which by 1606 had earned him the reputation of being an illustrious poet.

The years 1612-1613, when Góngora wrote Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea ("The Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea") and Las soledades ("Solitudes"), were the most important in his literary life, and the controversy attendant on the publication of these poems has continued until today. Góngora's strongest apologist, Dámaso Alonso, eloquently defends Gongorism and challenges its defamers: "Obscurity, no: radiant clarity, dazzling clarity. Clarity of language of hard perfection and exact grammatical enchasing …"; while Elisha Kane (1928) attacks Gongorism as a physician a pestilence: "Gongorism is the disease of an age and a culture." Kane does not attribute to Góngora the "disease" of Gongorism but rather blames the 17th century, a "barren, baroque epoch."

In 1617 Góngora was appointed chaplain to Philip III over the objections of the Duke of Lerma, who questioned the desirability of appointing a poet to a position so close to the King. In spite of his salary from this post and from his prebendaries, Góngora, who frequently gambled and lived beyond his means, seemed always short of funds. In 1625, to his despair, he was in danger of losing to creditors even his horse and carriage; in July he wrote to a friend, "I feel like jumping in a well." His debts continued to accumulate, and his pride suffered a heavy blow when his residence in Madrid was auctioned and purchased by his implacable literary enemy Francisco de Quevedo. One setback followed another. The Conde-Duque de Olivares offered to underwrite the costs of publishing Góngora's poetry but reneged on his promise, leaving Góngora largely unpublished, although his writings circulated in manuscript.

Before his death in Cordova on May 23, 1627, Góngora gave all his manuscripts to his nephew, Luis de Saavedra, who never bothered to have them published, presumably being occupied in grabbing his late uncle's prebendary income. Because of this negligence by an unconcerned beneficiary, Góngora's prose (excepting his letters) has disappeared. Only his poetry survives.

His Poetry

Góngora's major poems, those that have aroused the most controversy, are Polifemo (1613), based on the thirteenth book of the Metamorphoses of Ovid, and Las soledades (1613). Polifemo tells the story of the love of the one-eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus, for the charming, mocking sea nymph Galatea. The scene is a bat-haunted cave on the Sicilian coast, where jealous Polyphemus slays the handsome Acis, and a grief-stricken Galatea beseeches the goddess of the sea to transform Acis into a river. Of the four soledades he planned to write, Góngora completed only the first; the second was never finished and no trace exists of the third and fourth. Las soledades tells the story of a youth shipwrecked among goatherds, of a flower-bedecked village, of fireworks and athletic contests, of the youth's encounter with a beautiful maiden, and of their subsequent marriage.

In Polifemo and Las soledades Góngora sought beauty of language in lines of abstruse complexity and tried to create a "new reality" by means of new metaphor. To him, to call things by their common names was to tread on old treadmills: he gave things new names to exalt and enliven them. His defenders would say Góngora's was "the poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, seeking to give airy nothing a local habitat and a name."

Concerning the enduring quality of Góngora's sonnets and his other conventional poems, there is no controversy, and no anthology of Spanish poetry would appear without a selection of them. Sonnet CLXVI is the lyrical Spanish counterpart of Robert Herrick's "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may," although more overcast with sorrow, especially in the final word, nada (nothing).

Few poets have conveyed the elemental sorrow of a young bride whose beloved is going off to war as Góngora does in the romancillo XLIX, whose first stanza reads: La más bella niña/ de nuestro lugar/ hoy viuda y sola,/ y ayer por casar,/ viendo que sus ojos/ a la guerra van/ a su madre dice,/ que escucha su mal:/ Dejadme llorarl orillas del mar. (The loveliest girl in our village, today a widow and alone, yesterday still single, seeing her beloved depart for war, says to her mother, listening to her lamentation: Let me pour forth my grief on the shore of the sea.)

Further Reading

The most thorough study of Góngora in English is antagonistic, Elisha K. Kane, Gongorism and the Golden Age: A Study of Exuberance and Unrestraint in the Arts (1928). Background information is in George Tyler Northup, An Introduction to Spanish Literature (1925; 3d ed. rev. by Nicholson B. Adams, 1960), and in Richard E. Chandler and Kessel Schwartz, A New History of Spanish Literature (1961). □