The Spanish poet and soldier Jorge Manrique (c. 1440-1478) wrote the Coplas, one of the great elegies of all times, and was the poetic voice of his generation.
Jorge Manrique was probably born in the family fief of Paredes de Nava (Palencia). He belonged to the powerful and warlike clan of the Manriques, was a nephew of Gómez Manrique, another poet-soldier, and a grandnephew of the Marquis of Santillana, the literary arbiter of Castile. His father was Rodrigo Manrique, Count of Paredes and Grand Master of the Order of Santiago. Arms and letters against an aristocratic background define the personality of Jorge Manrique.
At this time Castile was again in the throes of civil war. King Henry IV was ineffectual to the point of being nicknamed the Impotent. The Manrique clan fought him and his presumably bastard daughter Juana. This meant that Manrique fought first for Prince Alfonso against his half brother Henry IV and then for Princess Isabella (later the Catholic Queen) against Princess Juana. He was a faithful and distinguished warrior and was rewarded with the title of knight commander of Montizón in the Order of Santiago. Manrique participated actively in the innumerable battles and skirmishes of the civil war. When Henry IV died, Portugal entered the fray on the side of Juana. At this time Manrique was put in command, by the Catholic Monarchs, of their forces in the Campo de Calatrava. When the Hermandades were created (a sort of national militia), he was made their captain in the kingdom of Toledo. He was killed in the siege of the castle of Garci-Muñoz, in La Mancha, held by the Marquis of Villena, a partisan of Juana and Portugal.
Manrique left a substantial body of amorous poetry (some 40 poems, including some satiric verse), but in none of it does he rise much above the literary level of his times. It just shows him to have been a quick-witted and facile versifier. But in the Coplas (40 stanzas to his father's death, which occurred in 1476), Manrique wrote the most famous elegy of the Spanish language. The strong emotion caused by death is restrained, and the tone is serene; but in trying to explain to himself the meaning of his father's death, after a life which had earned him the appellation of a second Cid, Manrique manages to give voice to his age's sentiments about the meaning of life and death. The poet's noble and Christian resignation has struck a responsive chord in every generation of readers since his death, for, in the words of Pedro Salinas, the Coplas is "one of the most beautiful and shining lights in universal poetry."
The Coplas of Manrique was admirably translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1833. Pedro Salinas, the author of an excellent book in Spanish on Manrique, gives a fine analysis of the Coplas in Reality and the Poet in Spanish Poetry (1940). The Oxford Book of Spanish Verse, edited by J. B. Trend (1913), contains some biographical information on Manrique. □