When it’s time to take the AP English Literature and Composition exam, will you be ready? If you’re aiming high, you’ll want to know the best route to a five on the AP exam. You know the exam is going to be tough, so how do prepare for success? To do well on the AP English Literature and Composition exam, you’ll need to score high on the essays. For that, you’ll need to write a competent, efficient essay that argues an accurate interpretation of the work under examination in the Free Response Question section.
The AP English Literature and Composition exam consists of two sections, the first being a 55-question multiple choice portion worth 45% of the total test grade. This section tests your ability to read drama, verse, or prose fiction excerpts and answer questions about them. The second section, worth 55% of the total score, requires essay responses to three questions demonstrating your ability to analyze literary works. You’ll have to discuss a poem analysis, a prose fiction passage analysis, and a concept, issue, or element analysis of a literary work–in two hours.
Before the exam, you should know how to construct a clear, organized essay that defends a focused claim about the work under analysis. You must write a brief introduction that includes the thesis statement, followed by body paragraphs that further the thesis statement with detailed, thorough support, and a short concluding paragraph that reiterates and reinforces the thesis statement without repeating it. Clear organization, specific support, and full explanations or discussions are three critical components of high-scoring essays.
General Tips to Bettering Your Odds at a Nine on the AP English Literature Prose FRQ
You may know already how to approach the prose analysis, but don’t forget to keep the following in mind coming into the exam:
- Carefully read, review, and underline key to-do’s in the prompt.
- Briefly outline where you’re going to hit each prompt item — in other words, pencil out a specific order.
- Be sure you have a clear thesis that includes the terms mentioned in the instructions, literary devices, tone, and meaning.
- Include the author’s name and title of the prose selection in your thesis statement. Refer to characters by name.
- Use quotes — lots of them — to exemplify the elements and your argument points throughout the essay.
- Fully explain or discuss how your examples support your thesis. A deeper, fuller, and more focused explanation of fewer elements is better than a shallow discussion of more elements (shotgun approach).
- Avoid vague, general statements or merely summarizing the plot instead of clearly focusing on the prose passage itself.
- Use transitions to connect sentences and paragraphs.
- Write in the present tense with generally good grammar.
- Keep your introduction and conclusion short, and don’t repeat your thesis verbatim in your conclusion.
The newly-released 2016 sample AP English Literature and Composition exam questions, sample responses, and grading rubrics provide a valuable opportunity to analyze how to achieve high scores on each of the three Section II FRQ responses. However, for purposes of this examination, the Prose Analysis FRQ strategies will be the focus. The prose selection for analysis in last year’s exam was Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, a 19th-century novel. Exam takers had to respond to the following instructions:
- Analyze the complex relationship between the two characters Hardy portrays in the passage.
- Pay attention to tone, word choice, and detail selection.
- Write a well-written essay.
For a clear understanding of the components of a model essay, you’ll find it helpful to analyze and compare all three sample answers provided by the CollegeBoard: the high scoring (A) essay, the mid-range scoring (B) essay, and the low scoring (C) essay. All three provide a lesson for you: to achieve a nine on the prose analysis essay, model the ‘A’ essay’s strengths and avoid the weaknesses of the other two.
Start with a Succinct Introduction that Includes Your Thesis Statement
The first sample essay (A) begins with a packed first sentence: the title of the work, author, named characters, and the subject alluded to in the prompt that will form the foundation of the upcoming argument — the strained relationship between father and daughter. Then, after summarizing the context of the passage — that tense relationship — the student quotes relevant phrases (“lower-class”, “verbal aggressions”) that depict the behavior and character of each.
By packing each sentence efficiently with details (“uncultivated”, “hypocritical”) on the way to the thesis statement, the writer controls the argument by folding in only the relevant details that support the claim at the end of the introduction: though reunited physically, father and daughter remain separated emotionally. The writer wastes no words and quickly directs the reader’s focus to the characters’ words and actions that define their estranged relationship. From the facts cited, the writer’s claim or thesis is logical.
The mid-range B essay introduction also mentions the title, author, and relationship (“strange relationship”) that the instructions direct the writer to examine. However, the student neither names the characters nor identifies what’s “strange” about the relationship. The essay needs more specific details to clarify the complexity in the relationship. Instead, the writer merely hints at that complexity by stating father and daughter “try to become closer to each other’s expectations”. There’s no immediately clear correlation between the “reunification” and the expectations. Finally, the student wastes time and space in the first two sentences with a vague platitude for an “ice breaker” to start the essay. It serves no other function.
The third sample lacks cohesiveness, focus, and a clear thesis statement. The first paragraph introduces the writer’s feelings about the characters and how the elements in the story helped the student analyze, both irrelevant to the call of the instructions. The introduction gives no details of the passage: no name, title, characters, or relationship. The thesis statement is shallow–the daughter was better off before she reunited with her father–as it doesn’t even hint at the complexity of the relationship. The writer merely parrots the prompt instructions about “complex relationship” and “speaker’s tone, word choice, and selection of detail”.
In sum, make introductions brief and compact. Use specific details from the passage that support a logical thesis statement which clearly directs the argument and addresses the instructions’ requirements. Succinct writing helps. Pack your introduction with specific excerpt details, and don’t waste time on sentences that don’t do the work ahead for you. Be sure the thesis statement covers all of the relevant facts of the passage for a cohesive argument.
Use Clear Examples to Support Your Argument Points
The A answer supports the thesis by qualifying the relationship as unhealthy in the first sentence. Then the writer includes the quoted examples that contrast what one would expect characterizes a father-daughter relationship — joyous, blessing, support, praise — against the reality of Henchard and Elizabeth’s relationship: “enigma”, “coldness”, and “open chiding”.
These and other details in the thorough first body paragraph leave nothing for the reader to misunderstand. The essayist proves the paragraph’s main idea with numerous examples. The author controls the first argument point that the relationship is unhealthy by citing excerpted words and actions of the two characters demonstrating the father’s aggressive disapproval and the daughter’s earnestness and shame.
The second and third body paragraphs not only add more proof of the strained relationship in the well-chosen example of the handwriting incident but also explore the underlying motives of the father. In suggesting the father has good intentions despite his outward hostility, the writer proposes that Henchard wants to elevate his long-lost daughter. Henchard’s declaration that handwriting “with bristling characters” defines refinement in a woman both diminishes Elizabeth and reveals his silent hope for her, according to the essayist. This contradiction clearly proves the relationship is “complex”.
The mid-range sample also cites specific details: the words Elizabeth changes (“fay” for “succeed”) for her father. These details are supposed to support the point that class difference causes conflict between the two. However, the writer leaves it to the reader to make the connection between class, expectations, and word choices. The example of the words Elizabeth eliminates from her vocabulary does not illustrate the writer’s point of class conflict. In fact, the class difference as the cause of their difficulties is never explicitly stated. Instead, the writer makes general, unsupported statements about Hardy’s focus on the language difference without saying why Hardy does that.
Like the A essay, sample C also alludes to the handwriting incident but only to note that the description of Henchard turning red is something the reader can imagine. In fact, the writer gives other examples of sensitive and serious tones in the passage but then doesn’t completely explain them. None of the details noted refer to a particular point that supports a focused paragraph. The details don’t connect. They’re merely a string of details.
Discussion is Crucial to Connect Your Quotes and Examples to Your Argument Points
Rather than merely citing phrases and lines without explanation, as the C sample does, the A response spends time thoroughly discussing the meaning of the quoted words, phrases, and sentences used to exemplify their assertions. For example, the third paragraph begins with the point that Henchard’s attempts to elevate Elizabeth in order to better integrate her into the mayor’s “lifestyle” actually do her a disservice. The student then quotes descriptive phrases that characterize Elizabeth as “considerate”, notes her successfully fulfilling her father’s expectations of her as a woman, and concludes that success leads to her failure to get them closer — to un-estrange him.
The A sample writer follows the same pattern throughout the essay: assertion, example, explanation of how the example and assertion cohere, tying both into the thesis statement. Weaving the well-chosen details into the discussion to make reasonable conclusions about what they prove is the formula for an orderly, coherent argument. The writer starts each paragraph with a topic sentence that supports the thesis statement, followed by a sentence that explains and supports the topic sentence in furtherance of the argument.
On the other hand, the B response begins the second paragraph with a general topic sentence: Hardy focuses on the differences between the daughter’s behavior and the father’s expectations. The next sentence follows up with examples of the words Elizabeth changes, leading to the broad conclusion that class difference causes clashes. They give no explanation to connect the behavior — changing her words — with how the diction reveals class differences exists. Nor does the writer explain the motivations of the characters to demonstrate the role of class distinction and expectations. The student forces the reader to make the connections.
Similarly, in the second example of the handwriting incident, the student sets out to prove Elizabeth’s independence and conformity conflict. However, the writer spends too much time re-telling the writing episode — who said what — only to vaguely conclude that 19th-century gender roles dictated the dominant and submissive roles of father and daughter, resulting in the loss of Elizabeth’s independence. The writer doesn’t make those connections between gender roles, dominance, handwriting, and lost freedom. The cause and effect of the handwriting humiliation to the loss of independence are never made.
Write a Brief Conclusion
While it’s more important to provide a substantive, organized, and clear argument throughout the body paragraphs than it is to conclude, a conclusion provides a satisfying rounding out of the essay and last opportunity to hammer home the content of the preceding paragraphs. If you run out of time for a conclusion because of the thorough preceding paragraphs, that is not as fatal to your score as not concluding or not concluding as robustly as the A essay sample.
The A response not only provides another example of the father-daughter inverse relationship — the more he helps her fit in, the more estranged they become — but also ends where the writer began: though they’re physically reunited, they’re still emotionally separated. Without repeating it verbatim, the student returns to the thesis statement at the end. This return and recap reinforce the focus and control of the argument when all of the preceding paragraphs successfully proved the thesis statement.
The B response nicely ties up the points necessary to satisfy the prompt had the writer made them clearly. The parting remarks about the inverse relationship building up and breaking down to characterize the complex relationship between father and daughter are intriguing but not well-supported by all that came before them.
Write in Complete Sentences with Proper Punctuation and Compositional Skills
Though pressed for time, it’s important to write an essay with crisp, correctly punctuated sentences and properly spelled words. Strong compositional skills create a favorable impression to the reader, like using appropriate transitions or signals (however, therefore) to tie sentences and paragraphs together, and making the relationships between sentences clear (“also” — adding information, “however” — contrasting an idea in the preceding sentence).
Starting each paragraph with a clear, focused topic sentence that previews the main idea or focus of the paragraph helps you the writer and the reader keep track of each part of your argument. Each section furthers your points on the way to convincing your reader of your argument. If one point is unclear, unfocused, or grammatically unintelligible, like a house of cards, the entire argument crumbles. Excellent compositional skills help you lay it all out neatly, clearly, and fully.
For example, the A response begins the essay with “In this passage from Thomas Hardy”. The second sentence follows with “Throughout the passage” to tie the two sentences together. There’s no question that the two thoughts link by the transitional phrases that repeat and reinforce one another as well as direct the reader’s attention. The B response, however, uses transitions less frequently, confuses the names of the characters, and switches verb tenses in the essay. It’s harder to follow.
So by the time the conclusion takes the reader home, the high-scoring writer has done all of the following:
- followed the prompt
- followed the propounded thesis statement and returned to it in the end
- provided a full discussion with examples
- included quotes proving each assertion
- used clear, grammatically correct sentences
- wrote paragraphs ordered by a thesis statement
- created topic sentences for each paragraph
- ensured each topic sentence furthered the ideas presented in the thesis statement
Have a Plan and Follow it
To get a nine on the prose analysis FRQ essay in the AP Literature and Composition exam, you should practice timed essays. Write as many practice essays as you can. Follow the same procedure each time. After reading the prompt, map out your thesis statement, paragraph topic sentences, and supporting details and quotes in the order of their presentation. Then follow your plan faithfully.
Be sure to leave time for a brief review to catch mechanical errors, missing words, or clarifications of an unclear thought. With time, an organized approach, and plenty of practice, earning a nine on the poetry analysis is manageable. Be sure to ask your teacher or consult other resources, like albert.io’s Prose Analysis practice essays, for questions and more practice opportunities.
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The origins of vernacular writing
By 711, when the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula began, Latin spoken there had begun its transformation into Romance. Tenth-century glosses to Latin texts in manuscripts belonging to the monasteries of San Millán de la Cogolla and Silos, in north-central Spain, contain traces of a vernacular already substantially developed. The earliest texts in Mozarabic (the Romance dialect of Spaniards living under the Muslims) were recovered from Hebrew and from Arabicmuwashshaḥs (poems in strophic form, with subjects such as panegyrics on love). The last strophe of the muwashshaḥ was the markaz, or theme stanza, popularly called the kharjah and transcribed in Spanish as jarcha. These jarchas provide evidence of a popular poetry begun perhaps as early as the 10th century, and they are related to traditional Spanish lyric types (e.g., the villancico, “carol”) of the later Middle Ages and Renaissance. The jarcha was generally a woman’s love song, and the motif, in Romance, was a cry of passion on which the whole poem was based, providing a clear thematic relationship to Galician-Portuguese cantigas of the late 12th through mid-14th centuries. Women poets in the region of Andalusia writing in Arabic during the 11th and 12th centuries include al-Abbadiyya and Ḥafṣa bint al-Hājj al-Rukuniyya; the best known were Wallada la Omeya, Butayna bint ʿAbbād, and Umm al-Kiram bint Sumadih, all of royal blood.
The rise of heroic poetry
The earliest surviving monument of Spanish literature, and one of its most distinctive masterpieces, is the Cantar de mío Cid (“Song of My Cid”; also called Poema de mío Cid), an epic poem of the mid-12th century (the existing manuscript is an imperfect copy of 1307). It tells of the fall from and restoration to royal favour of a Castilian noble, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, known as the Cid (derived from the Arabic title sidi, “lord”). Because of the poem’s setting, personages, topographical detail, and realistic tone and treatment and because the poet wrote soon after the Cid’s death, this poem has been accepted as historically authentic, a conclusion extended to the Castilian epic generally. The second and third sections of Cantar de mío Cid, however, appear to be imaginative, and the mere six lines accorded the Cid’s conquest of Valencia, taking it from the Muslims, show that the poet’s approach is subjective. Nevertheless, the Cid’s adventures lived on in epic, chronicle, ballad, and drama, reputedly embodying Castilian character.
Folk epics, known as cantares de gesta (“songs of deeds”) and recited by jongleurs, celebrated heroic exploits such as the Cid’s. Medieval historiographers often incorporated prose versions of these cantares in their chronicles, Latin and vernacular; it was by this process that the fanciful Cantar de Rodrigo (“Song of Rodrigo”), chronicling the Cid’s early manhood with elements of the later legend, was preserved. Fragments of the Cantar de Roncesvalles (“Song of Roncesvalles”) and Poema de Fernán González (“Poem of Fernán González”) rework earlier epics. Vernacular chroniclers mention many other heroic minstrel narratives, now lost, but, as a result of the incorporation of these narratives into chronicles, themes and textual passages can be reconstructed. Heroic narratives partially recovered include Los siete infantes de Lara (“The Seven Princes of Lara”), El cerco de Zamora (“The Siege of Zamora”), Bernardo del Carpio, and other themes from Castile’s feudal history, subject matter that echoes remote Visigothic origins rather than French epics.
The beginnings of prose
A major influence on prose was exercised by Arabic. Oriental learning entered Christian Spain with the capture (1085) of Toledo from the Muslims, and the city became a centre of translation from Oriental languages. An anonymous translation from Arabic (1251) of the beast fableKalīlah wa Dimnah exemplifies early storytelling in Spanish. A romance of the Seven Sages, the Sendebar, was translated likewise through Arabic, with other collections of Eastern stories.
By the mid-12th century, the Christians had recovered Córdoba, Valencia, and Sevilla. A propitious intellectual atmosphere fomented the founding of universities, and under Alfonso X of Castile and Leon (reigned 1252–84) vernacular literature achieved prestige. Alfonso, in whose chancery Castilian replaced Latin, mandated translations and compilations aimed at fusing all knowledge—Classical, Oriental, Hebrew, and Christian—in the vernacular. These works, some under his personal editorship, include the great legal code Las Siete Partidas (“The Seven Divisions”), containing invaluable information on daily life, and compilations from Arabic sources on astronomy, on the magical properties of gems, and on games, especially chess. The Crónica general, a history of Spain, and the General estoria, an attempted universal history from the Creation onward, were foundational works of Spanish historiography. The Crónica general, overseen by Alfonso to ad 711 and completed by his son Sancho IV, was Spain’s most influential medieval work. Alfonso, sometimes called the father of Castilian prose, was also a major poet, and he compiled early Spain’s greatest collection of medieval poetry and music, the Cantigas de Santa María (“Songs to St. Mary”), in Galician.
Learned narrative poetry
The mester de clerecía (“craft of the clergy”) was a new poetic mode, indebted to France and the monasteries and presupposing literate readers. It adapted the French alexandrine in the “fourfold way”—i.e., 14-syllable lines used in four-line monorhyme stanzas—and treated religious, didactic, or pseudohistorical matter. During the 13th century, Gonzalo de Berceo, Spain’s earliest poet known by name, wrote rhymed vernacular chronicles of saints’ lives, the miracles of the Virgin, and other devotional themes with ingenuous candour, accumulating picturesque and affectionately observed popular detail.
The 14th century
Following the period of translation and compilation came brilliant original creations, represented in prose by Alfonso’s nephew Juan Manuel and in poetry by Juan Ruiz (also called Archpriest of Hita). Juan Manuel’s eclecticLibro de los enxiemplos del conde Lucanor et de Patronio (Eng. trans. The Book of Count Lucanor and Patronio)—which consists of 51 moral tales variously didactic, amusing, and practical—drew partly on Arabic, Oriental, and popular Spanish sources. It was Spain’s first collection of prose fiction rendered in the vernacular. Juan Manuel’s seven surviving books treat such subjects as hunting, chivalry, heraldry, genealogy, education, and Christianity. The frame story that links Count Lucanor’s tales anticipates novelistic structure: the young count repeatedly seeks advice from his tutor Patronio, who responds with exemplary tales.
Chivalric romances of the Arthurian or Breton cycle, which had been circulating in translation, partially inspired Spain’s first romance of chivalry and first novel, El caballero Cifar (c. 1305; “The Knight Cifar”), based on St. Eustace, the Roman general miraculously converted to Christianity. Amadís de Gaula—the oldest known version of which, dating from 1508, was written in Spanish by Garci Rodríguez (or Ordóñez) de Montalvo, although it may have begun circulation in the early 14th century—is another chivalric romance related to Arthurian sources. It enthralled the popular imagination through the 16th century with its sentimental idealism, lyrical atmosphere, and supernatural adventure.
Juan Ruiz, an intensely alert, individual early poet, composed the Libro de buen amor (1330, expanded 1343; “Book of Good Love”), which combined disparate elements—Ovid, Aesop, the Roman Catholic liturgy, and the 12th-century Latin Pamphilus de amore, an anonymous elegiac comedy. The result mingled eroticism with devotion and invited readers to interpret often-equivocal teachings. Ruiz’s Trotaconventos became Spanish literature’s first great fictional character. Ruiz handled alexandrine metre with new vigour and plasticity, interspersing religious, pastoral-farcical, amorous, and satirical lyrics of great metrical variety.
More-exotic elements appeared in the Proverbios morales (c. 1355) of Santob de Carrión de los Condes and in an Aragonese version of the biblical story of Joseph, which was based on the Qurʾān and written in Arabic characters. Drawing on the Old Testament, the Talmud, and the Hebrew poet and philosopher Ibn Gabirol, Santob’s Proverbios introduced Hebrew poetry’s grave sententiousness and aphoristic concision.
Pedro López de Ayala dominated poetry and prose during the later 1300s with his Rimado de palacio (“Poem of Palace Life”), the last major relic of the “fourfold-way” verse form, and with family chronicles of 14th-century Castilian monarchs Peter, Henry II, John I, and Henry III, which stimulated production of personal, contemporary history. An early humanist, Ayala translated and imitated Livy, Boccaccio, Boethius, St. Gregory, and St. Isidore.
A subgenre vigorously cultivated was the misogynistictreatise warning against women’s wiles. Rooted in works that condemned Eve for the Fall of Man, they include such works as Disciplina clericalis (The Scholar’s Guide), written in the late 11th or early 12th century by Pedro Alfonso (Petrus Alfonsi); El Corbacho, also known as El Arcipreste de Talavera (c. 1438; Eng. trans. Little Sermons on Sin), by Alfonso Martínez de Toledo; and Repetición de amores (c. 1497; “Repetitious Loves”; Eng. trans. An Anti-feminist Treatise of Fifteenth Century Spain) by Luis Ramírez de Lucena. Numerous examples from medieval Spanish literature and folklore echoed the same themes (e.g., Juan Manuel’s Count Lucanor and Juan Ruiz’s Book of Good Love).
The 15th century
The early 15th century witnessed a renewal of poetry under Italian influence. During the reign of King John II, the anarchy of feudalism’s death throes contrasted with the cultivation of polite letters, which signified good birth and breeding. The Cancionero de Baena (“Songbook of Baena”), compiled for the king by the poet Juan Alfonso de Baena, anthologized 583 poems (mostly courtly lyrics) by 55 poets from the highest nobles to the humblest versifiers. The collection showed not merely the decadence of Galician-Portuguese troubadours but also the stirrings of more-intellectual poetry incorporating symbol, allegory, and Classical allusions in the treatment of moral, philosophical, and political themes. Other significant verse collections include the Cancionero de Estúñiga (c. 1460–63) and the important Cancionero general (1511) of Hernando del Castillo; among the latter’s 128 named poets is Florencia Pinar, one of the first women poets in Castilian to be identified by name. Francisco Imperial, a Genoese who settled in Sevilla and a leader among new poets, drew on Dante, attempting to transplant the Italian hendecasyllable (11-syllable line) to Spanish poetry.
The marqués de Santillana—a poet, scholar, soldier, and statesman—collected masterpieces of foreign literatures and stimulated translation. His Proemio e carta al condestable de Portugal (1449; “Preface and Letter to the Constable of Portugal”), which initiated literary history and criticism in Spanish, reflected his readings in contemporary foreign languages and translated classics. Santillana’s sonnets in the “Italian style” launched the formal enrichment of Spanish poetry. He is still acknowledged as a precursor of the Renaissance, though his sonnets and long poems, which reflect his Italian-influenced training, are often neglected in favour of his charming rustic songs of native inspiration. Juan de Mena’s vast allegorical poem dramatizing history past, present, and future (El laberinto de fortuna, 1444; “The Labyrinth of Fortune”), a more conscious attempt to rival Dante, suffers from pedantry and over-Latinization of syntax and vocabulary.
An outstanding anonymous 15th-century poem, the “Danza de la muerte” (“Dance of Death”), exemplifies a theme then popular with poets, painters, and composers across western Europe. Written with greater satiric force than other works that treated the dance of death theme, it introduced characters (e.g., a rabbi) not found in its predecessors and presented a cross section of society via conversations between Death and his protesting victims. Although not intended for dramatic presentation, it formed the basis for later dramas.
The era of the Renaissance
The beginning of the Siglo de Oro
The unification of Spain in 1479 and the establishment of its overseas empire, which began with Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the New World (1492–93), contributed to the emergence of the Renaissance in Spain, as did the introduction of printing to the country (1474) and the cultural influence of Italy. The early Spanish humanists included the first grammarians and lexicographers of any Romance tongue. Juan Luis Vives, the brothers Juan and Alfonso de Valdés, and others were followers of Erasmus, whose writings circulated in translation from 1536 onward and whose influence appears in the Counter-Reformation figure of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), and in the later religious writer and poet Luis de León. Nor did Spain lack women humanists; some exceptional women renowned for their erudition taught in universities, including Francisca de Nebrija and Lucía Medrano. Beatriz Galindo (“La Latina”) taught Latin to Queen Isabella I; Luisa Sigea de Velasco—a humanist, scholar, and writer of poetry, dialogues, and letters in Spanish and in Latin—taught at the Portuguese court.
Connecting the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is the masterful Comedia de Calixto y Melibea (1499), a novel of 16 “acts” in dialogue form published anonymously but attributed to Fernando de Rojas. The dominant character, the procuress Celestina, is depicted with unsurpassed realism and gives the work the title by which it is commonly known, La Celestina. The analysis of passion and the dramatic conflict that lust unleashes attain great psychological intensity in this early masterpiece of Spanish prose, sometimes considered Spain’s first realistic novel.
These figures and works of the early Renaissance prepared the way for the Siglo de Oro (“Golden Age”), a period often dated from the publication in 1554 of Lazarillo de Tormes, the first picaresque novel, to the death in 1681 of dramatist and poet Pedro Calderón. Comparable to the Elizabethan era in England, albeit longer, Spain’s Siglo de Oro spanned both the Renaissance and Baroque periods and produced not only drama and poetry that match Shakespeare’s in stature but also Miguel de Cervantes’s celebrated novel Don Quixote.
Surviving for centuries in the oral tradition, Spanish ballads (romances) link medieval heroic epic to modern poetry and drama. The earliest datable romances—from the mid-15th century, although the romance form itself has been traced to the 11th century—treated frontier incidents or lyrical themes. Anonymous romances on medieval heroic themes, commemorating history as it happened, formed everyman’s sourcebook on national history and character; they were anthologized in the Antwerp Cancionero de romances (“Ballad Songbook”) and the Silva de varios romances (“Miscellany of Various Ballads”), both published about 1550 and repeatedly thereafter. The romance form (octosyllabic, alternate lines having a single assonance throughout) was quickly adopted by cultured poets and also became the medium of choice for popular narrative verse.
The Catalan Juan Boscán Almogáver revived attempts to Italianize Spanish poetry by reintroducing Italian metres; he preceded Garcilaso de la Vega, with whom the cultured lyric was reborn. Garcilaso added intense personal notes and characteristic Renaissance themes to a masterful poetic technique derived from medieval and Classical poets. His short poems, elegies, and sonnets shaped the development of Spain’s lyric poetry throughout the Siglo de Oro.
Fray Luis de León, adopting some of Garcilaso’s verse techniques, typified the “Salamanca school,” which emphasized content rather than form. Poet and critic Fernando de Herrera headed a contrasting school in Sevilla, which was derived equally from Garcilaso but was concerned with subtly refined sentiment; Herrera’s remarkable verse vibrantly expressed topical heroic themes. The popularity of the short native metres was reinforced by traditional ballad collections (romanceros) and by the evolving drama.
Models for epic poetry were the works of Italian poets Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso, but the themes and heroes of Spanish epics celebrated overseas conquest or defense of the empire and the faith. Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga achieved epic distinction with Araucana (published 1569–90), chronicling native resistance to Spain’s conquest of Chile. A similar attempt at epic, Lope de Vega’s Dragontea (1598), retells Sir Francis Drake’s last voyage and death.
Spanish drama originated in the church. The Auto de los reyes magos (“Play of the Three Wise Kings”), dated from the second half of the 12th century, is an incomplete play of the Epiphany cycle. It is medieval Spanish drama’s only extant text. The play’s realistic characterization of the Magi and of Herod and his advisers and its polymetric form foreshadowed aspects of later dramatic development in Spain.
A reference in King Alfonso X’s legal code suggested the existence of some popular secular drama in the 13th century, but no texts have survived. These juegos (short satiric entertainments given by traveling players) antedated the plays that constitute one of Spain’s main contributions to dramatic genres: the pasos, entremeses, and sainetes, all short, typically humorous works originally used as interludes.
Juan del Encina helped emancipate the drama from ecclesiastical ties by giving performances for noble patrons. His Cancionero (1496; “Songbook”) contains pastoral-religious dramatic dialogues in rustic dialect, but he soon turned to secular themes and vivid farce. His conception of drama evolved during his long stay in Italy, with native medievalism transforming into Renaissance experimentation. The work of Encina’s Portuguese discipleGil Vicente, a court poet at Lisbon who wrote in both Castilian and Portuguese, showed a significantly improved naturalness of dialogue, acuteness of observation, and sense of situation.
Drama’s transition from court to marketplace and the creation of a broader public were largely accomplished by Lope de Rueda, who toured Spain with his modest troupe performing a repertoire of his own composition. His four prose comedies have been called clumsy, but his 10 pasos showed his dramatic merits. He fathered Spain’s one-act play, perhaps the country’s most vital and popular dramatic form.
The first dramatist to realize the ballads’ theatrical possibilities was Juan de la Cueva. His comedies and tragedies derived largely from Classical antiquity, but in Los siete infantes de Lara (“The Seven Princes of Lara”), El reto de Zamora (“The Challenge of Zamora”), and La libertad de España por Bernardo del Carpio (“The Liberation of Spain by Bernardo del Carpio”), all published in 1588, he revived heroic legends familiar in romances and helped to found a national drama.
Prose before the Counter-Reformation produced some notable dialogues, especially Alfonso de Valdés’s Diálogo de Mercurio y Carón (1528; “Dialogue Between Mercury and Charon”). His brother Juan de Valdés’s Diálogo de la lengua (“Dialogue About the Language”) attained great critical prestige. The themes of history and patriotism flourished as Spain’s power increased; among the finest achievements from this epoch was Juan de Mariana’s own translation into Spanish (1601) of his Latin history of Spain, which marked the vernacular’s triumph for all literary purposes.
Major landmarks in historical writing emanated from the New World, transmuting vital experience into literature with unaccustomed vividness. Christopher Columbus’s letters and accounts of his voyages, the letters and accounts to King Charles V by Hernán Cortés, and similar narratives by more humble conquistadores opened new horizons to readers. Attempting to capture exotic landscapes in words, they enlarged the language’s resources. The most engaging of such writings was the Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (1632; True History of the Conquest of New Spain) by the explorer Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, sometimes called the “Apostle of the Indies,” wrote Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, or The Tears of the Indians) in 1542, criticizing Spanish colonial policy and abuse of the native population. His work helped to give rise among Spain’s enemies to the infamous Leyenda Negra (“Black Legend”).
Popular taste in the novel was dominated for a century by progeny of the medieval courtly romance Amadís de Gaula. These chivalric romances perpetuated certain medieval ideals, but they also represented pure escapism, eventually provoking such literary reactions as the pastoral novel and the picaresque novel. The former, imported from Italy, oozed nostalgia for an Arcadian golden age; its shepherds were courtiers and poets who, like the knights-errant of chivalric romance, turned their backs on reality. Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana (1559?) initiated Spain’s pastoral vogue, which was later cultivated by such major writers as Cervantes (La Galatea, 1585) and Lope de Vega (La Arcadia, 1598).
Another reaction appeared in the picaresque novel, a genre initiated with the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes (1554). This native Spanish genre, widely imitated elsewhere, featured as its protagonist a pícaro (“rogue”), essentially an antihero, living by his wits and concerned only with staying alive. Passing from master to master, he depicted life from underneath. Significant for guiding fiction to direct observation of life, the picaresque formula has long been imitated, up to such 20th-century writers as Pío Baroja, Juan Antonio de Zunzunegui, and Camilo José Cela.
Miguel de Cervantes, the preeminent figure in Spanish literature, produced in Don Quixote (part 1, 1605; part 2, 1615) the prototype of the modern novel. Nominally satirizing the moribund chivalric romance, Cervantes presented “reality” on two levels: the “poetic truth” of Don Quixote and the “historic truth” of his squire, Sancho Panza. Where Don Quixote saw and attacked an advancing army, Sancho saw only a herd of sheep; what Sancho perceived as windmills were menacing giants to the questing knight-errant. The constant interaction of these rarely compatible attitudes revealed the novel’s potential for philosophical commentary on existence; the dynamic interplay and evolution of the two characters established psychological realism and abandoned prior fiction’s static characterizations. In the Novelas ejemplares (1613; “Exemplary Tales”), Cervantes claimed to be the first to write novelas (short stories in the Italian manner) in Spanish, differentiating between narratives that interest for their action and those whose merit lies in the mode of telling.
María de Zayas y Sotomayor, Spain’s first woman novelist, was among the few women writers of the period who did not belong to a religious order. She too published Italian-inspired short stories, in the collections Novelas amorosas y ejemplares (1637; Eng. trans. The Enchantments of Love: Amorous and Exemplary Novels) and Desengaños amorosos (1647; “Disillusion in Love”). Both employ framing structures in which, like Giovanni Boccaccio’sDecameron, men and women gather to tell stories; many characters from the first collection appear in the second, including the protagonist, Lisis. The stories of Novelas amorosas are told during the nights, those of Desengaños during the days; most concern the “battle of the sexes,” featuring innocent victims and evildoers of both sexes, but plots turn upon men’s seduction, treachery, abuse, and even torture of defenseless women.
The flowering of Spanish mysticism coincided with the Counter-Reformation, although antecedents appear, particularly in the expatriate Spanish Jew León Hebreo, whose Dialoghi di amore (1535; “The Dialogues of Love”), written in Italian, profoundly influenced 16th-century and later Spanish thought. The mystics’ literary importance derives from attempts to transcend language’s limitations, liberating previously untapped resources of expression. The writings of St. Teresa of Ávila, notably her autobiography and letters, reveal a great novelist in embryo. In his prose as in his poetry, Fray Luis de León showed passionate devotion, sincerity, and profound feeling for nature in a style of singular purity; he also wrote a conservative tract on educating women, La perfecta casada (1583; The Perfect Wife), glossing Proverbs 31. St. John of the Cross achieved preeminence through poems of exalted style expressing the experience of mystic union.
Writings about women
Among the feminine voices that defended women’s interests during the Renaissance and Siglo de Oro were Sor Teresa de Cartagena in the 15th century and Luisa de Padilla, Isabel de Liaño, and Sor María de Santa Isabel in the early 16th century. They were champions of women’s rights to education and free choice in matrimony. Traditionalist reactions during the Counter-Reformation included treatises on the training of women, such as Fray Alonso de Herrera’s Espejo de la perfecta casada (c. 1637, “Mirror of the Perfect Wife”).
The drama achieved its true splendour in the genius of Lope de Vega (in full Lope Félix de Vega Carpio). Its manifesto was Lope’s own treatise, Arte nuevo de hacer comedias en este tiempo (1609; “New Art of Writing Plays at This Time”), which rejected Neoclassical “rules,” opting to blend comedy and tragedy with metrical variety, and made public opinion the arbiter of good taste. The new comedia (“drama”) advocated respect for the crown, church, and human personality. The last was symbolized in the theme that Lope considered best of all: the pundonor (“point of honour”), grounded in a gender code that made women the repository of family honour, which could be tarnished or lost by the woman’s slightest indiscretion. Lope’s drama was concerned less with character than with action and intrigue, seldom approaching the essence of tragedy. What this great Spanish playwright did possess was a remarkable sense of stagecraft and the ability to make the most intricate plot gripping.
Lope, who claimed authorship of more than 1,800 comedias, towered over his contemporaries. With his unerring sense of what could move an audience, he exploited evocations of Spain’s greatness, making its drama “national” in the truest sense. Two main categories of his work are the native historical drama and the comedia capa y espada (“cloak-and-sword drama”) of contemporary manners. Lope ransacked the literary past for heroic themes, chosen to illustrate aspects of the national character or of social solidarity. The cloak-and-sword play, which dominated drama after Lope, was pure entertainment, exploiting disguise, falling in and out of love, and false alarms about honour. In it affairs of the lady and her gallant are often parodied through the actions of the servants. The cloak-and-sword play delighted by the dexterity of its intricate plotting, its sparkling dialogue, and the entangled relationships depicted between the sexes.
The greatest of Lope’s immediate successors, Tirso de Molina (pseudonym of Fray Gabriel Téllez), first dramatized the Don Juan legend in his Burlador de Sevilla (1630; “The Trickster of Sevilla”). La prudencia en la mujer (1634; “Prudence in Woman”) figured among Spain’s greatest historical dramas, as did El condenado por desconfiado (1635; The Doubter Damned) among theological plays. Tirso’s cloak-and-sword comedies excelled in liveliness. Mexican-born Juan Ruiz de Alarcón struck a distinctive note. His 20 plays were sober, studied, and imbued with serious moral purpose, and his Verdad sospechosa (1634; “The Truth Suspected”) inspired the great French dramatist Pierre Corneille’s Menteur (1643). Corneille’s famous Le Cid (1637) similarly drew upon the conflict between love and honour presented in Las mocedades del Cid (1599?; “The Youthful Exploits of the Cid”) by Guillén de Castro y Bellvís.
Although their names were suppressed and their works left largely unperformed for centuries, several women dramatists of the Siglo de Oro left extant plays. Ángela de Acevedo—a lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth (Isabel de Borbón), wife of King Philip IV—left three extant plays of unknown dates: El muerto disimulado (“The Pretending Dead Man”), La Margarita del Tajo que dió nombre a Santarem (“Margarita of Tajo Who Named Santarem”), and Dicha y desdicha del juego y devoción de la Virgen (“Bliss and Misfortune in Gaming and Devotion to the Virgin”). Ana Caro Mallén de Soto, friend of the novelist María de Zayas, wrote El Conde Partinuplés (“Count Partinuples”) and Valor, agravio y mujer (“Valour, Dishonour, and Woman”), both probably during the 1640s. Feliciana Enríquez de Guzmán—thought to have flourished about 1565 but whose identity is disputed—wrote Tragicomedia de los jardines y campos Sabeos (“Tragicomedy of the Sabaean Gardens and Fields”). In the middle of the 17th century María de Zayas wrote Traición en la amistad (“Betrayal in Friendship”). Sor Marcela de San Félix was an illegitimate daughter of Lope de Vega; born Marcela del Carpio, she entered a convent at age 16 and wrote, directed, and acted in six one-act allegorical plays, the Coloquios espirituales (“Spiritual Colloquies”). She also penned short dramatic panegyrics, romances, and other books. Common denominators in these women’s works are religious themes, honour, friendship, love, and misfortune.
Culteranismo and conceptismo
In poetry and prose the early 17th century in Spain was marked by the rise and spread of two interrelated stylistic movements, often considered typical of the Baroque. Authors shared an elitist desire to communicate only with the initiated, so that writings in both styles present considerable interpretive difficulties. Culteranismo, the ornate, roundabout, high-flown style of which Luis de Góngora y Argote was archpriest, attempted to ennoble the language by re-Latinizing it. Poets writing in this style created hermetic vocabulary and used stilted syntax and word order, with expression garbed (and disguised) in Classical myth, allusion, and complicated metaphor, all of which rendered their work sometimes incomprehensible. Góngora’s major poetic achievement (Soledades [1613; “Solitudes”]) invited many untalented imitations of his uniquely elaborate style, which came to be known as Gongorism (gongorismo). The other stylistic movement, conceptismo, played on ideas as culteranismo did on language. Aiming at the semblance of profundity, conceptista style was concise, aphoristic, and epigrammatic and thus belonged primarily to prose, especially satire. Concerned with stripping appearances from reality, it had as its best outlet the essay. Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Villegas, the greatest satirist of his time and a master of language, was, in Sueños (1627; “Dreams”), an outstanding exponent of conceptismo; similar traits appear in his picaresque satire La vida del buscón llamado don Pablos (1626; “The Life of the Trickster Called Don Pablos”; Eng. trans. The Scavenger and The Swindler). Baltasar Gracián reduced conceptista refinement to an exact code in Agudeza y arte de ingenio (1642, 2nd ed. 1648; “Subtlety and the Art of Genius”); he also tried to codify in a series of treatises the art of living. Gracián’s thought in his allegorical novel El criticón (1651, 1653, 1657; The Critick) reflected a pessimistic vision of life as “daily dying.”
The plays of Calderón
Pedro Calderón de la Barca adapted Lope de Vega’s formula for producing tightly structured dramas wherein formal artistry and poetic texture combine with thematic profundity and unified dramatic purpose. One of the world’s outstanding dramatists, Calderón wrote plays that were effective in both the public playhouses and Madrid’s newly built court theatre of Buen Retiro, whose elaborate stage technology allowed him to excel in mythological drama (La estatua de Prometeo [1669; “The Statue of Prometheus”]). Calderón contributed to an emerging musical comedy form, the zarzuela (El jardín de Falerina [1648; “The Garden of Falerina”]), and cultivated many subgenres; his numerous secular plays encompassed both comedy and tragedy. His best comedies provide subtle critiques of urban mores, combining laughter with tragic foreboding (La dama duende [1629; The Phantom Lady]). His tragedies probe the human predicament, exploring personal and collective guilt (Las tres justicias en una [c. 1637; Three Judgments at a Blow]), the bathos of limited vision and lack of communication (El pintor de su deshonra [c. 1645; The Painter of His Own Dishonour]), the destructiveness of certain social codes (El médico de su honra [1635; The Surgeon of His Honour]), and the conflict between the constructive nature of reason and the destructive violence of self-centred passion (La hija del aire [1653; “The Daughter of the Air”]). His best-known plays, appropriately classified as high drama, include El alcalde de Zalamea (c. 1640; The Mayor of Zalamea), which rejects social honour’s tyranny, preferring the inner nature of true human worth and dignity. Philosophical problems of determinism and free will dominate La vida es sueño (1635; Life Is a Dream), a masterpiece that explores escaping from life’s confusion to awareness of reality and self-knowledge.
Calderón’s overtly religious plays range from Jesuit drama emphasizing conversion (El mágico prodigioso [1637; The Wonder-Working Magician]) and heroic saintliness (El príncipe constante [1629; The Constant Prince]) to his autos sacramentales, liturgical plays employing formal abstractions and symbols to expound the Fall of Man and Christian redemption, in which he brought to perfection the medieval tradition of the morality play. These liturgical plays range in their artistry from the immediate metaphorical appeal of El gran teatro del mundo (c. 1635; The Great Theatre of the World) to the increasingly elaborate patterns of his later productions (La nave del mercader [1674; “The Merchant’s Ship”]).
After Calderón’s death, Spanish drama languished for 100 years. Culteranismo and conceptismo, although symptoms rather than causes of decline, contributed to stifling imaginative literature, and, by the close of the 17th century, all production characterizing the Siglo de Oro had essentially ceased.
The 18th century
New critical approaches
In 1700 Charles II, the last monarch of the Habsburg dynasty, died without an heir, thereby provoking the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), a European conflict over control of Spain. The resultant establishment of the Bourbon dynasty initiated French domination of Spain’s political and cultural life. Following patterns of the Enlightenment in England and France, numerous academies were created, such as the Real Academia de la Lengua Española (1713, now the Real Academia Española [Royal Spanish Academy]), founded to guard linguistic integrity. Men of letters began again to study abroad, discovering how far Spain had diverged from the intellectual course of western Europe. New inquiries into the national heritage led scholars to unearth forgotten medieval literature. Gregorio Mayáns y Siscar produced the first biographical study of Cervantes in 1737, and church historian Enrique Flórez, embarking in 1754 on a vast historical enterprise, España sagrada, resurrected the cultural backgrounds of medieval Christian Spain. Literary landmarks included the first publication of the 12th-century epic Poema de mío Cid, the works of Gonzalo de Berceo, and Juan Ruiz’s Libro de buen amor.
Debates concerning values of the old and the new raged during the century’s middle decades, compelling both sides to initiate new critical approaches to literature. Leaders included Ignacio de Luzán Claramunt, whose work on poetics launched the great Neoclassical polemic in Spain, and Benito Jerónimo Feijóo y Montenegro, a Benedictine monk who assailed error, prejudice, and superstition wherever he found them, contributing significantly to Spain’s intellectual emancipation. Fray Martín Sarmiento (Benedictine name of Pedro José García Balboa), a scholar and friend of Feijóo, treated subjects from religion and philosophy to science and child rearing; much of his work remains unpublished. Feijóo’s monumental Theatro crítico universal (1726–39; “Universal Critical Theatre”), a compendium of knowledge, exemplifies the interests and achievements of the encyclopaedists. Another major encyclopaedic talent, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, produced streams of reports, essays, memoirs, and studies on agriculture, the economy, political organization, law, industry, natural science, and literature, as well as ways to improve them, in addition to writing Neoclassical drama and poetry.
Pedro de Montengón y Paret introduced narrative genres then popular in France—philosophical and pedagogical novels in the style of Jean-Jacques Rousseau—with such works as Eusebio (1786–88), a four-volume novel set in America that exalted the religion of nature. Montengón also published El Antenor (1778) and El Rodrigo, romance épico (1793; “Roderick, Epic Ballad”). Fray Gerundio (1758) by José Francisco de Isla, satirizing exaggerated pulpit oratory, reincorporated aspects of the picaresque novel. This genre was also echoed in works of Diego de Torres Villarroel, whose Vida, ascendencia, nacimiento, crianza y aventuras (1743–58; “Life, Ancestry, Birth, Upbringing, and Adventures”), whether a novel or an autobiography, remains among the century’s most readable narratives. Torres Villarroel experimented with all literary genres, and his collected works, published 1794–99, are fertile sources for studying 18th-century character, aesthetics, and literary style. Josefa Amar y Borbón defended women’s admission to learned academies, asserting their equal intelligence in “Discurso en defensa del talento de las mujeres y de su aptitud para el gobierno y otros cargos en que se emplean los hombres” (1786; “Discourse in Defense of the Talent of Women and Their Aptitude for Government and Other Positions in Which Men Are Employed”). Amar published on many topics, most frequently women’s right to education.
About 1775 Diego González led the Salamanca poetry revival group seeking inspiration in Fray Luis de León; two decades later a group at Sevilla turned to Fernando de Herrera. Juan Meléndez Valdés, a disciple of English philosopher John Locke and English poet Edward Young, best exemplified the new influences on poetry during this period. Employing Classical and Renaissance models, these reformers rejected Baroque excess, restoring poetry’s clarity and harmony. Tomás de Iriarte—a Neoclassical poet, dramatist, theoretician, and translator—produced successful comedies (e.g., El señorito mimado [1787; “The Pampered Youth”] and La señorita malcriada [1788; “The Ill-Bred Miss”]) and the satire Los literatos en cuaresma (1772; “Writers in Lent”), which attacked Neoclassicism’s foes. His fame rests on Fábulas literarias (1782; “Literary Fables”), a collection of fables and Neoclassical precepts rendered in verse. The fabulist, literary critic, and poet Félix María Samaniego published an enduringly popular collection, Fábulas en verso (1781; “Fables in Verse”), which—with Iriarte’s fables—is among Neoclassicism’s most enjoyable, best-loved poetic productions.
In drama, the second half of the century witnessed disputes concerning the Neoclassical “rules” (chiefly the unities of place, time, and action). La Raquel (1778), a Neoclassical tragedy by Vicente García de la Huerta, showed the capabilities of the reformist school. Ramón de la Cruz, representing the Spanish “nationalist” dramatists against the afrancesados (imitators of French models), resurrected the earlier pasos and longer entremeses of Lope de Rueda, Cervantes, and Luis Quiñones de Benavente. Satires of the Madrid scene, Cruz’s one-act sketches neither transgressed the unities nor offended the purist; they delighted the public, bringing drama back to observation of life and society. Leandro Fernández de Moratín applied the lesson to full-length plays, producing effective comedies imbued with deep social seriousness. His dialogue in La comedia nueva (1792; “The New Comedy”) and El sí de las niñas (1806; The Maiden’s Consent) ranks with the 18th century’s best prose.
The work of the dramatist, poet, essayist, and short-fiction writer José de Cadalso y Vázquez (pseudonym Dalmiro) moves between Neoclassic aesthetics and Romantic cosmic despair. Scion of a distinguished noble family, he chose a military career and died in 1782, at age 41, during Spain’s unsuccessful attempt to recover Gibraltar from Great Britain. Banished from Madrid to Aragón in 1768 on suspicion of being the author of a sharp satire, he wrote the poems later collected in Ocios de mi juventud (1773; “Pastimes of My Youth”). In 1770 he returned to Madrid, where his close friendships with Moratín and leading actresses prompted his heroic tragedyDon Sancho García (1771) as well as Solaya; o, los circasianos (“Solaya; or, The Circassians”) and La Numantina (“The Girl from Numancia”). Cadalso’s most important works are two satires—Los eruditos a la violeta (published 1772; “Wise Men Without Learning”) and the brilliant Cartas marruecas (written c. 1774, published 1793; “Moroccan Letters”), inspired by the epistolary fictions of Oliver Goldsmith and Montesquieu—and the enigmaticNoches lúgubres (written c. 1774, published 1798; “Mournful Nights”), a Gothic and Byronic work that anticipates Romanticism.
Several women writers emerged during the Enlightenment and were active from 1770 onward in the male-dominated Spanish theatre. They wrote Neoclassic drama: comedias lacrimosas (tearful plays), zarzuelas (musical comedies), sainetes, Romantic tragedies, and costumbrista comedies. While some women wrote for small private audiences (convents and literary salons), others wrote for the public stage: Margarita Hickey and María Rosa Gálvez were both quite successful, with the former producing translations of Jean Racine and Voltaire and the latter composing some 13 original plays from opera and light comedy to high tragedy. Gálvez’s Moratín-style comedy Los figurones literarios (1804; “The Literary Nobodies”) ridicules pedantry; her tragedy Florinda (1804) attempts to vindicate the woman blamed for Spain’s loss to the Muslims; and her biblical drama Amnón (1804) recounts the biblical rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon. Neoclassical poet Manuel José Quintana praised Gálvez’s odes and elegies and considered her the best woman writer of her time.
Some women exerted influence during the Enlightenment through their salons; that of Josefa de Zúñiga y Castro, countess of Lemos, called the Academia del Buen Gusto (Academy of Good Taste), was famous, as were those of the duchess of Alba and the countess-duchess of Benavente. The number of periodicals for women increased dramatically, and La Pensadora Gaditana (1763–64), the first Spanish newspaper for women, was published by Beatriz Cienfuegos (believed by some to have been a man’s pseudonym). But the death of King Charles III in 1788 and the horror spread by the French Revolution brought an abrupt halt to Spain’s incursion into the Age of Reason.
The 19th century
The Romantic movement
Early 19th-century Spanish literature suffered as a result of the Napoleonic Wars and their economic repercussions. Spain experienced soaring inflation, and manpower across the peninsula was at low ebb as a result of emigration and military service. Spain’s agriculture was crippled, its cottage industries dwindled and nearly disappeared, and industrialization lagged behind that of other western European countries. These problems were further aggravated by the loss of its American colonies. Ferdinand VII’s anachronistic attempts to restore absolutist monarchy drove many liberals into exile in England and France, both countries then under the sway of Romanticism. Traditional scholarship has viewed Spanish Romanticism as imported by liberals returning after Ferdinand’s death in 1833, the year frequently deemed the beginning of Spanish Romanticism. Some, however, recognize Cadalso and several lesser cultivators of Gothic fiction as 18th-century Spanish antecedents. Debates that prepared the way for Romanticism flourished from 1814 onward: in Cádiz in discussions of literary values initiated by Johann Niklaus Böhl von Faber, in Barcelona with the founding of the literary periodical El europeo (“The European”) in 1823, and in Madrid with Agustín Durán’s essay (1828) on Siglo de Oro drama and his Colección de romances antiguos (1828–32; “Collection of Ancient Ballads”).
Romanticism in Spain was, in many respects, a return to its earlier classics, a continuation of the rediscovery initiated by 18th-century scholars. Important formal traits of Spanish Romantic drama—mingling genres, rejecting the unities, diversifying metrics—had characterized Lope de Vega and his contemporaries, whose themes reappeared in Romantic garb. Some have therefore argued that the native flowering of Spanish Romanticism was not a tardy import; its principles were instead already present in Spain, but their full expression was delayed by the reactionary, tyrannical monarchy’s persecution of members of a movement that was, at its beginning, liberal and democratic. Production of Romantic dramas was also postponed until after Ferdinand VII’s death.
Spanish Romanticism, typically understood as having two branches, had no single leader. José de Espronceda y Delgado and his works epitomize the “Byronic,” revolutionary, metaphysical vein of Spanish Romanticism, and his Estudiante de Salamanca (in two parts, 1836 and 1837; “Student of Salamanca”), Canciones (1840; “Songs”), and El diablo mundo (unfinished, published 1840; “The Devilish World”) were among the period’s most celebrated subjective lyrics. The enormously successful drama Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino (1835; “Don Alvaro; or, The Force of Destiny”) by Ángel de Saavedra, duque de Rivas, and the preface, by the critic Antonio Alcalá Galiano, to Saavedra’s narrative poem El moro expósito (1834; “The Foundling Moor”) embody the Christian and monarchical aesthetics and ideology of the second, more traditional branch of Spanish Romanticism, whose quintessential representative is José Zorrilla y Moral, author of the period’s most enduring drama, Don Juan Tenorio (1844). Prolific, facile, and declamatory, Zorrilla produced huge numbers of plays, lyric and narrative verse collections, and enormously popular rewrites of Siglo de Oro plays and legends; he was treated as a national hero.
One major Romantic theme concerned liberty and individual freedom. The late Romantic poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, in Rimas (published posthumously in 1871; “Rhymes”), expressed his own tortured emotions, suffering, and solitude but also celebrated love, poetry, and intimacy while experimenting with free verse. Rimas influenced more 20th-century Spanish poets than any other 19th-century work.
A number of notable women writers emerged under Romanticism. Carolina Coronado’s early fame rested on a collection of poetry, Poesías, first published in 1843. Her poems sounded many feminist notes, although she in later life became conservative. In 1850 she published two short novels, Adoración and Paquita. La Sigea (1854), the first of three historical novels, re-created the experience of the Renaissance humanist Luisa Sigea de Velasco; Jarilla and La rueda de desgracia (“The Wheel of Misfortune”) appeared in 1873. Poet, dramatist, and prose writer Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda was born in Cuba but spent most of her adult life in Spain. She was the author of a pioneering abolitionist novel, Sab (1841), as well as novels on Mexico’s Aztec past and a protofeminist novel (Dos mujeres [1842; “Two Women”]). She also wrote 16 full-length original plays, 4 of which were major successes. Rosalía de Castro is known primarily for her poetry and novels in Galician, but her last collection of poems, En las orillas del Sar (1884; Beside the River Sar), written in Castilian, brought her a wider audience.
While poetry and theatre claimed the major honours, Spanish Romanticism also produced many novels—but none that rivaled those of Scottish contemporary Sir Walter Scott. The best, El Señor de Bembibre (1844) by Enrique Gil y Carrasco, reflects Gil’s carefully researched history of the Templars in Spain. Other important novels are Mariano José de Larra’s El doncel de Don Enrique el doliente (1834; “The Page of King Enrique the Invalid”) and Espronceda’s Sancho Saldaña (1834).
Costumbrismo began before Romanticism, contributing to both Romanticism and the later realism movement through realistic prose. The cuadro de costumbres and artículo de costumbres—short literary sketches on customs, manners, or character—were two types of costumbrista writing, typically published in the popular press or included as an element of longer literary works such as novels. The cuadro was inclined to description for its own sake, whereas the artículo was more critical and satirical. Cartas de un pobrecito holgazán (1820; “Letters from a Poor Idler”) by Sebastián de Miñano points the way, but the most important costumbrista titles were by Larra, an outstanding prose writer and the best critical mind of his age, who dissected society pitilessly in Artículos (1835–37). Ramón de Mesonero Romanos in Escenas matritenses (1836–42; “Scenes of Madrid”) humorously portrayed contemporary life, and Serafín Estébanez Calderón depicted the manners, folklore, and history of Andalusia in Escenas andaluzas (1847; “Andalusian Sketches”). Such writings, realistically observing everyday life and regional elements, bridged the transition to realism.
Revival of the Spanish novel
For two centuries the novel, Spain’s greatest contribution to literature, had languished. Early revival novels are of interest more for their powers of observation and description (a continuation of costumbrismo) than for their imaginative or narrative quality. Fernán Caballero (pseudonym of Cecilia Böhl de Faber) essayed techniques of observation new to the novel in La gaviota (1849; The Seagull). The regional novel’s flowering began with El sombrero de tres picos (1874; The Three-Cornered Hat), a sparkling tale of peasant malice by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón. Andalusian regionalism prevailed in many of Juan Valera’s novels, but his remarkable psychological insights in Pepita Jiménez (1874) and Doña Luz (1879) made him the father of Spain’s psychological novel. He was a prolific writer, his works ranging from poetry and newspaper articles to critical essays and memoirs. Regionalist José María de Pereda produced minute re-creations of nature, which was depicted as an abiding reality that dwarfed individuals. His most celebrated novels, Sotileza (1884; “Subtlety”) and Peñas arriba (1895; “Up the Mountains”), support a rigid class structure and traditional values of religion, family, and country life. Emilia, condesa (countess) de Pardo Bazán, attempted to combine the aesthetics of naturalism with traditional Roman Catholic values in her novels of Galicia, Los pazos de Ulloa (1886; The Son of a Bondwoman) and La madre naturaleza (1887; “Mother Nature”), sparking considerable controversy. Her 19 major novels also represent mainstream Spanish realism, experiments with Symbolism