Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
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Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
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A Spanish author, born at Alcála de Henares, Spain, in 1547; died at Madrid, 23 April, 1616. Of Cervantes it may be most truly said that the narrative of his life is no less fraught with interest than the most exciting novel of adventure. He received the best part of his early training in a school at Madrid conducted by the cleric, Juan Lopez de Hoyos. Despite sundry affirmations to the contrary effect by this or that biographer he does not seem to have attended any of the universities then flourishing in Spain. However, as was the case with many of the leading Spanish spirits of the age, he had early an opportunity to perfect his training by a sojourn in the land where the movement of the Renaissance had begun, for when but twenty-one years of age, he became attached to the suite of an Italian prelate who was on a mission to the Spanish Courts. With this ecclesiastic, later Cardinal Acquaviva, he went to Rome. Once in Italy he doubtless began straightway to familiarize himself with Italian literature, a knowledge of which is so readily discernible in his own productions. He did not find the service of the cardinal to his liking, for in a short time he was figuring as a simple volunteer among the Spanish troops that played a part in the campaign against the Turks. He fought bravely on board a vessel in the great battle of Lepanto in 1571, and was shot through the left hand in such a way that he never after had the entire use of it.
When his wound was healed he engaged in another campaign, one directed against the Moslem in Northern Africa, and then after living a while longer in Italy he finally determined to return home. But the ship on which he was making the trip back to Spain was captured by Corsairs, who took him, with his fellow captives, to Algiers. There he spent five years, undergoing great sufferings, some of which seem to be reflected in the episode of the "Captive" in "Don Quixote", and in scenes of the play, "El trato de Argel". Unsuccessful in several attempts at an escape, he was at last ransomed just when he was in great danger of being sent to Constantinople. Had he really been taken there the world would probably be now without its greatest novel, the imperishable story of the Knight of La Mancha. Back once more in Spain Cervantes is said but on no too certain evidence, to have spent a year or two in military service. However that may be, he was certainly engaged in literary pursuits from 1582 on; for about this time, a love affair—his attachment to Catalina de Palacios whom he soon made his wife—gave the impulse to the first literary work to bring him public notice. This was the "Galatea" a pastoral romance after the manner already established in the peninsula by the "Menina e moca" in Portuguese of Bernardim Ribeiro and the "Diana enamorada" of Jorge de Montemayor. It is inferior to the "Diana" and as artificial as most works of its kind, still it exhibits a certain power of inventiveness and some depth of real emotion on the part of its author.
Cervantes next turned his attention to the drama, hoping to derive an income from that source, but the plays which he composed failed to achieve their purpose. In the main they show that he was out of his element in purveying for the stage, that he lacked dramatic instinct, and had never mastered the details of the technic of dramatic art. He is least infelicitous in two of his plays, the "Trato de Argel", already mentioned, and impassioned tragedy, "Numancia". This latter is the best of all his dramas and yet, correctly appreciated, it is rather a powerful patriotic declamation than a piece of real scenic excellence. It was not printed until 1784.
What he did in the years directly following the time when he renounced the hope of becoming a great dramatic poet is hardly clear. It is safe to assume that he was in sore straits, or he would not have been content to earn his livelihood as a collector of taxes in the province of Granada. An irregularity in his accounts, one due rather to some subordinate than to himself, led to his incarceration for a while during 1597 at Seville. If a remark which Cervantes himself makes in the prologue of "Don Quixote" is to be taken literally, the idea of the work, though hardly the writing of its "First Part", as some have maintained, occurred to him in prison. At all events, during this period of tribulation he must have been evolving in his mind the great work of fiction soon to be published as "El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha", whereof the first part was printed in 1605. (The English spelling, "Quixote" transliterates an early Spanish spelling with "x", current at a time when "x" and "j" were still frequently interchanged. On etymological grounds the "x" represents the original sound.)
The vogue obtained by Cervantes's story led to the publication of a continuation of it by an unknown who masquerades under the name of Fernandez Avellaneda. In self-defence Cervantes produced his own continuation, or "Second Part", of "Don Quixote", which made its appearance some ten years after the first part. Two years before this event, that is, in 1613, he put forth a collection of tales, the "Novelas ejemplares", some of which had been written earlier. Not included in the original form of the "Exemplary Tales" is the novelette, "La tía fingida" (The Fictitious Aunt), now often printed with them. Some critics would deny it to Cervantes, and it appears not to have been printed until 1814. On the whole, the "Novelas ejemplares" are worthy of the fame of Cervantes; they bear the same stamp of genius as the "Don Quixote". The picaroon strain, already made familiar in Spain by the "Lazarillo de Tormes" and its successors, appears in one or another of them especially in the "Rinconete y Cortadillo", which is the best of all. The remaining works of our author embrace his "Entremeses" (Interludes), little dramatic trifles not wholly negligible; the "Viaje del Parnaso", a rhymed review of contemporary poets written terza rima; and the "Persiles y Sigismunda", a novel of adventurous travel completed just before his death.
For the world at large interest in Cervantes centres particularly in "Don Quixote", and this has been regarded chiefly as a novel of purpose. It is stated again and again that he wrote it in order to ridicule the romances of chivalry and to destroy the popularity of a form of literature which for much more than a century had engrossed the attention of a large proportion of those who could read among his countrymen and which had been communicated by them to the ignorant. Byron has taken a very tragic view of the results wrought by the Spanish romancer, according to him:
Cervantes smiled Spain's chivalry away,
And therefore have his volumes done such harm
That all their glory, as a composition
Was dearly purchased by his land's perdition. (Don Juan, XIII, 11.)
There is a grain of truth, and much exaggeration in Byron's statement. It is true that the Spanish writer set out with the purpose of assailing the books of chivalry; the friend whom he introduces into the prologue of the work asserts that from the beginning to end it is an attack upon them. Moreover, these works had long called for attack. The countless novels of knightly daring which had followed in the wake of the very worthy "Amadis de Gaula" had obtained an unwonted vogue and had created an air of false idealism which tended to leave Spain unduly in the rear of advancing civilization, for, cherishing them, she clung too closely to the medieval past. Serious historians had cried out against them, so had scholars, theologians, preachers and mystics, and yet many, even the greatest in the land, continued to be no less ardent admirers of them than the innkeeper in the first part of "Don Quixote". For administrative reasons, the Emperor Charles V felt compelled in 1553 to forbid the introduction of the chivalrous romances into the American Indies, and this law the Spanish Parliament would fain have extended to Spain itself in 1558, in order to penalize the further publication of works of the class. But, up to 1602, the novels of knight-errantry continued to appear in constantly new although weaker forms, for this was the date of the "Don Policisne de Beocia" of Juan de Silva. Three years later, Cervantes's book was published, and it instantly accomplished what all previous agitation had failed to achieve, for after its appearance no new chivalresque romance was issued, and the reprinting of the old ones practically ceased. Now, granting that Cervantes gave the coup de grace to the books of chivalry, we must not overlook the consideration that the lasting value of "Don Quixote" is not to be sought in the fact that it killed the taste for the medieval stories of chivalrous adventure, which parodied with fatal efficiency, but rather in the fact that the author achieved something immeasurably greater than what he had premeditated. He wrote a novel which as a social document has never been surpassed in the annals of narrative fiction, one in which the main interest is found in the behaviour of the two contrasting yet mutually complementary, figures of Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza, thrown by their creator into contact with a world of materialism, where but scanty respect is entertained for the idealistic past. To say that the decline of Spain is in any way attributable to the success of "Don Quixote" is only Byronic hyperbole; independently of the existence of this marvellous product of the fancy of the genius named Miguel de Cervantes, Spain's loss of its former power is amply explained by political, social, and moral phenomena of various kinds.
From time to time there come forward those who persist in believing that "Don Quixote" was intended to satirize certain important noble personages of the time. It was aimed at the Duke of Lerma, say some; at the Duke of Medina Sidonia, say others. This latter idea was echoed in England by Defoe in the Preface to his "Serious Reflections during the Life, and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe" (1720). The sober fact is that no foundation exists for any such interpretations of the author's purpose. In the episodical by-plays, in one or another intercalated tale such as that of Lucinda and Cardenio there may be veiled references, satirical or not, to noted characters of the time but we have no reason to suppose that underlying "Don Quixote" as a whole there is any serious satirical purpose other than to attack the pseudo-chivalry. The book was probably intended by Cervantes chiefly as a work of entertainment; as such it succeeded in his time and as such it still elicits the enthusiastic interest of constantly increasing generations of readers. The many attempts that have been made to detect didactic purposes of different kinds in this or that by-factor of the novel may be regarded as futile. Those persons are far astray who suppose that Cervantes meant to assail the Inquisition, to attack the firmly rooted devotion to the Blessed Virgin, or to deride the clergy as a class.
During its author's lifetime, the first part of the novel passed through at least nine editions in Spanish. The edition of Brussels, 1607, went all over Northern Europe. By that date it was known in England, and it was promptly placed under contribution by the English playwrights. Thus Middleton utilized it, Ben Jonson and Fletcher drew matter from it, and there is even a tradition that Shakespeare collaborated with Fletcher in the composition of a play based on tale of its episodes. That a stranger should, in view of the success achieved by the book, conceive the idea of writing a sequel to it is not surprising; Cervantes, in fact, invited a continuation of it in the closing words of his first part. Notwithstanding this, he became indignant when the so-called "Avellaneda" published his prolongation of the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and he bestirred himself to furnish his own rounding out of the story and to make all other spurious sequels impossible by killing off his hero. As to the personality back of the pseudonym "Avellaneda" many surmises have been made Lope de Vega has been suggested, so have Tirso de Molina and Juan Ruiz de Alarcon, but all proposed identifications have to be rejected. Whoever in "Avellaneda" was, it must be said in simple justice to him that his literary merits are not slight, and that those critics err who seek to minimize them. He certainly reveals much narrative power, considerable humour, a mastery of dialogue, and a forcible style. Of the two parts written by Cervantes, the first has ever remained the favourite. The second part is inferior to it in humorous effect; but, nevertheless, the second part shows more constructive insight, better delineation of character, an improved style, and more realism and probability in its action. The influence exerted by the glorious work has been enormous, for what modern man of genius has not read it? Among the more immediately imitative writings may be mentioned: in French Charles Sorel's "Berger extravagant" and Marivaux's "Phasimond"; in English, Butler's "Hudibras", Mrs. Charlotte Lennox's "The Female Quixote", and Smollett's "Sir Launcelot Greaves"; in German, Wieland's "Don Silvio Rosala". English and French playwrights have borrowed liberally also from the "Exemplary Tales", Hardy, Fletcher, Massinger, and Rowley, to mention but a few, are much indebted to them.
As a story, the "Persiles y Sigismunda", just completed at the time of Cervantes's death, and published posthumously, is less interesting than his other narrative works. The element of adventurous travel by sea and land, of which much is made in the late Greek romances, is prominent here; it contains a bewildering entanglement of love episodes, and the characters are always narrating interminable tales which delay the progress of the action. As a result the work is too prolix and becomes somewhat tedious despite the exuberance of fancy and fertility of resource that characterize it. Its rhetoric is more pompous, and in general there is in it greater elaboration of style than Cervantes was wont to show in his compositions.