Modern Poets and Poetry of Spain/⁠Memoir of Jose Zorrilla

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It has been said that "the life of a poet is ever a romance." Perhaps this observation may apply equally well to the history of every man of ardent genius who enters with characteristic enthusiasm into the affairs of life, so as to invest even ordinary circumstances with the glow and hue of his own excited imagination. But this is more especially the case with poets who make us participate in their feelings, their joys or their sorrows, so as to give a character of romance to incidents that with other persons would have passed away as unnoticed. In the course of the preceding narratives, no doubt, many instances may be remembered to verify this remark, and the life of the eminent and deservedly popular poet with which we have to close the series, even in his yet youthful career, may be found to afford a further exemplification of it.

On the 14th February, 1837, a funeral car, over which was placed a crown of laurel, had to traverse the streets of Madrid, bearing to their resting-place in the cemetery, the remains of the talented but wrong-minded Larra. The car was followed by an immense concourse of mourners, principally young men of the first classes of Madrid, who were so testifying their regret for the loss they had sustained. The whole scene presented a spectacle of homage paid to genius, such as had seldom been witnessed. It was such as power might have envied, and as worth scarcely ever attained. Melancholy as had been the end of the unhappy being they mourned, envy and hatred had become silenced, morality and charity joined in regret, and no one disputed the propriety of the funeral honours paid to the dead.

It was already late when the ceremonies were concluded, and the darkening shadows of the night, in such a place and on such an occasion, gave the countenances of all assembled an extraordinary character. The shock they had felt, to lose so suddenly from among them one so well-known to them all, in the fulness of youth and intellect, in the height of fame and popularity, without any apparent motive and enveloped in mystery, was of itself sufficient to penetrate their minds with sorrow. They felt that a bright light had been extinguished, and they feared there was no hope of another arising to shine in its place. A strange spell seemed to have come over the bystanders, and they lingered round the vault with an unaccountable disinclination to separate.

The eloquent Señor Roca de Togares, distinguished both as an orator and a poet, pronounced a discourse he had hastily prepared, in which he portrayed the general sensation of sorrow, as he eulogized the talents and the principal literary successes of the deceased. But his eloquence had only the effect of exciting still further the prevalent feeling, which was that of something still more appropriate being required to give expression to their grief, and they instinctively looked round for some one to give utterance to it in the language of mournful inspiration with which to take their final farewell.

At that moment, in the midst of, it may be supposed, almost painful silence, a young man, unknown to them, of a slight figure and boyish appearance, stood forward, and with a tremulous voice began reading some verses in unison with their feelings, which at the first accents seemed to seize irresistibly on the minds of the listeners. He was himself so much affected by the scene, and perhaps under the sense of his own temerity, that he could not finish his task, and Roca de Togares took the paper out of his hands and read the verses again audibly. Had they been possessed of only ordinary merit, they would no doubt, on such an occasion, have been favourably received; but expressed as they were in highly poetical language, with appropriate sentiments, the effect was to excite the utmost astonishment and admiration. The author's name, Josè Zorrilla, was eagerly called for and repeated on all sides with loud applauses, and they who had followed sorrowfully shortly before the remains of the man of genius they had lost, now returned to the city attending in triumph another poet they had found, with all the tokens of enthusiastic rejoicing. The young poet, on his part, had found an audience ready to welcome him, and he was at once launched forth into that "tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune."

The history of the new aspirant for fame was now an object of interest, and the public learned that he was the son of Don Josè Zorrilla, a person well known as an eminent lawyer who had held several judicial offices with credit in Spain. It was while holding one of those offices, in Valladolid, that his son, the subject of this narrative, was born there, the 21st of February, 1817. From Valladolid, the father having been promoted to other duties in Burgos, Seville, and finally at Madrid, the son followed him, and received his primary education in the various cities they inhabited, under circumstances which must have operated powerfully on his mind. On arriving at Madrid he was placed at the Seminary of Nobles, where he remained six years, thus giving that celebrated institution the just merit of claiming him, as well as so many others of the ablest writers and public men of Spain, among those they had educated. There he seems to have gone through his course of studies without apparently other distinction than an early inclination to write verses and attend the theatres, which predilection his tutors disapproved, but in consideration of his father's position passed over more leniently than they otherwise would have done. This indulgence, however, there is no doubt gave that decided turn to his mind which led to his subsequent career.

On leaving the Seminary, Zorrilla had to go to his father at his estate in the province of Castille, where he now lived in retirement, having lost the favour of the government. There soon a discordance rose between them as to his future course in life. The father wished him to graduate in the profession of the law, in which he had acquired wealth and fame, and sent him, notwithstanding his repugnance, to Toledo, to study in the university of that city. He passed accordingly a year there, but with only sufficient application to go through the ordinary routine respectably. Other studies, more congenial to his taste, engaged all his thoughts. Toledo is a city rich in historical and poetical remembrances and legends. Its monuments and ruins are among the most interesting that exist in Spain, and in the contemplation of these Zorrilla was constantly absorbed. To Toledo he owed his poetical education, as to it he has dedicated some of his sweetest poetry. He shunned the society of his fellow-students, and seemed to pass an eccentric and even mysterious life. Out no one knew where, at strange hours, disregarding the university rules and dress and etiquette, allowing his hair to grow long over his shoulders, and composing songs, not to the taste of his tutors, he was considered half-mad, and his father was informed of his strange conduct as not amenable to study and discipline. On going home for the vacation, his father therefore received him with coldness and displeasure, and made him read law with him, notwithstanding his continued disinclination to it, though in secret he made amends for the restraint by indulging in reading more agreeable to himself. It is recorded more especially that he then studied the Sacred Scriptures, in whose pages he found the truest inspiration of poetry, as he certainly seems in his writings generally to have imbibed the purest principles of morality and religion.

In the hope of his entering on a more diligent course of study at another place than Toledo, Zorrilla was then sent to Valladolid, as if by changing universities he could be expected to change the tendency of mind which urged him to his destiny. There he was watched on all sides by his father's directions, and it was reported to him that his son still continued his former course of conduct; that instead of passing his hours in study, he was ever out on lonely walks, lying under the shade of trees by the side of the river or the broken rock, absorbed in his own meditations. There is a hint also given, of even the discovery that he had found some dream of youthful love to indulge in, as if it were something extraordinary for one of his age and enthusiastic character. The father must have been one of the class that Chateaubriand suffered under, or Mirabeau; and happy it was for Zorrilla that he did not sink into the recklessness of the one or the inanities of the other, while he had also to submit to similar discouragements. As it was, the father came to the conclusion that no hope was to be entertained of his son's application to study, to take that position in the world which he had planned out for him, and in which were centred all his own ideas of honourable activity. He therefore resolved to take him from Valladolid, and sent a trusty messenger to bring him home.

On the way the messenger gave Zorrilla to understand that his father had resolved to employ him on his estate, to dress the vines and perform other labours of country occupation. It seems the father had even talked about fitting him out in a labourer's working garb, as not being calculated for nobler employment, while he himself was unconscious or careless of the wonderful power of mind which lay hid from his observation in the son's apparent inability to fulfil his expectations. On this intimation, however, Zorrilla at once formed his determination. Shortly before reaching home, he stayed at the house of a relative, where he collected together the few valuable things he could carry away, and appropriating to his necessity a horse belonging to his cousin, he hastened back to Valladolid. There he was fortunate enough to arrive and sell the horse before the messenger sent after him again could arrest him on his flight. He then transferred himself without loss of time to Madrid, where for a length of time he succeeded in escaping the vigilant search made for him by his friends, who not having seen him since he was a boy, were not able now to penetrate his disguise.

At Madrid under these circumstances, a fugitive from his father's house, he had now passed almost a year, when he came forth before the public, as we have narrated, on the occasion of Larra's funeral. How he had passed those months we are not informed further, than that he had to submit to every kind of annoyances and privations, which he surmounted by the firmness of his determination and the elevated character of his hopes. He had in the interval sent several pieces of poetry to the different periodicals, by which his name had already become sufficiently known to a number of those who hailed him on the 14th February as supplying the place of the popular writer they had lost.

On the following day, Zorrilla could say, like Lord Byron, that he awoke and found himself famous. The verses on Larra were in every one's mouth, and all others that could be obtained of his writing were eagerly collected. Editors and proprietors of periodicals were anxious to obtain his cooperation for their works, and his period of difficulties had passed away. Before the year closed, the first volume of his poems appeared with an introduction by Pastor Diaz, and that was so eagerly bought that he was induced to bring out others in succession, with a prolificness unknown almost even in Spain. Seven other closely printed volumes of his poems were published, including several plays, within about three years afterwards, and eight or nine other volumes have appeared since. His works have been reprinted in Paris and in various parts of Spanish America, and received everywhere with unbounded admiration, so as at once to prove him one of the most favourite poets that Spain has produced.

While he was thus rising to fame and competence, his father, on the other hand, had fallen into misfortune. A high prerogative lawyer, he had maintained the doctrines of absolutism, and at length openly espoused the cause of Don Carlos. On the failure of this prince's attempts to gain the throne, the elder Zorrilla, with other adherents, was proscribed and had his property confiscated. His son had not heard from him after this event for some years, when he received a letter from his father from Bayonne, stating that he was in difficulties, and requesting him to apply to a former friend, whom he named, for a loan for his assistance. Zorrilla wrote back to say that there was no occasion to incur an obligation from one not related to him, and that he himself was happy to have it in his power to send him the sum required, which he would repeat at stated intervals. This he accordingly did, until he received his father's directions to discontinue it, as not requiring it any more.

Another instance of Zorrilla's high-mindedness and true Castilian pride has been recorded. On his father's property having been sequestrated by the government, it was intimated to him that if he applied he might have the administration of it, which was tantamount to giving him possession of it. But he replied that he would neither apply for it nor accept it, for while his father lived, he could acknowledge no one else as entitled to it. His father having since died, Zorrilla has come by law into possession of his estates, and has thus had the rare fortune, for a poet, to be possessed of considerable wealth. He has had several offers of appointments from the government, but he has declined them, contented to live according to his own fancies and occupied with his own peculiar pursuits. His extraordinary facility for composing verses is such as scarcely to allow his compositions to be termed studies; but with them and his attendances at the theatre, and other recreations, or at literary reunions, he is said to pass away his hours in ease and contentment. The first volume of his poems, it has been already intimated, was published before he was twenty-one years of age. Within three years afterwards seven others were published; and in the eighth, to the poem of 'The Duke and the Sculptor,' was appended the following note to his wife:—"Dedicated to the Señora Matilda O'Reilly de Zorrilla. I began the publication of my poems with our acquaintance, and I conclude them with thy name. Madrid, 10 October, 1840."

What were the circumstances attending this acquaintance or union, we are not informed; but it is fortunate for the world that the intimation it might convey of its being the conclusion of his literary works has not been fulfilled. Since then he has published 'Songs of the Troubadour,' in three volumes, and other minor poems and plays separately. A larger work he meditated on the conquest of Granada, to be entitled 'The Cross and the Crescent,' has not been completed; and another he projected with the title 'Maria,' intending to celebrate the different characters under which the Holy Virgin is venerated in Roman Catholic countries, he has published, with the greater part supplied by a friend, all very inferior to what might have been expected from him.

It is much to be regretted that Zorrilla has in all his works allowed carelessnesses to prevail, which too often mar the effect of his verses, and still more that he has often inserted some that were of very inferior merit compared with the rest. It is not to be supposed that an author can be equally sustained in all his productions, but it is somewhat extraordinary in his volumes to find some poems of such transcendent merit, and others so inferior. These, however, are very few, and probably were hastily composed and hastily published, to supply the demand arising for the day. He is probably the only author in Spain who has profited by the sale of his writings to any extent, and to do this he must have been often under the necessity of tasking his mind severely, without regard to its spontaneous suggestions. Thus then, when he found his inspiration failing, he has often had recourse to memory, and repeated from himself, and even from others, verses previously published. It is to be hoped that he may be induced soon to give the world a revised edition of his works, in which the oversights may be corrected, and the poems unworthy of his fame may be omitted.

On reading over dispassionately the 'Lines to Larra,' by which he was first brought so prominently into notice, it may occasion some surprise to learn they had produced so remarkable an effect. If they had previously been read over alone to any one of the auditors, he probably might not have considered them so ideal, so beautiful, or so original as they seemed at the public recital. Some phrase might have appeared incomprehensible, some sentiment exaggerated or not true; some expression or line, hard or weak or forced. He might have observed a want of order or connection in the ideas, or the whole to be vague and leaving no fixed thought in the mind; or he might have pronounced them, as they have been since pronounced, an imitation of Victor Hugo or Lamartine. But to the auditors assembled, in the excited state of their feelings, there was no time for reflection or criticism. It was a composition of the hour for that particular scene,—for themselves, in language and feelings with which they could sympathize. Thus the verses seized on their minds and electrified them, so that they had no time to dwell on any discussion or dispute of their merits, but yielded at once to the fascination of the melodious verse they heard, and the appropriate application of the homage they testified.

In the first volume of poems that Zorrilla published, containing his earliest productions, are to be found all the selections made for translation in this work. They may not be so highly finished as some afterwards published, nor so marked by that distinctive character he has made his own; but they show the first promises of the fruit that was in store, to be afterwards brought to such maturity. As he had scarcely emerged from boyhood when he began to tread the path to fame, his first steps could scarcely fail to betray that sort of uncertainty which attends on all who are going on an unknown road. Thus then through the volume he appears to be seeking a ground whereon to fix his energies and build the temple for his future fame, without being able confidently to fix on any place in preference. His poetry from the first, always sonorous and easy, often evidently spontaneous and true to nature, at times is weak and deficient in the depth of thought that at other times distinguishes it, especially in the compositions of a philosophic cast, which require fuller age and reflection to give them with perfectness. Subject to these remarks, independently of the poems hereafter given in the translations, there are others, 'To Toledo,' 'The Statue of Cervantes,' 'The Winter Night,' more clearly portraying the peculiar character of his poetry as afterwards developed.

In the second volume published about six months afterwards, he seems already to have taken his ground and to proceed with a more decided step. The poem, 'The Day without Sun,' is full of poetic vigour and richness of description, and several tales of greater length and legendary character show the bent of his mind and the direction it was in future to take. In the third volume it was reserved for his genius to be fully developed. It opens with a magnificent composition, 'To Rome,' in which deep philosophy and reflection are combined with exquisite description, all so clear and distinct as fully to captivate the mind and leave an impression of complete satisfaction. But beyond this it contains the poem 'To the last Moorish King of Granada, Boabdil the Little,' which is generally considered his best. He was already recognized as an admirable descriptive poet, but he now proved his power of moving the inmost feelings to be as great as his power of imagination. It is undoubtedly a splendid composition and highly finished, so as to be well worthy of study for the Spanish reader, though too long for translation for this work. The same volume contains another poem, also worthy of mention, 'To a Skull,' as written with much force and effect, but in the style of the French imitators of Byron, whom Zorrilla has too much copied, though it must be stated without their affectation and exaggerations.

In the following volumes he continues the course now so markedly his own as a national poet. He avowedly chooses, as becoming him in that character, subjects taken from the traditions and legends current in Spain, and clothing them in glowing language reproduces them to his delighted readers as the dreams and remembrances of their youth. He is especially partial to the tales connected with the Moorish wars, and in so doing, with great poetic effect, always represents the Moors in the most favourable light. Thus he throughout makes them worthy rivals of the Christians, and thereby renders greater the merit of the conquerors. The richness of his diction is truly extraordinary, often so as to make us lose sight of the paucity of ideas contained in his poems, and that those again are too much the same repeated constantly over.

If it was a wonderful and admirable triumph for one so young to achieve by one bound the unqualified commendations of his countrymen, and to sustain the success then acquired by subsequent efforts, we have still to regret that there were evils attending that precocity to prevent his attaining apparently the highest excellence. Perhaps there is no one we can point out as so truly exemplifying the maxim "poeta nascitur." He was truly born a poet; and though he often writes showing that he had been reading Calderon or some other of the elder writers of Spain, or even some of the French poets, yet he always gives the colouring of his own mind to those imitations so as to make them his own. This often again leads him to a mannerism and repetition of himself; but notwithstanding these faults or occasional errors of carelessness, his compositions always remain uniformly and irresistibly captivating.

Besides his poems, Zorrilla has published upwards of twenty dramatic pieces, some of which have been repeatedly produced on the stage with the fullest success. They are all remarkable for the richness of versification and high tone of poetry which distinguish his lyrical compositions, and, like them, all tend to honour and promote the chivalrous spirit for which the Spanish nation has ever been renowned.

The modern poetry of Spain shows that her nationality is still as distinct, her genius as elevated, and her sense of honour as pure, as in any former period of her history. It shows itself in unison with the spirit that has always animated the people in their public conduct, in their loyalty and devotion, the same now as a thousand years since, making every hill a fortress and every plain a battle-field, to dispute the ground at every foot with the enemy till they were driven from their soil. The poets of Spain have still, as ever, the most stirring tasks before them, to commemorate the glories of their romantic country, and they are worthy of their task.

  1. The name of this eminently great poet is to be pronounced as Thorrillia; the translations made from his works are of the poems at pages 62, 99, 34, 97, 102, 28 and 65, respectively, of the first volume, as stated in the memoir, published at Madrid in 1837. The headings, for the sake of distinction, have been given somewhat differently from the originals, where they are generally only entitled 'Oriental,' or 'A Romance;' and the piece named 'The Warning' is but part of a longer poem, the conclusion of which is not in the same good taste as the beginning. All the other selections translated in this work, of the different authors, have been given fully.