Modern Poets and Poetry of Spain/⁠Memoir of Manuel Jose Quintana

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VI.

MANUEL JOSÉ QUINTANA.

 


 

Connecting the present age of modern Spanish poetry with that of the past generation, by a happily protracted existence, as well as by the style and tone of his writings, the venerable subject of this memoir still survives, to close a life of active usefulness in a healthy and honoured old age.

Quintana was born at Madrid, the 11th April, 1772, of a respectable family of Estremadura. He received his primary education in classical learning at Cordova, whence he proceeded to Salamanca, and graduated there in canon and civil law. In this university he had the advantage of studying under Melendez Valdes, by whom he was soon favourably noticed, and was made known to the illustrious Jovellanos, by whose counsels also he had the good fortune to be assisted. Thus his natural disposition for the study of elegant literature was encouraged, both by precept and example, under two such able directors, to take a higher course than the mere study of law, for which profession he was destined.

Having been admitted an Advocate of the Supreme Court, he has held various appointments, as fiscal of the tribunal of commerce, and censor of theatres; afterwards chief clerk of the Secretary-General to the Central Junta of Government, secretary of decrees and interpretation of languages, member of the censorship to the Cortes, and of the commission for the formation of a new plan of education. In the last, he was charged with the duty of drawing up a report of all the works on the subject presented to the government, which was, in 1835, approved of by the Cortes.

In the two former of these employments he was interrupted by the French invasion, when he took an active part against the invaders. Receiving afterwards the other offices mentioned, he wrote many of the proclamations and other addresses which were put forth on the part of the national government, during the struggle for independence. Throughout those eventful times, he was in the most advanced rank of the party that advocated constitutional rights, so that when Ferdinand VII. returned to the possession of absolute power, in 1814, he was, amongst the proscribed, made a prisoner, and confined in the castle of Pamplona.

There he was kept six years, without being allowed to communicate with his friends, or make use of his pen. On the constitutional government becoming re-established, he was released, and restored to his offices as secretary for the interpretation of languages, and member of the board of censors. In 1821, the directorship-general of public education having been formed, he was made president, until 1823, when the constitution was again set aside, and he was again deprived of his employments.

Hereupon Quintana retired to Estremadura to his family, and lived there till the end of 1828, when he was permitted to return to Madrid, to continue his labours and literary studies. The following year he was named member of the board for the museum of natural sciences, and in 1833 was reestablished in his former employment, as secretary for interpretations, for which his knowledge of the French, English and other languages rendered him qualified, and also reappointed president of the council of public instruction. He was shortly after appointed preceptor to her present Majesty, Queen Isabel II., and although ever maintaining strong liberal principles, has been since, under the administration of Narvaez, named a senator of the kingdom.

Quintana first appeared as an author in 1795, when he published a small volume of poems, among which was an Ode to the Sea, considered one of his best compositions. The greater part, however, of them were of unequal merit, and those have been omitted in subsequent editions: the next one was published in 1802, and it has been reprinted with additions several times. The best and most complete edition of his poetical works was published at Madrid, in 1820, in two volumes, entitled, 'Poems, including the patriotic odes and tragedies, the Duke of Viseo, and Pelayo.' Of this edition five or six surreptitious reprints have been made at Bordeaux and elsewhere, the laws regarding copyright having only lately been made accordant with justice in Spain as regards authors, though they do not yet extend them protection against piratical republications from abroad.

The tragedy of the 'Duke of Viseo,' imitated from the English, the 'Castle Spectre' of Lewis, was brought forward in 1801, and that of 'Pelayo' in 1805. The latter, on a favourite subject of their ancient history, was received with much favour by his countrymen, as were also many of his patriotic odes and poems, written in a spirit accordant with the national feeling. Most of these were at the time inserted in two periodical works he had under his direction; the first, 'Variedades de Ciencias, Literatura y Artes,' and the second, the 'Seminario Patriotico,' which was of a political character, and established to promote, and sustain the spirit of independence, against the French invasion.

Beyond his original poems, Quintana has done an important service to Spanish literature by publishing 'A Collection of select Spanish Poetry,' altogether in six volumes, Madrid, 1830-33, with critical and biographical notices, reprinted in Paris by Baudry, 1838. These notices are written in a tone of great impartiality and fairness, and are preceded by a Dissertation, as an Introduction, on the History of Spanish Poetry, which, written as it is with eminent ability, Mr. Wiffen has shown great judgement in translating, prefixed to his very correct and elegant version of the works of Garcilasso de la Vega, London, 1823. Besides this valuable collection of Spanish poetry, Quintana has favoured the public with a work in three volumes,—'Lives of celebrated Spaniards,' of which the first volume was published in 1807, the other two in 1830 and 1833 respectively.

The first volume, which has been translated into English by Mr. Preston, London, 1823, contains the lives of the earlier heroes of Spanish history,—the Cid Campeador, Guzman the Good, Roger de Lauria, the Prince of Viana, and Gonzalo de Cordova; all bearing impressions of the enthusiastic and poetic feelings, characteristic of the comparatively youthful period of life at which they were written. It was Quintana' s intention to have proceeded with a series of like biographies; but the subsequent public events, in which he had to take so active a part, interrupted the task, and when he resumed it, after the lapse of twenty years, it was under the influence of other feelings. He then proceeded principally with the lives of persons distinguished in American history; the second volume containing those of Vasco Nunez de Balboa and Francisco Pizarro; and the third volume those of Alvaro de Luna, and Bartolome de las Casas. Of these two volumes, the former has been translated into English by Mrs. Hobson, Edinburgh, 1832; and of the third a translation has been announced, London, 1851; both, and the latter especially, well deserving of study.

In the first volume, treating of heroes, whose history, almost lost in the obscurity of remote times, might be considered among the fabulous legends prevailing everywhere in the first formations of society, it seemed only appropriate to give a colouring of poetry, to characters of whose actions nothing could be judged, except by their outward bearing. But in the others he could write as a philosophic historian, inquiring into the motives of actions, and teaching lessons of public morality by individual examples. The life of Alvaro is thus particularly interesting, depicting the caprices of fortune, as they affect

The wish indulged in courts to shine,
And power too great to keep or to resign.

In the other lives he maintains the high tone of feeling shown in his beautiful Ode to Balmis, the philanthropic introducer of vaccination into America, where the ravages of the disease, so graphically described by Humboldt,[1] had made this benefit more peculiarly desirable.

The generous sentiments expressed in this ode are such as to do honour not only to Quintana, but also to the nation, where they are in the present generation adopted, as we find them repeated emphatically by so popular a writer as Larra.[2] More than thirty years had elapsed after writing that ode, when Quintana, in the Life of the enthusiastic Las Casas, proved his consistency of character and principles, by maintaining them in a work of historical character, as he had done in poetry in his youth.

In the prologue to the third volume he says, "The author will be accused of little regard for the honour of his country, when he so frankly adopts the sentiments and principles of the Protector of the Indians, whose imprudent writings have been the occasion of so much opprobrium, and of subministering such arms to the detractors of Spanish glories. But neither the extravagance or fanatical exaggerations of Las Casas, nor the abuse which the malignity of strangers have made of them, can erase from deeds their nature and character. The author has not gone to imbibe them from suspicious fountains; nor to judge them as he has done, has he regarded other principles than those of natural equity, or other feelings than those of his own heart. Documents carefully appended for this purpose, and the attentive perusal of Herrera, Oviedo, and others our own writers as impartial and judicious as those, give the same result in events and opinions. What then was to be done? To deny the impressions received, and repel the decision which humanity and justice dictate, on account of not compromising what is called the honour of the country? But the honour of a country consists in actions truly great, noble and virtuous of its inhabitants; not in gilding with justifications, or insufficient exculpations, those that unfortunately bear on themselves the seal of being iniquitous and cruel. To strangers who to depress us, accuse us of cruelty and barbarity in our discoveries and conquests of the New World, we might reply with other examples on their own part, as or more atrocious than ours, and in times and under circumstances sufficiently less excusable …

"The great glories and usefulnesses, which result from extended conquests and dominations, are always bought at a great price, whether of blood, or violence, or reputation and fame: unhappy tribute to be paid even by nations the most civilized, when the impulse of destiny bears them to the same situation. Glorious, without doubt, was for us the discovery of the New World! But at what cost was it bought! For myself what affects me, leaving apart as not required here the question of the advantages which Europe has derived from that singular event, I will say, that wherever I find, whether in the past or the present, aggressors and aggrieved, oppressors and oppressed, on no account of ulterior utility, nor even of national consideration, am I able to incline myself to the former, or to fail in sympathizing with the latter. I may have put therefore into this historical question more entireness and candour than is commonly expected, when referring to our own conduct, but no odious prejudices, nor an inclination to injure or detract. Let us everywhere give some place in books to justice, now that unfortunately it is wont to have so little left it in the affairs of the world."

Holding such high opinions in all his writings, it may be seen that the youth of Spain cannot have a better guide to take for private study than those writings, the best preparatives for honourable exertion in life; and Quintana's own history shows, that whatever misfortunes may befall any one individually, he does not labour or suffer in vain, who labours or suffers honestly in a just cause. In another part of the same prologue, Quintana says of his own lot, "Of this variety of circumstances and continued alternations, from good to ill, and from ill to good, not small has been the part fallen to the author of this work. Drawn by the force of events from his study and domestic lares, flattered and excessively exalted now, afterwards borne down and contemned, falling into imprisonment and proceeded against capitally, destined to a long and perhaps indefinite detention, deprived during it of communications and even of his pen, released from it, when he least hoped, to rise and prosper, and descending again soon to be endangered, he has experienced all, and nothing now can be to him new. Let it not be supposed from this that he puts it forth here as a merit, and less, that he presents it in complaint. For of whom should I complain? Of men? These in the midst of my greatest calamities, with very few exceptions, have shown themselves constantly regardful, benevolent, and even respectful towards me. Of fortune? And what pledges had she given me to moderate for me the rigour with which she treated the rest? Were they not of as much or more value than I? Political and moral turbulences are the same as the great physical disorders, in which the elements becoming excited, no one is sheltered from their fury."

Resigning himself thus to his fate, Quintana seems to have learned the philosophical secret of preserving his equanimity in all the vicissitudes of life, to the enjoyment of a tranquil old age. The privilege of attaining this is a favour to every one, to whom it is granted; but its highest enjoyments must be consequent only on a life of active usefulness, with a conscience void of offence. The man of cultivated mind, who has been called upon to do or to suffer more than others his fellows in the turmoils of the world, may then be supposed to receive his greater reward in the remembrances of scenes, happier perhaps in the retrospect than in the reality, which may have given them even the semblance of a longer existence. As perspectives appear lengthened, according to the number and variety of objects that intervene to the view, so life itself may appear to have been longer or shorter, according to the memory and character of events witnessed in its course. Described as a person of athletic form, yet unbowed by the burden of fourscore years, Quintana, as before observed, still survives, to receive the honour justly due to him for his honourable exertions through life, the remembrances of which may thus give him more pleasurable enjoyments, than can be supposed to fall to the lot of ordinary mortals.

As a poet, if a foreigner may be allowed to express an opinion, for which he has no native authority to adduce, Quintana may be said to be more eloquent than poetical. As Quintilian said of Lucan, both also natives of Spain, "ut dicam quod sentio, magis oratoribus quam poetis annumerandus." Quintana's eloquence consists in earnestness more than in flights of fancy. His favourite subjects were the glories of his country; and his patriotic odes, in which he endeavoured to incite his countrymen to imitate the examples of their forefathers, have been pronounced his best compositions. He has as a poet paid his tribute of admiration to beauty and the arts; but his whole soul seems to be poured forth when pathetically mourning over the dimmed glories of his country, as when at the thought "of our miserable squadrons flying before the British," he turns to the Padillias and Guzmans of former days, "when the Spaniard was master of half of Europe, and threw himself upon unknown and immense seas to give a new world to men."

As a patriotic poet Quintana has been compared to Beranger, and is said to have had the same power over the minds of his countrymen. If the parallel be correct, it may be curious to consider how characteristically these two poets appeal to the feelings of their admirers; one by songs and incidents, which though often trivial, yet speak to the heart in its most sensitive points, while the other proceeds to the same object by martial odes of commanding austerity. Besides the Ode to Balmis, the other one in this work, on the Battle of Trafalgar, has been chosen for translation, as most likely to interest the English reader, though it may not be in itself so much to be admired as some others of his poems. The reader will perhaps observe a constrained style in it, even beyond that of translation,—sentiments forced, as if the subject had not been taken voluntarily. It must not therefore be looked upon as a favourable specimen of Quintana's genius, like the Ode to Balmis, which more fully shows the character of his mind.

Quintana, more than other poets of his time, has written in one style of verse, as in imitation of the Pindaric ode, or of our Gray and Dryden. Thus with free metres and often unfettered by rhyme, he has a staid measured tone, well suited to the subjects he has generally adopted. They are considered in Spain as of an elegiac character; and as accordant with them, they have fallen in the translation into the form of our elegies, or the heroic lines with alternate rhymes, the style of verse which Dryden, a high authority on such a question, pronounced "the most magnificent of all the measures which our language affords."

Much as Quintana has published, both of his own works and of the works of others, for the advancement of sound learning and moral instruction, we have still great cause to regret that the circumstances of the times in which he has lived have prevented him from publishing more. Not only has he been interrupted in the course of those instructive biographies, of which we have such valuable beginnings, but we might have hoped, if he had lived in more peaceful times, that he would have given the world some work, of a character more distinctively his own, to place his name still higher in the history of elegant literature. It was one of the maxims of the wise Jovellanos, "that it was not sufficient for the purposes of good government to keep the people quiet, but that they ought to be kept contented." Without this condition the other cannot be expected; and for all public commotions, therefore, the rulers are always most responsible, as unmindful of this truth. The greatest evil is, when the whole literary world has thus also further cause to complain of their misdeeds, as affecting those who were endowed with talents of a higher order, such as to make all men interested in their well-being. It is to be hoped that we are now, under the benignant reign of Isabel the Second, entitled to expect a more liberal government, and the advent of a still brighter æra for the literature of Spain.

Taking the space of eighty years, as comprehending the period during which modern Spanish poetry has been peculiarly distinguished for superior excellence, we may now make a further division of this period, into the former and latter parts of it. All the poets, whose lives we have hitherto traced, wrote their principal works previously to the year 1810; after which time we have a succession of writers, whose genius may perhaps be found to take a yet wider range of thought and feeling, consequent on the extended field of knowledge, which later events presented to their observation.


  1. Political Essay on New Spain, Book II. chapter 5.
  2. Mariano Josè de Larra was born at Madrid, 24th March, 1809. His father had joined the French army as a medical officer, and after the peace went to France, taking his son with him, where he forgot his native language, so that he had to learn it as a novice on his return to Spain. It is not improbable that his education in that country, where also he passed some time subsequently, gave Larra's mind that tendency for scepticism and perverted feeling which led to his miserable end. From his earliest years he showed great aptitude for learning, and had studied the Greek, English and Italian languages, before he went to Valladolid to prepare for the profession of the law. After a short residence there, he went to Valencia on some disappointment he suffered, which, to one of his temperament, seemed a greater misfortune than what perhaps any other person would have considered it. At Valencia he obtained employment in a public office, which, however, did not suit his taste, and having then married, he returned to Madrid and determined to write for the public. His first efforts were not successful, and have not been subsequently reprinted with his works, but after a short time he began writing a series of essays on passing events, under the signature of Figaro, which at once attained great popularity. He also wrote several plays and a few poems, which, as written by Figaro, were favourably received. But the essays, under that title, were the foundation of his popularity. They were in the style of our essayists of the reign of Queen Anne, containing criticisms, and sketches of manners and characters, written in a style of great ease and elegance, marked with much wit and humour, as well as vigour. These works have been very many times reprinted in Spain, and also in France and South America. The student who wishes to form a correct style in learning Spanish, cannot do better than take Larra for a model. By his writings he had attained a respectable place in literary society, and it was understood that his fortunes were thereby also in a state of competence. He was, however, possessed of an ill-regulated mind and headstrong passions, so that, as it seems intimated, baffled in some object of unlawful desire, he put an end to his existence by a pistol shot the 13th February, 1837. In his review of Quintana' s Life of Las Casas, he unreservedly subscribes to all the sentiments therein expressed.