The Spanish poet, satirist, novelist, and wit Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Villegas (1580-1645) ranks as one of the major writers of Spain's Golden Age.
Francisco de Quevedo was born in Madrid to an aristocratic family and orphaned very young. He studied the humanities at the University of Alcalá and theology at Valladolid. He learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and several modern languages and became a classics scholar. He published his first poem at the age of 25. In 1613 he accompanied the Spanish viceroy, the Duke of Osuna, to Italy to serve as diplomatic adviser. Quevedo became involved in a political conspiracy in Venice in 1618 and was recalled to Madrid in disgrace and kept under house arrest.
Freed but unchastened, Quevedo engaged in acrid literary and political controversies. His adverse criticism of the government soon incurred the disapproval of the Conde-Duque de Olivares, who was the royal favorite, and Quevedo was imprisoned in León from 1639 until 1643. He went to Villanueva de los Infantes, where he died 2 years later.
Quevedo's name is used as the butt of jokes throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Because he always wore nose glasses, his name in the plural, quevedos, came to mean pince-nez.
In its manifold variety, Quevedo's writing dazzles the intellect. Quevedo the theologian produced about 15 books on theological and ascetic subjects, such as La cuna y la sepultura (1612; The Cradle and the Grave) and La providencia de Dios (1641; The Providence of God). Quevedo the critic and literary gadfly published La culta latiniparla (The Craze for Speaking Latin) and Aguja de navegar cultos (Compass for Navigating among Euphuistic Reefs), both aimed against Gongorism—the Spanish counterpart of euphuism.
Quevedo the satirist produced profoundly melancholy buffoonery and grotesque cosmic nonsense in Los sueños (1627; Dreams). He scourged doctors, tailors, judges, Genoese bankers, barbers, bores, poets, dramatists, and every age and sort of woman, spattering them with scatological humor. His books of political theory were products of many years of earnest thought and of his own political experience. Two of the most important are La political de Dios (1617-1626; The Politics of the Lord) and La vida de Marco Bruto (1632-1644; The Life of Marcus Brutus).
Quevedo the poet produced an enormous bulk of verse, much of it extremely witty and sarcastic—no few poems based on the subjects of metaphysical anguish, the brevity of beauty, the loss of love, inexorable time, and death. Quevedo the novelist is perhaps best known through his picaresque novel La vida del buscón (1626; Paul the Sharperor The Scavenger), in which he followed the usual episodic pattern of the picaresque novel, intermixing sardonic wit. In this novel he sought to entertain, to ridicule, and to hold up fraud and dishonesty to scorn, but he rarely moralized directly, as did other picaresque novelists of his time.
Translations of Quevedo into English are difficult to find. A translation of El buscón, entitled The Scavenger, was done by Hugh H. Harter in 1962. This volume contains an introduction expressly for the American reader. In 1963 the University of Illinois Press reprinted Visions—As Translated by Sir Roger L'Estrange from Quevedo's Los sueños; J. M. Cohen wrote the introduction, which contains significant comments on both L'Estrange and Quevedo. Charles Duff translated selections of Quevedo's work in Quevedo: The Choice Humorous and Satirical Works (1926). This volume includes the work of several translators and a study by Duff of the life and writings of Quevedo, with a list of English translations, none later than 1892. Quevedo's place in Spanish literature is discussed in Gerald Brenan, The Literature of the Spanish People (2d ed. 1953). For general historical background see Louis Bertrand and Sir Charles Petrie, The History of Spain (trans. 1934; rev. ed. 1952), and John Armstrong Crow, Spain: The Root and the Flower (1963).