Juan Zorrilla de San Martin (1855-1931), Uruguayan poet and newspaperman, was declared his country's national poet. His work is characterized by patriotic passion and vigor and by great sentiment for a romanticized past.
Juan Zorrilla was born in Montevideo on Dec. 28, 1855. His parents were natives of Spain and very devout Catholics; he maintained both loyalties throughout his life. He studied in the colegio (grade school) of the Jesuit order in Santa Fé, Argentina, and the school of the Bayon Fathers in Montevideo. His father sent him to study law at the National University in Santiago, Chile, because the anti-Catholic atmosphere of Montevideo at that time offended his family.
Zorrilla began writing nationalist and patriotic poetry and prose while in Santiago. His first prose epic, Ituzaingó (1874), commemorated a battle of that name, fought in 1828, which was vital to Uruguayan independence. He and other students wrote for a literary journal, Estrella de Chile, which appeared infrequently. Zorrilla's first collection of Poems, Notas de un himno (1876), met with critical acclaim.
In 1877 Zorrilla received his law degree. The following year he returned to Montevideo and was appointed a justice of the peace, a post he held for 6 months. He founded and became the editor of El Bien Público, a proclerical newspaper, which he used partially as a base from which to attack the dictatorship of Máximo Santos. Zorrilla's La leyenda pátria (1879) is a lyrical poem in praise of his nation, and Jesuitas (1879) is a collection of essays in support of that religious order. In 1880 he won the chair of general literature in the University of Montevideo by a concurso (competitive application), and he also became an instructor of natural law in the Liceo Universitario of the city. Santos eventually ordered Zorrilla removed from his teaching posts and harassed him; he fled to Buenos Aires in 1885 and remained there until 1887 when Santos resigned.
Zorrilla spent seven years working on Tabaré (1888), an epic poem in three books. This major piece, published in Paris, relates the struggle for survival of the region's indigenous way of life and its eventual extermination. It established him in the Spanish literary world as a major writer; the legend later was retold in operatic from by the Spanish composer Tomás Bretón. Zorrilla was elected to the Academia de la Lengua of Madrid as an individual correspondent.
Zorrilla's career in public affairs began at this time. He served briefly in the Chamber of Deputies after being elected in 1888. In 1891 he was appointed minister plenipotentiary to Spain; while in Madrid he took an active part in the city's intellectual life and in the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the Americas. Zorrilla traveled widely in Europe and served briefly as chargé d'affaires in Paris.
In 1898 Zorrilla returned to Montevideo, resumed the editorship of El Bien Público, and won the chair of international and public law in the university. In 1903 he acted briefly as chief of the Office of Emission of Currency in the Banco de la República. The year 1910 was the centennial of José Artigas's declaration of Uruguay independence; on commission from the government, Zorrilla published La epopeya de Artigas.
Late in life, Zorrilla was honored by the Pope for service and loyalty to the Church and for his Catholic activities. While president of the Club Católico Oriental in Montevideo, Zorrilla also maintained his deeply pro-Spanish attitudes. Having been twice widowed, he left 13 living children on his death in Montevideo on Nov. 4, 1931.
Zorrilla's work was acclaimed widely for its lyricism, dedication to the values of Catholic Hispanism, and patriotic fervor. His work was not abstractly romantic but sought to recount the glories of an era of heroism and idealism. He blended history and creativity in the form of legend and became a principal spokesman for conservative and traditional standards against the populist and modernizing standards that swept the country during his lifetime.
Zorrilla's Tabaré: An Indian Legend of Uruguay (trans. 1956) has an introduction and biographical foreword by Enrique Anderson-Imbert. Anderson-Imbert's Spanish-American Literature: A History (1954; trans. 1963; 2d ed., 2 vols., 1969) also discusses Zorrilla and is recommended for general historical background.