Luis de Góngora

The Spanish poet Luis de Góngora y Argote (1561-1627) caused a furor with his use of complex metaphor, Latinized vocabulary, unconventional syntax, and metaphysical subtleties. His baroque style became known as Gongorism.

Born in Cordova on July 11, 1561, Luis de Góngora was educated there and at the University of Salamanca, where, without much enthusiasm, he studied law while preferring literature and music. No evidence exists that he obtained his degree. An unfortunate love affair is said to have given origin to one of his best-known sonnets, LXXXVI, La dulce boca que a gustar convida ("The sweet mouth that invites one to taste"), a caustic prognostic to lovers that "all that is ever left of love is its venom."

As early as 1580 Góngora manifested some predilection for culto, or euphuistic, poetry—as is shown by his use of proparoxytonic verse, his Latinizations, and his exploitation of classical mythology. Even so, during these early years and later, he retained a liking for the popular, for the picaresque, and even for waggery.

By his middle 20s the precocious Góngora was well enough known to be complimented by Miguel de Cervantes in a poem of literary criticism, Canto de Calíope (1585; "Song of Calliope"). Sponsored by an uncle, and after providing the customary evidence that he was a cristiano viejo (that is, untainted with Jewish or Moorish blood), Góngora obtained remunerative prebendaries and took minor orders toward the priesthood. Income now assured, he began to live a rather carefree life, to which an austere bishop soon put a stop. The bishop accused Góngora of unchurchly fondness for bullfighting, music, and theater, fined him 4 ducats, and forbade his further attendance at bullfights.

A Góngora maturer in years, if not in financial practices, moved in 1601 to Valladolid, temporary seat of the royal court, where he wrote a great deal of festive verse, fell out with Francisco de Quevedo, spent money too freely, and plunged into debt. Vicissitudes, however, did not check his growing prestige, which by 1606 had earned him the reputation of being an illustrious poet.

The years 1612-1613, when Góngora wrote Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea ("The Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea") and Las soledades ("Solitudes"), were the most important in his literary life, and the controversy attendant on the publication of these poems has continued until today. Góngora's strongest apologist, Dámaso Alonso, eloquently defends Gongorism and challenges its defamers: "Obscurity, no: radiant clarity, dazzling clarity. Clarity of language of hard perfection and exact grammatical enchasing …"; while Elisha Kane (1928) attacks Gongorism as a physician a pestilence: "Gongorism is the disease of an age and a culture." Kane does not attribute to Góngora the "disease" of Gongorism but rather blames the 17th century, a "barren, baroque epoch."

In 1617 Góngora was appointed chaplain to Philip III over the objections of the Duke of Lerma, who questioned the desirability of appointing a poet to a position so close to the King. In spite of his salary from this post and from his prebendaries, Góngora, who frequently gambled and lived beyond his means, seemed always short of funds. In 1625, to his despair, he was in danger of losing to creditors even his horse and carriage; in July he wrote to a friend, "I feel like jumping in a well." His debts continued to accumulate, and his pride suffered a heavy blow when his residence in Madrid was auctioned and purchased by his implacable literary enemy Francisco de Quevedo. One setback followed another. The Conde-Duque de Olivares offered to underwrite the costs of publishing Góngora's poetry but reneged on his promise, leaving Góngora largely unpublished, although his writings circulated in manuscript.

Before his death in Cordova on May 23, 1627, Góngora gave all his manuscripts to his nephew, Luis de Saavedra, who never bothered to have them published, presumably being occupied in grabbing his late uncle's prebendary income. Because of this negligence by an unconcerned beneficiary, Góngora's prose (excepting his letters) has disappeared. Only his poetry survives.


His Poetry

Góngora's major poems, those that have aroused the most controversy, are Polifemo (1613), based on the thirteenth book of the Metamorphoses of Ovid, and Las soledades (1613). Polifemo tells the story of the love of the one-eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus, for the charming, mocking sea nymph Galatea. The scene is a bat-haunted cave on the Sicilian coast, where jealous Polyphemus slays the handsome Acis, and a grief-stricken Galatea beseeches the goddess of the sea to transform Acis into a river. Of the four soledades he planned to write, Góngora completed only the first; the second was never finished and no trace exists of the third and fourth. Las soledades tells the story of a youth shipwrecked among goatherds, of a flower-bedecked village, of fireworks and athletic contests, of the youth's encounter with a beautiful maiden, and of their subsequent marriage.

In Polifemo and Las soledades Góngora sought beauty of language in lines of abstruse complexity and tried to create a "new reality" by means of new metaphor. To him, to call things by their common names was to tread on old treadmills: he gave things new names to exalt and enliven them. His defenders would say Góngora's was "the poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, seeking to give airy nothing a local habitat and a name."

Concerning the enduring quality of Góngora's sonnets and his other conventional poems, there is no controversy, and no anthology of Spanish poetry would appear without a selection of them. Sonnet CLXVI is the lyrical Spanish counterpart of Robert Herrick's "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may," although more overcast with sorrow, especially in the final word, nada (nothing).

Few poets have conveyed the elemental sorrow of a young bride whose beloved is going off to war as Góngora does in the romancillo XLIX, whose first stanza reads: La más bella niña/ de nuestro lugar/ hoy viuda y sola,/ y ayer por casar,/ viendo que sus ojos/ a la guerra van/ a su madre dice,/ que escucha su mal:/ Dejadme llorarl orillas del mar. (The loveliest girl in our village, today a widow and alone, yesterday still single, seeing her beloved depart for war, says to her mother, listening to her lamentation: Let me pour forth my grief on the shore of the sea.)


Further Reading on Luis de Góngora y Argote

The most thorough study of Góngora in English is antagonistic, Elisha K. Kane, Gongorism and the Golden Age: A Study of Exuberance and Unrestraint in the Arts (1928). Background information is in George Tyler Northup, An Introduction to Spanish Literature (1925; 3d ed. rev. by Nicholson B. Adams, 1960), and in Richard E. Chandler and Kessel Schwartz, A New History of Spanish Literature (1961).