The collected works of Luis de Góngora y Argote were not published until a few months after his death in 1627. Although the volume had been prudently dedicated to the inquisitor general, Cardenal Zapata, it was banned by church authorities for denigrating priests, nuns, maidens, married women, courtiers and bishops. Behind this censorship stood the animosity of Juan de Pineda, a Jesuit whom Góngora had described in a sonnet as ‘un positivo padre azafranado’, or ‘an intransigent ginger Jesuit’, as John Dent-Young translates it in his new bilingual Selected Poems. The taint of immorality has long been forgotten, but Góngora’s work has never quite recovered from another accusation: that it is incomprehensible.
He was born of a noble family in Córdoba in 1561 and studied at Salamanca. Besides poetry, his chief passion was gambling, and over the years he lost a fortune. He entered the Church in 1581, as prebendary at Córdoba cathedral, out of necessity rather than piety. He was often absent from services or caught talking during them, and he continued to indulge himself with cards and bullfights.
Some of his sonnets are clearly influenced by Petrarch, such as this 1582 take on the Carpe diem:
enjoy them all, neck, hair, lip and brow,
before the gold and lily of your heyday,
the red carnation, crystal brightly gleaming,
are changed to silver and withered violet,
and you and they together must revert
to earth, to smoke, to dust, to shadow, to nothing.
He also soon began to use the sonnet form to describe the decadence of the court:
Dukes weightier than elephant or rhinoceros,
noblemen as generous as a stone,
mouthpieces serving no mouth but their own
Many of his shorter works from this period offer a vivid portrait of Spanish customs and daily life, and though apparently folkloric and simple, use complex poetic language that anticipates his later work. They often have a twist. In the 1580 romance ‘Hermana Marica’ (‘Marica, my sister’) a boy describes a village holiday. He will go to mass, to a picnic and so on. But the last lines of the poem introduce a different kind of pleasure:
we’ll joust with canes
next to the square,
so young Bárbola
will come out and see us,
Bárbola (you know her,
her mother’s the baker),
she likes to give me cakes and pastries,
because of the thing
we do together,
she and I,
behind the door.
Góngora’s work is teasingly autobiographical. There is, for example, a witty self-portrait in the 1587 romance ‘Hanme dicho, hermanas’ (‘Sisters, they tell me’):
He’s a ferocious poet,
if there’s any in Libya,
and when he’s seized by the poetry mania
he’ll produce you loose verse
as if he’s been purged,
while with carob seeds
he makes little round ones.
In 1611 Góngora moved to a simple country house outside Córdoba in search, he said, of aesthetic purity. The idealisation of solitude and the dream of a bucolic lifestyle (seen in opposition to the self-importance, artificiality and other earthly passions encouraged by courtly life) had been persistent elements in his work from the start. It was during this retirement that Góngora produced his two longer masterpieces (both in hendecasyllables): the first part of the Soledades and the Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea, which made him Spain’s most controversial poet. Though his style can be seen as a development of the Renaissance ideals that Spanish poets had been faithful to since their introduction by Garcilaso de la Vega in the early 16th century, he pushed these poetics to extremes. The most maligned feature of the Soledades was the frequent separation of noun and adjective: Góngora imitated Latin word order in an attempt to isolate his work from the language of everyday life.
Could a poet justify pitching his work at this level, so it is impossible to read without a special effort? Góngora’s letters reveal his pride in his work and impatience with the reaction to it, but also that this reaction upset him. In a letter of 1614 responding to a particularly vicious attack on the Soledades (the critic had said the poem was poorly constructed and articulated, incomprehensible, and a deformation of the Spanish language), Góngora writes:
It must be said that engaging one’s wits thanks to a poet’s obscurity is useful. You will find this in my Soledades, if you are able to remove the rind and discover the mystery they enclose . . . It has honoured me to make myself obscure to the ignorant, for that is the distinction of scholars, to speak so that to others their words sound like ancient Greek, for pearls should not be cast before swine . . . My Soledades do not take leave of me confused, it is the evil will of those who find in their own language the confusion that they themselves are infected by . . . I can only say to you that at my age I am more interested in the truth than in shams, and that I will try to befriend only those who wish to be my friends.
The reception of these poems affected Góngora’s ability to support himself at court. When he applied for the post of royal chaplain in Madrid, his enemies claimed that such an obscure poet could never serve the king. One of Góngora’s defenders retorted: ‘Where is it written that all royal chaplains must be imbeciles?’ The position was given him after a struggle.
Yet he had the support of some of his most illustrious contemporaries. Cervantes said that ‘the one who has the key to writing, with such great wit and grace, that he has no equal in the world, is Don Luis de Góngora,’ and Velázquez admired him and painted his portrait (now in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts). Many others were less impressed. Two of the best-known Spanish writers of the time, Quevedo and Lope de Vega, were his most vociferous enemies. For Quevedo, personal animosity was inseparable from literary competitiveness, and in the case of Lope (whose career was in decline) the attacks were perhaps fuelled by a measure of envy.
The poetic duel between Góngora and Quevedo was dirty, entertaining and influenced by the inquisitorial habits of the period. Góngora accused Quevedo of being a thief and traitor, and cast aspersions on the ‘purity’ of his lineage. In a sonnet entitled ‘Yo te untaré mis versos con tocino’ (‘For you I will cover my verses in lard’), Quevedo retorted that Góngora had Jewish blood, that he was barely a man, that he had huge ears, a scrawny face and an oversized nose; he addressed him as ‘Gongorilla’. Góngora had come to be seen as the representative of culteranismo, a p0etic style that depended on complexity; Quevedo was the great defender of conceptismo, which demanded that the Spanish language be used correctly and idiomatically, though it also encouraged the use of far-fetched conceits. Quevedo criticised Góngora’s use of learned words, the lack of clarity in his verse and his use of ‘violent’ transpositions. He thought that the Polifemo and the Soledades abused all poetic standards, and mocked both poems in a parody that claimed to show that anyone could write the Soledades in a day. In the end, Quevedo bought Góngora’s house in Madrid, literally putting him out on the street.
Góngora’s syntax and his use of hyperbatons (especially the transposition of the noun and epithet) were also mocked by Lope de Vega, who wrote a parodic sonnet entitled ‘Inés, your beautiful, are killing me, eyes’. Like Unamuno’s image of Cervantes waiting sadly through the ages for someone finally to understand Don Quixote, we can imagine the relief of Góngora’s ghost when the group of Spanish poets known as the Generación del ’27 (a disparate gathering that included Lorca, Pedro Salinas, Gerardo Diego and Rafael Alberti) came to appreciate him. Of these poets, Lorca was the best reader of Góngora. He portrays him as a writer whose spontaneous use of language is characteristic of Andalusian style and inventiveness. Lorca condemned Spaniards for perpetuating the image of Góngora as difficult and pretentious: ‘Góngora has been alone like a leper covered in wounds . . . waiting for new generations to reclaim his objective legacy and his sense of metaphor.’
Góngora found nothing fresh in the poetry of his contemporaries; he had no patience for traditional Castilian tastes or the simple heroism of the romances. His immersion in Virgil made him see imperfections in the Spanish language, and so he reintroduced a Latinate syntax, created a poetic language using neologisms and beautiful words, and revived the traditional images of Hispano-Arabic verse. His poetry is full of strange passages in which disparate elements are tied together by a single term. All that is golden (a woman’s hair, honey, olive oil, grains of wheat) is oro. Anything white is described as nieve, which means ‘snow’: thus a white cloth is threaded snow, a bird’s white feather is falling snow, and white lilies are the fragrant flakes that drop onto the ground in the month of May. His metaphors unite antagonistic worlds by mean of an – often violent – leap. The First Solitude (he planned to write four but completed only the first and part of the second) tells the story of a pilgrim, unlucky in love and shipwrecked, who finds refuge with shepherds in the mountains. At the beginning of the First Solitude, he is washed ashore:
He strips and makes his clothing
restore to the sands all
the ocean it had drunk,
then spreads it to the sun,
who licking it lightly
with the delicate fire of his sweet tongue,
assaults it gently and, with languid tread,
each last wave sucks from each last thread.
This passage made Lorca exclaim: ‘In these eight lines there are more nuances than in the entirety of Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata!’ Góngora moves fluently between the vast (the ocean, the stars of the Antarctic) and the tiny, making the tiny great.
The Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea is loosely taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses but neither it nor the Soledades places much importance on story. There is no narrative moment or incident that stands out in either poem; the texture of the atmosphere, images and language is consistent. And the language tends to be clear and melodious, as in the following image of Galatea:
Oh Galatea, beauty, brighter, sweeter
than the fresh carnations that Aurora culls
and whiter than that creature of the air
that, dying, sings, and on the water dwells;
and splendid as the noble bird that bears
as many eyes on its august blue tail
as stars are in the sapphire vault, O you
who summarise their beauty in just two!
For Lorca, ‘Góngora is not easy, but he is intelligible and luminous . . . Even on the rare occasion when his hyperboles go overboard, they always have characteristic Andalusian grace and wit . . . like the flirtatious compliments of any lovestruck cordobés (i.e. a woman whose beauty is so intense it could even burn up Norway with the strength of two suns).’ Dent-Young’s Selected Poems, which has excellent introductory essays and notes, rescues Góngora from his afterlife as a textbook example of the baroque, and demystifies a poet who has never quite been able to escape the ghetto to which he was banished by his resentful contemporaries.
In the same year that he finished the Soledades, Góngora was also constantly writing letters to important men, asking for money, clothes and food. He complained that not even an ant could survive on his monthly allowance, let alone a man of honour, and in one postscript that almost sounds like a request from Sancho Panza, added: ‘I beg your grace, please, do not forget my onions.’