Gustavo Adolfo Becquer
Biography of Gustavo Adolfo Becquer
Gustavo Adolfo Domínguez Bastida, better known as Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, was an Andalusian post-romanticist writer of poetry and short stories, now considered one of the most important figures in Spanish literature. He adopted the alias of Bécquer as his brother Valeriano Bécquer, a painter, had done earlier. He was associated with the post-romanticism movement and wrote while realism was enjoying success in Spain. He was moderately well known during his life, but it was after his death that most of his works were published.
His best known works are the Rhymes and the Legends, usually published together as Rimas y leyendas. These poems and tales are essential to the study of Spanish literature and common reading for high-school students in Spanish-speaking countries.
His work approached the traditional poetry and themes in a modern way, and is considered the founder of modern Spanish lyricism. Bécquer's influence on 20th century poets of the Spanish language can be felt in the works of Octavio Paz and Giannina Braschi.
Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer was born in Seville, on February 17, 1836 with the last name of Domínguez Bastida, but he chose his Flemish father's second last name of Bécquer, as the family was known around town. His father, José Domínguez Bécquer, who descended from an originally-Flemish family that was well respected in Seville, was a painter of relatively good repute in his native town. His paintings were sought after, particularly among tourists visiting the area. José had a great talent, and this greatly influenced young Gustavo, who showed a love for painting and an innate ability for drawing and sketching at an early age. He was very talented, and continued drawing throughout his life, though it was never his main focus.
Bécquer was left an orphan at an early age: he lost his father at age 5, and his mother only 6 years later. Young Gustavo began his education at San Antonio Abad school, until he was admitted as a student of San Telmo school in 1846, a nautical institution. It was at that school that he met Narciso Campillo, with whom he developed a strong friendship. It was also with Campillo that Bécquer began to show his literary vocation, as the two boys started writing while sharing time at San Telmo. A year later, the school was closed by royal order. Gustavo and his siblings were then taken in by their uncle, Don Juan de Vargas, who cared for the children as if they were his own. Shortly after, Gustavo went on to live with his godmother Doña Manuela Monahay, whose extensive library provided young Bécquer with endless hours of entertainment, which doña Manuela allowed with pleasure. During this period, Campillo remembers that the poet barely left his godmother’s house, as he spent hours devouring the volumes of her library. Gustavo’s godmother, a well-educated person and also well-to-do, supported his passion for the studies of arts and history. However, she wished for Gustavo to have a profession, so in 1850 she got him admitted as a pupil into the studio of Don Antonio Cabral Bejarano, at the Santa Isabel de Hungría school. Gustavo worked at the studio for only two years, when he moved to his uncle Joaquin’s studio and continued developing his skills alongside his brother Valeriano, who was already studying there. Gustavo and Valeriano became from this point very close friends, and they both influenced each other greatly throughout their lives. Luciano, another brother of the poet, also studied with them during this period. The study of the arts of drawing did not distract Gustavo from his passion for poetry; furthermore, his uncle Joaquin paid for his Latin classes, which brought him closer to his beloved Horace, one of his earliest influences. Joaquin also noticed the great aptitude of his nephew for words, and encouraged him to pursue writing as a career, almost behind doña Manuela’s back, with whom Gustavo was still living at the time.
In 1853, at the age of seventeen, he moved to Madrid to follow his dream of making a name for himself as a poet. Along with his friends Narciso Campillo and Julio Nombela, both poets also, they had dreamed of moving to Madrid together and selling their poetry for good money, though reality proved to be quite different. Nombela was the first to leave for Madrid that year, alongside his family. After long arguments over the trip with doña Manuela, who resisted the idea, Bécquer finally left for Madrid in October of that same year, alone and quite poor, except for the little money that his uncle provided for him. The third friend, Campillo, did not leave Seville until some time later. Life in Madrid wasn’t easy for the poet. The dream of fortune that had guided his steps towards the city were replaced by a reality of poverty and disillusionment. The two friends were soon joined by Luis García Luna, also a poet from Seville, who shared the same dreams of greatness. The three began writing and trying to make themselves known as authors, without much luck. Bécquer, the only one of the three without a real job and a steady income, went on to live with an acquaintance of Luna, doña Soledad.
After several failed commercial attempts with his friends, the writer finally accepted a job as a writer for a small newspaper. This, however, didn’t last long, and soon Gustavo was out of a job again. It was then that, in 1855, Valeriano arrived in Madrid, and Gustavo went on to live with his brother. They would never be apart after that.
After a few other unsuccessful attempts at publishing their work, Bécquer and Luna began working together writing comic plays for theater, as a means of making a living. This collaboration went on until 1860. At that time, Bécquer worked intensively on his belated project Historia de los templos de España (History of Spain’s temples), the first volume of which saw the light of day in 1857. It was also during this period that he would meet the young Cuban poet Rodríguez Correa, who would later play a major role in collecting his works for posthumous publication. It was around this time, between 1857 and 1858, that Bécquer became ill, and was left to the care of his brother and friends. Shortly after, he met by chance a girl by the name of Julia Espín, with whom he fell deeply in love, and who also served as an inspiration for much of his romantic poetry. This love, however, was unrequited.
Around 1860, Rodríguez Correa found Bécquer a government position, from where he was fired shortly after for spending his time writing and drawing while on the job.
In 1861, Bécquer met Casta Esteban Navarro, and married her in May 1861. Bécquer was believed to have had a romance with another girl named Elisa Guillén shortly before the marriage, which is also thought to be arranged (if not somewhat forced) by the parents of the girl. The poet was not happy in the marriage, and took any chance he got to follow his brother Valeriano on his constant trips. Casta began to take up with a man with whom she had had a relationship shortly before marrying Bécquer, something that was later blamed on Bécquer’s trips and lack of attention by Casta’s acquaintances. The poet wrote very little about Casta, as most of his inspiration at this time (as it is the case with the famous rima LIII) came from his feelings towards Elisa Guillén. Casta and Gustavo had three children: Gregorio Gustavo Adolfo, Jorge, and Emilio Eusebio. The third child was possibly fruit of the extramarital relations of Casta.
In 1865, Bécquer stopped writing for the magazine El Contemporáneo and began writing for another one called El museo universal. As it was customary for the poet, he didn’t hold this job for long, and was appointed to a government post, fiscal de novelas (censor of novels) by his friend, the Spanish minister González Bravo. This was a well-paid job, which he held until 1868. During this period, the poet concentrated on finishing his Libro de los gorriones (Book of the sparrows), so he did not publish a great deal of his works. The book, which had been completed and given to Bravo to be published, as he had offered so to Bécquer himself, was lost after the political revolution of 1868. It was at this time that the poet left Spain for Paris, although he returned not long after. By 1869, the poet and his brother went back to Madrid together, along with Gustavo’s sons. Here, he started re-writing the book that had gone missing the year before. Gustavo was, by then, living a bohemian life, as his friends later described. With the sole purpose of putting bread on the table, Bécquer went back to writing for El museo universal, and then left to take the job of literary director of a new artistic magazine called La ilustración de Madrid. Valeriano also collaborated with this project. Gustavo's publications on this magazine consisted mostly of short texts to accompany his brother’s illustrations. Around this time, between 1868 and 1869, the two brothers published a book of satiric and erotic illustrations under a pseudonym, which humorously critiqued the life of the royalty in Spain, called Los Borbones en pelotas.
In 1870, Valeriano fell ill and died on September 23. This had a terrible impact on Gustavo, who suffered a serious depression as a result. After publishing a few short works on the magazine, the poet also became gravely ill and died in poverty in Madrid, on the 22nd of December, almost three months after his beloved brother. The cause of death is debated: while his friends described symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis, a later study indicates that he may have died of liver complications. Some of his last words are said to be “Acordaos de mis niños” (“remember-don’t forget- my children”.)
After his death, his friend Rodríguez Correa, with the collaboration of Campillo, Nombela, and Augusto Ferrán, collected and organized his manuscripts for publication, as a way to help the widow and children of the poet. The first edition of their effort was published in 1871, and a second volume was published 6 years later. Further revisions came out on the editions released in 1881, 1885, and 1898.
In such prose tales as El Rayo de Luna, El beso, and La Rosa de Pasión, Bécquer is manifestly influenced by E.T.A. Hoffmann, and as a poet he has analogies with Heine. His work is unfinished and unequal, but it is singularly free from the rhetoric characteristic of his native Andalucía, and its lyrical ardor is of a beautiful sweetness and sincerity. He also wrote in an epistolary style: Cartas desde mi Celda – written during his travels to Veruela's Monastery – or La Mujer de Piedra or little theatre plays La novia y el pantalón. It is not so known he was an excellent graphic artist. Most of his work concentrated on spontaneity of love and the solitude of nature. His work, and in particular his Rimas, are considered some of the most important work in Spanish poetry, greatly influencing the following generations of writers, notably authors like Antonio Machado and Juan Ramón Jiménez, writers belonging to the Generation of '27, such as Federico García Lorca and Jorge Guillén, and many Hispano-American writers like Ruben Dario.
Bécquer's poems were recited from memory by his contemporaries, and greatly influenced the generations afterwards. Modeled in brief stanza forms, both musical and erotic, Bécquer's 98 Rimas came to a few thousand lines, considered the foundation of modern Spanish poetry. His book was composed after his death from many sources, the primary one hand-written by Bécquer himself, The sparrows' book. Birds are a motif that shows up frequently in Bécquer's canon, like in "Rima LIII" (Rhyme 53), where swallows appear as a sign of the end to a passionate relationship.
Volverán las oscuras golondrinas
En tu balcón sus nidos a colgar
Y otra vez con el ala a sus cristales,
Pero aquellas que el vuelo refrenaban
Tu hermosura y mi dicha a contemplar.
Aquellas que aprendieron nuestros nombres,
¡Esas... no volverán!
The dark swallows will return
their nests upon your balcony, to hang.
And again with their wings upon its windows,
Playing, they will call.
But those who used to slow their flight
your beauty and my happiness to watch,
Those, that learned our names,
Those... will never come back!
The refrain "¡Esas... no volverán!" appears in the 20th novel "Yo-Yo Boing!" by Latina poet Giannina Braschi, who references Bécquer's swallows to describe the sorrow and angst of a failed romance.
In Rhymes (Rhyme 21) Becquer wrote one of the most famous poems in the Spanish language. The poem can be read as a response to a lover who asked what was poetry:
¿Qué es poesía?, dices mientras clavas
en mi pupila tu pupila azul.
¡Qué es poesía! ¿Y tú me lo preguntas?
Poesía eres tú.
A rough translation into English reads:
What is poetry? you say as you fix
on my pupil your pupil blue.
What is poetry! And you're asking me?
Poetry is you.
The Legends are a variety of romantic tales. As the name implies, most have a legendary tone. Some depict supernatural and semi-religious (Christian) events, like The mount of the souls, The green eyes, The rose of the Passion (a blood libel) and The miserere (a religious song). Others cover more or less normal events from a romantic view, like The moonlight ray and Three dates.
He also wrote some narrative pieces in prose, "Narraciones", which are loaded with imagination and implausibility, such as "Memorias de un Pavo" (Memoirs of a Turkey) in which, as the title implies, he describes the trip of a turkey from its home farm to the city, and its purchase to be eaten, when its writings are discovered inside the already cooked body.
Gustavo Adolfo Becquer's Works:
Historia de los templos de España (History of Spain’s temples)
Libro de los gorriones (1868)
Los Borbones en pelotas (1869)
Los Rimas (Posthumous)
El caudillo de las manos rojas, 1858.
La vuelta del combate, 1858. (Continued: El caudillo de las manos rojas).
La cruz del diablo, 1860.
La ajorca de oro, 1861.
El monte de las ánimas, 1861.
Los ojos verdes, 1861.
Maese Pérez, el organista, 1861.
Creed en Dios, 1862.
El rayo de luna, 1862.
El Miserere, 1862.
Tres fechas, 1862.
El Cristo de la calavera, 1862.
El gnomo, 1863.
La cueva de la mora, 1863.
La promesa, 1863.
La corza blanca, 1863.
El beso, 1863.
La Rosa de Pasión, 1864.
La creación, 1861.
¡Es raro!, 1861.
El aderezo de las esmeraldas, 1862.
La venta de los gatos, 1862.
Un boceto del natural, 1863.
Un lance pesado.
Memorias de un pavo, 1865.
Las hojas secas.
Historia de una mariposa y una araña.
La voz del silencio, 1923, Released by Fernando Iglesias Figueroa.
La fe salva, 1923, Released by Fernando Iglesias Figueroa.
La mujer de piedra, Unfinished.
El rey Alberto.
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Intermezzo No. 55
Often when two are parting,
Each grasps a hand as friend;
And then begins a weeping
And a sighing without end.
We did not sigh when parting;
No tears between us fell;
The weeping and the sighing
Came after our farewell.