17 Pages

Personal Involvement and Poetic Tradition in the Spanish Renaissance: Some Thoughts on Reading Garcilaso

ByCarroll B. Johnson

Spanish literary history is full of beautiful stories. These stories determine how we read a great many texts, what those texts are about and what they mean. We all know the story, for example, of that fateful conversation in Granada in 1526 between the Catalan diplomat Joan Boscán and the Venetian ambassador Andrea Navagero. As the two gentlemen strolled among the beautiful fountains of the Generalife gardens their talk naturally turned to poetry, and in the course of their discussions Navagero persuaded Boscán to try his hand at writing poetry in the Italian meters. We all know that Boscán followed Navagero’s advice, and indeed, he has passed into history as the poet who comes at the beginning of the anthologies and whom we routinely skip over in order to get to his friend Garcilaso de la Vega. In fact, Boscán’s chief claim to fame is that he was Garcilaso’s friend and that it was he who induced Garcilaso to follow his example of writing poetry in the Italian meters. The rest, as they say, is history, for Garcilaso was a poet of genius. Virtually instantaneously and single-handedly, he effected the most profound revolution that has ever been wrought in Spanish letters. All the poetry of the Spanish Golden Age, and this includes some of the greatest poetry ever written anywhere, depends on Garcilaso, is impossible without Garcilaso. Within forty years after his death his poetry was edited with erudite commentary and full critical apparatus, first by the university professor Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas (el Brocense) and then by the poet Fernando de Herrera. Garcilaso is the first Spanish poet to be elevated to the rank of classic, treated and edited and read and studied as a classic, in his own century. The last great poets of the Golden Age — Góngora and Quevedo especially — are still writing in imitation of Garcilaso, in praise of Garcilaso, or in response to Garcilaso, in the meters Garcilaso showed them how to use.