22 Pages

Poetics and Economics in the Vida Retirada of Fray Luis de LeÓn

ByRobert Ter Horst

T he sense of peril that pervades Fray Luis de León’s “Vida retirada” is not only metaphysical. The descendants of the Iberian Jews who in the 1390s were killed, converted, or expelled still led in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries lives of considerable risk, especially if they were in the least notable. A desire for distinction could very easily, once in some measure it was achieved, deliver an ambitious converso, or ex-Jew, over to death, imprisonment, or humiliation through the Inquisition. Fray Luis was descended from Jews on both his mother’s and his father’s side. 1 Nonetheless, he contentiously pursued and attained renown as an Augustinian friar celebrated for theological learning, biblical scholarship, and poetic talent. This intellectually unretiring man also spent nearly five years as a prisoner of the Inquisition before being exonerated and restored to his religious and scholarly functions in Salamanca (Macrí 17–23). For him the cloister, relative as it was, scarcely banished danger. Even so, the spiritual condition and aspirations so movingly portrayed in the “Vida retirada” largely emerge as a result of exclusion, of denial. In the poem Fray Luis is because of what he is not: 232¡Qué descansada vida la del que huye el mundanal ruido y sigue la escondida senda por donde han ido los pocos sabios que en el mundo han sido! (vv. 1–5)