Authors: Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Spanish poet

February 17, 1836

Seville, Spain

December 22, 1870

Madrid, Spain


Orphaned as a young child, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer was raised in Seville by his godmother, who possessed a considerable library in which Bécquer became familiar with the works of François-René de Chateaubriand; E. T. A. Hoffmann; George Gordon, Lord Byron; Victor Hugo; and many others. Bécquer published a few works in a Seville newspaper before moving to Madrid at the age of eighteen to pursue a literary career.

portrait of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer

By Valeriano Bécquer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

During his early years in Madrid, Bécquer devoted his attention to composing a work called Historia de los templos de España (history of the temples of Spain), an ambitious project intended to be a comprehensive catalog of churches and religious art in Spain. The project was never completed, but in the portions that were published, Bécquer anticipates modern prose by imbuing technical descriptions of architectural monuments with symbolism.

Bécquer undertook other projects during his early years in Madrid to make ends meet. He wrote, adapted, and translated works for the theater, wrote journalistic articles, and eventually became director of a newspaper. He even worked as a government bureaucrat, including a time as a censor of novels, work that invites speculation upon Bécquer’s political sympathies. He seems to have been essentially apolitical, conservative in his desire to preserve Spanish folklore and traditions but liberal in his acceptance of new ideas and innovations ushered in by the Industrial Revolution.

Bécquer is best known for his poetry, most of which was published posthumously. Between December, 1860, and April, 1861, he published in a Madrid newspaper four letters called Letters to an Unknown Woman, in which he elaborates his theory of poetry. He considers poetry something apart from the poet, an objective work of art distinct from the biography of the creator, an anticipation of later directions in poetry. Another concern addressed by Bécquer in these letters is his sense of frustration at the inadequacy of poetry, the insufficiency of words to express what he intends. Bécquer also distinguishes between the emotional experience that inspires a poem and the rational stance the poet must adopt to analyze the emotion and write the poem. Bécquer’s distinction between the moments of poetic inspiration and composition recalls William Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Bécquer also echoes Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition,” which advises the Romantic poet to apply mathematical precision and architectural rigor to the most tender sentiments.

Bécquer published his twenty-two Leyendas in various Madrid newspapers between 1858 and 1864, eighteen of them between 1861 and 1863. These tales are characterized by the use of such conventions as the concepts of ideal women and femmes fatales, autobiography mixed with fantasy, exotic Indian locales and provincial Spanish settings, doomed hunters, and women who metamorphose into deer. In these works Bécquer was influenced by the German Romantic E. T. A. Hoffmann.

Between May and October of 1864 Bécquer published nine letters that he sent to a Madrid newspaper from the Cistercian Monastery of Veruela, where he had retreated because of his tuberculosis. These letters, collected in From My Cell, include personal confessions, legends, and local vignettes. They are essays in the tradition of Michel de Montaigne and Francis Bacon. In one letter Bécquer describes a visit to the local cemetery, which occasions his contemplation upon his own mortality. Another letter offers a shepherd’s superstitious account of a local witch. The shepherd mixes reality with fantasy much as Bécquer himself does in his Leyendas. Bécquer wanted the Spanish government to organize artistic expeditions to the provinces to document and thereby preserve such folklore, which Bécquer feared would vanish because of advances such as the railroad and the telegraph.

Bécquer’s seventy-six poems were written between 1859 and 1868, although only fifteen were published in his lifetime. In 1868 he presented a manuscript of his poems to a patron who was to write a prologue and publish the collection, but the manuscript was lost. He prepared another manuscript from memory between 1868 and his death in 1870. His friends used this manuscript to publish the first collection of Bécquer’s poetry in 1871. The manuscript was misplaced until 1914, when it was found in the National Library in Madrid.

Like the German Romantic Heinrich Heine, Bécquer wrote poetry that is spare yet haunting. If most Romantic poetry uses emotion as a point of departure for speculation upon transcendental truths, Bécquer’s poetry represents the distillation of emotion, the savoring of sentiment in and of itself, not as a vehicle to something beyond. Bécquer himself distinguished between his simple poetry and the pompous, sonorous, self-consciously artistic poetry of the early Romantics. Rejecting the adornments of his predecessors, Bécquer opted for poetry that is “natural, brief, dry, which springs from the soul like an electric spark.” His stark poems are the primordial sigh. Bécquer’s early death was precipitated by poor health and an unhappy marriage. It was not his wife Casta but another woman, Julia Espín, who served as the inspiration of some of the Poems.

Author Works Poetry: Rimas, 1871 (Poems, 1891; better known as The Rhymes, 1898) Short Fiction: Leyendas, serial 1858-1864 (selections translated in Terrible Tales: Spanish, 1891; also in Romantic Legends of Spain, 1909) Nonfiction: Historia de los templos de España, 1857 Cartas literarias a una mujer, serial 1860-1861 (Letters to an Unknown Woman, 1924) Cartas desde mi celda, 1864 (From My Cell, 1924) Miscellaneous: Obras, 1871 Legends, Tales, and Poems, 1907 The Infinite Passion: Being the Celebrated “Rimas” and the “Letters to an Unknown Woman,” 1924 (includes Rimas, Letters to an Unknown Woman, and From My Cell) Legends and Letters, 1995 Bibliography Bynum, B. Brant. The Romantic Imagination in the Works of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993. Interpretation of Bécquer’s work with an introduction to Romantisicm and an extensive bibliography. Havard, Robert. From Romanticism to Surrealism: Seven Spanish Poets. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1988. Brief biography and critical analysis of Spanish poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Includes bibliographic references. Mayhew, Jonathan. “Jorge Guillén and the Insufficiency of Poetic Language.” PMLA 106 (October, 1991). Discusses the skepticism of Bécquer and other poets regarding the capacity of language to convey the poets’ experiences. Mizrahi, Irene. La poética dialógica de Bécquer. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1998. The author’s principal objective in this critical analysis is to establish Bécquer as a poet whose works undermine previous literary and philosophical motifs and anticipate those to come. Published in Spanish.

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