Coplas por la muerte de su padre, wr. 1476, pb. 1492 (Coplas on the Death of His Father, 1833)
Jorge Manrique (mahn-REE-kay) is the last great poet of the Spanish Middle Ages, and he is Spain’s best representative of the courtly tradition of arms and letters. He was born into one of Castile’s oldest and most powerful families. Both his great-uncle, the marqués de Santillana, and his uncle, Gómez Manrique, were poets, and their works influenced the writings of Jorge Manrique. The death of Jorge’s father, Rodrigo Manrique, served as the inspiration for Jorge’s most famous poem, the ode Coplas on the Death of His Father.
Rodrigo Manrique was count of Paredes and Grand Master of the Order of Santiago. Jorge Manrique was a knight of the Order of Santiago, a comendador, and a captain. Manrique, his father, and his uncle all fought for Alfonso against Enrique IV in the struggle for the throne of Castile. After Alfonso’s death, Jorge became a supporter of Isabel; he died in 1479 at the castle of Garci-Muñoz serving her cause against the pretender Juana la Beltraneja. Manrique was buried in the church of the convent at Uclés.
Jorge Manrique had a quiet, sensitive temperament that was at variance with the ideal of heroic strength instilled in him by his father. This tension is apparent in his poetry. He married Guiomar de Castañeda, the sister of his father’s third wife, but after Jorge Manrique’s death, his wife asked for the return of her dowry, an indication that the marriage was not a happy one.
Manrique’s poetic production consists of about fifty compositions. Besides the famous ode and three short burlesque poems, he wrote love poems in the courtly style of the period; two of these poems are dedicated to his wife. In his poetry, Manrique treats love as a source of moral instruction and as a painful path toward perfection. He cherished the chivalric tradition and imitated it without, however, becoming a strictly academic practitioner of the genre.
Manrique’s love poems have a military tone that reflects his appreciation of the medieval knight’s dual vocation of arms and letters. Manrique regarded loving a woman as comparable to laying siege to a castle. Also characteristic of the age in which he lived are his three burlesque poems. In the first, which consists of only nine lines, the poet ridicules a female cousin who obstructed some of his love affairs. The second ridicules a drunken woman who has criticized the poet. In the third he launches a virulent attack on his step-mother, Elvira.
Manrique’s poetic reputation rests almost entirely upon the success of Coplas on the Death of His Father, a poem of forty stanzas in a meter known as versos de pie quebrado (broken-footed line) or coplas manriqueñas, a three-line pattern in which the first two have eight syllables each and the third has four syllables. The rhyme scheme is abc.
Manrique’s ode is usually considered to have three parts. The first thirteen stanzas are a reflection upon the transitory nature of life and an exhortation to human beings to consider their mortality. In the second part, stanzas 14 to 24, Manrique offers specific examples of noble persons who have been conquered by death. In the third part the poet praises his father and presents his dialogue with death.
The work echoes the theme of the medieval dance of death, which proclaims that all people, regardless of social class, are subject to death. However, one of the most distinctive characteristics of Rodrigo Manrique, as he is portrayed in the ode, is the stoic attitude of resignation with which he accepts death. Manrique also suggests that death can be conquered through a life of honor and heroism, which brings not only Christian salvation but also fame, another kind of immortality.
Other sources for Manrique’s ode include the Book of Ecclesiastes, the Spanish poet Gonzalo de Berceo, and the French poet François Villon. Just a few years before Manrique wrote his poem, Villon had written his Ballade des dames du temps jadis (1533), a poem that develops the ubi sunt theme that Manrique also deals with in his work.
The Coplas on the Death of His Father appeared in manuscript in Zamora in 1480 and soon thereafter became one of the first works of Spanish literature to be published on the newly invented printing press. The poem was an immediate success, and its popularity has remained constant throughout the ages. Some of its lines have achieved the status of aphorisms in Spanish conversation. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was also the first professor of Romance languages at Harvard University, translated the work into English in 1833.