It is impossible to list all the important literary works that Spain has produced. From Medieval Spain to the modern age, through Arabic, Hebrew, French, Italian, Portuguese and other influences on native forms, Spanish literature has grown into a vast repository of culture, language and identity. Castilian, Catalan and Galician poets, novelists and dramatists have influenced world literature as well. Here is a look at some of the most important literary works that have been produced in Spain since the Middle Ages.
Early Prose and Poetry
In most literary histories of the world, heroic poetry and epic poems derived from oral storytelling traditions laid down the foundations of poetry and drama. In Spain, the Cantar de mío Cid is an important example of Castilian epic poetry, and it is also the earliest surviving 12th century masterpiece.
Meanwhile, El caballero Cifar was the first chivalric romance and may be considered Spain’s first novel.
In Galician poetry, the Cancioneiro da Ajuda or “songbooks” and the Cantigas de Santa María by Alfonso were important lyrical works.
15th Century to the Golden Age
This period encompasses the early Renaissance and the Golden Age in Spanish literature. In the fifteenth century, the Proemio e carta al condestable de Portugal may have initiated literary history and criticism in Spanish. Danza de la muerte is believed to have formed the basis of dramas of coming eras.
There were a lot of important works to come out of the rich and prolific Siglo de Oro or Golden Age. Probably the most important was Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, though the first picaresque novel was Lazarillo de Tormes, published earlier in 1554.
In the 18th century, amid French domination and the influence of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason in France, Benito Jeronimo Feijoo y Montenegro’s Theatro crítico universal (“Universal Critical Theatre”) was published as an important encyclopedic work of the time. Many critics believe that this was the work that founded modern Spanish prose.
In 1781, poet and fabulist Felix Maria Samaniego published the very popular Fábulas en verso or Fables in Verse. Also important was the work of Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, who was a satirist that criticized society scathingly in works like A Arnesto.
The 19th Century Romanticism
The natural reaction to the avoidance of feelings in Enlightenment literature was the Romanticism that came in the 19th century.
- Jose de Espronceda’s Estudiante de Salamanca embodied the subjective lyrics that was popular in the Romantic movement around Europe.
- Angel de Saavedra’s play Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino, on the other hand, embodied the Christian idealogy of another branch of Romanticism in Spain which had to do with religion.
- Around this time, Jose Zorrilla y Moral also wrote Don Juan Tenorio (1844), which was the most long-enduring dramas of the period.
- Many women were writing in the 19th century. The comedy Los figurones literarios and the tragedy Florinda (1804) by Maria Rosa Galvez were some of the finest plays by women of the nineteenth century.
In 1841, Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda wrote a groundbreaking novel called Sab, placing a mulato slave as her protagonist. The novel was revived by several prose writers over the next few years, including Juan Valera, who published the psychologically insightful Pepita Jiménez in 1874. Another important prose work, the Episodios nacionales, came from the pen of Benito Perez Galdos, who is considered Spain’s most significant novelist following Cervantes. Also important was Galdos’ realist novel Fortunata y Jacinta.
Leopoldo Alas (or Clarin) used highly detailed, ironical depictions of the Spanish Restoration in La Regenta (1884-85), which is considered the most significant 19th century novel to come out of Spain.
Modern Prose and Poetry: the Age of Silver
What is called the Generation of 1898 was a prolific and influential group of Spanish novelists and essays, against the backdrop of social and political unrest during the Spanish-American War of 1898.
There was a general criticism of Spanish literary culture and education, as well as criticism of the Restoration.
Essays like En torno al casticismo (1895) by Miguel de Unamuno became very important at this time. Serious novels like Azorín’s Don Juan (1922), which had very similar qualities to the early stream-of-consciousness novels of Marcel Proust, were also important and showcased the writer’s skilful ekphrasis.
Then came the avant-garde Generation of ‘27, producing works like Garcia Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads of 1928. These works were influenced by Surrealism. Salvador Dali was painting at this time. The Surrealist movement influenced not just Lorca, but also Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges and the Chilean Pablo Neruda, who shared a lot in common with the Generation of ‘27.
These important works have strongly shaped the works of later poets and prose writers, like the Generation of ‘50 and the novels of today, whether belonging to historical, experimental or the nocilla style of literature.