The Spanish Golden Age (the Siglo de Oro in Spanish) has given us many great works in prose, poetry and drama. It is fortunate that many of these works have been translated into English, and is now accessible to the English-speaking world.
The Siglo de Oro was the Spanish Renaissance.
It was during this period that Velazquez and El Greco were painting their masterpieces. And the literary works of this time have continued to influence modern Spanish and foreign writers.
Of course, it’s hard to pin down a complex and sweeping phase like the Renaissance into a time frame. But some critics say that the Spanish Golden Age may really have begun with some highly influential poetry, in the year 1543.
Poetry in the Golden Age
A lot of the poetry that came out of the Golden Age in the beginning was influenced by trends popular in Italy, where we might say the Renaissance began. We cannot talk of the Spanish Renaissance without talking of Garcilaso de la Vega, soldier and poet. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Father Cayetano Delaura is a great admirer of the poet, and has a tragic love story like a lot of the poetry of de la Vega.
It’s interesting that it was a soldier particularly well-known during his lifetime for his poetry, who may have triggered the Renaissance in Spanish literature. A lot of the themes of prose and poetry around this time had to do with patriotism. Some of it was religious, but de la Vega’s work was not. Humanism had crept in from Italy; realism wasn’t far behind.
Influential Golden Age Poetic Styles
Garcilaso de la Vega’s verse brought in verse forms, themes and poetic techniques that were popular in Renaissance Italy. He was the Renaissance ideal, a man capable both as a soldier and a poet.
In fact, some critics date the beginning of the Golden Age from 1543, the year in which the poetry of de la Vega was published posthumously by his friend and fellow lyric-poet Juan Boscán.
One of de la Vega’s favorite verse forms was the Petrarchan Sonetos, of which he wrote forty. The sonnets were influenced by the Italian poet Petrarch. De la Vega adapted the eleven syllable Petrarchan line into Spanish sonnets, which gave him a lot of flexibility to work with.
He also wrote Canciones (songs), Coplas (couplets), Églogas (eclogues) and Elegías (elegies). His poetry is full of classical illusions, as in:
A Dafne ya los brazos le crecían
(Daphne’s arms were growing)
[Source: Sonnet XIII]
He also uses a lot of alliteration, musicality and a marked absence of religious themes. While he was not the only poet to introduce Italian trends to Spain, he was certainly the most popular, not least because he lived a glamorous life and died young in battle.
Spanish Baroque Poetry
Later, Spanish poetry took on the elaborate wordplay and conceits of the Baroque movements. The trends of this period included satires, making allusions to classical mythology and some religious poetry. There were two major groups of poets that followed different ways of interpreting poetry.
The Conceptismo tendency was directly influenced by Garciloso’s introduction of Petrarchan trends. Poets like Quevedo brought in “concepts”, associating unrelated elements and surprising the reader. New trends included words of the marginalized or the Germanías, compound sentences etc.
The Culturanismo poets like Luis de Gόngora y Argote also wanted to surprise readers. But they did it in an obscure way, by changing word orders (hyperbaton), using neologisms and mythological themes. In was only much later that the works of such poets, like Argote, were recognized for their cold beauty.
About the same time, there was the pioneering development of the Spanish national theater and the picaresque novel in literature.
Prose in the Spanish Golden Age
Spain during the sixteenth and seventeenth century was going through a time of prosperity and change. The Spanish Wars had opened up Peru, Mexico and their treasures. There were also the hidalgo, Spanish nobility who had lost nearly all of their wealth, who didn’t pay taxes and lived lives of idleness.
Satirizing such poor noblemen, Miguel de Cervantes created his famous character Don Quixote. Published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615,
The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant Don-Quixote of the Mancha (El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha) became one of the most important satirical works to come out of Spain.
While Don Quixote eclipses all other creations of this time in enduring popularity, we can’t really ignore Spanish theater of the Golden Age. Plays like Calderón’s Life Is a Dream, Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna and Molina’s The Trickster of Seville influenced many playwrights in seventeenth century England and France. The Golden Age can be said to have ended with the death of Calderon in 1681, who Shelley, Schiller and Schopenhauer considered the last great dramatist of classic theater.