Garcilaso: Innovations

Garcilaso de la Vega and Italianate Verse

Spanish verse from the sixteenth century on owes  Garcilaso de la Vega and his Catalan friend Juan Boscán (Joan Boschà in Catalan) an
enormous literary debt.  They adopted Italian verse forms that introduced not only new metres to Spanish poetry but also the humanistic spirit of both the Italian and classical models they imitated. Garcilaso was the superior poet and it is he who receives most attention, although it was Boscán who first experimented with the new forms.

Although Boscán and Garcilaso successfully introduced several new stanza patterns from Italy, their biggest hurdles were the Italian metres and in particular the stress pattern.  The most widely used line in traditional Spanish verse consisted of eight syllables (the octosyllable), with a stress regularly on the 7th syllable. Less popular but part of the national tradition was the six-lined verse (hexasyllable), with a stress on the 5th syllable.  The most widely used Italian metres, on the other hand, were the 11-syllable line (hendecasyllable) and the 7-syllable line (heptasyllable).  The hendecasyllable always had a fixed stress on the 10th syllable and secondary stresses generally on the 2nd and 6th or 4th, 6th and/or 8th. The heptasyllable had a fixed accent on the 6th. The challenge lay in adapting the Spanish metre (sometimes called a galloping metre) to the Italian, which rarely stressed the 5th or 7th syllable. 

Changing from the octosyllable to the hendecasyllable may not appear much, but it meant overthrowing a tradition of centuries and adopting a radically new rhythm. This is what Garcilaso was able to do, and he was soon imitated by all subsequent Golden Age poets.
There were some poets who reacted
against the innovations, the most important
being Cristóbal de Castillejo. Ironically, one
of his best known attacks on the new Italianate
verse was written in the sonnet form, the most
distinctive and widespread of all poetic forms
from Italy.

Nevertheless, native metres were not abandoned and remained vigorous throughout the Golden Age.  Later major poets, for example, Luis de Góngora, Lope de Vega and Francisco de Quevedo moved easily from one to the other.
Native metres are still widely used
nowadays, e.g. the octosyllabic
romance” (“ballad”).

What Garcilaso did with his successful experiment was to demonstrate the flexibility of the Spanish language and produce a poetry that was much more supple, melodic, and harmonious than lyrics written in the native tradition. The new poetry, besides being capable of capturing a wide variety of human emotions, vastly enriched the horizons of Spanish Golden Age poetry...  and drama (which was overwhelmingly written in verse).

Forms  introduced by Boscán and Garcilaso:

1.     Octava Rima or Octava Real:  stanza of 8 lines, each line being a hendecasyllable. The rhyming scheme alternates in the first six lines and ends with a rhyming couplet: ABABABCC. Later it became the main type of verse used in narrative poems, including the epic.
2.     Tercet (terceto, Italian terza rima):  3-line hendecasyllable with an interlocking rhyme: ABA  BCB, CDC etc.  That is, the second line of the first tercet becomes the first line of the second tercet, and the second line of the second tercet in turn becomes the first line of the third tercet and so on. It closes with a quatrain (4 lines).  The preferred form for epistolary poems.  
3.      Canción (Italian Canzone):  Stanza with a combination of hendecasyllables and heptasyllables.  The arrangement and length of the first stanza are those followed by subsequent stanzas, although the last is usually about half the length. The stanza length normally ranges between 10 and 20 lines.
4.      Free Verse:  Hendecasyllables without rhyme.
5.      Lira: a stanza of 5 lines, with a combination of hendecasyllables and heptasyllables, aBabB (lower case = heptasyllable, upper case = hendecasyllable). The name “lira” comes from a poem by Garcilaso, but it is really a form taken from the Italian poet Bernardo Tasso, whom Garcilaso knew in Naples.  Tasso sought to reproduce the metres of the classical poet, Horace. Garcilaso wrote only one lira, but it was the favourite stanza form of Fray Luis de León and San Juan de la Cruz (St John of the Cross).  
6.     Sonnet: the most famous poetic form of all those imported from Italy.  The sonnet consists of fourteen lines, all hendecasyllables. In Spain the sonnet follows the Petrarchan model and is made up of an octet (or two quatrains) and a sestet (or two tercets).  The octet generally rhymes ABBA/ABBA; the sestet is more variable, but mostly is CDC/DCD or CDE/CDE. A note to keep in mind here: Garcilaso was not the first Spaniard to attempt the sonnet.  Iñigo López de Mendoza, the Marqués de Santillana (1398-1458) had already written 42 sonnets “al itálico modo.”

Garcilaso’s successful adoption of Italian metres and stanza forms is only part of the revolution. Equally important was his ability to capture the humanistic spirit of his Italian and classical models, for example Petrarch and Sannazaro, and Virgil, Horace and Ovid. He also participated in the energetic discussions on language and philosophy current in Italy and Spain at the time: e.g. Pietro Bembo’s ideas on language and philosophy, the Neo-Platonism espoused by Marsilio Ficino, Leone Ebreo and Bembo, and the cultured activities of the courtier as explained by Baldassare Castiglione. These ideas are distilled through his verse, blending with imagery --e.g. mythological, pastoral, love--borrowed from the major Italian and classical poets. 

All of these cultural innovations, however, depended for their impact on the genius of Garcilaso.  After all, Boscán was undertaking the same experiments but without reaching the heights of his friend.  Garcilaso had that innate talent of knowing how to “select and how to put words together” (escoger y saber juntar las palabras, to paraphrase a contemporary of his, Ambrosio de Morales, 1546), which in the last analysis is the secret of all great writers.


Grossman, Edith   The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance. W.W. Norton Bilingual edition 2006
McCaw, John  and Spinnenweber, Kathleen eds. Anthology of Spanish Golden Age Poetry European Masterpieces 2007
Rivers, Elias ed  Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain Prospect Heights Illinois Waveland Press 1988 (With English prose translations of the poems.)
Walters, Gareth  The Cambridge Introduction to Spanish Poetry: Spain and Spanish America, Cambridge 2002  
Wardropper, Bruce   Spanish Poetry of the Golden Age  New York, Meredith Corporation, 1971    Useful web site in Spanish