Góngora and Gongorismo or the Art of Obscurity.

Góngora and Gongorismo.
Luis de Góngora (1561-1627), a major poet of Spain’s Golden Age (broadly speaking the 16th and 17th centuries) remains one of the most celebrated and influential names in Spanish literature.

For a long time, his verse was divided into two parts: his early poetry was viewed as “easy” and his later considered “difficult.” The former –which earned him the title of Prince of Light– was identified as poetry inspired by popular or folk poetry and associated with traditional, native verse forms such as letrillas, romances and romancillos. His later verse –responsible for his dubious title of Prince of Darkness– was the kind that made Góngora enemies and supporters and for which he is most famous. It is a complex poetic style traditionally identified as beginning in 1610 with his Oda a la toma de Larache (“Ode on the capture of Larache” -Larache, a harbour town in north west Morocco), and culminating in his two most celebrated works: La fábula de Polifemo y Galatea (“The Tale of Polyphemus and Galatea”) and Soledades (“Solitudes”), both completed in 1613.

Nowadays, however, most scholars accept the artistic unity of Góngora ’s poetry and recognise that the characteristics of his later verse were present from early on, but intensified to such an extreme degree that they gave rise to the distinctive term gongorismo.

But gongorismo was not an isolated phenomenon and in fact has become synonymous with a poetic development known as culteranismo. This was a neologism coined in the early 17th century by detractors of Góngora combining the word culto (“elevated,” “cultivated”) with luterano (“Lutheran”) a derogatory and potentially dangerous term in Catholic Spain which cast on its practitioners the questionable distinction of being –in a literary context— heretical and alien.

What was culteranismo/ gongorismo? Accused in a letter in 1615 by an unidentified “friend” who criticised the Soledades as a violent distortion of the language and thereby being a poor example for others, Góngora defended himself, making clear that his poem was directed at an educated minority. Even more, he prided himself on the obscurity or deliberate difficulty of the poem and on excluding the ignorant or illiterate. What distinguished the intelligent reader, Góngora argued, was the ability to speak in such an elevated manner that it would sound like Greek to the ignorant. It was a stance he defended with the dismissive: Pues no se han de dar las piedras preciosas a animales de cerda, translated loosely by the biblical saying “Do not cast your pearls before swine.”

Poetry was, Góngora further claimed, a useful tool to sharpen the mind or wits and the discerning reader of the Soledades would be able to go beyond the surface and discover the mysteries the poem contained.

Góngora pride in his achievement is evident in the claim he made, in the same defence of the Soledades, that thanks to him the Spanish language had risen to the perfection and greatness of Latin.

Góngora ’s reference to Latin can give us a lead into what gongorismo or culteranismo was. Latin’s prestige as a language was bolstered not only by its imperial association but also –especially for poets of the 16th and 17th centuries– by its literary heritage. It was the language of Virgil, Horace, Ovid whose works (together with those of their Italian heirs, e. g. Petrarch 1304-74, Ludovico Ariosto 1474-1533, Torquato Tasso 1544-95) were avidly studied and mined for thematic and stylistic inspiration by Spanish poets of the Golden Age. By the time Góngora was writing, Golden Age verse –especially as practiced by the so-called Sevillian school– had developed a progressively more complex syntax and structure, with the Sevillian poet Fernando de Herrera (1534-97) being its most prominent promotor.

Herrera’s contribution. In an edition that Herrera published in 1580 on the verse of Spain’s first great Golden Age poet, Garcilaso de la Vega, he advocated in his commentaries to the poems the extensive use of rhetorical and oratorical devices. Poets should be unafraid to display their erudition through classical and mythological allusions, obscure learned references, neologisms, and inclusion of foreign words. Especially encouraged was the abundant use of metaphors and adjectives. The objective of all this was to demonstrate the poet’s learning and awaken in readers’ surprise and pleasure.

Góngora, like Herrera, was an Andalusian and in his Polifemo and Soledades he took Herrera’s recommendations to an extreme. Especially notable is the extraordinary accumulation of metaphors but perhaps the most difficult obstacle for readers was the notorious use of hyperbaton, the dislocation of the normal word order, whereby related articles of speech were separated –article from noun, noun from adjective etc. Its extreme application and labyrinthine quality ensured the obscurity and deliberate difficulty that Góngora was happy to acknowledge.

Góngora ’s pride in elevating Spanish to the level of Latin reflects not only his admiration for classical literature but also what he believed to be his contribution to both the language and literature of Spain. His Polifemo, while acknowledging his high regard of Ovid’s story, was also his way of challenging or emulating his Roman model. In its weaving of the Ovidian tale of love and violence within an omnipresent, all-pervading Nature –with which the mythical figures of Acis, Galatea and Polyphemus are regularly commingled/ fused through metaphor– Polifemo demonstrated that the Spanish language had the flexibility and rhetorical ammunition necessary to equal Latin, its classical model. Equally important for Góngora, Polifemo was a way of demonstrating his erudition and agudeza (“cleverness” “wit” or “intellect”), which in turn was intended to awaken the readers’ surprise, wonder and amazement, or admiratio, a word much used in the Baroque world of the time.

The Soledades are even more labyrinthine than the Polifemo thanks to the use of silvas, an irregular combination of heptasyllables and hendecasyllable –7- and 11-syllable lines– whose lack of strophic structure and recognisable rhyme contrast with the strict rhyme pattern and stanza form imposed by the octavas rimas in which the Polifemo was written. The Soledades, depicting Nature in all its variety, may have been inspired by the Georgics of Virgil or Horace’s bucolic idealism, but their free-flowing syntactical and strophic structure are Góngora’s way of both imitating their Latin linguistic heritage and also of capturing Nature’s endless variety. The resulting linguistic obscurity, then, imitates the challenge of penetrating Nature’s all-embracing diversity.

Both Polifemo and the Soledades are verbal paintings of Nature on a grand scale with contrast the basic aesthetic component: beautiful and ugly, harmonious and violent, large and small, dark and light, silence and noise, distance and proximity, abundance and scarcity, movement and stillness. Both works depict a vibrant, everchanging, unstable world and as such are very much part of the Baroque culture of uncertainty. Furthermore, both demand the active participation of the reader to decipher the hidden correspondences and links both verbal and in Nature. Passive reaction is not possible for the engaged reader because the Baroque world is a world of impact and immediacy.

Final note. The linguistic dexterity displayed in gongorismo/ culteranismo is also very much evident in another parallel literary development of the Baroque: conceptismo. For long seen as opposing culteranismo, based largely on the bitter rivalry of their two main exponents –Góngora and Quevedo—conceptismo in fact had much in common with culteranismo. Culteranismo appealed more to the senses with an abundant use of the stylistic features underlined above while conceptismo played around more with ideas (often using dense word play, extravagant puns, ingenious metaphors). [As examples of conceptismo, see Quevedo’s letrilla, Poderoso caballero/ es don Dinero or the sonnet, Ah de la vida! … ?Nadie me responde?] But both culteranismo and conceptismo sought novelty through ingenuity; both aspired to impress the reader creating surprise and wonder. And both Góngora and Quevedo were equally capable of practicing both styles. 

Gaylord, Mary Malcolm “The Making of Baroque Poetry” in The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature, ed. Gies, David T Cambridge 2009, pp. 222-37.
Rivers, Elias ed.  Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain Prospect Heights Illinois 1988 (With English prose translations of the poems.)
Robbins, Jeremy The Challenges of Uncertainty: An Introduction to Seventeenth-Century Spanish Literature New York 1998.
Walters, D. Gareth  The Cambridge Introduction to Spanish Poetry Cambridge 2002.
Wardropper, Bruce   Spanish Poetry of the Golden Age  New York 1971
For readers of Spanish, the following is a useful description of gongorismo: https://www.candelavizcaino.es/literatura/gongorismo.html


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