Quevedo. Poderoso caballero… Analysis.

Francisco de Quevedo  (1580-1645). Poderoso Caballero/ es don Dinero.
Francisco de Quevedo was one of the most brilliant and original writers of Spain’s Golden Age. A man of encyclopedic learning, he was the author of a wide range of prose and poetical works which combine moral, ethical, political and philosophical reflections with satirical observations on life.

His concerns ranged from Spain’s political and moral decay (which led to a disillusioned vision of his country) to a more universal preoccupation with time, love, immortality, moral responsibility, human conduct etc.

Quevedo’s work is an excellent illustration of the Baroque culture of uncertainty and of the need to go beyond surface appearances in search of reality.

Probably his best known work now is the picaresque narrative, El buscón (The Swindler, written ca. 1604, pub. 1626). This, together with the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes (pub. 1554) and Mateo Aleman’s Guzman de Alfarache (Part I, 1599, Part II, 1604), forms the basic paradigm for the picaresque novel.
Poderoso caballero     A
es don Dinero.              A

Madre, yo al oro me humillo,                      b
él es mi amante y mi amado,                      c
pues de puro enamorado,                           c
de contino anda amarillo;                            b
que pues doblón o sencillo,                         b
hace todo cuanto quiero,                             A

Poderoso caballero                                     A
es don Dinero.                                             A

A powerful knight/ is Sir Money.

Stanza 1. Line 1. Mother, I humble myself before gold,/ l.2 he is my lover and my beloved,/ l.3 (who) from being in love,/ l.4 is always walking around looking yellow:/ l.5  and since, whether a doubloon or small coin,/ l.6 he does everything I want him to, A powerful knight/ is Sir Money

One of the best known and most popular poems written by Quevedo, Poderoso caballero regularly appears in anthologies, and the opening lines –Poderoso caballero/ es don Dinero— have become proverbial. The poem is a satire on the corrupt power of money, a theme with classical and medieval precedents (e.g. Juvenal, the Arcipreste de Hita).

The poem is written as a letrilla, a poetic form with many variants but which in its basic structure usually opens with a refrain (called estribillo) followed by a variable number of stanzas/strophes each of which normally ends with the last line of the estribillo. Most commonly the opening estribillo consists of two lines rhyming AA (as here). The length of the stanzas is usually five lines rhyming bcccb followed by one line the rhyme of which returns to the estribillo, thus bcccbA, then follows the refrain A or AA depending on the poet.

So, Poderoso caballero/ es don Dinero has the following rhyme scheme: AA (estribillo/ refrain) bccbb (stanza) A(rhyme returns to that of estribillo/ refrain) AA (estrbillo/refrain). To reduce it to its simplest form: AA  bccbbA  AA!

Letrilla lines are normally octosyllabic –8 syllables, as here– or hexasyllabic –6 syllables and are indicative of native Spanish traditional origin (as opposed to the hendecasyllable or heptasyllable –11 syllables or 7 syllables– of Italian provenance).

Quevedo’s poem is brilliantly original. It opens with a basic contradiction that is both “demythification” and “mythification.” The contradiction lies in the unexpected relationship of “knight” and “money.” Traditionally, a knight –by virtue of his status— would concern himself only with noble matters and money was not part of his world. It was beneath him.  This was especially so in medieval romances (novels) of chivalry in which gallant knights set off on heroic deeds.

In Spain, the best known fictional knight was Amadís de Gaula (Amadís of Gaul), the model whom Don Quixote aspired to imitate. And like Amadís and others, Don Quixote did not carry money with him on his first adventure, because –as he says to the innkeeper who dubbed him knight— he had never heard of knights-errant carrying money (Don Quixote, Pt. I, Chptr. 3) (Part I of the novel, published 1605, was written approximately the same time as Poderoso caballero.)

By linking his knight with money, Quevedo has demythified nobility through association with the crass and corruptible world of money or commerce. At the same time, Quevedo has elevated Dinero by attributing to it the honorific don, which was applied only to upper nobility (it was not applied, for example, to lower nobles such as hidalgos).  This apparently simple address is important because it unexpectedly establishes the aristocratic status of Money.

Interestingly, Sir Money’s elevation also reflects the growth of capitalism in Europe in the late 16th early 17th centuries, when human activity became increasingly measured in terms of commodity. Don Quixote provides illuminating examples: 1. Don Quixote has always resisted Sancho’s request for a salary, but finally relents and agrees that Sancho can pay himself from the money he has given him to carry (Part II, Chptr. 28); 2. In Part II, chapter 24, Don Quixote and Sancho meet a soldier heading for war. The latter confesses that he is going only because he is in need and is being paid. Money, then, has penetrated even the realm of chivalry or selfless action!

As we know, aristocrats are very proud of their lineage. That is the basis of their social status and power. And this is what Quevedo cleverly provides don Dinero with, an illustrious family history! This is done through the voice of a young maiden enamoured of the knight.  

Enamoured young maidens are an essential requisite of romances of chivalry, but here the young girl belongs to another long standing tradition: the medieval Galician-Portuguese cantigas de amigo, love lyrics inspired by popular custom. In these cantigas, a girl addresses her mother and bewails the absence of her beloved or his indifference to her etc. What Quevedo does is have the girl confess her love for don Dinero to her mother. By doing so, Quevedo combines two worlds, the elevated courtly world of knights-errant and popular, traditional love songs.

Following her confession to her mother, the young maiden continues by throwing light on Sir Money’s illustrious birth in Las Indias (the Americas, stanza 2).  Born in the Americas, he dies in Spain and is buried in Genoa.  The allusions would be clear to any reader of the time: the fabled gold was mined in the Americas, it “died” in Spain because it was already mortgaged to Genoese bankers (from whom Charles V and Philip II borrowed money). Hence, it ended up “buried” in Genoa.

Each following stanza then outlines first Sir Money’s sterling qualities before offering a concrete example of his power and ending with the opening refrain/estribillo. This repeated refrain is an emphatic confirmation of Sir Money’s power, and doesn’t let us forget this message.

What are Sir Money’s qualities? He is “gallant” and bright (st. 3, ll. 1-2), his pedigree is clear: his parents are very important and he descends from nobles with royal blood (st. 4). His glory (i.e. value) is so great that even the least valuable coin is of some worth (st. 5. Doña Blanca of Castile is allusion to several medieval queens of Castile of that name, and also to a coin of little value).

Sir Money has an invaluable coat of arms which is a requisite for nobility (st. 6. Escudo is also a valuable coin which can pay for a noble title). He is full of good advice and invaluable in any transaction (st.7). His presence is so majestic that even when divided into cuartos (a copper coin of lesser value), he loses no authority (st. 8). Ladies fall for him so that when they see his two faces (he is a “doubloon” and therefore powerful), they sell themselves cheaply (st. 9). Finally, his coat of arms is more valuable in peace than round shields are in war (because he is so shrewd sagaz).

Poderoso caballero is a love song, but with a difference. We are all acquainted with the saying that “love conquers all” (omnia vincit amor). Here ironically, the enamoured girl demonstrates the all-conquering power not of love but of money; it is money that moves the world.

With money a barbarian can be handsome (st. 2, ll. 5-6), with money, a cattle herder is equal to a duke (st. 3, ll.5-6), the low are exalted and the coward becomes a warrior (st. 4, ll. 5-6). Money breaks down inhibitions and softens the severest judge (st. 7, ll. 5-6), gives importance both to noble and beggar (st. 8, ll. 5-6). Even noble ladies (damas) are prepared to sell themselves cheaply (st. 9) for Sir Money. Finally, Sir Money ensures a good burial for the poor (who were normally buried in a simple, unmarked grave) and opens doors to welcome foreigners into a new country (st. 10, ll.5-6).

Quevedo satirises the power of money to show how it corrupts all levels of society. It increases rank, influences attitudes, opens doors and sweeps away obstacles (e.g. laws st. 3, l, 6).  As the refrain emphasises, there’s a new knight “in town” much more powerful than the old (money has always been around, but now it has been elevated to knighthood).

A comparison with Don Quixote is pertinent: ever since Don Quixote believed his beloved Dulcinea was enchanted, he was driven by the desire to free her from her enchantment.  How did knights-errant traditionally free their lady love? By some heroic exploit. How does Don Quixote free his Dulcinea? He pays Sancho to whip himself (Part II, chptr. 71. The terms are set out in the palace of the Duke and Duchess, Part II, chptr. 35). The point is that the rescue of Dulcinea rested finally not on Don Quixote’s knightly prowess, but on the power of his money!
The poem’s structure is consistent throughout: four lines outlining Sir Money’s qualities, followed by two lines offering an example and then the estribillo/refrain. In each stanza, the example is announced by pues (“since”), and the second of the two lines breaks with the rhyme of the preceding lines and adopts the rhyme of the refrain.

Why is this relevant? It is in fact a technique much used in medieval lyrical poetry (e.g. the cantigas de amigo) and reaffirms the popular nature of such poetry. How? Poems in which the estribillo was repeated at the end of each stanza were generally songs, and the repeated refrain was probably sung by those listening, thus involving community participation. The changing rhyme scheme in the sixth line was a cue that the refrain was coming up; the audience would then be ready to join in singing it.
Much of the impact of the Poderoso caballero lies in the important role of word play. Quevedo’s aim was to appeal to the intelligence of readers and called for an effort on their part to draw out the possible meanings of the text. Readers, then, had to work between the lines or behind the words.

All of this is part of conceptismo, a major literary development of the late 16th and early 17th centuries (commonly referred to as the Baroque period) which sought to produce surprise and astonishment in readers and awaken their admiration for the poet’s ingenio (“cleverness”) and agudeza (‘wit” “subtlety”).

Word play suggests more than one meaning for a word. Some examples have been identified above (e.g. dona Blanca, st. 5, l. 4; escudo, st. 6), but let’s look at two more: 1. Stanza 7, l. 4: gatos le guardan de gatos.  Gato normally meant “cat” but in popular speech it signified both “purse” and “thief.” The meaning, then, is that “purses protect Sir Money from thieves” but it could possibly mean “thieves (i.e. the viejos of the previous line), guard it from (other) thieves.” 2. Stanza 9: when seeing the two “faces” (caras  i.e. sides) of a doubloon, ladies sell their faces (caras) cheaply. The word play is not only between the face of a coin and a human face, but the juxtaposition of the human face with baratas (“cheap”) also reminds us that caro/a also means “dear, expensive”). In other words, the caras baratas also suggests that the ladies sell their “expensively made-up faces” cheaply in the presence of Sir Money.

Word play, however, is not a simple device. Its constant use creates not only ironic humour but also demonstrates how language can be manipulated. Poderoso caballero is a verbal labyrinth in which words have more than one meaning so that the world is not unidimensional. The traditional caballero is no longer a heroic knight but a deflated, demythified character replaced by a new caballero: don Dinero.  The world is changing and the driving force behind it is Sir Money, leading the charge towards capitalism. The illusion of greatness and certainty is gone.

In a way, the poem might be seen as a metaphor for Spain itself at the beginning of the 17th century: a country where the values of chivalry were degraded although the country behaved on the international stage as if it were still a great power.  It was all a façade, and nothing more than an appearance of greatness.

Spain was a poor country, its money mortgaged and ending up “dead” in Genoa. The illusion of greatness is stripped away to be replaced by disillusion and reality, a major theme of Spanish writers, artists and arbitristas** of the Baroque.

**Arbitristas: 17th-century commentators on the social and economic decline of Spain in their time; the best –e. g. Martín González de Cellórigo– recognised the stark contrast between the appearance of imperial greatness and the reality of social and economic problems in their country.

Gaylord, Mary Malcolm “The Making of Baroque Poetry” in The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature, ed. Gies, David T Cambridge 2009
Price, R.M ed. An Anthology of Quevedo’s Poetry Manchester 1969
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