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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 1: 1791-1797, Edited By Lynda Pratt

164. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, 3 July 1796 ⁠* 


THAT the literature of Spain and Portugal is not attended to at present, when the stores of German imagination are open to us, is not to be wondered at; but it is strange, that the same neglect should have prevailed in those earlier periods, when translations were so common, so useful, and so honourable. The best Italian poets were naturalized in England, during the reigns of Elizabeth and James; [1]  at that time, Spain was in the meridian of its glory, and it might have been imagined, that the fame of Lope de Vega [2]  would have reached this island. I believe, however, that, except Fanshaw’s version of the Lusiad, [3]  no poetical translation, from either the Spanish or Portuguese, appeared in England, till the editor of “The Reliques of Ancient Poetry,” whose taste and genius equal his erudition, excited some curiosity in the public mind by the beautiful ballad, “Rio verde, Rio verde.” [4]  Mr. Mickle’s Lusiad, [5]  and Mr. Hayley’s account of the Araucana, [6]  soon followed. The former of which has, perhaps, exceeded the original; and the latter occasioned regret in every reader, that the sketch has never been filled up. Here (I believe) our acquaintance with Spanish and Portuguese poetry has stopped. We have, indeed, often heard of Lope de Vega, and Mr. Hayley has mentioned the Ulysses of Gabriel Pereira de Castro, and the Malaca Conquistada of Francisco de Sa de Menezes, [7]  as two poems which the Portuguese themselves esteem only inferior to the Lusiad of their great Camoens; [8]  we have heard their names indeed, but with their merit the English reader is utterly unacquainted.

It is my intention, Mr. Editor, in your future Numbers, to give some account of the best Spanish and Portuguese poets, to analyze the plans of their most esteemed works, and translate such specimens as, while they are brief enough to suit your Magazine, may give some idea of the genius, taste, and manner of the authors.

The prose writers of these countries (except the great Cervantes [9] ) are, for obvious reasons, less valuable than their poets. Learning has never flourished enough in either of the kingdoms, to form the taste of the inhabitants; and genius and imagination will not atone for the want of taste and erudition in a prose writer. It would be improper to pass them over in silence; but a brief notice will be sufficient.

Spain and Portugal had reached the meridian of their glory, while the arts were yet in their infancy. Individual genius will be found then to have flourished most when the community shall have been most flourishing; Athens was most glorious when Sophocles and Euripides succeeded the aged Aeschylus; [10]  and Ovid, Horace,  [11]  and Virgil wrote at the time when Augustus sent forth his decree, that all the world should be taxed. [12]  Uniform experience will attest the truth of the observation; why this sympathy should exist, I know not; but poetical genius is certainly a barometer that rises or falls according to the state of the political atmosphere. Boscan, [13]  and Garcilasso de la Vega, [14]  and Diego de Mendoza [15]  fought and conquered for their country, under Charles the Fifth; [16]  and their spirits partook of the elevation they had assisted her to obtain; and they were followed in Portugal by Francisco de Sa de Miranda, [17]  Antonio Ferreira, [18]  and Pedro de Andrade Caminha. [19] 

It may, perhaps, raise a smile, to assert that the poetry of Spain was purified and corrected, by introducing an Italian taste into the country. At this period, however, such a revolution in literature was effected by such means. Marino [20]  soon corrupted the taste of Italy, and Spain soon followed the fascinating faults. Always fond of the extravagant, and mistaking hyperbolism for grandeur, quaintness for wit, and the obscure for the sublime, the Spaniards readily fell in with the fashion of the day; and the satire of Cervantes proved powerless here. The decline of the empire quickly succeeded, and Lope de Vega lived to witness the defeat of that Armada, [21]  which, with more extravagance and less genius than he usually displayed, he had commanded “to go forth and burn the world.” [22] 

Spain has never recovered herself since the ruinous reign of Philip the Second. [23]  Not content with oppressing the Spaniards by the inquisition, he made them the instrument of oppression abroad; there indeed he failed; but though the liberty of Holland was established, the glory of Spain was destroyed. We may be allowed to regret, that liberty and slavery should be so ill-disposed, that a people, the most deserving of freedom, should be degraded, under the vilest despotism, while the most worthless race in Europe are free: the Spanish character is capable of all improvement; but to degrade the Dutch, would be impossible.

Affiliated with Spain, by the gentle ties of Russian-like adoption, Portugal partook of its decline. She shook off her chains indeed, but “the iron had entered her soul;” [24]  and that nation which once excited the wonder, and deserved the admiration of the world, became contemptible to the rest of Europe, and terrible only to its subjects. He who entertains liberal sentiments, if he be obliged to submit his productions to the scrutiny of the inquisition, will write with timidity; and it may safely be asserted, that he who writes timidly, cannot write well. To look for the bold sublimity of genius where men are thus depressed, were as rational as to chain a race-horse, and expect him to win the race.

Thus has the tyranny of superstition co-operated with the decline of the country, to check the progress of literature in Spain and Portugal. Yet, during what may be called their Augustan age, such was accomplished. The applause of Cervantes should excite some attention to the productions of the two Leonardos; [25]  he who admires the Lusiad of Camoens, may wish to form some acquaintance with his epistles and sonnets; and he who has read the Visions of Quevedo, [26]  will readily believe, that much genius must exist in the six quarto volumes of the works of this excellent author.

Spain has been wonderfully prolific in poets. In the Parnaso Espanol, [27]  is given a list of such only as are mentioned by their more celebrated authors; and this amounts to the astonishing number of 571, which the Editor says, is not a third part of the poets with whom the public are acquainted. The numbers in Portugal are strangely disproportionate; for father Joaon Bautista de Castro, in his Mappe de Portugal, [28]  enumerates only 62 epic and lyric writers, and 15 comic ones. But it is probable, that the greater part of the bards whose names swell the Spanish list, are remembered no where else, when, in the Portuguese account, common sense may for once have checked the vanity so characteristic of the nation.

Mr. Dillon’s Letters on the Origin and Progress of Poetry in Spain, [29]  will give the reader a good general view of the subject. It did not enter into this gentleman’s plan to enlarge on the works of any particular author, or give specimens to the English readers: the few specimens that he has printed, are untranslated, and selected chiefly to show their different metres. His work has been the companion of my Spanish studies: I have derived pleasure and instruction from it, and have only to regret, that by not extending his work, he has left a less able pen to attempt the supplement.

The subject of Portuguese poetry has barely been touched upon by Mr. Dillon; he has only deduced it from the Galician, and mentioned a very few of their authors; this field may therefore be looked upon as new.

I can promise the reader some information on these subjects: of this he may be assured, that I shall not assume the appearance of information when I possess it not; in treating of those authors who are familiar to me, my own opinion may properly be expressed; with respect to those of whom I know little, I shall consequently say little from myself: the man who can enjoy credit for acquisitions which he does not possess, must be dreadfully distempered with vanity.

The Spaniards call their nine most favourite authors the nine Spanish muses: they are Garcilaso de la Vega, Don Esteban de Villegas, [30]  Quevedo, Count Bernardino de Rebolledo, [31]  Lupercio Leonardo de Argensola, and his brother Bartolomé, Father Luis de Leon, [32]  Lope de Vega, and Don Francisco de Borja y Aragon, Prince of Esquilache: [33]  many of equal merit are excluded from the list, and, perhaps, some of superior; with these, however, I shall begin my task.

The poet is indeed a citizen of the world; in every country, and in every age, he meets with some congenial spirit; to him time is annihilated, and he converses with Homer and with Ossian: [34]  it is to such readers chiefly that I address myself; and if, when they are introduced to Borcan, [35]  Garcilaso de la Vega, Quevedo, and the two Leonardos, they do not add them to the number of their friends, I shall at least have enlarged the circle of their acquaintance.

Yours, &c.


July 3, 1796.


* MS: MS has not survived
Previously published: Monthly Magazine, 1 (July 1796), 451–453 [from where the text is taken] under the pseudonym ‘T.Y.’. For attribution to Southey, see Kenneth Curry, ‘Southey’s contributions to The Monthly Magazine and The Athenaeum’, The Wordsworth Circle, 11 (1980), 215. BACK

[1] Elizabeth I (1533–1603; reigned 1558–1603; DNB) and James I (1566–1625; reigned 1603–1625; DNB). BACK

[2] The prolific Spanish writer Lope Felix de Vega Carpio (1562–1635). BACK

[3] Sir Richard Fanshawe, 1st Baronet (1608–1666; DNB), The Lusiad (1655). BACK

[4] An old English ballad; see Thomas Percy (1729–1811: DNB), Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 2nd edn, 3 vols (London, 1767), I, pp. 335–342. BACK

[5] William Julius Mickle (1734/5–1788; DNB), The Lusiad, or, The Discovery of India (1776). BACK

[6] William Hayley (1745–1820; DNB), An Essay on Epic Poetry (London, 1782), pp. 214–273. BACK

[7] William Hayley, An Essay on Epic Poetry (1782), p. 277. Gabriel Pereira de Castro (1571–1632), Ulisseia ou Lisboa Edificada (1636); Francisco de Sa de Menezes (1600–1664), Malaca Conquistada (1634). BACK

[8] Luis Vaz de Camoëns (c. 1524–1580), The Lusiad (1572). BACK

[9] Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616), author of the satirical romance Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605–1615). BACK

[10] The dramatists Sophocles (496–406 BC), Euripides (480–406 BC) and Æschylus (525–456 BC). BACK

[11] The poets Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC–AD 17) and Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65–8 BC). BACK

[12] At the time of the birth of Christ, Luke 2: 1. BACK

[13] Almogáver de Boscán (c. 1487–1542), Spanish poet who did much to introduce Italian verse forms into his country. BACK

[14] The Spanish poet Garcilaso de la Vega (c. 1501–1536), author of sonnets, eclogues and odes. BACK

[15] The Spanish author Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (1503–1575). BACK

[16] Charles V (1500–1558; King of Spain 1516–1556 and Holy Roman Emperor 1519–1556). BACK

[17] The Portuguese writer Francisco de Sa de Miranda (1481–1558). BACK

[18] The Portuguese writer Antonio Ferreira (1528–1569). BACK

[19] The Portuguese writer Pedro de Andrade Caminha (d. 1589). BACK

[20] The Italian poet Giambattista Marino (1569–1625). BACK

[21] A Spanish fleet sent to invade England and defeated in 1588. BACK

[22] William Hayley, An Essay on Epic Poetry (1782), p. 207. BACK

[23] Philip II (1527–1598; reigned 1556–1598). BACK

[24] A paraphrase of Psalms 105: 17. BACK

[25] Lupercio Leonardo de Argensola (1559–1613) and his brother Bartolomé (1562–1631). BACK

[26] Francisco Gomez de Quevedo y Villegas (1580–1645), Spanish poet. BACK

[27] Juan José Lopez de Sedano (1729–1801) published his lists of Spanish poets across all nine volumes of El Parnaso Español (1768–1778). BACK

[28] João Bautista de Castro, Mappa de Portugal (1745–1758). BACK

[29] John Talbot Dillon (1734–1806; DNB), Letters From an English Traveller in Spain, in 1778, on the Origin and Progress of Poetry in that Kingdom (1781). BACK

[30] Esteban Manuel de Villegas (1585–1669), Spanish lawyer and poet. BACK

[31] The Spanish poet Bernardino de Rebolledo (1597–1676). BACK

[32] The Spanish poet Luis de Leon (1529–1591). BACK

[33] The Spanish poet Francisco de Borja, Prince of Esquilache (1577–1658). BACK

[34] Ossian, the supposed author of a cycle of Celtic heroic poems, probably composed by James Macpherson (1736–1796; DNB). BACK

[35] Probably a misreading of ‘Boscan’ by the compositor. Almogáver de Boscán (c. 1487–1542) was a Spanish poet who did much to introduce Italian verse forms into his country. BACK

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March 2009