Modern Poets and Poetry of Spain/⁠Memoir of Juan Melendez Valdes



For a hundred years after the time of Calderon de la Barca, who died in 1687, there appeared in Spain no writer of sufficient merit to be classed among those eminent characters, who had done so much honour to Spanish literature in the seventeenth century. Verses were published in sufficient abundance, which found readers and even admirers, merely from the necessity the public felt of having something to read and to admire, as of the fashion of the day. But they were written with a perversion of taste and a deficiency of talent, which was truly astonishing, in the successors of such authors, as had immediately preceded them.

This depression of literature, however, could not be expected to continue long, among a people of such imaginative and deep passioned character as the Spanish, whose native genius was by far too buoyant, to be affected for any length of time by inferior models, even under dynastic influences. Accordingly, towards the end of the eighteenth century, it might have become apparent to an attentive observer, that another order of writers was about to be called forth, and that the nation was prepared to welcome the advent of true genius whenever it was to be recognized. Learned societies had been established throughout Spain; education on a sound basis had been sedulously promoted; and the country was wealthy, and sufficiently flourishing to give incitement to the arts, which are the attendants of public prosperity.

At this epoch appeared Melendez Valdes, the restorer of Spanish poetry, as his admirers with much justice termed him; who then showed by his writings, that the old inspiration of the national genius was yet capable of being revived in all its former grace and strength; and who by the influence of his example further roused the energies of other men of genius to follow in his steps.

This highly gifted poet was born the 11th of March, 1754, at Ribera del Fresno in the province of Estremadura, where his parents were of what was called noble families, and, what was more important, in respectable circumstances. The good disposition noticed in the son determined them to destine him for study, and to award him a becoming education. Thus, having learned the rudiments of Latin at home, he was sent to study philosophy, or what was called philosophy, at Madrid, under the charge of the Dominican Fathers of St. Thomas, where his application and advancement gained him the esteem of his tutors and fellow-pupils. Thence he was sent by his parents in 1770 to Segovia, to study with his only brother, who was private secretary to the bishop of that city, and with whom he was confirmed in that fondness for reading, and taste for acquiring books, which might be called the passion of his whole life. The bishop, who was a distant relation, pleased with his talents and inclination for study, sent him in 1772 to Salamanca, the alma mater of Spain, and assisted him to proceed in the study of law, in which he distinguished himself wherever he had an opportunity; so that, says his biographer, "appearing absorbed in the pursuit of that career, no one would have judged him the same young man, whose inclination for poetry and learning was soon after to place him at the head of the elegant literature of his country."

Fortunately for Melendez, continues his biographer, there happened then to be at Salamanca Don Jose de Cadalso, "a man celebrated for extensive erudition, combined with more than ordinary talent for poetry and letters, and a zeal for the glory and advancement of his country, learned in the school, and under the inspiration of virtue. Generous and affable, always lively, and at times satirical without branching off into maliciousness, his conversation was kind and instructive, and his principles indulgent and steadfast." This eminent individual, already well known in the literary world by several works published in 1772 and 1773, immediately recognized the value of Melendez: he took him to his house to live with him, showed him the beauties and defects of the older writers, taught him how to imitate them, and opened to him the road to become acquainted with the literature of the learned nations of Europe. "He afforded him an instruction yet more precious, in the beautiful example he gave him to love all writers of merit, to rise superior to envy, and to cultivate letters without degrading them by unworthy disputations. The eulogies Cadalso bestowed on his contemporaries are a public testimony of this noble character; and the works of Melendez, where there is not a single line detracting from the merit of any one, and his whole literary career, exempt from all attack, show how he profited by the lessons of his master."

The Anacreontic style, in which Cadalso excelled, was also that first cultivated by Melendez; and the former, seeing the progress of his pupil, and the first efforts of his Muse, unreservedly acknowledged him his superior, and in prose and verse announced him as the restorer of good taste and the better studies of the University. This kindly union was maintained until the death of Cadalso, at the siege of Gibraltar; and the "Elegiac song of Melendez on this misfortune, will be, as long as the Spanish language endures, a monument of affection and gratitude, as well as an example of high and beautiful poetry."

Beyond the instructions which he received from Cadalso, Melendez was aided by the example and counsels of other distinguished persons then residing at Salamanca, among whom were two, favourably known as writers of verse, Iglesias and Gonzalez.[1] These, though they were soon eclipsed by the young poet, admitted him to their friendship. By the latter he was brought into communication with the illustrious Jovellanos, then Judge of the High Court at Seville; and between them soon was instituted a correspondence, which has been in great part preserved, though as yet unpublished; a valuable monument, says Quintana, in which are seen, "livingly portrayed, the candour, the modesty and virtuous feelings of the poet, the alternate progress of his studies, the different attempts in which he essayed his talents, and above all, the profound respect and almost idolatry with which he revered his Mæcenas. There may be seen how he employed his time and varied his tasks. At first he applied himself to Greek, and began to translate Homer and Theocritus into verse; but learning the immense difficulty of the undertaking, and not stimulated to it by the bent of his genius, he shortly abandoned it."

He then dedicated himself to the English language and literature, for which he was said to have ever had an exceeding great predilection, observing, "that to the Essay on the Human Understanding, he should owe all his life the little he might know how to acquire." As books came to his hands, he went on reading and forming his judgements upon them, the which he transmitted to his friend. Thus "by all the means in his power he endeavoured to acquire and increase that treasury of ideas, which so much contributes to perfection in the art of writing, and without which verses are nothing more than frivolous sounds."

His application to study, however, soon proved more than his health and strength would permit. He was obliged to leave Salamanca, and repair to the banks of the Tormes, which he has made famous in song, and there, by long attention to the regimen imposed on him, he fortunately recovered. About this time his brother died in 1777, their parents having died previously; and Melendez suffered much grief, as might naturally be expected, on being thus left alone of his family, the more painful in his state of health. Jovellanos urged him to join him at Seville, but he declined the invitation, observing, that "the law of friendship itself, which commands us to avail ourselves of a friend in necessity, also commands that without it, we should not take advantage of his confidence."

Study, to which he now returned to engage himself with more intensity than ever, was the best alleviant of his sorrow, and time as usual at length allayed it. "He then gave himself up to the reading and study of the English poets: Pope and Young enchanted him. Of the former, he said that four lines of his 'Essay on Man' were worth more, taught more, and deserved more praise than all his own compositions." The latter he attempted to imitate, and in effect did so, in the poem on 'Night and Solitude' but in remitting it to his friend, expressed with much feeling his sense of its deficiencies compared with the original. Thomson also he studied, and Gesner, in his lonely exercises by the Tormes, and acknowledged how much he was indebted to the former for many thoughts with which he subsequently enriched his pastoral poems.

Thus having prepared himself to appear before the literary world as a candidate for fame, an opportunity soon occurred for him to obtain distinction. The Spanish Academy had been proposing subjects for prizes, and then having given one for an Eclogue, 'On the happiness of a country life,' Melendez felt himself in his element, and sent in his Essay for the prize. This succeeded in receiving the first. The second was awarded to Iriarte, who showed his mortification on account of the preference, more sensibly than was becoming, under the circumstances.

In the following year, 1781, Melendez went to Madrid, where his friend Jovellanos had already been appointed Councillor of the Military Orders, when for the first time they met. Melendez was already in the road to fame, which his friend had foretold for him; and Jovellanos, delighted with the realization of his hopes and endeavours, received him into his house, introduced him to his society, and took every opportunity of advancing his interests. It was the custom of the Academy of San Fernando to give triennial celebrations, with much solemnity, for the distribution of prizes, when eloquence, poetry and music were tasked to do honour to the fine arts. One of these celebrations was about to take place; Jovellanos was engaged to pronounce a discourse, and Melendez was invited to exercise his genius on the same subject, as the first literary characters of preceding times had already given the example. Melendez acceded, and delivered accordingly his Ode on the Glory of the Arts, which was received with rapturous admiration, and ever since seems to have been considered his masterpiece.

In the midst of these successes, Melendez received the Professorship of Humanities in his University, and in the following year, 1782, proceeded to the degree of Licentiate, and in 1783 to that of Doctor of Law, having shortly before the last married a lady of one of the principal families of Salamanca. But as his professorship gave him little occupation, and his marriage no family, he remained free to continue his favourite studies.

In 1784, on the occasion of peace being made with England, and the birth of twin Infantes, to give hopes of secure succession to the throne, the city of Madrid prepared magnificent celebrations of rejoicings, and among the rest, a prize was proposed for the two best dramatic pieces that might be offered within sixty days, under the condition that they should be original, appropriate, and capable of theatrical pomp and ornament. Out of fifty-seven dramas that were offered, the prize was awarded to the one sent in by Melendez, 'The Bridals of Comacho the Rich,' a pastoral comedy, which, however, though abounding in poetical passages, was found on representation wanting in effect, so as to be coldly received on the stage, where it has not since been attempted.

This ill-success gave occasion to several detractors of Melendez to pour forth the effusions of envy or disappointment against him, to which he gave no other answer than by the publication of his poems in a collected form. This was in 1785; and the manner in which they were received, it could be said, had had no parallel in Spain. Four editions, of which three were furtive, were at once taken up, and all classes of persons seemed to have the book in hand, commenting on its excellences. The lovers of ancient poetry, who saw so happily renewed the graces of Garcilasso, of Leon and Herrera, and "even improved in taste and perfection," saluted Melendez as the restorer of the Castillian Muses, and hailed the banishment of the prosaic style which had previously prevailed. The applauses extended beyond the kingdom, and found especially in Italy the admiration repeated, as well as in France and England, where several of the poems are said to have been imitated.

Great as was his success in literature, it was not enough provision for his daily needs, notwithstanding the help of his professorship; and Melendez accordingly applied for and obtained an office as a local judge at Zaragoza, of which he took possession in September 1789. The duties of this office were too onerous to admit of much study; but he was soon removed, in 1791, to the chancery of Valladolid, where he had more leisure, and where he remained till 1797, when he was appointed Fiscal of the Supreme Court at Madrid. During this time he wrote apparently little; but he prepared, and in 1797 published, another edition of his works with two additional volumes, enriched with many new poems, in which he "had elevated his genius to the height of his age;"—"descriptive passages of a superior order, elegies powerful and pathetic, odes grand and elevated, philosophic and moral discourses and epistles, in which he took alternately the tone of Pindar, of Homer, of Thomson, and of Pope, and drew from the Spanish lyre accents she had not previously learned."

But notwithstanding the great merit of many of these poems, the biographer of Melendez had it to confess that this publication was not so favourably received as the first had been; and attempts to account for it partly by the circumstances of the times, and partly by what was new not being on the whole so finished and well-sustained in interest as his former poems. Some of them also met with decided disfavour; especially one, 'The Fall of Lucifer,' which showed that his genius was not of the severer cast calculated for graver and higher subjects allied to the epic, any more than to the dramatic. But the merits of Melendez in his own sphere are too great, and his fame is too well-founded to lose by acknowledgements which must be made in truth and justice. It is not improbable that he had been urged by his admirers to these attempts, to which his own inclinations would not have led him, and it might thus have been the easiness of his disposition that made him yield to suggestions which ended in failure.

In the prologue which he affixed to this edition, Melendez attempted to prove that poetic studies derogated nothing from the judicial dignity, and that they had no incompatibility with the duties and talents of a public man or man of business. But without following him or his biographer into such a discussion, we may concede the point so far, that any one undertaking responsible duties from the State, is bound to give them his best and undivided energies. If, however, he has any hours of leisure free from those responsibilities, it is surely only an extension of his duty for him to employ them in attempting to make his fellow-men wiser and better, or happier, in the manner most congenial to his disposition or talents. Melendez certainly had no need to exculpate himself in this respect, having been "long remembered at Zaragoza and Valladolid as a model of integrity and application, for his zeal in arranging amicably all disputations in his power, for his affability and frankness in listening to complaints, and for the humane and compassionate interest with which he visited the prisoners, accelerating their causes, and affording them assistance, with an inseparable adhesion to justice." It was for his detractors,[2]—and Melendez had them, notwithstanding the amiability of his character and the superiority of his talents,—to make these objections, if they could have done so. His resorting to such apologies only gave the appearance of a consciousness of weakness, which was not becoming either in the one character or the other.

Shortly after the publication of this edition, Melendez went to Madrid to take possession of his new office. The advanced age of his predecessor in it had for some time prevented his due attention to its duties, so that Melendez had many arrears to dispose of in addition to the ordinary services, through all which he laboured with much assiduity and credit. But they were the last satisfactory events of his life, which was henceforth to be passed in reverses and misery. Yet at that time he seemed to be in the height of prosperity. Holding an elevated post under the government, of which his friend Jovellanos was a member, and respected both at home and abroad as one of the first literary characters of the age, he might have justly hoped to be free from any of the darker misfortunes of life. This exemption, however, was not to be his lot, serving under a despotic government, of which the head, Charles IV., was one of the weakest-minded of mortals, guided by a favourite such as Godoy. When Jovellanos fell under this favourite's resentment, to make the blow inflicted on that illustrious individual more poignant, it was extended to others, whose only fault was that they shared his esteem. Melendez was ordered away from Madrid within twenty-four hours, though his friends procured for him soon after a commission from the government as inspector of barracks at Medina del Campo, where he gave himself up again to study and such duties as were assigned him. Beyond these, however, he particularly exerted himself, it is recorded, in attending to the sick at the hospitals, providing that they should not be sent out into the world, as had often been previously the case, imperfectly cured or clothed, and unable to effect their livelihood.

In this humble occupation he might have been supposed exempt at least from further malignity, but unfortunately some sycophant of power thought it would be pleasing to the favourite to have a frivolous accusation forwarded against him, which had the effect of his being sent on half salary to Zamora. There he was fortunate enough to have the intrigues against him made known, and in June 1802, he received a royal order to have his full salary allowed, with liberty to reside where he pleased. He would have preferred Madrid, but he found it most prudent to return to Salamanca, and there, arranging his house and library, began to enjoy a more peaceful life than what he had passed since he left the University.

The literary world might now have hoped for further efforts of genius in this asylum, and perhaps some superior work worthy of his talents and fame; but his spirits had been broken down by adversity and injustice, and his attention was distracted by hopes and fears, from which he could never free himself. A poem on Creation, and a translation of the Æneid, were the fruits of six years' retirement from the world; and he proposed another edition of his works, which however he did not accomplish, on the rapid succession of events which again called him forth to a short period of active life, and subsequent years of suffering.

The revolution of Aranjuez brought Melendez to Madrid, in the hopes of recovering his former employments; but in the troubled state of the country, he soon wished to return to his house, without being able to effect it. The French had now made themselves masters of the capital, and Melendez was unfortunately induced to take office under them. This conduct was contrary, not only to the course taken by Jovellanos and his other friends, but also to the whole tenor of his former life and opinions. His easy temper, which had at all times led him submissive to the wishes of those who had his confidence, no doubt on this occasion had been influenced by persons near him, and he might have thought it a hopeless struggle to contend with Napoleon.

Having however engaged in this unpatriotic service, he was sent as a commissioner, on the part of the intrusive government, to the Asturias, where the people had already risen in vindication of the national independence. Melendez and his colleague were seized by the populace, notwithstanding the efforts of the local authorities, who had placed them for security in the prison, the doors of which were forced, and they were led out to be put to death. All entreaties were in vain. Melendez protested his attachment to the national cause, and even began reciting some patriotic verses he had been writing, but the excited multitude would not hear him. They added insults to menaces, and as a great favour only permitted them to confess before they should be executed. Thus a little time was gained; but this was at length concluded and they were tied to a tree, and the party prepared to shoot them, when a dispute arose whether they should be shot from in front or behind as traitors, a piece of etiquette in such cases considered of importance. The latter counsel prevailed, and the prisoners had to be loosened and tied again accordingly, when the authorities and religious orders of the place, with a particular Cross famous among them, appeared approaching for their rescue. The people hereon became calmed, and Melendez and his colleague were taken back to the prison, whence they were soon permitted to return to Madrid.

On the success of the Spanish army at Bailen, the French retired from the capital, and Melendez remained at Madrid, hoping, through the influence of Jovellanos, to be taken into favour with the constitutional party. But fortune again seemed to side with the French, and they returned to Madrid, when Melendez was again induced to join them, and accepted office as Councillor of State and President of a Board of Public Instruction. Thus he inevitably compromised himself in a cause which was not that of his heart or principles, and whose apparently irresistible strength could only have excused his adhesion to it. This supposition, however, also proved erroneous; and when the French armies had to abandon Spain, Melendez, with their other principal adherents, had to fly with them also, having had the further misfortune to have his house plundered, and his valuable library destroyed, by the very marauders for whose sake he had lost all his hopes of the future at home.

Before entering France, Melendez, kneeling down, kissed the Spanish soil, saying, "I shall not return to tread thee again." His apprehensions, notwithstanding his anxiety to do so, proved correct. He passed four years in France, residing at Toulouse, Montpelier, Nismes and Alaix, as circumstances compelled him, in great privation and with bodily sufferings, the more aggravating, in his advanced age, the bitter remembrances of the past. A paralytic affection first incapacitated him from all exertion, and finally, an apoplectic attack terminated his existence, at Montpelier, on the 24th May, 1817, in the arms of his wife, who had followed him through all the vicissitudes of life, and surrounded by the companions of his exile. A monument was afterwards placed to his memory in the cemetery by the Duke de Frias.[3]

Notwithstanding the indecision of his character in public life, Melendez was in private remarkable for laborious application to his studies and duties. His reading was immense, and his desire unceasing to be useful, and to contribute, by all the means in his power, to the well-being of his fellows. His kindness of heart is conspicuous in all his writings, which also portray the diffidence of his own powers, ascribed to him by his biographer.

His principal objects of veneration seem to have been the writings of Newton and Locke. The former, as the "Great Newton," is often named by him. Pope he took for his model avowedly in poetry, and he strove to imitate the moral and philosophic tone of that great poet's writings, whose elegance of style he certainly rivalled. Nothing in Spanish verse had been ever produced to equal the sweetness of his verses, their easy tone, and sparkling thoughts and expression. He was much attached to drawing, but had no inclination for music, not even to the charms of song, the more singular in one whose ear for the melody of verse appears to have been so sensitive. To the very last he seems to have been endeavouring to improve his poems, which have been thus observed to have often lost in strength and expression what they gained in cadence.

"The principles of his philosophy were benevolence and toleration; and he belonged to that race of philanthropists who hope for the progressive amelioration of the human race, and the advent of a period, when civilization, or the empire of the understanding, extended over the earth, will give men that grade of perfection and felicity compatible with the faculties and the existence of each individual. Such are the manifestations of his philosophic poems, and such a state he endeavoured to aid in producing by his talents and labours."

His influence as a poet has certainly been very great. All the writers in Spain, who immediately succeeded him, especially Quintana, showed evident proofs of having profited by the lessons his example gave them, and those lessons seem to have sunk deeply into the minds of successive generations, so as to leave no doubt of their continuing in the same course.

After his arrival in France, Melendez wrote a few short poems, which, notwithstanding his age and failing health, showed his spirit was still the same, and his imagination as lively as ever. At Nismes he prepared an edition of his works, which the Spanish government published at their cost after his death, when they also gave his widow the pension allotted for her, as according to her husband's former rank. This edition has been the one subsequently several times reprinted, with a biography by the eminent Quintana, worthy of himself and of his master. The prologue to it, by Melendez, is very interesting, and from it we learn, with regret, that upon the destruction of his library, "the most choice and varied he had ever seen belonging to a private individual, in the formation of which he had expended a great part of his patrimony and all his literary life," he had lost what he considered some of his best poems, and some tracts, in prose, which he had prepared for the press, on Legislation, on Civil Economy, the Criminal Laws, on Prisons, Mendicancy and other subjects.

The misfortunes of Melendez were certainly much to be lamented, but throughout them he could unquestionably console himself with the conviction of having been actuated ever by upright motives, and of leaving to his country an imperishable name. His literary career had been an eminently successful one, and he had felt the full enjoyment of fame. In the prologue, above mentioned, he refers very feelingly to the reverses to which he had been subjected, but also with apparent satisfaction to the various editions and notices of his works, published both in Spain and abroad.

In leaving revised his works, published afterwards by the government, Madrid 1820, Melendez left also this positive direction: "Although I have composed many other poems, these appear to me the least imperfect, and I therefore forbid the others to be reprinted under any pretext. I earnestly request this of the editor, and expect it of his probity and good feeling, that he will fulfil this, my will, in every respect." In accordance with this request, many of his earlier works have been, with much propriety, omitted, and the remainder have been considerably corrected; at the same time that a great number of poems are added, that had not been previously published. The best edition of his works is that by Salva,[4] Paris 1832.

Melendez enjoyed in his day a higher reputation than readers at present are willing to concede him, comparing him with the other poets that have since appeared in Spain. But the merits of writers should be considered, in justice, relatively only to those who have preceded them, and by this standard he is certainly fully entitled to the eulogiums which his contemporaries awarded him.

  1. Diego Gonzalez was born at Ciudad Rodrigo in 1733, and died at Madrid, 1794. Josè Iglesias de la Casa was born at Salamanca in 1753, and died there in 1791. His poems were first published seven years after his death, and have been several times reprinted. The best edition is that of Barcelona, 1820, from which the one of Paris, 1821, was taken. The poems of Gonzalez also were first published after his death, and have been several times reprinted.Both wrote very pleasing verses, and are deservedly popular in Spain.
  2. Hermosilla, author of a work, 'Juicio Critico de los principales Poetas Españoles de la ultima era,' published after his death, Paris 1840, gives in it, as Mr. Ticknor pithily observes, "a criticism of the poems of Melendez so severe that I find it difficult to explain its motive;" at the same time that he gives "an unreasonably laudatory criticism of L. Moratin's works." Hermosilla appears to have been a man of considerable learning, but little judgement. His criticisms are generally worthless, and the only excuse for him, with regard to his book, is, that he did not publish it. With regard to Melendez, taking every opportunity to depreciate his merits, he is constantly found constrained to acknowledge them, and sometimes even in contradiction to himself. Thus, having several times intimated, as at p. 31, that the erotic effusions of Melendez only were praiseworthy, he says, at p. 297, when speaking of his Epistles, that they are "his best compositions; thoughts, language, style, tone and versification, all in general are good." In another part he censures Melendez for his poems addressed to different ladies, especially some to 'Fanny,' who appears to have been an Englishwoman; and yet those epistles, addressed to her, on the death of her husband, are among the purest and most elegant specimens that can be pointed out of consolation to a mourner. It is but justice to his editor, Salva, to say, that he has expressed his dissent from these criticisms, though he thought proper to publish the work.
  3. This estimable nobleman, who died in 1850, was descended from the Counts of Haro, one of the three great families of Spain. He was the munificent friend of literary men, and in the case of Melendez extended his protection to the dead, having taken much personal trouble to have his remains removed from the commonburying-ground to a vault, where they might not afterwards be disturbed. He also wrote verses occasionally, of which have been preserved, by Del Rio, a 'Sonnet to the Duke of Wellington,' and by Ochoa, an 'Elegy on the Death of his Duchess,' whose virtues will be found hereafter commemorated by Martinez de la Rosa.
  4. In taking the edition of 1820 for the text, Salvà, in his edition, has exercised much judgement in giving some of the poems as they were originally published, rather than as Melendez afterwards had left them, weakened by over-correction. Salvà was in early life distinguished for learning and study, having been, when only twenty years of age, named Professor of Greek in the University of Alcalà de Henares. On the French invasion he returned to his native city Valencia, and engaged in trade as a bookseller, in which occupation he continued in London, when obliged to emigrate hither in 1823, in consequence of his having joined in the political events of the times. He had been, during those events, Deputy from Valencia, and Secretary to the Cortes. In 1830 he transferred his house to Paris, where he continued his pursuits, publishing many valuable works of his own compilation, as a Grammar and Dictionary of the Spanish language, as well as editing and superintending the publication of many other standard works. He closed his useful life, in his native city, in 1850.