Modern Poets and Poetry of Spain/⁠Memoir of Tomas de Iriarte



Of all the modern Spanish poets, Iriarte seems to have obtained for his writings the widest European reputation. He was born the 18th September 1750, at Teneriffe in the Canary Islands, where his family had been some time settled, though the name shows it to have been of Basque origin. His uncle, Juan de Iriarte, also a native of the same place, was one of the most learned men of his age, and to him the subject of this memoir was indebted for much of the knowledge he acquired, and means of attaining the eminence in literature he succeeded him in possessing. Juan de Iriarte had been partly educated in France, and had afterwards resided some time in England, so as to acquire a full knowledge of the language and literature of those countries. He was also a proficient in classical learning, and wrote Latin with great precision, as his writings, published by his nephew after his death, evince; Madrid, two volumes, 4to. 1774. Having been appointed keeper of the Royal Library at Madrid, he enriched it with many valuable works, in upwards of 2000 MSS. and 10,000 volumes. He was an active member of the Royal Spanish Academy, and one of the principal assistants in compiling the valuable dictionary and grammar published by that learned Society, as well as other works.

At the instance of this uncle, Tomas Iriarte went to Madrid in the beginning of 1764, when not yet fourteen years of age, and under that relative's able guidance completed his studies, learning at the same time the English and other modern languages. He was already far advanced in a knowledge of classical literature, and it is stated that some Latin verses he wrote, on leaving his native place, showed such proficiency as to surprise his friends, and make them entertain great expectations of his future success. Some of his Latin compositions, published afterwards among his works, prove him to have been a scholar of very considerable acquirements. Classical literature does not seem in modern times to be much studied in Spain, and Iriarte is the only distinguished writer among the modern Spanish poets who can be pointed out as conspicuous for such attainments. Thus they have failed in apprehending one of the chief beauties of modern poetry, so remarkable in Milton and Byron, and our other great poets, who enrich their works with references that remind us of what had most delighted us in those of antiquity.

In 1771 his uncle died, and Tomas Iriarte, who had already been acting for him in one of his offices as Interpreter to the Government, was appointed to succeed him in it. He was afterwards, in 1776, appointed Keeper of the Archives of the Council of War; and these offices, with the charge of a paper under the influence of the government, seem to have been the only public employments he held. From one of his epistles, however, he appears to have succeeded to his uncle's property, and thus to have had the means as also the leisure to give much of his time to the indulgence of literary tastes. He was very fond of paintings and of music, to which he showed his predilection, not only by his ability to play on several instruments, but also by writing a long didactic poem on the art, entitled 'Musica.' This he seems to have considered as giving him his principal claim to be ranked as a poet, though the world preferred his other writings. When yet under twenty years of age, Iriarte had already appeared as a writer of plays, some of which met with considerable approbation. Of these it will be sufficient for us here to observe, that Moratin, the first great dramatic poet of Spain in modern times, pronounced one of them, 'The Young Gentleman Pacified,' to have been "the first original comedy the Spanish theatre had seen written according to the most essential rules dictated by philosophy and good criticism."

Besides several original plays, Iriarte translated others from the French, from which language he also translated the 'New Robinson' of Campe, which passed through several editions. From Virgil he translated into Spanish verse the first four books of the Æneid, and from Horace the Epistle to the Pisos. These, though censured by some of his contemporaries so as to excite his anger, were altogether too superior to those attacks to have required the vindication of them he thought proper to publish. Horace seems to have been his favourite author; but he had not learned from him his philosophical equanimity, wherewith to pass over in silent endurance the minor miseries of life. Thus he allowed himself, throughout his short career, to be too much affected by those ungenerous attacks, which mediocrity is so apt to make on superior merit. The names of those censurers are now principally remembered by his notices of their writings; an honour, which men of genius, in their hours of irritation, too often confer on unworthy opponents. Thus a large portion of his collected works consists of these controversial notices, which, as usual in such cases, only impair the favourable effect produced by the remainder on the mind of the reader. Those works were first published in a collected form in six volumes, in 1786; afterwards in eight volumes, in 1805.

From Iriarte's poetical epistles, which are eleven in number, he appears to have been a person of a very kindly disposition, as Quintana describes him, living in friendly intercourse with the principal literary characters of Spain, especially with the amiable and ill-fated Cadahalso, to whom, in one of those epistles, he dedicated his translations from Horace. The others also are mainly on personal topics, and display his character advantageously, though, as poetical compositions, they have not been received so favourably as some of his other works.

The fame of Iriarte may be said to rest on his literary fables, which have attained a popularity, both at home and abroad, equalled by few other works. They are eighty-two in number, and all original, having, as their title indicates, a special reference to literary questions, though they are also all sufficiently pointed to bear on those of ordinary life. Like Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses on Painting, they convey general instructions to all, while professing an application to one particular pursuit. They are written with much vivacity and ease, yet with an appropriate terseness that adds to their effect. Martinez de la Rosa, equally eminent as a statesman, a poet and a critic, observes of them, that if he had not left compositions of any other class, they would have extended his reputation as a poet; and adds, "that they abound in beauties, though frequently wanting in poetical warmth, so as to recommend this valuable collection, unique in its class, as one of which Spanish literature has to be proud."

Of these fables, first published in 1782, so many editions have appeared, that it would be a very difficult task to enumerate them. There is scarcely a provincial town in Spain, of any consequence, in which they have not been reprinted. Several editions have appeared in France, two in New York, and three in Boston, where they have been used in teaching Spanish. Several of the fables have been imitated by Florian, and translations have been made into other languages. Of these translations, one in French verse was published by M. Lanos, Paris, 1801, and another, in prose, by M. L'Homandie, ibid. 1804: into German they were translated by Bertuch, Leipzic, so early as 1788, and into Portuguese, by Velladoli, in 1801.

I am not aware of more than one edition of them in England, that published by Dulau, 1809; but there have been no fewer than three translations of them into English verse; first by Mr. Belfour, London, 1804, another by Mr. Andrews, ibid. 1835, and a third by Mr. Rockliff, ibid. 1851.

The same popularity attended another work which Iriarte prepared for the instruction of youth, named 'Historical Lessons,' published posthumously, about twenty editions of which have since appeared, principally from its having been adopted as a text-book for schools. Of this also an edition has been published in London by Boosey, and a translation into English. Iriarte's industry appears to have been of the most practical character, and his endeavours were as wisely as they were unremittingly directed to make his countrymen wiser and better in their future generations. If a man's worth may be estimated by such labours, few persons have ever lived who were so entitled to the gratitude of posterity, as few have ever effected so much as he did in the short career that was afforded him.

In private life, in the leisure allowed from his studies and duties, he indulged much, as has been already stated, in the recreation of music; and in praise and explanation of that favourite art he wrote his largest work, 'Music,' a didactic poem, in five cantos. Of this work, which was first published in 1780, the fifth separate edition appeared in 1805, since which I have not heard of any other. It has, however, had the good fortune to be translated into several foreign languages; into German by Bertuch, in 1789; into Italian by the Abbé Garzia, Venice, 1789; into French by Grainville, Paris, 1800; and into English by Mr. Belfour, London, 1807. The last-mentioned translation is made with much exactness and elegance into heroic verse; though, as the original had the fault usual to all didactic poems of not rising to any high poetical power, the translation must share the fault to at least an equal extent.

In the Italian version, a letter is quoted from the celebrated Metastasio, in which he speaks of the style of Iriarte's poem as "so harmonious, perspicuous and easy, as to unite the precision of a treatise with the beauties common to poetry." It is said also that Metastasio further pronounced the poem to be "not only excellent, but to be considered uncommon, in having successfully treated a subject so difficult, and apparently so little adapted to poetry." It is to be observed that Iriarte had warmly eulogized Metastasio in the book, so as to merit the commendation. The first canto is confined to treating the subject artistically, and will therefore prove less to the taste of the general reader than the other cantos, which are of a more interesting character, and may be read with pleasure by persons who do not understand music as a science. The third canto especially is written with much spirit in its praise, as connected with devotion. The second canto treats of the passions as they may be expressed by music, including martial music. The fourth minutely discusses theatrical music, with its excellences and defects. The fifth explains it, as calculated for the amusement of societies, or individuals in solitude. The poem concludes with pointing out what ought to be the study of a good composer, and by a proposal for the establishment of an academy of music, or scientific body of musicians, anticipating the benefit to science that would result from such an institution.

This poem, the 'Musica,' and the Epistles, are written in a very favourite style of versification in Spain, denominated the Silva, which consists of lines of eleven syllables, varied occasionally with others of seven, rhyming at the pleasure of the writer. The 'Literary Fables' are written in various metres; Martinez de la Rosa observes in upwards of forty different kinds, appropriate to the characteristics of the subjects, which may be more perceptible to a native ear than to a foreigner's. It is certainly true that this gives a variety to the work which is well suited to the purposes the author had in view. He was wise enough to know that truths hidden in the garb of fiction will often be felt effectually, where grave precepts would not avail,

Καὶ ποῦ τι καὶ βρότων Φρενὰς
Ὑπὲρ τὸν ἀληθῆ λόγον,
Δεδαιδαλμένοι ψεύδεσι ποικιλοις
Ἐξαπάτωντι μύθοι,

and thus conveyed his lessons in examples, with a moral, which could be quickly understood and easily remembered.

With regard to the objection made to these fables, that they are often deficient in poetical warmth or colouring, it may be observed that the subjects would scarcely admit of any. Iriarte was certainly a writer of more poetic taste than talent, and it must be acknowledged that his genius, judging by the works he left, was not one to soar to the higher flights of poetry. He felt this himself, as he intimates in his Epistle to his brother; and, choosing a subject like Music for a didactic poem, or writing familiar epistles on occasional subjects, did not give himself much scope for fancy, much less for passion. But as applied to the fables, the objection was unnecessary. If they deserved praise for their vivacity of style, that very circumstance, independent of the subjects, rendered them passionless, ἀπαθέστατα, as Longinus remarks, where stronger feelings could scarcely be brought into connexion with such discussions. The great difficulty in such cases is, when metres are chosen to suit the subject, abounding in pyrrhics, trochees, and such measures, as the same great critic adds, to guard, lest the sense be lost in too much regard to the sound, raising only attention to the rhythm, instead of exciting any feeling in the minds of the hearers.

Of the five fables chosen for translation, the two first were taken from Bouterwek, and the third on account of its having been particularly noticed by Martinez de la Rosa. The Epistle to his Brother was selected partly on account of its notices of other countries, as a foreigner's judgement of them; and partly as being most characteristic of the writer, showing his tastes and dispositions more perhaps than the rest. The reader generally feels most interested in such parts of the works of favourite writers, especially when their private history gives the imagination a right to ask sympathy for their sufferings.

Nothing is to be found in Iriarte's works to show any peculiar opinions on religion, though the tendency of his mind is everywhere clearly seen, as leading to freedom of thought, instead of subjection to dogmas. In his poem on Music, as already intimated, some devotional rather than free-thinking principles are developed; yet it is said that it was from a suspicion of his being affected by the French philosophy of the day he fell under the censure of the Inquisition, and was seized in 1786, and imprisoned three years in the dungeons of that institution. What was the particular offence imputed to him has not been stated. It could be no question of a political character, for he was in the employment of the government, and was amenable to it for any misdeeds. It probably was from some private cause, under the cloak of a question of faith, that he had to undergo this imprisonment, during which it is said he had to submit to severe penances before he could obtain his liberty. After he had obtained it, he returned to his studies and wrote further, a monologue, entitled 'Guzman,' and some Latin maccaronic verses on the bad taste of some writers then in vogue. But his spirits were no doubt broken down, as his health and strength were undermined; and thus it was that he died two years after, though his death was imputed to his sedentary habits and gout, the 17th of September, 1791, when he had just completed his forty-first year.

This untimely death was a serious loss to Spanish literature. With his great and varied acquirements and unremitting industry, the world might have expected still more valuable works from him, when, at the age of thirty-six, in the best period of a man's existence for useful labours, he was cast into that dungeon, from which he seems to have been permitted to come out only to die. The last Auto da fe in Spain was celebrated in 1781; but the Inquisition had other victims whose sufferings were no less to be deplored, though not made known. If Iriarte was one, he had unquestionably the consciousness of being enabled to feel, though not dying "an aged man," yet that in his comparatively short life, he had not lived in vain for his own good name, and the benefit of posterity.