The great poet of the first romanticism in Spain is, without a doubt, José de Espronceda. His name, along with that of Larra or Bécquer, although the latter is later, stands out especially when we talk about Romanticism. The poetry of Espronceda is well known by the majority of the population and, especially, in the literary field. It is not very difficult to find studies on his work and we can even run into comparative studies between the Spanish and Lord Byron.
His poetry is characterized by a taste for contrast, descriptions, abundance of adjectives… Espronceda is inspired by figures from history, but also from legendary times. He is a rebellious romantic, desperate, who also participates in politics. For that reason, in some way, it deeply reminds us of another romantic, the romantic of the newspapers: Larra.
Espronceda cultivated several genres, such as that of the novel, Sancho Saldaña, or that of the theater, in addition to exercising several times as a journalist. But his most recognized activity is poetry. In fact, if you have studied in Spain, surely, in school, they taught you those verses that make up the Song of the Pirate.
In this article, we invite you to discover, a little more, the life and work of Espronceda. When they taught us The Pirate Song, we did not give it too many laps, but from maturity, some questions arise: Why a pirate as a protagonist? Can a pirate be the romantic hero?
José de Espronceda was born in Almendralejo (Extremadura, Spain) in 1808. Politics and literature would mark his life. Already in his youth, he tried to avenge the death of Riego and founded a secret revolutionary association that would lead him to be confined in a monastery. At this time, he began to compose Pelayo, an epic poem about the Muslim conquest in Spain that was incomplete.
After leaving his seclusion, he returned to Madrid, but not for long. The contrast of his ideas with the reality of the country would lead him into exile. First he was in Gibraltar, then in Lisbon and, finally, in London. His life was marked by imprisonment and expulsion as a result of his ideology. Later, and after a stay in Paris, he returned to Spain.
Espronceda is clearly influenced by Lord Byron. Byron introduced a final farewell after his songs, something that Espronceda would also do in one of his songs. Both quote Plato and Horace, explain the sources of his poems and take Aristotle as an art model. The literary critic Esteban Pujals dedicates a study to this relationship that is collected in Espronceda and Lord Byron (1951). Where it also points out that while Byron stands out in the epic and the narrative, Espronceda is superior as a lyric poet.
Parallel to his literary career, he developed an important political activity. In his last months of life, as a result of his political activity, he was parliamentarian of the Progressive Party. However, he died prematurely at the age of 34 as a result of diphtheria. At his death, he was considered a great poet, he had achieved success. Therefore, his burial was one of the most multitudinous and painful of the Spain of the time.
Classification of his poems
Political poems, patriotic and libertarian: with “To the fatherland”, attacks the despotism reigning in Spain, lamenting the death of the exiles. In this same category, we find the sonnet “To the death of Torrijos and his companions”.
Poems about the hostility of the romantics towards social conventions and their aspiration to absolute freedom: in this point, their songs stand out as: “The death row”, “The Song of the Pirate” or “The executioner”. The songs are about marginal characters and typical of romanticism. With “El Canto del Cosaco” it acquires a social and humanitarian dimension and tackles a poetry dominated by the collectivity.
Philosophical poems: in this group we find: "A Jarifa in an orgy", "A star" and "Hymn to the Sun".
On the other hand, we could include his poems of transition, poems in which Espronceda imitates his models: Jovellanos, Wordsworth … These are poems in which the romantic ‘I’ subjectivizes the landscape and reality, a rarefied vision of the locus appears amoenus
The songs of Espronceda
“The Pirate’s Song” is the best known. In it, there is, at last, the exaltation of the romantic hero, of that pirate whose only objective is to live in freedom, without submitting. The pirate represents the individual hero, a character that we can follow in the European romantic tradition. Not liking the values of the world, he throws himself into the sea, to the most absolute freedom that can exist.
“What is my boat? My treasure; What is my god? freedom; My law? the force of the wind; my only homeland, the sea.”
-Spronceda, Song of the Pirate-
No wonder it was considered the first Spanish romantic poem. In addition, Espronceda uses these heroes to project himself; he, like the pirate, loves justice and freedom above all else. In “El Verdugo”, he denounces the unjust and too severe penalties of the system, pleading for penalties that suit the crimes committed.
Their heroes are symbolic projections of the poet’s own “I”. They represent symbols of individual rebellion against a wealthy bourgeoisie that lacks sensitivity. Hence the choice of marginal characters, such as the beggar or the pirate, who live outside the established norms or who denounce things they do not like in the world in which they live. Espronceda thus raises his flag, with heroes who represent freedom.
Espronceda: extensive poems
The student of Salamanca (1840) is an extensive narrative poem that addresses the obsession of a character, Don Felix, to conquer any lady in any situation. It is divided into four parts: presentation of the hero; Portrait of the victim, Mrs. Elvira; revenge and death of the avenger; and, finally, night tour of the city of Salamanca. In this work, highlights some of the main characteristics of romanticism as the exaltation of the ‘I’, love of contrast, absolute freedom, etc.
The action is located in a long and intense night in which various events occur. The conqueror Don Felix falls in love with Doña Elvira, but he forgets her the next day, leaving her in a deep pain that leads her to death. Don Diego, brother of Elvira, will try to avenge the death of his sister. From this moment, magic happens, the supernatural envelops the night and mystery seizes the verses.
The Devil World is a work that began to write in 1839 and that did not manage to finish before his death. It is one of Espronceda’s most interesting and ambitious poems. In it, we can appreciate the deep pessimism of the last years of Espronceda, the pessimism of the romantic revolutionary.
It condemns the conservatives, it has a strong metaphysical and symbolic charge, it explores issues such as freedom, the existence of God, etc. Evil is found in every corner, even in the hearts of men. Society has been corrupted by hypocrisy and by ignorance of others’ pain. Freedom seems not to exist and, in the world, there is no room for purity or innocence.
The Devil World is a song of rebellion against the established, against the laws that govern the world. It is a chaotic world, wrapped in despair … Espronceda, as a good romantic, managed to capture in his verses the longings for individual freedom, for that freedom that does not seem to exist, that have been taken away from us and that only a pirate can approach.
“Is God the God who tears away hope, frivolous, unjust and mercilessly tyrant, from the heart of man, and chains him and eternal death to the condemning sinner?”
-Spronceda, Diablo Mundo-