Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer: Biography of a Legend and his Ghosts

For many of us, Bécquer was the first adult author we read in our adolescence and, for many of us, it was a platonic love of youth. Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, the greatest representative of Spanish Romanticism, is much more than a classic. His life, his work, his moving verses, his magical influence and the winged beauty of all his work have captured the imagination of millions of people.

Today, we bring you a new perspective, something different from what your biographers have us used to. A version of his life and his work that is revolutionizing our vision of Bécquer, for better or for worse. Mariano Fernández Urresti, historian and researcher of great prestige, has immersed us again in the life of the poet with his novel Los fantasmas de Bécquer.

The interpretation of the facts of his life remains in this work a little away from the idealized image we all had about this great poet. Although there is no doubt that Fernández Urresti presents us as a fascinating story, much more attractive than the sickly and in love, almost pusillanimous, poet, who had shown us before.

Early life

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer was born in Seville in 1836. Son and brother of painters, he grew up surrounded by the plastic arts and was also trained in painting. It seems that as a child his pictorial tendencies revealed a taste for mystery and the occult, themes that would mark all his subsequent literary work.

Bécquer was very close to his brother Valeriano since they were children. Valeriano devoted himself entirely to painting and remained at the side of his brother Gustavo throughout his career. The life of both ran always in parallel until the point that both would die with only three months of difference.

In 1854, the young Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer moved to Madrid. He made that trip with great expectations of developing a fast and brilliant literary career with his History of the Temples of Spain. But his first book was a failure and he only managed to publish one of the volumes of the collection.

Surviving in Madrid without literary success led him to work for a conservative newspaper. It seems that the political tendencies of Bécquer and his brother Valeriano during his youth were always conservative.

His first Legends and Julia Espín

In a visit to his native Seville in 1858, Bécquer was forced to stay in bed for nine months because of tuberculosis that, in reality, we now know could possibly be syphilis. He was convalescing when Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer wrote his first legend.

During that same time, he meets Julia Espin, who is believed to be the muse inspiring the most heartrending words of the poet. That’s when he starts writing his first Rhymes. Even so, its most fruitful stage covers from the year 1861 to 1865.

In these four years, Bécquer wrote most of his Legends, many of his journalistic chronicles and the Letters from my cell, which he would write during one of the relapses of his illness. In 1861, he married Casta, the daughter of one of the doctors who treated his ailment. The couple had three children, although it seems that their relationship was quite turbulent.

Lost rhymes

In 1866, things start to change for Bécquer. In the hands of Luis González Bravo, who served as a sort of defender, he rises in the newspaper to the post of novel censor. This allowed him to have more time to focus on his Rhymes and his Legends.

However, during the revolution of 1868, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer lost his job, was abandoned by his wife and his original Rimas disappeared after a looting. These events make him secluded in Toledo for a few months with his brother Valeriano; in this period, he dedicated himself to rewriting the Rhymes that had been stolen during the revolt.

Shortly after, both return to Madrid, change to the liberal side and work in the magazine The illustration of Madrid. In September of 1870, his brother Valeriano dies and Bécquer falls into a state of deep sadness and his state of health is greatly aggravated.

He gave the complete compendium of his work to a friend to take charge of it, probably sensing its end. Three months later, on December 22, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer died. His death coincided with an eclipse of the sun.

It should be noted that Rimas appeared in the press between 1855 and 1871, was 13 and published some loose in other places. The manuscript was lost in 68 and, as we have advanced, it is believed that Bécquer rewrote it by heart. The manuscript presents an order different from that of the first edition of 1871, although the order does not affect the reading. In this first edition, an order is followed in four series: the first is a reflection on the poetic fact, the second corresponds to the love poetry, the third is the series of disappointment and the fourth is a kind of tailor.

The crisis of language was another of the fundamental pieces of his poetry and, for him, there were two types of poetry: the grandiloquent and the simple (brief and that springs from the soul). For Bécquer, poetry is the expression of the ineffable in an almost mystical, intimate way and tries to explore new forms of poetic expression.

On the other hand, his Legends are a set of narrations of a post-romantic character, intimate and evoke the historical past combined with fantastic or unusual elements. After his death, his friends published them in an edition that included Rhymes. Thus, the work was published in 1871 under the title of Rhymes and Legends.

Spiritist circles

It seems that Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer could have had a very direct contact with spirit circles so fashionable in his time. His social circle, the plot of his Rhymes and his Legends and an old friendship of childhood with one of Spain’s most famous spiritualists seem to support this vision of his life.

In his work, music is the element that communicates the living with the dead. The mediums, the ghosts, the souls of other worlds, the astral voyages, appearances of all kinds, worlds formed of dust and suns and the levitations were characteristic subjects of the spiritualistic practices and their circles.

Could it be that in the original Rhymes that were lost we could find more clues to confirm this relationship? The novel Los Fantasmas de Bécquer plays with this idea and with some more joining some threads that are as fascinating as Bécquer’s own work.

Why are we attracted to the work of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer?

We wonder what the Rhymes and the Legends of Bécquer have to have captivated millions of people within hidden, mysterious plots and, sometimes, quite dark when not of real terror.

Human beings have loved these kinds of stories since they started telling stories. Some psychologists argue that this fact is intrinsic to human nature. It would be something like a residue of the first human specimens that had a highly developed ability to detect threats.

In fact, there are studies carried out on how three-year-old children detect a snake before a flower on a screen. We speak of primordial fears. In those moments of fear, our bodies release waves of adrenaline, endorphins and dopamine; as a result, we become faster and stronger beings.

Many people learn to enjoy the physical sensations of fear. Especially, if they occur in safe environments. Those are the characteristics of fear stories. In a moment they are real, you live them, but in the safe environment of a book, a screen or a circle around a bonfire. Thus, the fascinating work of Bécquer remains immortal, as if time had not made a dent in it and connects us with our most human fear, with mysticism and the taste for the fantastic.