The sonnet form was introduced to Spain from Sicily in the fifteenth century through the writing of El Marqués de Santillana (1398-1458), a poet who wrote Petrarchan sonnets in Spanish. During the Renaissance, the Italian sonnet made its way to most of the countries of Western Europe. In England, Edmund Spenser changed the Petrarchan rhyming form of 'abba abba cdecde' to 'abab bcbc cdcd ee,' and William Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets with the form 'abab cdcd efef gg.' As Willis Barnstone says in the introduction to his book, 'Six Masters of the Spanish Sonnet,' 'the Spanish sonnet, a literary vagabond in courtly dress, began in the court of the Sicilian Frederic II, went up to England, and finally, seven centuries after its Italian birth, with its picaresque wits and form intact, dropped down just above the Antarctic Circle to appear in the poems of the Argentine Anglophile [his maternal grandmother was English] Borges.' Professor Barnstone goes on to present a thorough history of the evolution of the Spanish sonnet and a colorful biography of six Spanish language poets who used the form. His writing is informed by his long friendship with Jorge Luis Borges. Barnstone offers here a sampling of 112 Spanish sonnets by these six masters, placed side by side along with his own magnificent translations.
Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645) is described as a 'monstruo de la naturaleza' [monster of nature] because of his prodigious outpouring of writing. 'Like Swift, Dostoyevski, and Kafka, he is one of the most tormented spirits and visionaries of world literature ['El Buscón' (The Swindler), 1626, is his masterpiece] and also one of the funniest writers ever to pick up a sharp, merciless pen.' Though Quevedo's sonnets are at times scatological and darkly satirical, they are also humorous and hopeful.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648/51-1695) was a Mexican discalced Carmelite nun who is considered by some religious scholars to be the first female theologian of the Americas. Although I was familiar with her love poems and her articulate defense of a woman's right to write in 'Response to Sor Filotea,' I had not read her sonnets in translation before. As he does with all six sonneteers, Barnstone faithfully maintains Sor Juana's rhyming, meter, and cadence in his translations of her sonnets. His analysis encompasses her writing and her life, including some critique of Octavio Paz's definitive biography, 'Sor Juana, or The Traps of Faith.'
Antonio Machada (1875-1939) recalls the landscape of his native Sevilla in his sonnets. In, 'El amor y la sierra' (Love and the Sierra), he writes, 'Calabaga por agria serranía / una tarde, entre roca cenicienta. (He was galloping over harsh sierra ground, / one afternoon, amid the ashen rock).' Barnstone calls Machado 'the Wang Wei of Spain' because 'he uses the condition of external nature to express his passion.' As Petrarch had his Laura, Machado had his Guiomar (Pilar de Valderrama). In 'Dream Below the Sun,' he writes, 'Your poet / thinks of you. Distance / is of lemon and violet, / the fields still green. / Come with me, Guiomar. / The sierra will absorb us. / The day is wearing out / from oak to oak.'
Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) was a Spanish poet and playwright who was affected by Luis de Góngorra and gongorismo. His 'Gypsy Ballads' was 'the most popular book of poetry in the Spanish language in his time.' Barnstone states that 'his closest attachment, his passion, was the painter Salvador Dalí,' with whom he carried on a six year love affair. Luis Buñuel castigated him for his Andalusianism; indeed, Lorca felt that Buñuel's satiric and surrealist film 'Un chien andalu' mocked him. After traveling to New York and Havana, Lorca became 'the playwright of Spain' with his brilliant 'Bodas de Sangre' (Blood Wedding). His 'Sonnets of Dark Love,' unpublished during his lifetime, were probably written to Rafael Rodríguez Rapún, an engineering student. Barnstone believes that 'dark love' is an allusion to San Juan de la Cruz's 'dark night of the soul.'
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) of Argentina considered himself a poet, though he was a master at prose. According to Barnstone, because of the blindness that afflicted Borges in midlife, 'he could compose and polish a sonnet while waiting for a bus or walking down the street' and then later dictate it from memory. 'Borges's speech authenticated his writing, his writing authenticated his speech. To have heard him was to read him. To have read him was to have heard him.' In 'Un ciego' (A Blindman), he says, 'No sé cuál es la cara que me mira / Cuando miro la cara del espejo; / No sé qué anciano acecha en su reflejo / Con silenciosa y ya cansada ira. (I do not know what face looks back at me / When I look at the mirrored face, nor know / What aged man conspires in the glow / Of the glass, silent and with tired fury.)'
Miguel Hernández (1910-1942), a poor goatherd and pastor from the province of Alicante in Spain, wrote his best poetry while imprisoned during the Spanish Civil War. 'In the prisons, Hernández became,' in Barnstone's opinion, 'the consummate poet of light, darkness, soul, time, and death.' One of his poems, 'Llegó con tres heridas' (He came with three wounds), is a popular song, recorded by Joan Baez on her 'Gracias a La Vida' album.
'Six Masters of the Spanish Sonnet' is recommended to all who love this poetic form and want to know more about the lives of these remarkable poets. A good index and list of references are included for further study.