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Imperial Lyric

New Poetry and New Subjects in Early Modern Spain

Leah Middlebrook


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206 pages
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Penn State Romance Studies

Imperial Lyric

New Poetry and New Subjects in Early Modern Spain

Leah Middlebrook

“This is a fine study which will be of great relevance and aid in the continuing re-evaluation of sixteenth-century Spanish lyric poetry.”


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Present scholarly conversations about early European and global modernity have yet to acknowledge fully the significance of Spain and Spanish cultural production. Poetry and ideology in early modern Spain form the backdrop for Imperial Lyric, which seeks to address this shortcoming. Based on readings of representative poems by eight Peninsular writers, Imperial Lyric demonstrates that the lyric was a crucial site for the negotiation of masculine identity as Spain’s noblemen were alternately cajoled and coerced into abandoning their identifications with images of the medieval hero and assuming instead the posture of subjects. The book thus demonstrates the importance of Peninsular letters to our understanding of shifting ideologies of the self, language, and the state that mark watersheds for European and American modernity. At the same time, this book aims to complicate the historicizing turn we have taken in the field of early modern studies by considering a threshold of modernity that was specific to poetry, one that was inscribed in Spanish culture when the genre of lyric poetry attained a certain kind of prestige at the expense of epic. Imperial Lyric breaks striking new ground in the field of early modern studies.
“This is a fine study which will be of great relevance and aid in the continuing re-evaluation of sixteenth-century Spanish lyric poetry.”

Leah Middlebrook is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Associate Professor of Romance Languages at the University of Oregon.


line-forms, and verse forms in general, are fundamentally

discussable as mediations of relationships, as rules and orders of polities

—Allen Grossman, The Sighted Singer, 283

This is a book about poetry and ideology in early modern Spain. Set in the era when Spain was developing from peninsular monarchy to the seat of a pan-European and global empire (roughly 1526–1600), this book addresses a curious phenomenon in early modern studies: despite the fact that in the 1990s and the early 2000s the humanities began to move beyond the traditional focus on Europe to develop a global reach, and the role of imperial Spain in the Renaissance became central to our reinvention of cultural history, the scholarly conversation about early European and global modernity has yet to fully “place” the significance of Spain and Spanish cultural production. Imperial Lyric demonstrates the importance of peninsular letters to our understanding of shifting ideologies of the self, language, and the state that mark watersheds for European and American modernity. As a second but not insignificant point, this book also aims to complicate the historicizing turn we have taken in the field of early modern studies by considering a threshold of modernity that was specific to poetry, one that I believe was inscribed in Spanish culture when the genre of lyric poetry attained a certain kind of prestige at the expense of the epic. The terms new poetry, new art, and new lyric refer primarily, in the context of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poetry, to erudite sonnets and songs that were based on Italian models but composed in Castilian. In the pages that follow, I take up the conundrum that emerged when this new kind of poetry, composed in the “minor” genre that was the lyric in the sixteenth century, became synecdochic with the courtly Spanish elites.

Until the early modern era, poetic prestige had been determined either in accordance with the ideas set forth in Aristotle’s Poetics, which privileged epic and tragedy, or through a discourse of plenitude of the type framed by Dante when, in the De vulgari eloquentia, he elevated the canzone over all other poetry on the grounds that only that form could capture “all that has flowed from the heads of the illustrious poetic minds, down to their lips” (2.3.41). Whether a given writer followed Aristotle, Dante, or various combinations of the two, poetic excellence was judged based on a given form’s abilities to preserve and transmit the traditions of a culture from its origins in the native past to the present moment of utterance. The “greatness” of “great poetry” thus resided in its length, in addition to its subject matter, and in the register of its diction. Meanwhile, the various forms of poetry that fell into the loose and shifting category of “the lyric” were referred to in a number of ways, as vario stile, poemi brevi, and poemi piccoli. The very indeterminacy of their naming indicated their relative lack of importance, and I will demonstrate that this aspect of the lyric concerned aristocratic writers as much as its foreign provenance did. In the wake of Petrarch, and with the onset of the humanist Renaissance, the beauty and adaptability of the poetry of the Canzoniere clearly influenced the popularity of the practice of writing in the “small style.” Furthermore, Bembian theories of poetic reform increased poets’ interest in Petrarchism. However, writers remained ambivalent about the status that should be accorded to these short forms whose Italian and classical provenance lent them authority, but whose absence from the texts of Aristotle suggested that they were lacking in nobility.

Of course, the concept of “nobility” itself was undergoing a transformation during the period in question. In Hapsburg Spain, the country’s grandees were drawn away from the battlefield and into the court, where they were seduced and subjected into identifying with new discourses of nobility and new regimes of prestige and power. Within this context, the criteria by which to measure a nobleman’s virility and excellence changed. Previously associated with the force of his sword arm as he fought to secure the Iberian Peninsula for Christianity (during the so-called Christian Reconquest) his worthiness now became linked to equally violent and powerful acts of suppression that were directed inward, against the self, in the manner described by Norbert Elias in his discussions of the process of “courtierization” and by theorists of early modern courtiership and courtliness. Over the following pages I will argue that the lyric’s rise to privilege was conditioned by this radical revision of the social role assigned to the aristocracy in early modern Spain. I will demonstrate that the legitimation of short forms of poetry took place in conjunction with the symbolic and actual abbreviation of the modern courtier’s access to power and agency. Furthermore, I will show that writers examined here understood the complex and self-reflexive utterances forced by the rules of the sonnet form, in particular, as allegories of the intricate psychological operations they had to perform in order to reconcile their traditional senses of identity with the postures and the discourses imposed on them by the imperial state.

Another way of framing the forthcoming argument, then, is that Imperial Lyric links the “new lyric” with that emergent modern figure, the individuated, “split,” and interpellated subject. But this book is also fundamentally about poetic modernity. The cultural acceptance—more than that, the elevation to a place of privilege—of a poetic genre that was cut to the dimensions of the self at the expense of the expansive forms of poetry whose purpose was to secure a native cultural continuum reflects a passage from what Allen Grossman has referred to as the poetics of Homer to those of Horace, from a notion of poetry as the art that serves to memorialize images of “Achilles and other great persons of value” in an ongoing record of civilization, to a cosmopolitan poetry that appropriates the special privileges assigned to poetic discourse—the privileges of poiesis, of unique linguistic contact with the origins of culture and the orders of the mythic and the supernatural that are represented by references to prophecy and the muse—“on behalf of . . . individual personhood, taking the great privilege of the hero, the privilege of continuity of image, and bestowing it upon himself, declaring that his poetry was a monument to his own selfhood.”

Grossman invokes a long-standing preoccupation: it was Horace himself who first drew this distinction. Furthermore, as humanist writers took Horace up as a model, they, too, confronted the question of relevance: does poetry remain poetry when it is turned to the ends of memorializing and elaborating a “self” that is produced, traversed, and sustained by the discourses and practices of a state regime? Contemporary critics are not the only ones to perceive cultivated sixteenth-century lyric as passing along a trajectory that fixes it as a static icon of monarchic power. Spanish courtiers, perhaps especially, were attuned to the stakes of what the new lyric was empowered to overwrite. As an introductory example, consider the following poem, composed sometime in the mid-sixteenth century by Francisco de Aldana (1537–1578):

Sonnet 45

Otro aquí no se ve que, frente a frente,

animoso escuadrón moverse guerra,

sangriento humor teñir la verde tierra

y tras honroso fin correr la gente;

éste es el dulce son que acá se siente:

“¡España, Santiago, cierra, cierra!”

y por suave olor, que el aire atierra,

humo de azufre dar con llama ardiente;

el gusto envuelto va tras corrompida

agua, y el tacto sólo apalpa y halla

duro trofeo de acero ensangrentado,

hueso en astilla, en él carne molida,

despedazado arnés, rasgado malla:

¡oh sólo de hombres digno y noble estado!

[Here one sees nothing but, face to face, / the animated squadron fomenting war, / a bloody humor stains the green earth, / and the people race toward their honorable end; / this is the sweet sound which here is heard: / España! Santiago! Charge! Charge! / and in place of a delicate fragrance that falls to earth from the air / there is sulfurous smoke, released by the burning flame; / taste seeks corrupted / water, and touch palpates, and finds / a harsh trophy of the bloody steel, / shattered bone, lined with ground flesh, / fragments of armor, torn mail: / Oh dignified, noble state, known only to man!]

Aldana was celebrated in his time as an ideal example of the Spanish man of arms and letters. As a fighter, he participated in some of the notable battles of his era before losing his life while fighting at Alcazarquivir at the age of forty-one. As a writer, he was prolific and complex. He spent his youth in Naples and Florence, where he would have been exposed to Ficinian thought; critics identify this influence in his skillful manipulation of the Italian style, and the unusual sensuality with which he elaborated Neo-Platonic and Stoic philosophies, as well as orthodox Christian doctrine.

Stylistically, Sonnet 45 displays a baroque aesthetic and a masterful grasp of rhetoric. It delivers its shock—the encounter with the mangled flesh of the fallen soldier in line 12—by deftly mobilizing the poetic device of the hierarchy of the senses, perhaps, as Elias Rivers has suggested, with reference to the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. We are shown the green earth (lines 1 and 3), we hear a harsh sound (line 5), we are led to smell, taste, and, finally, touch. This progress “down” through the order of the senses is encouraged by a skillful deployment of sonorous and rhythmic devices. Assonance between the “l” and “a” sounds in lines 10 and 12 brings the act of touch (apalpar) together with its object (astilla and molida), across the speaker’s editorial gloss in line 11, while the enjambment between lines 10 and 11 underscores the theme of seeking, drawing the action of apalpar across the border of its own line into the next, which the reader accompanies in a physical act of moving the eyes over and down. The result of Aldana’s artistry is a series of intertwined appeals to a reader’s sensual and intellectual faculties, so that we are primed for an experience of disgust upon encountering the mangled flesh and bone, the “hueso es astilla, en él carne molida” in line 12. They are contained neatly in their syntax, and they startle us all the more for that fact.

Sonnet 45 is in keeping with the dramatic sensibility that informs later key works of the Spanish baroque, such as the bloody handprint on the nobleman’s new coat of arms at the close of Calderón de la Barca’s El medico de su honra, or the vanitas paintings of Valdés Leal. In fact, the poem encompasses both poetry and the visual arts, inasmuch as it is structured as an emblem. The sonnet, the emblem, and the epigram were all closely associated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Here, the poem’s organization as a visual scene accompanied by a moral gloss–“¡Oh sólo de hombres digno y noble estado!”—provides a strong cue to read it as an emblem, and this cue is supported by the apostrophe in the final line. The speaker’s exclamation, “¡Oh . . . !” draws him out of the visual scene and into a middle ground between the landscape and the viewer. The effect is to cast him as a beschouwer, the figure—often a man or a boy—in emblem and in painting, who gestures to an onlooker from the foreground of the image, inviting us to gaze “in” on a significant scene.

But what are we gazing on? The most conventional message of the beschouwer is Ecce homo. The device is common in religious paintings wherein early modern viewers were guided to contemplate biblical events such as the Nativity, the Crucifixion or the Assumption of the Virgin. Sonnet 45 contains a register of religious allusion, in the echo of St. Paul, Corinthians: “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then we will see face to face” (1 Cor. 1:13). However, religion is not paramount in this poem. Paramount is the scene of devastation where, heaped at the “bottom” of the visual frame that is created by the rectangular shape of the sonnet, that bloody mass of flesh, bone, and mail fixes our attention and invites us to interpret it.

In this reading—and over the course of this book—I argue that we are summoned to gaze on the scene because it represents the clash of two Spanish cultures, the traditional order of Castile represented by the war cry “¡Santiago!” in line six versus the culture surrounding that cry: the culture that supports the poetic speaker’s arts of demonstration, and also the poetic artifact of the sonnet itself, the culture of the modern courtier represented by the speaker. As carefully as the first thirteen lines of the poem work to describe the battlefield, they also build up an image of the speaker who is showing it to us. We see that he is well educated in the conventions of rhetoric and the visual arts (painting, emblem), and we find that he knows the principal tropes and forms of the Renaissance poetic tradition as he describes a scene that alternates between a battlefield and a Petrarchan locus amoenus. The tone of his final commentary, bitter but accepting, identifies him with the dissembling and ultimately passive masculine behavior that came into fashion with the coalescence of the early modern state and the politicization of the aristocracy into creatures of the court. From Castiglione to Gracián, a principal sign of the courtier’s skill is his Stoic capacity to deflect passion into art. The poem’s speaker exhibits his courtliness by waiting until line 14 to unleash his vehement—but cultured, and ironic—lament about the degrading practice of modern war and the disaster that has befallen the second estate. That is, critics have tended to read Sonnet 45 as a protest against war; however, I would suggest that we refine that view, and find the speaker disgusted by two phenomena associated with contemporary battle. First is the rise of gun warfare through the middle part of the sixteenth century, as refinements to the harquebus made it the weapon of choice in the European wars after Pavia (1526).

Second is the symbolic violence that the gunpowder revolution and the turn to a mercenary fighting force enacted on Spain’s elite warrior caste. As the nobility were moved away from the front, their place was taken by a combination of professional soldiers and commoners bought or coerced into military service. This shift protected the lives of the scions of the noble houses, but it also greatly diminished the traditional role of the aristocracy within Spanish society. This bit of historical context helps us explain Aldana’s reference to corruption (corrompida, line 9) and his use of noble in line 14. The noble practice of war is no longer noble when it is fought in modern terms, even if one is fighting the infidel, and charges to the traditional Castilian shout of “¡Santiago!” The speaker invites us to reflect on this fact as he sets the corrupted scene before us.

But he also invites us to contemplate how the tensions between traditional and contemporary culture are identified with specific kinds of poetry. Sonnet 45 represents two genres of poetry in contention for control of its landscape. The conflict manifests itself, first, in the speaker’s style of description, which, phrased as contradictions (“otro aquí no se ve que”), contrasts our expectation of a lover’s meadow with a stinking, muddy field that is more proper to the gory scenes that enliven epic and ballad than it is to the sonnet. But it is in line 12, in our encounter with the mass of flesh and bone that transfixes us after the speaker has skillfully led us to “touch” it, that the clash emerges most clearly. For while certainly the courtly Petrarchan tradition contains a discourse of fragmented bodies, conventionally those bodies are female and appear as eroticized fragments represented through proliferations of comparison to jewels, metals, stars, and the sun. The body part we find in line 12 almost certainly belongs to a man, since it is wearing chain mail; furthermore, it is represented without recourse to metaphor. Finally, we encounter it through the base sense of touch, as opposed to through the exalted sense of sight that is the key to Petrarchan tropes of Neo-Platonic sublimation. All of these elements contribute to the sense that line 12 is playing with a reversal of Petrarchan expression and that the pulverized bone and the clumps of flesh represent a deliberate inversion—or perhaps it is better to say perversion—of sonnet-speech, an “anti-blazon.” This reversal of conventions in turn invites us to notice another significant structuring feature of the sonnet, namely, that it is a work of anamorphosis that inscribes two perspectives, one keyed to the tradition of Santiago and the noble Castilian warrior, the other to the courtier, to the sonnet, and to Petrarchism. The courtier’s culture is stronger. The poem “produces” a courtier, in the form of the beschouwer, as we have seen. Moreover, the poem is a sonnet, so the courtier’s tradition wins the contest. But this fact enables us to interpret line 12 as representing more than a heap of flesh and bone. Viewed from the alternate sight line, Castilian tradition, it emerges as the remains of the heroic fighting arm, the diestro braço wielded by the noble Castilian knight. This arm, which figures frequently in epic and ballad poetry, is the “other” of the graceful and gesturing arm of the beschouwer, which is what finally confirms to us that it is the diestro braço that we are seeing, but not reading, because that arm is illegible from the perspective of the poem’s modern, courtierized culture. For one thing, it has been exploded by guns. For another, it is irretrievably distorted by the culture of the courtier and by his conventions of speech. Despite the formal brevity of the “new” Italianate lyric adopted into Spanish courtly society in the sixteenth century, writers such as Juan Boscán or Fernando de Herrera would defend it as endlessly capacious (“capaz de contener cualquier tipo de materia” [“capable of containing whatever material whatsoever”] as Boscán put it, in his “Letter” to the Duchess of Soma). In fact, as we will see over the course of this book, the new lyric did something rather different: it substituted the plenitudinous, expansive “all” that was preserved and transmitted within Castilian culture in bardic song, epic, and ballad with “all that was necessary” to speak and write in order to be viable and legible as a subject within the coalescing Hapsburg state. Ultimately, Sonnet 45 represents Petrarchism, the mode of poetry that is aligned with modernity and with courtierization, as imbued, through its association with these forces, with the power to suppress Castilian tradition and its principal poetic formulas. Aldana’s sonnet testifies to that transformation, even as its speaker accepts the violence and manages it with the grace expected of the courtier, transforming his disenchantment into art and revealing the resulting scene to us with his good arm. But the diestro braço still subtends the vision, as so many deformed but seductive objects strewn across the field.

Having decoded the dense, elaborate, and highly rhetoricized poem that is Sonnet 45 and having identified it as offering a vision of a joined crisis in Spanish masculine identity and in poetry, we are in a position to review our attitudes about both the early modern sonnet and the wider phenomenon of the new lyric. Over the course of this book I will consider the impact of this genre, which, in the second half of the century, especially, became a virtual emblem of state and imperial power. In addition, I will reflect in particular on the sonnet, arguing for how this minor and apparently stable—even lifeless—form came to be associated with the forces of subjection, courtierization, and restraint in the early modern era. Chapter 1 examines how the writers Hernando de Acuña (1514–1580), Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (1503–1575), and Cristobal de Castillejo (1490–1550) engaged with the ideologies and the implicit politics inscribed within the new lyric by means of a trope I call “sonnetization.” In Chapter 2, I consider these same ideologies as they inform an attempt by Juan Boscán (1487–1542) to constrain and rationalize song. In the final part of the chapter, I take up Elegy 2 and Sonnet 33 by Garcilaso de la Vega (1500–1536), both of which systematically dismantle these constraints and thereby demonstrate another aspect of the new art, namely, the opportunities for resistance that are inscribed within discourse by the forces of poetry, even when this poetry is the reformed and abbreviated “new lyric.” Chapter 3 examines another mode of address to the mandates of Imperial Lyric, a collection of poems by Gutierre de Cetina (1514–1554), which I argue represent an incomplete pastoral text, most likely modeled on the Arcadia (1503) of Jacopo Sannazaro. Like Boscán, Cetina was engaged by the multiple levels of narration and allusion that were facilitated by the structure of the lyric sequence, and like Boscán, he sought to adapt the Petrarchan model to the specificities of modern Spanish courtier’s subjectivity. Unlike Boscán, Cetina figured the imperial courtier as subject to a complex and divided desire that was more suitably accommodated in a hybrid text than it was within the unifying schema of the Petrarchan Canzoniere.

Chapter 4 presents the heroic struggles that Fernando de Herrera carried on with the various subgenres of the lyric as marking a literary, if not a chronological, endpoint to the interpellation of poetry by institutions of early modern politics and power. Herrera is often framed as a belated Petrarchan; in U.S. and British criticism, especially, his 1580 Poesía de Garcilaso con anotaciones (Annotations to the Poetry of Garcilaso) and his richly illuminated and embellished sonnets and songs are treated as attempts to rival Italian poetic glory by instituting a new Spanish canon. In a departure from this view, I discuss Herrera’s writings in the context of the messianic triumphalism that was rife during the reign of Philip II, arguing that his elaborate mannerist aesthetics represent an attempted solution to what had become an impossible task, namely, representing the heroic Spanish virility of men who were radically subject to the Hapsburg political regime and the religious doctrines of the Counter-Reformation. Despite Herrera’s efforts, by the seventeenth century, many writers considered poetry to be a stale and outmoded discourse. This study concludes with a brief reading of a poem by Cervantes that presents the sonnet as the tomb of poetry.

This is a book about politics, about identity, about subjectivity, and about Spain. But most of all it is a book about poetry. I quote and discuss a great deal of poetry in this book. I do so, first, because with respect to the questions I am raising here, the poets “got there first.” Horace, who will emerge in these pages as the Roman father of courtierized lyric, forged his style and his poetic voice under the protection of his patron Maecenas, after having fought on the wrong side in the civil war. But in addition, one of my aims in this book is to shift the image that many non-Hispanists have of sixteenth-century peninsular lyric, as a genre devoted to Petrarchism and represented by the figure of Garcilaso de la Vega (some Hispanists hold this view as well). Petrarchism matters to this book. We will observe how writers draw on the Canzoniere as a resource as they negotiate their relationships to the shifting social and cultural circumstances in which they found themselves in the mid-sixteenth century. Garcilaso also matters. He will appear as a man of arms and letters who engaged the noble and the ignoble circumstances of warfare with the best poetic resources available to him at the time. But generally this book presents noncanonical poems that, while (nearly) all in print and available in reasonably modern critical editions, may not be familiar to readers. I foreground them to broaden the sample of Spanish lyric available to non-Spanish-speaking readers. To this end, I have provided paraphrases of the poems discussed here and have done my best to convey their tone and style. Where a writer has employed a double meaning, I have provided both meanings in a note.

This study is not comprehensive. I pay close attention to a select group of writers, omitting others who, although I wanted them to find a place in these pages, did not engage with the lyric tradition in a way that made it possible for me to include them. What did seem important was to take a category of cultural production that has in recent years been considered resolved as “merely” literary or aesthetic and to show what happens when we read it back into its social and ideological contexts. The results call attention to the fundamental role played by poetry in the reorientation of Europeans toward modernity.

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