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Seventeenth-Century Spanish Poetry: The Power of Artifice.

Arthur Terry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. xiv + 300 pp. $54.95.

From 1543, the publication date of Boscan and Garcilaso de la Vega's radically novel lyrics, to 1695, the year Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, the greatest of colonial poets, died in Mexico City, Spanish poetry achieved a level of cultivation and breadth of linguistic sophistication unequaled by any other Renaissance literature save perhaps England's, whose prose narrative nevertheless is substantially indebted to the Spanish. Expanding upon his previous studies, Professor Terry's book focuses on the latter half of the Golden Age known also as the Baroque period, and brings to fruition a distinguished career dedicated not only to Renaissance and Baroque Castilian lyrics, but to Medieval and modern Catalonian poetry. At once imposingly erudite and invitingly written, Terry's nine chapters propose to explicate the complex rhetorical and stylistic movements that carried Spanish poetry forward from its roots in the Medieval cancioneros ("The Inheritance," "Theory and Practice") and its dazzling reworkings of the Petrarchan tradition by Gongora ("The Poetry of Transformation") to Lope de Vega ("Re-Writing a Life"), Quevedo ("The Force of Eloquence") and other more minor poets, ending with a final, spectacular explosion in the prolific writings of the Mexican nun ("The End of a Tradition").

Although four of the chapters are dedicated to the work of individual poets, Terry breaks momentarily from his overarching pattern of the Spanish lyric's greatness and decline to address the literary epic in chapter seven, where he demonstrates his profound knowledge of Classical and Italian exemplars. Moreover, his overview of numerous little-studied poets (among them, Medrano, Arguijo, Espinoza, and Polo de Medina) in chapters five and eight is of particular value to specialists. Testifying to its author's command of Baroque poetry, poetics, and literary history, the study evinces both the foremost qualities and the limitations of the dominant branch of British Hispanism best represented by the late scholars Alexander A. Parker and Edward M. Wilson, whose ideology concurred with the tenets of nationalist literary histories and whose critical approach embraced a highly moralistic variant of liberal humanism. In keeping with this tradition, Terry dispenses with the ahistorical source studies typical of scholars professing to lay claim to the Renaissance forma mentis and its mundus significans. His interest lies mainly in the rhetorical accomplishment of the poems, their intertextual relations (in the Kristevan sense), and the poets' efforts (for him, generally successful) to create and integrate their "selves" primarily through their writings.

The book succeeds admirably in narrating the literary history of Spanish poetry during its most exceptional period; put simply, no other study today covers the subject matter quite so eloquently nor so thoroughly. My sole complaint -- and it is admittedly a selfish one -- centers on Terry's indifference to recent critical theories, especially those that have gained ground in the United States. Terry nods but slightly to recent cultural studies of Renaissance poetry (T.M. Greene, S. Greenblatt) and to deconstructionist and neo-marxian approaches (P.J. Smith, J. Beverley). While this detachment grants the study its cohesiveness, it also isolates Golden Age poetry even more from the critical dialogue that is currently revitalizing Renaissance studies by taking seriously such previously ignored issues as the Baroque lyric's Bloomian anxiety of influence, its construction of aristocratic subjectivity, and its relentless masculinization with the concomitant appropriation of woman as silenced object. Terry's oversight of the latter is ironically most conspicuous in his last chapter on Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, whose disturbing amatory lyrics, he admits, emerged in a distinctly masculine environment (239). Yet in a curious turn of phrase, he welcomes Octavio Paz's "sureness of touch" (245) in neutralizing the nun's love poems to the Condesa de Paredes.

My apprehensions regarding Terry's disengagement from recent theories is in no way intended to diminish the significance of his study. As a brilliant exponent of the best of British criticism, Terry's book should be required reading for all students of the period. And for scholars unfamiliar with the literature, it offers sound reason to discover for themselves the rich tradition of Spanish Baroque poetry, whose remarkable rhetorical and aesthetic power, they will find, may be ignored only at great loss.
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Author:Cruz, Anne J.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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