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The Transforming Text: A Study of Luis de Gongora's.

R. John McCaw, The Transforming Text: A Study of Luis de Gongora's

Soledades (Scripta Humanistica, 142.) Potomac, MD: 2000. 175 pp. $69.95. ISBN: 1-882528-32-8.

Sol Miguel Prendes, El espejo y el pielago: La Eneida castellana de Enrique de Villena

Kassel: Reichenberger, 1998. 306 pp. ISBN: 3-931887-49-2.

Gongora's allegedly unfinished Soledades (Solitudes; written between 1613 and 1618) was an extremely controversial poem, meriting lavish praise from its admirers and vituperation from its detractors. Along with the Fdbula de Polifemo y Galatea (Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea) it exemplifies the highpoint of the style of culteranismo -- ornate, sensuous, Latinate in its syntax and vocabulary, erudite in its classical references. Because of its intimate association with this poet, the term "Gongorism" was coined to refer to such poetry of the Spanish High Baroque.

Critics at the time of its publication berated the language of the poem for being obscure and convoluted, considered its "plot" pointless, repudiated the generic conflation of epic and pastoral conventions and the flouting of traditional decorum. And so on. The wanderings of a disdained lover following a shipwreck seemed but a mere pretext for elaborate descriptions of a variety of landscapes. Then, and in our own time, defenders of the Soledades have stressed the formal qualities of the poetry, admiring exactly what appalled Gongora's critics: the function of docere seems conspicuously absent, leaving only the function of delectare (possible, that is, only for the select few able to understand it). It is precisely the predominance of the aesthetic imperative over the anecdotic or didactic that led to the exaltation of Gongora by leading figures of the "Generation of 1927": Dimaso Alonso dedicated his exquisite analytical skills to the poem, making it more accessible; Federico Garcia Lorca lectured on "The P oetic Image in Don Luis de Gongora," praising above all the poet's skill at creating new and startling metaphors.

Yet Gongora himself, in a letter written in response to critics in 1613 or 1614, hinted at a hidden meaning, one that lay beneath the outer surface (corteza) of the Soledades. Harking back to the tradition of an Ovid "mysteriously meant," John McCaw seeks to uncover the message of the poem, which stylistic and source studies have tended to ignore (10). He takes into account recent studies and approaches, engaging in particular with John R. Berverley's ground-breaking Aspects of Gongora's Soledades (1980) that locates the work in a specific historical and political context. By his own admission McCaw is unabashedly old-fashioned in his approach: "a commentary-style explication de texte. "He asks his readers to join him in an intellectual journey through the subtleties and complexities of the poem. Chapter by chapter we follow the pilgrim's trajectory and encounters (with the goatherds, mountaineers, fishers, and hunters) in a landscape dominated by mutability. The overall plot is disclosed as one of "symbolic death and rebirth" (10), for "death and decadence accompany life and growth in all earthly settings: the hunt, the bucolic, the rustic, the piscatory, the courtly" (17). The end result -- and the lesson -- for the pilgrim, as for the reader, will be one of desengano, disillusionment with the vanities and pretensions of worldly things, in particular with courtly life as opposed to the ideal of mediocritas exemplified by the pastoral ethic. At times the reader might wish for a spot of fun on his/her journey. In the second of the Soledades the pilgrim and his guide come upon a beehive, and the queen bee is compared to Dido (2.287-94). It is explained that this allusion is related to the topic of mutability ("the mortal tragedy embedded in the allusion to Dido and Aeneas problematizes the fecundity so apparent within the hive"; 107). Surely the irreverent humor of a queen bee referred to as a "Dido alada" (winged Dido), who "sin corona vuela y sin espada" (who flies without a crown and without a sword) merits a moments attention?

The Transforming Text, written clearly and with sensitivity to details, will prove a most useful accompaniment to students of Gongora's Soledades. The argument is moderate and well reasoned. That there lurks a danger in too fierce a "reading for allegory" has been evident from the earliest commentaries of the poem (one extreme example being Serrano de Paz's exercise in 1636). In a footnote (169 n.5), Professor McCaw mentions Dutch still-life painting, in particular a vase of brilliant flowers, a few of which have wilted (Van Beyeren's "Flower-piece" ca. 1665). Is this, as is suggested in a study he quotes, a reminder of the transitoriness of life? Svetlana Alpers resists the current tide of an emblematic interpretation of Dutch art as reductive, and insists on the masterful painted surface as an art of description: "It is not a notion of hidden meanings that produces such works, but rather the notion of a world that is understood in terms of an assemblage of visibly accessible meanings" (122). What may be at issue, she adds, is rather "the deceptiveness of the representation itself" (Appendix, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, 1983). If we read the painted surface of the Soledades only to discover its hidden meaning, we may lose the splendor of its "art of describing."

The concept of a covering, or integumentum, beneath which lie hidden meanings is central to Villena's translation and commentary of Virgil's Aeneid. The fifteenth-century humanist, Enrique de Aragon, known more commonly as the Marquis of Villena, is noted for his works of erudition, but also for his dabbling in the occult sciences. This, in addition to his converso status (convert from Judaism) led to the burning of his library after his death in 1434. He claims to be the first to translate the whole text of the Aeneid into the vernacular, work that he began in 1427 and completed a year and twelve days later. Doubt has been expressed about his authorship of the translation of books four through twelve, but Pedro M. Catedra, in his publication of the complete works, includes these, though with some reservations. Criticisms of the quality of the translation (whether because of the translator's haste or linguistic deficiencies, dictation errors, or the poor quality of the Latin manuscript available to him) may have deflected interest away from this work, suggests Sol Miguel Prendes. As a result, Villena's glosses have merited little critical attention. This is the task that he sets out to accomplish in his scholarly study, El espejo y el pidlago. In his opinion, the translation, undertaken at the request of King John of Navarre, should not be read apart from the critical apparatus, an occurrence that Villena himself anticipated and repudiated (4). Villena considers the Aeneid an inspired text, "angelical" as he writes in the preliminary letter, and the purpose of his adaptation is to make the poem accessible (via such mechanisms as divisions into chapters with headings and summaries, including an elaborate punctuation guide that copyists did not follow). Pedagogical materials containing linguistic and rhetorical notes, historical, geographical, mythological explications are all means to an end: a discovering of the moral meaning of the poem, an illumination of its allegorical significance in Christian terms. Direct ed mainly to the king and nobles, the commentaries aim to achieve nothing less than a spiritual reform, stimulating the intellectual and ethical capacities of those whose responsibilities for the good order of the republic are greatest.

The discussion is organized according to three central themes, designated as follows: "exegesis" or the uncovering of moral truths or other forms of wisdom, where Villena supplements what he considers deficiencies of previous commentators, including Servius; "mirror," whereby Sol Prendes refers to Villena's creative conception of exegesis, according to which, in the image of Virgil, he himself is infused with a higher understanding and able to give voice to the poem's allegorical intention. Another mirroring effect that Villena seeks is that of the "learned" Emperor Augustus as model to the Spanish nobility and court. Still bound by a warrior mentality and suspicious of learning, the nobility, Villena suggests, rather than scorn the arts and sciences, should follow the example of the imperial court (157). In the final section entitled "mirror and pielago (which I interpret metaphorically as "mystical meaning"), moralizing exempla in the Aeneid are offered as a practical guide to personal and social behavior, and the deeper, spiritual drama is disclosed -- Aeneas as a sinner who repents and is redeemed by confession.

Sol Prendes's prose is dense, and one might wish for greater crispness in the textual elaborations. But the importance of Villena's contributions to this phase of early Humanism is made very clear. It would be interesting in the future to chart the varying political uses to which Virgil has been put in Spain at different times of its national self-definition, as Christopher Baswell has done in his Virgil in Medieval England (1995).
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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