Castilian Days
by John Hay
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No one can read attentively even the Quixote without seeing how powerful an influence was exerted by his religion even upon the noble and kindly soul of Cervantes. He was a blind bigot and a devoted royalist, like all the rest. The mean neglect of the Court never caused his stanch loyalty to swerve. The expulsion of the Moors, the crowning crime and madness of the reign of Philip III., found in him a hearty advocate and defender. Non facit monachum cucullus,—it was not his hood and girdle that made him a monk; he was thoroughly saturated with their spirit before he put them on. But he was the noblest courtier and the kindliest bigot that ever flattered or persecuted.

In 1610, the Count of Lemos, who had in his grand and distant way patronized the poet, was appointed Viceroy of Naples, and took with him to his kingdom a brilliant following of Spanish wits and scholars. He refused the petition of the greatest of them all, however, and to soften the blow gave him a small pension, which he continued during the rest of Cervantes's life. It was a mere pittance, a bone thrown to an old hound, but he took it and gnawed it with a gratitude more generous than the gift. From this time forth all his works were dedicated to the Lord of Lemos, and they form a garland more brilliant and enduring than the crown of the Spains. Only kind words to disguised fairies have ever been so munificently repaid, as this young noble's pension to the old genius.

It certainly eased somewhat his declining years. Relieving him from the necessity of earning his daily crust, it gave him leisure to complete and bring out in rapid succession the works which have made him immortal. He had published the first part of Don Quixote in the midst of his hungry poverty at Valladolid in 1605. He was then fifty-eight, and all his works that survive are posterior to that date. He built his monument from the ground up, in his old age. The Persiles and Sigis-munda, the Exemplary Novels, and that most masterly and perfect work, the Second Part of Quixote, were written by the flickering glimmer of a life burnt out.

It would be incorrect to infer that the scanty dole of his patron sustained him in comfort. Nothing more clearly proves his straitened circumstances than his frequent change of lodgings. Old men do not move for the love of variety. We have traced him through six streets in the last four years of his life. But a touching fact is that they are all in the same quarter. It is understood that his natural daughter and only child, Isabel de Saavedra, entered the Convent of the Trinitarian nuns in the street of Cantarranas—Singing Frogs—at some date unknown. All the shifting and changing which Cervantes made in these embarrassed years are within a small half-circle, whose centre is his grave and the cell of his child. He fluttered about that little convent like a gaunt old eagle about the cage that guards his callow young.

Like Albert Duerer, like Raphael and Van Dyck, he painted his own portrait at this time with a force and vigor of touch which leaves little to the imagination. As few people ever read the Exemplary Novels,—more is the pity,—I will translate this passage from the Prologue:—

"He whom you see there with the aquiline face, chestnut hair, a smooth and open brow, merry eyes, a nose curved but well proportioned, a beard of silver which twenty years ago was of gold, long mustaches, a small mouth, not too full of teeth, seeing he has but six, and these in bad condition, a form of middle height, a lively color, rather fair than brown, somewhat round-shouldered and not too light on his feet; this is the face of the author of Galatea and of Don Quixote de la Mancha, of him who made the Voyage to Parnassus, and other works which are straying about without the name of the owner: he is commonly called Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra."

There were, after all, compensations in this evening of life. As long as his dropsy would let him, he climbed the hilly street of the Olivar to say his prayers in the little oratory. He passed many a cheerful hour of gossip with Mother Francisca Romero, the independent superior of the Trinitarian Convent, until the time when the Supreme Council, jealous of the freedom of the good lady's life, walled up the door which led from her house to her convent and cut her off from her nuns. He sometimes dropped into the studios of Carducho and Caxes, and one of them made a sketch of him one fortunate day. He was friends with many of the easy-going Bohemians who swarmed in the quarter,—Cristobal de Mesa, Quevedo, and Mendoza, whose writings, Don Miguel says, are distinguished by the absence of all that would bring a "blush to the cheek of a young person,"—

"Por graves, puros, castos y excelentes."

In the same street where Cervantes lived and died, the great Lope de Vega passed his edifying old age. This phenomenon of incredible fecundity is one of the mysteries of that time. Few men of letters have ever won so marvellous a success in their own lives, few have been so little read after death. The inscription on Lope's house records that he is the author of two thousand comedies and twenty-one million of verses. Making all possible deductions for Spanish exaggeration, it must still be admitted that his activity and fertility of genius were prodigious. In those days a play was rarely acted more than two or three times, and he wrote nearly all that were produced in Spain. He had driven all competitors from the scene. Cervantes, when he published his collection of plays, admitted the impossibility of getting a hearing in the theatre while this "monster of nature" existed. There was a courteous acquaintance between the two great poets. They sometimes wrote sonnets to each other, and often met in the same oratories. But a grand seigneur like Frey Lope could not afford to be intimate with a shabby genius like brother Miguel. In his inmost heart he thought Don Quixote rather low, and wondered what people could see in it. Cervantes, recognizing the great gifts of De Vega, and, generously giving him his full meed of praise, saw with clearer insight than any man of his time that this deluge of prodigal and facile genius would desolate rather than fructify the drama of Spain. What a contrast in character and destiny between our dilapidated poet and his brilliant neighbor across the way! The one rich, magnificent, the poet of princes and a prince among poets, the "Phoenix of Spanish Genius," in whose ashes there is no flame of resurrection; the other, hounded through life by unmerciful disaster, and using the brief respite of age to achieve an enduring renown; the one, with his twenty millions of verses, has a great name in the history of literature; but the other, with his volume you can carry in your pocket, has caused the world to call the Castilian tongue the language of Cervantes. We will not decide which lot is the more enviable. But it seems a poet must choose. We have the high authority of Sancho for saying,—

"Para dar y tener Seso ha menester."

He is a bright boy who can eat his cake and have it.

In some incidents of the closing scenes of these memorable lives there is a curious parallelism. Lope de Vega and Cervantes lived and died in the same street, now called the Calle de Cervantes, and were buried in the same convent of the street now called Calle de Lope de Vega. In this convent each had placed a beloved daughter, the fruit of an early and unlawful passion. Isabel de Saavedra, the child of sin and poverty, was so ignorant she could not sign her name; while Lope's daughter, the lovely and gifted Marcela de Carpio, was rich in the genius of her father and the beauty of her mother, the high-born Maria de Lujan. Cervantes's child glided from obscurity to oblivion no one knew when, and the name she assumed with her spiritual vows is lost to tradition. But the mystic espousals of the sister Marcela de San Felix to the eldest son of God—the audacious phrase is of the father and priest Frey Lope—were celebrated with princely pomp and luxury; grandees of Spain were her sponsors; the streets were invaded with carriages from the palace, the verses of the dramatist were sung in the service by the Court tenor Florian, called the "Canary of Heaven;" and the event celebrated in endless rhymes by the genteel poets of the period.

Rarely has a lovelier sacrifice been offered on the altar of superstition. The father, who had been married twice before he entered the priesthood, and who had seen the folly of errant loves without number, twitters in the most innocent way about the beauty and the charm of his child, without one thought of the crime of quenching in the gloom of the cloister the light of that rich young life. After the lapse of more than two centuries we know better than he what the world lost by that lifelong imprisonment. The Marquis of Mo-lins, director of the Spanish Academy, was shown by the ladies of the convent in this year of 1870 a volume of manuscript poems from the hand of Sor Marcela, which prove her to have been one of the most vigorous and original poets of the time. They are chiefly mystical and ecstatic, and full of the refined and spiritual voluptuousness of a devout young heart whose pulsations had never learned to beat for earthly objects. M. de Molins is preparing a volume of these manuscripts; but I am glad to present one of the seguidillas here, as an illustration of the tender and ardent fantasies of virginal passion this Christian Sappho embroidered upon the theme of her wasted prayers:—

Let them say to my Lover That here I lie! The thing of his pleasure, His slave am I.

Say that I seek him Only for love, And welcome are tortures My passion to prove.

Love giving gifts Is suspicious and cold; I have all, my Beloved, When thee I hold.

Hope and devotion The good may gain, I am but worthy Of passion and pain.

So noble a Lord None serves in vain,— For the pay of my love Is my love's sweet pain.

I love thee, to love thee, No more I desire, By faith is nourished My love's strong fire.

I kiss thy hands When I feel their blows, In the place of caresses Thou givest me woes.

But in thy chastising Is joy and peace, O Master and Love, Let thy blows not cease!

Thy beauty, Beloved, With scorn is rife! But I know that thou lovest me, Better than life.

And because thou lovest me, Lover of mine, Death can but make me Utterly thine!

I die with longing Thy face to see; Ah! sweet is the anguish Of death to me!

This is a long digression, but it will be forgiven by those who feel how much of beautiful and pathetic there is in the memory of this mute nightingale dying with her passionate music all unheard in the silence and shadows. It is to me the most purely poetic association that clings about the grave of Cervantes.

This vein of mysticism in religion has been made popular by the recent canonization of Saint Theresa, the ecstatic nun of Avila. In the ceremonies that celebrated this event there were three prizes awarded for odes to the new saint. Lope de Vega was chairman of the committee of award, and Cervantes was one of the competitors. The prizes it must be admitted were very tempting: first, a silver pitcher; second, eight yards of camlet; and third, a pair of silk stockings. We hope Cervantes's poem was not the best. We would rather see him carry home the stuff for a new cloak and pourpoint, or even those very attractive silk stockings for his shrunk shank, than that silver pitcher which he was too Castilian ever to turn to any sensible use. The poems are published in a compendium of the time, without indicating the successful ones; and that of Cervantes contained these lines, which would seem hazardous in this colder age, but which then were greatly admired:—

"Breaking all bolts and bars, Comes the Divine One, sailing from the stars, Full in thy sight to dwell: And those who seek him, shortening the road, Come to thy blest abode, And find him in thy heart or in thy cell."

The anti-climax is the poet's, and not mine.

He knew he was nearing his end, but worked desperately to retrieve the lost years of his youth, and leave the world some testimony of his powers. He was able to finish and publish the Second Part of Quixote, and to give the last touches of the file to his favorite work, the long pondered and cherished Persiles. This, he assures Count Lemos, will be either the best or the worst work ever produced by mortal man, and he quickly adds that it will not be the worst. The terrible disease gains upon him, laying its cold hand on his heart. He feels the pulsations growing slower, but bates no jot of his cheerful philosophy. "With one foot in the stirrup," he writes a last farewell of noble gratitude to the viceroy of Naples. He makes his will, commanding that his body be laid in the Convent of the Trinitarians. He had fixed his departure for Sunday, the 17th of April, but waited six days for Shakespeare, and the two greatest souls of that age went into the unknown together, on the 23d of April, 1616.

The burial of Cervantes was as humble as his christening. His bier was borne on the shoulders of four brethren of his order. The upper half of the coffin-lid was open and displayed the sharpened features to the few who cared to see them: his right hand grasped a crucifix with the grip of a soldier. Behind the grating was a sobbing nun whose name in the world was Isabel de Saavedra. But there was no scenic effort or display, such as a few years later in that same spot witnessed the laying away of the mortal part of Vega-Carpio. This is the last of Cervantes upon earth. He had fought a good fight. A long life had been devoted to his country's service. In his youth he had poured out his blood, and dragged the chains of captivity. In his age he had accomplished a work which folds in with Spanish fame the orb of the world. But he was laid in his grave like a pauper, and the spot where he lay was quickly forgotten. At that very hour a vast multitude was assisting at what the polished academician calls a "more solemn ceremony," the bearing of the Virgin of the Atocha to the Convent of San Domingo el Real, to see if peradventure pleased by the airing, she would send rain to the parching fields.

The world speedily did justice to his name. Even before his death it had begun. The gentlemen of the French embassy who came to Madrid in 1615 to arrange the royal marriages asked the chaplain of the Archbishop of Toledo in his first visit many questions of Miguel Cervantes. The chaplain happened to be a friend of the poet, and so replied, "I know him. He is old, a soldier, a gentleman, and poor." At which they wondered greatly. But after a while, when the whole civilized world had trans-lated and knew the Quixote by heart, the Spaniards began to be proud of the genius they had neglected and despised. They quote with a certain fatuity the eulogy of Montesquieu, who says it is the only book they have; "a proposition" which Navarrete considers "inexact," and we agree with Navarrete. He has written a good book himself. The Spaniards have very frankly accepted the judgment of the world, and although they do not read Cervantes much, they admire him greatly, and talk about him more than is amusing. The Spanish Academy has set up a pretty mural tablet on the facade of the convent which shelters the tired bones of the unlucky immortal, enjoying now their first and only repose. In the Plaza of the Cortes a fine bronze statue stands facing the Prado, catching on his chiselled curls and forehead the first rays of morning that leap over the hill of the Retiro. It is a well-poised, energetic, chivalrous figure, and Mr. Ger-mond de Lavigne has criticised it as having more of the sabreur than the savant. The objection does not seem well founded. It is not pleasant for the world to be continually reminded of its meannesses. We do not want to see Cervantes's days of poverty and struggle eternized in statues. We know that he always looked back with fondness on his campaigning days, and even in his decrepit age he called himself a soldier. If there were any period in that troubled history that could be called happy, surely it was the time when he had youth and valor and hope as the companions of his toil. It would have been a precious consolation to his cheerless age to dream that he could stand in bronze, as we hope he may stand for centuries, in the unchanging bloom of manhood, with the cloak and sword of a gentleman and soldier, bathing his Olympian brow forever in the light of all the mornings, and gazing, at evening, at the rosy reflex flushing the east,—the memory of the day and the promise of the dawn.


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