martes, 24 mayo 2022

David Thatcher Gies

Boston: Twayne, 1979, 184 pp.

[From Hispanic Review, vol. 49, no. 3, 1981, pp. 359-361.]


For many a Spanish writer the Twayne series has provided the only book available in English. For some, the series has given us the only book in any language devoted exclusively to a single writer. Such is the case of David Gies’s study of Nicolás Fernández de Moratín, whose merits as a writer were long unexplored by critics. 

Mesonero Romanos said of Don Nicolás that his best “work” was his son Leandro (Manual... de Madrid, 3rd ed. [Madrid, 1844], p. 63). Gies disarms this attempt— similar to others on the part of the Romantics —to disparage an eighteenth-century writer. He has incorporated into his study the results of his own investigations as well as those of other scholars who recently have been calling to our attention the works of this man of letters who loomed large in his own time and then was neglected.

At the beginning of this century, Menéndez y Pelayo included one poem by Don Nicolás in Las cien mejores poesías (líricas) de la lengua castellana ([Philadelphia, 1908], pp. 151-61). 

It was, of course, the best known of all the famed quintillas, “Fiesta de toros en Madrid,” but the version he chose was the short one, which we now know was drastically revised by Leandro (Gies, pp. 89-95). It was the two versions of this poem that caused José María Cossío to describe our concept of Nicolaás as “desdibujado y borroso” and the writer as “[uno] de los poetas cuyos textos desorientan y confunden más” (Los toros: tratado técnico e histórico [Madrid, 1943- 1961], II, 263-64).

Gies in his book does much to improve our perception of Nicolás. Manuals of literature portray him as the cold, Neoclassical writer. Gies shows us the passionate poet. Lovers of Calderón see him as the enemy who supported a government ban on the performance of autos sacramentales, forgetting that vital renovation in the genre had long since ceased. Critics have described him as a slavish imitator of European models and have conveniently overlooked his most significant pronouncement, as he was quoted by Leandro, on the imitation of literary models. When a gentleman sought his advice on which poets of which nations he should include in his personal library, Nicolás told him: “Griegos y españoles, latinos y españoles, italianos y españoles, franceses y españoles, ingleses y españoles” (Obras postumas [Barcelona, 1821], p. xxxvi).

Gies has successfully evaluated Don Nicolás as a poet and as a man of letters. I am not satisfied that he has given the man his due as a dramatic writer. I could not claim for Nicolás an important place in dramatic literature; his own son Leandro observed that his comedy La petimetra lacked the important ingredient of vis cómica (BAE., II, 316). Still, I believe that José Caso González, whom Gies cites (Ch. iv, n. 10), pursued a more positive approach to La petimetra when he studied it as an example of Spanish rococo. When Nicolás wrote Hormesinda—a tragedy set deep in Spain’s past between the fall of Visigothic Spain and the beginning of the Reconquest—he performed a service for an incipient Spanish Romanticism similar to that rendered by Juan de la Cueva to the Golden Age two centuries earlier. Afterward, from Quintana to Zorrilla, we have a series of plays on Pelayo, Rodrigo, and their contemporaries.

Gies’s appraisal of Guzmán el Bueno is largely negative. Yet the play has merits; Leandro observed that “en su lectura hallan los inteligentes muchas qualidades dignas del mayor elogio” (in Nicolás’s Obras postumas, p. xliii). Isabel Millé Jiménez, in “Guzman el Bueno en la historia y en la literatura” (Revue Hispanique, 78 [1930], 410), praised the noble style and the grandeur of certain scenes. She also noted that Don Nicolás foreshadowed a Romantic trend by introducing elements of local color in this play, as he had also done in his poems. We may further emphasize his creative solution to a problem posed by his adherence to Neoclassical principles —in this case, unity of place— and the historical situation he was portraying: how might he portray both the besieged ramparts of Tarifa and the Moorish encampment outside the walls? He proposed a method for the scenic designer to execute: “Vista de Tarifa algo alta, y a un lado acampamento del Moro” (I cite from the first edition [Madrid, 1777], p.13). In the dedication to the contemporary descendant of his hero, Nicolás expatiated on his solution to the problem: “La unidad de lugar no está quebrantada, aunque se representa el suceso en el muro y acampamento, porque el auditorio se supone estar en el adarve de Tarifa, desde donde oye y ve quanto pasa en ambas partes bien contiguas; mayormente considerando el antiguo modo de sitiar las plazas tan diferente del moderno, pues se hablaban unos y otros. Pero es menester tropezar con quien sepa disponer el teatro, y entonces no le faltará verosimilitud ni visualidad” (pp. 7-8). If we visualize what he proposes, we find ourselves before a scene much like those described in great detail in Spanish Romantic dramas such as Martínez de la Rosa’s Aben Humeya or the Duque de Rivas’s Don Alvaro.

Despite these reservations, I find that Gies’s book represents a significant step in rehabilitating for our times, and for the first time since Don Nicolás’s own century, an important man of letters. Gies has organized what we have known about Nicolás, and he has enlarged our vision of the man and the poet. Knowledge increases our respect for the writer’s achievement and sends us back to the texts. What we still sorely lack is a critical, or at least a careful, modern edition of the complete works to replace our dependence on the outmoded volume two of the Biblioteca de Autores Españoles.


The University of Georgia



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