James Fitzmaurice-Kelly.

Cervantes in England online

. (page 1 of 3)
Online LibraryJames Fitzmaurice-KellyCervantes in England → online text (page 1 of 3)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook






OXFORD, 1905



Ik Commemoration of the Tercentenary of *Don Quixote'

Lord Reay, Your Exceixencies, and Gentlemen : —

My first duty is to express to the Council and to the members
of the British Academy my thanks for the distinguished honour
which they have done me in inviting me to address them on this
occasion of high international interest ; and my second duty is to
deliver to you, Lord Reay, a message from your learned brethren
who form the Royal Academy of Spain. As a member of that
ancient and illustrious body, desirous of associating itself with your
proceedings to-day, it falls to me to act as its spokesman^ and to con-
vey to you its fraternal greetings as well as its grateful recognition
of the prompt enthusiasm which has impelled you to take the lead in
honouring the most famous literary genius that Spain can boast.
You have met together here to do homage to one of the great men
of the world, and to commemorate the publication of the book with
which he endowed mankind just three hundred years ago. It is
in strict accordance with historic tradition that you, as the official
representatives of British culture, should be the first learned body in
Europe to celebrate this tercentenary, and I propose to show that,
since the first decade of the seventeenth century, this country has
been foremost in paying tribute to an amazing masterpiece. The
work has survived, no doubt, by virtue of its intrinsic and trans-
cendent merits ; but, like every other creation, it has had to struggle
for existence, and it is gratifying to us to remember that British
insight, British appreciation, British scholarship, and British muni-
ficence have contributed towards the speedier recognition of
Cervantes's genius. I will ask your permission, my Lord, to
demonstrate this restricted thesis instead of taking you and your
colleagues thi'ough the labyrinth of aesthetic criticism for which
the subtle ingenuity of three centuries is responsible. But it may


not be out of place to begin with a few words concerning the author
of Don Quixote and the circumstances in which his romance was

Many alleged incidents in his picturesque career have afforded
subjects to poets and dramatists and painters ; but these are exercises
in the domain of imagination, and the briefest summary of ascertained
facts will be more to my purpose. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
was born at AlcaU de Henares in 154-7. The son of a humble
apothecary-surgeon, without a university degree, and constantly
wandering from town to town in search of patients, Cervantes cannot
well have received a systematic education ; but we really know
nothing of his youth except that, at some date previous to 1569, he
composed copies of mediocre verses dedicated to Philip the Second's
wife, Isabel de Valois. He is next heard of as chamberlain to the
future Cardinal Acquaviva at Rome ; thence he passed into the army,
fought under Don John of Austria at Lepanto (where he received
the wound in his left hand which was to be a source of greater pride
to him than any of his writings), shared in the Navarino and Tunis
campaigns, and, after five years of service, set sail for Spain to seek
promotion. He was captured by Moorish pirates on September 26,
1575, and was carried into Algiers, where his heroic conduct won
him — not only the admiration of his fellow prisoners, but — the
respect of his taskmasters. After nearly five years of slavery in
Algiers, during which period he wrote verses (some of which have
been preserved), he was ransomed on September 19, 1580, returned to
Spain, was apparently employed in Portugal, married at the end
of 1584, and in the following year published the First Part of an
artificial and ambitious pastoral romance. La Galatea. At this time
he was writing numerous plays which, so he tells us, won popular
favour; evidently they were not so successful as their author
imagined in his retrospect, for in 1587 Cervantes sought and found
less congenial occupation in collecting provisions for the Invincible
Armada. It was ill-paid work, but it gave him bread, while
literature and the drama did not. This is his first association
with England, and it was no fault of his if the equipment of the
Armada was not complete, for he perquisitioned with such tem-
pestuous zeal as to incur a threat of excommunication from the
ecclesiastics whose stores he seized. He remained in the public
service as collector of revenues, not greatly to his own satisfaction
(to judge by his application for one of four posts vacant in America),
and not altogether to the satisfaction of his official superiors (to judge
from the fact that he was imprisoned at Seville in 1597 for irregu-


larities in his accounts). He was soon released, but apparently was
not reinstated. We cannot wonder at this : he had not the talent
for routine.

The next six or seven years must have been the dreariest period of
Cervantes's life. He lingered on in Seville, to all seeming ruined
beyond hope. But he was not embittered : ex forli dulcedo. The
alchemy of his genius was now free to work, free to transmute
his personal misfortunes into ore more precious than that which
the Spanish argosies brought from the mines of Potosi. In the
Triana and other poor quarters of Seville, he had daily oppor-
tunities of studying the originals of Gines de Pasamonte and of
Rinconete and Cortadillo, two diverting picaroons who perhaps came
into existence before Sancho Panza; and in Seville, from 1597 to
1603, he had time to compare the dreams of life with its realities.
All unconsciously he had undergone an admirable preparation for
the task which lay before him. The vicissitudes of his troubled
existence constituted an inexhaustible intellectual capital. To any
ordinary eye they might seem a collection of unmanageable dross,
but the man of genius wields a divining-rod which leads him through
the dusk to the spot where the hidden treasure lies ; and so it
happened with Cervantes. In the course of his long rides, collecting
the King''s taxes, he had observed the personages whom he has
presented so vividly as to make them real to each of us three
hundred years afterwards. It is the paramount faculty of imaginative
creation to force us to see through the medium of its transfiguring
vision, and we have the privilege of knowing Spain in Cervantes's
transcription of it. We accompany him in those journeys across
baking plains and sterile mountains and we meet the characters with
whom he was familiar. We cannot doubt that he had encountered
innkeepers who could cap a quotation from an ancient ballad, and who
delighted in the incredible adventures of Cirongilio of Thrace or of
Felixmarte of Hircania ; demure Toledan silk-mercers on the road to
Murcia, with their sunshades up to protect them against the heat ;
barbers who preferred Galaor to his more famous brother Amadis of
Gaul, and who were pleased to have Ariosto on their shelves even
though they could not read him ; Benedictine monks peering through
their travelling spectacles from the backs of mules as tall as drome-
daries; canons far better acquainted with the romances of chivalry
than with Villalpando's treatise on logic ; amorous and noble youths
from Aragdn, disguised as muleteers ; and perhaps a poor old-
fashioned gentleman who in some solitary hamlet pored and pored
over tales of chivalrous deeds till he persuaded himself that he


was born to repeat these exploits and to restore the golden age
— that happy time when maleficent giants were neatly divided at
the waist by knights whose hearts were pure, and who themselves
avoided similar inconveniences by timely recourse to Fierabras's
inestimable balsam, two drops of which joined to a nicety the
severed halves of a bisected paladin.

The time was coming when these casual acquaintances, embellished
by the sunniest humour and most urbane irony, were to find place in
Cervantes's rich portrait-gallery and were to be his glory as well as
our delight. While he was giving artistic form to his reminiscences
as chamberlain, soldier, slave, poet, romancer, dramatist, tax-gatherer,
and broken wanderer, his knowledge of life was continually extending.
The Treasury was constantly upon his track. What actually took
place is somewhat obscure : Cervantes was (probably) imprisoned once
more in 1598 and (almost certainly) again in 1601-2. It may have
been in Seville jail that he began to write what he describes as a story
' full of thoughts of all sorts and such as never came into any other
imagination — just what might be begotten in a prison, where every
misery is lodged and every doleful sound makes its dwelling.' What
is certain is that early in 1603 he was ordered to appear before the
Exchequer Court there to produce his vouchers and explain his
confused accounts. It was the most fortunate thing that could have
happened to him. We may be tolerably sure that the loose book-
keeping which had perplexed the Treasury clerks for years was not
made clear in an instant, and that Cervantes's examination was pro-
longed over a considerable period ; and it seems likely that, on one of
his journeys to and fro between Seville and Valladolid, he disposed
of a manuscript which had passed through many hands before it
found a publisher. This was the manuscript of Don Quixote.

The internal evidence of the book shows that Cervantes began
hesitatingly and tentatively, intending to write a comparatively
short story about a simple-hearted country-gentleman, mooning his
years away in some secluded hamlet till his craze for chivalrous
adventures led him into absurd situations which invited description
in a spirit of broad farce. The opening words of the sixth chapter
— El qual dormia — are awkwardly carried on from the fifth chapter,
and they go to show that no division of material was originally
contemplated. Moreover, we may say with some confidence that
the existence of the accomplished Sancho Panza is the result of
an afterthought; the idea probably occurred to Cervantes just
after penning the innkeeper's statement that knights were commonly
attended by squires. And it is curious to remark that the author


fails at first to visualize the figure of Sancho Panza; he falters
in the attempt to draw the short, ventripotent rustic, and as late
as the ninth chapter describes him as tall and long-shanked.
A long-shanked Sancho ! One would have said that such a being
was inconceivable had not his creator first seen him in that strange

The writer''s primary aim was to parody a class of literature
which, though no longer so much appreciated at court as in the
days of Juan de Valdes, or at the time when it seemed natural to
call California after the griffin-haunted island in Las Sergas de
Esplandidn^ still had its admirers in the provinces ; and the parody
is wholly admirable. But a mere parodist, as such, courts and
even condemns himself to oblivion, and, almost necessarily, the
more complete his success, the sooner he is forgotten by all save
students : the books which he ridicules perish, and the burlesque
dies with them. The very fact that Don Quixote survives is proof
that it outgrew the author's intention. Cervantes himself informs
us that his book is, 'from beginning to end, an attack upon the
romances of chivalry,' and we have no reason to justify us in rejecting
this statement. Still we must interpret it in relation to other
matters. Cervantes can never have meant to destroy so excellent
an example of the feudal prose epic as Amadis de Gaula, a long
romance which he must have known almost by heart : for in the
twentieth chapter he draws attention to the minute circumstance that
the taciturn Gasabcl, the squire of Galaor, ' is only named once in the
whole of that history, as long as it is truthful.' And no man charges
his memory with precise details of what he considers a mass of
grotesque extravagances, of egotistical folly, and vapouring rant.
The extravagances, the folly, and the rant which disfigure the
works of such writers as Feliciano de Silva are destroyed for ever.
What was sound and wholesome in the tales of chivalry is preserved
in Don Quixote : preserved, illuminated, and ennobled by a puissant
imagination playing upon a marvellously rich experience.

The Manchegan madman has his delusions, but he is deluded
on one point only : in all other respects he touches the realities
of life and he remains a perpetual model of conduct, dignified in
disaster, magnanimous in victory, keen in perception, subtle in
argument, wise in counsel. With him goes, as a foil to heroism,
Sancho Panza, that embodiment of calculating cowardice, malicious
humour, and prosaic common sense. This association of the man
abounding in ideas with the slower-witted, vulgar, practical person,
vaguely recalls the partnership of Peisthetairos and Euelpides ; and


Aristophanes himself has no happier touch than that which exhibits
Sancho Panza, aware that his master is too mad to be depended
on in any other matter, but yet convinced that he may certainly
be trusted to provide the unnamed nebulous island which the
shrewd, droll villager feels a statesmanlike vocation to govern.
Can we wonder that the appearance of this enchanting pair was
hailed with delight when the history of their sallies was published
at Madrid early in 1605 ? We know that it was ' the book of the
year,' that within some six months there were pirated editions in
Portugal, a second edition in Madrid, a provincial edition at Valencia,
and that by June people in Valladolid spoke of the adventurous knight
and his squire as though both were proverbial characters. Other
contemporary novels — Guzman de Alfarache, for instance — may
have had a larger circulation ; but the picaroon Guzman was (by
comparison) merely the comet of a season, while the renown of the
Ingenious Gentleman is more universal to-day than it has ever been.
His fame soon spread beyond the Pyrenees, and in 1607 a Brussels
publisher reprinted the original to meet the demands of the Spaniards
in the Low Countries. The book was thus brought within reach
of readers in the north of Europe, and they lost no time in profiting
by their opportunity. There are signs of Don Quixote in France
as early as 1608, but we may neglect them to-day, more especially
as there are still earlier traces of the book in this country.

We read of Richard Coeur-de-Lion helping to defend Santarem
against the Moors, of the Black Prince's battles in Spain, of two
or three thousand English pilgrims yearly visiting the shrine of
Santiago de Compostela, But the literary connexion between
the Peninsula and England was slight. Early in the fifteenth

1 3

Online LibraryJames Fitzmaurice-KellyCervantes in England → online text (page 1 of 3)