Lectures on the Harvard Classics. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
By Professor J. D. M. Ford
MIGUEL DE CERVANTES SAAVEDRA was born in the little Spanish university town of Alcalá de Henares, in 1547. His father was a poor physician with a large family and with somewhat nomadic propensities, haling his offspring about from Alcalá to various other cities, such as Valladolid, Madrid, and Seville. The chances are that Miguel did not receive a university training. It is conjectured, on fairly reasonable grounds, that he qualified for teaching and became a tutor in a school at Madrid. At all events, by 1569 he was attached to the train of the Italian prelate, Acquaviva, who had come to Spain as papal nuncio, and with the latter he went to Rome toward the end of that year.
He did not long remain there, for in 1570 he was a gentleman volunteer on one of the vessels which, under Don John of Austria, inflicted a crushing defeat upon the Turk at the battle of Lepanto. In the engagement Cervantes was wounded quite seriously in his left hand, which remained forever after somewhat crippled. Still, after a period of convalescence spent in Italy, he played a part in other campaigns. Wearying of warfare, he took ship for Spain in September of 1575, having first provided himself with letters of recommendation from his military superiors and the viceroy of Naples. These credentials, by means of which he had hoped to obtain preferment at home, proved to be his undoing, for his vessel was captured by Moorish pirates and he was carried off to Algiers, where, because of the terms of praise in which these letters spoke of him, he was deemed a person of high degree and held for an excessively large ransom.
As his family and his friends could not raise the exorbitant sum demanded for his release, he remained five years a captive at Algiers, passing through most varied experiences. Finally, as a result of a happy chance, he was liberated and could return to Spain. He has himself adverted to the manner of his life as a slave at Algiers in his play, El trato de Argel, and in the episode of El cautivo in Don Quixote, and tradition has even more to say respecting it. It would seem that he headed many attempts at escape on the part of the Christian captives and nevertheless was not subjected to the penalties for such attempts, of which empalement was the most usual. Possibly his captors regarded him as a madman and therefore, according to Mohammedan ideas, exempt from punishment for his offenses.
Back in Spain, he may have engaged again in military service for a brief period, but, at all events, by 1584 he had entered seriously upon a literary career, for in this year he had completed his pastoral romance, Galatea. This is a work of little merit, being as unnatural and tedious in its treatment of the life of shepherds and shepherdesses as are the many native and foreign works of its kind; yet, occasionally it does betray some real emotion, and it is thought to have brought to a happy termination his courtship of Catalina de Palacios. A man without private means, now facing the exigencies of married life, Cervantes conceived the idea of supplying his needs by providing plays for the Spanish stage, which was already entering upon its age of glory. The idea was a bad one, for of the more than a score of pieces composed by him at this time not one was either a dramatic or a financial success. Defeated in this purpose, he was fain to fall back upon the meager salary which he gained as a minor officer of the Royal Treasurer, for during some years after 1587 he was engaged in collecting provisions for the royal forces or in extracting taxes from reluctant subjects of the king.
The sober facts at our command would incline us to believe that Cervantes was leading a life of misery. No doubt he was, but in spite of this he was constantly producing lyric effusions in praise of one or another friend, or celebrating this or that event. Once for all be it said that as a lyric poet Cervantes occupies quite a minor rank; his verses are rarely imaginative or sprightly, and now and then, as when he strikes the solemn note, does he rise to any great poetic height. But Cervantes was not only versifying during all this time that he was meeting with misfortune in carrying out the duties of his humble public office; he was doing something vastly more important for us all; he was contemplating the composition of the Don Quixote. Legend has it that he wrote the Don Quixote in prison, but the legend is based on an unjustifiable interpretation of a passage in the Prologue to that novel. Still, the first thought of it may have occurred to him in the enforced leisure of some one of his incarcerations, although the chances are that the actual writing of the First Part extended over some years of the last decade of the sixteenth century and through the first three or four years of the seventeenth. In 1605 the first edition of the First Part appeared, and the story met with an acclaim which called forth speedily new editions at home and abroad, and no few translations into foreign languages.
But eleven years more of life remained for Cervantes, and during these, in so far as our knowledge goes, he met with no more worldly prosperity than in the past; although it is possible that his pecuniary distress was alleviated somewhat by modest returns from his books, and by the bounty of his patron, the Conde de Lemos. In one of the chapters of the First Part of the Don Quixote Cervantes mentions by name a little tale of roguish doings, the Rinconete y Cortadillo. This, his own composition, reappears with eleven additional short stories in the collection entitled Novelas ejamplares, which was issued from the press in 1612. Had he written nothing but the Exemplary Tales, his fame would be secure in the annals of Spanish literature. They were the best-framed short stories so far produced in Spanish; they are interesting and realistic, although at times brutally offensive to morality. One of the proofs of the interest that they excited abroad is to be found in the fact that English dramatists like Fletcher, Massinger, Middleton, and Rowley drew upon them for the plots of some of their plays.
While composing these dramatic pieces, Cervantes was carrying on apace a sequel to the First Part of the Don Quixote. This Second Part and conclusion of the story of the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza he completed hurriedly and published in 1615, upon learning that a spurious Second Part had been put forth at Tarragona in Aragon in 1614 by a person who masquerades under the pseudonym of Fernândez de Avellaneda, and whose identity remains an enigma. The days of Cervantes were drawing to their close, but he continued to labor to the end, and on his dying couch he put the finishing touches to a novel of love and adventurous travel, the Persiles y Sigismunda. On April 23, 1616, Cervantes passed away at Madrid, nominally on the same day as Shakespeare, but not precisely so on account of the difference still existing between the Spanish and the English calendar. His remains are supposed to rest in a community house of the Redemptionists in the Spanish capital.
For the modern world at large, the Don Quixote is that one among the works of Cervantes which exercises a paramount claim upon attention, and this it does both because it is the greatest novel as yet produced in the literatures of civilization and because it is the sole work of cosmopolitan importance that Spain has given to the rest of humanity. But in giving it Spain gave a noble gift, one which has brought unfeigned delight to the hearts and the minds of millions of human beings peopling both the Eastern and the Western Hemisphere, and this delight remains ever fresh although three centuries have passed since Don Quixote made his first sally forth.
Cervantes began the Don Quixote with the intention of making it a satirical burlesque of the romances of chivalry, which for more than a century before had beguiled the Spanish fancy with accounts of absurdly impossible deeds of derring-do. Their influence served only to entrance the Spanish mind, fascinating it with the glamour of aspects of mediævalism that had long since ceased to exist, and diverting its attention from the real world with its serious daily tasks. As a matter of fact, the sway of the chivalric romances had begun to weaken even before the close of the sixteenth century, but it was from the Don Quixote that they received their death stroke, for no new work of their kind appeared after the Don Quixote was published. How did Cervantes achieve his purpose? Simply by adopting the methods of the romance of chivalry and showing the falseness of their application to modern life; in a word, by demonstrating that they were out of date. But Cervantes built a structure far more grandiose than at first he had planned, for his work grew under his hand and, transcending the authors original intent, became a great modern novel which may be read and is generally read with intense interest by countless thousands who know not at all and care not at all that it is an attack upon a literary genre. Under Cervantess vagabond pen, says Morel-Fatio, a masterly critic of the work, governed only by the inspiration of the moment, his Don Quixote, issuing forth from a simple idea [that of ridiculing the novels of chivalry], of which no great development could have been expected, has become little by little the great social novel of the Spain of the beginning of the seventeenth century, in which all that marks this epoch, its sentiments, passions, prejudices, and institutions, has found a place. Hence the powerful interest of the book, which, independently of its value as a work of the imagination, and as an admirable treatise in practical philosophy, possesses in addition the advantage of fixing the state of civilization of a nation at a precise moment of its existence, and of showing us the depths of its conscience.