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Miqeul de Cervantes >> Don Quixote (page 4)


No doubt it was received with something more than coldness bycertain sections of the community. Men of wit, taste, anddiscrimination among the aristocracy gave it a hearty welcome, but thearistocracy in general were not likely to relish a book that turnedtheir favourite reading into ridicule and laughed at so many oftheir favourite ideas. The dramatists who gathered round Lope as theirleader regarded Cervantes as their common enemy, and it is plainthat he was equally obnoxious to the other clique, the culto poets whohad Gongora for their chief. Navarrete, who knew nothing of the letterabove mentioned, tries hard to show that the relations betweenCervantes and Lope were of a very friendly sort, as indeed they wereuntil "Don Quixote" was written. Cervantes, indeed, to the lastgenerously and manfully declared his admiration of Lope's powers,his unfailing invention, and his marvellous fertility; but in thepreface of the First Part of "Don Quixote" and in the verses of"Urganda the Unknown," and one or two other places, there are, if weread between the lines, sly hits at Lope's vanities and affectationsthat argue no personal good-will; and Lope openly sneers at "DonQuixote" and Cervantes, and fourteen years after his death gives himonly a few lines of cold commonplace in the "Laurel de Apolo," thatseem all the colder for the eulogies of a host of nonentities whosenames are found nowhere else.

In 1601 Valladolid was made the seat of the Court, and at thebeginning of 1603 Cervantes had been summoned thither in connectionwith the balance due by him to the Treasury, which was stilloutstanding. He remained at Valladolid, apparently supportinghimself by agencies and scrivener's work of some sort; probablydrafting petitions and drawing up statements of claims to be presentedto the Council, and the like. So, at least, we gather from thedepositions taken on the occasion of the death of a gentleman, thevictim of a street brawl, who had been carried into the house in whichhe lived. In these he himself is described as a man who wrote andtransacted business, and it appears that his household thenconsisted of his wife, the natural daughter Isabel de Saavedra alreadymentioned, his sister Andrea, now a widow, her daughter Constanza, amysterious Magdalena de Sotomayor calling herself his sister, for whomhis biographers cannot account, and a servant-maid.

Meanwhile "Don Quixote" had been growing in favour, and its author'sname was now known beyond the Pyrenees. In 1607 an edition was printedat Brussels. Robles, the Madrid publisher, found it necessary tomeet the demand by a third edition, the seventh in all, in 1608. Thepopularity of the book in Italy was such that a Milan bookseller wasled to bring out an edition in 1610; and another was called for inBrussels in 1611. It might naturally have been expected that, withsuch proofs before him that he had hit the taste of the public,Cervantes would have at once set about redeeming his rather vaguepromise of a second volume.

But, to all appearance, nothing was farther from his thoughts. Hehad still by him one or two short tales of the same vintage as thosehe had inserted in "Don Quixote" and instead of continuing theadventures of Don Quixote, he set to work to write more of these"Novelas Exemplares" as he afterwards called them, with a view tomaking a book of them.

The novels were published in the summer of 1613, with a dedicationto the Conde de Lemos, the Maecenas of the day, and with one ofthose chatty confidential prefaces Cervantes was so fond of. Inthis, eight years and a half after the First Part of "Don Quixote" hadappeared, we get the first hint of a forthcoming Second Part. "Youshall see shortly," he says, "the further exploits of Don Quixoteand humours of Sancho Panza." His idea of "shortly" was a somewhatelastic one, for, as we know by the date to Sancho's letter, he hadbarely one-half of the book completed that time twelvemonth.

But more than poems, or pastorals, or novels, it was his dramaticambition that engrossed his thoughts. The same indomitable spirit thatkept him from despair in the bagnios of Algiers, and prompted him toattempt the escape of himself and his comrades again and again, madehim persevere in spite of failure and discouragement in his efforts towin the ear of the public as a dramatist. The temperament of Cervanteswas essentially sanguine. The portrait he draws in the preface tothe novels, with the aquiline features, chestnut hair, smoothuntroubled forehead, and bright cheerful eyes, is the very portrait ofa sanguine man. Nothing that the managers might say could persuade himthat the merits of his plays would not be recognised at last if theywere only given a fair chance. The old soldier of the SpanishSalamis was bent on being the Aeschylus of Spain. He was to found agreat national drama, based on the true principles of art, that was tobe the envy of all nations; he was to drive from the stage thesilly, childish plays, the "mirrors of nonsense and models of folly"that were in vogue through the cupidity of the managers andshortsightedness of the authors; he was to correct and educate thepublic taste until it was ripe for tragedies on the model of the Greekdrama- like the "Numancia" for instance- and comedies that would notonly amuse but improve and instruct. All this he was to do, could heonce get a hearing: there was the initial difficulty.

He shows plainly enough, too, that "Don Quixote" and thedemolition of the chivalry romances was not the work that lay next hisheart. He was, indeed, as he says himself in his preface, more astepfather than a father to "Don Quixote." Never was great work soneglected by its author. That it was written carelessly, hastily,and by fits and starts, was not always his fault, but it seems clearhe never read what he sent to the press. He knew how the printershad blundered, but he never took the trouble to correct them whenthe third edition was in progress, as a man who really cared for thechild of his brain would have done. He appears to have regarded thebook as little more than a mere libro de entretenimiento, an amusingbook, a thing, as he says in the "Viaje," "to divert the melancholymoody heart at any time or season." No doubt he had an affection forhis hero, and was very proud of Sancho Panza. It would have beenstrange indeed if he had not been proud of the most humorouscreation in all fiction. He was proud, too, of the popularity andsuccess of the book, and beyond measure delightful is the naivete withwhich he shows his pride in a dozen passages in the Second Part. Butit was not the success he coveted. In all probability he would havegiven all the success of "Don Quixote," nay, would have seen everycopy of "Don Quixote" burned in the Plaza Mayor, for one suchsuccess as Lope de Vega was enjoying on an average once a week.

And so he went on, dawdling over "Don Quixote," adding a chapternow and again, and putting it aside to turn to "Persiles andSigismunda" -which, as we know, was to be the most entertaining bookin the language, and the rival of "Theagenes and Chariclea"- orfinishing off one of his darling comedies; and if Robles asked when"Don Quixote" would be ready, the answer no doubt was: En breve-shortly, there was time enough for that. At sixty-eight he was as fullof life and hope and plans for the future as a boy of eighteen.

Nemesis was coming, however. He had got as far as Chapter LIX, whichat his leisurely pace he could hardly have reached before October orNovember 1614, when there was put into his hand a small octavelately printed at Tarragona, and calling itself "Second Volume ofthe Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha: by the LicentiateAlonso Fernandez de Avellaneda of Tordesillas." The last half ofChapter LIX and most of the following chapters of the Second Part giveus some idea of the effect produced upon him, and his irritation wasnot likely to be lessened by the reflection that he had no one toblame but himself. Had Avellaneda, in fact, been content with merelybringing out a continuation to "Don Quixote," Cervantes would have hadno reasonable grievance. His own intentions were expressed in the veryvaguest language at the end of the book; nay, in his last words,"forse altro cantera con miglior plettro," he seems actually to invitesome one else to continue the work, and he made no sign until eightyears and a half had gone by; by which time Avellaneda's volume was nodoubt written.

In fact Cervantes had no case, or a very bad one, as far as the merecontinuation was concerned. But Avellaneda chose to write a preface toit, full of such coarse personal abuse as only an ill-conditionedman could pour out. He taunts Cervantes with being old, with havinglost his hand, with having been in prison, with being poor, with beingfriendless, accuses him of envy of Lope's success, of petulance andquerulousness, and so on; and it was in this that the sting lay.Avellaneda's reason for this personal attack is obvious enough.Whoever he may have been, it is clear that he was one of thedramatists of Lope's school, for he has the impudence to chargeCervantes with attacking him as well as Lope in his criticism on thedrama. His identification has exercised the best critics and baffledall the ingenuity and research that has been brought to bear on it.Navarrete and Ticknor both incline to the belief that Cervantes knewwho he was; but I must say I think the anger he shows suggests aninvisible assailant; it is like the irritation of a man stung by amosquito in the dark. Cervantes from certain solecisms of languagepronounces him to be an Aragonese, and Pellicer, an Aragonese himself,supports this view and believes him, moreover, to have been anecclesiastic, a Dominican probably.

Any merit Avellaneda has is reflected from Cervantes, and he istoo dull to reflect much. "Dull and dirty" will always be, Iimagine, the verdict of the vast majority of unprejudiced readers.He is, at best, a poor plagiarist; all he can do is to followslavishly the lead given him by Cervantes; his only humour lies inmaking Don Quixote take inns for castles and fancy himself somelegendary or historical personage, and Sancho mistake words, invertproverbs, and display his gluttony; all through he shows aproclivity to coarseness and dirt, and he has contrived to introducetwo tales filthier than anything by the sixteenth century novellieriand without their sprightliness.

But whatever Avellaneda and his book may be, we must not forgetthe debt we owe them. But for them, there can be no doubt, "DonQuixote" would have come to us a mere torso instead of a completework. Even if Cervantes had finished the volume he had in hand, mostassuredly he would have left off with a promise of a Third Part,giving the further adventures of Don Quixote and humours of SanchoPanza as shepherds. It is plain that he had at one time an intentionof dealing with the pastoral romances as he had dealt with the booksof chivalry, and but for Avellaneda he would have tried to carry itout. But it is more likely that, with his plans, and projects, andhopefulness, the volume would have remained unfinished till his death,and that we should have never made the acquaintance of the Duke andDuchess, or gone with Sancho to Barataria.

From the moment the book came into his hands he seems to have beenhaunted by the fear that there might be more Avellanedas in the field,and putting everything else aside, he set himself to finish off histask and protect Don Quixote in the only way he could, by killing him.The conclusion is no doubt a hasty and in some places clumsy pieceof work and the frequent repetition of the scolding administered toAvellaneda becomes in the end rather wearisome; but it is, at anyrate, a conclusion and for that we must thank Avellaneda.

The new volume was ready for the press in February, but was notprinted till the very end of 1615, and during the interval Cervantesput together the comedies and interludes he had written within thelast few years, and, as he adds plaintively, found no demand for amongthe managers, and published them with a preface, worth the book itintroduces tenfold, in which he gives an account of the earlySpanish stage, and of his own attempts as a dramatist. It isneedless to say they were put forward by Cervantes in all good faithand full confidence in their merits. The reader, however, was not tosuppose they were his last word or final effort in the drama, for hehad in hand a comedy called "Engano a los ojos," about which, if hemistook not, there would be no question.

Of this dramatic masterpiece the world has no opportunity ofjudging; his health had been failing for some time, and he died,apparently of dropsy, on the 23rd of April, 1616, the day on whichEngland lost Shakespeare, nominally at least, for the English calendarhad not yet been reformed. He died as he had lived, accepting hislot bravely and cheerfully.

Was it an unhappy life, that of Cervantes? His biographers alltell us that it was; but I must say I doubt it. It was a hard life,a life of poverty, of incessant struggle, of toil ill paid, ofdisappointment, but Cervantes carried within himself the antidote toall these evils. His was not one of those light natures that riseabove adversity merely by virtue of their own buoyancy; it was inthe fortitude of a high spirit that he was proof against it. It isimpossible to conceive Cervantes giving way to despondency orprostrated by dejection. As for poverty, it was with him a thing to belaughed over, and the only sigh he ever allows to escape him is whenhe says, "Happy he to whom Heaven has given a piece of bread for whichhe is not bound to give thanks to any but Heaven itself." Add to allthis his vital energy and mental activity, his restless inventionand his sanguine temperament, and there will be reason enough to doubtwhether his could have been a very unhappy life. He who could takeCervantes' distresses together with his apparatus for enduring themwould not make so bad a bargain, perhaps, as far as happiness inlife is concerned.

Of his burial-place nothing is known except that he was buried, inaccordance with his will, in the neighbouring convent of Trinitariannuns, of which it is supposed his daughter, Isabel de Saavedra, was aninmate, and that a few years afterwards the nuns removed to anotherconvent, carrying their dead with them. But whether the remains ofCervantes were included in the removal or not no one knows, and theclue to their resting-place is now lost beyond all hope. Thisfurnishes perhaps the least defensible of the items in the charge ofneglect brought against his contemporaries. In some of the othersthere is a good deal of exaggeration. To listen to most of hisbiographers one would suppose that all Spain was in league not onlyagainst the man but against his memory, or at least that it wasinsensible to his merits, and left him to live in misery and die ofwant. To talk of his hard life and unworthy employments in Andalusiais absurd. What had he done to distinguish him from thousands of otherstruggling men earning a precarious livelihood? True, he was a gallantsoldier, who had been wounded and had undergone captivity andsuffering in his country's cause, but there were hundreds of others inthe same case. He had written a mediocre specimen of an insipidclass of romance, and some plays which manifestly did not complywith the primary condition of pleasing: were the playgoers topatronise plays that did not amuse them, because the author was toproduce "Don Quixote" twenty years afterwards?

Title: Don Quixote
Author: Miqeul de Cervantes
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