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MLN 122.2 (2007) 251-271

Góngora's Heresy:
Literary Theory and Criticism in the Golden Age
Sofie Kluge
University of Copenhagen


Like almost every cultural phenomenon of the period, Golden Age criticism appears as a peculiar mixture of classical and Christian elements. The Horatian and Aristotelian influence is often stressed by critics in order to legitimize their views by adopting a classicist attitude. However, in order to understand Golden Age classicism, which is, in fact, not all that classicist (at least not in the general understanding of the term), we need to acknowledge its determination by what may be termed the "Platonic-Christian bias" of Golden Age criticism. Plato's observations in the Republic concerning the moral-ethical and ontological problem of "tragic" poetry1 —its aesthetic qualities untold, for Plato's critique does not rely on aesthetic criteria—is, indeed, seminal if we wish to understand the particularly stern outlook of Golden Age criticism.2 In the specific cultural historical circumstances of the Counter Reformation period, when the proverbial Humanist enthusiasm with pagan literature and mythology was being contested by moralists of [End Page 251] all confessions, these observations acquired a topical actuality. Especially since they found a deep resonance in the recurring theological suspicion of "fiction," enhanced during the seventeenth century as a reaction to what may be termed the incipient "desacralization" of literature—i.e., the gradual development of a profane literary aesthetic (love poetry, the pastoral and bucolic genres, and the secular drama) under the influence of pagan antiquity. The traditional Christian means of reconciling the poets' "beautiful lies" with the ethical demands of theology—allegory or the interpretation a lo divino of profane texts—was put to the test; certain authors seemed more interested in delighting in the world of matter for its own sake than in producing the hidden divine meaning behind appearances in accordance with the Christian allegorical tradition. Adopting Plato's and Saavedra Fajardo's powerful metaphor, we may say that the Golden Age "literary republic" was in a state of emergency due to "civic insubmission," and whereas the Italian Humanists had made Aristotle's "vindication" of poetry (the affirmation in the Poetics 1451b, that poetry expresses a truth more universal than history) their mantra, the Spanish Golden Age critics now recurred to Plato's conviction that poetry is "three removes from the truth."

Apart from B. W. Ife's brilliant book, Reading and Fiction in Golden Age Spain (1985), the importance of Plato to Golden Age criticism has been largely neglected with the lamentable result that the famous literary feuds of the period appear as the mere stylistic pedantry of incomprehensive critics. This article proposes a reinterpretation of the polemics surrounding the publication of Luis de Góngora's first Soledad (1613) in light of the Platonic critique of literature, arguing that what was really at stake here was in fact the vital ideological question of the incipient emancipation of literature from the realm of theology. Behind the fervent classicist suppression of Góngora's aesthetic "errors" we find a Platonic-Christian suspicion of the persuasive power of "false" poetic language and the "immoral hedonism" of non-theological art (the poets' "beautiful lies").3

Rather than a critique of literature, Plato's critique of tragic poetry was in fact a critique of "bad" literature—i.e., of a literature which sets bad examples (without a didactic purpose). However, Plato's argument left very few indications of what an "admissible" literary aesthetics [End Page 252] would actually look like, although we do perceive a fundamental distinction between the poets' seductive "lies" and a "good" (didactic) literary art. In order to exercise this distinction, also seminal to the Christian tradition, Golden Age criticism appealed to classicism as a paradigm of stylistic censure and a means of regulating the rebellious elements of the literary republic: the classicist critics set in to regulate the standards of linguistic intercourse, to establish the rules that poets should follow in order to escape the rhetoric, materialist, or aestheticist...


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