Rosalía de Castro
[24 February 1837—15 July 1885]
Regarded by many critics as the greatest of all Spain’s female poets, Rosalía – she was formerly widely known and referred to in Spain simply by her Christian name, although it seems this practice is now out of fashion – had an outwardly peaceful life. True, with five children to feed, the family’s income came nowhere near a level of affluence (although far from dirt poor) and Rosalía was burdened by bad health in her later years. [Rosalía actually had seven children, but the last was stillborn, and the second last lived only a year].
True also, that in her lifetime, Rosalía found herself a somewhat controversial figure in Spain; and I don’t doubt that her joust with the totally male-controlled literary establishment contributed to her premature death from cancer at the age of 48. Partly her present fame rests upon the fact that she was a strong champion of women’s rights long before Mrs Pankhurst (1858-1928) enlivened the British suffragette movement in 1903.
At first, Rosalía wrote poetry in what was regarded as the acceptable Spanish dialect (Castilian, to be exact). Her first small book of verse, La Flor [The Flower] was published in 1857. She received at least one highly enthusiastic review and in due course married the reviewer himself! Her next book, A mi madre [To My Mother], followed in 1863.
In that same year, 1863, however, Rosalía did a most daring thing. She brought out a book of poems entitled Cantares gallegos [Galician Songs], written entirely in her native dialect, Galician. This news soon reached Madrid, not only the capital of Spain but then as now, the center of Spanish culture. Leading literary figures in the capital were aghast that someone was actually trying to a revive a culture they despised. No-one had dared to write anything of literary worth in Galician for over a century. And to make matters worse, it was a woman who had thrown down the gauntlet and had thus dared to issue a challenge to the country’s all-male literary establishment.
Nonetheless, despite the outrage of her critics, Rosalía persisted. Her next book, Follas noves [New Leaves] (1884), was also written in Galician.
But then something dramatic happened. Perhaps Rosalía felt that she had effectively made her point. Perhaps she didn’t wish to go down in history simply as a woman who had challenged Madrid. For her fifth and final poetic endeavor, En las orillas del Sar [On the Banks of the River Sar] (1884), which came out shortly before her death from cancer the following year, she turned back to Castilian – and it is from this final collection that all the poems represented in this book are drawn.
In a way, it’s not altogether surprising that Rosalía’s work was rediscovered and re-assessed by leading Spanish writers and critics in the 20th century – especially as she was a woman, and, compared with other cultures, there are not exactly all that many women writers on the Spanish literary stage.