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1. SPANISH LITERATURE AND ITS DIVISIONS.—At the period of the subversion of the Empire of the West, in the fifth century, Spain was invaded by the Suevi, the Alans, the Vandals, and the Visigoths. The country which had for six centuries been subjected to the dominion of the Romans, and had, adopted the language and arts of its masters, now experienced those changes in manners, opinions, military spirit, and language, which took place in the other provinces of the empire, and which, were, in fact, the origin of the nations which arose on the overthrow of the Roman power. Among the conquerors of Spain, the Visigoths were the most numerous; the ancient Roman subjects were speedily confounded with them, and their dominion soon extended over nearly the whole country. In the year 710 the peninsula was invaded by the Arabs or Moors, and from that time the active and incessant struggles of the Spanish Christians against the invaders, and their necessary contact with Arabian civilization, began to elicit sparks of intellectual energy. Indeed, the first utterance of that popular feeling which became the foundation of the national literature was heard in the midst of that extraordinary contest, which lasted for more than seven centuries, so that the earliest Spanish poetry seems but a breathing of the energy and heroism which, at the time it appeared, animated the Spanish Christians throughout the peninsula. Overwhelmed by the Moors, they did not entirely yield; a small but valiant band, retreating before the fiery pursuit of their enemies, established themselves in the extreme northwestern portion of their native land, amidst the mountains and the fastnesses of Biscay and Asturias, while the others remained under the yoke of the conquerors, adopting, in some degree, the manners and habits of the Arabians. On the destruction of the caliphat of Cordova, in the year 1031, the dismemberment of the Moslem territories into petty Independent kingdoms, often at variance with each other, afforded the Christians a favorable opportunity of reconquering their country. One after another the Moorish states fell before them. The Moors were driven farther and farther to the south, and by the middle of the thirteenth century they had no dominion in Spain except the kingdom of Granada, which for two centuries longer continued the splendid abode of luxury and magnificence.

As victory inclined more and more to the Spanish arms, the Castilian dialect rapidly grew into a vehicle adequate to express the pride and dignity of the prevailing people, and that enthusiasm for liberty which was long their finest characteristic. The poem of the Cid early appeared, and in the thirteenth century a numerous family of romantic ballads followed, all glowing with heroic ardor. As another epoch drew near, the lyric form began to predominate, in which, however, the warm expressions of the Spanish heart were restricted by a fondness for conceit and allegory. The rudiments of the drama, religious, pastoral, and satiric, soon followed, marked by many traits of original thought and talent. Thus the course of Spanish literature proceeded, animated and controlled by the national character, to the end of the fifteenth century.

In the sixteenth, the original genius of the Spaniards, and their proud consciousness of national greatness, contributed to the maintenance and improvement of their literature in the face of the Inquisition itself. Released by the conquest of Granada (1492) from the presence of internal foes, prosperous at home and powerful abroad, Spain naturally rose to high mental dignity; and with all that she gathered from foreign contributions, her writers kept much of their native vein, more free than at first from Orientalism, but still breathing of their own romantic land. A close connection, however, for more than one hundred years with Italy, familiarized the Spanish mind with eminent Italian authors and with the ancient classics.

During the seventeenth century, especially from the middle to the close, the decay of letters kept pace with the decline of Spanish power, until the humiliation of both seemed completed in the reign of Charles II. About that time, however, the Spanish drama received a full development and attained its perfection. In the eighteenth century, under the government of the Bourbons, and partly through the patronage of Philip V., there was a certain revival of literature; but unfortunately, parties divided, and many of the educated Spaniards were so much attracted by French glitter as to turn with disgust from their own writers. The political convulsions, of which Spain has been the victim since the time of Ferdinand VII., have greatly retarded the progress of national literature, and the nineteenth century has thus far produced little which is worthy of mention.

The literary history of Spain may be divided into three periods:—

The first, extending from the close of the twelfth century to the beginning of the sixteenth, will contain the literature of the country from the first appearance of the present written language to the early part of the reign of Charles V., and will include the genuinely national literature, and that portion which, by imitating the refinement of Provence or of Italy, was, during the same interval, more or less separated from the popular spirit and genius.

The second, the period of literary success and national glory, extending from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the close of the seventeenth, will embrace the literature from the accession of the Austrian family to its extinction.

The third, the period of decline, extends from the beginning of the eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth century, or from the accession of the Bourbon family to the present time.

2. THE LANGUAGE.—The Spanish Christians who, after the Moorish conquest, had retreated to the mountains of Asturias, carried with them the Latin language as they had received it corrupted from the Romans, and still more by the elements introduced into it by the invasion of the northern tribes. In their retreat they found themselves amidst the descendants of the Iberians, the earliest race which had inhabited Spain, who appeared to have shaken off little of the barbarism that had resisted alike the invasion of the Romans and of the Goths, and who retained the original Iberian or Basque tongue. Coming in contact with this, the language of those Christians underwent new modifications; later, when they advanced in their conquest toward the south and the east, and found themselves surrounded by those portions of their race that had remained among the Arabs, known as Mucarabes, they felt that they were in the presence of a civilization and refinement altogether superior to their own. As the Goths, between the fifth and eighth centuries, had received a vast number of words from the Latin, because it was the language of a people with whom they were intimately mingled, and who were much more intellectual and advanced than themselves, so, for the same reason, the whole nation, between the eighth and thirteenth centuries, received another increase of their vocabulary from the Arabic, and accommodated themselves in a remarkable degree to the advanced culture of their southern countrymen, and of their new Moorish subjects.

It appears that about the middle of the twelfth century this new dialect had risen to the dignity of being a written language; and it spread gradually through the country. It differed from the pure or the corrupted Latin, and still more from the Arabic; yet it was obviously formed by a union of both, modified by the analogies and spirit of the Gothic constructions and dialects, and containing some remains of the vocabularies of the Iberians, the Celts, the Phoenicians, and of the German tribes, who at different periods had occupied the peninsula. This, like the other languages of Southern Europe, was called originally the Romance, from the prevalence of the Roman and Latin elements.

The territories of the Christian Spaniards were divided into three longitudinal sections, having each a separate dialect, arising from the mixture of different primitive elements. The Catalan was spoken in the east, the Castilian in the centre, while the Galician, which originated the Portuguese, prevailed in the west.

The Catalan or Limousin, the earliest dialect cultivated in the peninsula, bore a strong resemblance to the Provencal, and when the bards were driven from Provence they found a home in the east of Spain, and numerous celebrated troubadours arose in Aragon and Catalonia. But many elements concurred to produce a decay of the Catalan, and from the beginning of the sixteenth century it rapidly declined. It is still spoken in the Balearic Islands and among the lower classes of some of the eastern parts of Spain, but since the sixteenth century the Castilian alone has been the vehicle of literature.

The Castilian dialect followed the fortune of the Castilian arms, until it finally became the established language, even of the most southern provinces, where it had been longest withstood by the Arabic. Its clear, sonorous vowels and the beautiful articulation of its syllables, give it a greater resemblance to the Italian than any other idiom of the peninsula. But amidst this euphony the ear is struck with the sound of the German and Arabic guttural, which is unknown in the other languages in which Latin roots predominate.