Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer: Biography of a Legend and His Ghosts

Today, we're going to enter the fantastic and mysterious world of one of the most famous writers in Spanish literature, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. His personal life could well have as many secrets as his work does, and today we're going to talk about some of them.
Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer: Biography of a Legend and His Ghosts

Last update: 01 April, 2021

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer was the first adult author that many Spanish-speaking people read as teenagers. For many of them, he was a platonic love of their youth.

Bécquer, the greatest representative of Spanish Romanticism, is much more than a classic author. His life, his work, his moving verses, his magical influence, and the beauty of his entire works have captured the imagination of millions of people.

Today, we’re going to bring you a new perspective, somewhat different from what his biographers have often told us. We’re going to look at a version of his life and work that’s revolutionizing our perspective of Bécquer, for better or for worse.

Mariano Fernández Urresti, a prestigious historian and researcher, has submerged us once again in the life of the poet with his novel The Ghosts of Bécquer.

The way Urresti interprets the facts of Béquer’s life is far removed from the idealized image we used to have about this great poet. He gives us a fascinating insight into his life. It’s a much more attractive viewpoint than the normal lovesick, almost spineless, poet that we’d been led to believe he was.

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer: his early life

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer was born in Seville in 1836. The son and brother of painters, he grew up surrounded by the arts and had experience in painting. It seems that, even as a child, his artistic tendencies already revealed a taste for mystery and the occult. These were themes that influenced his later literary work.

Bécquer was very close to his brother Valeriano, from a very young age. Valeriano devoted himself entirely to painting and remained at his brother Gustavo’s side throughout his career. Their lives always ran parallel to each other to the point that they died only three months apart.

In 1854, the young Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer moved to Madrid. He made the trip with great expectations of swiftly developing a brilliant literary career with his book History of the Temples of Spain. However, this book was a failure and he only managed to publish one of the volumes of the collection.

As he was trying to survive in Madrid without any literary success, he ended up working for a conservative newspaper. It seems that the political tendencies of Bécquer and his brother Valeriano during their youth were always conservative.

The first of his Leyendas and Julia Espín

On a visit to his native Seville in 1858, Bécquer had to stay in bed for nine months because of tuberculosis, which we now know was possibly syphilis. While Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer was sick, he wrote his first leyenda (legend).

During that same period, he met Julia Espín, who people believe to be the inspiration behind the poet’s most heartbreaking words. It was then that he began to write his first Rimas (Rhymes). Even so, his most fruitful period was from 1861 to 1865.

In those four years, Bécquer wrote most of his Leyendas, many of his journalistic chronicles, and Letters from my Cell, which he wrote during one of the relapses of his illness. In 1861, he married Casta, the daughter of one of the doctors who treated his illness. The couple had three children. However, it seems that their relationship was quite turbulent.

The lost Rhymes

In 1866, things began to change for Bécquer. Under the guidance of Luis González Bravo, who acted as a kind of advocate, he was promoted to the position of novel editor in the newspaper. This allowed him more time to focus on his Rhymes and Legends.

However, during the September Revolution of 1868, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer lost his job, was abandoned by his wife, and his original Rhymes disappeared after a robbery.

These events caused him to go into seclusion in Toledo for a few months with his brother Valeriano. During this period, he devoted himself to rewriting the Rhymes that had been stolen during the revolt.

Shortly after, both returned to Madrid, switched their politics to the Liberals and worked on the magazine La Ilustración de Madrid. In September 1870, his brother Valeriano died and Bécquer fell into a state of deep sadness and his health worsened considerably.

He gave the complete compendium of his works to a friend to take care of it, probably already sensing his end. Three months later, on December 22, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer died. His death coincided with a solar eclipse.

The publication of Rhymes

It should be noted that the Rimas appeared in print between 1855 and 1871. There were 13 of them and he published some of them in other places. The manuscript was lost in 1868 and, as we mentioned before, Bécquer, in all likelihood, rewrote it from memory.

The manuscript has a different order from the first 1871 edition, although the order doesn’t affect the reading. In this first edition, the order is as follows: the first is a reflection on poetic facts, the second is love poetry, the third is the series about disillusionment, and the fourth is an assortment of different works.

The crisis of language was another of the fundamental aspects of his poetry and, for him, there were two types of poetry: the grandiloquent and the simple (brief, but from the soul). For Bécquer, poetry was the expression of the ineffable in an almost mystical, intimate way, and he always tried to explore new forms of poetic expression.

On the other hand, his Legends are a set of narratives of a post-romantic, intimate nature and evoke the historical past by combining it with fantasy or unusual elements. After his death, his friends published them in an edition that included the Rhymes. Thus, the work was published in 1871 under the title Rimas y Leyendas (Rhymes and Legends).

Spiritualist circles

It seems that Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer may have had a very direct contact with the spiritualist circles that were so fashionable in his time. His social circle, the plot of his Rhymes and Legends, and an old childhood friendship with one of the most famous Spanish spiritualists seem to support this view of his life.

In his work, music is the element that communicates the living with the dead. Mediums, ghosts, otherworldly souls, astral travel, apparitions of all kinds, worlds formed of dust and suns, and levitation were characteristic of spiritualist practices and circles.

Could it be that the original Rhymes contained clues that may confirm this relationship? The novel The Ghosts of Bécquer plays with this idea and a few others, tying together threads that are as fascinating as Bécquer’s own work.

Why are we so attracted to the work of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer?

It’s interesting to ponder just what it is about Bécquer’s Rhymes and Legends that have captivated millions of people with their hidden, mysterious, and sometimes quite dark plots, even bordering on terror.

Human beings have been fascinated by these types of stories ever since storytelling began. Some psychologists argue that this fact is intrinsic to human nature. It would be something like a throwback from the first humans who had a highly developed capacity to detect threats.

In fact, some studies show how three-year-old children detect a snake before a flower on a screen. We’re talking here about primordial fears. In those moments of fear, our bodies release surges of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine. As a consequence, we become faster and stronger.

Many people get to enjoy the physical sensations of fear, especially if they occur in safe environments. Those are the characteristics of scary stories. They feel so real and you experience the fear, but, at the same time, you live them out in the safe environment of a book, a screen, or around a campfire.

Thus, Bécquer’s fascinating work remains immortal, as if untouched by time. It connects us with our most human fears, with mysticism, and a taste for fantasy.

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