Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer

1836 –

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, a Romantic lyric poet who is regarded as one of the first modern Spanish poets, was born on February 17, 1836, in Seville, Spain. He was one of eight children born to Joaquina Bastida y Vargas and the painter José Domínguez Bécquer, who adopted the Bécquer surname as an acknowledgement of his family’s Flemish ancestors. The elder Bécquer died in 1841, and his wife passed away in 1847. Gustavo Bécquer first attended the School of San Antonio Abad, then, at age ten, he enrolled at the Colegio de Náutica de San Telmo [Nautical School of San Telmo]. He and his brother, Valeriano, who later became renowned as a painter and graphic artist working in the Costumbrismo style, were briefly taken in by their aunt, María Bastida. When the naval school shut down, Bécquer moved in with his godmother, Manuela Monahay, a wealthy woman with an impressive library. Bécquer became an avid reader, in addition to studying painting in an uncle’s studio. The same uncle encouraged Bécquer to resume his studies and paid for the boy’s courses in Latin.

In October 1854, Bécquer moved to Madrid with a couple of childhood friends, eschewing his godmother’s plans for him to become a merchant. For a short time, he worked for the writer Gabriel Hugelman. Through his friend, the writer Ramón Rodríguez Correa, who later helped preserve Bécquer’s literary legacy, Bécquer got a post at the Department of Public Works, but did not last long in his role as a clerk. In 1859, while collaborating with his frequent writing partner, Luis García Luna, and writing under the name of Adolfo García, Bécquer wrote several zarzuelas, or Spanish operas, including the one-act farce Las distracciones. He also penned an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which he titled El aderezo de esmeraldas. After several failed attempts to start a newspaper with García Luna and one of his Sevillian childhood friends, Julio Nombela, Bécquer began contributing work to periodicals. From 1861 to 1868, he contributed prose work, particularly art criticism, to the newspaper El Contemporáneo. He also published in the magazines La España Musical y Literaria, El Mundo, and El Porvenir

Bécquer’s works in poetry and prose include Historia de los templos de España [History of the Temples of Spain] (Imprenta y Estereotipia Española de los señores Nieto y Compañía, 1857), a study of Spain’s monumental architecture that he began in June 1857 but was unable to complete due both to the bankruptcy of his publisher and Bécquer’s persistent struggles with illness. Only one volume of the work was published. Bécquer also published the autobiography Desde mi celda [From My Cell] (1864), which was composed at Veruela Abbey, a monastery in northern Spain. He is best known for Rimas y leyendas [Rhymes and Legends], also known as Obras [Works] (Imprenta de T. Fortanet, 1871), a posthumous two-volume collection of Bécquer’s poetry and prose, which eventually expanded into multiple volumes with the addition of his journalistic work and drawings by Valeriano. Several English translations of Bécquer’s work were also posthumously published, including Poems of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., Ltd., 1891), which was translated into English by Mason Carnes. 

After a short lifetime beset by both poor health and financial difficulties, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer died in Madrid on December 22, 1870. His brother, Valeriano, had died three months earlier.