Washington Irving, by Charles Dudley Warner


In Spain

Irving’s residence in Spain, which was prolonged till September, 1829, was the most fruitful period in his life, and of considerable consequence to literature. It is not easy to overestimate the debt of Americans to the man who first opened to them the fascinating domain of early Spanish history and romance. We can conceive of it by reflecting upon the blank that would exist without “The Alhambra,” “The Conquest of Granada,” “The Legends of the Conquest of Spain,” and I may add the popular loss if we had not “The Lives of Columbus and his Companions.” Irving had the creative touch, or at least the magic of the pen, to give a definite, universal, and romantic interest to whatever he described. We cannot deny him that. A few lines about the inn of the Red Horse at Stratford-on-Avon created a new object of pilgrimage right in the presence of the house and tomb of the poet. And how much of the romantic interest of all the English-reading world in the Alhambra is due to him; the name invariably recalls his own, and every visitor there is conscious of his presence. He has again and again been criticised almost out of court, and written down to the rank of the mere idle humorist; but as often as I take up “The Conquest of Granada” or “The Alhambra” I am aware of something that has eluded the critical analysis, and I conclude that if one cannot write for the few, it may be worth while to write for the many.

It was Irving’s intention, when he went to Madrid, merely to make a translation of some historical documents which were then appearing, edited by M. Navarrete, from the papers of Bishop Las Casas and the journals of Columbus, entitled “The Voyages of Columbus.” But when he found that this publication, although it contained many documents, hitherto unknown, that threw much light on the discovery of the New World, was rather a rich mass of materials for a history than a history itself, and that he had access in Madrid libraries to great collections of Spanish colonial history, he changed his plan, and determined to write a Life of Columbus. His studies for this led him deep into the old chronicles and legends of Spain, and out of these, with his own travel and observation, came those books of mingled fables, sentiment, fact, and humor which are, after all, the most enduring fruits of his residence in Spain.

Notwithstanding his absorption in literary pursuits, Irving was not denied the charm of domestic society, which was all his life his chief delight. The house he most frequented in Madrid was that of Mr. D’Oubril, the Russian Minister. In his charming household were Madame D’Oubril and her niece, Mademoiselle Antoinette Bollviller, and Prince Dolgorouki, a young attache of the legation. His letters to Prince Dolgorouki and to Mademoiselle Antoinette give a most lively and entertaining picture of his residence and travels in Spain. In one of them to the prince, who was temporarily absent from the city, we have glimpses of the happy hours, the happiest of all hours, passed in this refined family circle. Here is one that exhibits the still fresh romance in the heart of forty-four years:

“Last evening, at your house, we had one of the most lovely tableaux I ever beheld. It was the conception of Murillo, represented by Madame A——. Mademoiselle Antoinette arranged the tableau with her usual good taste, and the effect was enchanting. It was more like a vision of something spiritual and celestial than a representation of anything merely mortal; or rather it was woman as in my romantic days I have been apt to imagine her, approaching to the angelic nature. I have frequently admired Madame A—— as a mere beautiful woman, when I have seen her dressed up in the fantastic attire of the mode; but here I beheld her elevated into a representative of the divine purity and grace, exceeding even the beau ideal of the painter, for she even surpassed in beauty the picture of Murillo. I felt as if I could have knelt down and worshiped her. Heavens! what power women would have over us, if they knew how to sustain the attractions which nature has bestowed upon them, and which we are so ready to assist by our imaginations! For my part, I am superstitious in my admiration of them, and like to walk in a perpetual delusion, decking them out as divinities. I thank no one to undeceive me, and to prove that they are mere mortals.”

And he continues in another strain:

“How full of interest is everything connected with the old times in Spain! I am more and more delighted with the old literature of the country, its chronicles, plays, and romances. It has the wild vigor and luxuriance of the forests of my native country, which, however savage and entangled, are more captivating to my imagination than the finest parks and cultivated woodlands.

“As I live in the neighborhood of the library of the Jesuits’ College of St. Isidoro, I pass most of my mornings there. You cannot think what a delight I feel in passing through its galleries, filled with old parchment-bound books. It is a perfect wilderness of curiosity to me. What a deep-felt, quiet luxury there is in delving into the rich ore of these old, neglected volumes! How these hours of uninterrupted intellectual enjoyment, so tranquil and independent, repay one for the ennui and disappointment too often experienced in the intercourse of society! How they serve to bring back the feelings into a harmonious tone, after being jarred and put out of tune by the collisions with the world!”

With the romantic period of Spanish history Irving was in ardent sympathy. The story of the Saracens entranced his mind; his imagination disclosed its oriental quality while he pored over the romance and the ruin of that land of fierce contrasts, of arid wastes beaten by the burning sun, valleys blooming with intoxicating beauty, cities of architectural splendor and picturesque squalor. It is matter of regret that he, who seemed to need the southern sun to ripen his genius, never made a pilgrimage into the East, and gave to the world pictures of the lands that he would have touched with the charm of their own color and the witchery of their own romance.

I will quote again from the letters, for they reveal the man quite as well as the more formal and better known writings. His first sight of the Alhambra is given in a letter to Mademoiselle Bollviller:

“Our journey through La Mancha was cold and uninteresting, excepting when we passed through the scenes of some of the exploits of Don Quixote. We were repaid, however, by a night amidst the scenery of the Sierra Morena, seen by the light of the full moon. I do not know how this scenery would appear in the daytime, but by moonlight it is wonderfully wild and romantic, especially after passing the summit of the Sierra. As the day dawned we entered the stern and savage defiles of the Despena Perros, which equals the wild landscapes of Salvator Rosa. For some time we continued winding along the brinks of precipices, overhung with cragged and fantastic rocks; and after a succession of such rude and sterile scenes we swept down to Carolina, and found ourselves in another climate. The orange-trees, the aloes, and myrtle began to make their appearance; we felt the warm temperature of the sweet South, and began to breathe the balmy air of Andalusia. At Andujar we were delighted with the neatness and cleanliness of the houses, the patios planted with orange and citron trees, and refreshed by fountains. We passed a charming evening on the banks of the famous Guadalquivir, enjoying the mild, balmy air of a southern evening, and rejoicing in the certainty that we were at length in this land of promise . . . .

“But Granada, bellissima Granada! Think what must have been our delight when, after passing the famous bridge of Pinos, the scene of many a bloody encounter between Moor and Christian, and remarkable for having been the place where Columbus was overtaken by the messenger of Isabella, when about to abandon Spain in despair, we turned a promontory of the arid mountains of Elvira, and Granada, with its towers, its Alhambra, and its snowy mountains, burst upon our sight! The evening sun shone gloriously upon its red towers as we approached it, and gave a mellow tone to the rich scenery of the vega. It was like the magic glow which poetry and romance have shed over this enchanting place. . .

“The more I contemplate these places, the more my admiration is awakened for the elegant habits and delicate taste of the Moorish monarchs. The delicately ornamented walls; the aromatic groves, mingling with the freshness and the enlivening sounds of fountains and rivers of water; the retired baths, bespeaking purity and refinement; the balconies and galleries; open to the fresh mountain breeze, and overlooking the loveliest scenery of the valley of the Darro and the magnificent expanse of the vega — it is impossible to contemplate this delicious abode and not feel an admiration of the genius and the poetical spirit of those who first devised this earthly paradise. There is an intoxication of heart and soul in looking over such scenery at this genial season. All nature is just teeming with new life, and putting on the first delicate verdure and bloom of spring. The almond-trees are in blossom; the fig-trees are beginning to sprout; everything is in the tender bud, the young leaf, or the half-open flower. The beauty of the season is but half developed, so that while there is enough to yield present delight, there is the flattering promise of still further enjoyment. Good heavens! after passing two years amidst the sunburnt wastes of Castile, to be let loose to rove at large over this fragrant and lovely land!”

It was not easy, however, even in the Alhambra, perfectly to call up the past:

“The verity of the present checks and chills the imagination in its picturings of the past. I have been trying to conjure up images of Boabdil passing in regal splendor through these courts; of his beautiful queen; of the Abencerrages, the Gomares, and the other Moorish cavaliers, who once filled these halls with the glitter of arms and the splendor of Oriental luxury; but I am continually awakened from my reveries by the jargon of an Andalusian peasant who is setting out rose-bushes, and the song of a pretty Andalusian girl who shows the Alhambra, and who is chanting a little romance that has probably been handed down from generation to generation since the time of the Moors.”

In another letter, written from Seville, he returns to the subject of the Moors. He is describing an excursion to Alcala de la Guadayra:

“Nothing can be more charming than the windings of the little river among banks hanging with gardens and orchards of all kinds of delicate southern fruits, and tufted with flowers and aromatic plants. The nightingales throng this lovely little valley as numerously as they do the gardens of Aranjuez. Every bend of the river presents a new landscape, for it is beset by old Moorish mills of the most picturesque forms, each mill having an embattled tower, a memento of the valiant tenure by which those gallant fellows, the Moors, held this earthly paradise, having to be ready at all times for war, and as it were to work with one hand and fight with the other. It is impossible to travel about Andalusia and not imbibe a kind feeling for those Moors. They deserved this beautiful country. They won it bravely; they enjoyed it generously and kindly. No lover ever delighted more to cherish and adorn a mistress, to heighten and illustrate her charms, and to vindicate and defend her against all the world than did the Moors to embellish, enrich, elevate, and defend their beloved Spain. Everywhere I meet traces of their sagacity, courage, urbanity, high poetical feeling, and elegant taste. The noblest institutions in this part of Spain, the best inventions for comfortable and agreeable living, and all those habitudes and customs which throw a peculiar and Oriental charm over the Andalusian mode of living may be traced to the Moors. Whenever I enter these beautiful marble patios, set out with shrubs and flowers, refreshed by fountains, sheltered with awnings from the sun; where the air is cool at noonday, the ear delighted in sultry summer by the sound of falling water; where, in a word, a little paradise is shut up within the walls of home, I think on the poor Moors, the inventors of all these delights. I am at times almost ready to join in sentiment with a worthy friend and countryman of mine whom I met in Malaga, who swears the Moors are the only people that ever deserved the country, and prays to Heaven that they may come over from Africa and conquer it again.”

In a following paragraph we get a glimpse of a world, however, that the author loves still more:

“Tell me everything about the children. I suppose the discreet princess will soon consider it an indignity to be ranked among the number. I am told she is growing with might and main, and is determined not to stop until she is a woman outright. I would give all the money in my pocket to be with those dear little women at the round table in the saloon, or on the grass-plot in the garden, to tell them some marvelous tales.”

And again:

“Give my love to all my dear little friends of the round table, from the discreet princess down to the little blue-eyed boy. Tell la petite Marie that I still remain true to her, though surrounded by all the beauties of Seville; and that I swear (but this she must keep between ourselves) that there is not a little woman to compare with her in all Andalusia.”

The publication of “The Life of Columbus,” which had been delayed by Irving’s anxiety to secure historical accuracy in every detail, did not take place till February, 1828. For the English copyright Mr. Murray paid him L 3150. He wrote an abridgment of it, which he presented to his generous publisher, and which was a very profitable book (the first edition of ten thousand copies sold immediately). This was followed by the “Companions,” and by “The Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada,” for which he received two thousand guineas. “The Alhambra” was not published till just before Irving’s return to America, in 1832, and was brought out by Mr. Bentley, who bought it for one thousand guineas.

“The Conquest of Granada,” which I am told Irving in his latter years regarded as the best of all his works, was declared by Coleridge “a chef-d’oeuvre of its kind.” I think it bears rereading as well as any of the Spanish books. Of the reception of the “Columbus” the author was very doubtful. Before it was finished he wrote:

“I have lost confidence in the favorable disposition of my countrymen, and look forward to cold scrutiny and stern criticism, and this is a line of writing in which I have not hitherto ascertained my own powers. Could I afford it, I should like to write, and to lay my writings aside when finished. There is an independent delight in study and in the creative exercise of the pen; we live in a world of dreams, but publication lets in the noisy rabble of the world, and there is an end of our dreaming.”

In a letter to Brevoort, February 23, 1828, he fears that he can never regain:

“that delightful confidence which I once enjoyed of not the good opinion, but the good will, of my countrymen. To me it is always ten times more gratifying to be liked than to be admired; and I confess to you, though I am a little too proud to confess it to the world, the idea that the kindness of my countrymen toward me was withering caused me for a long time the most weary depression of spirits, and disheartened me from making any literary exertions.”

It has been a popular notion that Irving’s career was uniformly one of ease. In this same letter he exclaims: “With all my exertions, I seem always to keep about up to my chin in troubled water, while the world, I suppose, thinks I am sailing smoothly, with wind and tide in my favor.”

In a subsequent letter to Brevoort, dated at Seville, December 26, 1828, occurs almost the only piece of impatience and sarcasm that this long correspondence affords. “Columbus” had succeeded beyond his expectation, and its popularity was so great that some enterprising American had projected an abridgment, which it seems would not be protected by the copyright of the original. Irving writes:

“I have just sent to my brother an abridgment of ‘Columbus’ to be published immediately, as I find some paltry fellow is pirating an abridgment. Thus every line of life has its depredation. ‘There be land rats and water rats, land pirates and water pirates — I mean thieves,’ as old Shylock says. I feel vexed at this shabby attempt to purloin this work from me, it having really cost me more toil and trouble than all my other productions, and being one that I trusted would keep me current with my countrymen; but we are making rapid advances in literature in America, and have already attained many of the literary vices and diseases of the old countries of Europe. We swarm with reviewers, though we have scarce original works sufficient for them to alight and prey upon, and we closely imitate all the worst tricks of the trade and of the craft in England. Our literature, before long, will be like some of those premature and aspiring whipsters, who become old men before they are young ones, and fancy they prove their manhood by their profligacy and their diseases.”

But the work had an immediate, continued, and deserved success. It was critically contrasted with Robertson’s account of Columbus, and it is open to the charge of too much rhetorical color here and there, and it is at times too diffuse; but its substantial accuracy is not questioned, and the glow of the narrative springs legitimately from the romance of the theme. Irving understood, what our later historians have fully appreciated, the advantage of vivid individual portraiture in historical narrative. His conception of the character and mission of Columbus is largely outlined, but firmly and most carefully executed, and is one of the noblest in literature. I cannot think it idealized, though it required a poetic sensibility to enter into sympathy with the magnificent dreamer, who was regarded by his own generation as the fool of an idea. A more prosaic treatment would have utterly failed to represent that mind, which existed from boyhood in an ideal world, and, amid frustrated hopes, shattered plans, and ignoble returns for his sacrifices, could always rebuild its glowing projects and conquer obloquy and death itself with immortal anticipations.

Towards the close of his residence in Spain, Irving received unexpectedly the appointment of Secretary of Legation to the Court of St. James, at which Louis McLane was American Minister; and after some hesitation, and upon the urgency of his friends, he accepted it. He was in the thick of literary projects. One of these was the History of the Conquest of Mexico, which he afterwards surrendered to Mr. Prescott, and another was the “Life of Washington,” which was to wait many years for fulfillment. His natural diffidence and his reluctance to a routine life made him shrink from the diplomatic appointment; but once engaged in it, and launched again in London society, he was reconciled to the situation. Of honors there was no lack, nor of the adulation of social and literary circles. In April, 1830, the Royal Society of Literature awarded him one of the two annual gold medals placed at the disposal of the society by George IV., to be given to authors of literary works of eminent merit, the other being voted to the historian Hallam; and this distinction was followed by the degree of D. C. L. from the University of Oxford — a title which the modest author never used.


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