Poetic Jousting

by Samuel De Lemos

Francisco De Quevedo and Luis De Gongora had a tumultuous poetic relationship. Quevedo was a viejo Christiano and Gongora a Christiano Nuevo. During the height of the Inquisition, both poets jousted with each other as was the literary custom of the time. True to form, poetic jousting was practiced throughout the medieval period in Iberia–there are fascinating examples of Umayyad poetry, where poets spar each other in court settings.

During an epoch where sharp wits and even sharper quills ruled; this type of contentious poetry was a way to gather followers, set oneself apart from the competition and possibly bid for patronage. What is different in the Quevedo versus Gongora case, and of interest to Sephardim is the vicious condescending religious vitriol Quevedo uses against Gongora by associating him with questionable Jewish past. Quevedo’s poetic wit pigeonholes Gongora within the religious landscape of Judaism and sharply marks him as the “other” time-and-time again.

In the satirical poem, La Nariz, referring to Gongora’s nose Quevedo writes:

érase una pirámide de Egipto,
las doce Tribus de narices era.

yours is an Egyptian pyramid
the twelve Tribes of noses were you.

Here Quevedo’s allusion to the Biblical narrative of the Exodus by means of the Pyramid landscape and association with the twelve Tribes is meant strictly as a religious jab. A type of, “I know your background and I won’t let you live it down” statement. Quevedo, derides Gongora as an unmistakable Jew because of his unquestionable Jewish nose.

In his “Contra el mismo (Góngora)”, Quevedo writes of Gongora:

No altar, garito sí;
poco cristiano, / mucho tahúr,
no clérigo, sí arpía.

No altar, gambling-house yes
less of a Christian, / more a Gambler,
not a cleric, but a harpy yes.

Quevedo’s word associations in this stanza is remarkable, in that—”less of a Christian”, has perpetually been the mark by which Converso’s are known. Converso’s were nominal Christians at best. What is brilliant is the second line; Tahúr and Tahor are similar sounding words and poetically interchangeable–using the Hebrew and Spanish Tahor sí, literally means “Pure, yes”. Sephardi Tahor was the way Maimonides signed his work–Pure Sephardi. If that isn’t convincing then the second line brings it home. “You’re not a cleric but rather a harpy”, a mythological creature with the face of a human but the body of a bird. In mythology the harpy stole food from its victims, were cruel, and malicious. So, what Quevedo is saying to Gongora is–you’re no cleric but rather you disguise yourself as one (a Jew disguised as a Christian), yet steal our food, our spirituality, our Christian way of life.

Oddly enough, Gongora was a canon, a cleric who traveled from place to place with ecclesiastical power. So the sting of these words are loaded with innuendo and strong blunt/hidden accusations. What is troubling and something I haven’t figured out; is how did Francisco De Quevedo become privy to this information? Ironically, and something I suspect is that Quevedo himself is a hidden Converso—the classic kettle calling the pot black.