Gavilan College celebrates 400 years of Don Quijote

Don Quixote de la Mancha, translated by Charles Jarvis

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Life of the author

Extracted from

Don Gregorio Mayans and Siscar's

Life of Cervantes (1)


Michael de Cervantes Saavedra, the inimitable author of "Don Quixote," was born in the year 1549, and most probably at Madrid; though other towns of Spain, as Esquivias, Seville, and Lucena, have claimed the honour of his birth. At least, it is certain, he lived at Madrid, as appears from the following superscription of a pleasant letter of Apollo to him: "To Michael de Cervantes Saavedra, in Orchard Street, fronting the palace belonging to the Prince of Morocco, in Madrid : postage half a real, I mean seventeen marevedis." (2)

From his childhood he was so fond of books, that he tells us (3) he was apt to take up the least scrap of written or printed paper that lay in his way, though it were in the middle of the street. But he addicted himself chiefly to the reading of poetry and novels, as is evident from his own writings, and especially from the curious and pleasant scrutiny of Don Quixote's library. (4)

Cervantes left Spain (but in what year is uncertain) and went into Italy; where he became Chamberlain to Cardinal Acquaviva at Rome; and afterwards followed the profession of arms, under the famous Commander Marco Antonio Colonna. (5) It is certain, from his own account of himself, (6) that he was present at the great sea-fight of Lepanto against the Turks, in 1751; in which action he lost his hand, or at least the use of it, by a shot from the enemy. It appears, likewise, that he was taken by the Moors, and carried to Algiers, where he continued under captivity five years and a -[VIII]- half. (7) As to other circumstances, collected from the novel of the "Captive," (8) which some have thought to be a relation of what befell Cervantes himself, they are too uncertain to be depended upon: besides that, if Cervantes had been an ensign, or captain of foot, as he must have been if the adventures of the "Captive" were his own, he would most likely have honoured himself with one or other of those titles, at least in the frontispiece of his works; whereas he frequently speaks of himself as having been no more than a common soldier.

After his release, or escape, from captivity and return to Spain, he applied himself to dramatic poetry, and wrote several plays, both tragedies and comedies, particularly "The Humours of Algiers," "Numantia," and "The Sea-Fight"; all of which were acted with great applause, both for the novelty of the pieces themselves, and the decorations of the stage, which were entirely owing to the genius and good taste of the author. It is certain, from the testimony of contemporary writers, that Cervantes, even before his captivity, was esteemed one of the most eminent poets of his time.

In 1584 he published his " Galatea," in six books. This is a pastoral Novel, interspersed with songs and verses. It is particularly admired for its beautiful descriptions and entertaining incidents, but especially for the delicacy with which it treats of love matters. The critics, indeed, find fault with his interweaving in his novel so many episodes, that they divert the reader's attention too much from the principal story. They object likewise to the style, as too affected, and different from the usual forms of speaking; though herein Cervantes imitated the ancient books of knight-errantry. The fable of the "Galatea" is imperfect, the author having intended a second part; but this continuation, though often promised, was never published. (9)

But the work which did him the greatest honour was his "Don Quixote"; the First Part of which was printed at Madrid in 1605, in quarto. That it was partly, if not wholly written, during the author's imprisonment, he confesses in the Preface. This admirable performance was universally read and admired. It was soon translated into almost every language of Europe. The most eminent painters, tapestry-weavers, engravers, and sculptors were employed in representing the history of Don Quixote. The author had the honour to receive a very extraordinary proof of the royal approbation. For, as King Philip III. was standing in a balcony of his palace at Madrid, and viewing the country, he observed a student on the banks of the river Manzanares, reading in a book, and from time to time breaking off, and knocking his forehead with the palm of his hand, with great tokens of pleasure and delight, upon which the king said to those about him: "That scholar is either mad, or reading 'Don Quixote.'" But, notwithstanding the general applause given to Cervantes's book, he had the fate of many other great geniuses, to be neglected himself; not having interest enough at Court to procure the smallest pension to keep him from extreme poverty, which must have been his lot, had it not been for the liberality of a few patrons of wit and learning, particularly the Count de Lemos, whose favour and protection he acknowledges in the Preface to the Second Part.

The prodigious success of this First Part engaged Cervantes in writing a continuation of the history. But before he could publish it, there came out, in 1614, a spurious Second Part of "Don Quixote," by an author who called himself -[IX]- The Licentiate Alonzo Fernandes de Avellaneda, a native of Tordesillas. This person appears to have been a writer of very low genius; and his performance was found to be so much inferior, both in contrivance and wit, to the true "Don Quixote," that it presently fell into the utmost contempt. Cervantes is extremely severe upon this author, in the Preface to his own Second Part, and in several passages of the work.

In 1613, he published at Madrid his "Exemplary Novels," so called because in each of them he proposed some useful example, to be either imitated or avoided. They are twelve in number, and their titles are: "The Little Gipsey;" "The Liberal Lover;" "Rinconete and Cortadillo;" "The Spanish-English Lady;" "The Glass Doctor;" "The Force of Blood;" "The Jealous Estremaduran;" "The Illustrious Servant Maid;" "The Two Maiden Ladies;" "The Lady Cornelia;" "The Deceitful Marriage;" "The Dialogue of the Dogs." The author boasts in the Preface that he was the first who composed novels in the Spanish tongue, all before his time having been imitated or translated out of foreign languages.

The year following he published a small piece, entitled "A Journey to Parnassus." At first view it seems to be an encomium on the Spanish poets, but in reality is a satire on them, as Caesar Caporali's poem, under the same title, is on the Italian poets.

In 1615, came out the genuine Second Part of "Don Quixote." This performance, contrary to the usual fate of second parts, added fresh reputation to the author, and will ever be read by persons of taste with no less delight than the former.

The same year Cervantes published eight plays, and as many interludes. He was at this time so poor, that not having money to print the book at his own expense, he sold it to a bookseller. The titles of the plays are: "The Spanish Gallant;" "The House of Jealousy;" "The Bagnios of Algiers;" "The Fortunate Bully;" "The Grand Sultana;" "The Labyrinth of Love;" "The Kept Mistress;" "Peter the Mischief-monger." The titles of the interludes are: "The Judge of the Divorces;" "The Ruffianly Widower;" "The Election of Mayor of Daganzo;" "The Careful Guardian;" "The Counterfeit Biscainer;" "The Raree-Show of Wonders;" "The Cave of Salamanca;" "The Jealous Old Man." The first and third of these interludes are in verse ; the rest in prose. Cervantes reduced the length of theatrical entertainments from five to three acts. His plays, compared with those more ancient, are esteemed the best in the Spanish tongue, excepting only one or two celebrated ones, particularly "Celestina the Bawd," the author of which is not known. Cervantes had laid aside play-writing for some time, when the famous Lopez de Vega appeared, who so far engrossed the attention and approbation of the public, that when our author fell to writing again for the stage, the actors would not receive his plays. He complains of this in the Preface, and promises his reader a new dramatic piece he was then upon, entitled "The Deceit of Dealing by the Eye," which he assures him could not fail of pleasing. But whether this play was ever published we cannot say.

Our author's last performance was his "Persiles" and "Sigismunda." It is a romance of the grave sort, written after the manner of Heliodorus's "Ethiopics," with which Cervantes says it dared to vie. It is in such esteem with the Spaniards, that they generally prefer it to "Don Quixote;" which can only be owing to their not being sufficiently cured of their fondness for romance. -[X]-

Cervantes fell ill of a dropsy, which proved fatal to him, and put an end to his life in 1616, but in what month and on what day is uncertain. He waited the approach of death with great serenity and cheerfulness, and to the very last could not forbear speaking or writing some merry conceit or other, as they came into his head.

In the Preface to his Novels, he gives us this description of his person, as proper to be put under his Effigies. "He whom thou seest here, with a sharp aquiline visage, brown chestnut-coloured hair; his forehead smooth and free from wrinkles; his eyes brisk and cheerful; his nose somewhat bookish, or rather hawkish, but withal well-proportioned; his beard silver-coloured, which twenty years ago was gold; his mustachios large; his mouth little; his teeth neither small nor big, and of these he had but six, and those in bad condition and worse ranged, for they have no correspondence one with another; his body between two extremes, neither large nor little; his complexion lively, rather fair than swarthy; somewhat thick in the shoulders, and not very light of foot; this, I say, is the effigies of the author of 'Galatea' and 'Don Quixote de la Mancha,' &c."

Gavilan College celebrates 400 years of Don Quijote

Don Quixote de la Mancha, translated by Charles Jarvis

Gavilan Spanish Questions or comments Bibliographic Record Index page Top Next page