The poet Gustavo Adolfo Béquer

It is generally agreed that Gustavo Adolfo Béquer (1836-1870) is the greatest Spanish poet of the 19th century. Some of his verses have passed to popular proverbs. And in the early 20th century, gift’s to girlfriends were often accompanied by a short poem by Béquer. Most of his poetry indeed has to do with love. When I moved to Spain, the currency was the peseta and there were 100 peseta bills in circulation, which had a portrait of Béquer by his brother Valeriano.

Eleanor Turnbull noted: “It was his theory that poetry should be brief and without adornment; like an electric spark it should strike the senses and flee. With one idea, an infinity of ideas is awakened. He is the poet whose ‘white hand’ has touched the strings of his harp awakening ideas and sentiments that will never die.”

I found Béquer’s poetry somewhat melancholy and wondered if that was not some of its attraction to me – like the music and poetry of Leonard Cohen.

I love bookstores – books and bookstores are a definite weakness of mine. The largest bookstore in Madrid is the Casa del Libro on the Gran Via. I usually take the stairs not the elevator to go between floors. And there used to be posters in the stair well with pictures and quotes of famous people of literature. There I found a poster of Béquer with my favorite quote of his - “It is very sad to die young without a single tear of a woman.”

A Puerto Rican coworker (female) suggested this means it would be sad for a man to die without ever having managed to piss a woman off. Another suggested it would be sad that not a single woman cried at your funeral. But of course, what he was saying was that it would be sad to die without having had a woman love you deeply enough that at some point she shed at least one tear over you.

Speaking of tears, my very first exposure to Béquer was Rima 38:

Sighs are air and go to the air!
Tears are water and go to the sea!
Tell me woman, when love is forgotten –
do you know where it goes?

Becquer talked a lot of sighs, eyes, and tears. Part of Rima 20 says: “Know … that the soul which can speak through the eyes, can also kiss with a glance.” In Rima 30 he says: “There appeared in her eyes a tear … and she says: “Why did I not cry?”

If you enjoyed any of that, I recommend his Rhymes and his Legends – both available in various English translations. All 98 rhymes are available in English here:

Like love, and the pain of love, Béquer’s poetry is eternal.