Wordsworth and Spain: The Peninsular War translated

by Jonatan Gonzalez
“It would not be easy to conceive with what a depth of feeling I entered into the struggle carried on by the Spaniards for their deliverance from the usurped power of the French. Many times have I gone from Allan Bank in Grasmere vale, where we were then residing, to the top of the Raise-gap as it is called, so late as two o’clock in the morning, to meet the carrier bringing the newspaper from Keswick. Imperfect traces of the state of mind in which I then was may be found in my Tract on the Convention of Cintra, as well as in these Sonnets.”  

William Wordsworth

 The development of the political ideas of William Wordsworth can be seen as a journey from radicalism to conservatism, from a radical stance on the French Revolution and a passionate fervour for Napoleon, to the disappointment caused by what France turned out to be and the ensuing demonization of the First Consul.

The Peninsular War (1808-1814), a military conflict for the control of the Iberian Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars, offered Wordsworth a further opportunity to shape his views on France and Napoleon, which he did by praising the resilience of the Spanish people in the face of France’s imperialism. It was, as Simon Bainbridge puts it in Napoleon and English Romanticism (2006) “a battle conducted on behalf of liberty and freedom and against tyranny and oppression”. Actually, this sense of excitement induced by the tremendous courage of the Spanish guerrillas, who were fighting against the most powerful army in the world, was common to many Romantic writers, including Lord Byron, Walter Scott, Robert Southey and Felicia Hemans.

The first poetic creation by Wordsworth to be inspired by the events in Spain was a little-known poem, probably written in May 1808, and which he did not get to publish in his lifetime. It lacks a title, and its first line reads “A few bold Patriots, Reliques of the Fight”. In it Wordsworth offers a beautiful allegory of Pelagius of Asturias (c. 685 – 737), a Visigothic nobleman credited with beginning the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula after the Islamic conquest in 711. Wordsworth praises Pelagius’ role as the restorer of the Visigothic monarchy in Spain, and criticises Charles IV and Ferdinand VII of Spain for having ruined Pelaigus’ legacy by letting the Spanish throne go to the brother of a “foreign Tyrant”, Joseph Bonaparte. In spite of the importance in Spain of Wordsworth’s poetic creation on the Peninsular War, no Spanish translation of this poem has ever been done.

Wordsworth’s ensuing composition on the Spanish issue was his prose-work Concerning the Convention of Cintra (1809), a political commentary on the Convention of Cintra (August 30, 1808), an agreement signed during the Peninsular War by which the defeated French, under the command of Junot, were allowed to evacuate their troops from Portugal without further conflict with the Anglo-Portuguese forces. It was not only focused on the Portuguese issue, though. Wordsworth devotes a great deal of this tract to the events in Spain. However, like “A few bold Patriots, Reliques of the Fight”, no version in Spanish has ever been produced.

Complementary to this, in Poems Dedicated to National Independence and Liberty (1808-1811) we can find fourteen sonnets devoted exclusively to the Peninsular War, in which Wordsworth reflects upon the suffering and bravery of the Spanish people, whom the poet sees as an embodiment of liberty and freedom. All these poems reflect thus Wordsworth’s unwavering confidence in the ultimate triumph of Spain over the tyranny of Napoleon:

The first translations into Spanish of the poetry of Wordsworth can be traced back to the late nineteenth century. Nonetheless, it was not until 1938, about half a century later, that the first translations of the poet’s work on the Peninsular War reached Spanish readers. That said, between 1938 and 2013 we can find in Spain five different published volumes, containing forty-nine original translations altogether of Wordsworth’s poems on the Spanish issue. In spite of the fact that during that span of years there were produced another thirty-seven titles containing Spanish translations of other Wordsworthian poems, these five publications were released in key historical moments for the reception of Wordsworth in Spain, and have hence influenced different generations of the poet’s Spanish readers.

The Spanish Republican magazine Hora de España (The Spanish Hour), published for the first time, in its April 1938 issue, two translations of Wordsworth’s poems on the Peninsular War. The chosen sonnets were “The Oak of Guernica” and “Indignation of a High-Minded Spaniard”, with the translation carried out by the English writer Stanley Richardson and the Spanish poet Luis Cernuda. Published during the last stages of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), this periodical was originally edited in the Spanish city of Valencia, but with the entry of fascist troops into the city, the magazine was forced to move its headquarters first to the city of Barcelona, and eventually to Mexico. These two translations were intended to raise the morale of the Spanish Republicans, who were struggling to resist the invading forces of the dictator-to-be Francisco Franco and his supporters, by reminding them of the glorious past of the Spanish resistance during the Peninsular War. Likewise, these were the only two Spanish translations of Wordsworth’s poems published during the Spanish Civil War. Hence, they were crucial for the shaping of the image of the English poet and his work that was conveyed to his Spanish readers during the Civil War.

In 1976, one year after the death of Franco and the ensuing dissolution of Francoist Spain, Poemas (Poems) was published, the third book ever issued devoted exclusively to the Spanish translations of Wordsworth’s poetry. It contained two of his poems on the Spanish issue, “Indignation of a High-Minded Spaniard” and “The French and the Spanish guerrillas”, along with twenty-two of Wordsworth’s most popular poems. Again in 1982, in a volume entitled William Wordsworth, another three translations of Wordsworth’s poems on the Peninsular War were published, “Indignation of a High-Minded Spaniard”, “Feelings of a Noble Biscayan at One of Those Funerals”, and “The Oak of Guernica”.

However, it was in 1987 that a book entitled Poemas a España (Poems to Spain) appeared. It was the first publication focused entirely on Wordsworth’s poems on the Peninsular War, and it contained ten of the fourteen sonnets on the Spanish issue that had been included in Poems Dedicated to National Independence and Liberty (1808-1811). These poems were here presented along with several drawings and pictures by the Spanish Romantic painter Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), which illustrated the suffering and bravery of the Spanish people during the war. Finally, in December 2013 there was Libertad frente a la tiranía: poesía inglesa de la Guerra de la Independencia (Freedom against Tyranny: English poetry on the Peninsular War), a Spanish volume focused on the English literary compositions inspired by the Peninsular War. This publication was the first to publish the complete translations of the fourteen sonnets Wordsworth wrote on the Spanish issue. In fact, many of them were translated for the first time exclusively for this publication. It was conceived as a commemorative volume for the bicentenary of the end of the Peninsular War, and it included a detailed commentary on the composition of these sonnets.
Jonatan 2
It can be seen that even though Wordsworth’s sonnets on the Peninsular War are not among his most translated poems into Spanish, still they have played a crucial part in shaping the image of the English poet and his work with his Spanish readers. Two books devoted to his poems on the Spanish issue are a good proof of that. My key contention is therefore that Wordsworth’s poetry on the Peninsular War plays an important role on the gradual establishment of his literary canon in Spain during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The current exhibition at Dove Cottage is Wordsworth, War and Waterloo 

Jonatan González is an Undergraduate Research Assistant at the University of La Rioja, in Spain. His research is focused on the reception of British Romanticism in Spain. He has been working for the past two years on a project funded by the University of La Rioja and the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport analysing the reception of William Wordsworth in Spain through the study of the translatijonatan 3ons of his poetical works into Spanish. He can be reached on Twitter @Jonatangonzg and at jonatan.gonzalezg@gmail.com