Cervantes as a popular writer


Author:  Antonio-S. Urbaneja Fernández

                                                          English version by:  Mariette Cirerol


Little we know, almost nothing, of Cervantes’ life; and still less about his intimacy and character, about those qualities that defines the persons making us able to see the difference and distinguish them, even in the manner they behave and progress during their lifetime. Cervantes was a genie, an exceptional man, but certain doubts remain regarding his ascendance: from his father we know very little; and less, from his mother, whose name was Ana Franca; perhaps just a lover of the householder. Knowing so little there is a need to investigate about the strange and famous author of Don Quixote. A lot of work and willingness was need just to suppose he was born in Alcalá de Henares; but his birth place could as well have been Cordoba, Seville, Lucena, Madrilejos, Madrid or Tolede; or, as we first said and most believe: Alcalá de Henares. Please do not feel upset because such a personage, of so great fame, deserves so big a competence. And the circumscribed Mancha is well received: it is a territory, not a region, neither an intransigent community; and stands in the centre of the country, where perhaps he only passed four years of his life; but it is where is inscribed, who was considered a new Christian, descendent of converted Jews belonging to Cordoba; as referred by his grandfathers, from his mother part.


It seems true that he was baptised on October 9th, 1547; and that September 29th was the day of his birth. It is also known that the family of his mother was a well-to-do labourer one and cultivated lands near Madrid; while his father family was living in Cordoba: the grandfather, Juan de Cervantes, a lawyer, called his fourth son Miguel:  The father of Cervantes was deaf from birth, what made him diffident, distrustful, sad and without faith in the future, because his handicap impeded him from being a physician obliging him to work as a barber-surgeon. Anyway, the blind uses to be patient and tranquil; instead, who cannot hear involves himself in all what surrounds him and wants to know all what is said, boring with his continue questions whoever remains near him.


I find normal to use the remembrance and nostalgia for his childhood in Cordoba and Seville, the details he knows of both cities, to make up the story of the famous “venta” (rustic inn), noble castle for Don Quixote, in the corral of which two men from the Heria in Seville and three needle-makers from Potro in Cordoba, and four people from Segovia, “tricky and playful people came near Sancho, dismounted him from the ass, put him in the middle of a blanket and began to make him fly up and down as a dog in carnival”; alluding to an old carnival popular diversion consisting in making the same, but with a dog.


The  cries  of  Sancho  where so strident that they reached his master “who returned with a difficult gallop prepared to fight against who were causing such a turmoil without giving up from laugh and playing the joke; neither Sancho was off from crying; and still, he was also menacing”. Finally, as they were good on heart, they brought the ass, helped Sancho to mount and even put the coat on him; meanwhile the compassionate Maritornes was offering him a jar of well water, substituted by the so salutary balm of Fierabrás, based on oil, rosemary, salt and wine, served in an old cruet “that Sancho took with both hands and, confident, with good talent, drank it all at once”, producing him so severe vomits that he cursed the beverage and whom gave it to him.


What is evident is that Don Quixote loved the countryside, its prairies, hills and mountains, crossed by connoisseurs in proverbs and songs, who always can tell you about the ancient time: fabulous saint histories and apparitions, as well as real facts keeping you informed and counselled. Nevertheless, Cervantes was always considered a city man who, in his Italian epoch, was enthusiastic with Rome and Naples; and, in Spain, with Seville and Cordoba, for which he had a special attraction and where he passed the best of his youth.


He was around his fifties when he began the first novel with modern style, which was like a spiritual portrait, reflected in a mirror deformed by his hazardous life: fights, intrepidities, failures, calamities, disappointments; a harsh life, nearly without help, so-and-so living on whatever job he found: army pays, awkward excise collection,   that  hardly  gave him economic security  but serious problems that filled him with anguish. But he becomes a friend of don Juan de Austria, without feeling sympathy for Felipe II, because of his famous mutilation in the well known battle of Lepanto against the Turks. What I want to say is that he is a relevant person with high relations, liking the popular and most characteristic expressions of every nation.


Most significant are his comments about his life, when he was very young, visiting the more picturesque places of distinct cities, like the Percheles in Málaga, the Compás in Seville, the Rondilla of Granada, the Beach of Sanlúcar, the Potro of Cordoba or the Ventillas of Toledo, without forgetting Segovia and Valencia. Precisely, we can read in the chapter following the one where he is armed chivalry knight: going out of the venta and after saying goodbye to the innkeeper and to the daughter of the “honourable miller of Antequera”, called Lady Miller, so happy that “glee was bursting from the girth of the horse”; but his joy was soon changed into surprise and delusion, when he met a crowd of merchants from Toledo going to buy silk in Murcia, and tried to oblige them to confess that “there was no damsel in the world more beautiful than the matchless empress Dulcinea del Toboso”, in which he did not succeed but won a tremendous cudgelling from a squire, as an answer to his request.


One of his neighbours, who was coming singing a sweet romance, found him in that deplorable state and assisted him, calling him Mr Quijano, which was the real name of Don Quixote, who, in that precise moment, was remembering a Mohammedan novel: “The History of a Muslim  from  Granada  and  a  beautiful  Moor princess” that developed in Antequera, at the time of Mayor Rodrigo de Narváez, and was published in 1561. But it was of no use for the neighbour, Pedro Alonso, to insist he was not Rodrigo Narváez, neither the marquis of Mantua, nor the Moor Abindarráez, but the honourable Quijano. In his deranged state, Don Quixote was not able to clear the facts in his mind and finally accepted to be returned home, where he was joyfully welcomed by the priest and the barber, his two best friends.


I recall the reference of Cervantes when he mentions the happy face showed by Sancho, every time, when mounted on his ass, he raised the wineskin and began drinking with a so noticeable pleasure, that “the best furnished wine-vault butler of Malaga would envy him”. Perhaps Sancho was congratulating himself for serving a chivalry knight who would pay his services with the donation of the reigns they would win; because Don Quixote told him: “I am determined that for me a so grateful habit would never fail”.


This confirmation may enjoy and confound, together with the powerful wine of Malaga, the confident Sancho, to the extreme of accepting that the windmills, between thirty and forty, could have been real characters of that time, owing a territory defended by their powerful arms; that could be conquered and broken with the help of magic and enchantment God would permit because of the task they have: “defending orphans, protecting maidens and windows, befriending the helpless, serving the causes of truth and beauty, and reestablishing justice”. “There was a maiden in those times who went to the sepulchre  as  virgin  and pure as the day she was born”; and, on the margin of a memorandum-book, found in a street of Toledo and sold by an Arab, it was written that Doña Dulcinea del Toboso “was so skilled salting pigs that, in the whole Mancha, no other woman could be compared to her”. Thus, Don Quixote knew about his history, being written by a history scholar Arab, Cide Hamet Benengeli, to whom he bought the whole memorandum-books and papers he had, for half a real; and also other works about the same topic, for “two measures of raisin and two measures of wheat”; discovering, once at home, that inside there were good illustrations, like the one showing Don Quixote, covered with a shield, fighting against a Bizcayan who protects his breast with a pillow. I find precious the comment of Cervantes about the passion, fear and rancour that may influence the writer, and let him  twist the way of the truth, which mother is the history”.


I find curious, the story of the prudish, rich and beautiful Marcela, who, suddenly, decides to dress like a shepherdess and take care of his own cattle and flock; the same as did, among other young people, the well-to-do and handsome Crisóstomo; who, like the others, was passing the time taking care of his ewes, goats, cows and young bulls, and searching to meet the beautiful Marcela, with whom all were in love, drawing her name on all trees. But Crisóstomo had not enough with that; he preferred to die instead to lose Marcela, who actually did not choose any of them. Don Quixote was passing by, in search of adventures when he heard about the terrible story and about the funeral. He joined the people who accompany the dead young, explaining to them he was a chivalry  knight ,    succeeding  and  forming  part  of  the British Round Table brotherhood, were Lancelot appears to be the rival of Arthur, both longing for Guinevere’s love; acting as a mediator, the old chaperone Quintañona; thus giving birth to a well known romance:


Never be knight

to dames so gentle

as Lancelot was

returning from Britain


(see original in the Spanish version)


With that, comes into account, the discovery by an enthusiastic reader, the former President of the Real Academy of Language, Rodríguez Marín, who translated almost twenty thousand popular coplas (songs) in his big song-book, of the old romance from, from which Cervantes took the following verse to begin his genius Don Quixote:


En un lugar de la Mancha

(Somewhere in the Mancha)


Nothing strange to whom was able to found, in a popular poet of his own land, Osuna, Balmaceda, two very curious songs, describing the mysteries of the subconscious, and its manifestation in dreams; many years before Freud, who was the creator of the psychoanalysis:


All the sages of the world

come to learn from mi

and profit from my dreams

when I fall asleep.


(see the original in the Spanish version)



Amid my tiredness

many times I woke

and saw a sage writing

what in dreams I told.


(see original in the Spanish version)



This is why the poets, when they are good poets, even popular ones, have much in common with prophets, like the great Isaiah had from both (poet and prophet).  And Cervantes told it in the second part of his Quixote, when he affirms that “poets are also called bards, which means diviners”.


Dulcinea del Toboso, by C. R. Leslie, XIX century

Museum Victoria and Alberto, London



Cervantes as a popular writer

Second part


There is some mystery in certain poems of Cervantes that, with their uneven structure, have great resemblance with the popular Mozarabic stanzas, that round off and finish some Arab-Judaic poems, studied by Prof. García Gómez in his book: Las Jarchas Romances (The popular Mozarabic Romances), in which he comments the following examples:


Gär fareyo

kómo bibreyo:

est al-habib espero;

por él morreyo.


Tell me what I’ll do,

how shall I go on,

I am waiting for my friend;

for him I will die.



As-säbah bono

gär-me d’on benes:

Yá lo sé k’otri amas

e mib non qeres.


Auror, beautiful,

from were are you coming?

I know you love another

and no more want me.



Both seguidillas already existed in ancient songs, with their metric 5-5-7-5; and what Don Emilio did not say, is that they are still alive in the Andalusian popular songs of today. Who does not know the fallowing verses?:


He shall not be caught,

he shall not be caught

as long my castrated horse

her neck up maintain


Go on and along,

go on and along,

voyaging with your captain

José María


(see original in the Spanish version)


Among the notes of Florencio Sevilla Arroyo, in the Song of Crisóstomo, also called the Desperate Song, it is very accurately mentioned how, in the last verses of those strophes, there is a repeated metric of 7-5, provoking an evident rhythm of seguidillas, like this:


In my bitter breast the pain,

unavoidable delirium,

becomes a delight.



And the cruel pain

that in me remains

I have to explain.



Its infernal porter, too,

with his three faces

and thousand monsters.




(see original in the Spanish version)



This inside structure allowed the song, a sound of severe and profound sentimental lament.



Nobody can doubt the great talent of Cervantes, his creative capacity, his extraordinary prose, his well drawn prologues; but, his poetry was like it is told in those famous verses:


I who always work day and night

to look like the poet I want to be

and the sky to me denies.


(see original in the Spanish version)


Nevertheless, we cannot deny that his verses posses  a special cadence, like his prose that flows free and easy; nevertheless, his poems need a support, a guide, as the one of the seguidilla: short and light at the same time.


My opinion is that the fine writer, Andrés Trapiello, is totally right when he affirms in his book: The lifes of Manuel de Cervantes, “that the Quixote is the great poem of the Spanish literature”; but it is a popular poem, full of sayings and proverbs; like Cervantes writes when he meet another chivalry knight, the Knight of the Forest, maintaining that Don Quixote “was feeling himself more elegant and clever when he was telling proverbs”. Because he was in love with popular wisdom; that always comes from outside and needs to be looked for, it occurs to me to express it like this:



you come from outside,

inside of me you grow,

inside of me you prosper,

because I make you mine.


(see original in the Spanish version)



He had time, in Algiers, in his painful captivity, after the disaster of Lepanto, to enrich himself spiritually, searching for popular traditions, with the humility his dry and paralyzed arm was giving to him. Because, as so many times repeated, “to know oneself is the beginning of wisdom”. Another man who suffered, is his admired friend, the dramaturge from Seville: Lope de Rueda, who was also enthusiastic about pucheros (stews), and about the prayers of Mother Teresa de Jesús, the saint of the inspired and simple poets.




When they were preparing the third out going in search of adventures, Sancho suggested Don Quixote to give him regular wages, monthly perhaps, for his entire dedication; because adventuring himself in something so daring does not convince him and demands a total dependence.    However his master has no boss vocation, thinking it may carries problems in a far future, when labour activities would be more regulated.  But as almost all things have a solution, they make a deal and started on their way to Toledo, decided and glee, arriving with the night, passing the square of the village, a little esplanade with banks and a church, to which I made two little stanzas, so ingenuous as simple:


A lonely square without banks

for the elderly

is like a church without saints,

a lover without his love.



It was so a sad a village

without a sole square,

that people leaved their houses

and it no more exists.



(original to be seen in the Spanish version)



Nevertheless and next to the proverbs that never die, admirable are the considerations exposed by the now already “Knight of the Lyon” in the house of Don Diego, father of Lorenzo, about the lack of humility of the poet who always thinks himself “the better poet of the world”; and consoles who did not obtain the first price in literary competitions, considering the second more justified, without forgetting the third. I also find amazing the laudatory and virtues that must accompany the chivalry knight in his wandering; among which there is a medical preparation “mainly from a consummate herbarium”; something like that honourable rural physician of our epoch, who needs a great amount of  study, merit and skill.


Don Quixote deserves the ennoblement of the proper Cervantes, with his behaviour in Camacho’s nuptials, admitting, as in the war, legitimization and stratagems to vanquish the enemy, favouring the feeble, Basilio, with so great courage that in the following chapter he claimed, as all people, invited and present, the whole village said: “he was a Cid in the army and a Cicero in the eloquence”.


Of so great merit is the fantastic and distracted adventure of   the   Montesinos   cave ,    overflowed  with   so  much figuration and utopia, that the same Cervantes asks for forgiveness and obliged the protagonist to retract himself; and Cidy Hamet makes his cousin, who accompany him, show his gratitude, at  least  for the description of the Guadiana’s source and the seven ponds of the Ruidera, caused by the enchantment of duenna Ruidera’ s seven daughters.


The seguidilla sang by the soldier met on the way to the venta, is amazing; in it he complained about having to serve the king because of lack of properties, to what Don Quixote responded with a magnificent dissertation on duty and honour, which only young people can enjoy. This is the popular copla:


To the copla I am brought

by necessity

if I had some properties

I would not go, that is true.


(original is to be seen in the Spanish version)


In my epoch of rural physician, for which national oppositions are needed together with a true vocation, I knew a local functionary who had the only defect to enjoy himself too much when, out of his work and between friends, after some glasses of wine, almost among intimates, like Don Quixote said: “he inclined the small leather wine-bag” and began to imitate the strident and scandalous braying of the ass, with a so great perfection, that from some corral, or stable, he was answered, for the pleasure of his fellow companions who congratulated him joyfully. Perhaps that is why I never had reference or read anything that amazed me so much! As the physician I am, I recommend reading Don Quixote to all people suffering from sadness and depression. My opinion is that it never existed a writer who reached the population so easily, whose pen wrote so charming  and comic scenes, able to make you laugh every time you read or remember one.


As the story continue, “after going out of the venta, Don Quixote determined to see first the shores of the Ebro”, and going up a hill, he discovered a squadron of two hundred people, with abundant flags among which there was a white one with an ass painted as if it were alive, followed by these verses:


They did not bray in vain

the one and the other mayor.


(In Spanish it rimes:

No rebuznaron en balde

el uno y el otro alcalde.)


It is commented that the two braying leaders of the Village of the Bray “became mayors later on the time.”



The story of the Knight of the Lyons was almost ending when “at sunset, they were going out of a forest” and saw a green prairie, on which were standing some hawking men with an elegant woman -- “who was sustaining a goshawk on her left hand. Don Quixote sent Sancho to greet her, but not before recommend him “to procure to speak well in that delicate mission, without telling any proverb of his own”. And, after an adequate presentation, amazing events would take place, especially with Sancho, who deserved from Don Quixote the comment  “that it never existed an errant knight with so a talker and charming squire than the one I have”, when he verified that they were welcomed to the castle, where Sancho was amazing the assembly reciting “some verses of Lancelot when he came from Britain”, heard from his master and about the care of his ass, taken in charge by one of the duennas of the aristocratic dame.


Dames took care of him,

duennas of his mount.


(original to be seen in the Spanish version)


But it was during the meal that the squire really shone with his proverbs and tales and, especially, when he referred the fact of Dulcinea escaping from the sudden attentions of Don Quixote, when he saw her coming bewitched between two peasant women, hopping down her mount with so great agility that: “in nimbleness and jumps she would not let a volley advantage her … leaping on the ass like she were a cat”. But it was Don Quixote who answered the more adequately to the ecclesiastic,  who was angry hearing about the daring life of both Sancho and Quixote, and their beliefs in enchantments. He provoked him with a magnificent exposition on good and evil and the great benefits that would be granted to whom dedicate themselves, with body and soul, to help poor, oppressed, forgotten people; widows and orphans, and whoever is in need of protection. It is amazing to see how the extraordinary writer burst out laughing at who, brainless, stands above the serene, cold and reserved human composure.


It is worth to mention the cortege of three characters dressed in black and a giant figure with same aspect, but having the face covered by an obscure veil, and a big shirt on a wide baldric, and an enormous scimitar; who, when received by the bantering duck, discovered his ugly face and presented himself as the squire of the countess Trifaldi, whose other name was Doña Dolida, arriving from the very far reign of Condoya, in search of the without equal Don Quixote.


The duck allowed them to enter and twelve damsels, followed by countess Trifaldi (the one of the three skirts), and behind, his squire: Trifaldin of the white beard.


The travelling adventure on the horse Clavileño, made of the same wood mentioned by Virgil in the Palladium of Troy, “which was presented to the goddess Pallas”, is a very curious one. Not less interesting is the mention made by Cervantes about the musicality, rhythm and popularity of the seguidillas, as the well known proverb: “Well abided is Saint Peter in Rome unless they quit him the crown”, with a clear and perspicacious sense of the arbitrary dispossession.


Writing the Quixote was an ingenious manner to display the whole popular sapience, the one of the sayings and proverbs, of the ancient coplas (songs); all said in a joking manner, avoiding being severe and unkind. To do this it is necessary to smooth the harsh reality in order it is no more odious and miserable; because communication departs from the more profound of our conscience, where the pain and its ironical defeat is found.  That is the posture and disposition of who,  like the unlucky Cervantes, has suffered until the limit of desperation. He needed to abide the vital to and fro of improvement, and then fulfil his desire to transmit. He, himself, is telling this in his verses:


With Don Quixote I gave pastime

to the melancholic and fretful breast

in any opportunity, in any time.


(original to be read in the Spanish version)


And saying this, I finish my daring exposition that does not allowed more space.






Don Quixote, by Zuloaga