The Dangers of Reading Poetry in Cervantes’ Don Quixote
The Dangers of Reading Poetry in Cervantes’ Don Quixote
The Greek philosopher Plato regards poets and poetry as dangerous for the young. This is because they can stir emotions that young people are unable to control. Given their highly impressionable nature, the youth are indeed susceptible to brainwashing and misinformation. A poet that glorifies war in his works, for instance, can persuade many young men to go to battle even if they do not know what they are fighting for.
A poem that romanticizes the death of a spurned lover by his own hand, meanwhile, can prompt young people to view suicide as the only way to deal with a broken heart. Miguel de Cervantes’ The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605 and 1615) appears to share Plato’s aforementioned beliefs on poets and poetry. The novel’s protagonist, Alonso Quixano, was a retired country gentleman who was so obsessed with the reading of epic poetry. (1) Alonso’s fixation with this literary genre came to the point that he actually decides to become a knight-errant himself.
(2) He polishes some old armor, assumes the name Don Quixote de la Mancha, renames his old horse Rocinante, designates his neighbor Sancho Panza to be his squire and chooses a local peasant woman named Aldonza Lorenzo to be his lady love, rechristening her as Dulcinea del Toboso. Don Quixote’s attempts to turn fantastic accounts of chivalry into reality eventually results in trouble for both him and the people around him. (3) Plato elaborated in his work The Republic (380 BC) his reason for believing that poets and poetry are worthless, if not dangerous.
For him, poetry “corrupts the soul” – it forces people to believe in an imaginary interpretation of reality. (4) Poets merely copy instances of human excellence. As a result, their works show only an appearance of excellence. Given the fictitious nature of their poems, poets can make varied and contradictory characters appear excellent. (5) Genuine human excellence, in sharp contrast, is based on the stability and the uniformity of the soul. Furthermore, the real world considers individuals who are varied and contradictory in character as vicious.
(6) Plato therefore believes that avid followers of poets and poetry are setting themselves up for disillusion. Poets are presenting their audiences a world that is very much different from the one that they are living in. In the process, they are convincing them to live according to a set of standards that are not compatible with reality. Cervantes probably had the same arguments in mind when he was writing Don Quixote. If analyzed closely, Don Quixote is a satire on the medieval model of chivalry.
(7) The medieval notion of chivalry is often associated with a utopia that is ruled by courageous knights, beautiful and modest ladies and wise and pious religious people. The knight is usually portrayed as a hero who single-handedly defeats the most dangerous of adversaries. His ladylove is frequently depicted as the epitome of virtue. Religious people, meanwhile, are shown as competent and devoted leaders who steer entire towns through the worst crises. But as Cervantes shows in Don Quixote, belief in such a fantastic world is a mark of stupidity.
The aforementioned utopia is characterized with conditions that sharply contrast those of the real world. Hence, its beliefs, norms and values also contradict those of the real world. To expect utopian beliefs, norms and values to work in the real world would definitely lead to other kinds of wrongdoing. Chapter 1 shows Alonso’s lifestyle before he assumed the identity of Don Quixote: (He was a) gentleman that keep a lance in the lance-rack, an old buckler, a lean hack, and a greyhound for coursing.
An olla of rather more beef than mutton, a salad on most nights, scraps on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, and a pigeon or so extra on Sundays, made away with three-quarters of his income. The rest of it went in a doublet of fine cloth and velvet breeches and shoes to match for holidays, while on week-days he made a brave figure in his homespun. He had in his house a housekeeper past forty, a niece under twenty, and a lad for the field and the market-place, who used to saddle the hack as well as handle the bill-hook. (40)
This description shows that despite Alonso’s status as a hidalgo (a member of the lower nobility), he was barely making ends meet. While he could have improved his economic situation by working, his social status hindered him from doing so. During Alonso’s time, it was considered scandalous for a member of the nobility to work. Should a nobleman or woman work, it was assumed that it was because his or her family had fallen into hard times. Alonso therefore opted to live under an illusion of wealth and respectability rather than get his hands dirty earning a decent living.
But when the stark reality of his impoverished state became all too obvious, he withdrew into his collection of epic poems. Whenever he was at leisure (which was mostly all the year round), (he) gave himself up to reading books of chivalry with such (ardor) and avidity that he almost entirely neglected the pursuit of his field-sports, and even the management of his property; and to such a pitch did his eagerness and infatuation go that he sold many an acre of tillageland to buy books of chivalry to read, and brought home as many of them as he could get.
But of all there were none he liked so well as those of the famous Feliciano de Silva’s composition, for their lucidity of style and complicated conceits were as pearls in his sight, particularly when in his reading he came upon courtships and cartels, where he often found passages like “the reason of the unreason with which my reason is afflicted so weakens my reason that with reason I murmur at your beauty;” or again, “the high heavens, that of your divinity divinely fortify you with the starts, render you deserving of the desert your greatness deserves.
” (40-41) Indeed, the fantastic nature of epic poems renders these effective escapes from the harsh realities of everyday existence. In epic poems the biggest problems are easily solved with prayer, modesty and sheer bravado. Furthermore, the heroes in many epic poems are nobles – wealthy individuals who never worked a day in their lives. Thus, Alonso refused to work. The epic poems that he read instilled in him sloth and fatalism. Instead of working hard to improve his lot, Alonso preferred to read epic poems and rely on fate to change his life.
Immediately after turning himself into a knight-errant, Alonso set off in search of adventures as Don Quixote. After an entire day of traveling, he spent the night at an inn, which he regarded as a castle. He also requested the innkeeper, whom he thought to be the lord of the “castle,” to bestow knighthood on him. The innkeeper, out of charity and his own boyhood dreams of becoming a knight, went along with Don Quixote’s caprices. (8)
But the innkeeper regretted his decisions right away, as Don Quixote’s delusions of grandeur caused trouble in his inn: (Don Quixote) sometimes paced up and down, or sometimes, leaning on his lance, gazed on his armor without taking his eyes off it for ever so long…as the night closed in…one of the carriers who were in the inn thought fit to water his team, and it was necessary to remove Don Quixote’s armor as it lay on the trough…(He seized) it by the straps (and) flung the armor some distance from him.
Seeing this, Don Quixote raised his eyes to heaven…(and) lifted his lance with both hands and with it smote such a blow on the carrier’s head that he stretched him on the ground, so stunned that had he followed it up with a second there would have been no need of a surgeon to cure him. This done, he picked up his armor and returned to his beat with the same serenity as before.
Shortly after this, another, not knowing what had happened…came with the same object of giving water to his mules, and was proceeding to remove the armor in order to clear the trough…Don Quixote…once more dropped his buckler and once more lifted his lance, and without actually breaking the second carrier’s head into pieces, made more than three of it, for he laid it open in four. (48) The innkeeper, fearful that Don Quixote’s eccentricities would scare his other guests away, immediately conferred upon him the order of knighthood and sent him on his way.
As the story progressed, it became increasingly obvious that his delusions of knighthood were bringing him nothing but trouble. Shortly after leaving the inn, Don Quixote got into a fight with traders with Toledo because they “insulted” Dulcinea. (9) He likewise freed a young boy who was tied to a tree by his master supposedly because the boy had the courage to ask from his master his back wages. But the truth was that the boy was being punished by his master because he was such a careless servant that he kept on losing the sheep that his master ordered him to look after.
(10) A neighboring peasant, Pedro Crespo, later puts an end to Don Quixote’s caprices by bringing him home. (11) At Don Quixote’s house, his niece, the housekeeper, the parish curate and the local barber attempted to rid him of his delusions by burning most of his books on epic poetry and sealing the door to his library. When Don Quixote asked where his library was, his niece replied that a magician stole it. (12) After 15 days of staying at home, Don Quixote felt the urge to live up to his delusions again.
Along with his “squire,” Sancho Panza, he embarks on new adventures. Their first adventure together was an attack on windmills that Don Quixote imagined to be as ferocious giants. (13) At this point, it is very evident that Don Quixote is so desperate to become a knight that he will not think twice about destroying public property just to be able to prove that he is one. But as their travels progressed, Don Quixote is finally persuaded to abandon his dreams of becoming a knight.
His false belief that he is a knight instilled in him the belief that he can get away with breaking the law and norms that govern proper behavior. As a result, he does not pay his debts and violently intrudes in issues which do not concern him. Such a false sense of entitlement often gets him – and most especially Sancho – into trouble with almost everyone they meet. Seeing the futility of his ambition, Don Quixote finally goes back home to his village. Plato strongly opposed poets and poetry because of their ability to deceive audiences.
Poets have the capacity to use fictionalized accounts of human existence in order to stir the emotions of readers. When people are emotional, they are more likely to make decisions that are ill-advised or unwise. What makes this outcome very tragic is that their actions are based on fiction instead of on fact. Cervantes’ The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha affirmed the aforementioned argument of Plato by showing how a blind faith in chivalry became detrimental to the lives of Alonso Quixano and the people around him.
Instead of working hard to improve his lot, Alonso assumed that fantasy would solve all his problems for him. In the end, it caused him more dilemmas instead. The root cause of these problems is a false sense of entitlement. Because Don Quixote assumed that he was just like the protagonists of the epic poems that he loved to read, he felt that he was a messiah who could do no wrong. He thought that he can get away with offenses such as destroying public property, fighting with other people for no good reason and not paying his debts.
But reality showed him otherwise – epic poems, after all, are only myths. Endnotes 1. Howard Mancing, Cervantes’ Don Quixote: A Reference Guide (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006), 23. 2. Ibid. 3. Ibid. 4. Giovanni R. F. Ferrari, The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic (New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 429. 5. Ibid. , 430. 6. Ibid. 7. Barbara Fuchs, Romance (New York, New York: Routledge, 2004), 78. 8. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (New York, New York: Fine Creative Media, Inc., 2004), 47. 9. Ibid. , 49. 10. Ibid. , 51. 11. Ibid. , 56 12. Ibid. , 62. 13. Ibid. , 64. Works Cited Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote. New York, New York: Fine Creative Media, Inc. , 2004. Print. Ferrari, Giovanni R. F. The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print. Fuchs, Barbara. Romance. New York, New York: Routledge, 2004. Print. Mancing, Howard. Cervantes’ Don Quixote: A Reference Guide. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006. Print.