Reintroducing Balagtas and His Work
by Romeo G. Dizon
AN ATTEMPT TO SITUATE BALAGTAS IN THE proper historical perspective and to determine his rightful place in the era beyond his own is indeed an enormous task. But this is precisely what the present book tries to accomplish.
It may not be possible, neither will it be fair, to quantify the success of this book vis-à-vis its prescribed aims. What will seem proper is, first, to appreciate the manner with which the author proceeds with the undertaking; second, to evaluate the methodology employed, and third, to show whether the thesis actually emerges from the harvest of said methodology.
Methodology: Unorthodoxy as Innovations
The manner with which the author undertakes his task of establishing both the social conditions which shaped Balagtas’ consciousness and sensibility and the heritage the poet helped fashion and bequeathed to the generations to come may be likened to a concentric pattern―to borrow a term from Professor Lucilla Hosillos of Philippine literature. This configuration consists of a center which generates endless circles around it, each assuming a distance from the one behind it. Throw a stone into a calm river and this exact pattern emerges! But one innovative difference in the case of Fred Sevilla’s approach is that these circles do not only move outward concentrically, but they also “retrace” on another level the circles in an inward direction.
Thus: Fred Sevilla privileges Balagtas. Events, here and in countries which were in an historically vantaged position to affect conditions in colonial Philippines and which thereby constituted the socio-economic formation of the period, decades before Balagtas, are dwelt with on the author’s assumption that they exercised a dialectical influence in shaping the poet’s outlook and literary sensibility. In like manner, those which transpired, during and long after him, bore the imprint of Balagtas’ legacy.
By way of illustration, the book devotes its initial chapters in redefining the causes of the upsurge of nationalism in the 1900s as it was concretized in the Filipinos’ militant response to American colonial rule. From here, it has become necessary to move back in time in order to retread the paths taken by American colonialism and recapture its impact on the indios; further back, the book shows the conscious moves taken by both Spain earlier and America later in vilifying the natives as a lowly race. This results in instilling a negative consciousness of slavishness on the part of the indios. To placate them from this sorry state, to uproot this vicious disease, and in its place awaken a feeling of national pride, took decades and decades of slow and ardous reeducation. Balagtas and his literature largely initiated this nationalistic flux.
Thus Fred Sevilla’s book recaptures and recreates: be it a series of historical events or a geographical area, like a province or a district, in so far as these were salient to the mapping of Balagtas’ life and milieu.
Inference and Deduction as Historiography
When there is an utter dearth of information, materials and meaningful sources on one’s object of inquiry, one recourse, perhaps the only one left, which may be taken is to resort to inference, deduction and careful speculation. For this kind of a critical situation deprives the scholar of the use of standard historiography. To a certain extent, Hermenegildo Cruz employed this method in his seminal work. Aside from benefiting from Cruz’ work, Fred Sevilla, to a large extent, took this path, too, in his enterprise of recapturing, with astonishing details, every bit of the life and times of Balagtas.
Some random examples are in order. First: As a way of recouping the period of Balagtas’ childhood, the book recreates the town of Bigaa in Bulacan. Consistent with his concentric methodology, the author goes as far back as the early years of the 18th century if only to establish the naturalness of the panorama of “people, places and events… and profile of indio life in the rural community…” Sevilla takes a traveler like Father Miguel de Zuñiga who toured the province of Bulacan in 1802; mapping his steps throughout the territory, picturing life in the course of the journeyman’s itinerary. And then:
Keeping in mind that Balagtas just three years before, must have taken the same route (although traveling in a reverse direction from Bigaa to Manila in the course of his first adventure into the big city), it is interesting to retrace the town-hopping journey of Father Zuñiga in the illustrious company of Admiral Ignacio María de Alava and his naval retinue. They started their journey in Arroceros, outside Intramuros, and stopped, on the first leg of the trip, to lunch at Bigaa―a distance of about 25 kilometers which in those days was considered quite long because of the warm climate and the condition of the road.
Or let us see how Balagtas must have fared psychologically in his migrant days in the district of Tondo Manila:
The sensitive young Balagtas, no doubt, also went through difficult and trying situations suffered by early 19th century migrants to Manila. However, it is highly probable that during his initial stay in Tondo, he lived with or was in close contact with resident relatives and friends, who helped to alleviate his emotional stress and hastened his eventual adjustment to urban life.
While pursuing the process of inferring and deducting, the author does not forget to exercise critical evaluations of similar measures taken by other studies on the same subject. For instance, he took notice of Hermenegildo Cruz’s work and indicates errors (reminiscent of Rizal’s annotation of Morgas’ Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas) which he stresses are crucially significant. Hermenegildo Cruz inferred that Balagtas’ trip to Manila to pursue higher education caused apprehension and great fear on the part of his parents for the reason that indios with high education became “target of government surveillance as potential political troublemaker.” Fred Sevilla contends this was not so until the last decades of the 19th century, the period of the Reform Movement. And that far from the romanticization of Hermenegildo Cruz that Balagtas worked his way through college by becoming a domestic help in some rich household, it seems reasonably clear that the main purpose of Balagtas in coming to Manila was to pursue higher education which was an opportunity not available to any ordinary indio boy. It appears quite likely that Balagtas’ trip to Manila could be part of what would be better described today as a scholarship program especially planned, perhaps for pious and humanitarian reasons, by certain influential and sympathetic individuals with the help of other sponsors who took cognizance of the precocious qualities shown by the young indio boy from Bigaa.
As it becomes repeatedly evident in many parts of the book, the author recreates not only the biography of the place but also its ambience, thus completing the detailed picture of the period under which Balagtas spent a chapter of his life. For example,
From his home in Bilbao, Tondo, Balagtas would walk some three and a half kilometers by way of San Nicolas, Binondo and Santa Cruz to get to the Colegio de San Juan de Letran… Balagtas, on his first entry into the enclosed city, would have been awestruck by the great size and stately elegance of Intramuros… After he started attending classes as a day student at Colegio de San Juan de Letran, Balagtas would have, in no time, explored all the nooks and corners of the city. And, as he had, no doubt, began to discover, almost every major structure and site of Intramuros had their own historic and colorful tales to tell.
One interesting inference verging on the archeological, and there are number of these, concerns the establishment of Balagtas’ family tree―in the course of it, histories and etymologies of titles and towns and districts are undertaken:
Manila, as Goite found it, was ruled conjointly by the young and fiery Sulayman also known as Rajah Mura (Young King) to distinguish him from his aging benign uncle Rajah Matanda (Old King) who was also referred to in the Spanish records as Ladia (Laya). (They were traditionally addressed as Rajah, the Hindu term for sovereign.) Right across Pasig River on the opposite bank lay the principality of Tuldok (Point)―or Tondo as corrupted by the Spaniards―the domain of Rajah Lakandula, a younger brother of Rajah Matanda, also an uncle of Sulayman. The ruling families of these Tagalogs principalities were related to the royal families of the Sultan of Brunei and a flourishing economic and social bond between them existed for centuries. Sulayman was married to a daughter of the Sultan of Brunei. On the other hand, Rajah Matanda was possibly the same person―referred to by the survivors of the Magellan expedition as the young Luzon prince and admiral of the Sultan of Brunei―they took as captive off the coast of Borneo in July 1521. Also, as earlier mentioned in this chapter, a certain Prince Balagtas―a name which in Tagalog means “to crossover” ―made a historic trip to Luzon sometime between 1335 and 1380, to consolidate his dynasty that included Manila, Bulacan, Pangasinan, Nueva Ecija and Cagayan Valley. Also married to a daughter of the Sultan of Brunei, Prince Balagtas had a great-grandson, Fernando Malang Balagtas, who is known to be related to Lakandula: the possibility exists that the descendants of Lakandula and Fernando Malang Balagtas in Tondo were distant relatives of the family of the father of Balagtas in Bigaa.
As a vital part of his historiography, Fred Sevilla’s handling of time―historical time―is far from linear. Periods overlap, the recent past being dealt with at times ahead of the distant ones. Or the “present” is deduced through an examination of the past, and the “future” becomes an anticipation. In parenthesis, one cannot help recalling to mind the similar manner in which Latin American writers, notably Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in his fictional works like One Hundred Years of Solitude, reconstruct and reconstitute their histories. For example:
With the knowledge that Balagtas, as an eleven-year-old boy, would travel to Manila alone, thus displaying a venturesome and bold spirit, it is easy to imagine that, before his adventure to the big city, he must have scoured the length and breadth of his home province to discover the interesting places just outside his parochial world of Bigaa. Like those indio boys who tailed the Alava entourage through various towns and all the way up to the smelter plant of Angat, he may have tagged along on some of the earlier visits of other prominent Spaniards and dignitaries who rode through Bulacan’s major towns―one of which could perhaps have been Marilao, close to Bigaa, where a few years before, an assembly of high-ranking Church officials converged in the course of an ecclesiastical visitation. (The diocesan authority exercised the privilege of inspecting and touring the parishes in their jurisdiction. This became the source of a long-drawn internal conflict between the bishops and the fiars who administered many of the parishes. The friar parish priests strongly refused to submit to such visitation, claiming exemption under an old Vatican edict and insisting that they were subject only to the authority and supervision of the superiors of their Orders).
Mainstream and Otherwise: A Balagtas in the Academe.
Pioneering scholarship on Balagtas includes a number of studies, which, particularly in terms of their content, show commonality of data and complementariness of evaluation. Earliest among these is Hermenegildo Cruz’s Kun Sino ang Kumatha ng “Florante: (1906). Especially because of its relative historical proximity to Balagtas’ time, acquiring the necessary information from primary and basic sources, e.g. from surviving relatives, friends, colleagues and other contemporaries, was still possible. Much of a seminal piece, this work thus makes accessible to subsequent researches on Balagtas (the present book not excused) valuable data on the life of the poet, his milieu and works.
As if conceding to its comprehensiveness and finality in so far as the area of historical and biographical contexts were concerned, subsequent critiques and researches dwelt instead on those aspects Hermenegildo Cruz’ work did not concern itself with and began to utilize new critical approaches in studying Balagtas, particularly those which were introduced by the scholarship of the new colonial dispensation. Therefore a decade after, in “Balagtas y Su Florante” (1916), Epifanio de los Santos would set his eyes on the formalistic qualities of the poet’s masterwork, delving meticulously not only on the poet’s manner of versification rhyming and the like but also on what he termed “castillanismos” where he enumerated words used which originated from the Spanish language but had thus far been appropriated into the Balagtas lexicon.
In 1955, Lope K. Santos pointed out what he believed were the primarily thematic significance of Florante at Laura in “Ang Apat na Himagsik ni Francisco Balagtas” (The Four Rebellions of Balagtas). Inspite of the awit‘s (metrical romance) seeming innocuousness, concrete areas of concern were perceived within the text by Lope K. Santos which he noted thus:
Lope K. Santos initiated the socio-political reading of Florante at Laura. Although couched in the innocent lines of beautiful poetry, he was able to detect rebellion and protest against the established order of things: the brutalizing colonial government, the imposed religion which subverted the unity of the people and effected distortions in their mores and customs. Likewise, beneath the seamlessly woven awit, he discerned the poet’s lament against the fostering and proliferation of a low quality culture and literature. To Lope K. Santos, these noble deeds were clear acts of nationalism which should have merited the accolade of national hero on Balagtas much more ahead of the co-illustradoes of later decades who would later be accorded such eminence.
There were subsequent works on Balagtas, particularly on his Florante at Laura. While most of them were ultimately celebratory, nevertheless they contributed fresh insights and unravelled new areas of interests. Perhaps, these were all the more made possible by the unprecedentedly fast growth of scholarship and the emergence of an array of approaches and tools to literary studies which were now made readily accessible in the academe.
Significantly, through a period stretching from 1967 to 1984, three works by three academics saw print one after the others:
These three works have an essential interrelationship, for the second work took to task the first, and the last one attempted to hurl the last word on the two. In the aftermath, it seems irrelevant who won in this verbal combat. What is more important in the fact that this spirited exchange only affirmed the richness and multilevel significance of the great awit. However, in themselves, these three works ushered in the further legitimization of critical tools appropriated from the Western academe in the enterprise of studying Balagtas.
After his hortatory notation of Balagtas’ erudition in classical knowledge like Greek and Roman mythology, Virgil and Homer, proceeding to the thorough elucidation of the awit‘s poetics, Lumbera, in the aforementioned study, profounded the thesis that this great poetic narrative marked the “formalization of tradition” in Tagalog poetry in the sense that its “salient characteristics. were to become fixed qualities of Tagalog poetry”.2 He went on to cite some of these characteristics e.g., the manner in which the subject of courtly love was treated in the poem; the utilization of emotion as a key to the development of the subject matter; the departure from folk poetic practice in the use of imagery by activating the potential for “flight of fancy” of rhetorical devices like apostrophe, personifaction, metonymy or synedoche; the dodecasyllabic line becoming the metering norm for secular poetry even after Balagtas’ time; and so forth.
Furthermore, Lumbera cautioned against the propensity for political interpretation. Even when he extolled the fact that it was Balagtas who was the first ever to employ the sentiment of patriotism in poetry, Lumbera still contended:
The tradition of attributing a deliberately political intent to Baltazar’s work ignores the fact that the poet’s emphasis falls on the love of Florante and Laura, and anybody who reads it as a political allegory leaves a lot of details in the poem unaccounted for.3
By his own admission, Epifanio San Juan, Jr., likewise made use of a formal analysis in reading Florante at Laura in the monograph Balagtas: Art and Revolution. But unlike Lumbera whose examination of the formalistic richness of the awitbecame an end to his critique, San Juan trod on this inescapable path to be able to interrogate what he believed was the central point of Florante at Laura: Balagtas aimed to expose the absurd: the “fetishim” of colonial tyranny and implicitly the alienation of the human spirit in Christian feudal society”.4
Marshalling a wide variety of approaches culled from theories identified with Karl Marx, Soren Aabye Kierkegaard, Sigmund Freud, from Gestalt psychology, and from other eclectic array of devices of analysis, San Juan sought to explain the problem of class conflict, alientation and fetishism which he perceived in the text. In his own formulation, he presented his argument thus:
Florante is a sustained poetic interrogation about the nature of justice, truth and the human commitment to social-political equity. It concerns the meaning of oath and contract, promise and betrayal, individualism and solidarity. It concerns historical relations: between father and son, ruler and ruled, lover and beloved, Christian and Muslim, man and woman. Love (piety) and force (heroism), passion and society are counterpointed to the mutable response of the characters. Balagtas wrestles ultimately with the dialectic interaction between reason and reality, being and consciousness. What is actual and what is possible.5
Hegel’s dialectical logic became the main method through which San Juan waded through the different approaches he used. This entailed the determination of thesis and antithesis, binary oppositions and interaction of poles in order to arrive at a synthesis and meaning and signification.
Thus San Juan discerned in the polarity between Florante and Adolfo, between the Persian Aladin and his father the Sultan, the materialization of contradictions in the systems inherent in each of their societies developing in mutual esclusivity into sharp antagonism; while the binary character in the relationship forged by circumstances between Aladin and Florante, and between Laura and Flerida as one with less antagonistic character. In these examples, the synthesis which arose was conditioned by the very character of said contradiction. That is, in the former, a radical social change was called for where authoritarian power was vanquished by social equity; in the latter, a happy confluence of humanity, a meaningful brotherhood between the Muslim Aladin and Flerida and the Christian Florante and Laura.
In all these dualities, San Juan concluded that:
Balagtas certainly envisaged the conflict and subsequent struggle of social groups to resolve the inner contradictions of life. But since he subscribes to a charismatic solution, he is unable but obliquely to project the class as an economic social unit. Epic totality is diminished by lyric, empty ideality. Balagtas’ notion of class is at best existential, somewhat analogous to Malraux’s Faustian martyrs of the Absurd. In amplifying Florante’s agon, the poet reinforces the romantic stress on feeling and sensation. The stage is a theaterical landscape. Nature materializes first as the arena of the hunter (in Florante’s childhood, one perceives the aggressive personality cult of the elite), then as nemesis and hell. Balagtas converts eros into agape; sympathy disintegrates artificial barriers…. But pathos and passion predominate, elevating potentiality into historical actuality.
Balagtas’ plastic medium counterpoints epic and lyric rhythms to compose a unique expressive-intuitive harmony of the spirit engaged in a critical enterprise. Centered on the ultimate issues of freedom and truth, the poem avoids preciosity or mere formalistic exhibitionism…. Florante strives for integration, the mediated immediacy of life comprehended not in solitude (the soliloquy is pure nihilism) but in dialogue; he emerges as the individual who represents the type. For this consciousness makes events intelligible, imbued with purpose, and thus begets history. Born from a nostalgia for communion, lyric insight confronts terror, the absurdity of existence, to discover the freedom of will fused with consciousness. The obstacle and inhibitions imposed from the outside, inducing renunciation, also unfolds Florante’s inner resources―the germinal kernel of the spirit―as the alienated ego encounters finitude (physical immobility) and the resistance of time. The spirit thrives in jeopardy, bondage, impurity; its subterranean prospect, assimilating the other (spatio-temporal contingency, dependence), breeds infinite possibilities out of negativity. Lyric inwardness metamorphoses into epic adventure at the point where the “negation of the negation” transpires. Adventure then becomes quest, aspiration, hope. In transforming the objectifications of existence, the poet becomes a historian. Art becomes a revolution. Time is redeemed.6
San Juan’s work stepped into the area which Lumbera precisely cautioned against: the political. And in the Postscript of said monograph, San Juan curtly belied that there indeed was a formalization of tradition: “what tradition is being formalized? And “Why should tradition require formalization in a single work?”7
Professor Hosillos, on the other hand, put forward a point which was not raised by neither Lumbera nor San Juan―originality―which to her was the only way towards achieving “freedom” and individuality in poetic art.” The problem, however, directly concerned the literary milieu which surrounded Balagtas and his era. The poet’s craft and medium were the metrical romance and allegory, which in this period had been “overused” and consequently “stereotyped.” How could the theme of love which had suffered trivialization in the tradition of the Tagalog metrical romance be hurled and elevated to the level of poetic art? Furthermore, all these popular forms were not indigenous, hence, they might not be adequate to express “Philippine realities and experience.”
The solution, accomplished by Balagtas in Florante at Laura, was explained thus:
Originality as vengeance required that Baltazar transcend the very forms and elements he was using. This he did by transmuting these forms and elements in terms of native poetics, his own personal experiences, and social realities. To sing of his insufferable sorrows and miseries, his lost joy, his griefs, his misfortunes, and the life of one unjustly deprived of liberty in a country where the rich and the powerful oppress and tyrannize could only be done by allegory.8
In other words, while borrowing the European literary form of the awit, with all its basic elements and fundamental structures, Balagtas rejected the inscribed intent of “mere romantic entertainment” and escapism. In its place, the poet utilized the form to surreptitiously register and make known his the poet utilized the form to surreptitiously register and make known his protest through the technique of allegory. And Hosillos expressed certainty that “such originality could only come from an awakening of consciousness which conditioned his intention, his conception of the poem, and his selection of materials that determined the subject and shaped the configuration of the poem9
From hereon, Hosillos entered into the fray. To start with, she contended thatFlorante at Laura appeared “the apogee of the poetic formalization of elements of the European metrical romances and of vernacular poetry in the corrido and theawit over the centuries”;10” contrary to Lumbera’s claim that it formalized tradition in Tagalog poetry; evoking, to Hosillos, the erroneous assumption of the existence of such a tradition in Tagalog poetry.
Most of all, Hosillos took to task Lumbera’s new critical approach and “universalist interpretation” of the poem, saying that Lumbera privileged the autonomy of the art work, isolating it from its social realities.11
However, what Lumbera did was merely to unravel the intrinsic values of the narrative poem. If such values were indeed crucially important, then to imperil their appreciation by subordinating their importance to political signification would result into a lopsidedly unjust valuation of the work.
The initial salvo on San Juan was directed on the fact that he “burdens the poem with terminology, ideas, and meanings from Western philosophy, psychology, aesthetics, and other disciplines that are too heavy for the poem to bear”12―nonetheless Hosillos herself sprinkled her paragraphs with the term dialectics, perceptively with a conviction that was suspect in its credibility. While she disagreed with Lumbera’s “formalization claim,” she branded San Juan’s demand for a body of literary production to effect such claim as “illusory perfectionism in scholarship”.13
Lastly, Hosillos leveled on the first two adversarial works the failure to show from the fine mesh of allegory the ideological construct of nationalism as the overriding and totalizing concern of Balagtas in Florante at Laura. For Lumbera, it was more a conscious omission rather than a failure of discourse because it was inevitable for him to succumb to this “sin” by simply adhering strictly to the logical conclusions of New Criticism. On the other hand, she attributed San Juan’s failure “to provide the much-needed clarification of the poem’s niche in Philippine literary history, especially as a fountainhead of elements for our nationalism literary tradition”14 to his propensity for a pluralist and multidisciplinary treatment of the poetic work.
In parenthesis, it would be interesting to note that in 1986, Lumbera published a book entitled Tagalog Poetry 1870-1898 where the work under contention had been made a part of. Expectedly then, the author thought it opportune to include in its Preface an admission of his limitations in so far as tools of literary criticism were concerned at the time he worked on the aforementioned piece. Then he proceeded to announce that he had since “forsaken formalism in its strictly aesthetic form in favor of a critical method that probes the dialectical relationship between the work of art and the society that produces it”15 while he stood pat in his belief that New Criticism was still useful in analyzing the intrinsic merits of a literary work.
There were a number of other studies on Balagtas, that were far less confrontational. These included the following:
Significant insights on Balagtas’ art and politics were invariably contributed by these works, the last two utilizing the latest trends in literary scholarship.
Clearly, Fred Sevilla’s work can very well be a source book, not only on Balagtas, but also on pieces of historical moments recapitulated with rich material details. It is more than apparent that in the course of pursuing his thesis, Fred Sevilla consciously avoided paradigms fondly and sometimes indiscriminately used by the academe. What emerges is an entirely different narrative which successfully tackles the thesis of relocating Balagtas in our history, or reintroducing the poet, as he should be.
Indeed, Balagtas must be replucked from the thick abstruseness of prevailing scholarship and hortatory ritualism. He must be repositioned, rightfully, in the hearts of the popular masses. His nationalistic and literary heritage must be restirred in the consciousness and psyche of the Filipino people.
Before transcending Balagtas, he must first be privileged historically. Only thus can his true worth be properly appreciated. This book has done just that!