He wrote some of the finest Spanish poetry of the 19th century. Then, he disappeared.

Northeastern’s Andrew Ginger stumbled upon a Spanish poet that history forgot. Now, Ginger is trying to give Ildefonso Ovejas a shot at the literary spotlight. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

It’s not every day that one stumbles upon an unknown literary genius in the dusty stacks of the National Library of Spain. But that’s exactly what Northeastern’s Andrew Ginger did one evening in 1994.

At the time, Ginger was a doctoral student exploring Spanish poetry of the 19th century, a period that, he says, was once “dismissed as sort of conservative and not very interesting.” His project was to “bring life back to more radical figures,” including the more expressive writers from that time. Tired after a long day of research, Ginger started flipping through old literary magazines, absentmindedly running his eyes over works he’d seen many times before.

“Suddenly, I saw this poem,” he says. He stopped flipping, and read. “This is like nothing that was written at that time in Spanish,” he thought. 

Ginger is the special advisor to the provost at Northeastern and is based at Northeastern University—London. His new book, published in Spanish, is an anthology of a mostly forgotten mid-19th-century Spanish poet named Ildefonso Ovejas. Through his work, Ginger hopes to bring attention to what he calls a radical talent who transcended the poetic norms of the period.

Ginger never heard of Ildefonso Ovejas until that day in 1994; this was strange, as the period in question was Ginger’s area of expertise. But when he stumbled across this new poem, he realized that he loved it. 

Silence, contemplation, echoes, shadows, solitudes... What harmony! what song!... In these dark regions, attention drifts.
What hand, what subtle wing, what breath, what light went by, that brushed my temples?... It is the breeze of that pleasure garden, a lightning bolt cutting across.

—Dreams of a Virgin Maiden, 1845. Translated by Andrew Ginger

Unlike the narrative-style, intellectual poetry of the time, “it was just so experimental, so unusual,” he says. It was fragmentary, “a succession of images and sensations,” he says, and way ahead of its time. “It feels like it should have been written 70 years later.”

Ginger wasn’t allowed to remove the periodical from the library or to make a photocopy, and he didn’t have paper, either, so he copied the poem onto a paper towel and took it back to his hotel. 

Thus began a quarter-century-long passion for discovering and deciphering Ovejas’ other works. Ginger found the rest of his poetry in other literary magazines—the only places where Ovejas’ poetry was ever published—in the same library in Madrid. What he found in Ovejas’ other work was similar to the first poem he read: it was strange, dreamlike, disorienting and dark. He defied convention, refusing to use narrative in his poetry, and instead focused on imagery and emotion.

And I saw cities that looked opulent and magnificent passing by, and swept along in rapid violence they crashed into one another.

And I saw wreaths and sketches in the shadow of armies, and astonished people, and women, in a seething mob all fading into the distance.

And crossing by and crossing by, and forever cleaving the easy wind in fluttering gauze and the world beneath the soles of my feet terrified fleeing ceaselessly from mountain to mountain.

—Fantasy. For my Father and for my Mother, 1841. Translated by Andrew Ginger

Based on Ginger’s research, we know that Ovejas actively wrote between 1841 and 1845. But after that, he disappeared. 

“He vanishes from the face of the earth,” Ginger says. “It took me a few years to find out that he died, basically.” 

Not much is known about Ovejas’ life, but Ginger was able to verify that he came from a distinguished aristocratic family (his date of birth is unknown), that he died before the end of 1847, and that he was “young” when he died. 

After that, his star faded. Despite appearing in some of Spain’s preeminent literary magazines, today Ovejas is almost completely unknown as a poet. Ginger speculates that this happened for a few reasons: Firstly, since he was so young when he died, Ovejas never had the chance to publish his poetry outside of a literary magazine, and nobody else did it for him. Secondly, “He’s so out there that I suspect most people have no idea what it was he was trying to do.”

Finally, Ovejas’ themes didn’t fit with the times. Ovejas wasn’t alone in pushing the boundaries of literature during his lifetime; he was part of a small group of poets that defied convention in their writing, though, Ginger says,”he’s its most extreme element.” However, this group was largely deleted from the canon of Spanish poetry written between 1840 and 1870, Ginger says, partly because their ideology doesn’t match what people later imagined that period to be.

“Both to the right and to the left, it’s not helpful to think of the 19th century as being moments of great imagination and dynamism, because it runs against the story that there’s something fundamentally wrong [in Spain],” Ginger says. 

“If they’re lucky they’ve got a footnote or an occasional mention,” he says. “Because although they were brilliant, their brilliance is just inconvenient.” 

“And also,” he adds, “Nobody knows what they’re talking about.”

Ovejas’ talent stands out from the group, Ginger says, because he predates and predicts the surrealist style of late-19th century literature and film. “He’s way ahead of his time in many respects,” Ginger says. 

Still, he managed to get relegated to the footnotes of literary history.

Ginger’s book seeks to fix that. In the volume, Ginger assembles Ovejas’ work and provides context in an introduction, with the caveat that he only had one textual source—the periodicals, whose print has deteriorated over the last century and a half. The poems, he says, are so strange that it can be difficult to tell whether the printer made errors or if Ovejas intended to, for example, print a word upside down.

“When you’ve got someone who is deliberately being disorienting, you can’t actually tell when it’s a typo, or when it’s them doing it deliberately,” Ginger says. “So that presents a real problem.”

Aside from introducing him to a radical voice in Spanish poetry, the project also gave Ginger a new appreciation for how arbitrary the literary canon’s construction can be, and how power structures and happy accidents can influence what we think is worth reading. Accidental discoveries like Ginger’s have given us poets like Emily Dickinson, whose family discovered her poems after her death and had them published posthumously. 

Unlike Dickinson, after Ovejas’ death, “there [was] no one to pick up the pieces, which is what would have happened to [her] if nobody had picked up the pieces,” Ginger says. 

“Nobody would ever have known.”

For media inquiries, please contact Shannon Nargi at s.nargi@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.