Main characters, central allegory, and rhetorical figures

(in the Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea, by Góngora)

Characters - Polifemus - Galatea - Acis - Allegory - Figures - Bottom

Main characters


A Cyclops, son of the sea god Poseidon (Neptune to the Romans), generally associated with the island of Sicily. He is found in the Odyssey, and in Theocritus' 12th Idyll. While many characterizing details about Góngora's presentation of this giant come from these two sources, such as his living in a cave sealed by a huge stone and his keeping herds there by night, Góngora's plot comes from the Sicilian legend, since Acis appears as the Cyclops' successful rival for the love of the nymph Galatea. Polyphemus appears also in Handel's opera Acis and Galatea (libretto by Gay), in which the music contrasts the clumsy giant and the nimbleness of Acis and Galatea.


One of two Nereids or sea nymphs of known name, the other being Thetis. They are called Nereids because they are daughters of wise and kindly Nereus, a sea deity who like Proteus, is able to transform himself into various shapes.


A Sicilian shepherd, the son of Faunus (a satyr) and a nymph named Simæthis. At the end of the poem, he is crushed by a rock thrown by the jealous Polyphemus, and the gods, moved with pity, transform Acis into a river which flows down the sides of the volcano, Mt. Ætna, and empties into the sea at Catana.

General comment on the allegorical meaning of this tale

Careful consideration of this poem reveals that, just as most myths, it has a more transcendent meaning. The tale of Polyphemus and Galatea falls into the category of myths known as etiological legends, that is, those that explain the origins of things. In this case, one sees the destructive forces of nature, represented by the Cyclops, Polyphemus, whose one eye in the middle of his forehead is analogous to a volcano. As the the son of Poseidon, god of the sea, it is significant that Mt. Ætna rises from the sea. By contrast, Galatea is also the offspring of a sea deity, but a benevolent one. Galatea symbolizes nature's creative, forces most associated with the female, those that cooperate with Man's efforts to cultivate the land and enjoy her bounty. Acis, although not really human, represents Man, inasmuch as he is a shepherd.

The lesson, in mythological terms, is that Nature creates and destroys, as Man stands in the middle between these forces, either as benefactor or victim, as willed by the gods.

Observations on the use of rhetorical figures (also known as tropes, literary devices, ornati, etc.)

The two most salient features of Góngora's style in the Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea and in his other works are his use of hyperbaton and metaphor.

Hyperbaton is the alteration of the conventional order of words, clauses or phrases to achieve a particular effect. The pervasive use of hyperbaton in this poem is best explained as an attempt to create a "culto", that is, a cultured or elite form of poetic expression, as opposed to a style that is "llano", that is, plain or popular. Those poets who imitated Góngora came to be known as culteranos, cultistas or even gongoristas, in contrast to those who advocated more traditional forms, such as his arch rival, Francisco de Quevedo, whose preference was for concise, sententious and witty poetry, or a conceptista approach. In English poetry, John Donne is the best example of this latter mode of expression, and shows how this style crossed national boundaries, helping us better understand Seventeenth Century intellectual and aesthetic tastes. Quevedo's conceptismo and Góngora's culteranismo are characteristic of the Baroque period, however, and not necessarily mutually exclusive, since examples of each style can be found in the works of the most hardened advocates of each style.

For an example of how the hyperbaton-laden stanzas of this poem can be untangled, by prosifying them, see the Suggestions to Teachers and Students accessible from the homepage of this poem..

In the notes to the various stanzas, no further mention will be made of hyperbaton, owing to the fact that one's ability to appreciate the poem depends on the ability to recognize and understand the use of this rhetorical device.

In contrast with simile, which compares things explicitly (a girl's dress is like a rose), a metaphor boldly states that two distinct things are identical (her eyes are stars). In this poem, almost every stanza contains metaphors, and we shall make an attempt to identify them and reveal what they refer to in more prosaic terms. As an example, in the first stanza, hunting is referred to in the phrase "...fatigar la selva", that is, "tiring the forest." Identifying all the metaphors and explaining them in one's own words, in Spanish, is also a very worthwhile linguistic exercise.

When notes are included for parts of the poem, they may refer to stanza, line, and word number thus: I,1,i (that is, stanza 1, line 1, word 1) = Estas.
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