Iriarte, Tomas de (Tomas de Iriarte y Oropesa)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Iriarte, Tomas de (Tomas de Iriarte y Oropesa)

Iriarte, Tomas de (Tomas de Iriarte y Oropesa) (1 750-1 791) Spanish fabulist and poet

A clever Aesopic moralist of imperial Spain, Tomas de Iriarte composed didactic stories, WISDOM lore, and comedies of manners. A native of Orotava (present-day Tenerife), Canary Islands, he became a scholar in Madrid, where he worked as a state archivist under his uncle, the director of the royal library, and translated the Roman Horace’s poetry and French drama. In Fdbulas literarias (Literary Fables, 1782), Iriarte composed 76 original beast SATIRES such as “The Wallflower and the Thyme” and “The Frog and the Hen” to ridicule the pompous; all the FABLES are rendered in verse. The impetus to his waspish wit derived from his scorn for court climbers who sought prestige and power by fawning upon rulers in Iberia, the Suez, the Philippines, Malta, and Tetuan, Morocco. One lengthy diatribe, “The Portrait,” identifies by name Charles I, Ferdinand V, and Philip II and III, all pictured on coins. The subtextual gibe implies that portraits on money are far more valuable than pictures on canvas.

Iriarte’s talents and irascible temperament suited the invective fable at its first appearance in Spanish literature. A seven-stanza insect story, “The Drones and the Bee,” illustrates his impatience with deferential civil servants and court writers. The drones who fail at honey making turn their attention to honoring a dead bee with “funeral obsequies, brilliant and grand” and “panegyrics immortal” (Iriarte 1855, 9). Because the ritual is shallow and showy, an observer bee denounces the effort as the “fuss of your beggarly crew” (9). The ostentation, symbolic of courtly pretensions, epitomizes the vapid actions of courtiers who employ verbal flattery at the expense of sincerity. A similar theme invigorates “The Tea-Plant and Sage” by teasing the incrowd for importing goods from the Spanish Empire while ignoring the quality of commodities grown on

home soil. A similar conclusion rounds out “The Owl and the Toad” with the claim, “Conspicuous toads we rather would be, than modest owls in our own hollow tree” (132).

Iriarte saluted the fables of AESOP as “one which delights and instructs” (43), yet he chose to nettle and vex with his own models. His brusque allegory condemns the insidious wolf in “The Wolf and the Shepherd” and the ragman who blathers about dead villains but who flees “living dogs” (46). In “The Ostrich, the Dromedary, and the Fox,” the poet tweaks aristocrats who rate others on the strength of family trees. He voices irritation with those who argue over trifles in “The Lion, Eagle and Bat,” and he is equally annoyed with fools, whom he depersonalizes in the fable “The Muff, the Fan, and the Umbrella.” With “The Rabbits and the Dogs,” he ridicules those who fall victim to attackers because they waste time discussing trivialities. To boasters, he retorts, “Your brains are dark as the unlighted lanthorn” (14). To egregious fools, he chortles, “If one opens his mouth, then we know he's an ass” (16).

Perhaps because of Spanish phraseology, Iriarte's works translate poorly into English, thus limiting their inclusion in world literature anthologies. However, they continue the tradition of wise aphorisms that Aesop had begun 2,000 years earlier.


Iriarte, Tomas de. Literary Fables of Yriarte. Translated by George H. Devereux. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1855.

Kaufmann, Wanda Ostrowska. The Anthropology of Wisdom Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1996.