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Friday, April 13, 2012

Francisco Balagtas The First Nationalist Epic by Mona Lisa H. Quizon History Researcher II

     NOTE: no parts of the Article were omitted or erased. This is an article from the NHC (national historical commission)
      If France has the Song of Roland, England has Beowulf and Spain hasEl Cid; the Philippines has Florante at Laura.  This Filipino literary masterpiece was written by Francisco Baltazar. Known by his pen name Balagtas, Baltazar has been described as the “Prince of Tagalog Poets.” 

      Balagtas was born in the barrio of Panginay, Bigaa, Bulacan on April 2, 1788 to Juan Balagtas and Juana de la Cruz. He obtained his early education at the parochial school in Bigaa, where he learned the cartilla, prayers and catechism. Later, he enrolled at the Colegio de San Jose while working as a helper in Tondo, where he took up humanities, theology, philosophy and canon law. He continued his studies at the Colegio de San Juan de Letran where he became a popular poet. Balagtas used to write poems and love letters to his friends. He met Jose de la Cruz, popularly known as “Huseng Sisiw”, a prominent poet, who helped in editing his works. Balagtas had written various comedias that were staged in Tondo and in other parts of Luzon. Unfortunately, many of Balagtas’ manuscripts were burned when the ancestral house of the Tiambeng Family in Orion, Bataan was destroyed by fire in May 1892.   

    Passionate in his writings as well as expressive of his love for someone, Balagtas wrote love letters, romantic verses, and sweet sonnets. He fell in love many times with different women like Lucena and Bianang of Tondo District. But the one he loved most was Maria Asuncion Rivera. Historical tradition, though, has it that Mariano Capuli, his rich rival for Maria Asuncion’s love, had plotted to put him in prison. 

      While incarcerated, Balagtas lamented the cruelty of his destiny. He wept more upon hearing that Maria Asuncion married Capuli. With all the sorrow and misery of his life, Balagtas wrote Florante at Laura which he dedicated to “Celia” whose real identity was indicated by her initials, M.A.R. Released in 1838, Balagtas went to Bataan and married Juana Tiambeng of Orion. He served as the town’s head lieutenant, judge of seeded lands and then court translator. Unfortunately, Balagtas was sent again to prison for another crime – shaving the head of rich man’s helper. He stayed in prison for four years.  He spent the remaining years of his life writing poetry and translating Spanish documents. He died penniless on February 20, 1862. It is said that his parting words to his wife were, “don’t ever permit any of our children to become poet.” Two of his sons, however, became poets like him – Ceferini and Victor. 

      More than a romantic story; Florante at Laura his poem mirrored the social problems of his time.  Beyond the love story of the protagonists Florante and Laura, and of Prince Aladin and Flerida, Balagtas expressed his angst towards the existing injustices in the society. According to Teodoro Agoncillo, Balagtas was the first Filipino to express the real circumstances of the country under the colonial rule. It was believed that the abuses and evil-doers pointed out by him in his poem were in truth his observations and of his own experiences under the Spaniards.  Balagtas succeeded in awakening his countrymen to the realities of their lot. Years later, Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio and Apolinario Mabini were inspired by Balagtas’ works. Rizal recalled the meaning of Balagtas’ epic poem in his novel, the Noli Me Tangere. Florante at Laura and Noli Me Tangere are somewhat similar; Ibarra, the principal character of the Noli, and Florante both studied in another country, returned to their native lands and were envied by some compatriots. Both loved a woman who made their misadventures more dangerous. The epic of Balagtas and Rizal’s novel were both entwined by colonial oppression. Mabini even wrote down the poem from memory and translated the Florante at Laura into English during his exile in Guam.
      The poem also shows that Balagtas was ahead of his time in terms of religious tolerance and teaching that religious differences should not be used to discriminate against others. Aladin, who was a Muslim, helps Florante during the latter’s suffering. And even Flerida, Aladin’s lady love, who was also a Muslim, saves Laura from being raped. In this sense Balagtas was a universalist, for his message encompasses culture and religion. In his poem, he found ways to unify divergent beliefs and mores. Perhaps Balagtas was reminding Christian Filipinos the need to reunite with our Muslim brothers in Mindanao. 
      In commemoration of the 150th Death Anniversary of Francisco Balagtas, let us be inspired and up hold his dedication to his work. Filipinos, young and old, who treasured the poetry of Balagtas, will not forget these immortal lines. 

      “Ang laki sa layaw, karaniwa’y hubad
      Sa bait at muni’t sa hatol ay salat;
      Masaklap na bunga ng maling paglingap
      Habag ng magulang sa irog na anak”

Filipinos in History Vol. 1. by National Historical Institute
Great Filipinos in History by Gregorio Zaide
Poet of the People Francisco Balagtas and the Roots of Filipino Nationalism by Fred Sevilla

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