Isla, JOSE FRANCISCO DE, Spanish preacher and satirist, b. at Villavidanes (Kingdom of Leon), March 24, 1703; d. at Bologna, November 2, 1781. Isla’s life was far more eventful than that usually led by members of a religious order. Having broken off a premature betrothal, he entered the Society of Jesus at the age of sixteen, and, on the termination of his two years’ novitiate, was sent to the renowned University of Salamanca. Here he studied philosophy for two years and theology for four, and was then appointed forthwith to the chair of exegesis and later to that of philosophy. He continued his professional activity at various colleges until 1747, winning at the same time the reputation of a popular preacher. At the same time he did not neglect his talent for poetry and his taste for literature, and gave proof of a waggish, satirical vein. But this talent was to cause him not a few troubles. The first of these resulted in an assignment to pastoral duties at San Sebastian, where fortunately he was kept but a short time. In 1750 the formidable satirist was sent to the residence of the professed fathers at Valladolid to preach. While this appointment was a new recognition of his ability as a preacher, the attempt of Queen Maria Barbara to secure him as her confessor indicates his piety. By well-put objections Isla escaped the office, but another suggestion from the court, where Isla’s eminent literary gifts had already attracted notice, that the talented writer should devote himself entirely to literary work, was received with favor by his spiritual superiors. In consequence Isla, in 1752, was exclusively assigned to literary work, varied only by occasional summons to the pulpit, which he regarded as interruptions of his literary activities.
The years 1758 and 1759 deprived him of his three greatest patrons—Pope Benedict XIV, Queen Maria Barbara, and King Ferdinand VI—and ushered in for him a period of bitter trials. As early as 1758 the persecution of his order in Portugal began, and the earliest symptoms of a similar storm soon made their appearance in Spain. Sent to Galicia in 1760, Isla devoted himself with great spiritual fruits to giving public missions and the Exercises of St. Ignatius. The royal decree, which two years later forbade any Jesuit to publish a new book, paralyzed his literary activity, and, after various preparatory decrees of a like nature, the Jesuits were finally banished from every part of Spain in 1767. Isla, moreover, was visited by a personal affliction, an apoplectic stroke causing a temporary paralysis of the mouth and tongue. The painful journey into exile—first to Corsica for a residence of fourteen dreary months, and thence to the Papal States—his grief at the suppression of his order, the eight succeeding years of distress pending his deliverance by death, are described by Isla himself with his usual imperturbable good-humor in his letters to his sister. The concluding years of his life were made somewhat more pleasant, thanks to the noble hospitality extended to him by Count Tedeschi at Bologna. He died in the seventy-ninth year of his age.
Isla’s fame rests much less on his activity as a preacher and his other pastoral labors than on his humorous and satirical writings. His earliest literary experiment was the “Juventud triunfante” (the “Triumph of Youth”), a description of a festival, in which Isla gives a skillfully exaggerated account of the already excessively elaborate preparations made by the University of Salamanca to celebrate the canonization of Stanislaus Kostka and Aloysius Gonzaga (1727). His second publication may be described as a pure satire on the singular methods of the surgery of his day. For his next subject he was again to choose a national festival, celebrating for little Navarre the accession of Ferdinand VI. This work he entitled: “Triunfo del Amor y de la Lealtad: Dia grande de Navarra” (“The Triumph of Love and Loyalty”, or “The Great Day of Navarre“); it was not intended to be a formal satire on the exaggerated national consciousness of the Navarrese, but the bombastic extravagance of the language renders it rather a masterly travesty than a serious eulogy. The work, however, which keeps Isla’s name still living in the pages of literature, is his romance on pulpit oratory, the “Historia del Famoso predicador Fray Gerundio de Campazas” (History of the celebrated preacher, Fray Gerundio de Campazas, alias Zotes), whom he himself called a “preaching Don Quixote”. It is a clever satire, in which he exposes the complete decay of contemporary pulpit-oratory in Spain. In the form of a broadly sketched biography, this clever romance, in spite of the condemnation of the Inquisition, circulated throughout Europe in numerous editions and translations. The latest critical edition appeared at Leipzig in 1885 (prepared by Professor Eduard Lidforss). The work was first translated into English by Baretti (London, 1772); there are three translations in German, and many in French. One modern critic (Zarnckes, “Lit. Centralblatt fur Deut.”, 1886) sets Isla’s romance above Don Quixote.
Another work of Isla’s, written in the last years of his life, long engaged the attention of literary critics, namely, his adaptation of “Gil Blas”, which appeared posthumously under the title “Adventuras de Gil Blas de Santillane, robadas, Espana, adoptadas en Francia por Mons. Le Sage, restituidas su patria y A su lengua nativa por un Espanol zeloso, que no sufre que se burlen de su nacion” (Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillana, stolen from Spain and appropriated in France by M. Le Sage, restored to their country and their native tongue by a jealous Spaniard, who will not suffer his country to be made sport of). Isla’s sermons were published in six volumes at Madrid in 1792 and 1793, but no new edition has been issued, nor have they been translated in other languages. They are, however, highly esteemed in Spain and occupy an important place in the history of the development of pulpit oratory in that country. Of his many translations from other tongues, that of P. Croiset’s “Annee chr6-tienne”, unfortunately not completed, is the most important. His three apologetic works for his order could not be printed at that period; one of them has been lost, a second has been recently published. Among his literary remains was discovered a translation of the Italian burlesque epic “Il Cicerone” by Abbot Gian Carlo Passeroni, a picture of contemporary Italian life in society and literary circles. Isla’s intimate correspondence with his sister was published in four volumes in 1785-86, a new edition being issued fifteen years later with two additional volumes. Monlau has inserted this correspondence with forty-four further letters in the “Select Works of Isla” (1850; new ed., 1870). The second centenary of Isla’s birth was celebrated with great festivity in many towns in Spain on March 24, 1903, clearly indicating that his name still lives in the memory of his countrymen.