Góngora was born to a noble family in Córdoba, where his father, Francisco de Argote, was corregidor, or judge. In a Spanish era when purity of Christian lineage (limpieza de sangre) was needed to gain access to education or official appointments, he adopted the surname of his mother, Leonor de Góngora. She claimed descent from an ancient hidalgo (lesser nobility) family. At the age of 15 he entered the University of Salamanca, where he studied civil law and Canon law. He was already known as a poet in 1585 when Miguel de Cervantes praised him in La Galatea; in this same year he took minor orders, drawing his income from the benefices of Cañete de las Torres and Guadalmazán. His uncle, Don Franscisco, a prebendary of Córdoba Cathedral, renounced his post in favor of his nephew, who took deacon's orders in 1586.
As a canon associated with this Cathedral, he traveled on diverse commissions to Navarre, Andalusia and Castile. The cities that he visited included Madrid, Salamanca, Granada, Jaén, and Toledo. Around 1605, he was ordained priest, and afterwards lived at Valladolid and Madrid.
While his circle of admirers grew, patrons were grudging in their admiration. Ultimately, in 1617 through the influence of the Duke of Lerma, he was appointed honorary chaplain to King Philip III of Spain, but did not enjoy the honor long.
He maintained a long feud with Francisco de Quevedo, who matched him in talent and wit. Both poets composed lots of bitter, satirical pieces attacking one other, with Quevedo criticizing Góngora's penchant for flattery, his large nose, and his passion for gambling. Quevedo even accused his enemy of sodomy, which was a capital crime in 17th century Spain. In his "Contra el mismo (Góngora)", Quevedo writes of Gongora: No altar, garito sí; poco cristiano, / mucho tahúr, no clérigo, sí arpía. Góngora's nose, the subject of Quevedo's "A una nariz", begins with the lines: Érase un hombre a una nariz pegado, / érase una nariz...