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Une épopée ibérique

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Aude Plagnard

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1The present work interrogates the concept of Iberian epic through a comparative analysis of four historical heroic poems composed at the end of the sixteenth century in Spain and Portugal. The project juxtaposes two writers, the Portuguese poet Jerónimo Corte-Real and the Spanish poet Alonso de Ercilla. Although both writers published or composed works within the same period, they have not been studied in a comparative manner within Portuguese and Spanish scholarship. Ercilla is the author of La Araucana, a long heroic poem published in three parts (1569, 1578, and 1589, respectively). In that same period, Corte-Real published three works: O Segundo cerco de Diu (The Second Siege of Diu), composed around 1569 and first printed in 1574; the Austriada, composed in 1575 and printed in 1578; and the Naufrágio de Sepulveda (The Shipwreck of Sepulveda), composed between 1582-88 and printed posthumously in 1594.

2Through an analysis of these six texts, this project seeks to delineate a historically specific and poetically unique model for the genre of epic poetry. Such a model is constituted by, first and foremost, an early modern critical discourse on the profound geographical and political changes in the Iberian peninsula occurring during the period of American and Asian colonialization and on the eve of the union of the Spanish and Portughese crowns under the reign of Philip II. This bilingual and binational corpus derives its unity and coherence from this historically defined interaction between the Spanish and Portugese languages, societies, and politics in the second half of the sixteenth century. The model of heroic narrative that emerges from this intertextual and intercultural dialogue thus proves to be unique with respect to the three great canonical paradigms for heroic poetry then available within the Romance tradition. First, these works are immediately distinguishable from the long line of chivalric poems that culminated in Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1532). At the same time, they do not follow the nascent neo-Aristotelian model, at that point widely theorized in Italy and soon to be perfected by Torquato Tasso in his Gerusalemme liberata (1581). Lastly, these two authors take a particular position with respect to the Portuguese poet Luis de Camõens, whose epic Os Lusíadas (1572) had been recently canonized both in the Spain of Philip II and in Portugal.

3Crucial to the poetic projects of Ercilla and Corte-Real was the recounting of wars which were virtually contemporary to both poets. Ercilla became the bard of rebellious Araucan natives, who had held in check the Spanish armies during the conquest of Chile, an event which the author himself had witnessed. The episodes depicted in his epic had thus occurred no more than twenty years before the publication of the work. Corte-Real was inspired both by recent events in colonial history (the siege of the fortress at Diu and the shipwreck of the galleon Saint-Jean off the coast of Africa) and by military episodes closer to home (the battle of Lepanto, where the Christian armada had recently defeated Ottoman forces). For both poets, the choice of recent historical subject matter inevitably structures the heroic narrative and establishes certain ethical positions. In particular, while the poets insert themselves into their own works as compilers and as witnesses (in imitation of the poets of the épica de la pólvora), they also furnish their texts with stylistic and generic markers drawn from the genre of the chronicle. The current book seeks, in its first section, to explore the complexity and plurality of such structural and formal choices. The corpus offers a unique field of investigation in that it clearly illustrates the porousness between the genres of history (namely the chronicle) and of poetry in the early modern period. This generic ambiguity or porousness is moreover notable in the way in which each author figures himself in the text. Whether as poet-painter (Corte-Real) or poet-witness (Ercilla), each authorial posture imbues the poetry with a certain legitimacy which draws on other fields.

4Grounded thus in recent history, these narratives also come into direct contact with current events that are invariably political in nature. Throughout their works, the two poets offer particular positions on complex issues related to the recent wars of colonial expansion. Yet, contrary to what one might think, such positions cannot be reduced to either simple praise or propaganda. Within the texts there do exist clear signals of identification with the politics of the monarchy; however, such a facile interpretation is complicated by other textual strategies, which produce instead a rich and complex reflection on warfare. In this sense, the Araucana, the Segundo cerco de Diu and the Victoria de Lepanto engage in a narrative project characteristic of the epic genre, namely the sutained consideration of the various military, political, and ethical difficulties posed by colonial warfare, a task accomplished by presenting different points of view and without ever fully resolving apparent contradictions. The current work asserts that one of the essential strategies for realizing this epic project, as practiced by both poets, is a certain form of imitatio multiplex. Such imitation, which derives from intertwining various classical models – in particular Lucan and Virgil –, allows us to explore the relationship between wars of conquest and civil wars, specifically in a context where conquest ought to lead to a form of agreement with local populations. The second part of this volume concludes not only that these poems each develop a narrative project that inscribes them within the canon of the epic genre, but also that, at the level of the corpus itself, these works must be understood together as a form of “dispersed” epic.

5Beyond these strategies of imitation, the poems of Ercilla and Corte-Real also share a series of other textual motifs which firmly establish a common poetic identity. Such commonalities emerge once we compare the solutions which each poet offers to the question: how does one construct a narrative poem out of history? First and foremost, both Ercilla and Corte-Real employ similar patterns of emulation, whether direct or intertextually mediated, of Camõens and of his Lusíadas. The third section of this volume explores this fraught relationship of emulation and the specific problems that it poses. In many cases, Ercilla and Corte-Real seem to approach such issues in different ways and with different techniques. The former chooses, as Camõens did before him, to directly depict imperial expansion, while the latter instead focuses on the menacing geography of a rival empire; and while Corte-Real emphasizes the continuity between the heroic genealogies of both the Iberian royalty and the colonies, Ercilla instead glosses over the history of the conquest of the Americas. At the same time, certain shared poetic choices establish the uniqueness of the particular epic model exemplified by both authors: first, a combination of mythology and prophecy in the construction of the plot; second, at the level of ethics, a hitherto unseen emphasis on feminine heroism as the sole positive outcome of a deteriorating heroic world that seems to close the oeuvre of both poets.

© Casa de Velázquez, 2019

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