Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
A Spanish-American Epic
By John Gilmary Shea (18241892)
[Born in New York, N. Y., 1824. Died in Elizabeth, N. J., 1892. The First Epic of our Country. 1886.]
OUR historians do not quote historical ballads in serious history. In Spanish literature it is different. There the narrative poem has always held a recognized position, and works of greater or less merit have come down to us, some maintaining to this day their early reputation. A melodious language easily lent itself to poetical numbers; the long struggle with the Moors called forth all knightly traits and exalted ideas, perhaps often to an extravagant point. The soldier, like Manrique, solaced his hours of inaction by chanting in verse the deeds of his ancestors or his commander. When the New World opened to the warriors of the peninsula a wide untrodden field for high emprise, strange in all its natural features, its inhabitants, its grandeur, where all was redolent of romance, the Spanish knight came with lyre and lance. Narrative poems were written in many forms, and under every possible circumstance. Some were perpetuated by the press, but an immense number still remain in manuscript, and are known to few but the literary or historic antiquarian. The highest of the poems, the only one recognized as a classic, is the Araucana of Alonso de Ercilla y Zuñiga, the work of an officer who recounted in metre the wars of the Spaniards against the unconquerable Indians of southern Chili, a theme which inspired also the Arauca Domado of Pedro de Oña, printed at Lima in 1596, and the Puren Indómito of Alvarez de Toledo, printed only in our day, but cited as an authority by historians of Chili more than two hundred and fifty years ago.
Although only our southern frontier was embraced in the Spanish territory, it has its historic poems. I have seen one in print on the overthrow of the French in Florida by Menendez, probably sung as a ballad in the streets of Spanish cities; another of great length, but unpublished as yet, on the capture of Bishop Altamirano by a French pirate, his ransom and the overthrow of the Corsair; a curious poem of the last century on the seizure of Bishop Morel, at Havanna, by Lord Albemarle, and his deportation to Florida. But of all, the most curious and by far the most important is the little volume I hold in my hand:
Historia de la Nueva Mexico. Poema Epico del Capitan Gaspar de Villagrá. En Alcala de Henares, por Luis Martinez Grade, 1610.The History of New Mexico. An Epic Poem by Captain Gaspar de Villagrá. Published at Alcala de Henares, by Luis Martinez Grade, 1610.
Written and printed before Henry Hudson had made widely known our beautiful harbor as it appeared to his eyes; before the self-exiled Separatists in Holland had formed any project of settling in America, this little work stands in the collection of New Mexico books between the Roman Relation of Montoya, 1603, and the Memorial of Benavides, 1630.
It is a poem in thirty-four cantos, covering, independent of the preliminary matter, two hundred and eighty-seven leaves. We cannot claim for it brilliant invention, rich poetical description, or ingenious fancy; for one of the censors of the work, Master Espinel, while admitting the correctness of the rhythm, yet, with almost brutal frankness, tells the plain, unvarnished truth on this score.
The History of New Mexico, an heroic poem by Captain Gasper de Villagrá, contains nothing against faith and morals, it rather exalts and elevates it, to behold such a number of souls brought to Catholic truth, and the crown of Spain, with such immense toil by our Spanish race. The verse is correct (numerosolike Pope he lisped in numbers), and although devoid of inventions and the flowers of poesy (from its being a consecutive and true history), the variety of such new and extraordinary events will please and inspire people of all conditionssome to imitate, others to esteem them, and therefore it is good that it should go into the hands of all. Madrid, December 9, 1609.
But though the censor thus cruelly disappoints us at the outset, the nine odes and sonnets to the author and to the commander of the expedition, including one addressed in their name to the king, show more poetical invention and richness; even Espinel there pays compliments in verse which he avoids in prose, extolling alike the prowess and the poetry of our Captain.
The poem is dedicated to the king, and addresses him throughout; and his Majesty, in the license, styles it a work which cost you much labor and care, both from having fought and served us in the discovery, pacification, and settlement of said New Mexico, the history whereof you treat, as well as for reducing it to a veritable history, as you have done.
If, then, we cannot claim for Villagrás poem a rank among the classics, it is nevertheless worth study as a poem written here at such an early period, on events in which the author took part. It is devoted entirely to an American theme. This would in itself be enough to invest Villagrás poem with interest to any one given to literary research. But as an historical work it possesses remarkable value. The harmonious prose of some writerslike Froude, for exampletreats historical facts with greater poetical license than Villagrá allowed himself; and while the muse of Froude prompts him to garble documents to ensure poetic effect, our Spanish poet breaks off at times to give us an important document in solid prose. He does not make any sacrifices to the exigency of verse, and apparently suppresses no name, differing in this from the French poet Thomas, who wrote the poem Jumonville, in which Washington plays the part of arch-fiend. The whole poem turns on his iniquity and its merited retribution; but as Washingtons name defied the poets ability to introduce it into French verse, it never once occurs in the whole poem.
Villagrás poem is all the more important as an historical document, because it is the only one that covers the whole career of Don Juan de Oñate from the first project of the conquest of New Mexico down to the revolt of the pueblo of Acoma, and the final reduction and destruction of that city on the beetling crag. It is the only key to the early history of New Mexico. Documents of great value have been printed in Mexico and Spain; books were printed at an early day containing important matter relating to that curious cluster of Pueblo Indians before and after the Spanish conquest; but a student finds himself groping blindly in his endeavor to trace the series of events till he reads the poem of Villagrá.
Any one who has read the accounts of the conquest of New Mexico, by Oñate, either in works especially devoted to that territory, like those of Davis or Prince, or works in which the subject is treated incidentally, must have seen that these writers flounder in a most extraordinary manner as to the very date of Oñates expedition, and betray complete ignorance as to its earlier stages. They leave you in a delightful mist of uncertainty whether the Spanish commander set out in 1591, or in some year between that and the last year of the century. Yet here was a work in print, not one of the highest rarity, written by one of the very conquistadors of New Mexico, an officer who served in the expedition and proved himself a gallant man at armsa work in which he gives, with exact particularity, dates of events, names of officers, priests, and soldiers, names of Indian chiefs and places, till the verse reminds one of the second book of the Iliad, or passages in Shakespeares historical plays. It may not be poetry, but we may thank the poet for his poem.