Introduction to Archibald MacLeish’s “Conquistador”

The Dedication of Archibald MacLeish’s “Conquistador” is a line from Dante’s Inferno “O brothers, who amid a hundred thousand/ Perils,' I said, 'have come unto the West,” and the poem, if we are to believe the electronic World Book, does describe most of the perils that Bernál Diáz faced while accompanying Cortéz in the conquering of the Aztec Empire.

But the poem obviously attempts to do much more than that. The Prologue to the poem raises the question:

And the way goes on in the worn earth:
and we (others) –
What are the dead to us in our better fortune?
They have left us the roads made and the walls standing:
They have left us the chairs in the rooms:
what is there more of them –

Suggesting that we owe an obligation to those who have preceded us, an obligation the poet feels bound to explore.

One of MacLeish’s aims that seems to coincide with Bernál Diáz’s goal in originally writing is history is to show the conquest from the perspective of one who participated rather than from a latter historian’s viewpoint. In “Bernál Diáz’s Preface to His Book” MacLeish has BD say:

I am an ignorant old sick man: blind with the
Shadow of death on my face and my hands to lead me:
And he not ignorant: not sick -
but I

Fought in those battles! These were my own deeds!
These names he writes of mouthing them out as a man
would
Names in Herodotus - dead and their wars to read -

These were my friends: these dead my companions:
I: Bernál Diaz: called del Castlilo:
Called in the time of my first fights El Calán:

In fact, according to an article by Rolena Adorno, one of Diáz’s main goals was to refute the histories that were being written by others, histories that some times questioned the morality of the conquest of the Aztecs. Diaz, because he was there, argues that his history is merely the record of his life:


I: poor as I am: I was young in that country:
These words were my life: these letters written

Cold on the page with the split ink and the shunt of the
Stubborn thumb: these marks at my fingers:
These are the shape of my own life

When accused of merely writing his own history in order to protect his fame, MacLeish has Diáz reply:

"The tedious veteran jealous of his fame!"
What is my fame or the fame of these my companions?
Their tombs are the bellies of Indians: theirs are the
shameful

Graves in the wild earth: in the Godless sand:
None know the place of their bones: as for mine
Strangers will dig my grave in a stony land:


Even my sons have the strangeness of dark kind in them:
Indian dogs will bark at dusk by my sepulchre:
What is my fame!

In other words, he has no fame, instead he lives in Mexico surrounded by children by an Indian mother who seem strange to him. He expects nothing more than to have “Indian dogs” bark as his “sepulcher,” for he, like most of his compatriots will end up in an unknown grave in a “foreign” land.

Later he remarks:

Where have they written our names? What have they
said of us?
They call the towns for the kings that bear no scars:
They keep the names of the great for time to stare at -
The bishops rich-men generals cocks-at-arms:

Those with the glaze in their eyes and the fine bearing:
The born leaders of men: the resonant voices:

They give them the lands for their tombs: they call it
America!

(And who has heard of Vespucci in this soil
Or down by the lee of the coast or toward the Havana?)
And we that fought here: that with heavy toil

Earthed up the powerful cities of this land -
What are we? When will our fame come?

raising the question of why it is that the “common man,” the man who really does all the fighting is forgotten, while the names of kings or bishops who have done nothing are predominant in the land the comman men died to conquer. When will the common man be recognized for his true contribution to history?

Although Diáz seems resigned to his fate:


We were the lords of it all. .
Now time has taught us:
Death has mastered us most: sorrow and pain
Sickness and evil days are our lives' lot:

It is not a fate that he welcomes or accepts readily, still a warrior at the end of his life.

The final argument developed in the poem is what Rolena Adorno called the argument that the conquest of the Aztecs was a “just war,” not just a war fought to steal the Indians’ gold:

New-spilled blood in the air: many among us
Seeing the priests with their small and arrogant faces:

Seeing the dead boys' breasts and the idols hung with I
Dried shells of the hearts like the husks of cicadas
And their human eyeballs and their painted tongues

Cried out to the Holy Mother of God for it:

If we are to believe Diáz, the war was also fought to put an end to the ghastly sacrifices that the Aztec Empire demanded of both surrounding tribes and of their own people. Cortéz’s soldiers were so offended by the rituals they witnessed that they felt compelled to destroy the Aztec empire, and the preface ends with:

And none of us all but had his heart foreknown the
Evil to come would have turned from the land then:
But the lives of men are covered and not shown –

2 thoughts on “Introduction to Archibald MacLeish’s “Conquistador”

  1. I was pleasantly surprised to find your analyses of several elements of MacLeish’s Conquistador, a poem that has fascinated me since 1982. There ae also parts of it that seem to resist understanding almost deliberately. I have heard it called epic; but I wonder if it is more of an epyllion, albeit a long one, in the way that the Callimachean style understood epyllion. I also wonder if the initial material in the poem doesn’t make it top-heavy (or, more accurately, beginning-heavy). I mean, we have MacLeish’s voice in the Prologue; then Diaz’s Preface; then the invocation which sounds like Vergil’s voice, then back to Diaz. I almost wonder if MacLeish erred in too many beginnings, and should have just swept right into it in Book 1. I am curious as to what your response would be on this. Thanks!

  2. I’ll have to admit that I, too, felt the poem was “beginning heavy,” which caused some initial confusion and made the poem seem more unapproachable than it really turned out to be.

    I’ll have to think about the “epic” concept.

    I’m not sure that the poem wasn’t almost an anti-epic, as Diaz’s fate seems anything but heroic.

What do you think?