Bernál Diáz’s Tragedy

Although at first appearance Archibald MacLeish’s "Conquistador" seems merely an accurate recreation of Bernál Diáz’s history, further analysis reveals some subtle conflicts that are not evident at first but that reflect themes developed in other MacLeish poems.

On one level, the poem can be perceived as more sophisticated version of Bruce Springsteen’s "Glory Days." Diáz is looking back at a glorious heroic event he participated in, but we, the reader, already know that he wil end up living in the land he conquered with an Indian wife who he certainly does not love and with children who he disdains, and a feeling that his efforts have been denigrated because he is merely a commoner. At first these events may seem unrelated, but as we read we discover that the heroic conquest of Mexico contained within it the very seeds of his destruction. The poem might well be called the "Tragedy of Bernál Diáz," commoner.

It is this tension between the heroic victory and the personal failure that gives this poem its power.

5 thoughts on “Bernál Diáz’s Tragedy”

  1. “..more sophisticated version of Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days.”

    What a wonderful way of looking at this. I actually find myself wanting to read the whole poem. All hundred pages.

  2. Now, if I can just fill out the graphic with words.

    I guess it’s obvious I’m struggling with this poem more than usual, but that’s partially because I’m stuggling with it here on my weblog.

    If I were writing about it in college the paper would probably end up being a 25 page paper with nearly a hundred footnotes, hardly appropriate for a web site.

    And certainly requiring more effort and time than I have available right now

  3. Very impressed with this analysis. I think Conquistador contains a lot of hidden treasures for those who are willing to dig them out. I don’t think MacLeish inteded it that way; but, in my opinion, his derivative approach to it covers up the triumphs that he actually achieves in it from time to time. When I first read it, in 1982, my initial response was “He is trying too hard,” and it shows. I recall reading, somewhere, that Pound critiqued it negatively, knowing it was a rather sloppy response (or, perhaps, imitation?) of The Cantos, themselves an ultimately sloppy piece of work. One of the prime examples of the “trying too hard” is the three beginnings—prologue, preface, and invocation. It is almost as if MacLeish did not trust his evocation of the Diaz voice, and needed to validate it with his own and with an imitative Vergillian invocation. I suppose we will never know the compositional sequence, but I am convinced that he began with what is now Book I, and appended the three beginnings as an afterthought. They read like afterthoughts, or ceremonial speeches before the keynote speaker finishes his desert and gets up to make the main speech. Eliot did something of the same thing in The Waste Land. The original first part, entitled He Do The Police In Different Voices, was a long, drawn out bar scene that Pound slashed entirely. “April is the cruelest month” was actually well into the poem, at first, and not its first line. It’s as if both of these poets needed a really useless scaffold on which to hang the real gist of the poem. While I deplore Pound as a peot (except for the Personae), I think he was a top-notch editor. I believe he would cut all of Conquistador’s preliminary material, starting the thing out with Book I, where an epic or epyllion ought to start.
    The invocation, if one is needed, is embedded in Book I of any epic or epyllion (and repeated as needed further on). MacLeish would have been wise to let Diaz do his own invocation, and maybe making Diaz’s Indian wife the Muse of his account of the Conquest’s true history.

  4. He didnt say he disdains his kids. He said ‘Even my sons have the strangeness of dark kind in them’. He is not Spanish and not Mexican. He is hardly alive and hardly even feels human, so ‘What is my fame?’

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