The Inevitable Fall from Grace

For me, the heart of MacLeish’s “Conquistador” lies not in the story of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico but in Díaz’s inevitable fall from glory. In the end, what, if anything, has he really conquered? What did it gain him to help conquer one the richest nations in his world? Were the seeds of his fall in his very victory?

Ironically, from the very beginning of the poem Díaz seems anything but happy because Díaz is retelling his story. Not only does he lack the fame he feels he rightly deserved, but his very life seems miserable:

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!

He senses that he, like most of those who accompanied Cortés in the conquest, appears to be headed to a nameless grave in a “Godless” country. Even his reference to his heirs, his sons with “the strangeness of dark kind in them” seems a racial slur, a reference to their half-Indian heritage. Worse than that, instead of honoring their father they spend their days in the whore houses.

According to the New Advent Encyclopedia, Díaz wrote his history to “to vindicate the valour of himself and others who had been completely overshadowed by the exaggerated reputation of Cortés.” In other words, even during his lifetime he had faded into “ancient history,” with little recognition or honor. Díaz clearly blames some of this lack of fame on the fact that he was a “commoner,” that only the rich, those who had little to do with the actual conquering of Mexico, gained fame from the conquest:

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?

The very land that Cortés and many of his compatriots died conquering is instead named after kings, bishops, and rich-men generals who stayed safely at home. These lands serve as eternal tombs for the rich, while those who sacrificed their lives are forgotten. Diáz specifically names Diégo Velásquez and his niece:

“Pledged to the said Diégo Velásquez his (say)
“Niece and the deal was for loot in the new countries:
“And we that should win them to walk the ruts for our pay!

“And rot in the bleeding fields and die with our guts out!
“The old inherit the earth and the young fatten it!
“After the wounds: after the war’s done

“The old ones sit with the itch of their stones and the rattle of
“Age in the rake of their throats like the sleet in the stubble
“Bounding the new-won lands by the bones of the battle fields.!

It’s hard to miss his disdain for those who safely sit at home but claim the rewards paid for with the lives of men who sought adventure.

At first, Díaz seems to blame his failure just on the rich old men who stayed in Spain but financed the voyages. Later, though, it becomes clear that he realizes that there is an element of Fate at work here:

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 –

It’s almost as if the evil lay waiting for the Conquistadors, knowing that they would come and set these forces into motion. But the men had no way of knowing this, for their Fate is hidden, “covered and not known,” just as it is for all men.

And, later, there is another indirect reference to Fate:

"Great fault of those wars!"
and so as he spoke the
Die fell: and we lost our lives: and we lost the
land for it after: and the town was sown as

Dry salt with the bitter seed: and with slaughters
And much death in that house: the thousands slain. .
Sleeping among those walls we heard the water

Treading behind us with its ceaseless waves.

In this case, Fate seems almost chance-like. Once Cortés made his decision, the future of their lives was cast. The Conquistadors “lost” their lives, and the slaughter and death forever despoiled that town. For a moment the men

… 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:

No matter how high a man reaches, “sickness and evil days” are still his lot. “Sorrow and pain” are as inevitable for those that attain the highest goals as they are for all of us.

If somehow we escape such sorrows when we are young, as we age:

… the life goes out of us leaving the chucked sherds!

Leaving an old man’s memories to leach
Like a cock’s jewels of gravel and worn thin
With the sleepless caul of the heart and hard and clean:

Leaving within the eyes behind the fingers
Back of the soft lid and the scarlet vein
The harsh flash of the steel where the light lingers!

There is no way to escape the inevitable onslaught of age, and memories of past glories are as apt to haunt us as they are to comfort us, especially when he has not gained the fame he feels he should have.

For Díaz, those that came after him despoiled the victories he had shared with Cortés:

And those that had jeered at our youth (but the fashion changes:)
They came like nettles in dry slash: like beetles:
They ran on the new land like lice staining it:

They raised the Spanish cities: the new hills
Showed as the old with the old walls and the tether of
Galled goats in the dung and the rock hidden. . .

Old . . . an old man sickened and near death:
And the west is gone now: the west is the ocean sky. . .
o day that brings the earth back bring again

That well-swept town those towers and that island. . .

The Edenic moment, those halcyon days Diaz spent inside the palace before the priests slew the boy and forever despoiled the dream, have been displaced by Spaniards who came “like lice” and set up new Spanish cities, forever displacing the beautiful city that was at the heart of Mexico, and, ironically, Díaz helped make it all possible.

If such a fate awaits those who accomplish impossible, heroic deeds, can we expect any other fate? Surely we commoners, like Díaz, cannot expect much better. Are those soldiers who take Iraq going to share in the wealth that will be gained from the new oil fields, or will the spoils of war once again, as always, fall to the wealthy, to the old men who stay home and count their wealth while the young men die?

3 thoughts on “The Inevitable Fall from Grace”

  1. Thanks for this, Loren. It helps me a great deal in understanding MacLeish’s point of view in his later work. I think you are on to something strong here, because MacLeish certainly wasn’t one to glorify war or conquest!

  2. Jeff, there are some other poems in this section that seem to tie in with this poem, poems that further develop the “common man” theme, whether common man as hero or common man as victim.

    They also seem to tie in with his preoccupation with the “leaf” and “tree” as symbol.

    I’m glad you got me interested in re-reading him.

    Thanks, Shelley, I was a little amazed at how many people paid attention to this poem and how many times I’ve been Googled for MacLeish.

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