Conquistador: In his truly fine poem Archibald MacLeish makes this word whistle and flash like a blade of Spanish steel. But there are no overblown heroics here. Avoiding the stale approach of the historian, of “this priest this Gomara with the school-taught skip to his writing,” MacLeish turns over the telling of his story to Bernal Diaz, an old man who in his youth was a soldier with Cortes and who confines his tale to “’That which I have myself seen and the fighting.’. . .” The result, as Diaz rambles on with simple eloquence, becomes an impressionistic, sensual record of the bravery and the brutality, the sickness of defeat and the tingle of triumph that are all a part of conquest.
Diaz’ narrative follows the exploits of the first Spanish conquerors of Mexico under the leadership of Cortes, but the story is neither complete nor fully connected. Episodic and broken, it is what a veteran would remember when he is old and going blind. Wisely, MacLeish does not force Diaz into passing moral judgment on the Spaniards or the Indians, into pondering tricky questions on the rights of the conquerors and the conquered. Of the massacre of the natives at Cholula, Diaz says simply:
They died slowly with much pain likeserpents:Our hands were lame with the swordwhen the thing was done. . . .And who are ye to be judge of us . . . ?
When Diaz does exercise judgment it is mainly to deride the men who were “not there”: Vespucci, who gave his name to two continents, but who was unknown in Cuba and Mexico; Velasquez, who tried to restrain Cortes and his men, to block them, to take credit for their victories. Such touches make this truly Bernal Diaz’ story, not MacLeish’s, and by this sublimation of the author’s personality to that of his narrator, MacLeish has given the story an absorbing reality. But it is, of course, MacLeish’s poetic talent that turns CONQUISTADOR into one of the finest long poems of this century.
For his stanza form MacLeish has chosen a variation on terza rima and by skillful shifting of the rhythm he avoids monotony; by delicate use of assonance and consonance he creates a sensuous music that is felt as well as heard. Listen to (and feel) these stanzas describing the life of Cortes’ men in a rare time of peace among the Indians:
And the girls they gave us for love withthe scented hair:The green light through the leaves: theslow awakening:How there were many and small birdsin the air then. . . .We were like those that in their landsthey sayThe steers of the sun went up throughthe wave-lit orchardsShaking the water drops and those goldnakedGirls before them at their drippinghorns!And they ate the sea-doused figs withthe salt taste:And all their time was of kine and ofsea and of morning:
This passage reveals the subtle, musical effects of his technique. In the first stanza there is the unobtrusive “scen-ken-then” of terminal assonance and the outright rhymes of “hair” and “air”; in the second, “say-wave-nake” and “orchards-naked”; and in the third, “horns-morn,” with an echo of the second stanza in “taste” and, as a kind of fillip, the internal “time-kine” combination. Such ingenuity, while sustaining a clear thought, calls for the highest technical skill. All is so cleverly done that one must almost ponder the lines to realize the effects of imagery and tonal pattern.
Oddly enough, the major flaw in CONQUISTADOR is a result of MacLeish’s decision to let the whole story be Diaz’. In achieving unity and reality and the balance between hardship and glory that is the soldier’s lot, the poet has played down the overall drama and climaxes to the point of flatness. The death of Montezuma, for instance, becomes little more important than the death of a favorite war stallion. Here is the way Diaz describes it:
And the smoke coiled on the coldstones: and we went byDawn on the wall-head there: andMontezumaClad in the gold cloth: gilded: and hesmiled:He climbed by the stair and smilingand they slew him:
Even Cortes himself is presented as a shadowy figure, more a symbol of leadership than a man. (“This is Cortes that took the famous land.”) Perhaps this is the way the soldier sees the great men; perhaps it is only history and legend that lifts the leaders above the led.
But Diaz, the narrator, is certainly no shadow. He emerges from the poem as a full character, fiercely alive and tenderly human. In his preface Diaz calls himself “an ignorant sick old man,” but he takes pride that he fought in the battles, that he was there. Disclaiming any desire for fame, he mourns, as death comes closer, that his youth is past, that his companions are nearly all gone. Yet he remembers that once
We were the lords of it all. . . .Now time has taught us:Death has mastered us most: sorrowand painSickness and evil days are our lives’lot:Now even the time of our youth hasbeen taken:Now are our deeds words: our liveschronicles:Afterwards none will think of the nightrain. . . .
By remembering the night rains, the mountains, the windy ditches, the taste of melons, Diaz elevates a story that might have been a dry chronicle of battles to the level of high poetry. He is a professional soldier with a keen eye for military strategy, but he is also a sensualist, a man whose memory holds vivid impressions of a strange land that was alternately a paradise and a hell. He can catch the details of the fighting, of the drums rolling “like the thud in the ear of a man’s heart”; he can take satisfaction in the Spanish cannons that mow down scores of Indians as the link chain slashes their bellies. But equally well he can describe a market in an Indian town: the corn, the fish, the hides “smelling of oak,” the sellers of “lettuces washed cool” and of henequen, the makers of rope and “of stone masks of the dead and of stone mirrors.” The reader of CONQUISTADOR can see, hear, and feel with Diaz.
When the wars are over, the conquest complete, Diaz disparages the colonists who come like lice to build their Spanish cities. For him “the west is gone now” and CONQUISTADOR ends with his final dream:
O day that brings the earth back bringagainThat well-swept town those towers andthat island. . . .
The literature of the United States has been criticized for its failure to produce an epic in poetry or prose which records and matches the epic event in our history: the opening of the American West. All we have been able to come up with, some say, is the stylized “Western” of the paperbacks, the movies, and the television programs that is like a stale joke repeated over and over. MacLeish has chosen to go south to Mexico for his story and in doing so he has avoided stumbling onto any well-worn paths. An American has written a great poem about the history of our continent. CONQUISTADOR is an epic.