(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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. . . .

(The entire section is 1185 words.)