The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Ernesto Cardenal’s “The Lost Cities” consists of nine sections of irregular stanzas, ranging from six to twenty-six lines. The meditative poem arises from a visit to the Guatemalan ruins of Tikal, vestiges of the Mayan civilization at its apex. It pays homage to the great achievement of the classical Mayan civilization, laments its disappearance, and envisions its return to its former grandeur. The poem opens and closes with multisensory descriptions of nocturnal creatures inhabiting the abandoned ruins of the Mesoamerican city. They represent nature’s return to their home displaced by temples carved out of the jungle’s rock. The body of the work deals with the cyclical nature of time and the rise and fall of civilizations. The poet wonders whether the stone temples will again emerge from beneath the vines and thickets.

The Mayan concept of time is the dominant recurrent theme. Secondary themes of religion and the changing faces of civilization are intertwined with its primary focus. The poet as visitor to Tikal meditates upon the ruins, envisions its past splendor, contrasts it with present-day Central American society, and hypothesizes the return of its former greatness. The juxtaposition of temporal descriptions from different eras leads the reader backward and forward through time. Abrupt contrasts with Nicaragua’s harsh dictatorship and the brutality of the military regime temporarily break the harmonious and mystical aura of the acropolis. Even as it is overrun with jungle flora and fauna, its majesty is awe-inspiring and thought-provoking. While the poet wonders whether the Maya can reclaim mastery over their temples, stelae, towers, chronicles, and genius, nocturnal creatures claim Tikal as their domain as his question remains unresolved.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The structure is a loose arrangement of irregular verse lines. Each verse describes a particular aspect of the ancient Mayan civilization and its historical context. Each stanza serves as a descriptive passage that may be rearranged to form a panoramic composite. Generally, lines alternate between three and four stressed syllables. The stanzas do not adhere to a consistent metric pattern. They vary in length, and some contain lines with more or less than four stressed syllables.

The poem’s content is more consistent than its structure. Symbols found in nature and antiquity convey the poet’s temporal message. Nocturnal scenes open and close the poem. Among the plentitude of flora and fauna, only the jaguar that “roars in towers” reappears. In the third stanza, this sacred creature returns in the form of a high priest’s cape, an evocation of ritual ceremony that revives Mayan past splendor. The revered jaguar’s endurance links nature’s strength to human aspirations and their search for divine union.

The second stanza distinguishes between the present-day wildlife and their stylized depiction in frescoes. The poet contrasts their endurance and integrity with the lives of descendants of the ancient inhabitants. He wonders how the contemporary Maya can record their greatness in hieroglyph, painting, and dethroning “tyrants.” In closing, he questions how they can rebuild their civilization.

The third stanza provides a visual explanation for these questions. As the acropolis lies buried beneath the jungle, only wild animals inhabit the abandoned city. The sacred quetzal shares Tikal with the lowly tapir. The poet evokes the past deification of the bird through personification of the...

(The entire section is 709 words.)