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Alonso De Ercilla La Araucana Analysis Essay

In The Poetics of Empire in the Indies, James Nicolopulos investigates literary representations of sixteenth-century Iberian colonialism and imperialism by analyzing Alonso de Ercilla’s "La Araucana," a narrative poem that recounts the initial phases of the Spanish conquest of Chile in the mid-sixteenth century, and Luis de Camoens’s "Os Lusíadas," the epic celebration of early Portuguese maritime expansion in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Delving into the epic traditions of the Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance periods, Nicolopulos outlines practices of imitation within the two poems, focusing specifically on the employment of epic models in "La Araucana." Having made powerful connections to Ercilla’s literary and critical predecessors, Nicolopulos demonstrates that the contemporaneous publication of "Os Lusíadas" further affected the content and presentation of "La Araucana." In so doing, he elucidates the rivalries—poetic, political, commercial—between Spain and Portugal during this age of expansion.

An investigation into imitation and representation in colonial texts, The Poetics of Empire in the Indies offers new connections between two early literary representations of Iberian imperialism.

“An admirable piece of scholarship. Nicolopulos’s history of these poems’ imperialist projects—from their inception to recent critical interpretations—is one fully as engrossing as the poems themselves.” —Anne J. Cruz, University of California, Irvine
“This book is a meticulous and erudite study of Alonso de Ercilla’s strategic use of the prestige of Classical and Renaissance texts in the epic poem “La Araucana” to construct a poetics that inscribes the poet’s own ventures in colonial Chile within a world-encompassing imperial design commensurate with the imperial pretensions of his king, Philip II.” —Luis Fernando Restrepo, Sixteenth Century Journal
“From all points of analysis, The Poetics of Empire constitutes a commendable work of serious scholarship that skillfully vehicles a new appreciation of Renaissance practices of imitation.” —Kathryn Bishop-Sanchez, South Atlantic Review
“It is an important, thorough, Borgesquely instructive mapping of Iberian mantic imperialism in the 1570s, worth close reading itself.” —Fabio Lopez-Lazaro, South Central Review
“Yet for its acuity and rigor of reading, for its thorough accounting of the contours and coordinates of the epic traditions and conventions, for its sustained attention to the details and differentia specifica of the two texts compared, for its demystification of the discursive logic of imperialism, and for its contestation and reformulation of a theory of imitatio, The Poetics of Empire in the Indies can justly be reckoned as an impressive and consequential intervention in the areas of comparative literature, Renaissance studies, and colonial discourse analysis all at once.” —Azfar Hussain, Rocky Mountain Review

James Nicolopulos is Assistant Professor of Spanish at the University of Texas at Austin. He collaborated with Chris Strachwitz on Lydia Mendoza: A Family Autobiography (1993) and has published his work in the journal Lucero and in Aspects on Medieval and Renaissance Translation in the Iberian Peninsula (ed. Roxana Recio, 1994)

After a sea voyage of almost three months, from the Peruvian port of Callao, Alonso de Ercilla arrived at the northern Chilean port of La Serena on April 23, 1557, setting sail again bound for southern Chile in June. At the end of that month, he disembarked near Concepción where he learned of the Araucanians’ hostility for the first time on August 25. He participated in almost every battle against the Araucanian resistance, and during this period he probably started to write La Araucana. One night in July, 1558, Ercilla had a violent argument with Juan de Pineda (the reasons are unclear), for which the governor García Hurtado de Mendoza condemned them both to be beheaded the following morning. An influential lady (whose identity is unknown to us) intervened in their favor and their sentences were commuted just before the order of execution was to be carried out. After some eighteen months in Araucanía, three of which he spent in prison, Ercilla embarked for exile in Peru either at the end of December of 1558 or at the beginning of January of 1559 (Medina 38-81).

This brief stint by the poet in Chile has sufficed for some critics to accept Ercilla’s testimonial authority on early Chilean history and to trust his capacity to portray literarily real Indians of the Arauco War (Manchester 47-49). However, the analysis of the literary models on which La Araucana relies has cogently called into question this “verista” tradition of criticism.1 Additionally, after counting the verses within the poem corresponding to the aforementioned period, and discounting those concerning events of which [End Page 119] Ercilla did not claim first-hand knowledge, including the European incidents of San Quintin, Lepanto, and Portugal, Marcos Morínigo demonstrated that less than one sixth of the total 21,160 verses are of testimonial value (“Introducción” 25). Considering the experiential record of Ercilla in war-torn Arauco and the restricted inclusion of this experience into the poem, I would like to re-examine one of the most basic and widespread views on La Araucana, to wit, the poet’s admiration for his Araucanian enemy.2 This traditional interpretation is partly founded upon such salient characteristics of Ercilla’s epic as the extensive portion of the narrative action that takes place from the Araucanian side and the meticulous presentation of several Araucanian warriors in contrast to the absence of a singular and clearly defined Spanish hero.3 It is also founded on the famous author’s own meditation on this issue, in the prologue to the first part:

Y si alguno le pareciere que me muestro algo inclinado a la parte de los araucanos, tratando sus cosas y valentías más estendidamente de lo que para bárbaros se requiere, si queremos mirar su crianza, costumbres, modos de guerra y ejercicios della, veremos que muchos no les han hecho ventaja, y que son pocos los que con tan gran constancia y firmeza han defendido su tierra contra tan fieros enemigos como son los españoles … Todo esto he querido traer para prueba y en abono del valor destas gentes, digno del mayor loor del que yo le podré dar con mis versos.

(1: 121-22)

Although the controversial internal hesitations of La Araucana and the ideological preferences of its author have been tackled and successfully depicted by recent scholarship, the relationship between these preferences and Ercilla’s portrayal of the Indians’ role in his account of the war has not been sufficiently addressed.4 I argue that Ercilla’s interest in the Araucanians as presented in the epic itself is very limited and primarily determined by the politico-moral purpose of his work, and that the inclination towards the Indian [End Page 120] enemy is nothing but the resulting illusory effect of Ercilla’s moral rejection of his corrupted fellow conquistadors.

A process of idealization of the Indians makes possible the aforesaid instrumentalization, but this idealized portrait is a deceiving feature of the poem. Many critics have seen in Ercilla’s poetic representation of the Amerindian...

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