A discussion of the poetry of the Spanish American countries in historical terms properly begins with the often-overlooked pre-Columbian period. Studies of indigenous American civilization have shown unquestionably that poetry occupied a central place in the cultural life of the people. The growth of knowledge concerning these civilizations has been accompanied by increasing emphasis on pre-Columbian themes in contemporary Spanish American poetry, thus underlining the fact that the poetry of the greater part of Spanish America has a claim not only to a Spanish peninsular heritage but also to an indigenous one.
Of the early civilizations of America, the Maya, the Aztec and the Inca produced poetry. The absence of writing in these civilizations or the abstruseness of the writing system, such as existed in the Maya civilization, meant that the transmission and survival of this poetry depended on an oral tradition. The indigenous poetry has been made available to us through transcriptions made when the Spanish alphabet arrived. In some cases the Indians dictated poems to Spanish missionaries; in others the Indians themselves took advantage of the newly -learned alphabet to record for posterity the literary creations of their societies.
There are two groups of extant pre-Columbian poetry. One comes from the Aztec civilization which occupied a part of what is now Mexico and used Nahuatl as its predominant language. The other comes from the Inca empire of Tavantinsuyu in which the predominant language was Quechua and which in its time covered the larger part of South America with its centre in Cuzco, Peru. The poetry of both these civilizations reveals that the main function of lyric poetry, which was accompanied by music and sometimes by dancing, was in praise of the gods. For the Aztecs war was a natural concomitant of their religion: prisoners of war were an important source of sacrificial victims. The commemoration of battles and the praise of heroes are often employed themes in Aztec poetry. The poets of Tavantinsuyu wrote many songs in praise of the rulers of the Inca empire and in praise of agriculture in which this society distinguished itself.
The writing of poetry was carried on in diverse parts of the empire and was not limited to any special group or caste, as was the case in the Aztec civilization where the poets were usually priests Common to both societies was poetry that dealt with the mystery that life represents; and in these poems the ubi sunt and carpe diem motifs, which are common in lyric poetry of all epochs, are to be found. The poems cover a narrow range of imagery with flowers, birds, the land and the sea appearing frequently; and a predominant structural characteristic is the use of anaphora or parallelism. This technique, which through repetition gives emphasis to a certain motif, is often to be found in early Western literatures. Here, for example, is a poem entitled “Vida efimera” (Ephemeral life):
Solo venimos a dormir, solo venimos a sonar:
no es verdad, no es verdad que venimos a vivir en
En yerba de primavera venirnos a convertirnos:
llegan a reverdecer, llegan a abrir sus corollas
es una flor nuestro cuerpro: da algunas flores y
|(We came only to sleep, we came only to dream:
it is not true, it is not true that we came to
live on earth.
We came to turn ourselves into springtime grass:
our hearts come to life again, they open their
our body is a flower: it gives some flowers and
The Spanish presence in America in the early sixteenth century proved to be both a help and an obstacle to the spread of the indigenous literatures. On the one hand, the fact that they brought with them the alphabet and a prestigious language into which the indigenous literatures could be translated helped to bring this literature to universal attention. On the other hand, the conquest and the establishment of the Spanish colonial system in America destroyed completely the cultural roots from which indigenous poetry had sprung. Also, the preservation of this poetry, like that of other aspects of the indigenous culture during the period of conquest, depended on the attitude of the individual, in many cases the missionary, on whom the decision rested: that is, on whether he saw his mission in America as essentially one of discovering or of destroying what was encountered there.
A large debt is owed, for instance, to Bernardino de Sahagun, whose curiosity and humility enabled him to search for and record a considerable number of Aztec poems. Diego de Landa, however, considering the art and artefacts of Mayan civilization to be works inspired by the devil, destroyed the greater part of what he found. In Peru the preservation of some of the pre-Columbian production was assured by the interest awakened in it by Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616), the son of a Spaniard and an Inca princess, who in his Comentarios reales de las Incas (1609, 1617) gave an account of that poetry with some translations. For the indigenous people pre-Columbian poetry survived only faintly during the colonial period. The Spanish authorities at times prohibited the reading of literature dealing with the pre-Columbian era.
The main aim of the Spanish writers in Spanish America in the first years of conquest and colonization was to inform Spaniards about the New World. Prose was the best vehicle for this, and the cronica became the best cultivated of the genres in early Spanish American literature. Because of the considerable information it contained, the first important poem written in Spanish America shows a resemblance to this genre. The epic poem La arattcana (1569, 1578, 1589) was written by the poet-soldier, Alonso de Ercilla y Zuniga (1534-1594), while fighting with the Spaniards in Chile against the obdurate and valiant Araucanian Indians, and describes with some admiration the character of these people and their political and military organization. It was written by a poet who, schooled in the poetics of the Renaissance, had read Virgil and Ariosto and could not avoid interpolating some of the techniques and material of the traditional epics. In attempting to keep co the tradition of the genre, he introduces scenes into the poem which are not made to cohere with the main level of reality presented. The result is an uneven poem that falls short of greatness. La araucana, however, was popular in its time and justly continues to be popular.