Thursday, February 7, 2008

Rafael Landívar, neo-Latin poet - shall I not now rush with spear upon the clever beavers

Neo-Latin literature* is the realm of specialists. A couple of books - Thomas More's Utopia (1516) and Erasmus's In Praise of Folly (1511) - are widely read, as they should be. What else? Harvard University Press has created a neo-Latin series to parallel their Loeb Classical Library, the I Tatti Renaissance Library. Pietro Bembo, Petrarch and Boccaccio's Latin work, Ficino's Platonic Theology in many, many volumes. I read reviews of these books with some interest, but I haven't been convinced that I should crack a spine myself. For specialists, mostly.

Andrew Laird's The Epic of America: An Introduction to Rafael Landívar's Rusticatio Mexicana (2007) is also for specialists, really. Landívar (1731-93) was a Jesuit priest, born in what is now Guatemala, educated in Guatemala and Mexico. He was a central figure in the small world of colonial humanism. When the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish empire in 1767, Landívar fled to Italy, where he wrote his major poetic work, the Rusticatio Mexicana (1781). Laird's book consists of a long essay** about Landívar and his work, and a reprint of the Latin poem, with a facing-page English translation.

Rusticatio Mexicana is essentially imitative. Of what, though? The base is Virgil's agricultural poem, the Georgics, itself an imitation of Hesiod's Works and Days. This explains why a poem about Mexico by a Jesuit priest is full of references to Venus, Orpheus, Phoebus, and so on. But Landívar is late in the neo-Latin tradition, so he is not just imitating Virgil, but also numerous earlier imitations of Virgil, along with many other works. Laird's introduction is very useful for sorting this out.

The poem itself is a fifteen canto practical description of Spanish Central America. "The Lakes of Mexico", "Cochineal and Purple"***, "Beavers", "Sugar", "Birds" - those are some of the canto titles. I know, it sounds thrilling, but does the poem live up to its promise?

How could it. For modern readers, the interest in Virgil's Georgics is in the digressions, images, and inset stories, not in the descriptions of Roman agriculture. The pieces of the Rusticatio Mexicana are unfortunately mostly just what they say they are. The canto on "Sugar" even includes labeled engravings of sugar mills, which does not make for dynamite poetry:

Orbita (a) tune axem (b) tignis compacta profusum etc.
[L]et a wheel (a), supported by braces, encircle the long axle (b)...

There are exceptions. The canto on the 1759 eruption of the Jurullo volcano has characters and a narrative, and imitates Old Testament prophetic books rather than classical sources. Some of the natural history and anthropology is interesting. And the section on beavers is sort of hilarious. It borrows heavily not just from the Georgics' description of bees but also from Utopia. The beavers all work together in a sort of communist society, except for the ones who have been driven from the community for their "crimes". Here's an unusually vivid metaphor:

"As a deranged step-mother prepares a cup of poison for her son’s wife and amiably offers her the cup to drink, and the latter, unaware of dire peril, takes the deceptive drink and drains the cup of black death with great relish, thus the beavers, deceived by the treacherous gifts, exchange their peaceful life for a violent death.” p. 170

The real reason to read this book, which is obviously not for everyone: it's evocation of the world of educated, humanist, 18th century Spanish America, all new to me. Laird's book, and Landívar's poem, fill in a little corner of the historical map.

I heard about this book from the Classical Bookworm. Thanks for the tip.

* Post-medieval Latin. Not Roman, not Thomas Aquinas.

** My favorite part of Laird's essay is where he says that indifference to his work is "not very far removed from the bigotry and prejudice shown towards the Americas and their peoples, which Landívar and his compatriots encountered in Europe in the 1760s." p. 7. Ha! Neo-Latinist scholars in England play rough!

** While enjoying Renaissance paintings in the Uffizi, try to forget that the canvases are smeared with ground up beetles


  1. Thanks for this. The price tag on the book has scared me away, but I'm still curious about it. Especially the communist beavers. I know there are some Americans who would think that was a fair metaphor for Canada. :D

  2. I'm returning my copy to the library on Tuesday, so you can pick it up after that.