Garcilaso de la Vega and the Pastoral Tradition

Christopher Fitzpatrick

University College

Garcilaso de la Vega, the chief poet of the Spanish Renaissance, deserves to be better known in the English-speaking world, not only because of his poetry?s intrinsic merits but also because of his creative use of classical and Italian sources.  In a few short years - he died during a military skirmish in 1536 at the age of thirty-five - he composed sonnets and canciones which stand comparison with those penned by Petrarch, Ronsard and Spenser.  But by common critical agreement, his pre-eminent poems are the three pastoral eclogues that he composed during the two years before his death; these poems are not only creatively Virgilian, but also display other features inherited from the classical literary world together with topoi from the Italian Renaissance milieu, which itself had effected a recreatio of the Graeco-Roman pastoral model.

Since its beginnings as a literary form under Theocritus in the third century b.c. the pastoral poem has tended to be composite in terms of themes discussed and issues raised.  Unlike the epic genre, for instance, there is no confinement to a single identifiable theme; the specifically ?pastoral? content - that of shepherd-lore and shepherd-songs - is often subordinate to allegorical themes and non-pastoral contemporary allusions.  There is not even a singly-agreed name for the poetic form of pastoral poetry; individual poems are called by such names as ?idylls?, ?bucolic poems? and ?eclogues? (the last of which derives from a Greek word meaning ?set piece?).  In my view, pastoral poetry does not constitute a specific genre but is a mode of expression which often discusses themes and emotions far removed from a bucolic ambiente. Thus, several of Theocritus? idylls have no pastoral content whatsoever; Virgil?s Fourth Eclogue is an elaborate prophecy far removed from the songs of shepherds and, although shepherds people the landscape in all of Garcilaso?s three eclogues, what they say is often at odds with bucolic sentiment - particularly in the Second Eclogue.  What is important to emphasise is the artificiality of the pastoral construct, even as early as Theocritus - although through this artificial medium various statements of contemporary political and social realities sometimes percolated.[1]

I use the word ?artificial? advisedly in this context without any pejorative intention: the notion of artificiality is one of the central paradoxes of the bucolic mode of poetry.[2]  Some of the characteristics of Theocritus? pastoral idylls (such as the amoebean songs of the shepherds singing in competition with each other) have their ultimate origin in Greek and Sicilian shepherd-songs, but the literary sophistication of Theocritus? poems shows how far removed they are from an oral culture.  Theocritus was an erudite man writing for a cultured audience; Virgil?s eclogues were intended for cultivated reading circles and Renaissance eclogues (among which those of Garcilaso are to be included) were the staple reading of courtly circles.[3]  The seeming paradox between the use of an apparently ?uncultivated? and ?rustic? poetic theme and the sophistication of its form in practice is explained by the fact that the pastoral poem tended to flourish at times when a civilisation had reached its apogee, and when political freedom of expression had been precluded by the absolutist rule of an autocrat.  The pastoral vision of a Golden Age redolent of simplicity, natural pleasures and freedom from discord forms a stark contrast to the cares and complications of civilised life.  This is not to say that pastoral poetry did not treat of contemporary political events and personages, but great care was usually taken to avoid giving offence to rulers and those in authority.  Thus, in his First Eclogue, Virgil obliquely refers to the restoration of his estates through the good offices of Octavian (later Augustus), but the fact that Octavian himself has been responsible for evictions and confiscations of land is not mentioned.[4]  Similarly, in the second half of Garcilaso?s Second Eclogue the imperial ideal of war in the pursuit of power and conquest is regarded as praiseworthy; however, we know from elsewhere that Garcilaso had grave misgivings about the nature of war.[5]

The fact that Garcilaso was well aware of the artificial nature of pastoral poetry (in which shepherds speak as highly educated men) is demonstrated in the ironic comment of Albanio in the Second Eclogue (lines 395-7):


Why these grandiose words?

Who trained you to be an eloquent philosopher?

You are only a shepherd and a goatherd.[6]


The irony partly lies in the fact that Albanio is mad and does not realise the gravity of his condition.  But he is right when he says that the arguments and language used by Salicio (whom he is addressing) are very different from those that would be used by an unlettered shepherd.

Thus, we have this seeming contradiction in terms: a ?primitive? form - songs of supposedly uneducated shepherds - being brought to the level of refinement[7] and artifice.  Pseudo-shepherds express themselves in a masquerade bucolique; social and mythological complexities are articulated in a manner far beyond the capability of any contemporary shepherd.  But these complexities are often used in a constructive and purposeful way - elucidating, for instance, the theme of poetic immortality in Garcilaso?s Third Eclogue.

Much has been written on the continuity and development of the pastoral tradition in poetry from Theocritus to the Renaissance.  However, I feel that not enough attention has been paid to the social and political background which gives pastoral poetry its special status.  Just as tragic drama - for instance, revenge tragedies in England from 1590 to 1640 and honour tragedies in seventeenth-century Spain - has tended to flourish in societies which are undergoing the throes of social change, so too the proliferation of pastoral poetry presupposes radical changes in political structures and social mores.  To elucidate my argument, I will briefly examine the background to Theocritus, Virgil and the pastoral poets of quattrocento Italy before setting in context the contribution of Garcilaso in respect of the originality of his approach and his synthesis of the tradition he inherited.[8]  As the pastoral tradition developed over the centuries new influences were added from other poetic genres and even from the plastic arts.  Many poetic sources are discernible in Garcilaso?s eclogues and yet there is also much that is original - not the least of which are the Spanish geographical references.

Theocritus, Virgil and Garcilaso de la Vega were poets who lived under imperial political regimes.  They also lived during, or immediately after, periods when war was being waged to amass further conquests or to consolidate the territories which had recently been conquered.  It is my belief that these facts are not unconnected and that they are particularly important for an understanding of Garcilaso?s persona.  (Before the sixteenth century, not many Spanish poets were actively and chronically involved in the theatre of war.  But in the sixteenth century Garcilaso along with Gutierre de Cetina and Francisco de Aldana (his poetic successors) were professional soldiers and died in military campaigns.)  With regard to Theocritus, Virgil and Garcilaso, the question of the ?changed society? is all-important.  The new, bureaucratic and centralised State had emerged - self-confident and expanding.[9]  This went hand in hand with the development of absolute monarchy and the consequent loss of political power which the noble and patrician families had previously enjoyed. Thus in Idyll 17 Theocritus addressed a rather obsequious encomium to Ptolemy II, who is seen to be the representative of Zeus on earth.  Although the eclogues of Virgil were composed before Augustus achieved full power as imperator, the political background is seen to be very different from Roman republicanism of previous generations. The Fourth Eclogue suggests that the peace which Romans greatly desire can only be attained by means of a dynastic, ?imperial? marriage - probably between the families of Mark Antony and Octavian.[10]  Similarly, in the poetry of Garcilaso, the Emperor Charles V, whom Garcilaso serves, is unmistakably absolutist in the style of a Roman emperor, as the first lines of the Second Elegy show:


Here, Boscan, at the final resting-place

of the brave Trojan Anchises,

whose name and life have been immortalized by Virgil,

we now find ourselves in position as victors

under the illustrious standard of the emperor,

Caesar Africanus...[11]


In this passage, with its Virgilian echoes, Charles V is implicitly compared to ancient Roman heroes who possessed imperium - especially Scipio Africanus, an important military leader.  His is not only a ruler but also a leader in battle; his good leadership ensures victory in war.  Whatever Garcilaso may have thought privately about war and the imperial ideal of military conquest, the sense of imperial ambition is obvious here.

Just as the adjustment from an oligarchical political structure to that of an absolute monarchy involves the loss of comparative political freedom, so too is the poet circumscribed in his freedom of expression.  By the time of Theocritus? floruit, it was no longer possible for playwrights to include political satire in their plays on the lines of Aristophanes; the polemical invective of Demosthenes? speeches was similarly unthinkable. The same situation was also true of the Roman world. By the times of Virgil, the tradition of political lampooning - of which there are many examples in Catullus - had died out. Effectively, Cicero?s Philippics marks the end of this road. Typically, the pastoral poet in the classical tradition retreats from the public world into a private, semi-artificial realm, where the ambience is that of harmony and otium (or at least potentially so). Contemporary political life is usually only referred to obliquely, and sometimes allegorically; the only form of invective used is the earthy (and therefore innocent) banter between shepherds.

The change from oligarchy to absolute monarchy also occurred in the fifteenth-century Spain, and this change is reflected in the poetry of the period.  Before the accession of Isabella I there was a succession of weak kings in Castile: royal favourites and nobles jockeyed for power and there was much political intrigue and corruption of court. Not surprisingly, many poems (some of them anonymous) were written condemning the lack of attention to duty on the part of the kings and the rapaciousness of the nobles; sometimes the kings were attacked through their favourites. This came to an end with accession of Ferdinand and Isabella as joint sovereigns of Spain; the power of the nobles was broken and the monarchy was strengthened.  But even at the end of the fifteenth century, it was still possible for poets to address moralising poems to the Catholic monarchs, commending them while also reminding them of their duties to God and to their subjects.

After 1520, however, with the defeat of the Comuneros revolts in Castile, references to the Emperor Charles V in poetry are usually obsequious.  He is seen to be all-powerful and his word is law; as God?s representative on earth, no doubt is ever expressed about his worthiness or the rightness of his conquests.  (This process of dedicating adulatory poetry to a ruler, while being careful not to criticise, continued during the reign of Philip II.)[12]  A celebrated example of this is the sonnet Al emperador by Gutierre de Cetina, a poeta italianizante and follower of Garcilaso:


By means of the power, granted by heaven, to conquer

so many stiff-necked enemies, despots, and peoples,

the posthumous honour

and glory that you,

the great Emperor Charles the Fifth,

will receive will be very great.[13]


The Emperor is seen as a guardian of civilisation at an international level; his theatre of activity is very different, of course, from that of a fifteenth-century Castilian king. The emphasis here is not only on the Emperor?s effectiveness as a ruler but on his ruthlessness against aggression and dissent. From the modern point of view, there is a dichotomy between the Emperor?s rÛle as a Christian leader - he was regarded as the leader of Catholic Europe against the threats of Protestanism and Islam - and his status as an imperial expansionist. In the latter rÛle he appears to resemble a tyrannical Roman emperor for whom the conquest and subjugation of peoples was of paramount importance.[14]  But the Emperor Charles V was not alone in his expansionism at this period: absolute monarchy was also emerging in England and France.

Against this scenario (where freedom of expression on public matters was severely curtailed), it is not surprising that poets retreated into a conventionalised ?private? world, not without its own conflicts, but idyllic to a greater or lesser extent.  In the pastoral tradition, however, the settings are always idyllic: the land, which is always fertile, abounds with well-fed flocks of cattle and sheep.  It is redolent of the joy and plenitude of a Golden Age which authors from Hesiod onwards associated with a far-off mythical past.[15] However, the emotions expressed in the songs sung by the shepherds demonstrate levels of conflict which, to a greater or lesser extent, are at odds with their surroundings.  Sometimes these shepherds in their songs use language and concepts quite foreign to what might be expected of a bucolic environment: at any rate, the notion of the locus amoenus was more important for the pastoral poets of the Renaissance than it was for the ancients. 

This search for a rarefied world of simplicity and innocence (far removed from the contemporary world of complications and political duplicity) is a pressing concern of the early cinquecento Neapolitan poets, such as Sannazaro and Tansillo, who were contemporaries or near-contemporaries of Garcilaso, and who influenced him greatly. The idyllic landscape, peopled with nymphs, is no longer the background to action but becomes an end in itself. Neoplatonic idealism and the Epicurean attachment to the pleasure-principle are thus combined, as in certain sonnets by Luigi Tansillo and Michelangelo Buonarroti.[16]

This poetry, with its sense of lyrical escapism, was written during the twilight-period of the Italian Renaissance: the old sense of equilibrium and harmony, characteristic of quattrocento culture had disappeared, to be replaced by ?Arcadianism?. This Arcadianism was a poetic countermeasure against unpleasant contemporary facts: for example, the loss of the political independence of certain Italian states, and also the fact that half of the Italian peninsula was under Spanish rule (which involved the diminution of Italian prosperity, because the Spanish crown taxed heavily).  This Arcadianism is also discernible in certain sections of Garcilaso?s eclogues and was influenced by his contact with the contemporary Neapolitan litterati, as in this example from his Third Eclogue (57-64), where the landscape is also peopled by nymphs:


Near the River Tagus, in a beautiful secluded spot,

there is a thicket of willow trees

which is covered with ivy.

The ivy weaves and encircles the trees

up to the top of their trunks,

leaving no space for the hot sun to shine on the cool greenery;

the river water bathes the meadow  and as it does so

delights the grass and the ear with its beautiful sound. [17]


While there are obvious similarities between Garcilaso?s use of the locus amoenus and the pastoral poetry of the Italian Renaissance poets, there are also some important differences.  In the cinquecento poets, the locus amoenus serves as an end in itself, as it were; shepherds may mourn reverses in the course of true love or even the death of a comrade but the sense of loss is usually not permanent and the locus amoenus helps to bring solace.  A tragic event is treated in a melancholic, not a tragic fashion.  In Garcilaso?s eclogues, however, the locus amoenus serves as a background to a situation, action or argument which is far removed from the bucolic tranquillity of the Renaissance pastoral poem.  Thus, in his First Eclogue, the songs of Salicio and Nemoroso are full of statements of discord at odds with the peaceful environment in which their flocks feed; in the Second Eclogue, a panegyric of the Duke of Alba, full of descriptions of war, is juxtaposed with a celebration of the peaceful and fertile environs of Alba de Tormes, where war and conflict have no place.  The specificity of place is also important in Garcilaso?s eclogues.  Again, unlike the Italian Renaissance poets for whom geographical location in lyric poetry tended to be vague, Garcilaso?s three eclogues are firmly set in Spain, even though the specific locale is idealised in each case.

Garcilaso, although he was man suffused with Italian culture and was on intimate terms with the Neapolitan litterati in the early 1530s, naturally viewed the contemporary political situation somewhat differently from the Italian poets.  He was, after all, in the service of the Emperor, the most powerful monarch of the age; he was a member of an illustrious family from Toledo, and Toledo was where his heart lay (as is shown in his Third Eclogue and other poems).  Military service on behalf of the Emperor demanded much of his time and he naturally was in danger of being killed in battle on several occasions - indeed, he was wounded several times.  It cannot be emphasised enough that Garcilaso?s rÛle as poet and courtier had to be subservient to his duties as a soldier.  This explains, to some extent, the obvious sense of realism present in his poems - a realism quite different from the dream-like quality of Sannazaro?s Arcadia, for instance - even though the Arcadia itself influenced Garcilaso.  It also explains why the facile search for otium, as far as Garcilaso is concerned, does not provide a workable solution for the problems of love, war, death and the passage of time.  The notion of otium is discernible in Garcilaso?s eclogues, but it is not simply an end in itself.

The notion of otium needs to be explained here.  It represents the opposite of negotium (trouble, worry).  At one level, otium corresponds to the temporary pursuit of leisure - activities enjoyed during intervals from work.  (The Greek word sxolv means both ?leisure? and ?study - activity?).  For Garcilaso, as for the Romans, ocio (the Spanish for otium) means both leisure-time and also the time available to him for poetic composition (Third Ecolugue, lines 29-32):


Apollo and the sister Muses will grant me

the leisure and the eloquence to sing your praises,

but to do so adequately

would be beyond my powers. [18]


On the other hand, otium can also refer to a lifestyle involving escapism - what might be called in Spanish ?la vida retirada?.[19]  This concept derives at least partly from the philosophy of Epicurus and his followers, which taught the doctrine of ataraxia (freedom from care, detachment).  This new attitude of withdrawal is very much in keeping with what I have said about the increased complexity of society in a new, centralised administration under the rule of an emperor or emperor-like figure. It is not surprising, therefore, that the notion of otium became such a literary commonplace during the Hellenistic period and that it deeply affected Roman poetry from Lucretius onwards.[20]  By the time of the Renaissance, a debased form of Epicureanism had fused with the main currents of Neoplatonic thought.

            This fusion of the Graeco-Roman pastoral mode, the ?Epicurean? ambiente and elements of Neoplatonic idealism is brilliantly exemplified in Garcilaso?s Third Eclogue. Composed in 1535-6, when the Italian Renaissance was approaching its end, it links the classical heritage of lyric and pastoral poetry with the traditions of the Italian courtly lyric in a truly original way and includes a specifically Spanish geographical dimension.  His oeuvre compares favourably with that of his innovative contemporaries in other European countries, such as the Pléiade in France and Wyatt and Surrey in England.

[1] Thus, Virgil?s Ninth Eclogue deals with the question of the eviction of landowners, which occurred after the death of Julius Caesar; the panegyric in Garcilaso?s Second Eclogue gives a comprehensive description of battles waged by the military forces of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire against the incursions of the Ottoman Turks into Central Europe.

[2] Pastoral poetry inevitably became more artificial in style as it developed over the centuries, because it became further removed from shepherd-lore.  See E. Rivers, ?The Pastoral Paradox of Natural Art?, Modern Language Review 77 (1962), 130-144.

[3] It is noteworthy that pastoral poetry became popular at the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his Medici successors after the effective demise of democracy in Florence.

[4] In fact, Octavian is referred to as a god in lines 6-8 of the eclogue; this prefigures the later belief in the divinity of the Roman Emperors.

[5] Garcilaso makes this particularly obvious in his First Elegy, lines 82-7.

[6] ¿Para qu3?4 son manÍficas palabras?/ ¿Qui3?4n te hizo philÙsopho eloqòente,/ siendo pastor d?ovejas y de cabras?

[7] From Virgil onwards, the pastoral poem became more refined in its use of language. The shepherds use ribald expressions in some of Theocritus?s idylls; there is much less ribaldry and sexual explicitness in Virgil?s eclogues and by the time of the Renaissance it has disappeared altogether.

[8] The question as to whether Garcilaso could read Theocritus in the original remains unresolved. However, Theocritus?s Idylls were well-known in cultured Italian circles and were available in translation; also, Greek was known to some of the cognoscenti in the Naples of the 1530s.

[9] It is also worth noting that in all three of these societies the political structures which could prove to be a threat to absolute monarchy lost much of their power.  This is true of the Greek Popular Assemblies, the Roman Senate and the Castilian Cortes.

[10] See R. Coleman (ed.), Vergil, Eclogues, Cambridge 1977, pp. 150-4.

[11] AquÍ, Bosc«n, donde del buen troyano/ Anchises con eterno nombre y vida/ conserva la ceniza el Mantuano,/ debaxo de la seÔa esclarecida/ de Caesar affricano nos hallamos/ la vencedora gente recogida...

[12] During the sixteenth century, the kings of Spain ruled absolutely and did not use favourites.  However, during the seventeenth century, the kings of Spain did rule through favourites (known as privados or validos); this period also marks the return of political invective directed against kings, favourites and the customs at court. The most exemplary of these satirists was Quevedo.

[13] El vencer tan soberbios enemigos,/ sujetar tantos monstruos, tanta gente,/ con el valor que el cielo en vos derrama,/ al siglo por venir ser«n testigos/ del honor que dar« perpetuamente/ a Carlo Quinto M«ximo la fama.  (See B. LÙpez Bueno (ed.), Sonetos y madrigales completos de Gutierre de Cetina, Madrid 1981, p. 285).

[14] Virgil (Aeneid 11.314 ff.) explains the logic of wars of conquest: although war is necessary for the conquest and consolidation of territory, the furor of war drives out ratio.

[15] There was a belief in the ancient world that four ?ages? comprised the history of the world: golden, silver, bronze and iron. The Iron Age was regarded as the lowest of the four, and humanity was thought to be always seeking to recover the pleasures of the bygone Golden Age. This Golden Age was an age of simple pleasures, free from the threats of violence and war.

[16] We knew that Garcilaso and Tansillo were good friends in Naples: they both served the Viceroy of Naples. Some of Tansillo?s poems certainly influenced Garcilaso and his poem I due pellegrini influenced the poetic form of Garcilaso?s First Eclogue.

[17] Cerca del Tajo, en soledad amena,/ de verdes sauzes ay una espessura/ toda de yedra revestida y llena,/ que por el tronco va hasta el altura/ y assÍ la texe arriba y encadena/ que?l sol no halla passo a la verdura;/ el agua baÔa el prado con sonido,/ alegrando la yerva y el oydo.

[18] Apollo y las hermanas todas nueve/ me dar«n ocio y lengua con que hable/ lo menos de lo que?n tu ser cupiere,/ que?sto ser« lo m«s que yo pudiere.

[19] This type of otium is extolled by Salicio in his lyrical song (lines 38-76 of Garcilaso?s Second Eclogue). This is a loose translation of Horace?s Beatus ille.

[20] Otium and an Epicurean detachment from the troubles of life are themes which appear in many of Horace?s Odes, e.g. 2.11.

COPYRIGHT: All material published in Classics Ireland is copyright. Responsibility for, and ownership of, copyright remains with the author of each article.
© Classical Association of Ireland :