Lope's Arcadia: A Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

By Collins, Marsha S. | Renaissance Quarterly, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Lope's Arcadia: A Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


Collins, Marsha S., Renaissance Quarterly


At the beginning of Lope de Vega's pastoral romance Arcadia (1598), the narrator invites readers to gaze imaginatively, as if on a painting, on an alluring Arcadian valley at the foot of Mount Maenalus: "It seems to the eyes of one who looks at it from afar a pleasant canvas of artful painting, in which the richest and wisest shepherds of Arcadia had their homes, livestock, and farms." (1) The narrator further characterizes this locale of powerful visual and elitist appeal as a literal realization of a locus amoenus, an "ameno sitio," and observes that the flowers here rival the stars in heaven in their abundance and varied colors, likening their diversity to what one sees when viewing objects through a prism:

  In the meadows that from some distance were revealed, it seems that
  mistress nature wanted the land to compete in beauty with the stars in
  heaven in the variety of flowers, and there the spring of mythology
  spread her speckled carpets from the thefts of Jupiter; because one
  could not gaze upon those happy fields in any way other than that in
  which everything one gazes on through prisms seems iridescent, of
  changing lights and colors. (2)

These words elegantly assert that the narrative simultaneously sustains numerous levels of signification, offering encouragement to look at the imaginary world of the text from different perspectives and acknowledging that each reader will perceive and interpret Arcadia in different ways.

Lope's invitation seems remarkably prescient, given the high profile contextualized interpretation has assumed in recent criticism of the pastoral, from Annabel Patterson's notion of changing ideological responses to Lawrence Buell's concept of multiple ideological frames of interpretation and Paul Alpers's idea of the representative shepherd, which makes pastoral "a generative fiction, which can be elaborated or transformed in accordance with the needs of representation or the claims of representativeness." (3) The transformative potential evinced by these viewpoints, enacted by new authors and audiences through the ages, has doubtlessly contributed to pastoral's status as a vibrant, enduring form of fiction; yet paradoxically this adaptability arises from an imaginary construct known for conventional modalities well-established, at least, since Virgil's Eclogues. The idealized, beautiful Arcadian topography, for example, almost invariably consists of verdant fields and forests, crystalline streams and waterfalls, and rocky caves and outcroppings. Accordingly, Lope's descriptive passage echoes the opening of Sannazaro's Arcadia (1504), which in turn elaborates on the model of the Arcadian landscape provided by Virgil and others. The author in this way alerts his readers that they have entered a world at once artful and artificial, resonant with literary allusions familiar to a cultured audience, and stresses as well that the reader should pay attention to the artistry of the creator of this imaginary cosmos. The self-consciousness of the gesture deflects any instinctive impulse on the part of readers to project themselves into the narrative, emphasizing the deliberate formulation of interpretive frames over abandonment to the pleasures of fiction. (4)

Over the years Arcadia has been viewed through different sides of the critical prism, as a paean to the House of Alba, a roman a clef to Lope's years in service to the Duke of Alba, as a "pastoral-monster" of a Baroque aesthetics of excess, as a prototype of the modern novel, and as "a pastoral romance of ascetic pilgrimage," among others. (5) This essay turns the critical prism in another direction, analyzing Arcadia as a fictionalized self-portrait of the author looking back on himself as a younger man, and at the same time presenting himself as a cultured, accomplished poet articulating a nascent poetics. Alpers has observed that pastoral convention does exactly what the word "convention" literally implies: it convenes shepherds, bringing them together to exercise a poetic practice to make up for a loss, separation, or absence. …

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