A Sonnet from Carthage: Garcilaso de la Vega and the New Poetry of Sixteenth-Century Europe

A Sonnet from Carthage: Garcilaso de la Vega and the New Poetry of Sixteenth-Century Europe

A Sonnet from Carthage: Garcilaso de la Vega and the New Poetry of Sixteenth-Century Europe

A Sonnet from Carthage: Garcilaso de la Vega and the New Poetry of Sixteenth-Century Europe


In 1492 the Spanish humanist Antonio de Nebrija proclaimed that "language has always been the companion of empire." Taking as his touchstone a wonderfully suggestive sonnet that Garcilaso de la Vega wrote in 1535 from the neighborhood of ruined Carthage in North Africa, Richard Helgerson examines how the companionship of language and empire played itself out more generally in the "new poetry" of sixteenth-century Europe. Along with his friend Juan Boscán, Garcilaso was one of the great pioneers of that poetry, radically reforming Spanish verse in imitation of modern Italian and ancient Roman models. As the century progressed, similar projects were undertaken in France by Ronsard and du Bellay, in Portugal by Camões, and in England by Sidney and Spenser. And wherever the new poetry emerged, it was prompted by a sense that imperial ambition--the quest to be in the present what Rome had been in the past--required a vernacular poetry comparable to the poetry of Rome.

But, as Helgerson shows, the new poetry had other commitments than to empire. Though imperial ambition looms large in Garcilaso's sonnet and others, by the end of the poem Garcilaso identifies not with Rome but with the Carthaginian queen Dido, one of empire's legendary victims. And with this startling shift, which has its counterpart in poems from all over Europe, comes one of the most important departures the poem makes from its apparent imperial agenda.

Addressing these rival concerns as they arise in a single sonnet, Richard Helgerson provides a masterful and multifaceted image of one of the most vital episodes in European literary history.


When I began writing this essay in July 2005, the role I imagined for it was wholly unlike the role it now takes. It was to have been a chapter in a large comparative study on the self-consciously “new poetry” of sixteenth-century Europe. With frequent looks back at Petrarch and the Greeks and Romans, this book was to have spent much time in sixteenth-century Italy before focusing its greatest energies on Spain, France, and England—the Spain of Juan Boscán and Garcilaso de la Vega, the France of Joachim du Bellay and Pierre de Ronsard, and the England of Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser.

It was a study worth pursuing. in that century and with those writers, the very place and nature of poetry changed in ways that have had extraordinarily long-lasting consequences. in effect, these new poets, as they called themselves, invented the modern poetry of those three great western European countries and, by extension, most of the rest of Europe as well. Such a study would have taken considerable time and effort. But the time and effort would have been happily rewarded by much new learning I would have had an excuse to take on. During the previous several years, I had begun just such a leisurely course of selfeducation with an edition and translation of one of the finest and most influential of the new poets, the Frenchman Joachim du Bellay, an edition I completed and sent to its publisher in June just before turning to the Garcilaso chapter, and I was looking forward to many other such wanderings along the way. At that pleasant rate, the five-to-six-year book I was imagining could easily have stretched out to fill decades.

Then on August 23—the day after my sixty-fifth birthday—reality of a harsher sort intervened. My doctor announced that I had an inoperable pancreatic cancer and that, other than securing immediate, specialized medical care, my first job should be setting my affairs in order. With that news, the chapter on Garcilaso came to a stop midsentence and all plans . . .

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