Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

The Myth of the Heliades in Góngora: Poplars, Poetics and the Petrarchan Tradition

Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

The Myth of the Heliades in Góngora: Poplars, Poetics and the Petrarchan Tradition

Article excerpt


This essay examines a series of poems by Luis de Góngora that focus on the myth of the Heliades, the sisters of Phaeton who were transformed into poplar trees after his death. It argues that Góngora embraces the poplar instead of the laurel in order to distance his work from the Petrarchan model and to define his own aesthetic, one that privileges the act of emulation.


Este ensayo explora una serie de poemas por Luis de Góngora que se enfocan en el mito de las Helíadas, las hermanas de Faetón que fueron transformadas en álamos tras la muerte de éste. Se muestra que Góngora escoge el álamo en vez del laurel para distanciar su obra del modelo petrarquista y para definir su propia estética, que privilegia la emulación.

In his De secreto conflictu curarum mearum, Petrarch (1304-1374) represents an imaginary conversation with Augustine, in which the saint recalls his conversion under the fig tree:

Augustine: [...] with a marvelous and joyful rapidity, I was transformed into another Augustine, whose story I believe you know from my Confessions.

Francesco: I know it, of course: nor can I ever forget that life-giving fig tree, under whose shadow this miracle happened to you.

Augustine: I should hope not, for neither myrtle nor ivy, nor even that laurel dear (so they say) to Phoebus, should be so welcome to you. Even if the entire chorus of poets should yearn for that laurel and you above all, who alone among all of your contemporaries were worthy to have its sought-after leaves as your crown, yet the remembrance of that fig tree should be dearer, if, after many tempests, you one day arrive in port for it portends a sure hope of correction and pardon. (Cited in Freccero 1975: 37)

Petrarch pays homage to the saint by privileging the fig tree over the laurel but he pays perhaps even greater homage to himself: through Augustine's voice, he claims for himself and himself alone the symbol of the laurel. As John Freccero has argued, the opposition between the fig tree and the laurel embodies the distinction between the aesthetics of Augustine and Petrarch. The fig tree is an 'allegorical sign' that points to a reality beyond the text: the existence of God (1975: 37). The laurel, in contrast, is a more circular sign, one that gestures towards the text itself: 'Petrarch makes of it the emblem of the mirror relationship 'Laura-Lauro', which is to say, the poetic lady created by the poet, who in turn creates him poet laureate' (1975: 37). For Petrarch, to define himself as a poet was to embrace the tree of Apollo, the god of the lyre and lyric.

For subsequent poets, however, to embrace the laurel was to define themselves as followers of Petrarch, to inscribe their poetry in the tradition of the Rime sparse. If they wished to distance themselves and their work from this aesthetic, they needed to adopt Petrarch's strategy in the Secretum: they had to find a new arboreal sign. This essay will examine how the Spanish poet Luis de Góngora y Argote (1561-1627) sought to situate his poetry under the shade of a different tree. It will focus on an under-studied series of poems that celebrate not the laurel but the poplar tree.

The poplar and the laurel are similar in that they both are born of metamorphoses. The laurel results from Apollo's unsuccessful pursuit of Daphne, while the poplars result from the failed flight of Phaeton: after Phaeton's chariot crashes into the Po, his sisters, the Heliades, are so overcome with grief that the gods take pity on them and transform them into poplars, which shed amber tears along the banks of the river. Although both stories involve trees and transformations, they stand for very different types of verse. The story of Daphne and Apollo associates poetry with desire: lyric serves to express unfulfilled longing. The myth of the Heliades, in contrast, is a tale not of unsuccessful love but of an unsuccessful rivalry: Phaeton's doomed attempt to equal his father's glory. …

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