Alonso de Ercilla y Zuniga
Spanish soldier and poet, b. in Madrid, August 7, 1533; d. in the same city, Nov. 29, 1594
Ercilla y Zuñiga, ALONSO DE, Spanish soldier and poet, b. in Madrid, August 7, 1533; d. in the same city, November 29, 1594. After his father’s death, his mother became lady-in-waiting to the Infanta Maria and made young Alonso a page to Prince Philip. Ercilla received a very thorough education, for, besides having the most learned teachers, he enjoyed the advantages of very extensive travelling and of living at court where he came in contact with high personages. When he was only fifteen he accompanied Philip through Italy and Germany; and their travels lasted three years. Later, Ercilla accompanied his mother to Bohemia where he left her and then visited Austria, Hungary, and other countries. Returning to Spain, he soon started out again with Philip. In London he made the acquaintance of Jeronimo de Alderete (1555), whose stories of his thrilling adventures in the New World so fired Ercilla’s imagination that he determined to accompany Alderete to the New World. He therefore obtained leave from Philip, and they set sail for America, October 15, 1555. Soon after their arrival, however, Alderete died (near Panama, April, 1556). Ercilla continued on his way to Peru, and in 1557 joined the forces of Garcia Hurtado de Mendoza, who had recently been appointed Governor of Chile. During the succeeding two or three years he played a brilliant part in combating an insurrection among the natives of Arauco, a province of Chile, suffering great hardships, and distinguishing himself several times in battle. After a severe illness he returned to Spain in 1562, and for a time resumed his travels through Europe. In 1570, he married Doña Maria de Bazàn, a woman of illustrious family and of intellectual attainments. He died at Madrid neglected and in great poverty.
Ercilla’s great work is “La Araucana”, an epic poem of thirty-seven cantos, describing the difficulties encountered by the Spaniards during the insurrection in Arauco, and the heroic deeds of the natives as well as his companions. The epic partakes of the character of history, and the author adheres with such strict fidelity to the truth, that subsequent historians characterize his work as thoroughly trustworthy. In it the difficult art of story-telling is carried to perfection. Places are admirably described, dates are given with accuracy, and the customs of the natives faithfully set forth, giving to the narrative animation and coloring. The poem was published in three parts, the first appearing in 1569, the second in 1578, and the third in 1590. The best editions are those published by the Spanish Academy in 1776 and 1828.