The Spanish poet, soldier, and diplomat Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga (1533-1594) wrote the famous historical poem "La Araucana," which was the first work of genuine poetic art about any part of America.
Alonso de Ercilla was born in Madrid on Aug. 7, 1533, the youngest child of a distinguished father high in governmental circles and a tutor of Prince Philip, later Philip II of Spain, and of an aristocratic mother of royal lineage. Ercilla practically grew up in the royal household and was a companion of Prince Philip on his early travels, including the journey to London in 1554 to wed Mary Tudor, Queen of England.
News of events in faraway Peru stirred Ercilla's spirit of adventure, and he left Europe for America, arriving in Lima on July 6, 1556. He joined the expedition to Chile headed by the Peruvian viceroy's youthful son, Garcia Hurtado de Mendoza, and participated in the warfare of the Spaniards against the natives of that remote land.
On scraps of paper in the lulls of fighting, Ercilla jotted down versified octaves about the events of the war and his own part in it. These stanzas he later gathered together and augmented in number to form his epic La Araucana, in three parts and 37 cantos. It was the first poem of its kind written by a participant in the course of the events narrated and the first to immortalize the beginnings of a modern country. Although his purpose was to glorify Spanish arms, the figures of Araucanian chiefs, Caupolicán, Lautaro, Tucapel, Colocolo, and Galvino, have proved the most memorable. In the minds of the Chilean people La Araucana is a kind of Iliad that exalts the heroism, pride, and contempt of pain and death of these legendary Araucanian leaders and makes them national heroes today. Ercilla thus initiated the concept of the "noble savage," destined to have wide literary currency in European literature 2 centuries later. He had, in fact, created a historical poem of the war in Chile which immediately inspired many imitations.
After Ercilla's return to Spain in 1562, he made several diplomatic journeys to Austria, where his mother was a maid of honor at the imperial court, and also to Rome. In 1570 he married the aristocratic Doña María de Bazán and, after other diplomatic missions, settled permanently in Spain in 1577. He had published the first part of La Araucana in 1569, and its popularity led to the composition and publication of the second part in 1578 and the third part in 1589. Ercilla's later years were saddened by the loss of his only son, and his own death occurred in Madrid on Nov. 29, 1594.
There is no biography of Ercilla in English. Background information is in Bernard Moses, Spanish Colonial Literature in South America (1922; repr. 1961). Charles Maxwell Lancaster and Paul Thomas Manchester, The Araucaniad (1945), is a translation of Ercilla's epic.