In Search of the American Virgil

John Kuhner |

On the Latin Poetry of Fr. Rafael Landivar

 The Volcan de Agua looming over Antigua Guatemala.
  The Volcan de Agua looming over Antigua Guatemala.

Looking out through the doorway of the former Jesuit residence in Antigua Guatemala, you notice one thing: the ominous, perfectly framed cone of one of the world’s most intimidating volcanoes, the Volcán de Agua. A row of single-story shops sunk below grade on the other side of the plaza barely registers: all the eye sees is nature’s Sword of Damocles poised over the city. The twelve-thousand-foot stratovolcano first intervened in the history of Spanish Guatemala in 1541, when it destroyed the colony’s first capital, now called Ciudad Vieja, five miles away. The Spaniards built a new city at a slightly greater remove, but not far enough away to make any difference. The view through the doorway looks like a piece of Baroque moralizing, like the grim reaper that holds an hourglass over the heads of the tourists in St. Peter’s in Rome. It is as if the architect wished to say to anyone going through the door: Look here, and notice — here is God’s lovely, terrible, life-giving, destructive beauty.

The doorway, with its view, looked little different on the twenty-sixth of June 1767, when Father Rafael Landívar, of the Society of Jesus, passed through it for the last time. A troop of Spanish soldiers had encircled the compound in the middle of the previous night and was now removing the Jesuits and placing them under arrest. Their possessions were forfeit to the illustrissimo and Christianissimo King Carlos III, though in his royal generosity he did allow them to bring a prayer book and “whatever of clothing they need for their journey.” The removal was a surprise. Wishing to avoid any wrangling, Carlos had sent sealed orders to the governors of the Spanish Empire, who set out to capture all Jesuits within their provinces by a series of quickly executed clandestine raids. Landívar and his companions did not know precisely what was happening: after the necessary instructions had been given, the operation was conducted in silence. The soldiers had orders to kill any Jesuits who opened their mouths. Even the encyclopedist Jean d’Alembert, no fan of the Catholic Church, was scandalized by the despotism of a European monarch arresting thousands of his subjects without warning or charge, allowing them no opportunity of defense, and expelling them impoverished from their homes. We know less about what Carlos’s subjects thought, because discussion of the expulsion, in public or private, was prohibited by law.

Landívar was led out with the other Jesuits that morning and marched two hundred and fifty miles to Castillo de San Felipe, on Central America’s malarial east coast, where they were stacked into Spanish warships for the journey to Italy. Due to incompetence, cruelty, delays, and diplomatic wrangling, the refugees did not arrive in the Papal States for almost a year. Of New Spain’s 678 Jesuits, 102 died during the journey; three hundred would be dead within five years.

Landívar was one of the Jesuits who survived. Considered one of the most brilliant members of the company, he was thirty-six, and had been rector of the Jesuit college in his native Antigua. An academic wunderkind, he entered seminary at the age of seven and took his bachelor’s degree at sixteen. Celebrated for his affability and extraordinary command of Latin, he became Professor of Grammar and Instructor in Rhetoric at the Jesuit college of San Francisco Borja at twenty-four. When Francisco José de Figueredo y Vittoria, the Archbishop of Guatemala and an important patron for the order, died in 1765, it was the young Landívar who was chosen to deliver his eulogy. He had a brilliant career ahead of him in the Society of Jesus.

Exile, and the ultimate dissolution of the Jesuit order in 1773, changed all that. Landívar ended up in Bologna, where a large number of former Jesuits from New Spain had congregated. He no longer had any career prospects: the Papal States had been inundated by more than ten thousand expelled Jesuits from all over the world. He became a parish priest and ultimately the rector of the church of Santa Maria delle Muratelle. An eighteenth-century biographer, Félix de Sebastián, praises him as an exemplary priest, though perhaps not exceptionally social. “His real concerns,” he reports, “were holy Scripture, theology, and asceticism.” While describing at length his piety and religious devotion, Sebastián mentions only in passing what Landívar is known for today: a fifteen-book epic poem, in Latin dactylic hexameters, about life in New Spain, called the Rusticatio Mexicana. Known only to a handful of scholars in the English-speaking world, the Rusticatio is more famous in Latin America. Four Spanish translations were published in the twentieth century (one, a verse effort by Francisco Chamorro published by the National University of Costa Rica Press, is now in its third edition). After World War II, a brief sunny period in Guatemala’s clouded political history — coinciding with the election of president Juan Arévalo, who established the first Humanities Faculty at the Universidad Nacional — precipitated a burst of enthusiasm for Landívar’s work. The poet’s remains were repatriated from Italy, and a tomb and monument constructed in Antigua. The first English translation of the Rusticatio, by Graydon Regenos, appeared in 1948 (now available in a 2006 edition edited by Andrew Laird under the title The Epic of America). The year 1950 was declared an Año Landívariano, and a journal, Estudios Landívarianos, founded. The Jesuits returned, establishing a university named for Landívar. But all this came to a swift end: the United States sponsored a coup in 1954, and a series of military dictatorships led to a thirty-six-year-long civil war that did not conclude until 1996. The Landívar Renaissance was but one of its casualties.

But all the praise heaped on Landívar during that brief spell — that he was “the great poet of colonial America,” “the bard of the American natural world,” and (most intriguing to me) “the American Virgil” — made me curious. Was any of it true? Could a great — or even a readable — Latin poet have possibly emerged in eighteenth-century Guatemala? Even the Latinists who knew of Landívar couldn’t really answer the question for me. They had read only excerpts: getting through fifteen books of Latin poetry is a rather high bar of entry. Meanwhile, I heard from expat friends that Antigua was a fantastic place to park oneself for a while: great climate, beautiful mountains, friendly people, cheap. Where better to read fifteen books of Latin poetry? An opening appeared in my freelancing schedule. Plane tickets were cheap. It was one of those terrible, cold, rainy New York springs. I picked up an edition of the Rusticatio Mexicana and got on a plane the next day.

Hic, procul indigenis antiqua sede relictis,
Hispani posuere novi fundamina regni,
Ingentemque urbem vasta in convalle locarunt
Callibus instructam rectis, multoque patentem
Circuitu; quam nulla unquam contagia diri
Vexabant morbi; nimio nec Cynthius aestu,
Nec gelido populum Boreas horrore fatigat.
Here, separate from what had been the natives’ city,
The Spaniards laid the foundations of their new kingdom.
In a broad valley they built their massive city,
With gridded streets, and of great compass,
Where dire disease could not reach; and neither
Sun’s heat nor winter’s cold trouble its inhabitants.
(Rusticatio Mexicana 3.34–40. All translations my own.)


Today, Guatemala is the third-poorest country in the Americas, ahead of only Honduras and Haiti. Its primary export is labor: wire transfers from Guatemalans living abroad are the nation’s largest source of foreign currency. But a traveler expecting to find only jungles, communist guerrillas, and grinding poverty will be surprised. Antigua was the capital of the Spanish captaincy of Guatemala, the most important center of Spanish culture between Mexico City and Lima. It was laid out to be grand and beautiful, a grid of streets punctuated by spacious plazas. The cathedral, archiepiscopal palace, town hall, and governor’s residence dominate the central plaza. Every major urban religious order embellished it: the Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, Mercedarians, Hieronymites, Poor Clares, Capuchins, and Jesuits all built massive churches and convents in the city. Antigua is, in short, a Baroque city — and the best-preserved one in the Western hemisphere.

It’s not everyone who travels to Guatemala — the vast majority of the people in the plazas are Guatemalans, who are, as a rule, shockingly young (fifty percent of the population is under twenty) — but as I learned after a few days, Antigua is not really a secret. A substantial expat community lives there, and it is firmly on the backpackers’ radar. Brits in halter tops and shorts show off their sunburns in restaurants. Tall Germans book volcano-climbing expeditions in tour agencies. Canadians and Americans carry yoga mats through the streets. A fifth of the buildings seem to be hotels or hostels or Spanish-language schools. The city is a resort for Guatemala’s elite, and a hub for local entrepreneurs: an investment in Antigua is seen as a relatively safe bet. I was renting a room from a Guatemalan family. The house was only one story, like almost all the buildings in Antigua, and gathered around a tiny central courtyard. Upstairs was a roof garden, which became my study. There, with views of three volcanoes, good Chilean wine, bowls of tropical fruit, and a soundtrack of chattering birds, I began to read.

Urbs tame

Urbs tamen infelix, quam sors suprema manebat,
Ingenti demum terrae concussa tremore
Tota labat, nulloque ruunt discrimine tecta.
Templa, domusque cadunt, saxisque obstructa rotatis
Nulla per antiquos restabat semita calles.
Interea nubes, coelum quae umbrosa tegebat,
Lugentique diem solemque amoverat urbe,
Effusos subito praeceps se volvit in imbres,
Foedavitque omnes undanti flumine gazas
Infectas limo terraque undaque sepultas.
Tollitur inde virum clamor, maestusque ululatus
Femineus, totumque replent suspiria coelum.
But the doomed city’s final fate awaited.
At last it was hit by a massive earthquake:
The whole city shakes: no building is spared.
Temples and houses collapse; rolling stones
Block the ancient roads: there is no escape.
Meanwhile a dark cloud covers the city,
Blotting out the sun, and suddenly descending
It turns into a pouring rain of mud.
The city’s treasures are fouled, buried
In a hail of mud and ash and water.
Men begin to shout; women scream;
They fill heaven with their lamentations. (3.47–58)


The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. destroyed multiple cities, while also preserving them for future archaeologists. It also inspired literature. Pliny the Younger described in a famous letter the death of his uncle, the Elder Pliny, who died attempting to rescue people from the eruption. But the above passage is not from Pliny, and it’s not about Vesuvius. These are Landívar’s words, from book three of the Rusticatio, describing the earthquake at Antigua in 1773. Landívar heard about the event from exile, which perhaps explains some of his exaggerations (“what was once a city,” he writes, “is now but a heap of stones”). The earthquakes of 1773 — there were three separate major ones, in fact, over the course of six months — seriously injured but did not raze the city. Many buildings, such as the Jesuit college, were recognized at the time as completely usable, despite cracks appearing in the masonry. But the Spaniards had had enough of Antigua. Its history had been an interrupted series of disasters. Earthquakes in 1565, 1575, 1576, and 1577 knocked over buildings; in the remarkable year 1585 the city did not go more than eight consecutive days without an earthquake. There were major earthquakes in 1586 and 1651; the largest of all struck in 1717, destroying dozens of buildings. After 1773, a group of citizens petitioned the king to move the capital; and, after receiving permission, authorities voted to establish what is now Guatemala City. A resolution was passed requiring citizens to abandon what became known as Antigua (“old”) Guatemala within one year.

The law was never completely followed: some people of course continued to occupy the better buildings. But while Guatemala City developed into the capital of a nation, undergoing all the architectural vagaries of the past two and half centuries, Antigua remained unchanged. And many of its buildings were in surprisingly good condition. In response to two centuries of building in the Ring of Fire (the Philippines, Chile, Peru, California, etc.), the Spaniards had developed a style known today as “seismic baroque,” some of the stoutest masonry buildings in the world. In the twentieth century, the city was reoccupied and gently restored. In 1944 it was declared a national monument. By 1979 it was a UNESCO world heritage site.

There are still ruins scattered throughout the city. In 1770 the city’s population was sixty thousand; today it is half that. Most of the religious orders never returned, and their convents are now kept as ruinous museums. You may sit among the (truly vast) cloisters, where vines clamber over gigantic chunks of fallen masonry and birds roost in the old chapels. The ruins call to mind the Villa of Hadrian and the Baths of Caracalla, not only because of their overthrown grandeur, but also in specific details: the broken vaults, the long flat bricks, the fallen domes. They make lovely places to read. In the Convento de Santa Clara, an extensive, charmingly landscaped set of ruins rented out for weddings, I read the second book of the Rusticatio, where Landívar offers the finest extended description of a volcanic eruption in all Latin literature, both scientifically accurate and emotionally horrifying. He writes of the sudden appearance of a volcano in the Mexican town of Jorullo (a similar event occurred more recently in the town of Parícutin). Landívar describes the warning signs before the eruption; the people’s doubts whether to flee; the glow of the crater, and ejecta the size of houses fired like cannonballs; the clouds of ash large enough to produce their own lightning and thunder; even how the eruption changed animal behavior: wild animals were seen wandering in cities, and entering human houses.

Ceu cum postremus mundi post tempora finis
Concutiet terrore feras: hominesque trementes
Motibus insolitis, flammisque vorantibus orbem
Tuta in speluncis atris habitacula quaerent:
Inque vicem vacuas errabunt bruta per urbes.
So also the end of the world will strike terror
Into the hearts of animals; and quivering mankind
From the earthquakes, and flames devouring
The globe, will seek safe harbor in dark caves;
And in their place beasts will stalk the empty cities. (2.229–33)


I was impressed. The Latin verses were extraordinary, and I had moved from one interesting passage to another. In Book I Landívar describes the Spanish conquest of Mexico City, how the city was built on a series of interconnected lakes, and the way inhabitants created floating farms on the surface of the water, using wood frames with earth piled on top. The soil absorbed water from the lake below; when harvest approached, the float was towed into town. (Flooding prompted the Mexicans to drain the lakes after the first World War; Mexico City’s sprawl has now filled all the old lakebeds). Landívar then praises the poets who “fill the city’s shores with song”: Diego José Abad, who wrote a Latin epic poem about God and science, the De Deo, Deoque Homine Carmina Heroica; Francisco Xavier Alegre, a translator of Homer and author of an epic about Alexander the Great; Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, one of the Spanish language’s great dramatists; and Juana Inés de la Cruz, a nun-poet described as “the tenth Muse.” I had found more than an excellent Latin poet from Guatemala: I had discovered an entire New World of literature — much of it in Latin.

“Two words sum up the life of Landívar,” wrote Sebastián: “Prayer, and study.” Prayer suited Antigua, with churches on every plaza, a perpetual adoration chapel where a small crowd of believers kept vigil day and night, and the smoking Volcán de Fuego (another of Antigua’s volcanoes) off in the distance, each puff of smoke as effective a memento mori as could be desired. The feast of one of Antigua’s native saints, San Hermano Pedro, fell during my visit, which was a feast indeed: the church was full, but during the service one could hear the hubbub of the feasting crowd outside: laughter, music, ice cream vendors hawking their treats, fireworks. The mass ended with a procession, featuring forty stout believers carrying a one-ton float of Hermano Pedro out into the city. The float’s route was completely covered with flowers, pine needles, and brightly colored sawdust: the floatbearers never had to step on bare ground.

The town also seemed — and at first I could not understand why — an exceptionally good place to study Latin. When I tired of the ruins and the roof gardens, I retired to the restaurants and cafes and read al fresco in their lush peristyles. I seemed to be breathing classic air. It was atop the Cerro de la Cruz, at the vista overlooking the city, that I finally understood. Antigua was a grid of streets, dominated by a central square, of low-slung masonry houses, built around garden courtyards, at the foot of a massive volcano in a beautiful, sunny land. It was a living, breathing Pompeii. The resemblance was even more striking considering that Antigua was laid out before the ruins of Pompeii were rediscovered. The Spaniards were bearers of a Mediterranean urban culture which had in many respects changed little between the first and sixteenth centuries. They used the materials of the New World in ways that had been traditional in the Old: they quarried the hard lava fields to make street cobbles, as the Romans did; they used the soft volcanic tufa to make cheap but intricate bas-relief, and to lay down large thick walls, as the Romans did; they made long, flat bricks for superior stability. They brought air and light into their rooms by placing them around central courts. Their grandest buildings were all temples, which they filled with paintings and statues of their divine protectors.

Landívar’s writing an epic poem in Latin was not contrary to the general cultural trend; it was simply another expression of it. And as it turned out, he was uniquely gifted as a poet. Alexis Hellmer, a professor of Latin and Greek at the Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla in Mexico and one of the world’s experts on the Latin poets of the New World, enthused: “Landívar is as brilliant as any European poet of the eighteenth century, which is a lot to say. And at times, I believe, he achieves even greater heights. As far as Latin poets go, I believe he is second only to the greatest poets of Latin’s Golden Age.” In Hellmer’s estimation, the nearly unknown Landívar — and the “Pleiad” of his fellow New Spain writers such as Abad, Alegre, and José Antonio Villerías y Roelas (who wrote a four-book epic poem about St. Juan Diego known as Guadalupe) — produced the most artistically significant poetry in the Latin language since the death of Ovid two thousand years ago. There has been a great deal of Latin after Ovid, including many superb writers like Juvenal, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Milton, and even Baudelaire. Landívar is probably better than all of them.

The Rusticatio fits into the tradition of didactic poetry: the author poses as teacher, in this case with the general theme of “life in the New World.” As in the greatest of the Latin didactic poems, Virgil’s Georgics, there is a keen interest in agriculture. As Virgil wrote about growing grain and keeping bees, Landívar writes about New World topics such as growing sugar and herding cattle. But by tackling such topics as earthquakes and volcanoes, Landívar creates something more cosmic and scientific, reminiscent of Lucretius. And in the book’s extraordinary encyclopedic breadth — the Rusticatio treats in detail topics as diverse as silver mining, taking calves off of cows to start milk production, producing cochineal (the dye that made redcoats red), and the locals’ love of cockfighting — the work suggests Thomas Jefferson’s (roughly contemporaneous) Notes on the State of Virginia.

In literal translation the material is dry reading on occasions — an entire book is dedicated to the cultivation of indigo — but what is astonishing is that such topics are treated in flawlessly beautiful Latin hexameters. His achievement is best appreciated in the original (I have provided some of the Latin to give readers a sense of his exquisite poetry), but if I were tempted to translate it, I think I would choose film as my medium: it reads like the script for a fifteen-part BBC series, something like Rafael Landívar’s Wonders of Mexico. The book on mining, for instance, begins in the lofty mountains where the mines are found, then moves underground to describe the torchlight works, then to a scientific account of poisonous gases trapped underground. Then to the miners themselves, their blackened faces, how their bodies are searched as they exit the mine, and the ingenious methods they use to steal gold; then to an account of murderers in the mines (authorities let wanted criminals work without interference). He does not omit a trip in verse to a nearby church, to see where the gold and silver end up. This would still be a winning script for a documentary; that we have such a rich picture of eighteenth-century Mexico is particularly extraordinary. Closely observed, honest accounts of daily life increase in value with age and distance.

That we have the Rusticatio at all is likely due to the expulsion of the Jesuits. Landívar had little else to do in Bologna but write; and the pang of exile transformed his vast knowledge of New Spain into poetry, an extended encounter in verse with the wonders he had lost. He was not the only one so affected: many of the Jesuits of New Spain became writers in exile. Their work would have a powerful effect. “Landívar’s contribution is not only in the poetry itself,” Hellmer wrote to me,

but in the creation of a Mexican sense of identity, of nationality, of belonging to a place with a rich culture and an amazing natural diversity. That was a main preoccupation for all that generation of both religious and secular Mexican scholars. And it is no exaggeration to say that they were the inventors of a kind of Mexicanitas which would evolve into a desire for freedom and independence in the decades that followed them.

King Carlos’s decision had unintended consequences.

Before I left Antigua, I visited the ruins of the cathedral of San José, one of the most evocative places in the New World, a vast pile of fractured domes now open to the sky — a kind of tropical Tintern Abbey. There I read the Latin funeral oration for Archbishop Figueredo that Landívar had pronounced a quarter of a millennium before. O fugaces hominum spes, Landívar had lamented, O cito praetereuntia gaudia! Evanuit velut umbra, in momento evolavit. “Oh fleeting hopes of mankind — oh swiftly passing pleasures! It vanished like a shadow — in a moment it was gone.” There had been an entire Latin-speaking culture here, now gone. Carlos’s decision to expel the Jesuits was a turning-point in history, of the sort that will prompt endless hypotheticals about what might have been. But it was an act of destruction, like the earthquake of 1773, that also somehow preserved an image of the culture that once had been. And it also left us a picture of the curious, intrepid soul who was its witness, a man who believed a steady contemplation of the wonders of Creation, with all its conflict and suffering, would still yet lead us aright. Landívar closes the Rusticatio with an address to his young readers, which a reader of any age might well ponder:


Let another walk through the fields engoldened
With the sun’s rays without noticing, like a beast,
And waste his days with idle games.
You however, to whom acumen has been given,
Shed the old, and put on new senses now,
Swearing in wisdom to unlock nature’s secrets,
Using all the powers of your genius:
And learn with grateful effort what treasures are yours.

[This article first appeared in the February 2019 edition of The New Criterion.]

John Byron Kuhner is the former president of the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies (SALVI) and editor of In Medias Res.


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John Kuhner

John Byron Kuhner is the former president of SALVI, the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies, and editor of In Medias Res.


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