Petrarchism in the New World


Elizabeth DeLoughrey

Cornell University, Ithaca NY

Copyright © 2002 by Elizabeth DeLoughrey, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Greene, Roland. Unrequited Conquests: Love and Empire in the Colonial Americas. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.

  1. Early modern transatlantic scholarship is a welcome addition to postcolonial studies as a whole in that it historicizes the contact period between Europeans and others, while reflecting back to recontextualize European discourse within the radical upheavals that resulted from the colonization of the Americas. Following the vein of pioneering studies such as Peter Hulme's Colonial Encounters and Stephen Greenblatt's Marvelous Possessions, Roland Greene traces the ways in which early modern lyric poetry, especially Petrarchism, was reformulated during the first generations of colonial occupation of the Americas. Greene does not limit his vision to merely one language tradition but rather offers an expansive literary and historical study that encompasses Spanish, English and Portuguese discourses of the so-called New World. Greene views the wide panorama of his study through the lens of Petrarchal lyric, pushing the boundaries of interpersonal readings of love poetry to encompass the political, imperial and historical nuances of the era. "Clear(ing) a space where love poetry of the Renaissance meets early modern empire at the inception of the Americas," (1) Greene traces the imperial discourse of unrequited love back to the humanism of the fourteenth-century Italian poet, Francesco Petrarca.

  2. The chapters are generally organized around central figures of European lyric imperialism such as Christopher Columbus, Pero Vaz de Caminha (the scribe of Pedro Alvares Cabral's expedition to Brazil), Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, Sir Philip Sidney, and then conclude with the work of the Peruvian mestizo, the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. Although concerned with formalist attributes of imperial discourse, Greene, drawing upon Fredric Jameson, also focuses his study on central ideologemes, or narrative/conceptual tropes that seek to reconcile social antagonisms. The ideologeme of slavery is traced through the love poetry of Sidney, particularly Astrophil and Stella, while the politics of color are demonstrated in the lyrics of both Wyatt and the Spanish poet Gutierre de Cetina. The Pau-Brasil or Brazilwood tree, a lucrative object of trade for coloring European garments, is positioned as an ideologeme of Brazilian colonial discourse. Finally, Greene reads the plague as a central ideologeme of Wyatt's poems where desire is articulated as disease during the height of malarial epidemics in the early sixteenth-century Americas.

  3. Greene makes a number of broad and, at times, innovative, claims about particular imperial discourses but they aren't always well substantiated. For instance, in a chapter on the auto-reflexive discourses of Columbus, which offers an otherwise convincing argument that Petrarchism is one of this explorer's central influences, Greene's thesis falters when it comes to outlining the conflation of two central motifs of Columbus' journal: the veil (velo) and the sail (vela). Reading Columbus' descriptions of the wind in the sails as a metonymy for the passions of Columbus' crew, Greene concludes that Columbus lowers the sails at his first encounter with the indigenous Caribbean because the natives' nudity suggests that there is no need for sails or veils "to mediate" (61). Columbus' later observation that the native Caribbean peoples have no sails outfitted to their canoes is interpreted as his failure to recognize their subjectivity. While this is a very creative reading of Columbus' discourse, we must question whether it's remarkable at all that such an experienced navigator lowered the sails while his ships were in harbor, unless of course, Columbus planned to be blown back into the Atlantic. Further, given Columbus' extensive maritime career and the general European fascination with ocean-going craft, his neglect to comment on the voyaging vessels of the local peoples would have been far more astonishing.

  4. Perhaps more disturbing is this chapter's conclusion that one cannot read Columbus' discourse, as José Piedra has, for locating "traces of the Other" (75). Greene concludes "that tantalizing near presence of the other is part of the program for first-person humanist experience that nonetheless promises nothing, indeed gives us nothing, in the way of a recoverable second voice" (76). Unrequited Conquests dismisses the possibility of subaltern discourse within European master narratives and, by extension, undermines bodies of scholarship that have productively recontextualised colonial texts, including Greene's own influences such as Colonial Encounters. Perhaps this is not surprising given one conceptual weakness of the project. Because Greene positions a homogeneous Petrarchan lyric as the unproblematically stable origin of European imperial discourse, a reified Europe emerges in relation to an always hybridized and bastardized New World. By failing to position Petrarch in relation to the broader Mediterranean (including Islamic) worlds in which he lived and wrote, an insular European subject becomes the a priori normative which is only destabilized and reformulated by its contact with others across the Atlantic, after 1492.

  5. Unrequited Conquests is far more convincing when it addresses European poets who draw upon imperial discourse to fashion Petrarchan lyrics such as Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Thomas Wyatt. These chapters, which Greene refers to as the "core" of the book, offer detailed biographical, social and historical contexts that seem absent from the earlier chapters on Columbus' voyages and the Portuguese construction of Brazil. Reading the ways in which the Petrarchan medium is refitted in terms of racial difference, and the rise of amatory discourse during 16th-century imperialism and slavery, Greene provides a social and political analysis of the elusive love/imperial object that cannot be possessed. Although Greene positions his contribution in terms of the early imperial discourse of love and desire, strangely, ground-breaking works such as Mary Louise Pratt's Imperial Eyes are never invoked. As a result, questions that were so central to Pratt's work such as gender and class relations and the overall narrative mystification of the colonial process are rarely addressed. I am not faulting Greene for failing to write a 'prequel' to Pratt's innovative study of 18th-century travel writing, but rather gesturing to the ways in which one might outline a broader historical trajectory of love and conquest in imperial discourses of the Americas.

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