When Bartolomé Hidalgo assumed the voice of the gaucho in early 19th century writing, he planted a seed that would later mature and thrive. Carried forward by poets such as Hilario Ascasubi, the gauchesque genre came in to its own in the second half of the century.
The latest instalment in our Beyond Borges series introduces the Argentine poet Estanislao del Campo. Born in Buenos Aires in 1834, Del Campo was a well-known literary figure and remains one of the more prominent names of the gauchesque period. His playful twist on the genre pushed the gaucho protagonist to the forefront of Argentine writing.
The Branches of the Gauchesque
Since Hidalgo, gauchesque poetry had continued, although not necessarily in the same vein. Rather the genre branched off in two directions in accordance with the different understandings of national and cultural identity. The first took its cue from Hidalgo and followed populist advocacy for the excluded lower classes, while the second took its language and form from his writing, but either skewed or avoided its politics.
The branching out of the genre ensured that the gauchesque was a usable outlet whatever the political orientation of the author or the audience. Argentine poet Hilario Ascasubi for example, utilised the voice of the gaucho in anti-federalist literature until the 1850s, presenting him as a backward individual and a mouthpiece of Juan Manuel de Rosas’ federalist regime.
As urban intellectuals began making use of the genre in a new way, the Argentine gaucho found his body used by the army, and his voice used by literate culture. Whilst the gauchesque appealed to the lower classes on one hand, the development of a new type of gauchesque presented the gaucho as source of entertainment, and extended its attraction to upper classes on the other.
The appearance of Del Campo’s humorous and light-hearted poem ‘Fausto’, in 1866, was a welcome source of relief in a genre that had, until then, been taking itself very seriously.
Interpretations of ‘Fausto’
A firm favourite with Argentines, ‘Fausto’ stands out as one of the most universally popular texts in the entire portfolio of gauchesque literature. Taking its name from Charles Gounod’s world-famous opera, and originally subtitled ‘Impressions of the gaucho Anastasio el Pollo on the presentation of this opera’, the poem joins gaucho figures El Pollo and Don Laguna in the Argentine pampas, where El Pollo is convincingly recounting the tale of his encounter with the devil.
The story he offers is not in fact real life, but the plot of the opera he had seen performed at the Teatro Colón when he visited Buenos Aires. What is open to interpretation however, is whether El Pollo had genuinely mistaken the opera for real life, or whether he was merely leading Don Laguna to believe so.
Borrowing the eight-syllable lines of the rural ballads and the vocabulary of the gaucho, Del Campo created a satirical version of ‘Faust’—an Italian opera based on a French play, based loosely in turn on a German one.
Any moral tale that had been present in ‘Faust’ was deliberately lost in translation, and some say that, in this sense, Del Campo came closest to representing the diction of the gaucho but furthest from understanding his mindset.
Del Campo’s playfulness comes in when we consider which group ‘Fausto’ is really mocking. Whilst it appears that the gaucho who was brave and heroic in Hidalgo’s hands has become idiotic and laughable in Del Campo’s, the poem has also been read as an intelligent joke towards the urban elite.
The similarity between the writer’s own name, Estanislao Del Campo, and that of his protagonist, Anastasio el Pollo, also inspires some speculation as to who El Pollo was really meant to represent. Was the naivety and cultural innocence that endeared Del Campo’s gaucho to so many intended to represent only the gaucho, or a more common Argentine mentality?
The poem sat comfortably with upper classes because it seemed to assert a popular belief that the cultures of the rural populations were simplistic and easily understood, whereas high culture could only be understood by the urban elite. The idea that they might have been missing the joke placed them in the same basket as El Pollo when it came to understanding sophisticated culture.
‘Fausto’ as a Text Apart
Having attended the opening of the first Teatro Colón in 1857, Del Campo had entertained the idea of uniting a gaucho character with the theme of an opera for some time.
He first introduced his protagonist, Anastasio el Pollo, in a poem ‘Carta de Anastasio el Pollo sobre el beneficio de la señora La Grua’, but didn’t return to his idea until the announcement that ‘Faust’ would be performed at the Teatro Colón in August 1866.
El Pollo’s reappearance in ‘Fausto’ one month later coincided perfectly with the enthusiasm of the Argentine elite to embrace opera as a sign of their identification with European culture—resulting in the adoption of Del Campo’s poem as a celebration of a key cultural event.
Where the subject of gauchesque literature had traditionally been the narration and celebration of political events, Del Campo’s poem shifted the content of the gauchesque from conflict to high culture. In ‘Fausto’ we arrive to a refreshingly creative text, which at face value is purely cultural and whose protagonist is fictional. Del Campo’s poem remains humorous and avoids maliciousness because his gaucho can be observed as a character and an individual, rather than representative of a whole group.
Del Campo’s willingness to have fun within the genre not only broadened the appeal of the gauchesque, but also changed its content and its style – propelling the genre to new levels of popularity.