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Martín Fierro

Martín Fierro is an epic poem by the Argentinian writer José Hernández. The poem was originally published in two parts, El Gaucho Martín Fierro (1872) and La Vuelta de Martín Fierro (1879). The poem is, in part, a protest against the Europeanizing and modernizing tendencies of Argentine president Domingo Sarmiento.

The poem, written in a Spanish that evokes rural Argentina, is widely seen as the pinnacle of the genre of "gauchesque" poetry (poems centered around the life of the gaucho, written in a style that evokes the rural Argentine ballads known as payadas) and a touchstone of Argentine national identity. It has appeared in literally hundreds of editions and has been translated into over 70 languages. It has earned major commentaries from, among others, Leopoldo Lugones, Miguel de Unamuno, and Jorge Luis Borges (see Borges on Martín Fierro).

Table of contents
1 Plot
2 Style and Structure
3 Critical and popular reception
4 References
5 External Links


In El Gaucho Martín Fierro, the titular protagonist is an impoverished gaucho who is drafted to serve at a border fort, defending the Argentine frontier against the Indians. His life of poverty on the pampas is somewhat romanticized; his military experiences are not. He deserts and tries to return to his home, but discovers that his house, farm, and family are gone. He deliberately provokes an affair of honor by injuring a black woman in a bar; in the knife duel that ensues, he kills her male companion. The narration of another knife fight suggests by its lack of detail that it is one of many. Fierro becomes an outlaw pursued by the police militia. In battle with them, he acquires a companion: one Sergeant Cruz, inspired by Fierro's bravery in resistance, defects and joins him mid-battle. The two set out to live among the Indians, hoping to find a better life there.

In La Vuelta de Martín Fierro, we discover that their hope of a better life is promptly and bitterly disappointed. They are taken for spies; the cacique (chief) saves their lives, but they are effectively prisoners of the Indians; in this context Hernández presents another, and very unsentimentalized, version of rural life. The poem narrates an epidemic, the horrible, expiatory attempts at cure, and the fatal wrath upon those, including a young "Christian" (presumably ethnically Spanish) boy suspected of bringing the plague. Both Cruz and the cacique die of the disease. Shortly afterward, at Cruz's grave, Fierro hears the anguished cries of a woman: he follows and encounters an Indian whipping her bloody over the body of her dead son, her hands tied with the boy's entrails. It develops that she has been accused of witchcraft. Fierro fights and wins a brutal combat with her captor and travels with her back towards civilization, or at least towards Christian lands.

After Fierro deposits the woman at the first ranch they see, he goes on to an encounter that raises the story from the level of the mildly naturalistic to the mythic. He encounters his two surviving sons (one has been a prisoner, the other the ward of the vile and wily Vizcacha), and the son of Cruz (who has become a gambler). He has a night-long singing duel with a black payador (balladeer), in the course of which it becomes clear that the payador is the younger brother of the first man Fierro murdered in a duel. At the end, Fierro speaks of changing his name and living in peace, but it is not entirely clear that the duel has been averted.

Style and Structure

Like his predecessors in "gauchesque" poetry, Hernández sticks to the eight-syllable line of the payadas, the rural ballads. Unlike his predecessors, Hernández, who had himself spent years as a gaucho and more years engaged in the border wars, does not seek out every rural colloquialism under the sun. He hews much closer to the actual payadores, using a mildly archaic style and giving a sense of place more through phonetic spellings than through choice of words. At times - especially in the payadas within the larger poem - he rises to a particularly stark and powerful poetry, taking on romantic and even metaphysical themes. In La Vuelta de Martín Fierro, at the time Fierro is returning to the "Christian" world, he talks of his notoriety, apparently, in an echo of a plot point in the second book of Don Quixote, as a result of the fame of El Gaucho Martín Fierro.

The style of the poem shifts several times along the way. Nominally, Martín Fierro is a first-person narrator, but the distance between his voice and that of Hernández varies at different points in the poem. The poem moves from a sentimental and romantic evocation of rural life to a brutal work of protest against military conscription and garrison life at the border forts; then it becomes an extended outlaw ballad of the life of a violent knife-fighting gaucho matrero; then it becomes a story of captivity among the Indians, followed finally by a bringing it's protagonist face-to-face with a series of human echoes of his past. This last set of encounters is so improbable that some commentators suggest that the black payador with whom Fierro has a singing duel is actually a figment of his own imagination.

Critical and popular reception

Martín Fierro was an immediate popular success; it was also generally well received by the critics, although it required more than a generation for the work to be accorded the status of a classic. Borges, who describes the work as more of a "verse novel" than an "epic," points out that this is partly because it is such an accurate evocation of its own time that it took some distance before its greatness could become apparent.

The popular success of the work is unquestionable: at the time of the publication of the second part of the poem, the first part already had 48,000 copies in print in Argentina and Uruguay, almost unimaginable for that time. It was sold not only in bookstores but in pulperías (rural bars), and was frequently read aloud as a public entertainment.

The poem received its canonization from Leopoldo Lugones who in El payador (1916), who declared it the epic of Argentina, comparable to Dante's Divine Comedy for Italy or Cervantes's Don Quixote for Spain. Ricardo Rojas went way beyond Lugones, claiming the poem to deal, at least metaphorically, with almost every issue of Argentine history, even though, as Borges remarks, most of these aspects are notable in the poem mostly for their absence.

Miguel de Unamuno tried, indirectly, to claim the work for Spain, calling it the "most Spanish" of Latin American literature. Eleuterio Tiscornia brings to the work a European critical apparatus that is doubtless entirely incommensurate with the work in question; both Borges and the Mexican writer Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, author of Muerte y Transfiguración de Martín Fierro (Death and Transfiguration of Martín Fierro), see Tiscornia as a laughingstock in his willful or blind misunderstandings of the text.

Calixto Oyuela tried to bring the focus back from the national to the individual; he emphasized that this is the story a particular man, a gaucho in the last days of the open range; he sees the book as a meditation on origins, a protest, and a lament for a disappearing way of life. In Folletos Lenguaraces, Vicente Rossi goes beyond Oyuela, seeing Fierro as an "orillero", basically a hoodlum.

Borges, in his book-length collection of essays El "Martín Fierro", professes himself a great admirer of the work -- "Argentine literature," the writes, "... includes at least one great book, Martín Fierro -- but emphasizes that its esthetic merits should not be seen as corresponding to merits of its protagonist. In particular, he characterizes as "unfortunate" that the Argentinians read the story of Fierro forcing a duel of honor upon a man and ultimately killing him "with indulgence or admiration, rather than with horror."


Jorge Luis Borges, El "Martín Fierro" (ISBN 8420619337). This work is especially useful on the history of the critical reception of the work.

External Links

An excellent
Spanish-language web site about Martín Fierro offers the text intact, plus several reproduced editions, recordings of portions of the epic sung as a payada, and biographical information about Hernández.