“No writer of world renown is perhaps so little known in Europe as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda,” observed New York Times Book Review critic Selden Rodman. Numerous critics have praised Neruda as the greatest poet writing in the Spanish language during his lifetime, although many readers in the United States have found it difficult to disassociate Neruda’s poetry from his fervent commitment to communism. An added difficulty lies in the fact that Neruda’s poetry is very hard to translate; his works available in English represent only a small portion of his total output. Nonetheless, declared John Leonard in the New York Times, Neruda “was, I think, one of the great ones, a Whitman of the South.”
Born Ricardo Eliezer Neftali Reyes y Basoalto,
Neruda adopted the pseudonym under which he would become famous while
still in his early teens. He grew up in Temuco in the backwoods of
southern Chile. Neruda’s literary development received assistance from
unexpected sources. Among his teachers “was the poet Gabriela Mistral,
who would be a Nobel laureate years before Neruda,” reported Manuel
Duran and Margery Safir in Earth Tones: The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. “It
is almost inconceivable that two such gifted poets should find each
other in such an unlikely spot. Mistral recognized the young Neftali’s
talent and encouraged it by giving the boy books and the support he
lacked at home.”
By the time he finished high school, Neruda
had published in local papers and Santiago magazines, and had won
several literary competitions. In 1921 he left southern Chile for
Santiago to attend school, with the intention of becoming a French
teacher but was an indifferent student. While in Santiago, Neruda
completed one of his most critically acclaimed and original works, the
cycle of love poems titled Veinte poemas de amor y una canción
desesperada—published in English translation as Twenty Love Poems and a
Song of Despair. This work quickly marked Neruda as an important Chilean
Veinte poemas also brought the author notoriety due to
its explicit celebration of sexuality, and, as Robert Clemens remarked
in the Saturday Review, “established him at the outset as a frank,
sensuous spokesman for love.” While other Latin American poets of the
time used sexually explicit imagery, Neruda was the first to win popular
acceptance for his presentation. Mixing memories of his love affairs
with memories of the wilderness of southern Chile, he creates a poetic
sequence that not only describes a physical liaison, but also evokes the
sense of displacement that Neruda felt in leaving the wilderness for
the city. “Traditionally,” stated Rene de Costa in The Poetry of Pablo
Neruda, “love poetry has equated woman with nature. Neruda took this
established mode of comparison and raised it to a cosmic level, making
woman into a veritable force of the universe.”
poemas,” reported David P. Gallagher in Modern Latin American
Literature, “Neruda journeys across the sea symbolically in search of an
ideal port. In 1927, he embarked on a real journey, when he sailed from
Buenos Aires for Lisbon, ultimately bound for Rangoon where he had been
appointed honorary Chilean consul.” Duran and Safir explained that
“Chile had a long tradition, like most Latin American countries, of
sending her poets abroad as consuls or even, when they became famous, as
ambassadors.” The poet was not really qualified for such a post and was
unprepared for the squalor, poverty, and loneliness to which the
position would expose him. “Neruda travelled extensively in the Far East
over the next few years,” Gallagher continued, “and it was during this
period that he wrote his first really splendid book of poems, Residencia
en la tierra, a book ultimately published in two parts, in 1933 and
1935.” Neruda added a third part, Tercera residencia, in 1947.
Residencia en la tierra, published in English as Residence on Earth, is
widely celebrated as containing “some of Neruda’s most extraordinary and
powerful poetry,” according to de Costa. Born of the poet’s feelings of
alienation, the work reflects a world which is largely chaotic and
senseless, and which—in the first two volumes—offers no hope of
understanding. De Costa quoted Spanish poet García Lorca as calling
Neruda “a poet closer to death than to philosophy, closer to pain than
to insight, closer to blood than to ink. A poet filled with mysterious
voices that fortunately he himself does not know how to decipher.” With
its emphasis on despair and the lack of adequate answers to mankind’s
problems, Residencia en la tierra in some ways foreshadowed the
post-World War II philosophy of existentialism. “Neruda himself came to
regard it very harshly,” wrote Michael Wood in the New York Review of
Books. “It helped people to die rather than to live, he said, and if he
had the proper authority to do so he would ban it, and make sure it was
Residencia en la tierra also marked Neruda’s
emergence as an important international poet. By the time the second
volume of the collection was published in 1935 the poet was serving as
consul in Spain, where “for the first time,” reported Duran and Safir,
“he tasted international recognition, at the heart of the Spanish
language and tradition. At the same time . . . poets like Rafael Alberti
and Miguel Hernandez, who had become closely involved in radical
politics and the Communist movement, helped politicize Neruda.” When the
Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Neruda was among the first to
espouse the Republican cause with the poem España en el corazon—a
gesture that cost him his consular post. He later served in France and
Mexico, where his politics caused less anxiety.
rescued Neruda from the despair he expressed in the first parts of
Residencia en la tierra, and led to a change in his approach to poetry.
He came to believe “that the work of art and the statement of
thought—when these are responsible human actions, rooted in human
need—are inseparable from historical and political context,” reported
Salvatore Bizzarro in Pablo Neruda: All Poets the Poet. “He argued that
there are books which are important at a certain moment in history, but
once these books have resolved the problems they deal with they carry in
them their own oblivion. Neruda felt that the belief that one could
write solely for eternity was romantic posturing.” This new attitude led
the poet in new directions; for many years his work, both poetry and
prose, advocated an active role in social change rather than simply
describing his feelings, as his earlier oeuvre had done.
significant shift in Neruda’s poetry is recognizable in Tercera
residencia, the third and final part of the “Residencia” series.
Florence L. Yudin noted in Hispania that the poetry of this volume was
overlooked when published and remains neglected due to its overt
ideological content. “Viewed as a whole,” Yudin wrote, “Tercera
residencia illustrates a fluid coherence of innovation with
retrospective, creativity with continuity, that would characterize
Neruda’s entire career.” According to de Costa, as quoted by Yudin, “The
new posture assumed is that of a radical nonconformist. Terra
residencia must, therefore, be considered in this light, from the dual
perspective of art and society, poetry and politics.”
Furias y las penas,” the longest poem of Tercera residencia, embodies
the influence of both the Spanish Civil War and the works of Spanish
Baroque poet Francisco Gomez de Quevedo y Villegas on Neruda. The poem
explores the psychic agony of lost love and its accompanying guilt and
suffering, conjured in the imagery of savage eroticism, alienation, and
loss of self-identity. Neruda’s message, according to Yudin, is that
“what makes up life’s narrative (‘cuento’) are single, unconnected
events, governed by chance, and meaningless (‘suceden’). Man is out of
control, like someone hallucinating one-night stands in sordid places.”
Yudin concluded that, “Despite its failed dialectic, ‘Las Furias y las
penas’ sustains a haunting beauty in meaning and tone” and “bears the
unmistakable signature of Neruda’s originality and achievement.”
While some critics have felt that Neruda’s devotion to Communist dogma
was at times extreme, others recognize the important impact his politics
had on his poetry. Clayton Eshleman wrote in the introduction to Cesar
Vallejo’s Poemas humanos/ Human Poems that “Neruda found in the third
book of Residencia the key to becoming the twentieth-century South
American poet: the revolutionary stance which always changes with the
tides of time.” Gordon Brotherton, in Latin American Poetry: Origins and
Presence, expanded on this idea by noting that “Neruda, so prolific,
can be lax, a ‘great bad poet’ (to use the phrase Juan Ramon Jimenez
used to revenge himself on Neruda). And his change of stance ‘with the
tides of time’ may not always be perfectly effected. But . . . his
dramatic and rhetorical skills, better his ability to speak out of his
circumstances, . . . was consummate. In his best poetry (of which there
is much) he speaks on a scale and with an agility unrivaled in Latin
Neruda expanded on his political views in the poem
Canto general, which, according to de Costa, is a “lengthy epic on man’s
struggle for justice in the New World.” Although Neruda had begun the
poem as early as 1935—when he had intended it to be limited in scope
only to Chile—he completed some of the work while serving in the Chilean
senate as a representative of the Communist Party. However, party
leaders recognized that the poet needed time to work on his opus, and
granted him a leave of absence in 1947. Later that year, however, Neruda
returned to political activism, writing letters in support of striking
workers and criticizing Chilean President Videla. Early in 1948 the
Chilean Supreme Court issued an order for his arrest, and Neruda
finished the Canto general while hiding from Videla’s forces.
“Canto general is the flowering of Neruda’s new political stance,” Don
Bogen asserted in the Nation. “For Neruda food and other pleasures are
our birthright—not as gifts from the earth or heaven but as the products
of human labor.” According to Bogen, Canto general draws its “strength
from a commitment to nameless workers—the men of the salt mines, the
builders of Macchu Picchu—and the fundamental value of their labor. This
is all very Old Left, of course.” Commenting on Canto general in Books
Abroad, Jaime Alazraki remarked, “Neruda is not merely chronicling
historical events. The poet is always present throughout the book not
only because he describes those events, interpreting them according to a
definite outlook on history, but also because the epic of the continent
intertwines with his own epic.”
Although, as Bizzarro noted,
“In [the Canto general], Neruda was to reflect some of the [Communist]
party’s basic ideological tenets,” the work itself transcends
propaganda. Looking back into American prehistory, the poet examined the
land’s rich natural heritage and described the long defeat of the
native Americans by the Europeans. Instead of rehashing Marxist dogma,
however, he concentrated on elements of people’s lives common to all
people at all times. Nancy Willard wrote in Testimony of the Invisible
Man, “Neruda makes it clear that our most intense experience of
impermanence is not death but our own isolation among the living. . . .
If Neruda is intolerant of despair, it is because he wants nothing to
sully man’s residence on earth.”
“In the Canto,” explained
Duran and Safir, “Neruda reached his peak as a public poet. He produced
an ideological work that largely transcended contemporary events and
became an epic of an entire continent and its people.” According to
Alazraki, “By bringing together his own odyssey and the drama of the
continent, Neruda has simultaneously given to Canto general the quality
of a lyric and an epic poem. The lives of conquistadors, martyrs,
heroes, and just plain people recover a refreshing actuality because
they become part of the poet’s fate, and conversely, the life of the
poet gains new depth because in his search one recognizes the
continent’s struggles. Canto general is, thus, the song of a continent
as much as it is Neruda’s own song.”
Neruda returned to Chile
from exile in 1953, and, said Duran and Safir, spent the last twenty
years of his life producing “some of the finest love poetry in One
Hundred Love Sonnets and parts of Extravagaria and La Barcarola; he
produced Nature poetry that continued the movement toward close
examination, almost still shots of every aspect of the external world,
in the odes of Navegaciones y regresos, in The Stones of Chile, in The
Art of Birds, in Una Casa en la arena and in Stones of the Sky. He
continued as well his role as public poet in Canción de geste, in parts
of Cantos ceremoniales, in the mythical La Espada encendida, and the
angry Incitement to Nixonicide and Praise for the Chilean Revolution.”
At this time, Neruda’s work began to move away from the highly
political stance it had taken during the 1930s. Instead of concentrating
on politicizing the common folk, Neruda began to try to speak to them
simply and clearly, on a level that each could understand. He wrote
poems on subjects ranging from rain to feet. By examining common,
ordinary, everyday things very closely, according to Duran and Safir,
Neruda gives us “time to examine a particular plant, a stone, a flower, a
bird, an aspect of modern life, at leisure. We look at the object,
handle it, turn it around, all the sides are examined with love, care,
attention. This is, in many ways, Neruda . . . at his best.”
1971 Neruda reached the peak of his political career when the Chilean
Communist party nominated him for president. He withdrew his nomination,
however, when he reached an accord with Socialist nominee Salvador
Allende. After Allende won the election he reactivated Neruda’s
diplomatic credentials, appointing the poet ambassador to France. It was
while Neruda was serving in Paris that he was awarded the Nobel Prize
for literature, in recognition of his oeuvre. Poor health soon forced
the poet to resign his post, however, and he returned to Chile, where he
died in 1973—only days after a right-wing military coup killed Allende
and seized power. Many of his last poems, some published posthumously,
indicate his awareness of his death’s approach. As Fernando Alegria
wrote in Modern Poetry Studies, “What I want to emphasize is something
very simple: Neruda was, above all, a love poet and, more than anyone,
an unwavering, powerful, joyous, conqueror of death.”
Commenting on Passions and Impressions, a posthumous collection of
Neruda’s prose poems, political and literary essays, lectures, and
newspaper articles, Mark Abley wrote in Maclean’s, “No matter what
occasion provoked these pieces, his rich, tireless voice echoes with
inimitable force.” As Neruda eschewed literary criticism, many critics
found in him a lack of rationalism. According to Neruda, “It was through
metaphor, not rational analysis and argument, that the mysteries of the
world could be revealed,” remarked Stephen Dobyns in the Washington
Post. However, Dobyns noted that Passions and Impressions “shows Neruda
both at his most metaphorical and his most rational. . . . What one
comes to realize from these prose pieces is how conscious and astute
were Neruda’s esthetic choices. In retrospect at least his rejection of
the path of the maestro, the critic, the rationalist was carefully
calculated.” In his speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize, Neruda noted
that “there arises an insight which the poet must learn through other
people. There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same
goal: to convey to others what we are.”
In 2003, thirty years
after Neruda’s death, an anthology of 600 of Neruda’s poems arranged
chronologically was published as The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. The
anthology draws from thirty-six different translators, and some of his
major works are also presented in their original Spanish. Writing in the
New Leader, Phoebe Pettingell pointed out that, although some works
were left out because of the difficulty in presenting them properly in
English, “an overwhelming body of Neruda’s output is here . . . and the
collection certainly presents a remarkable array of subjects and
styles.” Reflecting on the life and work of Neruda in the New Yorker,
Mark Strand commented, “There is something about Neruda—about the way he
glorifies experience, about the spontaneity and directness of his
passion—that sets him apart from other poets. It is hard not to be swept
away by the urgency of his language, and that’s especially so when he
seems swept away.”
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
Write, for example,'The night is shattered
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.'
The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.
Through nights like this one I held her in my arms
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.
She loved me sometimes, and I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.
To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.
What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is shattered and she is not with me.
This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.
My sight searches for her as though to go to her.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.
The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.
I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.
Another's. She will be another's. Like my kisses before.
Her voide. Her bright body. Her inifinite eyes.
I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.
Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my sould is not satisfied that it has lost her.
Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.