Born in Parral, a small town in southern central Chile, on 12 July 1904, Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto was the son of railroad engineer José del Carmen Reyes and elementary-school teacher Rosa Basoalto (who died of tuberculosis two months after the child came into the world). Reyes grew up surrounded by rainy forests and majestic mountains. When he was two years old, his father moved to Temuco and lived there throughout the boy's adolescence, in a wooden house with a small garden. He learned to read early and began to write timid verses, a point of contention with his father, who would not encourage his "daydreaming," and his schoolmates, who made fun of him. He grew up reading voraciously, as a lonely boy, in spite of the two siblings born of his father's second marriage, Laura and Rodolfo. At the age of sixteen Reyes was introduced to French poetry by the headmistress of Temuco's school for girls, Gabriela Mistral, a poet who in 1945 received the first Nobel Prize in literature awarded to a Latin American author.
His father's remarriage to Doña Trinidad Candia Marverde (whom Neruda fondly recalled in his autobiographical poetry as la mamadre, "the momother") was a blessing for Reyes. As a child he revered his stepmother, a sweet and silent woman of peasant stock who was close to the earth that he wrote of continually as a poet. The Reyes home was modest, but the boy had some privacy for his voracious reading. "En un minuto la noche y la lluvia cubren el mundo. Allí estoy solo y en mi cuaderno de aritmética escribo versos" (In one minute the night and the rain cover the world. I am there all alone and in my arithmetic notebook I write poems), he recalled in Obras completas (Complete Works, 1962). Throughout his whole life his childhood in southern Chile influenced his poetry, the geographical background taking on thematic importance. In his mature verses it became the substructure of his entire way of seeing and interpreting the world. Many years later Neruda recaptured his Temucan youth admirably in the first volume of his autobiographical verse memoir, Memorial de Isla Negra (1964; translated as Isla Negra: A Notebook, 1981), which he published on his sixtieth birthday. Some of the poems written during his formative years in Temuco are found in his first published book, Crepusculario (Twilights, 1923).
In 1918 Reyes had his first poem published in a Santiago magazine, which printed thirteen more of his compositions the next year. Two literary prizes followed, and then third place in the River Maule Floral Games poetry competition. In 1920 Reyes captured first prize for poetry in the spring festival in Temuco. Also that year he became a contributor to the literary journal Selva Austral (Southern Jungle) under the pen name Pablo Neruda, which he adopted in memory of the nineteenth-century Czechoslovak poet Jan Neruda. He began to dream about becoming a full-fledged poet and in 1921 left his frontier hometown and moved to Santiago, the capital, to train as a teacher of French. He never completed the study program. Soon after his arrival he won first prize in the poetry contest held by the Chilean University Student Federation with his poem "La canción de la fiesta" (The Festive Song). It is a Modernista piece, full of the rhythms and elegant images of early-twentieth-century Spanish American poetry and already displaying great dexterity in its handling of sonority and color. The young poet's head "estaba llena de libros, sueños y poemas zumbando como abejas" (was filled with books, dreams, and poems buzzing around like bees), as he recalls in his Confieso que he vivido (I Confess That I Have Lived, 1974; translated as Memoirs, 1977). In 1923 he sold all of his possessions to finance the publication of Crepusculario. He published the volume under his pseudonym to avoid conflict with his family, who disapproved of his occupation. Crepusculario was the book that signaled his entry into the world of published poetry; he was between eighteen and nineteen when he wrote those verses.
Crepusculario includes some of the erotic poems for which the Chilean was known throughout his life, but mostly his themes here belong to nature, somewhat in the vein of the French Symbolists such as Paul Verlaine. The section "Los crepúsculos de Maruri" (The Maruri Sunsets), particularly, exemplifies this thematic concern. Lines such as "La tarde sobre los tejados / cae / y cae . . . / Quién le dio para que viniera / alas de ave?" (The afternoon / falls / and falls / over the roofs . . . / Who gave it for this journey / the wings of a bird?), from the poem "La tarde sobre los tejados," convey the vague sadness about the impending demise of light, the approaching darkness, and its impact on the poet. The early love poetry of Crepusculario was not as accomplished and successful, however, as his Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (1924; translated as Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair , 1969). To date, the latter is the most published and reproduced collection of Latin American verse, having been translated into twenty-four languages. This book established Neruda's reputation as a poet of erotic and romantic love, opening his career to public acclaim.
It is difficult to overstate the impact of the publication of Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada. The collection became one of the great success stories of its literary era in the Hispanic world. Over the years its style and themes dominated Spanish American poetic currents. By 1973, the last year for which statistics were available, more than two million copies of the Spanish text alone had been sold. The themes of these twenty-one compositions--powerful amorous poetry couched in earthy images--are the sensuous, desperate yearning of a man in love with the woman he sees disappearing from his life; the final "canción desesperada" of farewell; and the descriptions of a woman's body equated to the earth: passion, sensuality, ecstasy, descent into sorrow, and loneliness. Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada is a work of exuberant and erotic love, an exaltation of woman and sensuality written from grief and the loneliness of melancholy.
Neruda has explained that there are basically two love stories in the book: the love that filled his adolescence in the provinces and the love he found later in the labyrinth of Santiago. In Confieso que he vivido the poet calls these women Marisol (literally, Mary Sun, or Sea and Sun) and Marisombra (Mary Shadow, or Sea and Shadow). These two images give rise to the earthy metaphors for the female body and soul that permeate the book, as in "Poema 19": "Niña morena y ágil, el sol que hace las frutas, / el que cuaja los trigos, el que tuerce las algas, / hizo tu cuerpo alegre, tus luminosos ojos / y tu boca que tiene la sonrisa del agua" (Nimble and bronze-skinned girl, the sun that makes fruits grow, / the sun that swells the wheat, the sun that plaits sea weeds, / this sun has built your merry body, your luminous eyes, / your mouth that curves with the water's smile). The exultation ends, however, in solitary grief in "Poema 20" and in "La Canción Desesperada" (The Song of Despair), with its images of shipwreck and desolation. The poet has found defeat in love: "Abandonado como los muelles en al alba. / Es la hora de partir" (Abandoned like the wharfs at dawn. / It is time to depart). The two women and the two moods of Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada are captured in simple, even stark, language. Neruda had not yet taken the step that plunged him into the Surrealist world of images of Residencia en la tierra: 1925-1935 (1935; translated as Residence on Earth , 1946), but intuitively he anticipated that gray landscape of doubt and nothingness on the horizon.
Between 1925 and 1927 Neruda became impatient with himself and with his work. In spite of the popularity of his first book, fortune was eluding him, and he was yet unknown outside of Chile. He made contact with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in 1927 he got himself appointed as honorary consul of Chile to Rangoon, Burma. This appointment followed the standing Latin American tradition of honoring poets with diplomatic assignments. His knowledge of spoken English was sketchy and his consular experience nil. He was an adventurous, restless, twenty-three-year-old writer, a tall, somber young man with dark eyes and a taste for women, with a charismatic presence and little in the way of money or possessions.
During his long transoceanic journey to Rangoon, Neruda wrote reports and articles to newspapers in Chile and long letters to friends. These writings, as well as his poetry, continued when he arrived in the Orient. The East for him turned out to be a mixture of chaos, poverty, and fascinating perceptions of ancient cultures in contact with an oppressive colonial presence. Anguish and despair followed the poet, and he lived in almost abject poverty despite his appointment. Alcohol, poetry, and women were his escapes.
In Rangoon, a Burmese woman named Josie Bliss fell passionately in love with Neruda and followed him everywhere. In spite of his own attachment to her, the poet was disturbed and frightened by her extreme jealousy, and he left her behind when he was suddenly appointed Chilean consul in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1928. On the boat he wrote his poem "Tango del viudo" (The Widower's Tango)--later to appear in the first volume of Residencia de la tierra--as a sad farewell to his jealous lover. Bliss surprised him by appearing on his doorstep in Colombo, Ceylon, however, and a second bitter farewell ensued some time later.
In 1929 Neruda attended a meeting of the Indian National Congress Party in Calcutta. The vast crowds only added to his developing feelings of alienation and loneliness. The Orient was for Neruda a composite of chaos, poverty, and oppression: a hell on earth. In this atmosphere he wrote the poems later collected in Residencia en la tierra. Published in 1933, it was the first of three volumes to carry that title. Most of its dark poems were written in Rangoon, Colombo, or aboard the ship that carried him home after his five-year stay in the Far East. The poems are filled with surrealistic images, illogical language, and the presence of material details, denoting his troubled state of being, both in the personal and social realms. He was poorly paid, constantly worrying about money, and suffering from depression. In Java he met María Antonieta (Maruka) Hagenaar, marrying her on 6 December 1930 in a union that proved ill fated. Even his erotic poetry, for example, "Agua sexual" (Sexual Water), in Residencia II, of those years shows his problematic feelings and nihilistic worldview: "Y entonces hay este sonido: / Un ruido rojo de huesos, / un pegarse de carne, / y piernas amarillas como espigas juntándose. / Yo escucho entre el disparo de los besos, / escucho, sacudido entre respiraciones y sollozos" (And then I hear this sound: / a red noise of bones, / a sticking together of the flesh / and legs yellow as ears of wheat meeting. / I listen among the explosion of the kisses, / I listen, shaken between breathing and sobs). Some critics, upon reading his compositions of those years such as "Walking Around" and "Caballero solo" (Gentleman Alone), detect a nightmarish vision not unlike the one depicted by T. S. Eliot in his The Waste Land (1922). Much later, in Confieso que he vivido, the poet confirms that negative vision. Neruda, isolated and anguished, was forced into contemplating his own existential suffering and the sordid reality around him.
The Residencia en la tierra cycle comprises three books: Residencia I, covering the period from 1925 to 1931, and Residencia II, covering the period from 1931 to 1935, were published together in 1935; and Tercera residencia: 1935-1945 (Third Residence: 1935-1945), published in 1947. While the three volumes have been published together as Residencia en la tierra, the first two are primarily associated with the acute depression that the young poet suffered both in Chile and during, and immediately after, his devastating stay in the Far East. In a poetic manifesto that Neruda published in 1935, "Sobre una poesía sin pureza" (Toward an Impure Poetry), he affirms:
Es muy conveniente, en ciertas horas del día o de la noche, observar profundamente los objetos en descanso: las ruedas que han recorrido largas, polvorientas distancias, soportando grandes cargas vegetales o minerales, los sacos de las carbonerías, los barriles, las cestas, los mangos y asas de los instrumentos del carpintero. De ellos se desprende el contacto del hombre y de la tierra como una lección para el torturado poeta lírico. Las superficies usadas, el gasto que las manos han infligido a las cosas, la atmósfera a menudo trágica y siempre patética de estos objetos, infunde una especie de atracción no despreciable hacia la realidad del mundo.
(It is useful, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest: wheels that have crossed long, dusty spaces with their huge vegetal and mineral burdens, bags of coal from the coal bins, barrels, baskets, handles and hafts on a carpenter's tool chest. From them flow the contacts of man with the earth, like an object lesson for all troubled lyricists. The used surface of things, the wear that hands have given to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things--all lend a curious attractiveness to reality).
Neruda is writing here as a true poet of matter, of nature, for whom nothing that exists in the external world is worthless. His vision of the world is anguished, however, dejected about the human condition. In this respect it can be called existentialist poetry; but since it combines words and images unexpectedly and gives voice to a flow of obscure imagery from the subconscious mind, it can also be called Surrealist. Loneliness easily overtakes Neruda when contemplating the immensity and empty spaces of nature, death, loss, and rejection.
In order to counteract and yet express these feelings, the poet uses the technique of enumeration, the construction of lists previously used by Walt Whitman , who revived this biblical rhetorical device. Neruda adds the modern element of chaos. He uses chaotic enumeration to combat loneliness and nihilistic tendencies and, at the same time, creates a faded, irrational world in his verses. One reads in one of his best-known poems of those years, "Walking Around": "Hay pájaros de color de azufre y horribles intestinos / colgando de las puertas de las casas que odio, / hay dentaduras olvidadas en una cafetera, / hay espejos / que debieran haber llorado de vergüenza y espanto, / hay paraguas en todas partes, y venenos, y ombligos" (There are sulphur-colored birds, and hideous intestines / hanging over the doors of houses that I hate, / and there are false teeth forgotten in a coffeepot, / there are mirrors / that ought to have wept from shame and terror, / there are umbrellas everywhere, and venoms, and umbilical cords). Like Pablo Picasso in his Cubist period, in Residencia en la tierra Neruda distorts human images and displaces objects; like the artist, the poet does not want to paint the world as attractive or beautiful but rather to give the reader an expression of his troubled and powerful vision.
There are, nevertheless, poems in Residencia en la tierra in which optimism prevails. In these poems--for example, "Entrada a la madera" (Entrance into Wood), "Estatuto del vino" (Statute of Wine), and "Apogeo del apio" (Triumph of Celery)--pure matter, isolated from the environment, is described. These poems are an exercise in exultant descriptions of the natural world and its elements, and in them Neruda delves into the world of pure matter, untainted by cosmic disharmony or urban decay. These poems anticipate his love for the pristine elements of life found later in his poetry.
During the years he wrote the poems in Residencia en la tierra, Neruda also discovered the people's cause in the Spanish Civil War. He was sent to Spain as Chilean consul in Barcelona in early 1934; his daughter and only child, Malva Marina, was born there in October, and shortly thereafter he was reunited with his friend, the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, whom he had first met in Buenos Aires in 1933. At the end of 1934 Neruda was transferred to Madrid as consul and gathered in his house a veritable Who's Who of the Spanish literary and poetic circles of the time. He became close friends with two of the major poets of that generation, Rafael Alberti and Miguel Hernández, active members of the Spanish Communist Party.
Up until this time Neruda had been somewhat of a loner. Suddenly, in Spain he discovered solidarity, and he gave his time, energy, money, and poetic inspiration to the Spanish Republican cause. Together with the poet Manuel Altolaguirre, he founded a literary review called Caballo verde para la poesía (Green Horse for Poetry), a celebrated avant-garde journal for the arts, in 1935. When the Civil War broke out in 1936 and Lorca was shot to death by Francisco Franco's troops, Neruda took an active part in the defense of the Spanish Republic, under mortal attack by the Phalangist forces. Having moved to Paris, he edited the journal Los poetas del mundo defienden al pueblo españoles (Poets of the World Defend the Spanish People), and in 1937, with the Peruvian poet César Vallejo, he founded the Hispano-American Aid Group for Spain. In the same year Neruda published España en el corazón (Spain in My Heart), which includes some of his most powerful poetry, with images depicting the Fascist armies of Franco killing supporters of the Spanish Republic, above all his dear friend Lorca, as in "Explico algunas cosas" (I Am Explaining a Few Things): "Preguntaréis por qué su poesía / no nos habla del sueño, de las hojas, / de los grandes volcanes de su país natal? // Venid a ver la sangre por las calles, / venid a ver / la sangre por las calles, / venid a ver la sangre por las calles!" (And you will ask why doesn't his poetry / describe dreams and leaves / and the great volcanoes of his native land? // Come and see the blood in the streets, / come and see / the blood in the streets, / come and see the blood in the streets!).
In the same year, Neruda participated in a congress of writers gathered in Paris from around the Western world to support the Spanish cause: artists such as Ernest Hemingway, W. H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, Louis Aragon, and André Malraux expressed their solidarity. The writers even traveled to Madrid, in spite of the city being besieged and bombarded by Franco's forces. While in Madrid, Neruda met and fell in love with the Argentine painter Delia del Carril; they remained together until the early 1950s. The poet and his wife, Maruka Hagenaar, had separated in 1936; their daughter died in 1942 at the age of eight.
In Confieso que he vivido Neruda recounts his experience as a committed poet in war-torn Spain. He tells of solidarity, friendship, and hopes betrayed by historical events; and in the midst of this bloodshed Neruda found a public for his poetry. A decision was made during the war to reprint España en el corazón, and his friend Altolaguirre set up a printing press in an old monastery near Gerona to carry out the project. Paper was scarce, since the enemy lines were close and the city was in a state of siege, so pages for the book had to be improvised: a mixture of banners, old shirts, sheets, and bits and pieces of discarded paper were all mashed into pulp to make paper. "Supe que muchos habían preferido acarrear sacos con los ejemplares impresos antes que sus propios alimentos y ropas" (I learned that many of the Republican soldiers carried copies of the book in their sacks instead of their own food and clothing), Neruda recalls in Confieso que he vivido; "Con los sacos al hombro emprendieron la larga marcha hacia Francia" (With those sacks over their shoulders they set out on the long march to France). Years later Neruda saw a copy of the book in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., exhibited in a glass case as one of the rare books of the twentieth century.
España en el corazón is an exceptional mixture of political and lyric poetry. It is powerful, among the finest political texts to come out of the Spanish Civil War. This contribution by Neruda to the Spanish people was much cherished. Years later, when Chile's democratically elected government was overthrown by a bloody coup, and the poet died within two weeks of that event in September 1973, Spanish poets published a volume in Spain titled Chile en el corazón (Chile in My Heart), dedicated to Neruda.
This period in Neruda's life marked his poetry forever, with his insistence on the materiality of images and his profound commitment to political causes. The same sentiment and imagery can be found in his great epic, Canto general (General Song, 1950; excerpts translated as Poems from the Canto General, 1968), which sings of the American continent from its beginnings to its contemporary political reality.
In 1937 Neruda returned to Chile, where he renewed his political activity, traveling throughout the country in 1938 and writing prolifically. During that year his father died in May and his stepmother in August. At this time Neruda began writing a long poem titled "Canto de Chile" (Song of Chile), which eventually became Canto general. In 1939 he was appointed as a special consul in Paris and given the task of supervising the migration to Chile of the defeated Spanish Republicans who had fled to France. In 1940 he returned to Chile but in the same year he left for Mexico to serve as Chile's consul general. Returning to Chile in 1943, he visited Cuzco and the ancient Inca fortress of Machu Picchu during a short trip to Peru. This experience proved highly significant in the evolution of his poetry.
Neruda was elected to the Senate two years later and joined the Communist Party. In 1945 he also received the National Prize in literature; that same year he began writing "Alturas de Macchu Picchu" (The Heights of Machu Picchu), the cornerstone of Canto general. When Chilean president Gabriel González Videla cracked down on his former Communist allies in 1947, Neruda published in the 27 November issue of El Nacional (Caracas, Venezuela) an uncollected document titled "Carta íntima para millones de hombres" (An Intimate Letter for Millions of Men), defying censorship in his country. Subsequently, he was arrested as a seditious politician. Chilean authorities declared communism illegal and expelled Neruda from the Senate, especially after his speech on the senate floor titled Yo acuso (I Accuse). He went into hiding, living underground for several months, and finally in 1949 fled the country and went into exile, carrying a thick manuscript with him. During those years he had written the poems of Canto general, first published in Mexico in 1950 (and also underground in Chile).
Canto general is the product of Neruda's unstinting commitment to social justice in Latin America and his choice of Marxist ideology as the way to achieve that goal. The book was first intended as a long poem to Chile, but while in Mexico, Neruda transformed it into an epic poem about the whole American continent, its nature, its people, and its historical destiny. It consists of approximately 231 poems brought together into fifteen sections and constitutes a pivotal part of Neruda's production. Shortly after its publication, Canto general was translated into ten languages. Many of the poems are undeniably political, and yet throughout the book runs a deep undercurrent of love for his native soil and for the continent, expressed in powerful yet delicate lyric verses.
One of the finest sections of Canto general is formed by "Alturas de Macchu Picchu," published separately in 1947 and later included in this vast work. Inspired by his 1943 visit to the Incan fortress and sanctuary nestled in the peaks of the Peruvian Andes, the poet speaks of the ancient city as "la cuna del relámpago y del hombre" (cradle of lightning and of man) and "madre de piedra" (mother of stone), and invokes amor americano (American love) for this primeval earth, symbol of origin for the American peoples. The poet wants to give voice to all forgotten workers and slaves in the Incan Empire: "Dadme la lucha, el hierro, los volcanes. // Apegadme los cuerpos como imanes. // Acudid a mis venas y a mi boca. // Hablad por mis palabras y mi sangre" (Give me the struggle, the iron, the volcanoes. // Cleave your bodies to mine like magnets. // Flow into my veins, into my mouth. // Speak through my words and through my blood).
Canto general is a poetic interpretation of continental history expressed in highly erotic love images. America is the bride and the woman raped by the pillage of European conquistadors, and later by multinational corporations such as United Fruit and Anaconda Mining. In this context Canto general exalts this pure female representation of America and its countries, as well as bitterly accuses her violators, as in "Ahora es Cuba" (Now It's Cuba) from the section "Los conquistadores" (The Conquistadors): "Cuba, mi amor, te amarraron al potro, / te cortaron la cara, / te apartaron las piernas de oro pálido / te rompieron el sexo de granada" (Cuba, my love, they tied you to the rack, / they cut your face with knives, / they spread open your legs of pale gold, / they broke open your pomegranate sex). At the same time, America is also the great mother, the feminine earth force configured into a large continent and into countries that were once inhabited by indigenous peoples and later invaded and conquered by Spaniards. As Neruda describes in "Amor América" (Love America) from the section "La lámpara en la tierra" (A Lamp on This Earth), in primeval times this huge landmass was in a virginal state; then she was desecrated and trampled upon by foreign powers: "Antes de la peluca y la casaca / fueron los ríos, ríos arteriales: / fueron las cordilleras, en cuya onda raída / cóndor o la nieve parecían inmóviles: / fue la humedad y la espesura, el trueno / sin nombre todavía, las pampas planetarias" (Before the wig and the frock-coat / were the rivers, arterial rivers: / were the mountains, in whose frayed wave / the condor or the snow seemed fixed: / there was humidity and thicket, thunder / still without name, the planetary plains).
Canto general, unified by a single vision, has been seen as inspired both by the Bible and by the poetic techniques of Whitman in Leaves of Grass (1855). Throughout its pages the figures of the men and women who populated and created Latin America and suffered injustice and death appear as heroes against a magnificent background of mountains, forests, oceans, and volcanoes. Canto general is a recognized masterpiece. In its pages the voices of the common people speak; their everyday lives are described; and their struggles are sung by a poet who embraces their lives and their stories. The heroes are the indigenous American populations and the common men and women; the villains are the invaders, the conquerors, the dictators, and the multinationals. In one of the best-known poems of the collection, "La United Fruit Co.," the poet utilizes an epic tone reminiscent of Genesis: "Cuando sonó la trompeta, estuvo / todo preparado en la tierra / y Jehová repartió el mundo / a Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda, / Ford Motors, y otras entidades: / la Compañía Frutera Inc. / se reservó lo más jugoso, / la costa central de mi tierra, / la dulce cintura de América" (When the trumpet sounded / everything was prepared on earth / and Jehovah divided the world / among Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda, / Ford Motors, and other corporations: / For the United Fruit Company Inc. / the juiciest was reserved, / the central coast of my land / the sweet waist of America).
Nature imagery is powerful in Canto general, and one of the most recognized symbolic representations found in the book is the tree, which represents the forceful surge of natural currents against an order imposed from outside. Those who fought Spanish conquistadors, the Indian chieftains and rulers such as Cuahtémoc in Mexico, Caupolicán in Chile, and Tupac Amaru in Peru, are often compared to the forceful presence of native vegetation. Neruda writes of more than the common man and the natural wonders of South and Central America, however. In section 9, "Que despierte el leñador" (Let the Rail-splitter Awaken), the poet considers the United States and writes some of his most lyrical verses with an epic theme, honoring Abraham Lincoln. The last sections of Canto general are a paean to the seascapes of South America ("El gran océano" [The Great Ocean]) and an autobiographical long poem titled "Yo soy" (I Am).
The exile that had started in 1949 turned out to be longer than Neruda had anticipated. He traveled and lived in Europe for three years with a Chilean woman, Matilde Urrutia. She became his second wife in 1952.
Neruda's poetic style began to change. Out of these years came not only deeply felt political verses but also a collection of anonymously published love poetry, Los versos del capitán (1952; translated as The Captain's Verses , 1972). Neruda wanted to avoid hurting del Carril--hence his silent authorship. In Los versos del capitán the poet leaves behind the hermetic world of erotic love and idyllic nature imagery that characterizes Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada. In poems such as "El amor del soldado" (The Soldier's Love), Neruda's passion for women and for the cause are fused: "Tienes que andar sobre las espinas / dejando gotitas de sangre. // Bésame de nuevo, querida. // Limpia ese fusil, camarada" (You have to walk over thorns / leaving little drops of blood. // Kiss me again, beloved. // Clean that rifle, comrade). The woman is represented as a combatant, and as such, will march through life with the poet; the lovers are united fighting for a cause.
During this time Neruda also wrote Las uvas y el viento (The Grapes and the Wind), a collection of poems published in 1954. In that work he recounts his travel during exile, under the influence of his political militancy and, in the second part, the clandestine love affair with Matilde. The poet writes joyfully of his socialist commitment, although the harsh denouncing tone of some of his compositions is softened by the presence of his beloved companion. From the late 1950s until his death, even though he touches on all the great themes he had already cultivated, his poetry is essentially personal. He did occasionally return to the stance of the public poet, however: in the book dedicated to the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, Canción de gesta (1960; translated as Song of Protest, 1976); in Cantos ceremoniales (1961; translated as Ceremonial Songs, 1996); in La espada encendida (The Flaming Sword, 1970) with its biblical overtones; and in the blatant diatribe Incitación al nixonicidio y alabanza de la revolución chilena (1973; translated as A Call for the Destruction of Nixon and Praise for the Chilean Revolution, 1980).
In 1952 the Chilean government withdrew the order to arrest leftist writers and political figures, and in that year Neruda returned to Chile and married Matilde Urrutia. The return to the land of his birth was the beginning of a new period in his poetic evolution. Neruda was received with great honors, purchased a house in Santiago that he would name "La Chascona" (after an affectionate name he gave Matilde), and although he continued to travel (he went to the Soviet Union in 1953 to receive the Lenin Peace Prize and the Stalin Peace Prize), he started to write his Odas elementales (1954; translated as Elementary Odes , 1961), a new departure in his exploration of the world around him. Never had everyday objects, family life, and the essential substances of human existence been so elevated by poetry as in these deceptively simple verses.
At the University of Chile, Neruda gave five lectures in which he explained the origins and evolution of his poetry, and the trajectory that his verses had followed until then. In 1954 Odas elementales was published in Buenos Aires and received critical acclaim. In these poems Neruda returns to the basic elements of life, whether they be an onion, the smell of firewood, a child with a rabbit, a pair of blue socks, fish soup, a dictionary, or the atom. The poet abandons all artifice and rejoices in simplicity and purity, at the same time making an ideological statement: his materialistic view of life and politics. In a sense the odes could be said to have been written in a realist style that sing the praises of Earth, of human life and its most basic components.
Together Neruda's three books of odes--two more followed: Nuevas odas elementales (New Elementary Odes, 1956) and Tercer libro de las odas (The Third Book of Odes, 1957)--comprise more than 180 poems. Each poem celebrates being alive and enjoying the elements of ordinary life and examines objects as if they were under a microscope. In "Oda a la sal" (Ode to Salt), for example, he writes: "Polvo del mar, la lengua / de ti recibe un beso / de la noche marina: / el gusto funde en cada / sazonado manjar tu oceanía / y así la mínima, / la minúscula / ola del salero / nos enseña / no sólo su doméstica blancura, / sino el sabor central del infinito" (Dust of the sea, our tongue / receives a kiss / of the night sea from you: / taste recognizes / the huge ocean in each salty morsel, / and therefore the smallest, / the tiniest / wave of the shaker / brings home to us / not only your domestic whiteness / but the innermost flavor of infinity). This approach, it has been said, can be explained also by the fact that Neruda was an accomplished naturalist, specializing in marine life, and an avid collector of shells (a great part of his Nobel Prize cash award was spent on rare specimens). In "Oda a la alegría" (Ode to Joy) from Odas elementales the poet sings of natural objects as a man who is happy to be in this world: "porque aprendí luchando / que es mi deber terrestre / propagar la alegría. / Y cumplo mi destino con mi canto" (for I learned in my struggle / that it is my earthly duty / to spread joy / and I fulfill my destiny by singing).
A stylistic detail important to the odes is the typographical arrangement of the poems. In earlier collections Neruda had written in traditional Spanish meters or in long verses reminiscent of Whitman. In the odes he makes use of short verses, and there are many lines in his poems with only one word (for example, in "Oda a la lluvia marina" [Ode to Rain], from Nuevas odas elementales, seventeen lines are formed by one word, eighteen lines by two words, fifteen lines by three, and twelve lines by five or, rarely, six words). This simplified syntax contributes to the poetic effect of describing each object in detail, step by step. Neruda's poetics were now strongly based on clarity and simplicity and greatly contrast with his work previous to 1952. In addition, the imagery in the odes has become transparent in its meaning. The poems of Residencia en la tierra often include strange visions in which objects and abstract ideas are inextricably fused, and his earlier poems are often forged in long, flowing verses full of symbolic images. In the odes, however, and in the books that follow, Neruda has achieved his mature style, which is far from obscure. From the Spanish Civil War onward, his poetry becomes simpler and simpler.
In 1957 Losada published in Buenos Aires the first edition of his Obras completas. By this time, translations of Neruda's works had been published in virtually every well-known language, including Japanese and Persian. According to his close friends, Neruda was a vain man who expected, even demanded, praise from his critics; but he was also charming, good-humored, and a great conversationalist who enjoyed inviting people to his home and cooking for them. He collected many things, apart from shells: rare books, old bottles, knickknacks, postcards, and carved figureheads from ships. The royalties from his books had allowed him to build two new houses in which he often retreated from the world, one in Valparaiso, and the one that was his favorite during his last years, the wood and stone house in Isla Negra, facing the southern Pacific and its giant waves. The house on Isla Negra became a veritable museum, filled with all the objects he collected. During these years he wrote Estravagario (1958; translated as Extravagaria , 1972), Cien sonetos de amor (1959; translated as One Hundred Love Sonnets, 1986), and La barcarola (The Barcarole, 1967), as well as other texts of memoirs and travel prose.
Estravagario is a collection of diverse poems about life, on which the poet reflects--at times whimsically--with the maturity and serene gaze of a man who has seen much in the world. The opening poem sets the tone with its unconventional style and typography:
y cuántas cosas
and so many things).
The act of reading this text requires an open, playful mind and a willingness to let go of preconceived notions about poetry. One can also see the influence of the vanguard poets, including the French and the Brazilians, in the creation of these lines that play not only with meaning but also with form.
In Estravagario three themes emerge that became an integral part of Neruda's contemplation of life during his later years: solitude, awareness of the passage of time, and consciousness of his own mortality. His home at Isla Negra, which served as a retreat from the world, appears often in the pages of the collection. Matilde, sand, seashells, ocean waves, the objects he has collected throughout his life, and driftwood and other objects floating in from the Pacific are all present in the poems. The material nature of reality and the human consciousness that observes the details of life, akin to the sentiments expressed in the odes, are well captured in the poem "Demasiados Nombres" (Too Many Names). The poet counts and recounts, in a manner reminiscent of his enumerations in Residencia en la tierra, although here objects have the luminosity imparted to them by a mind at peace, not struggling with pain and human misery: "Yo pienso confundir las cosas, / unirlas y recién nacerlas, / entreverarlas, desvestirlas, / hasta que la luz del mundo / tenga la unidad del océano, / una integridad generosa, / una fragancia crepitante" (I would like to mix and confuse things, / unite them, make them newborn, / mix them up and undress them / until all the world's light / has the oneness of the ocean, / its generous, vast wholeness, / its crackling, living fragrance).
Neruda published a slim volume of verse, Navegaciones y regresos (Voyages and Homecomings), in 1959. These poems were meant to be a continuation of the ode cycle, and in the prologue Neruda defines and defends his art: the poet is a worker, a craftsman. As in the other volumes of odes, this book mostly shows the Chilean as a joyful poet, immersed in the wonder of nature. The list of topics he treats range from the sublime to the mundane, as they had before: there are odes to an anchor, to the wings of the swallows that return in September, to his pet cat, to an elephant, to a chair, to fried potatoes. There is in the collection also a long political poem, "Oda a Lenin," written in celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Navegaciones y regresos is the mark of Neruda's wish to continue writing in the manner of the elementary odes, although--since Estravagario had been published in the intervening years and had established a different quality of feeling in Neruda's poetic compositions--there is a tone to this volume that sets it apart from the other three books of similar poems.
Cien sonetos de amor , published also in 1959, continues in the vein of Neruda's paean to his beloved Matilde. Some critics have said that the poems in this collection remind them of a more polished version of Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada. The setting for these poems is the house at Isla Negra; there are only two figures in the book, the poet and Matilde. Everything around them is landscape or seascape, ocean spray, the smells of nature, the wind, the poet's memories. In sonnet XII, for example, Neruda instills in his language all the intense erotic expression that had served him well since his earlier books, and condenses images to convey his mature, fulfilled emotion: "amar es un viaje con agua y con estrellas" (love is a voyage with water and stars), he writes. "Amar es un combate de relàmpagos" (Love is a fight between two lightning flashes).
In the manner of a mystic poet, Neruda finds the intensity of his experience almost too much to describe in words, but he succeeds in conveying his passion as he had during his younger years. Nevertheless, it is not of Matilde alone that Neruda writes in these poems, but also the objects that surround them and make up their lives together. Their house, the beach, nature surrounding their space, the elements of night and day, are all part of the poetic world created in the book.
In 1960 Canción de gesta was published in Havana, fittingly, since its poems are a tribute to the Cuban Revolution and its heroes. In this work Neruda once more returns to his solidarity with the Communist cause. The poems retain some of the flavor once displayed in Canto general, but as a whole, revolutionary fervor succeeds over poetic prowess. Canción de gesta is more a product of Neruda's militancy than of his artistic genius, and most critics agree that the collection has more value as a political testimony than as poetry.
In 1961 two more collections of Neruda's poetry were published: Las piedras de Chile (translated as The Stones of Chile , 1986) and Cantos ceremoniales. In the preface to the former collection the poet explains: "Hace ya veinte años que dejé entre mis pensamientos este libro pedregal, nacido en las desamparadas costas y cordilleras de mi patria. . . . Deber de los poetas es cantar con sus pueblos y dar al hombre lo que es del hombre: sueño y amor, luz y noche, razón y desvarío. Pero no olvidemos las piedras! No olvidemos los tácitos castillos, los erizados, redondos regalos del planeta" (This flinty book, born in the wastelands along the coast and in the mountain ranges of my country, has lived for twenty years in my mind. . . . The poet must sing with his countrymen and give to mankind all that pertains to being a man: dreams and love, light and darkness, reason and vagary. But let us never forget the stones! We should never lose sight of these taciturn castles, the profile and bristling mass of our planet). Neruda's descriptions of rocks in the book are accompanied by photographs by Antonio Quintana. In recognizing the at times austere reality of the Chilean landscape, Neruda mixes sadness and hope. In "La gran mesa de piedra dura" (The Great Hard Rock Table), in which the whole of the country is seen as a bare stone surface, the people's poverty is recognized and lamented: "Nos sentamos junto a la mesa, / a la mesa fría del mundo, / y no nos trajo nadie nada, / todo se había terminado, / se lo habían comido todo // . . . todavía un niño espera, / él es la verdad de los sueños, / él es la esperanza terrestre" (We sat down all of us, together, around the table, / the cold table of our world, / and no one brought us anything, / everything had disappeared, / everything had been eaten already by others // . . . One child waits still, / the child who is the truth of every dream, / the child who is the hope of our earth).
Las piedras de Chile is both personal and public poetry. In it Neruda journeys up and down the steep slopes of his native mountains, and he interprets the landscape as it strikes his imagination. One of the distinctive traits of Neruda's volumes of poetry after 1950 and Canto general is also found here: the poetry is not just descriptive, it also features a narrative thread of history that weaves through it. In this work, personification and mythologizing of nature come to the fore, as they had in Canto general, with human qualities seen in the Chilean landscape as they had been seen before in the continental terrain.
Unlike the previous books, Cantos ceremoniales does not exhibit a clear thematic unity. The poems are divided into nine sections, with varied topics shared among them. Some portions recall the epic tone of Canto general, as, for instance, "La insepulta de Paita" (The Unburied Woman from Paita); the elegy devoted to Simón Bolívar's lover, Manuelita Sáenz; or "Cataclismo" (Cataclysm), about the devastating earthquake that shook southern Chile in 1960. There is also a long composition dedicated to the French-Uruguayan poet Isidore Lucien Ducasse, Comte de Lautreamont. Most critics agree that this is not one of Neruda's most memorable books, except perhaps for several poems. It seems, as Emir Rodriguez Monegal has put it, that "en casi todos ellos [los poemas] parece predominar la pompa de la materia poética sobre la espontaneidad creadora" (in almost all the poems the pomp of the poetic material) dominates over creative spontaneity.
Plenos poderes (translated as Fully Empowered , 1975) was published in 1962. In this book serenity prevails, as it had in other previous works. In the thirty-six poems included in the volume, there is a fullness of personal power, as is well expressed in "Deber del poeta" (The Poet's Obligations), in which Neruda defines what the poet must do, the duties he cannot escape. He must listen to "el lamento marino en mi conciencia" (the watery lament of consciousness), feel the hard rain, the blows of destiny, and gather it back in "una taza eterna" (a cup of eternity). In other words, the poet is obliged to pay attention and to record whatever others do not see or remember. Ultimately, the poet is the consciousness of mankind, who must try to preserve everything in a meaningful way so it can live eternally. Neruda happily accepts this awesome duty and writes in the ending poem, "Plenos poderes," that "y canto porque canto y porque canto" (I sing because I sing because I sing). In the poem "Oda para planchar" (In Praise of Ironing), Neruda links the poet's activity to an everyday act. Poetry is white, something that comes out of the water, covered with drops, and it becomes wrinkled when it dries, like laundry. Human hands must work it and restore it to its pristine state: "hay que extender la piel de este planeta, / hay que planchar el mar de su blancura / y van y van las manos, / se alisan las sagradas superficies / y así se hacen las cosas" (One has to spread out the skin of this planet, / one must iron the sea from its whiteness / and hands pass and pass, / the sacred surfaces are smoothed out / and that's how things are made).
The most ambitious book of this period is Memorial de Isla Negra , which comprises five volumes. It is autobiographical in nature and includes some of the most touching lyric poetry that Neruda ever wrote, about his childhood memories, his parents, his love life, his travels, his political ideas, and his aesthetic tastes. A series of autobiographical articles published in 1962 in a Brazilian journal, O Cruzeiro Internacional, gave origin to this poetry and later was the foundation for his posthumously published memoirs. In the five books that make up Memorial de Isla Negra--"Donde nace la lluvia" (Where the Rain Is Born), "La luna en el laberinto" (Moon in the Labyrinth), "El fuego cruel" (The Cruel Fire), "El cazador de raíces" (Hunting for Roots), and "Sonata crítica" (Critical Sonata)--one can find Neruda fully immersed in nostalgia and looking for self-knowledge.
In "Nacimiento" (Birth), the first poem in the collection, Neruda describes the house where he was born and the street where it stood. Both disappeared during an earthquake, and the adobe walls sank back into the dust. Neruda's mother died when he was a young child; the poet recalls a visit to her grave in the cemetery in Parral, where he cried out to her and received silence as the only answer: "y de allí se quedó sola, sin su hijo, / huraña y evasiva / entre las sombras. / Y de allí soy, de aquel / Parral de tierra temblorosa, / tierra cargada de uvas / que nacieron / desde mi madre muerta" (and there she remained alone, without her son, / elusive and evasive / among the shadows. / And that is where I come from, / a quake-ridden soil, from Parral, / a land abundant in grapes / springing up / from the dead body of my mother). This first book deals with the poet's memories of childhood and adolescence; his discovery of nature, love, sex, and poetry; his first travels; and his own characteristic shyness.
"El niño perdido" (Little Boy Lost) is an equally moving poem, evoking the change brought on by time on Neruda's naive vision of the world and of himself. He tries to speak with the voice of the child he once was, even now in his present moment: "y de repente apareció en mi rostro / un rostro de extranjero / y era también yo mismo: / era yo que crecía, / eras tú que crecías, / era todo, / y cambiamos" (and suddenly appeared in my face / the face of a stranger, / and yet it was also my face. / It was I who was growing there / and you are growing with me / all of us one, / everything changing).
The second book, "La luna en el laberinto," continues the chronicle of Neruda's adolescence, and his first passionate love affairs, as well as his loneliness and anguish while living in the Far East. In "El fuego cruel," the third volume, poems about Neruda in Spain and the events of the Spanish Civil War are interspersed with poems reminiscing about his love affair with Josie Bliss in Rangoon and Colombo. In this book the topics become more varied and more political: war, commitments to leftist causes, and ideologies appear once more. For example, in "Los míos" (My People) Neruda recalls his verses from España en el corazón and points his finger at present-day killers in his native Chile who exploit natural resources and workers: "Yo dije: Ayer la sangre! / Vengan a ver la sangre de la guerra! / Pero aquí era otra cosa. / No sonaban los tiros, / no escuché por la noche / un río de soldados / pasar / desembocando / hacia la muerte. / Era otra cosa aquí, en las cordilleras / algo gris que mataba / humo, polvo de minas o cemento, / un ejército oscuro / caminando / en un día sin banderas" (I said: Yesterday the blood! / Come and see the blood of the war! / But here it was something else. / No guns sounded, / I didn't hear during the night / a river of soldiers / passing by, / flowing / toward death. / Here in the mountains it was something else, / something gray that killed, / smoke, dust from mines or cement, / a dark army / walking / in a day without banners).
Books 4 and 5 of Memorial de Isla Negra, while always focusing on Neruda's personal vision, are less directly autobiographical than the first three books, and there is no longer any attempt to describe life events or to follow a chronology. "El cazador de raíces" exhibits perhaps the finest poetic quality in all five volumes, and its subject matter is once again earth and nature, with an emphasis on the four elements of air, fire, earth, and water. In "Sonata crítica" the themes include Neruda's perception of art, literature in general, the role of the poet in the modern world, and the moral and metaphysical implications of living in a finite universe where hope and imperfection are constantly mingling.
In the poem "Arte magnética" (Magnetic Art), from the fifth book, Neruda returns to the question of what it means to be a poet. He affirms that it is only by immersing oneself fully into living that poetry can be born: "De tanto amar y andar salen los libros" (It is from endless loving and walking that books come forth). He ends by recounting how his life broke forth into poetry: "entre sangre y amor cavé mis versos, / en tierra dura establecí una rosa, / disputada entre el fuego y el rocío. / Por eso pude caminar cantando" (between blood and love I dug my verses, / in hard earth I established a rose, / fought over by fire and dew. / It is thus that I could walk along singing).
Memorial de Isla Negra is Neruda's most important work of the 1960s. Its autobiographical intent, however, should not let the reader forget that it is, above all, a poetic reconstruction of life. Neruda comes through in these poetic portraits with his intense human feelings, but he recognizes that the concrete events in his own life might not be consistently portrayed in his poetic memoirs. He acknowledges this fact in one of his prose accounts published in O Cruzeiro Internacional (January 1962) and posthumously in Memoirs: "Tal vez no viví en mí mismo; tal vez viví la vida de los otros. De cuanto he dejado escrito en estas páginas se desprenderán siempre--como en las arboledas de otoño y como en el tiempo de las viñas--las hojas amarillas que van a morir y las uvas que revivirán en el vino sagrado. Mi vida es una vida hecha de todas las vidas: las vidas del poeta." (Perhaps I have lived other people's lives. The pages of these memoirs of mine are like a forest in the fall, like vineyards in September, they give forth yellow leaves ready to die and ready to live again in the sacred wine. This is a life made out of all other lives, for a poet always has many lives).
In 1966 Neruda published two books. The first, Arte de pájaros (translated as Art of Birds, 1985), combines exquisite drawings of species native to Chile with poems dedicated to each specimen. A whimsical section of the large-sized volume includes "mythological" birds, such as "el pájaro yo" (the I bird) and "el pájaro ella" (the she bird), where colorful drawings portray birds of rare plumage with the photographed heads of Neruda and Matilde superimposed on the images; the same is done for friends of the couple. The second book published that year is Una casa en la arena (translated as The House at Isla Negra: Prose Poems, 1988), a volume in which Neruda mixed prose and poetry and illustrated with photographs of Isla Negra and his house. It includes, of course, the poet's personal life with Matilde in that environment, focusing first on nature and then on Neruda's personal involvement in the building of his home.
There is a similar vision in the love poems of La barcarola (the title refers to the song that gondoliers sing while steering lovers in their boats through the canals of Venice). The first section of the book is dedicated and addressed to Matilde, and all the compositions included therein were in fact first published in Neruda's autobiographical account of 1962. In this section, themes from the poet's earlier books come together again, as it gathers love poetry, nature poetry, poetry about Chile, and poems about the poet's own role and obligations. La barcarola is a complex book, in which many ingredients, many subjects, and many moods are combined. It is divided into multiple sections, with many of them titled simply "Sigue la barcarola" (The Barcarole Goes On). The most salient mood is that of introspection, and perhaps the most unifying motif is that of the constant rhythm of the verses. There are reminiscences of the poet's travels in Europe, and the year he spent in France with Matilde. The poem "Serenata de París" (Paris Serenade) recalls those cherished times: "Hermosa es la rue de la Huchette, / pequeña como una / granada / y opulenta en su pobre esplendor de vitrina harapienta: / allí entre los beatniks barbudos en este año del sesenta y / cinco / tú y yo transmigrados de estrella vivimos felices y sordos" (Beautiful is the Rue de la Huchette, tiny like a pomegranate, / and opulent in our poor splendor, just like a ragged showcase; / there, among the bearded beatniks in this year of sixty-five / you and I, transmigrants from a star, lived happy and oblivious).
Later in La barcarola Neruda devotes poems to the coastland of Chile, the plains of Patagonia crossed by horses, and his friend, the Chilean writer Rubén Azócar, who had died two years before. There are poems about the sound of bells in many places, the memory of turn-of-the-century Latin American poet Rubén Darío, and many other historical figures. In the midst of these memories and associations, Neruda includes a narrative-dramatic poem, "Fulgor y muerte de Joaquín Murrieta" (Splendor and Death of Joaquin Murrieta). This long work gives a fictionalized account of the life and death of a Robin Hood-style bandit, identified by historians as a Mexican who helped the Spanish-speaking miners in California during the gold rush. Neruda, however, converts Murrieta into a Chilean folk hero. While it could be said that La barcarola is Neruda's most chaotic work, because of its multiple themes and the inclusion of a fledgling drama in its pages, it retains a lyric and romantic quality, and it richly reflects the personal experiences of the poet and his memories of art and people.
Between 1968 and 1973, in the five years before his death, Neruda published another series of works, comprising Las manos del día (The Hands of Day, 1968); Fin de mundo (World's End, 1969); Aún (1969; translated as Still Another Day, 1984); La espada encendida; Las piedras del cielo (1970; translated as Stones of the Sky, 1987); Geografía infructuosa (Barren Geography, 1972); and Incitación al nixonicidio y alabanza de la revolución chilena. These years were what critics have called the "autumnal" period of Neruda's poetry. It was a period of enormous production for him, mainly of personal poetry. One volume had come after another in rapid succession since the early 1960s; despite his constant travels and public activities, the poet was no longer obliged to accept diplomatic work in order to live and could devote himself fully to writing. He spent more and more time at Isla Negra, and the peace he found there is reflected in a poetry that grew increasingly intimate and meditative as the years went on.
This serenity is one of the reasons Neruda turned his attention to autobiography, both in prose and in verse. Free from financial concerns, the poet concentrated on his own life, although always ready to comment on political events that aroused his interest. He traveled everywhere he was invited, always with Matilde at his side. Wherever they went, crowds gathered to hear the famous gravel voice, to hear Neruda lecturing and reading his poetry. His powerful presence and moving verses made him enormously popular. His career, which had integrated private and public concerns, had turned him into the people's poet. In 1962 a second edition of his complete works had been published. In 1964 his Spanish version of William Shakespeare 's Romeo and Juliet (circa 1595-1596) was his first venture into the theater, produced in Santiago by the Instituto de Teatro de la Universidad de Chile (ITUCH, Theater Institute of the University of Chile), and performed on 18 October; later in 1964, it was published as a chapbook in Buenos Aires by Editorial Talía. This performance was followed by his second and last, the staging in October 1967 of his Fulgor y muerte de Joaquín Murieta (Splendor and Death of Joaquín Murrieta), also by ITUCH. In 1968 another edition of his complete works appeared.
His prolific writing at Isla Negra by no means meant that Neruda had abandoned active political participation, however, and in 1969 he was again deeply involved in Chilean politics, this time as the Communist Party's candidate for the presidency of Chile. Neruda later renounced his candidacy, however, in order to support his friend Salvador Allende when the latter became the sole candidate of all the leftist parties. The poet campaigned vigorously for Allende, and the leftist victory at the polls brought the poet hope for a new Chile in which social justice might at last abolish classism and poverty. In 1970 he was diagnosed with a serious form of cancer, and yet he agreed to represent the new government as Chile's ambassador to France.
Neruda was in France, working to renegotiate Chile's external debt, on 8 October 1971 when he received the news that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize. He traveled to Stockholm in December to receive it, and in his acceptance speech, Toward the Splendid City (published in 1974), he described his vision of a future for mankind, a paradise of everyday living, in which poets--the same as bakers--would play a significant role. Neruda returned to Chile in 1972, too ill to continue working as an ambassador. A huge rally was organized at the National Stadium to greet him.
The books Neruda published between 1968 and 1973, squeezed between the production of the mid 1960s and the later posthumous works, are, relatively speaking, not widely read or known. In part, this lack of attention might be the 1967 Losada edition of Neruda's Obras completas does not include all of these books. A fourth edition, published in 1973, does include them, but by this time the posthumous works were already appearing in print, overshadowing the previous books. According to some critics, it might also be true that Neruda's move toward mostly personal poetry in this period reduced his active reading public; he was no longer dealing with his principal themes of nature and history, but more with his own life and introspection. Another consideration might be, perhaps, that Neruda was too prolific for his literary critics during this period. They concentrated on his five volumes of autobiographical verse, Memorial de Isla Negra, and on the prose memoirs Confieso que he vivido. It seems as if the poet, firing off a seemingly unending series of short books, left little time to absorb one before the next appeared.
Las manos del día, Fin de mundo, Aún, La espada encendida, Las piedras del cielo, Geografía infructuosa, and Incitación al nixonicidio y alabanza de la revolución chilena call for a careful reading, since some of these volumes do include representative verse of Neruda the lyric poet, except for the last one. Incitación al nixonicidio y alabanza de la revolución chilena , as the title implies, is a diatribe against the United States president that Neruda saw as a mortal enemy of the people of Chile. Nowhere else in his poetic work does Neruda express rage as he does on the pages of this book; this political pamphlet is full of furious broadsides, crafted in simple language with rhyme that is easy to understand and remember. Referring to the Vietnam War, his condemnation of Nixon is absolute; clearly, the death of this man who has become a menace to the world, says the poet, is the only solution. Unlike the passionate and lyrical poems of España en el corazón or the epic historical dimensions of Canto general, here Neruda directs his energy to denouncing a single man, for him the incarnation of treachery.
In a different manner, Las manos del día includes poignant verse about the role of the poet, full of imagery related to his writing, and expressing at times, in "El culpable" (The Guilty Ones), for example, his regret for not being a plain manual laborer: "Me declaro culpable de no haber / hecho, con estas manos que me dieron, / una escoba" (I declare myself guilty for not having / made, with these hands that they gave me, / a broom). The poems in this book are short and direct, but the tone remains one of introspection. Neruda is noting the passage of time and questioning whether his time on earth has been well spent. In "El golpe" (The Blow), speaking directly to the ink with which he has written his verses (he literally wrote all of his poems with green ink, on lined notebooks), he says: "Tal vez mejor hubiera / volcado en una copa / toda tu esencia, y haberla arrojado / en una sola página, manchándola / con una sola estrella verde / y que sólo esa mancha / hubiera sido todoh / lo que escribí a lo largo de mi vida, / sin alfabeto ni interpretaciones: un solo golpe oscuro / sin palabras" (Perhaps it would have been better / to have poured over into a cup / all your essence, and to have thrown it / on only one page, staining it / with one single green star / and that stain alone / would have been everything / that I wrote throughout my life: / without alphabet or interpretations / one single dark blow / without words).
A year after the publication of Las manos del día, another book of his poetry, Aún (literally meaning "still" or "yet"), appeared. Aún is a single poem of 433 lines, written in the space of two days in July 1969. The dominant theme, personal like so many of the other works of this period, is the earth. Once again Neruda is seeking contact with nature and with his roots. A poem titled just "VI" states "Perdón si cuando quiero / contar mi vida / es tierra lo que cuento. / Ésta es la tierra. / Crece en tu sangre y creces. / Si se apaga en tu sangre / tú te apagas" (Forgive me if when I want / to tell my life / it's soil that I recount. / Such is the earth. / When it grows in your blood / you grow. / If it dies in your blood / you die). If this book anticipates, as some critics say, some of the poetry published posthumously in the dominant role it gives to nature, it equally signals the new positive role that silence plays in those later books: "Yo allí solo, buscando la razón de la tierra / sin hombres y sin alas, poderosa, / sola en su magnitud, como si hubiera / destruido una por una las vidas / para establecer su silencio" (And I was there all alone, looking for the reasons / of the earth's being, the earth without men / and without wings, yet all powerful, / alone in its majesty, as if it had / destroyed one by one every bit of life / in order to establish its silence).
In the same year as Aún, Neruda published still another, significantly different, book of poetry, Fin de mundo. Even though the purported theme of this collection of poems is to meditate on the state of global affairs, in the end the main topic remains the poet's own self. Neruda recognizes this in the poem "Siempre Yo" (Always I): "Yo que quería hablar del siglo / adentro de esta enredadera, / que es mi siempre libro naciente, / por todas partes me encontré / y se me escapaban los hechos" (I who wanted to speak of our century / within this twining, / within my book still being born, / everywhere I found myself / while events escaped me). Indeed, this book reflects events of the times--incessant wars, the horrors of Vietnam, the death of Che Guevara, the invasion of Prague by Soviet troops--but it is, nonetheless, a personally oriented book. Events are seen through the poet's own perspective, and he anguishes about the disappointments and unrealized dreams that have characterized the years during which he has lived. But the mood of Fin de mundo is more reflective than argumentative, and this quality makes the book more closely related to Neruda's personal poetry.
In all the books from 1968 onward Neruda apologizes, asking for forgiveness not only for the things he has done, but also primarily for the things he has not done. At times, there is a sense of despair in his poetry for not having been able to act more on behalf of human justice, as in Las manos del día. Nowhere does this despair take on such global proportions as in the poems of Fin de mundo. Neruda describes the twentieth century in the blackest terms: in "La ceniza" (Ash), he calls it "la edad de la ceniza" (the age of ash) and writes of "ceniza de niños quemados" (the ash of burned children) and "cenizas de ojos que lloraron" (the ash of eyes that cried); and in "Bomb," he writes: "en estos años nació / la usina total de la muerte / el núcleo desencadenado / y no nos bastó asesinar / a cien mil japoneses dormidos" (in these years was born / the complete factory of death, / the unchained atom, / and it wasn't enough for us to assassinate 100,000 sleeping Japanese). In Fin de mundo Neruda shows a subtle philosophical bent to his reflection on the state of world affairs that goes much beyond the political. There is a softer, gentler message about the human condition that in his purely political poetry. The collection also includes portraits of cities, countries, and well-known writers from Latin America, including Julio Cortázar, César Vallejo, and Gabriel García Márquez.
La espada encendida is one of Neruda's most unusual books. The title sets the work apart by referring to the Bible, specifically to Genesis in the Old Testament, and the sword with which an angel protected the entrance to the Garden of Eden after the Fall of Adam and Eve. This poem recounts a long and fantastic tale, the story of Rhodo and Rosía, survivors after the destruction of the world and its civilizations. Drawing strength from their love for each other, they sail out into the world in a new ark laden with escaping birds and beasts. As they draw clear of the land, they realize that the old god has died and that they are themselves the gods of the new age. They try to establish a dynasty to begin anew, only to be pursued by inner guilt and great explosions in the sky and in the center of the earth. The book ends on an optimistic note, however: through their love and through the presence of birds and animals around them, Rhodo and Rosía slowly learn that it is they who are in charge, not some unseen god, and the new world belongs to them. It might seem strange for a Marxist poet to use biblical themes and imagery, but the epic and mythological quality of Neruda's long narrative conveys a message about material hope in a world that is doomed to fail if it follows only the old order.
Also in 1970, Neruda published Las piedras del cielo , which Manuel Durán and Margery Safir have called a "sister book" to Las piedras de Chile. Here, the object of the poet's contemplation is not the giant boulders of Chilean geography, but rather small rocks and stones, as well as precious formations: in "Cuando se toca el topacio" (When You Touch the Topaz), he writes, "Cuando se toca el topacio / el topacio te toca: / despierta el fuego suave / como si el vino en la uva / desper-tara" (When you touch the topaz / the topaz touches you: / the smooth fire awakens /as if the wine in a grape / came to life). In this book the poet again questions the natural world, seeking out every secret that the silent minerals hold. At the same time, Neruda reflects on humankind: his thoughts on stones are also observations about the difference between the solid, silent life of rocks and that of human beings. His identification with the natural world--expressed, for example, in "Yo soy este desnudo mineral" (I Am This Naked Mineral)--is total in these poems: "piedra fui: piedra oscura / y fue violenta la separación, / una herida en mi ajeno nacimiento: quiero volver / a aquella certidumbre, / al descanso central" (I was stone: dark stone / and the separation was violent, / a wound in my alien birth: / I want to return / to that certitude, / to that central repose).
In 1972 Geografía infructuosa was published. This book was begun in Chile and finished in France, during the year before his death, when Neruda suffered from his terminal illness. The poems included in this collection are personal, referring to trips and surgeries and landscapes he will not see again, as well as to the hope that still lingers in his heart, and they reflect an impending sense of finality to his days on earth. In "El cobarde" (The Coward) there is a contrast between the observed regenerative powers of nature and the ebbing out of life: "voy sin vivir, ya mineralizado, / inmóvil esperando la agonía, / mientras florece el territorio azul / predestinado de la primavera" (I go along without living, already mineralized, / immobile, waiting for the agony, / while the blue hills flower / with the first fated signs of spring). Geografía infructuosa prefigures the major themes in the posthumous works: not only the awareness of oncoming death contrasted with the cycle of the seasons, but also solitude. In this book Neruda affirms that his solitude is a special territory, a geography in which being and oneness become fused and confused. Because of these themes, and also because of the period in which it was written and published, Geografía infructuosa constitutes a link between the works of the late 1950s through the early 1970s and the posthumous volumes. It closes the "autumnal" cycle of Neruda's poetry and anticipates the "winter" cycle: the eight books published after the poet's death. As Robert Pring-Mill notes, the fact that Neruda chose Jardín de invierno (1974; translated as Winter Garden, 1986) as the title of one of the major posthumous works shows that with Geografía infructuosa he was fully aware of the end of one cycle and the opening of another, the final cycle in his life, with the works that followed.
In the latter part of 1973 Neruda was bedridden, dying of cancer, yet working on his memoirs and the eight books of poetry he planned to publish on his seventieth birthday, 12 July 1974. He had written appeals to his friends in Europe, in the Americas, and in the socialist countries, begging them to come to the aid of Chile, desperately trying to prevent the coup d'état that everyone knew was imminent. On 23 September 1973, twelve days after the coup that left General Augusto Pinochet ruling his beloved country, Neruda died. His houses were vandalized and ransacked.
Even though Neruda had been ill for more than a year, his death came somewhat unexpectedly. "What brought about his sudden collapse," Pring-Mill wrote in the 3 October 1975 issue of TLS: The Times Literary Supplement, "was the shock of the coup and of Allende's death. The President had been a close friend of the poet, and his end in the government palace hit Neruda as hard as Lorca's murder in Spain had hit him at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. His failing health gave way. His funeral, protected by the presence of foreign journalists, was the only time dissenting voices could be raised in Chile in defiance of the new regime."
Two of the eight posthumous books, El mar y las campanas (translated as The Sea and the Bells, 1988) and La rosa separada (translated as A Separate Rose, 1985), were published shortly after Neruda's death in 1973. Matilde Neruda had been allowed by the new government to leave Chile in November of that year, taking with her the manuscripts of the unpublished poems and the drafts of Confieso que he vivido to the house of Neruda's friend Miguel Otero Silva in Caracas. According to Losada, Neruda's publisher, the poet wanted the works to appear in the following sequence: La rosa separada; Jardín de invierno; 2000 (1974; translated, 1997); El corazón amarillo (1974; translated as The Yellow Heart, 1990); Libro de las preguntas (1974; translated as The Book of Questions, 1991); Elegía (1974; translated as Elegy, 1983); El mar y las campanas; and Defectos escogidos (Selected Defects, 1974). This arrangement was not followed, and in 1973 El mar y las campanas was the first to appear in print.
The posthumous books are a body of work that Neruda himself did not shape into its final form. All of these poems were salvaged from the ransacking of the poet's homes after his death (La Chascona in Santiago, La Sebastiana in Valparaíso, and Isla Negra). The poet had nearly finished work on these books, but there is no way of knowing whether he would have published all the poems that were found, and in what order. The eight books vary in content, mood, and quality, and yet they can be seen as a group. For the most part they are all short compositions; there is not any hint at monumental poems of the type found and gathered in Memorial de Isla Negra, for example. The movement toward personal poetry reaches its culmination in these works.
Neruda wrote many of these compositions at a country retreat in France, where he had used some of the Nobel Prize money to buy a converted slate mill at Condé-sur-Iton, in Normandy. He and Matilde gave this country refuge the name of La Manquel (a word meaning "female condor" in the Mapuche language of the Indians of southern Chile). The great oak beams of the old mill by the stream recalled other timber in his Chilean houses, for example, in his beloved Isla Negra. At La Manquel, he completed Geografía infructuosa and La rosa separada.
These eight volumes often touch private realms of Neruda's life, an existence that he contemplates in solitude and silence. His great companion is, as always, nature. Some poems are metaphysical or even existential at times. The poet seeks to renew his bond with nature and to meditate on his own life, as well as on man's relationship to the natural forces that surround him and outlast him. There is also a unity of mood in several of the posthumous volumes. Neruda is almost always alone, a solitary figure, and books such as Jardín de invierno, El mar y las campanas , and Elegía are often characterized by nostalgic meditation. El mar y las campanas and Jardín de invierno, moreover, are clearly written by a man who is aware of his impending death. He feels no fear or regret, however. Instead, an acceptance of destiny and a calm and tranquil mood pervades most of this poetry.
In El mar y las campanas, the first of the posthumous books to appear in print, the reader finds many of the great themes concerning human existence that Neruda explores in his other final works. The poet is taking account of his own life and his own being. The book is a collection of intimate personal poetry, and the two elements of the title signify two aspects of Neruda's communion with nature that were always important to him: the sea, the primeval force that intrigued him and fascinated him since his youth, and which had always been physically and poetically present in his life; and the bells, which might also represent communication with the natural world, a call to remember life, and an upcoming death knell.
The bells and the sea are also seen here to share a rhythm that once more recalls the life-cycle symbolism ever present in Neruda's poetry; as the dying out of one wave brings on the next, so the echo created as one bell dies out serves to usher in the clear ring of the next. For the poet the association is a close one, as he indicates in "[Perdón si por mis ojos]" ([Forgive Me If Through My Eyes]): "que yo soy una parte / del invierno, /de la misma extensión que se repite / de campana en campana en tantas olas / y de un silencio como cabellera, / silencio de alga, canto sumergido" (that I am a part / of winter / of the flat expanse that is repeated / from bell to bell in endless waves, / a particle of silence like a woman's hair, / a silence of seaweeds, a submerged song).
La rosa separada grew out of a trip Neruda made to Easter Island in January 1971, as part of a team working on a television documentary for Channel 13, the cultural television channel of Chile. The poet had been long fascinated with the island, a Chilean territory, and its huge stone statues, and he had included several poems on the subject in his Canto general, in the penultimate section, "El gran océano." Again, absorption in nature prevails--for example, in the fifth poem of "La isla" (The Island): "Todas las islas del mar las hizo el viento. / Pero aquí, el coronado, el viento vivo, el / primero, / fundó su casa, cerró las alas, vivió: desde la mínima Rapa Nui repartió sus / dominios" (All the islands in the ocean were built by the wind. / But it is here that the High One, the living wind, the first wind, / established his home, folded his wings, dwelled: it is from this small Rapa Nui that he organized his empire). At the same time, the series of poems titled "Los hombres" (The Men), is about the people who populate or visit this singular place: "Somos torpes los transeúntes, nos atropellamos / de codos, / de pies, de pantalones, de maletas, / bajamos del tren, del jet, de la nave, bajamos / con arrugados trajes y sombreros funestos" (All of us who walk around are clumsy people. Our elbows get in the way, / our feet, our trousers, our suitcases, / we get off the train, the jet plane, the ship, we come down / with our wrinkled suits and our sinister hats). The treatment of the topic of human beings in apposition to Nature is similar in this collection to what Neruda had done in Las piedras de Chile. Moreover, in La rosa separada Neruda documents despair over the condition of modern man and his pitiful state.
Jardín de invierno focuses, more than any other work in this group, on the poet's consciousness of the cycles of life and death as they unfold in the natural world. In "El egoísta" (The Egoist), one reads: "Esta es la hora / de las hojas caídas, trituradas / sobre la tierra, cuando / de ser y de no ser vuelven al fondo / despojándose de oro y de verdura / hasta que son raíces otra vez / y otra vez, demoliéndose y naciendo, / suben a conocer la primavera" (This is the hour / of fallen leaves, / crumbled and crumpled / on the earth, when / to be and to not be return to the depths / leaving behind the gold and the greenery / until they are roots once again / and once again, torn down and being born, / they move up to know the springtime). In one of the most frequently quoted verses from the series, "Con Quevedo, en primavera" (With Quevedo, in springtime), the poet's wishes are stated in regard to his conception of immortality: a life in the earth, like the autumn leaves that return to the unending cycle of dissolution and regeneration: "dame por hoy el sueño de las hojas / nocturnas, la noche en que se encuentran / los muertos, los metales, las raíces, / y tantas primaveras extinguidas / que despiertan en cada primavera" (give me for today the sleep of nocturnal / leaves, the night in which we come face to face / with the dead, the metals, the roots, / and so many extinguished springtimes / that awaken in each springtime). Notable in these two poems, which exemplify the poet's mood of these last collections, is the absence of sadness. Neither death nor the winter is portrayed as a negative or threatening force, but with the essential optimism of one who has lived and understands how the cycles of life unfold.
While still reflecting the stance of a man taking account before death, 2000 is significantly different from Jardín de invierno. In this collection Neruda leaves behind lyrical meditations and contemplates contemporary reality, constructing a series of poems that constitute a commentary on the state of the world, as he imagines it will be in the year 2000. 2000 is the slimmest of the last volumes, and the poetry included therein is not the most memorable left by the poet. Again, the primary thematic concern, as illustrated in "La tierra" (The Earth), is despair over the condition of modern man: "y cada día salió el pan a saludarnos / sin importarle la sangre y la muerte que / vestimos los hombres, / la maldita progenie que hace la luz del / mundo" (every day bread would come out to greet us / ignoring the blood and death that we men always wear, / we who are both the accursed race and the light of the world).
El corazón amarillo , also from the same year, offers poetry with a tone that is irreverent, playful, and even nonsensical at times. The themes are often social satire, with strange and amusing anecdotes to illustrate the absurdity of social customs. An example is the poem "Una situación insostenible" (An Untenable Situation), centered on the extravagant figures that make up the Ostrogodo family. Much of their conversation revolves around dead relatives, until one day something unusual happens: "Entonces en aquella casa / de oscuros patios y naranjos, / en el salón de piano negro, / en los pasillos sepulcrales, / se instalaron muchos difuntos / que se sintieron en su casa" (To that mansion of dark courtyards and orange trees, / to that drawing-room with its black piano, / to the tomb-like corridors, / many ghosts came to stay, / feeling perfectly at home). El corazón amarillo is not a substantial book, the poetry being often more pleasant than remarkable.
El libro de las preguntas , also from 1974, is perhaps the simplest and yet the most complex of the eight posthumous works. It is literally a book of questions: every verse ends with a question mark, and they are strung together without any necessary relationship between them. For example, in "Poema IV": "Cuántas iglesias tiene el cielo? / Por qué no ataca el tiburón / a las impávidas sirenas? Conversa el humo con las nubes? / Es verdad que las esperanzas / deben regarse con rocío?" (How many churches does Heaven hold? / Why don't the sharks attack / the serene mermaids? / Does the smoke talk to the clouds? / Is it true that hope must be watered with dew?) In each verse of these riddles, one is dealing with the unanswerable questions of life. Neruda, close to his death, provides the reader access into how he sees the world, the questions of his accumulated years of observing reality.
Elegía is Neruda's last look at Soviet Russia. He had already written extensively on the subject, beginning with his "Oda a Stalingrad" (Ode to Stalingrad) in Tercera residencia. In the latter work he contemplates the country that for forty years had represented the center of his political ideology and ideals. Elegía is a sentimental journey through the Soviet Union: imagining a final walk through Moscow, Neruda recalls poets such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin, and Nazim Hikmet. Above all, one finds in the book revolutionary nostalgia, the remembrance of antifascist struggles with his comrades in art. In comparison with Las uvas y el viento, a book of joyous discovery of socialist solidarity, Elegía contemplates and laments the passage of time for the same places that he wandered around twenty or thirty years earlier.
Defectos escogidos is the last posthumous collection to appear in print. It was planned as a collection of faults, both Neruda's own and those of other people. Most critics agree that the book as it was published was not the book that had been intended, however. Only twelve of its nineteen poems fit the theme, and none in the collection is particularly impressive. Most of the poems are not of great interest or importance for an understanding of Neruda's work, and there are printing errors (such as repetitions of lines from one poem to the other). Two poems, however, can be salvaged: "Otro castillo" (Another Castle) and "Orégano" (Oregano). The second one is a fine example of a composition in the style and theme of the elementary odes: "hasta que me encontré sobre un andén / o en un campo recién estrenado / una palabra: orégano, / palabra que me desenredó / como sacándome de un laberinto. / No quise aprender más palabra alguna" (until I found on a railroad track / or perhaps it was a newly sown field / a word: oregano. / This word made me unwind, / as if guiding me out of a labyrinth. . . . / I refused to learn any more words).
The eight volumes of posthumous works constitute almost a microcosm, recalling aspects of almost all Neruda's previous books: nature, love, politics, and an exploration of reality through the physical elements of life. In these collections the poetry reflects the poet's bent toward both the private and public realms, although in maturity, his tendency is to seek solitude. Neruda knew he was dying as he wrote them, and he turns in to himself and to nature. He approaches death with serenity, taking comfort in his own concept of immortality: the eternal cycle of dissolution and renovation that the earth offers to all, including humans. In "[Ahí está el mar? . . . ]" ([Is That Where the Sea Is? . . . ]) in El mar y las campanas he asks for silence for the final encounter: "y ahora, nada más, quiero estar solo / con el mar principal y la campana. / Quiero no hablar por una larga vez, / silencio, quiero aprender aún, / quiero saber si existo" (and now, nothing more, I want to be alone / with the primary sea and with the bells. / I want to not speak for a very long time, / silence, I want to learn still, / I want to know if I exist). In this sense, Pablo Neruda's poetry reveals a deeply rooted, material spirituality that only deepened at the end of his days.
From: Rivero, Eliana. "Pablo Neruda." Modern Spanish American Poets: First Series, edited by Maria Antonia Salgado, Gale, 2003. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 283.