Neruda’s Inspiration


Neruda has written how these poems, though composed in the city, reflect his childhood memories of Temuco, the small central Chilean town where he grew up, and where he was influenced as a poet by his school principal Gabriela Mistral, herself to win a Nobel Prize later.


He writes in his memoirs:


Those Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada make a painful book of pastoral poems filled with my most tormented adolescent passions, mingled with the devastating nature of the southern part of my country. It is a book I love because, in spite of its acute melancholy, the joyfulness of being alive is present in it. A river and its mouth helped me to write it: the Imperial River. Veinte poemas is my love affair with Santiago, with its student-crowded streets, the university, and the honeysuckle fragrance of requited love.


The Santiago sections were written between Echaurren Street and España Avenue, and inside the old building of the Teachers Institute, but the landscape is always the waters and the trees of the south.


The docks in the "Cancion desesperada" ("Song of Despair") are the old docks of Carahue and Bajo Imperial: the broken planks and the beams like stumps battered by the wide river: the wingbeat of the gulls was heard and can still be heard at that river's mouth.


In the long, slender-bodied, abandoned lifeboat left over from some shipwreck, I read the whole of Jean Christophe, and I wrote the "Cancion desesperada." The sky overhead was the most violent blue I have ever seen. I used to write inside the boat, hidden in the earth. I don't think I have ever again been so exalted or so profound as during those days. Overhead, the impenetrable blue sky. In my hands, Jean Christophe or the nascent lines of my poem. Beside me, everything that existed and continued always to exist in m y poetry: the distant sound of the sea, the cries of the wild birds, and love burning, without consuming itself, like an immortal bush.


I am always being asked who the woman in Veinte poemas is; it is a difficult question to answer. The two women who weave in and out of these melancholy and passionate poems correspond, let’s say, to Marisol and Marisombra: Sea and Sun [mar y sol], Sea and Shadow [mar y sombra]. Marisol is love in the enchanted countryside, with stars in bold relief at night, and dark eyes like the wet sky of Temuco. She appears with all her joyfulness and her lively beauty on almost every page, surrounded by the waters of the port and by a half-moon over the mountains. Marisombra is the student in the city. Gray beret, very gentle eyes, the ever-present honeysuckle fragrance of my foot-loose and fancy-free student days, the physical peace of the passionate meetings in the city’s hideaways. [ Memoirs p.51-52]


[Marisol is thought to be Terusa, a lover from Temuco who hailed from a prosperous family; she was also a beauty, she had been festival queen there. Marisombra was Albertina, a co-student at Santiago, and they were often together at communist barricades ("You were the grey beret and the still heart.")]