Pablo Neruda



Born: 1904, Parral in Chile

Died: 1973

Won: Nobel Prize for Literature 1971


Key Biographical Details:

·         His mother died two months after his birth and he and his father moved to Temuco a relatively small city 650 km south of the capital, Santiago, where his father remarried and Neruda grew up with his half brother and half sister

·         In 1921 Neruda moved to Santiago to study at the University of Chile with the original intention of becoming a teacher. Here he became involved in Communist politics for the first time.

·         In 1924 he published ‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair’

·         In 1927 he left Chile to work as a diplomatic consul in Rangoon, then Colombo and Singapore and continued to work in politics for the rest of his life holding many diplomatic positions for the Chilean government

·         In 1936 he was working in Spain during the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War where he was on the side of the Communists. He was a close friend of the playwright Gabriel Garcia Lorca who was executed by the Fascists.

·         At times Neruda’s Communism got him into trouble and from 1948 – 1952 he was forced to flee Chile when the Communist Party was outlawed

·         He died three days after the military coup led by Augusto Pinochet over threw the socialist government of Salvador Allende on the 11th September 1973


Major Themes:

·         Neruda’s style and major themes changed and developed throughout his life but in the ‘20 Love Poems’, writing as a young man himself, he explores the ecstasies and torments of young love. Neruda seems to view love as a form of salvation from isolation, it is a way of crying out against life’s tragedies and a method for overcoming existential loneliness. In particular he portrays sex as a way of uniting with nature and the Earth.

·         However, love and in particular sexual love, is not a straight-forward solution to the problems of existence because the person that you are in love with may be as flawed, weak and lonely as you are. Ultimately, because Neruda’s lover is subject to the same kinds of existential crises that he is, she is unable to offer him  the kind of salvation that he desires. Perhaps it is not surprising, however, that she is unable to meet these impossibly high expectations – after all, can anyone else really give a meaning to your life?

·         Due to his portrayal of women as sexual objects, particularly in the 20 poems, Neruda has been criticised by some feminists as viewing women as little more than a vehicle for the salvation of men. Neruda himself gave this criticism some credence when writing an essay in 1921 called ‘Sex’ where, talking of the relationship between the sexes, he stated ‘He is the male and life should supply him with the female in which he can reach satisfaction.’

·         Neruda was also viewed by many as a poet of the people and in his later works, particularly the Canto General, he celebrates the history of his native Latin America and the language and traditions of the everyday people.


The 20 Love Poems:

·         When studying the 20 love poems, it is possible to discern two different sides to Neruda’s depiction of love. The first is joyful, passionate and bright and it suggests wild and free countryside of his home town, Temuco. The darker side to love however also runs through the poems as Neruda’s persona feels anguish and sorrow as he begins to realise that his lover will not be able to provide him with the solace he seeks. As such the 20 poems follow the story of a love as it progresses from initial infatuation, through the release of passion towards the separation that is ultimately suggested in the final poem, ‘The Song of Despair’.

·         In his memoirs Neruda states: “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.

·         Neruda also states: “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.”