No living poet is as famous today as Pablo Neruda
was in his lifetime. He was a world figure, as famous as Robert Frost or T.S.
Eliot, but with the added cachet in some circles of being a politically active
man of the left. His poetry exerted an enormous influence throughout Latin
America, and he remains beloved in his native
The son of a railway engineer, Neruda wrote poetry
from an early age and won prizes as a teenager. His first two books, self
published and rather traditional, brought little attention from the public,
although they were well-crafted and polished. His third, Twenty Love Poems and
a Song of Despair (1924), was considered unpublishable
because of its frank celebration of sex. Only the recommendation of one of
Body of woman, white hills, white thighs,
you look like the world in your posture of surrender.
My savage peasant body digs through you
and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.
(From "Song I")
It caused a sensation, and made him famous at 20. The frank eroticism brought attention, but the book's technical merits and emotional intimacy made it endure. Rimbaud and Baudelaire were strong influences, but Neruda's voice rang out clear. His striking images capture the ecstasies and torments of young love. Looking back, we can see the melancholy that followed him throughout his life, and the familiar themes, such as sex as a way to unite with the earth, and love as a salvation from isolation. Twenty Poems remains his most beloved book; its sales reached one million in 1961.
Famous, but poor, he entered avant-garde literary
Seeking adventure, Neruda wangled an Honorary
Neruda turned inward. His poems from this time, which were published as Residence on Earth (1933), are pessimistic, filled with themes of alienation and isolation, haunted by death. They contain the nascent existentialism of that era. One can hear the inner dialogue of a man who is being driven deep within himself by a chaotic and absurd world. Nature is destructive, sex is depersonalized and futile. The objects of mankind disgust him.
I happen to be tired of being a man.
I happen to enter tailorshops and moviehouses
withered, impenetrable, like a felt swan
navigating in a water of sources and ashes.
The smell of barbershops makes me wail.
I want only a respite of stones or wool,
I want only not to see establishments or gardens,
or merchandise, or eyeglasses, or elevators.
I happen to be tired of my feet and my nails
and my hair and my shadow.
I happen to be tired of being a man.
(From "Walking Around")
With the publication of Residence his name began to be known internationally, especially in the Spanish-speaking world.
Salvation came in 1934, when he was posted to
Neruda wanted to put his gifts at the service of his politics. No longer would he scrutinize his private experiences of life's bitterness. The cause needed stirring and optimistic exhortations to fight. A change in politics demanded a change in style. His poems would be addressed to the masses, and therefore had to be simple and direct.
of humble honeycomb: bright was your street,
bright was your dream.
A black vomit
of generals, a wave
of rabid cassocks
poured between your knees
their swampy waters, their rivers of spittle.
(From "Madrid, 1936")
Many of his poems about
Neruda had called himself an anarchist since
Canto General (1950) is a history of
Before the wig and the dress coat
there were rivers, arterial rivers:
there were cordilleras, jagged waves where
the condor and the snow seemed immutable:
there was dampness and dense growth, the thunder
as yet unnamed, the planetary pampas.
Man was dust, earthen vase, an eyelid
of tremulous loam, the shape of clay --
he was Carib jug, Chibcha stone,
imperial cup of Araucanian silica.
Tender and bloody was he, but on the grip
of his weapon of moist flint,
the initials of the earth were
what a marvel
to pronounce these plosive
and further on,
unfilled, awaiting ambrosia or oil
capsicum, caption, capture,
as slippery as smooth grapes,
words exploding in the light
like dormant seeds waiting
in the vaults of vocabulary,
alive again and giving life:
once again the heart distills them.
(From "Ode to the Dictionary")
Unlike Robert Frost, who married simple phrases to sophisticated thinking, Neruda combined simple phrases with simple ideas, and this airy style, although lovely, can become tedious in large quantities. Readers responded with enthusiasm however, and Neruda published four volumes of odes during the 1950s.
In his last 20 years he produced an astonishing amount of work, much of it love poetry inspired by his passion for his third wife, Matilde Urrutia (his first two marriages ended in divorce). This collection allows us to follow the evolution of his romantic sensibility over five decades. Whereas the young poet described an adolescent, tremulous experience of romance, the older poet possesses a more mature love. In The Captain's Verses (1952), One Hundred Love Sonnets (1959) and Barcarole (1967), happiness is not fleeting, but sustained. He appreciates, without fear of loss, the shared love and sensuality that joins him to the earth and gives meaning to the world.
Today the tempestuous sea
lifted us in a kiss
so high that we trembled
in the flash of lightning
and, tied together, descended
and submerged without unraveling.
Today our bodies became immense,
they grew up to the edge of the world
and rolled melting themselves
into one single drop
of wax or meteor.
A new door opened between you and me
and someone, still without a face,
was waiting for us there.
(From "September 8" in The Captain's Verses)
In these years, Neruda wrote poignantly of aging and of his past. The theme of alienation, self-censored in the 1940s, returned. He also wrote of his estrangement from people. The poet is by nature separate from others, he felt. Criticism of his political poetry and his wealth stung, and further alienated him. At times he felt embarrassed to be a poet surrounded by people who make useful things. "I feel the world never belonged to me ... I was a child of the moon."
But in his poems from the 1950s and 60s, solitude is no longer unbearable. He has a lovely wife, and a beach house where he draws solace from the sea. Death waits on the horizon, but only as the final, long-sought union with nature. These poems have an atmosphere of stillness and contemplation, especially in contrast to the turbulence of his youth. It is as if he is settling into himself as just a man, not a famous poet.
In 1970 Neruda was diagnosed with cancer, which
surgeries failed to remove entirely. The last three years of his life were
marked by official honors, the Nobel Prize, and an
Time has revealed a dark side to Neruda's work. Some of his overtly political poems express a bloodthirsty desire for vengeance. Some readers may not appreciate the un-feminist tone to his poems. Women are often symbolic vehicles for the poet's salvation and self-discovery. But a large quantity of great work overshadows these drawbacks.
In his willingness to experiment and change styles repeatedly, and in the way in which these changes released a flood of new work, Neruda resembled no one so much as Picasso. Contrary to what he believed, the more personal he wrote, the more people he reached. He considered himself primarily a love poet. Readers will be reaffirming that assessment for some time to come.