Overview of Neruda’s Work
writer of world renown is perhaps so little known to North Americans as Chilean
poet Pablo Neruda," observed New York Times Book Review critic Selden
Rodman. Numerous critics have praised Neruda as the greatest poet writing in
the Spanish language during his lifetime, although many readers in the
Ricardo Eliezer Neftali Reyes
y Basoalto, Neruda adopted the pseudonym under which
he would become famous while still in his early teens. He grew up in
the time he finished high school, Neruda had published
in local papers and
Veinte poemas also brought the author notoriety due to its
explicit celebration of sexuality, and, as Robert Clemens remarked in the
Saturday Review, "established him at the outset as a frank, sensuous
spokesman for love." While other Latin American poets of the time used sexually
explicit imagery, Neruda was the first to win popular acceptance for his
presentation. Mixing memories of his love affairs with memories of the
wilderness of southern
reported David P. Gallagher in Modern Latin American Literature, "Neruda
journeys across the sea symbolically in search of an ideal port. In 1927, he
embarked on a real journey, when he sailed from
Residencia en la tierra, published in English as Residence on Earth, is widely celebrated as containing "some of Neruda's most extraordinary and powerful poetry," according to de Costa. Born of the poet's feelings of alienation, the work reflects a world which is largely chaotic and senseless, and which—in the first two volumes—offers no hope of understanding. De Costa quoted Spanish poet García Lorca as calling Neruda "a poet closer to death than to philosophy, closer to pain than to insight, closer to blood than to ink. A poet filled with mysterious voices that fortunately he himself does not know how to decipher." With its emphasis on despair and the lack of adequate answers to mankind's problems, Residencia en la tierra in some ways foreshadowed the post-World War II philosophy of existentialism. "Neruda himself came to regard it very harshly," wrote Michael Wood in the New York Review of Books. "It helped people to die rather than to live, he said, and if he had the proper authority to do so he would ban it, and make sure it was never reprinted."
en la tierra also marked Neruda's emergence as an
important international poet. By the time the second volume of the collection
was published in 1935 the poet was serving as consul in
Communism rescued Neruda from the despair he expressed in the first parts of Residencia en la tierra, and led to a change in his approach to poetry. He came to believe "that the work of art and the statement of thought—when these are responsible human actions, rooted in human need—are inseparable from historical and political context," reported Salvatore Bizzarro in Pablo Neruda: All Poets the Poet. "He argued that there are books which are important at a certain moment in history, but once these books have resolved the problems they deal with they carry in them their own oblivion. Neruda felt that the belief that one could write solely for eternity was romantic posturing." This new attitude led the poet in new directions; for many years his work, both poetry and prose, advocated an active role in social change rather than simply describing his feelings, as his earlier oeuvre had done.
This significant shift in Neruda's poetry is recognizable in Tercera residencia, the third and final part of the "Residencia" series. Florence L. Yudin noted in Hispania that the poetry of this volume was overlooked when published and remains neglected due to its overt ideological content. "Viewed as a whole," Yudin wrote, "Tercera residencia illustrates a fluid coherence of innovation with retrospective, creativity with continuity, that would characterize Neruda's entire career." According to de Costa, as quoted by Yudin, "The new posture assumed is that of a radical nonconformist. Terra residencia must, therefore, be considered in this light, from the dual perspective of art and society, poetry and politics."
"Las Furias y las penas," the longest poem of Tercera residencia, embodies the influence of both the Spanish Civil War and the works of Spanish Baroque poet Francisco Gomez de Quevedo y Villegas on Neruda. The poem explores the psychic agony of lost love and its accompanying guilt and suffering, conjured in the imagery of savage eroticism, alienation, and loss of self-identity. Neruda's message, according to Yudin, is that "what makes up life's narrative ('cuento') are single, unconnected events, governed by chance, and meaningless ('suceden'). Man is out of control, like someone hallucinating one-night stands in sordid places." Yudin concluded that, "Despite its failed dialectic, 'Las Furias y las penas' sustains a haunting beauty in meaning and tone" and "bears the unmistakable signature of Neruda's originality and achievement."
some critics have felt that Neruda's devotion to Communist dogma was at times
extreme, others recognize the important impact his politics had on his poetry.
Clayton Eshleman wrote in the introduction to Cesar Vallejo's Poemas humanos/ Human Poems that
"Neruda found in the third book of Residencia
the key to becoming the twentieth-century South American poet: the
revolutionary stance which always changes with the tides of time." Gordon Brotherton, in Latin American Poetry: Origins and Presence,
expanded on this idea by noting that "Neruda, so prolific, can be lax, a
'great bad poet' (to use the phrase Juan Ramon Jimenez used to revenge himself
on Neruda). And his change of stance 'with the tides of time' may not always be
perfectly effected. But . . . his dramatic and rhetorical skills, better his
ability to speak out of his circumstances, . . . was
consummate. In his best poetry (of which there is much) he speaks on a scale
and with an agility unrivaled
expanded on his political views in the poem Canto général,
which, according to de Costa, is a "lengthy epic on man's struggle for
justice in the
"Canto Général is the flowering of Neruda's new political stance," Don Bogen asserted in the Nation. "For Neruda food and other pleasures are our birthright—not as gifts from the earth or heaven but as the products of human labor." According to Bogen, Canto général draws its "strength from a commitment to nameless workers—the men of the salt mines, the builders of Macchu Picchu—and the fundamental value of their labor. This is all very Old Left, of course." Commenting on Canto général in Books Abroad, Jaime Alazraki remarked, "Neruda is not merely chronicling historical events. The poet is always present throughout the book not only because he describes those events, interpreting them according to a definite outlook on history, but also because the epic of the continent intertwines with his own epic."
Although, as Bizzarro noted, "In [the Canto général], Neruda was to reflect some of the [Communist] party's basic ideological tenets," the work itself transcends propaganda. Looking back into American prehistory, the poet examined the land's rich natural heritage and described the long defeat of the native Americans by the Europeans. Instead of rehashing Marxist dogma, however, he concentrated on elements of people's lives common to all people at all times. Nancy Willard wrote in Testimony of the Invisible Man, "Neruda makes it clear that our most intense experience of impermanence is not death but our own isolation among the living. . . . If Neruda is intolerant of despair, it is because he wants nothing to sully man's residence on earth."
"In the Canto," explained Duran and Safir, "Neruda reached his peak as a public poet. He produced an ideological work that largely transcended contemporary events and became an epic of an entire continent and its people." According to Alazraki, "By bringing together his own odyssey and the drama of the continent, Neruda has simultaneously given to Canto général the quality of a lyric and an epic poem. The lives of conquistadors, martyrs, heroes, and just plain people recover a refreshing actuality because they become part of the poet's fate, and conversely, the life of the poet gains new depth because in his search one recognizes the continent's struggles. Canto général is, thus, the song of a continent as much as it is Neruda's own song."
Neruda returned to Chile from exile in 1953, and, said Duran and Safir, spent the last twenty years of his life producing "some of the finest love poetry in One Hundred Love Sonnets and parts of Extravagaria and La Barcarola; he produced Nature poetry that continued the movement toward close examination, almost still shots of every aspect of the external world, in the odes of Navegaciones y regresos, in The Stones of Chile, in The Art of Birds, in Una Casa en la arena and in Stones of the Sky. He continued as well his role as public poet in Canción de geste, in parts of Cantos ceremoniales, in the mythical La Espada encendida, and the angry Incitement to Nixonicide and Praise for the Chilean Revolution."
At this time, Neruda's work began to move away from the highly political stance it had taken during the 1930s. Instead of concentrating on politicizing the common folk, Neruda began to try to speak to them simply and clearly, on a level that each could understand. He wrote poems on subjects ranging from rain to feet. By examining common, ordinary, everyday things very closely, according to Duran and Safir, Neruda gives us "time to examine a particular plant, a stone, a flower, a bird, an aspect of modern life, at leisure. We look at the object, handle it, turn it around, all the sides are examined with love, care, attention. This is, in many ways, Neruda . . . at his best."
1971 Neruda reached the peak of his political career when the Chilean Communist
party nominated him for president. He withdrew his nomination, however, when he
reached an accord with Socialist nominee Salvador Allende.
After Allende won the election he reactivated
Neruda's diplomatic credentials, appointing the poet ambassador to
Commenting on Passions and Impressions, a posthumous collection of Neruda's prose poems, political and literary essays, lectures, and newspaper articles, Mark Abley wrote in Maclean's, "No matter what occasion provoked these pieces, his rich, tireless voice echoes with inimitable force." As Neruda eschewed literary criticism, many critics found in him a lack of rationalism. According to Neruda, "It was through metaphor, not rational analysis and argument, that the mysteries of the world could be revealed," remarked Stephen Dobyns in the Washington Post. However, Dobyns noted that Passions and Impressions "shows Neruda both at his most metaphorical and his most rational. . . . What one comes to realize from these prose pieces is how conscious and astute were Neruda's esthetic choices. In retrospect at least his rejection of the path of the maestro, the critic, the rationalist was carefully calculated." In his speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize, Neruda noted that "there arises an insight which the poet must learn through other people. There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are."
In 2003, thirty years after Neruda's death, an anthology of 600 of Neruda's poems arranged chronologically was published as The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. The anthology draws from thirty-six different translators, and some of his major works are also presented in their original Spanish. Writing in the New Leader, Phoebe Pettingell pointed out that, although some works were left out because of the difficulty in presenting them properly in English, "an overwhelming body of Neruda's output is here . . . and the collection certainly presents a remarkable array of subjects and styles." Reflecting on the life and work of Neruda in the New Yorker, Mark Strand commented, "There is something about Neruda—about the way he glorifies experience, about the spontaneity and directness of his passion—that sets him apart from other poets. It is hard not to be swept away by the urgency of his language, and that's especially so when he seems swept away."