BORN: 1904, Parral, Chile
DIED: 1973, Santiago, Chile
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924)
Residence on Earth (1933)
General Song (1950)
Black Island Memorial (1964)
Pablo Neruda. Chilean poet and activist Pablo Neruda, photograph. Sam Falk / Hulton Archive / Getty images.
Arguably the most widely read Latin American poet of all time, Pablo Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971. This honor came as the culmination of more than fifty years of writing poetry popular with readers the world over. In the Nobel citation, the Swedish Academy praises Neruda ‘‘for a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent’s destiny and dreams.’’ Both his lyrical voice and his committed, collective voice bespeak the passion and insightful observation that characterized his life and his works.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The poet known as Pablo Neruda was named Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto at his birth in 1904. He signed his work ‘‘Pablo Neruda’’ (although he did not legally adopt that name until 1946) because his father, a railroad worker, disapproved of his son’s poetic interests.
Literary Success at a Young Age. Neruda grew up in southern Chile and in 1921 moved to Santiago and enrolled in college with the intention of preparing himself for a career as an instructor of French. He left college soon after, however, to devote more time to poetry, which had already become his central interest. His first book, Twilight Book (Crepusculario), was published in 1923, and the following year he published Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada), a book of intensely romantic and erotic poems. This became his most popular work, more than a million and a half copies of which were published in Spanish alone before his death.
Surrealist Poems and Work as a Chilean Diplomat. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, he completed the first two volumes of Residence on Earth (Residencia en la tierra, 1933, 1935), universally considered the finest surrealist poetry in Spanish. He claimed, however, that when he wrote these works he knew nothing of surrealism; he had simply responded to the same currents in the air that led to the formation of the surrealist movement elsewhere. In 1930 he married for the first time, but the marriage was unhappy, and a few years later he left his wife to live with Delia del Carril, with whom he stayed until 1955. Between 1927 and 1935, Neruda was a Chilean diplomat in, successively, Burma, Ceylon, Java, Singapore, Argentina, and Spain.
The Spanish Civil War and Neruda’s Communism. Neruda was the Chilean consul in Madrid, Spain, in the mid-1930s, a time of great political turmoil that led to the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. The forces of ultranationalist general Francisco Franco were triumphant, and he installed himself as the country’s dictator. Neruda’s horror at the civil and military barbarities (including the assassination of his friend, poet Federico Garcia Lorca), which accompanied Franco’s war against the Spanish Republic, transformed him into a deeply committed political poet and led to his eventual membership in the Communist Party. Neruda’s political awakening is clear in Spain in My Heart, his volume of verse published during this time. After the war, Neruda was in charge of helping 2,000 Republican refugees in France find asylum in Chile.
Neruda’s new commitment to communism is clear in the third volume of Residence on Earth (1947) and his subsequent poetry, particularly General Song (Canto general, 1950). In place of the introspection and surrealist complexities of the first two volumes of Residence, he produced a poetry that is open and direct, written not for academics and other sophisticated readers of poetry but rather, as Neruda repeatedly emphasized, workers and the politically oppressed. Neruda was openly supportive of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin for many years, until it became clear he had been a ruthless, murderous dictator. Though Neruda disavowed his earlier praise of Stalin, he remained committed to the pure principles of communism.
On the Run from the Government. Neruda was elected to the Chilean senate as a representative of the Communist Party in 1945. Following a dramatic public falling-out between Neruda and Chilean president Gabriel Gonzalez Videla, Neruda was forced to go into hiding, first in Chile, then in Argentina. With help from his friends, writer Miguel Asturias and artist Pablo Picasso, Neruda made his way to Europe, and from there he traveled widely. It was during this time he composed General Song, a broad catalog of his experiences. The Gonzalez-Videla government crumbled in 1952, and the new administration welcomed Neruda back to his home country. A few years later, Neruda’s wife left him, and he was free to marry longtime mistress Matilde Urrtia. He spent most of the rest of his life with her at his homes in Santiago and at Isla Negra on the Chilean coast. Isla Negra provided him with the subject or inspiration for many later poems, including his verse autobiography, Black Island Memorial (Memorial de Isla Negra, 1964).
Final Years and Criticism of U.S. Foreign Policy. Neruda was a vocal critic of U.S. foreign policy, and he denounced U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the U.S. response to the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). Unsurprisingly, he was not welcome in the United States, but he did travel to a 1966 literary conference in New York City, thanks to the efforts of American playwright Arthur Miller to persuade the U.S. government to grant the Chilean poet a visa. In 1969 he was nominated by the Chilean Communist Party for president, but he stepped aside in favor of his friend Salvador Allende. When Allende died in a bloody coup led by General Augusto Pinochet four years later, Neruda was very sick from cancer, but that event undoubtedly hastened his own death, which occurred a few days afterward. At his death, he left thirty-four books of poems, essays, and drama in print as well as eight more volumes of poetry and a memoir he had hoped to publish on his seventieth birthday.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Neruda's famous contemporaries include:
Salvador Allende (1908-1973): The first democratically elected Marxist leader in Latin America, Allende instituted a massive Socialist overhaul of Chile upon his election, which included nationalizing industry— especially the lucrative, American-owned copper mines. His term was marked by interest from both the KGB, which supported his reforms, and the CIA, which actively attempted to depose him. The Nixon administration's reaction to his reforms caused a crippling downturn in the economy, and he died suspiciously during a right-wing coup financed by the CIA.
Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006): In the wake of Allende's death, General Pinochet set up a military dictatorship that was as far right and politically savage as Allende's government had been far left and democratic. Where Allende had attempted to work with his opponents, Pinochet simply had them arrested without a trial, tortured, and killed—as many as three thousand individuals were "disappeared," and never heard from again.
Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936): A Spanish poet and dramatist. Lorca and Neruda established a friendship while the latter was stationed in Barcelona. Lorca was killed during the Spanish Civil War by right-wing Nationalist guerrillas.
Cesar Vallejo (1892-1938): A Peruvian poet and another friend of Neruda from his time in Spain. His three books of poetry were each considered revolutionary in their own ways, anticipating much of later avant-garde poetry.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) had a profound effect of Neruda's work, politics, and personal life. Other works directly influenced by this war include:
Homage to Catalonia (1938), a nonfiction work by George Orwell. In this work, Orwell gives a firsthand account of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War.
For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), a novel by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway's novel tells the story of an American working with an anti-fascist guerrilla unit during the Spanish Civil War.
And No Man's Wit (1940), a novel by Rose Macaulay. Macaulay's book was widely praised but now largely forgotten. Its view of the possibility of heroism and honor during the Spanish Civil War stands in sharp contrast to those expressed in Hemingway's novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940).
Pan's Labyrinth (2006), a film directed by Guillermo del Toro. Set in Spain in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, the film is a nightmarish fairy tale set against the backdrop of the repressive regime of Francisco Franco.
Works in Literary Context
Neruda was an educated, widely traveled person with diverse literary influences. Because his poetry often addresses broad universal themes with a personal, confessional tone, his work is likened to that of American poet Walt Whitman. The poems of Neruda that paint a bleaker picture of modern society have prompted comparisons to T. S. Eliot, particularly The Waste Land (1922). Though Neruda is often grouped with surrealist poets of the 1920s and 1930s, he pointed out that he had no firsthand knowledge of them, and came to his own surrealist tendencies individually.
La Cancion de la fiesta (1921), Neruda’s first volume of verse, reflects the influence of the symbolists and of Walt Whitman and Ruben Dario in its quiet, confessional tone. The poems in this collection address such themes as love and death in a traditional style. A similar blend of romantic and symbolist influences characterizes his second volume, Twilight Book (1923), which Neruda later dismissed as unsophisticated, although it is often considered a classic of Chilean poetry. Neruda’s next major volume, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, is considered to mark his transition from symbolist to surrealist poetry. A best seller, this volume is apparently chaotic and arbitrary in its enumeration of material objects and complex evocation of thought and sensation. The book features poems that convey personal emotion in mystical natural terms. Although these verses initially shocked critics with their everyday language and lyrical yet explicit treatment of the joys and failures of love and sex, Neruda later asserted in his famous essay ‘‘Sobre una poesia sin pureza’’ (‘‘On a Poetry without Purity’’) that poetry should be ‘‘corroded as if by an acid, by the toil of the hand, impregnated with sweat and smoke, smelling of urine and lilies.’’
In such works of political verse as Poesia politica (1953) and Las uvasy el viento (1954), Neruda employs a new, simpler style to communicate more directly with the common people, a goal that had eluded him despite the popular and political thrust of his earlier poetry.
Most critics agree that Extravagaria (Estravagario, 1958) signals the last major development in Neruda’s poetry. Like the Elemental Odes, the poems in this volume are characterized by a flippant, self-indulgent tone and lucid style. Returning to the egocentrism of his earliest verse, Neruda employs self-parody to gently satirize his previous works and persona, particularly mocking his early stance of the poet as hero. His later poetry includes didactic political poetry, light, frivolous verse, and serious, prophetic works, often combining elements from all three styles.
Works in Critical Context
Geoffrey Barraclough called Neruda ‘‘a one-man Renaissance ... who has modified the outlook of three generations of Latin Americans. His roots are firmly planted in Chile ...; his appeal is to the whole continent.’’ Although translations of his works have existed since the 1940s, Neruda remained relatively unknown to English-speaking readers prior to the translation of several of his works in the early 1960s.
Scholars concur that misinterpretation of the surrealistic images in Tentativa del hombre infinito resulted in critical neglect, and the collection is now regarded as one of Neruda’s major achievements. While most critics have agreed that Neruda’s Marxist view of Chile’s history of poverty and tyranny results in a work of uneven quality, General Song is often regarded as one of Neruda’s major achievements. Fernando Alegria called Neruda’s Elemental Odes ‘‘a song to matter, to its dynamism and to the life and death cycles which perpetuate it.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Take a walk in a natural setting: the woods, the beach, a park. Write a poem about what you see. Does your mood in any way affect your descriptions?
2. Compare and contrast the statements on despair in W. H. Auden’s ‘‘Funeral Blues’’ and Neruda’s ‘‘Song of Despair.’’ How does the style in each reflect the theme?
3. After reading General Song, discuss the influence of Neruda’s pro-Communist stance on his poetry. In what ways do the poems suggest an intended audience of working-class rather than academic or bourgeois readers?
4. Discuss how Neruda’s travels and friendships with world artists broadened the scope of his subject matter.
Contemporary Literary Criticism. Gale, Volume 1, 1973; Volume 2, 1974; Volume 5, 1976; Volume 7, 1977; Volume 9, 1978; Volume 28, 1984.
Bizzarro, Salvatore. Pablo Neruda: All Poets the Poet. Metuchun, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1979.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Pablo Neruda. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.
Santi, Enrico-Mario. Pablo Neruda: The Poetics of Prophecy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982.
Woodbridge, Hensley C., and David S. Zubatsky, comps. Pablo Neruda: An Annotated Bibliography of Biographical and Critical Studies. New York, N.Y.: Garland, 1988.
Americas. (March-April 1991); (September-October 1991); (September-October 1992); (July-August 1995): 60.
Pablo Neruda, ‘‘Towards the Splendid City.” Accessed April 12, 2004, from http://www.nobel.org