(1904 - 1973)
Chilean poet, diplomat, and politician who was awarded the Nobel Prize
for Literature in 1971. He was perhaps the most important Latin-American
poet of the 20th century.
Early life and love poetry.
Neruda was the son of Jose del Carmen Reyes, a railway worker, and Rosa
Basoalto. His mother died within a month of Neruda's birth, and two
years later the family moved to Temuco, a small town farther south in
Chile, where his father remarried. Neruda was a precocious boy who began
to write poetry at age 10. His father tried to discourage him from writing
and never cared for his poems, which was probably why the young poet
began to publish under the pseudonym Pablo Neruda, which he was legally
to adopt in 1946. He entered the Temuco Boys' School in 1910 and finished
his secondary schooling there in 1920. Tall, shy, and lonely, Neftali
read voraciously and was encouraged by the principal of the Temuco Girls'
School, Gabriela Mistral, a gifted poet who would herself later become
a Nobel laureate.
Neftali started to publish his poems, first in the local newspapers
and later in magazines published in the Chilean capital, Santiago. In
1921 he moved to Santiago to continue his studies and become a French
teacher. There he experienced loneliness and hunger and took up a bohemian
lifestyle. His first book of poems, Crepusculario, was published in
1923. The poems, subtle and elegant, were in the tradition of Symbolist
poetry, or rather its Hispanic version, Modernismo. His second book,
Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada (1924; Twenty Love Poems
and a Song of Despair), was inspired by an unhappy love affair. It became
an instant success and is still one of Neruda's most popular books.
The verse in Twenty Love Poems is vigorous, poignant, and direct, yet
subtle and very original in its imagery and metaphors. The poems express
young, passionate, unhappy love perhaps better than any book of poetry
in the long Romantic tradition.
The experimental poet as diplomat.
At age 20, with two books published, Neruda had already become one of
the best-known Chilean poets. He abandoned his French studies and began
to devote himself entirely to poetry. Three more books appeared in quick
succession: Tentativa del hombre infinito (1926; "Attempt of the
Infinite Man"); Anillos (1926; "Rings"), in collaboration
with Tomas Lago; and El hondero entusiasta (1933; "The Enthusiastic
Slingshooter"). Yet his poetry was not a steady source of income,
so he translated hastily from several languages and published magazine
and newspaper articles. Neruda's future looked uncertain without a steady
job, so he managed to get himself appointed honorary consul to Rangoon
in Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar). For the next five years he represented
his country in Asia. He continued to live in abject poverty, however,
since as honorary consul he received no salary, and he was tormented
From Rangoon Neruda moved to Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He increasingly
came to identify with the South Asian masses, who were heirs to ancient
cultures but were downtrodden by poverty, colonial rule, and political
oppression. It was during these years in Asia that he wrote Residencia
en la tierra, 1925-1931 (1933; Residence on Earth). In this book Neruda
moves beyond the lucid, conventional lyricism of Twenty Love Poems,
abandoning normal syntax, rhyme, and stanzaic organization to create
a highly personalized poetic technique. His personal and collective
anguish gives rise to nightmarish visions of disintegration, chaos,
decay, and death that he recorded in a cryptic, difficult style inspired
by Surrealism. These puzzling and mysterious poems both attract and
repel the reader with the powerful and awe-inspiring vision they present
of a modern descent into hell.
In 1930 Neruda was named consul in Batavia (modern Jakarta), which
was then the capital of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). There
he fell in love with a Dutch woman, Maria Antonieta Hagenaar, and married
her. In 1932 Neruda returned to Chile, but he still could not earn a
living from his poetry. In 1933 he was appointed Chilean consul in Buenos
Aires, Arg. There he met the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who
at that time was traveling in Argentina, and who was to become a close
friend and an enthusiastic defender of Neruda's poetry.
Marxist commitment and poetry.
In 1934 Neruda took up an appointment as consul in Barcelona, Spain,
and soon he was transferred to the consulate in Madrid. His success
there was instantaneous after Garcia Lorca introduced him. Neruda's
new friends, especially Rafael Alberti and Miguel Hernandez, were involved
in radical politics and the Communist Party. Neruda shared their political
beliefs and moved ever closer to communism. In the meantime, his marriage
was foundering. He and his wife separated in 1936, and Neruda met a
young Argentine woman, Delia del Carril, who would be his second wife
until their divorce in the early 1950s.
A second, enlarged edition of the Residencia poems entitled Residencia
en la tierra, 1925-35, was published in two volumes in 1935. In this
edition, Neruda begins to move away from the highly personal, often
hermetic poetry of the first Residencia volume, adopting a more extroverted
outlook and a clearer, more accessible style in order to better communicate
his new social concerns to the reader. This line of poetic development
was interrupted suddenly by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in
1936, however. While Garcia Lorca was executed by the Nationalists and
Alberti and Hernandez fought at the front, Neruda traveled in and out
of Spain to gather money and mobilize support for the Republicans. He
wrote Espana en el corazon (1937; Spain in My Heart) to express his
feelings of solidarity with them. The book was printed by Republican
troops working with improvised presses near the front lines.
In 1937 Neruda returned to Chile and entered his country's political
life, giving lectures and poetry readings while also defending Republican
Spain and Chile's new centre-left government. In 1939 he was appointed
special consul in Paris, where he supervised the migration to Chile
of many defeated Spanish Republicans who had escaped to France. In 1940
he took up a post as Chile's consul general in Mexico. He also began
work on a long poem, Canto general (1950; "General Song"),
resonant with historic and epic overtones, that would become one of
his key works. In 1943, during a trip to Peru, Neruda climbed to the
ancient Inca city of Macchu Picchu. The strong emotions aroused by the
sight of this spectacular ruin inspired one of his finest poems, Alturas
de Macchu Picchu (1943; Heights of Macchu Picchu). This powerful celebration
of pre-Columbian civilization would become the centrepiece of Canto
In the meantime, Neruda suffered a stunning reversal in his native
country. He had returned to Chile in 1943, was elected a senator in
1945, and also joined the Communist Party. He campaigned for the leftist
candidate Gabriel Gonzalez Videla in the elections of 1946, only to
see President Videla turn to the right two years later. Feeling betrayed,
Neruda published an open letter critical of Videla; as a consequence,
he was expelled from the Senate and had to go into hiding to avoid arrest.
In February 1948 he left Chile, crossing the Andes Mountains on horseback
by night with the manuscript of Canto general in his saddlebag.
In exile Neruda visited the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, and Mexico.
In Mexico he again met Matilde Urrutia, a Chilean woman whom he had
first encountered in 1946. Their marriage would last until the end of
his life, and she would inspire some of the most passionate love poems
written in Spanish in the 20th century. The third volume of Neruda's
Residencia cycle, Tercera residencia, 1935-45 (1947), completed his
rejection of egocentric angst and his open espousal of left-wing ideological
concerns. His Marxist political beliefs receive their culminating expression
in Canto general. This epic poem celebrates Latin America--its flora,
its fauna, and its history, particularly the wars of liberation from
Spanish rule and the continuing struggle of its peoples to obtain freedom
and social justice.
In 1952 the political situation in Chile once again became favourable,
and Neruda was able to return home. By now his works had been translated
into many languages. Rich and famous, he built a house on Isla Negra,
facing the Pacific Ocean, and also maintained houses in Santiago and
Valparaiso. While traveling in Europe, Cuba, and China, Neruda embarked
upon a period of incessant writing and feverish creation. One of his
major works, Odas elementales (Elemental Odes), was published in 1954.
Its verse was written in a new poetic style: simple, direct, precise,
and humorous, and it contained descriptions of everyday objects, situations,
and beings-- e.g., "Ode to the Onion" and "Ode to the
Cat." Many of the poems in Odas elementales have been widely anthologized.
Neruda's poetic output during these years was stimulated by his international
fame and personal happiness; 20 books of his appeared between 1958 and
his death in 1973, and 8 more were published posthumously. In his memoirs,
Confieso que he vivido (1974), Neruda summed up his life through reminiscences,
comments, and anecdotes.
In 1969 Neruda campaigned for the leftist candidate Salvador Allende,
who appointed him ambassador to France after being elected president
of Chile. While already ill with cancer in France, Neruda in 1971 learned
that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. After traveling
to Stockholm to receive his prize, he returned to Chile bedridden and
terminally ill and survived by only a few days his friend Allende, who
died in a right-wing military coup.
Neruda's body of poetry is so rich and varied that it defies classification
or easy summary. It developed along four main directions, however. His
love poetry, such as the youthful Twenty Love Poems and the mature Los
versos del Capitan (1952; The Captain's Verses), is tender, melancholy,
sensuous, and passionate. In "material" poetry, such as Residencia
en la tierra, loneliness and depression immerse the author in a subterranean
world of dark, demonic forces. His epic poetry is best represented by
Canto general, which is a Whitmanesque attempt at reinterpreting the
past and present of Latin America and the struggle of its oppressed
and downtrodden masses toward freedom. And finally there is Neruda's
poetry of common, everyday objects, animals, and plants, as in Odas
These four trends correspond to four aspects of Neruda's personality:
his passionate love life; the nightmares and depression he experienced
while serving as a consul in Asia; his commitment to a political cause;
and his ever-present attention to details of daily life, his love of
things made or grown by human hands. Many of his other books, such as
Libro de las preguntas (1974; "Book of Questions"), reflect
philosophical and whimsical questions about the present and future of
humanity. Neruda was one of the most original and prolific poets to
write in Spanish in the 20th century, but, despite the variety of his
output as a whole, each of his books has unity of style and purpose.
Neruda's work is collected in Obras completas, 4th ed. expanded, 3 vol.
(1973). Most of his work is available in various English translations;
four essential works are Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, trans.
by W.S. Merwin (1969, reissued 1993); Residence on Earth, and Other
Poems, trans. by Angel Flores (1946, reprinted 1976); Canto general,
trans. by Jack Schmitt (1991); and Elementary Odes of Pablo Neruda,
trans. by Carlos Lozano (1961).
Volodia Teitelboim, Neruda (1991; originally published in Spanish, 1984),
is a biography written by a friend. Among the most interesting Spanish-language
critical studies of Neruda's life and works are Amado Alonso, Poesia
y estilo en Pablo Neruda (1940, reissued 1979); Margarita Aguirre, Las
vidas de Pablo Neruda (1967, reissued 1973); and Hernan Loyola, Ser
y morir en Pablo Neruda, 1918-1945 (1967). Later critical studies in
English include Frank Riess, The Word and the Stone: Language and Imagery
in Neruda's Canto general (1972); Salvatore Bizzarro, Pablo Neruda:
All Poets the Poet (1979); Rene de Costa, The Poetry of Pablo Neruda
(1979); John Felstiner, Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu
(1980); Manuel Duran and Margery Safir, Earth Tones: The Poetry of Pablo
Neruda (1981); Enrico Mario Santi, Pablo Neruda: The Poetics of Prophecy
(1982); Marjorie Agosin, Pablo Neruda, trans. from Spanish (1986); and
Christopher Perriam, The Late Poetry of Pablo Neruda (1989).