The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Eternal Dice” is a poem of four stanzas, the first and third having lines of alternating rhyme in the original Spanish, and the second and fourth relying on internal rhyme and assonance. It is the eighteenth poem in the fifth section, entitled “Thunderclaps,” of César Vallejo’s first published book of poems. The title is suggestive of Stéphane Mallarmé’s classic poem Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1897; Dice Thrown Never Will Annul Chance, 1965; also translated as A Dice-Throw), in which the poet explores the connection between the elements of chance and the mysteries of the universe.

Vallejo’s poem, however, begins with a dedication to Manuel González Prada, who was a prominent intellectual in Peru and was the director of the National Library. González Prada was highly political, even revolutionary, and Vallejo’s dedication to this man, in conjunction with the allusion of the title to the Mallarmé poem, gives a hint of the duality, the combination of earthly and unearthly concerns, that pervades and characterizes Vallejo’s poetry.

The poem proceeds with a direct address to God. The persona, the “I” of the poem, laments his life. Then, by indirect reference to the Holy Communion—“it grieves me to have taken your bread from you”—the persona laments and rejects his belief system. Vallejo acknowledges man’s vulnerability by recalling the biblical “clay” of...

(The entire section is 534 words.)

The Eternal Dice Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The critic Jean Franco, in her book César Vallejo: The Dialectics of Poetry and Silence (1976), says that the poetic education of Vallejo began in 1915 when he and a group of his fellow students in Trujillo, Peru, began to meet and to read their own poems and the poems of Walt Whitman and the modernist poets. In addition, he read an anthology of French poetry that included selections by many great Symbolist poets translated into Spanish. He also read, in translation, Mallarmé’s A Dice-Throw, which, as noted earlier, provided an inspiration for “The Eternal Dice.”

When one looks at Vallejo’s poem, then, one sees evidence of the Symbolists’ attempt to create a correspondence between heaven and earth. While the French poets tried to reproduce or re-create the intangible quality of an otherworldly experience, however, Vallejo interpreted this linking of the beyond with the here and now as a confrontation between man and God or, more precisely, between the poet and God. For the Symbolists, the poet was God, the supreme creator, and indeed, Vallejo alludes to the powerlessness of the old God playing the old games in the old ways. By implication, he demonstrates that when the earth is rolled to eternal oblivion, the record made by humanity, by the poet, will remain.

In addition, Vallejo succeeds in creating an unusual and ephemeral effect in a potentially prosaic context by his use of the Symbolist device of evocation. The Symbolists discovered that one power of language exists in its ability to be evocative, to cause new sensations and impressions by the unusual juxtapositions of incompatible ideas or realities, by the linking of opposites, or (as in this case) by the use of old forms in an allusively new way, catching the reader or listener off guard. Thus, by turning the relationship of man/poet and God around, by inverting the hierarchy and making the man/poet all-powerful, by referring to the suffering of the man/artist as more divine than God, the result is evocative and startling. Using this traditional relationship in an unanticipated way, Vallejo creates an entirely unexpected effect.

Further, when the host of Communion is diminished by becoming “your bread from you,” Vallejo’s use of small rather than capital letters further diminishes the traditional relationships and causes a more powerful expression to occur because of that diminution.