Born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto in a small village in central Chile, the poet, at fifteen, changed his name to Pablo Neruda (nay-REW-duh), after the nineteenth century Czech writer Jan Neruda, after winning a national poetry competition in 1919. His mother died of tuberculosis just a month after his birth, but his father, who worked for the railroad, remarried two years later and moved the family, which included a brother and a sister, to the town of Temuco in southern Chile. Neruda’s relation with his stepmother was close, and his boyhood in the remote milltown in Chile’s rainy forests appears to have been happy.
The headmistress at his school in Temuco was Gabriela Mistral, a poet who was, in 1945, the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. She introduced the sensitive young man to the works of the French symbolists. In 1921, he went to the capital city of Santiago, where he studied French at the University of Chile, wrote for the student newspaper, and continued writing poems.
Neruda’s first collection of poems, Crepusculario, appeared in 1923, when he was only nineteen. The year after, his first important book, Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (1924; Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, 1969), appeared. This small book pleased a wide audience of readers with its lyrical, passionate, and erotic portrayal of romantic love. Immediately successful, the book continues to be read both in Spanish-speaking countries, where for years lovers have memorized its verses, and elsewhere in translation.
In 1927, Neruda traveled to Rangoon, Burma, as honorary consul from Chile, and until 1931, he served in various consular posts. Economic hardship and estrangement from his homeland made these difficult years for him,...
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