Article abstract: Neruda is the greatest modern poet to have combined a personal and lyrical mode with a political voice in a way that spoke to and for a popular mass readership. Rooted in Chile, his poetry has a universal human significance marked by the award of the Nobel Prize in 1971.
Pablo Neruda was born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, in the small town of Parral in southern Chile, on July 12, 1904, the son of José del Carmen Reyes and Rosa de Basoalt. His mother, a schoolteacher, died of tuberculosis not long after he was born. Neruda began writing poetry at the local schools but kept it hidden from his schoolmates and his relations, who were mainly agricultural or manual workers, and his father, a tough railroad worker. The family moved to Temuco in 1906, and Neruda grew up in a frontier atmosphere, becoming familiar with the forests and the native Indians who inhabited them. His father remarried, and Neruda grew close to his stepmother, a quiet, unassuming peasant woman named Trinidad Candia Marverde. The headmaster of the local school was the poet Gabriela Mistral, who encouraged the literary talent she saw in the boy. Neruda’s reading at this time was eager and indiscriminate. He grew to be a tall, slim youth and began translating Baudelaire and winning various local poetry prizes.
In 1921, he left high school and went to the teachers’ college in Santiago (the capital of Chile) but much preferred talking about literature in the cafés to studying French. He had submitted his earliest poems for magazine publication when he was only fifteen, signing himself “Pablo Neruda.” His range of literary acquaintances widened, but his early poetry, Crepusculario (1923), remained provincial and sentimental. At twenty, however, he published Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (1924; Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, 1969, 1976) and established his reputation as a love poet.
Neruda worked fanatically, earning money writing articles for newspapers and journals and writing translations. He edited his own magazine, wrote short stories and an immature episodic novel, and began work on a larger sequence, Residencia en la tierra (3 vols., 1933, 1935, 1947; Residence on Earth and Other Poems, 1946, 1973). Yet his love affairs left him unhappy, and he remained poor. It was not until 1927 that Neruda successfully gained an appointment with Chile’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and became the honorary consul to Rangoon, Burma. He was neither a trained diplomat nor an outstanding linguist, but, as a gregarious, charismatic, presentable, and accomplished writer who had a proven ability to move his readers, he fulfilled the requirements of an ambassador for his country.
The sense of political solidarity that Neruda came to affirm was gained through years of isolation and a continuous balancing of powerful emotions of love, with rich, dark, sometimes surreal journeys of the imagination. Personal loneliness and a fond memory of his home were counterpointed in his verse. He traveled to various parts of the world on his first trip to the East and sent articles back to the Santiago daily newspaper La Nación. In Burma he encountered professionally the remnants of ancient cultures and the continuing exploitation of colonial occupation, and his personal anxieties found a counterpart in society at large. He attempted to maintain contact with friends and writers in Chile and was published in Spain, but in Burma he was depressed.
While visiting India to cover a political meeting in Calcutta in 1929, the enormous crowds that he encountered in the subcontinent brought him to greater depths of despair. He continued writing the Residence on Earth poems. In 1930, Neruda became Consul to the Dutch East Indies and married a Dutch woman, Maria Antonieta Haagenar. In 1932, they returned, briefly, to Chile. Though Neruda’s poems were by now being published and republished, they would not bring him a living wage. In 1933, he took up another consular appointment in Buenos Aires and in 1934 yet another in Barcelona. His bureaucratic experience had not made him a happy man, but now things were to change. He moved on to Madrid, where the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (whom he had met in Buenos Aires) introduced him to a new public. He separated from his first wife and later was happily married to Delia del Carril, with whom he remained until the 1950’s. His great work Residence on Earth was now published, and an international audience was responding to Neruda with vital enthusiasm. Concurrently, Neruda was becoming more thoroughly intellectually politicized, as he was introduced to the social struggles that underlay the Spanish Civil War. García Lorca, who had become a friend of Neruda, was murdered by the Fascists, and Neruda found comradeship with the French left-wing Surrealist writers Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, and with the Peruvian Cesar Vallejo. He allied himself with the political struggle of the Spanish Republic.
Neruda returned to Chile, and through 1937...
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