The release of The Black Heralds earned Vallejo a good deal of positive critical attention, much more so than his second book, Trilce, would initially garner with its 1922 release. Much of the critical interest in The Black Heralds derives from the book’s fervent, unique exploration of the intersections of Catholic rhetoric, indigenous Peruvian culture, personal loss, and Vallejo’s perceptions of the world as brimming with erotic energy and an absurd excess of existential agony. This is exemplified by poems such as “El pan nuestro” (“Our Daily Bread”), “Oración del camino” (“Prayer of the Road’), and “Espergesia” (“Epexegesis”), which transform Catholic motifs and icons into metaphors for the framing of intimate, pained questions about an individual human being’s ontological insignificance. Similarly, the book’s title poem, “Los heraldos negros” (“The Black Heralds”), is a furious defiance of God in His most violent moments, which render one speechless yet vigorously innervated in that silence. “The Black Heralds” is one of the most renowned individual poems in the Spanish-speaking world.
After “The Black Heralds,” the introductory poem in the collection, the book comprises six sections. Most of those sections include at least a few sentimental and/or melodramatic lyrical poems, which is typical of many young poets. After all, Vallejo had written most of these poems in his early to mid-twenties. However, throughout the book readers can spot the emergence of Vallejo’s voice, which sounds itself most audibly in poems like “La araña” (“The Spider”) and “Los dados eternos” (“The Eternal Dice”). There he works with a swift pace, both intellectually and rhythmically, building a narrative sequence disjointed by iconoclastic juxtapositions of Catholic liturgy, natural metaphor, and a perspective on the cosmos as indifferent to individual suffering on Earth.
The book’s fourth section, “Nostalgias imperiales” (“Imperial Nostalgias”), intensifies that mix by adding Vallejo’s impassioned, political interest in exploited laborers, cultures, and resources, particularly in relation to the colonial sacking of Peruvian Incan land for its minerals and precious metals. Tangentially, one also should note the book’s consistent theme of longing for family, which manifests itself, for example, through the poem “Enereida,” honoring his father’s dissolution through the aging process, and the poem “A mi hermano Miguel” (“To My Brother Miguel”), eulogizing César’s deceased older brother, who died in 1915.