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The Black Heralds

by Cesar Vallejo
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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

Many early works of writers are amateurish and only hint of the talent that later blossoms as the skills mature. In the case of Vallejo, however, the first line of the first poem, “The Black Heralds,” has become a super star in the world of poetry, and the collection of the same name in which this poem appears, Vallejo’s first published collection, continued into the early 2000s to rate serious academic study among literary scholars.

Efrain Kristal, writing for the American Poetry Review, suggests that the palpable intensity of the first line is what makes it one of the most well-known lines in Latin American poetry. Kristal says that the strong pathos is “not in the words that can be recited but in the silence of the ellipsis. One feels the breath knocked out of the poetic voice” as he expresses the “impotence of a suffering humanity.”

In her article on Vallejo for Hispania, Phyllis White Rodríguez points out that the “strong notes” that open the poem set the tone of the piece, and the poem itself contains the themes that pervade the rest of the collection. She adds that The Black Heralds “is a tremendous shout of sadness and grief, of contradiction and protest.”

Similarly, Ivan Arguelles, writing a review for the Library Journal about The Black Heralds states: “From the very first line . . . , the discerning reader is convinced that what follows will be a profound literary experience, a life perceived from a harrowingly surrealistic perspective.” Arguelles also comments on Vallejo’s rare ability to express the human condition and notes that this first book of poetry “already reveals the complex intellectual, emotional, and spiritual qualities that characterize his later work.”

Speaking of the collection as a whole, Kristal adds that The Black Heralds “marks the turn, in Hispanic poetry, from the symbolist aesthetic . . . to an unprecedented level of emotional rawness which eventually stretched the Spanish language beyond it grammatical possibilities.” David Biespiel, writing for the Poetry Foundation about Vallejo’s language in his first work, states: “Sometimes blasphemous, other times merely irreverent, The Black Heralds surrealistic imagery, tone, diction, and themes confront pastoral traditions, colonialism, and religious conformity.”

The publishers of the Kathleen Ross and Richard Schaaf 1990 translation of The Black Heralds write on the inside flap of the cover of the book a summation of the critical judgment of Vallejo’s first collection, saying that it “shows a mystical and social vision that penetrates the deepest recesses of the human spirit and consciousness. . . . [and] ushers in the dawn of a new poetry in Perú.” Concerning the famous initial lines of the title poem, the publishers add that they “probably mark the beginning of Peruvian, in the sense of indigenous, poetry.” However, just as the narrator in “The Black Heralds” represents all humanity, Vallejo’s opening line and first collection of poetry contain universal themes that appeal to all readers.

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