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The Black Heralds

by Cesar Vallejo
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Historical Context

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History of Peru

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Peru had been inhabited for thousands of years when, in the twelfth century, the Quechua-speaking Incas established an empire that lasted until the Spanish conquest in 1533. Peru remained a colony until 1821, then went through a number of upheavals before a period of stability started in 1844. A republican constitution was in effect from 1860 until 1920, but Peru did not have its first civilian president until 1872. Foreign debts for a costly program of public works, followed by a war with Chile, caused the Peruvian government to allow foreign capitalists in 1889 to form the Peruvian Corporation, headquartered in London, to mine up to three million tons of the country’s valuable guano deposits, control the railroads for sixty-six years, and receive annual payments of eighty thousand British pounds. The arrangement averted economic disaster for Peru, but the Peruvian people hated the loss of national control and prestige.

There followed a power struggle between the Creole upper class and liberals who urged social and economic reform. The Democratic Party was formed and won the presidency in 1895 with promises of direct suffrage, increased local self-determination, and public schools. This effort, which resulted in positive economic development, was followed by the rule of Augusto Leguia y Salcedo from the Civilian Party from 1908 to 1912 and 1919 to 1930. Although a dictator, Leguia expanded sugar and cotton production and settled a boundary dispute with Chile. In 1920, he supported a new constitution that provided for the protection of Indian lands from sale or seizure. However, the provision was not enforced, leading indigenous Peruvians to organize and attracting members to the Communist Party.

During this time César Vallejo received his college education and wrote his first book of poetry, The Black Heralds. Both of Vallejo’s grandmothers were natives, and he grew up with knowledge of the Indian language Quechua, which he used occasionally in his poems. While working on a plantation to earn money for college, Vallejo saw the harsh living conditions of the exploited workers. Given his background and the mood of the times, it is no surprise then that the opening poem of his first collection should deal with the oppression of the masses.

Post–World War I Artistic Movements

From the late 1800s to 1918, the modernist movement existed as a corollary to the Industrial Revolution and mechanization. Modernists advocated adaptation of society in all its aspects to rapid technological changes; traditional forms of art, literature, and social organization simply would not suffice. Therefore, a period of worldwide revolution in all the arts ensued with the belief that anything new and unrelated to the past is better than what is old and traditional.

The writings of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx helped to establish modernism since they challenged established worldviews, both religious and social, and questioned various romantic notions, for example about the innate superiority and decency of humans. At the same time, the impressionist painters took art outdoors and argued that people do not see objects so much as they see light itself as it shines on objects and transforms them. Symbolist writers expressed a theory that since language is itself symbolic in nature, writers should seek words for their sound and texture. Adding to these breaks with traditional thought was Sigmund Freud, the so-called father of psychology, who said that people perceived the world through a filter of their own basic drives and instincts, thus making reality subjective. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche advocated that vision is more important than facts or things. Consequently, impressionism, symbolism, along with the work of Freud and Nietzsche, influenced the progression toward abstraction in art and literature. Freedom of expression, experimentation, radicalism, and primitivism, the belief that nature provides truer and more healthful models than culture, were stressed.

Following such catastrophic upheavals in the social order as the Russian Revolution and World War I, modernism changed from a movement that recognized its link with the past even while questioning tradition to a movement that encouraged overturning the status quo. It was obvious that humanity was not morally progressive and reality was questionable, so surrealism, the movement that uses illogical, dreamlike images and events to suggest the unconscious, was born in an age that also fostered cubism and jazz.

In South America, modernism or modernismo replaced nationalism as the predominant trend in literature and followed the symbolist and Parnassian schools in espousing that art should be for art’s sake. The modernistas wrote about exotic matters and experimented with language. Leading this movement were Jose Asuncion Silva of Colombia and Julian del Casal and Jose Marti of Cuba. The movement reached its height with Nicaraguan Ruben Dario (1867–1916) whose fundamental collection, Azul (Blue), was published in 1888. These writers influenced the up-and-coming poet, César Vallejo, who quickly moved beyond them to embrace surrealism and create his own unique style. His experimentation with language is an indication that he, too, rejected the traditional and the familiar. In the process, he joined many other Latin American writers who chose social protest for their themes. From the late nineteenth century on, Peruvian writers stressed analyzing society and exposing the conditions of the poor, especially Peruvian natives.

Literary Style

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Repetition is a signature device that Vallejo used throughout his career as a poet. The opening line of “The Black Heralds” is repeated as the last line for emphasis and to create an enclosed structure or circle. This enclosure may represent the prison of life that constrains humanity with time limits and physical limitations or the freedoms taken away by government and social status. The phrase, “I just don’t know,” not only ends the first and last lines of the poem but also the first and last lines of the first stanza in order to underline the frustration of the inexplicable.

In the seventeen lines of “The Black Heralds,” Vallejo uses the word “blows” four times: in the first and second lines to establish blows as the subject, in the eleventh line, to remind the reader of the topic, and then in the last line to emphasize the importance of the blows. In addition, Vallejo uses the ellipsis before each of the “I just don’t know” phrases as if the speaker runs out of words and sighs or cries out, “I just don’t know.” The ellipsis is also used in line 5 to create a change of thought, and in line thirteen (“And man . . . Poor . . . poor!”) to stretch out and emphasize the pathetic nature of humans. Vallejo also uses the similar phrases “welled up” and “wells up” in lines four and twelve as another way to provide a connection between the first and the last sections of the poem. Thus repetition serves to tie the poem together and as a type of rhythmic device like a metronome keeping the beat.


Ellipsis points are not only used to indicate omissions from a quotation but also are used by writers to give the reader the impression that the narrator is experiencing faltering speech. The ellipsis, which consists of three spaced periods, indicates a long pause, or a thought that has trailed off and will not be completed, or will be left for the reader to complete. Sometimes a writer will use an ellipsis rather than a dash or a colon just to catch the reader’s attention.

In the case of Vallejo and “The Black Heralds,” the ellipsis is used six times in seventeen lines with great dramatic effect. In the famous opening line, Vallejo starts with an attention-grabbing statement about the hardships of life, but instead of reaching some profound conclusion about the bad times people all encounter, he cuts off the speaker with an ellipsis, who then says “I just don’t know!” The reader immediately knows that this is a poem of frustration. The poet wants to talk about the tragedy of life, but the speaker lets the reader know right away that he does not have any answers to the mysteries of life. Twice more in the poem, Vallejo uses the ellipsis and the speaker’s exasperated “I just don’t know” to express the sense of being at a loss for an explanation.

In the first line of the second stanza, Vallejo trails off with an ellipsis after the speaker says, “They are few; but they are” before saying what the blows are. It is as if the speaker changes his mind about discussing what the blows are because he then starts a new sentence talking about what the blows do. The ellipsis after “but they are” also gives the impression that “are” means “exist” as in “They are few, but they still exist.”

In the first line of the fourth stanza, Vallejo inserts ellipses for emphasis and to slow down the reading. “And man . . . Poor . . . poor!” highlights the pathetic nature of “poor” and once again gives the impression of an incomplete thought as if it is too painful to go into detail about the wretchedness of the human condition.

Beyond Modernismo

Much is made of the influence on Vallejo of the modernismo (modernista) movement. There were a number of famous Latin American writers who were writing in this style in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, but the first of note was the Cuban poet Jose Marti, and eventually Chilean Ruben Dario became the master of the movement. Vallejo was well aware of these other poets and their works because they created a frenzy of interest in literature that carried over into politics and economics and caught the attention of the world, even affecting literary ideas in Spain. The characteristics of modernismo included beautiful landscapes, a crafted verse that sometimes became an artifice of mannerisms, colorful imagery, and elegant, musical language. Modernistas Leopoldo Lugones and Julio Herrary y Reissig added surprising images that were admired and imitated by Vallejo. Although these elements can be seen in The Black Heralds, Vallejo was already departing from the movement in his first work by moving into darker, more realistic subjects and themes of social protest as well as dropping the typical rhetoric and ornamentation of the style. It is difficult to judge a translation for the patterns and rhythms of modernismo that may have been present in the original Spanish version, so English readers must rely on the expertise of scholars to verify that the influence is there, especially when the subject, tone, and concentrated phrases of The Black Heralds are so different from what a reader would expect from modernismo.


Native Americans use symbols and images to express themselves and their mystic fatalism, so it was natural for Vallejo, with his indigenous heritage, to embrace surrealism, a style that uses dreamlike images and suggests the unconscious or subconscious in a psychological way. Surrealism liberates the poet from literary conventions such that language can be ambiguous and ironic as it breaks the rules of logic and reason in its multiple images and irregular rhythms. In “The Black Heralds,” the irregular rhythms come from the pauses inserted by the use of ellipses to change the course of the thought. The language of Vallejo’s images in this poem is not as ambiguous as one would expect from a surrealist. Rather, they are created with common language and objects, but there is the surrealistic multiplicity of images, and they lead to careful thought and interpretation about the psychological as well as physical torture endured by the abused person Vallejo depicts.

There is no difficult language in “the backwash of everything suffered,” “open dark furrows in the fiercest face and in the strongest back,” “bloodstained blows,” “crackling bread burning up at the oven door,” or “like a pool of guilt, in his look.” Backwash, furrows, bloodstained, pool and guilt are all terms that are understandable, but combined as they are in the phrases that create the image, they are beautifully crafted to readily conjure a vivid picture in the mind of the reader. The images created from literary and religious allusions—“steeds of barbaric Attilas,” “black heralds Death sends us,” “deep falls of the Christs of the soul,”—are more difficult at first but are not beyond the average reader’s ability to grasp. Images are intended to appeal to the senses, and the images in “The Black Heralds” manage to cover four of the five: sight, hearing, touch, and smell. Coming one upon another in rapid succession in a relatively short poem, they bombard the reader in a powerfully effective way.

Compare and Contrast

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1918: In Russia, the Bolsheviks execute the Romanov royal family, setting up a series of events that eventually lead to Russia becoming a communist country. At the same time, Vallejo lives in Lima and is acquainted with political activists to whom he is attracted because of his experience with rural poverty and plantation labor and his disillusionment with religion. Thus begins his eventual involvement in the communist movement.

Today: The power of communism is diminished greatly around the world since the breakup of the Soviet Union, although China and North Korea have communist systems, and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela gains world attention as a great admirer of the last icon of Central American communism, Cuba’s Fidel Castro.


1918: World War I, described as the war to end all wars, comes to a conclusion, leaving the European continent, and the colonies of European countries, in an unsettled and bitter situation. After moving to Europe, Vallejo becomes involved in these issues, earning political exile from France from 1930 to 1932 and campaigning against fascism in the Spanish Civil War from 1936 until his death in 1938. One of Vallejo’s last great collections of poetry, Spain, Take This Cup from Me, comes from this endeavor.

Today: World War I does not end all wars. Rather, the terms of the Treaty of Versailles that arrange the cessation of warfare in 1918 come to be seen as a leading cause of World War II, which is more global. The treaty terms include the creation of new countries and border divisions that contributes to present-day conflicts in Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, and other parts of the Middle East.


1918: Post-war sentiments change modernism from a call for change while respecting the past to a call for a complete remake of the worldview around new technologies and philosophies. This rebellion against emotionalism typically rejects any call to copy the past or return to the classics.

Today: Modernism becomes mainstream by the 1930s and remains so until the late twentieth century when media-influenced postmodernism begins mixing elements of pop culture with electronics; postmodernism is characterized by open-endedness and collage and a self-referential irony that questions the foundations of cultural and artistic forms.


1918: Vallejo prepares his first book of poetry for publication, beginning his career as a writer in several genres that is to gain him little fame and virtually no income during his lifetime.

Today: Vallejo is considered the greatest of all Peruvian poets; new editions of his writings and works of criticism about him continue to be published.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Arguelles, Ivan, Review of The Black Heralds, in Library Journal, Vol. 115, Issue 6, April 1, 1990, p. 118.

Biespiel, David, “Reading Guide: César Vallejo: The Ambassador of South American Surrealism,” (accessed September 20, 2006).

Eshleman, Clayton, trans., The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo, University of California Press, 2006, as cited in Efrain Kristal, “César Vallejo,” in American Poetry Review, Vol. 34, No. 3, May–June 2005, p. 25.

Eshleman, Clayton, and Jose Rubia Barcia, trans., Cesar Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry, University of California Press, 1978, as cited in Alfred J. MacAdam, “¡Viva Vallejo! Arriba España!” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 1980, p. 187.

Hays, H. R., trans., Cesar Vallejo: Selected Poems, Sachem Press, 1981, as cited in Julio Ortega, Latin American Writers, Vol. 2, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989, p. 730.

Hirsch, Edward, “Poetry: Cesar Vallejo,” in Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 4, Autumn 1995, p. 98.

Horno-Delgado, Asunción, “The Plural ‘I,’” in American Book Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, June–July 1991, p. 22.

Kristal, Efrain, “Cesar Vallejo,” in American Poetry Review, Vol. 34, No. 3, May–June 2005, p. 25.

MacAdam, Alfred J., “¡Viva Vallejo! Arriba España!” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 1980, p. 185.

Maier, Linda S., “César Vallejo,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 290: Modern Spanish American Poets, Second Series, edited by Maria A. Salgado, Thomson Gale, 2004, p. 336.

Maurer, Christopher, “Through a Verse Darkly,” in New Republic, Vol. 209, No. 2, July 12, 1993, p. 34.

Ortega, Julio, “Cesar Vallejo,” in Latin American Writers, Vol. 2, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989, pp. 727–28.

Rodriguez, Phyllis White, “Cesar Vallejo,” in Hispania, Vol. 35, No. 2, May 1952, p. 195.

Ross, Kathleen, and Richard Schaaf, trans. The Black Heralds, by César Vallejo, Latin American Literary Review Press, 1990, jacket flap.

Seiferle, Rebecca, “Cesar Vallejo : The Thread of Indigenous Blood,” in The Black Heralds, by César Vallejo, Copper Canyon Press, 2003, p. 1.

St. Martin, Hardie, “Ring-Master in the Vallejo Circus,” in American Book Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, August–September 1993, p. 6.

Vallejo, César, “The Black Heralds,” in The Black Heralds, translated by Kathleen Ross and Richard Schaaf, Latin American Literary Review Press, 1990, p. 17.

Further Reading
Hart, Stephen M., and Jorge Cornejo Polar, César Vallejo: A Critical Bibliography of Research, Tamesis Books, 2002.

A comprehensive guide to scholarship about Vallejo, this book, produced by a well-known Vallejo scholar, lists sources of information and provides helpful evaluations of the materials that are available.

Ortega, Julio, “Cesar Vallejo,” in Latin American Writers, Vol. 2, 1989, pp. 727–38.

An analysis of Vallejo’s work arranged chronologically with brief biographical information, this article presents excerpts in both Spanish and English and examines their poetic characteristics in a highly readable fashion.

Starn, Orin, Ivan Degregori, and Robin Kirk, eds. The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics, Duke University Press, 1995.

This book provides a broad spectrum of in-depth information about multiple aspects of Peru, including introductions to and excerpts from several of its authors.

Tapscott, Stephen, ed., Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology, University of Texas Press, 1996.

This collection of lyrical works from seventy-five poets, including Vallejo, provides helpful introductions to and evaluations of the writers as well as a selection of some of their most notable poetry.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 77

Hart, Stephen. Stumbling Between Forty-six Stars. London: Centre of César Vallejo Studies, 2007.

Higgins, James. César Vallejo: An Anthology of His Poetry. New York: Pergamon, 1970.

Sharman, Adam, ed. The Poetry and Poetics of Cesar Vallejo: The Fourth Angle of the Circle. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.

Vallejo, César. Selected Poems. Edited by Stephen Hart. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2000.

Vallejo, César. Selected Poems. Translated by Michael Smith and Valentino Gianuzzi. Exeter, England: Shearsman Books, 2006.

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Critical Essays