Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1694
When Pablo Neruda succumbed to cancer in his sixty-ninth year, he left behind nine unpublished manuscripts: one prose memoir and eight collections of poetry. He had already earned world recognition as one of the most important and prolific poets of his generation. One of the works that had brought him recognition was Canto general (general song), which appeared almost exactly at the midpoint of his career. His poetic career spanned about five decades. Canto general is a work of immense scope and poetic ambition, and one that has been accomplished by few poets of any time or place.
The collection is divided into fifteen sections, each containing from a dozen to more than forty individual poems. The sheer immensity of the work may be intimidating to the uninitiated, but it is a fine place for readers new to Neruda to become acquainted with his work. It provides a compendium of the poet’s wide range of interests and gathers in one volume the forms he regularly explored during periods throughout his career. Neruda’s passionate interests in history, politics, and nature, and his stunning ability to show the sublime within the mundane are all present in Canto general in full working order.
Neruda’s emotional and spiritual history and his evolution as a poetic thinker become entwined with the natural history and political evolution of the southern half of the American continent. “A Lamp on Earth,” the opening section, begins with “Amor America (1400).” This poem, as do most in this section, operates much in the manner of Neruda’s numerous odes. The book’s first poem conjures the beauty and relative peace of America prior to the arrival of the conquistadores. The succeeding poems of the opening section sing respectively to “Vegetation,” “Some Beasts,” “The Birds Arrive,” “The Rivers Come Forth,” “Minerals,” and, finally, “Man.”
“A Lamp on Earth” is something of a contemporary Popol Vuh, the sequence of ancient Mayan creation myths. Neruda’s work may be more accurately dubbed a re-creation myth. As in the Mayan vision, each separate element of the natural world is treated to its own individual tale of creation. The creation of the world is described as a series of smaller creations—landscape, vegetation, animals, minerals, people—all of which finally exist together as though by way of some godly experiment. The destruction of Mayan culture by the Spanish is detailed in the third section, which concentrates on a selection of names and places. Before moving into that cataclysmic period, however, Neruda inserts one of the most highly regarded works of his career, “The Heights of Macchu Picchu.”
From the age of twenty-one until illness curtailed his ability to travel, Neruda served as diplomatic consul for his native Chile, living in a variety of nations throughout the world. In the years preceding “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” he had been acting consul to Spain, during the unfortunate time when fascism was gaining momentum. Neruda relinquished his post and returned to the Americas. Soon after, during the early 1940’s, he traveled to the Andes and saw Macchu Picchu. His journey proved to be a revelatory one, forming the basis of one of his masterpieces.
“The Heights of Macchu Picchu” is a numbered sequence of twelve poems. Taken as an entity separate from the larger work, it is the product of classic poetic inspiration and indicates a turning point in Neruda’s work. It is a richly imagistic chronicle of the rebirth of the poet’s imagination and heart. The grave disillusion brought about by the tragedy of Spain leads to a renewal of Neruda’s recognition of his need for political action. Neruda’s renewal is told somewhat in the diction of a manifesto:
Rise up to be born with me, my brother.Give me your hand from the deepzone of your disseminated sorrow . . .show me the stone on which you felland the wood on which you were crucified. . . .Throughout the earth join allthe silent scattered lipsand from the depths speak to me all night long,as if I were anchored to you. . . .Hasten to my veins and to my mouth.Speak through my words and my blood.
Neruda’s outrage is arguably at its most eloquent in “The Heights of Macchu Picchu.” The sequence is equally powerful either in or out of the context of Canto general.
His political anger finds an increasingly explicit enunciation in succeeding sections. The work launches into a broad historical epic. “The Conquistadors,” another section, includes a series of lyric narrative poems that recall the exploits of Hernán Cortés and a selection of his lieutenants. There are also poems of lament, eulogizing and grieving for a lost way of life, and poems about several legendary native resistors.
“The Liberators” and “The Sand Betrayed,” the fourth and fifth sections, tell of the political rebels and freedom fighters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Neruda invokes the reader to join his lamentations for the noble spirits of murdered figures such as José Miguel Carrera, a Chilean rebel of the nineteenth century. Carrera holds a particular place of honor in Neruda’s esteem. Carrera’s life and work are the focus of a sequence of seven poems within “The Liberators.”
Neruda’s homage to freedom fighters of the past does not, however, confine itself to those of his native country. Nor are these rebels always soldiers. There is Castro Alves, a Brazilian poet of the nineteenth century, whose voice Neruda assumes throughout the greater portion of one of the fourth section’s most eloquent poems:
Castro Alves from Brazil, for whom did you sing?“I sang for the slaves who sailed aboard the shipslike a dark cluster from the sea of wrath . . .I sang in those days against the inferno . . .I wanted man’s deliverance from man . . .My voice knocked on door closed until thenso that, fighting, Freedom might enter.”
There are also tributes to Toussaint Louverture, the eighteenth century liberator of Haiti, the first Latin American nation to become independent; to Emiliano Zapata, the farmer who became an instrumental leader of the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century; and to Augusto César Sandino, leader of the war against U.S. military presence in Nicaragua.
Neruda’s preferences for communism and freedom are explicit in these poems, and there is little to suggest any distinction in the poet’s mind between the two. His communist ideals are rooted in a purer Marxist view than has been practiced in reality. For Neruda, freedom means self-rule, regardless of the method, even at mortal costs. More than to any political ideology, Neruda was committed to the notion of class equalization.
Canto general’s historical and political poems do not follow a rigid pattern. Neruda’s scheme suggests a thematic sense of structure. From “America, I Do Not Invoke Your Name in Vain,” the sixth section, and through succeeding sections, the poems become more directly autobiographical. The titles often include dates, focusing on the late 1930’s through the late 1940’s, just before the book’s initial publication in Mexico.
The latter sections of Canto general extend the concerns and poetics of “A Lamp on Earth.” Nature is seen more often as an entity separate from politics and war. The settings are less likely to appear as battlefields or the hometowns of martyred rebels, but places for solitary reflection, where the poet’s personal and aesthetic epiphanies meld with the natural essence of creation at large. Neruda turns more often to the concept of the ode, as in “Hymn and Homecoming,” an intensely passionate song of praise to his native land, which appears in the book’s seventh section, “Canto General de Chile.” This section often returns to specific points of Chilean topography and wildlife. As in earlier sections, several pieces express the poet’s admiration of the characteristics of individual species. The “Red-Breasted Meadowlark” and “House Wrens” are described in anthropomorphic terms in comparatively simple lyrics. The creatures Neruda invokes are a source of consolation, an answer to the disappointments dealt with elsewhere.
The seventh section opens with “Eternity,” which takes a panoramic view of Neruda’s native landscape. The poet conjures himself as a product of his region, becoming integrated with it in dreams. “Eternity” is followed by “Hymn and Homecoming,” in which his sad return from Spain brings him to reexamine his country as a source of spiritual nourishment. This is the section in which Neruda takes the opportunity to describe the more personal and confessional facets of the regeneration he writes of in “The Heights of Macchu Picchu.”
Neruda specifically mentions numerous places and people high in his esteem throughout the poem. In the fourteenth section, “The Great Ocean,” he turns to the lives of mariners and coastal communities. Nowhere is Neruda as openly autobiographical as in the book’s closing section, “I Am.” A smattering of all the book’s formal and thematic components appears in closing, and the poet assumes a more prominent presence in the poems. Again, the land, nature, youth, and the passions for travel and common people are sung to by way of odes, reminiscences, laments, and confessions. Two of the poems, “The War” and “Love,” examine Neruda’s experience in Spain.
Having finished the writing at age forty-four, Neruda had turned forty-six by the time Canto general was published. The final poems begin to look at his life as an artist, expressing his state of mind over arriving at the completion of such a monumental work. The poem “I End Here” describes Canto general as having been “written on the run.” Allowing Neruda his moment of self-deprecation, one cannot avoid the immensity and deeply passionate drive of Canto general, even considering the work as part of the canon of a poet known for producing immense and passionate volumes.
Canto general is remarkable for its employment of a free sense of form, an idiomatic eloquence, and its musicality, which owes much to the treasures of the ballad tradition in Spanish. Neruda won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971, and the wonder is why, with a body of work that includes Canto general, he did not win it sooner.
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