When Pablo Neruda succumbed to cancer in his sixty-ninth year, he left behind nine unpublished manuscripts: one prose memoir and eight collections of poetry.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...
(The entire section is 1694 words.)