Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4124
One of the unique qualities of César Vallejo’s poetry—one that makes his work almost impossible to confuse with that of any other poet writing in the Spanish language—is his ability to speak with the voice and sensibility of a child, whether as an individual orphaned by the breakup of a...
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- Critical Essays
One of the unique qualities of César Vallejo’s poetry—one that makes his work almost impossible to confuse with that of any other poet writing in the Spanish language—is his ability to speak with the voice and sensibility of a child, whether as an individual orphaned by the breakup of a family or as a symbol of deprived and alienated human beings everywhere. Always, however, this child’s voice, full of expectation and hope, is implicitly counterposed by the adult’s ironic awareness of change and despair. Inseparable from these elements is the poet’s forging of a language capable of reflecting the register and the peculiarly elliptical reasoning of a child and, at the same time, revealing the Hermetic complexity of the adult intellectual’s quest for security in the form of truth. The poetry that is Vallejo’s own answer to these problems is some of the most poignant and original ever produced.
The Black Heralds
The lines of Vallejo’s subsequent development are already evident in his first volume, The Black Heralds, a collection of sixty-nine poems grouped under various subtitles. As critics have observed, many of these poems reflect his involvement with Romantic and Modernista poetry. They are conspicuous in many cases for their descriptions of idyllic scenes in a manner that juxtaposes words of the Peruvian Sierra and the vocabulary of Symbolism, including religious and erotic elements. Vallejo did not emphasize rhyme and rhythm to the extent that some Modernistas did, but most of these early poems are framed in verse forms favored by the latter, such as the Alexandrine sonnet and the silva. While demonstrating his impressive mastery of styles already worked out by others, he was also finding his own voice.
This originality is perhaps most evident in the last group of poems in The Black Heralds, titled “Canciones de Hogar” (“Home Songs”), poems dealing with the beginning of Vallejo’s sense of orphanhood. In “A mi hermano Miguel in memoriam” (“To My Brother Miguel in Memoriam”), the poet relives a moment of the childhood game of hide-and-seek that he used to play with his “twin heart.” Speaking to his brother, Vallejo announces his own presence in the part of the family home from which one of the two always ran away to hide from the other. He goes on to remind his playmate of one day on which the latter went away to hide, sad instead of laughing as he usually was, and could not be found again. The poem ends with a request to the brother to please come out so as not to worry “mama.” It is remarkable in that past and present alternate from one line to the next. The language of childhood, as well as the poet’s assumed presence at the site of the events, lends a dramatic immediacy to the scene. At the same time, the language used in the descriptive passages is clearly that of the adult who is now the poet. Yet in the last verse, the adult chooses to accept literally the explanation that the brother has remained in hiding and may finally respond and come out, which would presumably alleviate the mother’s anxiety and make everything right once more. The knowledge that the poet is unable (or refuses) to face the permanent alteration of his past may elicit feelings of tragic pathos in the reader.
“Los pasos lejanos” (“The Distant Steps”) recalls the poet’s childhood home in which his parents, now aged, are alone—the father sleeping and the mother walking in the orchards. Here, the only bitterness is that of the poet himself, because he is now far away from them. He in turn is haunted by a vision of his parents as two old, white, and bent roads along which his heart walks. In “Enereida,” he imagines that his father has died, leading to a regression in time so that the father can once again laugh at his small children, including the poet himself, who is again a schoolboy under the tutelage of the village priest.
Many of the poems in The Black Heralds deal with existential themes. While religious imagery is pervasive, it is apparent that the poet employs it to describe profane experiences. Jean Franco has shown that in speaking of “the soul’s Christs” and “Marías who leave” and of Communions and Passions, Vallejo trivializes religious language rather than attempting to inflate the importance of his own experiences by describing them in religious terms. As well as having lost the security and plenitude of his childhood home, the poet has lost the childhood faith that enabled him to refer in words to the infinite.
In the title poem, “Los heraldos negros” (“The Black Heralds”), Vallejo laments life’s hard blows, harder sometimes than humans can stand. He concludes that these blows come from the hatred of God, that they may be the black heralds sent by Death. In “Los dados eternos” (“The Eternal Dice”), God is a gambler throwing dice and may as easily cast death as life. In fact, Earth itself is his die. Now worn to roundness, it will come to rest only within the sepulchre. Profane love is all that is left; while the beloved may now be pure, she will not continue to be so if she yields to the poet’s erotic impulses. Love thus becomes “a sinning Christ,” because humankind’s nature is irrevocably physical. Several poems allude to the poet’s ideal of redeeming himself through brotherly love, a thematic constant in Vallejo’s work, yet such redemption becomes difficult if not impossible if a person is lonely and alienated. In “Agape,” the poet speaks of being alone and forgotten and of having been unable therefore to “die” for his brother. “La cena miserable” (“The Wretched Supper”) tells of the enigma of existence in which humans are seen, as in “Agape,” as waiting endlessly for spiritual nurture, or at least for some answer concerning the meaning of life. Here, God becomes no more than a “black spoon” full of bitter human essence, even less able than humans to provide needed answers. The lives of humans are thus meaningless, since they are always separated from what they most desire—whether this be the fullness of the past, physical love, God’s love, or brotherly love.
Even in the poems most laden with the trappings of Modernismo, Vallejo provides unusual images. In “El poeta a su amada” (“The Poet to His Beloved”), he suggests that his kiss is “two curved branches” on which his beloved has been “crucified.” Religious imagery is used with such frequency that it sometimes verges on parody, and critics agree that in playing with language in this way Vallejo is seeking to highlight its essential ambiguity, something he continues to do in Trilce and Human Poems, even while totally abandoning the imagery of Modernismo. Such stripping away of excess baggage is already visible in The Black Heralds. Antitheses, oxymorons, and occasional neologisms are also to be noted. While the great majority of the poems are elegantly correct in terms of syntax—in marked contrast to what is to become the norm in Trilce—there are some instances of linguistic experimentation, as when nouns are used as adjectives. In “The Distant Steps,” for example, the mother is described as being “so soft, so wing, so departure, so love.” Another device favored by the poet in all his later poems—enumeration—is also present. Finally, traditional patterns of meter and rhyme are abandoned in “Home Songs,” with the poetic emotion being allowed to determine the form.
Despite these formal adumbrations and although The Black Heralds is not a particularly transparent work, there is little in it to prepare the reader for the destruction of language in the Hermetic density of Trilce, which came along only three years later. These were difficult years for the poet, in which he lost his mother, separated from Otilia, and spent what he was later to refer to as the gravest moments of his life in the Trujillo jail. All the anguish of these events was poured into the seventy-seven free-verse poems of his second major work. If he suffered existentially in The Black Heralds and expressed this suffering in writing, it was done with respect for traditional verse forms and sentence structure, which hinted at an order beyond the chaos of the poet’s interior world. In Trilce, this order falls. Language, on which “logical assumptions” about the world are based, is used in such a way as to reveal its hollowness: It, too, is cut loose and orphaned. Abrupt shifts from one metaphorical sphere to another make the poems’ internal logic often problematic.
A hint of what is to come is given in the title, a neologism usually taken to be a hybrid of tres (three) and dulce (sweet), an interpretation that is in accord with the poet’s concern about the ideal number expressed in several poems. It is not known, however, what, if any, concrete meaning the poet had in mind when he coined the word; it has become a puzzle for readers and critics to solve. It is notable that in “interpreting” the Trilce poems, critics often work out explications that seem internally consistent but that turn out to be related to a system diametrically opposed to the explication and system of some other critic. It is possible, however, to say with certainty that these poems deal with a struggle to do something, bridge something, and say something. Physical limits such as the human body, time, space, and numbers often render the struggle futile.
Two of the thematic sets of Trilce for which it is easiest to establish concrete referents are those dealing with the poet-as-child and those dealing with his imprisonment. In poem III, the poet once again speaks in the voice of a child left at home by the adults of the family. It is getting dark, and he asks when the grown-ups will be back, adding that “Mama said she wouldn’t be gone long.” In the third stanza, an ironic double vision of years full of agonizing memories intrudes. As in “To My Brother Miguel in Memoriam,” the poet chooses to retain the child’s faith, urging his brothers and sisters to be good and obey in letter and spirit the instructions left by the mother. In the end, it is seen that the “leaving” is without remedy, a function of time itself; it eventually results in the poet’s complete solitude without even the comfort of his siblings. In poem XXIII, the mother, the only symbol of total plenitude, is seen as the “warm oven” of the cookies described as “rich hosts of time.” The nourishment provided by the mother was given freely and naturally, taken away from no one and given without the child’s being obliged. Still, the process of nurturing leads to growing up and to individuation and alienation. Several poems mythicize the process of birth but shift so abruptly to demythicize human existence that the result is at first humorous. In poem XLVII, a candle is lighted to protect the mother while she gives birth, along with another for the babe who, God willing, will grow up to be bishop, pope, saint, “or perhaps only a columnary headache.” Later, in Human Poems, there is a Word Incarnate whose bones agree in number and gender as it sinks into the bathtub (“Lomo de las sagradas escrituras”/“Spine of the Scriptures”).
In poem XVIII, the poet surveys the four walls of the cell, implacably closed. He calls up a vision of the “loving keeper of innumerable keys,” the mother, who would liberate him if she could. He imagines the two longer walls as mothers and the shorter ones as the children each of them is leading by the hand. The poet is alone with only his two hands, struggling to find a third to help him in his useless adulthood. In poem LVIII, the solid walls of the cell seem to bend at the corners, suggesting that the poet is dozing as a series of jumbled thoughts produce scenes in his mind that follow no easy logical principle of association. The poet sees himself helping the naked and the ragged, then dismounting from a panting horse that he also attempts to help. The cell is now liquid, and he becomes aware of the companions who may be worse off than he. Guilt suddenly overwhelms him, and he is moved to promise to laugh no more when his mother arises early to pray for the sick, the poor, and the prisoners. He also promises to treat his little friends better at play, in both word and deed. The cell is now boundless gas, growing as it condenses. Ambiguously, at the end, he poses the question, “Who stumbles outside?” The openness of the poem is similar to that of many others in Trilce, and it is difficult to say what kind of threat to the poet’s resolutions is posed by the figure outside. Again, the poetic voice has become that of a child seeking to make all that is wrong in the world right once more by promising to be “a good boy.” Of course, he is not a child at all, as the figure outside may be intended to remind both him and the reader. The result is once again a remarkable note of pathos tinged with poignant irony.
Many of Trilce’s poems deal with physical love and even the sexual act itself. “Two” seems to be the ideal number, but “two” has “propensities of trinity.” Clearly, the poet has no wish to bring a child into the world, and sex becomes merely an act of organs that provides no solution to anything. While the poet seems to appreciate the maternal acts performed by his lover, he fails to find any transcendental satisfaction in the physical relationship, even though he is sad when it is over.
An important theme that emerges in Trilce and is developed more fully in Human Poems and Spain, Take This Cup from Me is that of the body as text. In poem LXV, the house to which the poet returns in Santiago seems to be his mother’s body. Parts of the body—the back, face, shoulder, eyes, hands, lips, eyelashes, bones, feet, knees, fingers, heart, arms, breasts, soles of the feet, eyelids, ears, ribs—appear in poem after poem, reminding the reader of human and earthly functions and the limitations of human beings.
In many ways, Trilce resembles the poetry of such avant-garde movements as Surrealism, Ultraism, and Creationism in the boldness of its images, its unconventional vocabulary, and its experimentation with graphics. Vallejo did have very limited exposure to some of this poetry after he reached Lima; his critics, however, generally agree that Trilce was produced independently. While Vallejo may have been encouraged to experiment by his knowledge of European literary currents, his work coincides with them as an original contribution.
As far as is known, the poems after Trilce were written in Europe; with very few exceptions, none was published until 1939, a year after the poet’s death, when they appeared under the title Human Poems. While Vallejo’s life in Peru was far from affluent, it must have seemed easy in comparison with the years in Paris, where he often barely subsisted and suffered several illnesses. In addition, while he did see a new edition of Trilce published through the intervention of friends in 1931 and his Rusia en 1931 did go into three editions during his lifetime, he could never count on having his writings accepted for publication.
Human Poems, considered separately from Spain, Take This Cup from Me, is far from being a homogeneous volume, and its final configuration might have been different had it been Vallejo who prepared the final edition rather than his widow. Generally speaking, the poems that it includes deal with ontological anguish whose cause seems related to physical suffering, the passage of time, and the impossibility of believing that life has any meaning. In fact, Human Poems examines suffering and pain, with their corollaries, poverty, hunger, illness, and death, with a thoroughness that few other works can match. At times, the anguish seems to belong only to the poet, now not only the orphan of Trilce but alienated from other people as well. In “Altura y pelos” (“Height and Hair”), the poet poses questions: “Who doesn’t own a blue suit?/ Who doesn’t eat lunch and board the streetcar . . . ?/ Who is not called Carlos or any other thing?/ Who to the kitty doesn’t say kitty kitty?” The final answer given is “Aie? I who alone was solely born.” At least two kinds of irony seem to be involved here. The activities mentioned are obviously trivial, but neither is it easy to be alone. In the well-known “Los nueve monstruos” (“The Nine Monsters”), the poet laments the abundance of pain in the world: “Never, human men/ was there so much pain in the chest, in the lapel, in the wallet/ in the glass, in the butcher-shop, in arithmetic!” and “never/ . . . did the migraine extract so much forehead from the forehead!” Pain drives people crazy “in the movies,/ nails us into the gramophones,/ denails us in bed . . .” The poem concludes that the “Secretary of Health” can do nothing because there is simply “too much to do.”
“The Nine Monsters” is representative of several features of Human Poems. The language is extremely concrete, denoting things that are inseparable from everyday existence. Much of the poem consists of lists, continuing a device for which the poet had already shown a disposition in his first work. Finally, the logic of the systems represented by the items named is hard to pin down, so that it is somewhat reminiscent of child logic in its eccentricity. Again and again, Vallejo’s remarkable sensibility is demonstrated beyond any preciosity or mere posturing.
One reason for the poet’s alienation is that he sees people as engaged in trivial occupations and as being hardly more advanced on the evolutionary scale than pachyderms or kangaroos, whereas he himself aspires to rise above his limitations. In “Intensidad y altura” (“Intensity and Height”), he tells of his desire to write being stifled by his feeling “like a puma,” so that he might as well go and eat grass. He concludes, “let’s go, raven, and fecundate your rook.” He thus sees himself condemned not to rise above the purely mundane. Religion offers no hope at all. In “Acaba de pasar el que vendrá . . .” (“He Has Just Passed By, the One Who Will Come . . .”), the poet suggests that “the one who will come”—presumably the Messiah—has already passed by but has changed nothing, being as vague and ineffectually human as anyone else.
While the majority of these posthumously published poems convey utter despair, not all of them do. Although the exact dates of their composition are generally unknown, it is natural to associate those that demonstrate growing concern for others with Vallejo’s conversion to Marxist thought and eventually to Communism. In “Considerando en frío . . .” (“Considering Coldly . . .”), speaking as an attorney at a trial, the poetic voice first summarizes the problems and weaknesses of humanity (he “is sad, coughs and, nevertheless,/ takes pleasure in his reddened chest/ . . . he is a gloomy mammal and combs his hair . . .”) Then, however, he announces his love for humanity. Denying it immediately, he nevertheless concludes, “I signal him,/ he comes,/ I embrace him, moved./ So what! Moved . . . Moved. . . .” Compassion thus nullifies “objectivity.” In “La rueda del hambriento” (“The Hungry Man’s Wheel”), the poet speaks as a man so miserable that his own organs are pulled out of him through his mouth. He begs only for a stone on which to sit and a little bread. Apparently ignored, aware that he is being importunate, he continues to ask, disoriented and hardly able to recognize his own body. In “Traspié entre dos estrellas” (“Stumble Between Two Stars”), the poet expresses pity for the wretched but goes on to parody bitterly Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (“Beloved be the one with bedbugs,/ the one who wears a torn shoe in the rain”), ending with a “beloved” for one thing and then for its opposite, as if calling special attention to the emptiness of mere words. It is possible to say that in these poems the orphan has finally recognized that he is not alone in his orphanhood.
Spain, Take This Cup from Me
Although first published as part of Human Poems, Spain, Take This Cup from Me actually forms a separate, unified work very different in tone from the majority of the other posthumous poems—a tone of hope, although, especially in the title poem, the poet seems to suspect that the cause he has believed in so passionately may be lost. In this poem, perhaps the last that Vallejo wrote, the orphan—now all human children—has found a mother. This mother is Spain, symbol of a new revolutionary order in which oppression may be ended. The children are urged not to let their mother die; nevertheless, even should this happen, they have a recourse: to continue struggling and to go out and find a new mother.
Another contrast is found in the odes to several heroes of the Civil War. Whereas, in Human Poems, humans are captives of their bodies and hardly more intelligent than the lower animals, Spain, Take This Cup from Me finds people capable of true transcendence through solidarity with others and the will to fight injustice. A number of poems commemorate the battles of the war: Talavera, Guernica, Málaga. Spain thus becomes a text—a book that sprouts from the bodies of an anonymous soldier. The poet insists again and again that he himself is nothing, that his stature is “tiny,” and that his actions rather than his words constitute the real text. This may be seen to represent a greatly evolved negation of poetic authority, first seen in The Black Heralds with the repeated cry, “I don’t know!”
Nevertheless, Spain, Take This Cup from Me rings with a biblical tone, and the poet sometimes sounds like a prophet. James Higgins has pointed out certain images that recall the Passion of Christ and the New Jerusalem, although religious terminology, as in all Vallejo’s poetry, is applied to humans rather than to divinity. While Vallejo continues to use techniques of enumeration—which are often chaotic—and to use concrete nouns (including many referring to the body), he also employs abstract terms such as peace, hope, martyrdom, harmony, eternity, and greatness. The sense of garments, utensils, and the body’s organs stifling the soul is gone and is replaced by limitless space. In Vallejo’s longest poem, “Himno a los voluntarios de la República” (“Hymn to the Volunteers for the Republic”), a panegyric note is struck.
One of Vallejo’s most immediately accessible poems, “Masa” (“Mass”), tells almost a parable of a dead combatant who was asked by one man not to die, then by two, and finally by millions. The corpse kept dying until surrounded by all the inhabitants of Earth. The corpse, moved, sat up and embraced the first man and then began to walk. The simplicity of the story and of its narration recalls the child’s voice in Trilce, promising to cease tormenting his playmates in order to atone for the world’s guilt. In this piece, as well as in all Vallejo’s last group of poems, however, the irony is gone.
It is thus possible to see the completion of a cycle in the four works. Disillusionment grows in The Black Heralds, and then alienation works its way into the language itself in Trilce. Human Poems is somewhat less Hermetic than Trilce, but life is an anguished nightmare in which the soul is constrained by the ever-present body that seems to be always wracked with pain. Only in Spain, Take This Cup from Me, with the realization that men are brothers who can end their common alienation and suffering by collective action, does the poet regain his lost faith and embark upon a positive course. The orphan relocates the lost mother, whom he now sees to be the mother of all, since all men are brothers. The true significance of Vallejo’s poetry, however, surely lies in his honesty in questioning all established rules of poetic expression, as well as the tradition of poetic authority, in order to put poetry fully in touch with the existential prison house of twentieth century humanity.