César Vallejo Vallejo, CéSar - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

César Vallejo 1892-1938

(Full name César Abraham Vallejo) Peruvian poet, short story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist, and novelist.

Vallejo is considered one of the most important poets in modern Spanish American literature. Influenced by various political, intellectual, and aesthetic events and movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—including communism, the Spanish civil war, Darwinism, and Spanish Modernism—his works are marked by inventive wordplay and stylistic experimentation. Thematically, Vallejo's poems are often concerned with social and political injustice, alienation, and the conflict between physical desire and spirituality.

Biographical Information

The youngest of eleven children, Vallejo was born into a lower middle-class family in Santiago de Chuco, Peru. He attended Trujillo University, where he earned his B.A. in 1915 as well as a degree in law; during this time he also published his first works in local newspapers. Associated with Nuestra epoca, a short-lived journal noted for its radical political opinions, he was implicated in the vandalism that occurred during a 1919 demonstration. Vallejo was imprisoned the following year and during his incarceration wrote several of the poems included in the 1922 volume Trilce. He left Peru in 1923 and settled permanently in Paris. He made several trips to Spain, where he met prominent writers and thinkers of the Generation of 1927, including Rafael Alberti and Federico Garcia Lorca. A supporter of Loyalist forces in the Spanish civil war, Vallejo additionally helped establish the Spanish journal Nuestra Espana and wrote of his love and hopes for the country in Espafia, aparta de mieste cdliz (Spain, Let This Cup Pass from Me). A registered Communist, he also made several trips to Russia; his experiences there as well as his leftist ideology are documented in the essay collection Rusia en 1931 and El tungsteno, a novel focusing on capitalistic abuses inflicted on Peruvian miners. Vallejo died in Paris in 1938 at the age of forty-six.

Major Works

Vallejo's first poetry collection, Los heraldos negros (The Black Heralds), focuses on his memories of childhood, the landscape surrounding his birthplace, and the Indians indigenous to Peru. Noted for its use of decorative language, The Black Heralds is often considered to be largely influenced by Spanish modernismo, which derived many of its characteristic themes and stylistic traits from the French Symbolist and Decadent movements of the late nineteenth century. Trilce, Vallejo's second collection of poems, represents a marked shift in development and world view. Conveying the bitterness stemming from his prison experience and the anguish he associated with existence, Trilce concerns what Vallejo perceived as a conflict between humanity's animal nature and its constant struggle for—and inability to achieve—pure love, spiritual transcendence, and social harmony. In order to convey his vision of an absurd and hostile world, Vallejo shunned traditional poetic diction in favor of a more personal, "raw" language. For example, Vallejo used distorted syntax and unusual orthography to suggest disparate images and concepts in the posthumously published Poemas humanos (Poemas humanos/Human Poems), which emphasizes the plight of the poor and the individual's search for identity and purpose in a dehumanizing world.

Critical Reception

Despite the highly individualistic and idiosyncratic nature of his writings, Vallejo's poetry is considered to be of universal relevance. D. P. Gallagher has observed: "For Vallejo a poem is essentially a statement about Vallejo or about the human problems of which Vallejo is a microcosm. Language is not wrenched in order to achieve a new, unprecedented decorativeness, but rather in order to discover the man that has been hitherto hidden behind its decorative facades." Because of Vallejo's emphasis on ambiguity and manipulation of conventional standards of spelling and grammar, his writings are not readily accessible to English-language audiences. Nevertheless, among Spanish-speaking readers, he is frequently considered one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Los heraldos negros [The Black Heralds] (poetry) 1918

Trilce (poetry) 1922

Escalas melografiades (novellas and short stories) 1923

Rusia en 1931: Reflexiones al pie del Kremlin (essays) 1931

El tungsteno: La novela proletaria [Tungsten] (novel) 1931

Poemas humanos [Poemas humanos/Human Poems] (poetry) 1939

España, aparta de ml este cdliz [Spain, Let This Cup Pass from Me] (poetry) 1940

Novelas y cuentos completos (novellas and short stories) 1967

Obra poética completa (poetry) 1968

César Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry (poetry) 1978

Teatro completo (dramas) 1979

James Higgins (essay date 1965)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Conflict of Personality in César Vallejo's Poemas Humanos," in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Vol. XLIII, No. 1, January, 1965, pp. 47-55.

[In the excerpt below, Higgins discusses Vallejo's Human Poems, contending that this work demonstrates Vallejo's preoccupation with the theme of "the individual… continually at war with himself '

[Vallejo's] last and definitive book of verse, Poemas humanos, was published posthumously in 1939 and most of the poems were written in the latter years of Vallejo's life. Even the most superficial reading of this volume is enough to reveal what Guillermo de Torre [in "Reconocimiento critico de César Vallejo," Revista Iberoamericana, XXV (1960)] has called 'la propensión al desdoblamiento, al verse a si mismo como un otro'. One is struck by the number of poems in which Vallejo is engaged in dialogue with himself:

Tú surfres de una glandula endocrinica, se ve.
Y bien? Te sana el metaloide pálido?

In other poems the poet dissociates himself completely from the figure of César Vallejo:

Yo no sufro este dolor come César Vallejo.
César Vallejo, te odio con ternura!
César Vallejo ha muerto.

Elsewhere he puts his own existence in doubt and envisages the possibility of his being someone else:

A lo mejor, soy otro.

At one point he speaks of himself as being two different people:

Sé que hay una persona
que me busca …
Sé que hay una persona compuesta de mis partes,
a la que integro cuando va mi talle
cabalgando en su exacta piedrecilla.

As [Xavier Abril in his César Vallejo o la teoría póetica, 1963] suggests, there appears to be some connexion between the theme of the double of 1923 and Vallejo's concern in the later years of his life to present himself as a personality in conflict: 'Poemas humanos ratifica, con su obsesión del "otro," el motivo del "doble" revelado en "Fabla salvaje".

What is the connexion? Is one to assume that Vallejo himself was a schizophrenic like Balta Espinar? It is well known that psychological factors, notably a mother fixation, a persecution complex and a tendency to obsessions played an important role in Vallejo's life and work. On the other hand, his poetry contains no references to schizophrenia as such, and from the little that is known of his life there is no evidence of the illness. While Vallejo is obviously working out his own personal problems to some extent in his poetry, it seems certain he did not suffer from the illness known as schizophrenia. The poet himself warns us against such a conclusion and offers us a clue to the interpretation of this conflict of personality:

Pues de lo que hablo no es
sino de lo que pasa en esa epoca, y
de lo que ocurre en China y en Espafia, y en el mundo.
(Walt Whitman tenia un pecho suavisimo y respiraba
y nadie sabe lo que él hacia cuando lloraba en su comedor).

Vallejo is here claiming that this poetry, like Whitman's, is not concerned with his private preoccupations but with the situation of modern man. The implication is that this conflict of personality is not a mental illness but a moral condition he shares with other men. It would seem plausible that in 1923 Vallejo was interested in the mental illness of Balta Espinar because he saw in it the image of a moral illness affecting the whole of mankind. By the time he came to write Poemas humanos he had become obsessed with this idea and he presents man as a being at war with himself. This is confirmed by a line defining man as

el bimano, el muy bruto, el muy filósofo

Thus, it is man, torn by the different parts of his nature—in this case by the conflict between body and spirit—rather than the poet himself, who is pursued and haunted by a double.

For Vallejo the tragedy of man is that he aspires to an integrated, unified existence, but finds himself divided in a state of inner discord. There is in man an essential duality: the divergent parts of his nature are in constant conflict and are never able to fuse together and harmonize. Basically, Vallejo sees this conflict as one between that part of man which longs to be free to develop its potentialities and to forge an existence which will be spiritually fulfilling, and that part of him which is determined and limited by forces outside his control: heredity, environment, education, physical and psychological needs. This is the theme of the prose poem "Algo te identifica" where technical features—parallel sentences, each term of the one corresponding and standing in opposition to a term in the other; the opposition of terms within a sentence—contribute to the picture of forces in conflict. The personality that aspires to liberty cannot break free from the claims of the predetermined personality:

Algo te identifica con el que se aleja de ti, y es la
facultad comuin de volvver: de ahi tu mas grande pesadumbre.

Neither can it conform to the limits imposed upon it:

Algo te separa del que se queda contigo, y es la
esclavitud comuin de partir: de ahi tus mas nimios regocijos.

The result is that the individual is continually at war with himself, one part of him yearning to move off in search of freedom and fulfilment but held back by the inert weight of the other. To convey this idea Vallejo employs one of his most characteristic techniques: the juxtaposition of words which contradict each other. Men, he says,

yacen marchando al son de las fronteras o, simplemente, marcan el paso inmóvil en el borde del mundo.

This conflict is occasionally presented in terms of the tension between the natural and the civilized man. The individual seeks to develop the fundamental tendencies of his nature, to build up his own personal style of life, but the social man has to conform to the claims of society. He is forced to play the role of businessman, schoolteacher or labourer, adopting the habits and the uniform of the part:

… el hombre procede suavemente del trabajo
y repercute jefe, suena subordinado.

For Vallejo all social activity is based on postures. Man rises in the morning and does not start living until he has dressed himself in a personality which he wears all the waking day:

He aquí que boy saludo, me pongo el cuello y vivo.

Thus dressed, he is ready to face the world and to attend to his affairs, but in so doing he has lost contact with the essential part of himself and produced a split in his personality.

Tal me recibo de hombre, tal más bien me despido.

In general, however, it is on the conflict between man's spiritual nature and the physical, between the 'filósofo' and the 'bruto', that Vallejo fixes his attention. As Andre Coyne has pointed out [in his César Vallejo ysu obra poética, 1958], Poemas humanos is characterized by 'la obsesión de la animalidad.' Vallejo makes references to Darwin and, in accordance with his theory of evolution, considers man to be little more than an advanced animal species. This attitude leads him to employ the names of animals to designate man. The latter is varyingly described as 'mamifero', 'mono', 'paquidermo', 'cetáceo', 'plesiosaurio', 'kanguro', 'jumento', 'conejo', 'elefante', but perhaps the most crushing epithet is that of 'antropoide'. For if, instead of taking anthropoid to mean an animal of the ape family, one interprets it literally, one arrives at the ultimate irony of seeing...

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Keith A. McDuffie (essay date 1968)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "César Vallejo: Profile of a Poet," in Proceedings: Pacific Northwest Conference on Foreign Languages, Vol. XIX, April 19-20, 1968, pp. 135-43.

[In the following overview of Vallejo's poetry, McDuffie examines the thematic and stylistic features of Trilce, Black Heralds, and Human Poems, as well as Vallejo's place in twentieth-century Hispanic literature.]

The poetry of César Vallejo has received increasing attention both within and without the Hispanic world since the premature death of the Peruvian mestizo poet on the eve of World War II. Now, nearly seventy-five years since his birth in a small town of the Peruvian sierra, Santiago de...

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The Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1969)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Visions of Solidarity," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3526, September 25, 1969, p. 1098.

[In the following review of Poemas humanos/Human Poems, the critic provides an overview and comparison of The Black Heralds, Trilce, and Human Poems.]

(The entire section is 1317 words.)

D. P. Gallagher (essay date 1973)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "César Vallejo (Peru, 1892-1938)," in Modern Latin American Literature, Oxford University Press, London, 1973, pp. 11-38.

[In the essay below, Gallagher provides an overview of Vallejo's career.]

Vallejo's first book of poems, Los heraldos negros (1918), is at first sight a derivative work, and one or two poems in it could easily have been written by Ruben Dario, others by Herrera y Reissig or Lugones. Take the opening stanza of 'Nochebuena' ('Christmas Eve'):

Al callar la orquesta, pasean veladas
sombras femeninas bajo los ramajes,
por cuya hojarasca se filtran heladas
quimeras de luna,...

(The entire section is 10155 words.)

Alfred J. MacAdam (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "¡Viva Vallejo! ¡Arriba Espafia!" in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter, 1980, pp. 185-92.

[In the review below, MacAdam favorably assesses César Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry, discussing thematic and stylistic features of Vallejo's verse and the translation problems posed by his writings.]

"There is no problem as consubstantial with literature and its modest mystery as translation." This is the first sentence of Jorge Luis Borges' meditation on various English translations of Homer, beginning with Chapman and ending with Samuel Butler. Borges concludes in "The Homeric Versions" (1932) that: (1) all texts are, in the...

(The entire section is 2669 words.)

Stephen Hart (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "César Vallejo's Personal Earthquake," in Romance Notes, Vol. XXV, No. 2, Winter, 1984, pp. 127-31.

[In the essay below, Hart discusses historical and religious references in the poem "Terremoto. 'I

César Vallejo's poem "Terremoto" has received little critical attention in the past. [In the 1976 César Vallejo: The Dialectics of Poetry and Silence] Jean Franco discusses how the poem 'destroys any sense of presence in order to replace this by relativity and function', but she does not bring out the relevance of the historical figures to the imagery used. Americo Ferrari gives a longer critical discussion of "Terremoto" [in the 1972 El universo...

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Stephen Hart (essay date 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The World Upside-Down in the Work of César Vallejo," in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Vol. LXII, No. 2, April, 1985, pp. 163-77.

[In the following excerpt, Hart explores Vallejo's treatment of the theme of the world turned upside-down, asserting that his early poetry and prose convey a "desire to return to a silent paradise of animal simplicity," while his writings after his conversion to Communism depict both a world gone wrong and the hope for a future utopia.]

The desire to turn the world upside-down, as expressed in the Trilce poems, is to be viewed as a modern example of a topos that has enjoyed a rich and varied tradition in...

(The entire section is 5973 words.)

Lorna Close (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Vallejo, Heidegger and Language," in Words of Power: Essays in Honour of Alison Fairlie, edited by Dorothy Gabe Coleman and Gillian Jondorf, University of Glasgow Publications in French Language and Literature, 1987, pp. 163-86.

[In the essay below, Close analyzes the linquistic richness of Vallejo's poetry, noting his innovative use of syntax, spelling, wordplay, and ambiquity. Noting similarities between Vallejo's verse and Heidegger's theories of language, the critic also relates Vallejo's focus on the nature of language and his attempt to address its limitations in order "to project a more accurate and authentic view of the human condition, of man's 'being-in-the-world.'...

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Christiane von Buelow (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "César Vallejo and the Stones of Darwinian Risk," in Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 9-19.

[In the excerpt below, von Buelow assesses Vallejo's treatment of Darwinian and Marxist theory in his short story "Los caynas. 'I

The young man who narrates César Vallejo's short story "Los caynas" (1923) is shocked and terrified when he enters the house of a village family to find that those living there more closely resemble monkeys than they do humans. The narrator recoils from the howling and shrieking acrobatics of a woman whose "anthropoid image" is at once mechanical, child-like and bestial. This "regressive zoological...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Franco, Jean. "Vallejo and the Crisis of the Thirties." Hispania 72, No. I (March 1989): 42-8.

Discusses Vallejo's political and aesthetic beliefs, his modernist and avant-garde influences, and elements of his work.

Von Buelow, Christiane. "Vallejo's Venus de Milo and the Ruins of Language." PMLA 104, No. I (January 1989): 41-52.

In-depth analysis of "Trilce 36." Noting Vallejo's relationship to the avant-garde and modernist movements of the early twentieth century and applying Walter Benjamin's theories of the symbol and the allegory to "Trilce 36," von Buelow argues that "Vallejo's poetry goes...

(The entire section is 143 words.)