The Complete Poetry
In his poetry, César Vallejo keeps an intense, passionate focus on the world around him and on his personal feelings in response to that world. His subjects include love affairs with several women, his family in Peru, his Catholicism, and his experiences in France, where he spent the last eighteen years of his life. For him, poetry was not only the medium of personal expression and ideas but also a refuge that offered a measure of relief from pent-up suffering as well as an opportunity to speak to the world.
He began publishing his poetry in his early twenties while in Peru. His first collection, Los heraldos negros (The Black Heralds, 1990), appeared in 1918 and commences on a note of darkness and suffering that seldom abates. The title itself expresses the fateful outlook that Vallejo carried with him to his last days. The poetry focuses on gloom, suffering, and black foreboding, which are woven into the subjects of his personal life. Having worked in the mineral mines of Peru, he had experienced the hardships of life, and the deaths of his brother in 1915 and of his mother three years later further scarred his psyche. His justly famous poem “The Black Heralds” epitomizes Vallejo’s bleak outlook:
There are blows in life, so powerful I don’t know!Blows as from the hatred of God; as if, facing them,the undertow of everything sufferedwelled up in the soul I don’t know!
The absence of rhyme and the two ellipses echo the poet’s natural voice and vocal rhythms, and the repetition of the pause before the phrase “I don’t know!” as well as the phrase itself, expresses hopelessness bordering on despair, made heavier by the poet’s associating the powerful blows with God’s hatred. The untraditional features of the poem, the lack of rhyme and regular rhythm in the lines, and the unusual pauses within the lines give the impression that the poet is speaking with naturalness and candor, making the poem all the more intensely felt. The apparent lack of artfulness (although the effect is one of naturalness, a considerable art is required) saves the poem from being merely a sentimental expression of depressed youth, a romantic angst from a young man who almost enjoys his “doom.”
Underlying the dark thoughts in the early poems is Vallejo’s preoccupation with Catholicism; it informs his visions of and feelings for the women in his life, real or imagined, as one sees in “Communion,” in which the woman’s body is seen in terms of Vallejo’s religious devotion: Her hair is “the strand from a miter/ of fantasy that I lost!”; her body is “the bubbly skirmish/ of a pink Jordan.” From this vision of a woman, the poet shifts from reality into a world of surreal images, as when the woman’s arms “create a thirst for the infinite” and “they are molded in the unconquered blood of/ my impossible blue!”
Vallejo’s private life was thrown into turmoil more than once by his passionate affairs with women. His love affair with a fifteen-year-old girl led to his attempted suicide, and a later affair with another woman caused him to be expelled from his teaching position at the prestigious Colegio Barrós. These tumultuous experiences combine with the death of his mother to inform some of his most famous early poems, in which he seeks to come to terms with his view of women in general and with his private feelings regarding some of them. At the same time, he turned his eyes inward, describing his feelings not only for women but also for his entire existence, which includes a profound consciousness of death. Perhaps the dominant theme in his first collection is his own suffering, generalized but no less intensely felt. The final poem of The Black Heralds (“Epexegesis”), begins with the line “I was born on a day/ when God was sick,” which is repeated four times, reinforced by the word “gravely” at the end.
Although his thesis for his bachelor of arts degree was a study of romanticism in the Castellan poetry, and his first published poem was a sonnet, Vallejo abandoned traditional forms for poems of radical form and linguistic dexterity, evident even in his early sonnet, which contains the neologism soledumbre, a word that, like his later forays into verbal ingenuity, have given his translators daunting challenges. As the number of his poems...
(The entire section is 1849 words.)