The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 533

“The Distant Footsteps” is a short poem of twenty lines divided into four stanzas. The first and third stanzas are quatrains; the second and fourth stanzas are sestets. The poem is in free verse, a fact of some significance since many of the poems in César Vallejo’s first volume (in which this poem appears) are written in traditional, rhymed forms. By the end of the volume, Vallejo was working in free verse and moving toward the revolutionary techniques of his later poetry (see, for example, Trilce, 1922).

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The title establishes the themes of departure and separation that are so important to this poem and Vallejo’s early work. A central obsession for Vallejo was the anguish associated with the trauma of leaving home for the capital, Lima, when he was a young man. Lost in the city, he longs for the home he has left behind. He also experiences some guilt at having abandoned that home.

Vallejo, a poet of personal experience and intense self-reflection, frequently uses the first person, as in this poem. The emphasis, then, is on giving voice to personal reflections about family relationships. The poet begins by observing his father, who is sleeping peacefully and gently. It is afternoon. The poet can find no bitterness in his father’s appearance, but he does not discount the possibility that somewhere inside the father may harbor some bitterness. Curiously, and significantly, the poet believes that the father’s bitterness, if it does in fact exist, is the poet’s own fault.

In the second stanza, the poet identifies a general loneliness in this home. This loneliness is associated, by juxtaposition, with prayer, although who is doing the praying—and why—is not revealed. One might ask whether this is a prayer of praise, supplication, mourning, or something else. For the moment, this information is withheld. The loneliness, however, seems to have something to do with missing children, for there is “no news of the children today.” This sixth line raises a question: Is the poet actually on the scene? Since the children are gone, and since the poet is one of those children, it seems that he, too, is missing from the scene. This would mean that the observations he is making concerning the activities of his parents are products of his imagination. Regardless, the poet’s reflections involve much speculation. In imagining his father awakening, for example, he believes his father thinks of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt to escape Herod’s decree.

The poet’s mother is introduced in the third stanza. He imagines her walking in an orchard recalling the distant past. Like the father, the mother is gentle. The poet does not, however, hint at any adversarial relationship with her, as he had in his father’s case.

The final stanza repeats the sense of loneliness and vacancy, and it associates this sense with the image of “two, old, white curving roads.” These roads provide the poet’s means of departure, but the nature of this departure is uncertain. Was it necessary? Did he leave reluctantly, or was he escaping, and does he now feel guilty for doing so? The final emotion is ambiguous.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 413

“The Distant Footsteps” presents a series of images that provide the poet with an opportunity for reflection on loss and departure. The poet offers simple statements of observation, and uses these statements as springboards for more speculative ruminations on the emotional state of both those whom he is observing and of himself. There are three such observations: the father sleeping; the father waking; the mother walking. These three main observations lead in turn to three main speculations, each beginning with the same phrase, “if there’s.” Thus, the poet concludes that any bitterness or distance in his father must be the poet’s own fault. Similarly, the poet decides that the two curving roads are the source of the brokenness that he interprets as part of the domestic scene that he is observing.

There is, however, nothing neat and tidy—and certainly nothing predictable—in the poet’s use of this pattern of observation or speculation. Any sense in this pattern is, in fact, undermined by the poet’s reluctance to settle for obvious or trite responses to his observations. Vallejo was a poet of stunning juxtaposition, of what the American poet (and translator of Vallejo) Robert Bly called “swift associations.” This early poem is a good illustration. The leaps are dramatic and bold: The poet connects a man waking in a lonely house with the flight of the Holy Family, and then somehow associates this flight with a departure that heals a wound or at least dresses it. One of the difficulties for the reader is that the ambiguity of this technique tends to raise more questions than it answers. The father here might identify with Joseph, Jesus, or even Herod. Perhaps it is the general notion of fleeing tyranny that is suggested. The “goodbye” mentioned in line 8 may be the father’s goodbye or one of his children’s.

The open-endedness of Vallejo’s juxtaposition is intentional: Vallejo is trying to introduce as many levels of meaning as possible. A favorite Vallejo device is using words with multiple meanings in Spanish, a poetic device that does not easily translate. Certain parallel constructions also emphasize opposition. In lines 13 and 14, the mother is described as “so soft,/ so much wing, so much outgoing, so much love.” These four “so” constructions, which detail the positive qualities of the mother, are negated by four “no” constructions in lines 15 and 16: “no bustling,/ no news, no green, no childhood.” Opposition is thus one of Vallejo’s techniques.

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