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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 429

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"The Heights of Macchu Picchu" is a poem by Pablo Neruda and is about the unnamed narrator visiting Macchu Picchu, Peru. The poem itself is split into twelve separate poems, each of which addresses a different aspect of the speaker's visit.

The first poem is about the speaker roaming through Macchu Picchu and looking for something more than ruins. He wants to find the spirit of the people who lived there but is unable to.

The second poem is a celebration of nature and truth. He finds that nature is eternal while human life is temporary and that you can find truth in nature sooner than in anything else.

The third poem is about the people who live in cities and how they lose their happiness when they get stuck in a routine. It's a further comparison between nature and humanity, with humanity being transient.

The fourth poem is when the speaker actually arrives at the bottom of Macchu Picchu. He thinks about death there.

The fifth poem also deals with the concept of death. He's focused on the past and finds the modern world to be wanting because of the people in it.

The sixth poem is done as the speaker climbs Macchu Picchu and starts to feel better about things. He thinks about how the place was made. He sees the city as a symbol of how the modern world fades away, but nature endures because the people who built the city are gone but the actual structures are still there.

The seventh poem discusses how the builders died and how, despite their deaths, the stones remain and the people who built them live on in the stones. The speaker is trying to find an aspect of himself in his travels but isn't able to.

The eighth poem focuses on the religion of the pre-Columbian people as well as on two rivers, Urabamba and Wilkamayu.

The ninth poem compares Macchu Picchu to different natural things, like plants and storms.

The tenth poem shows the speaker's curiosity about the people who lived in Macchu Picchu. He wonders whether the builders were slaves and how the people who lived in the city went about their lives.

The eleventh poem focuses more on the people who built the city. The speaker says they live on through his words and sees them as equals.

The final poem is a request to the people who came before him—the indigenous Incans—to rise up and live again as he does. He ends the poem says, "Speak through my words and my blood."

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1361

Pablo Neruda’s poem The Heights of Macchu Picchu was inspired by his 1943 visit to the ancient Inca city of Macchu Picchu in Peru. Built in the mountains near Cuzco, Macchu Picchu is said to have been a retreat for Inca royalty. As he climbed the pyramids of this magnificent city, Neruda was impressed by the sheer majesty of the spectacular pre-Columbian ruin, which inspired him to write this poem. He later included it in his epic collection of poetry Canto general (1950; partial translation in Let the Rail Splitter Awake, and Other Poems, 1951; full translation as Canto General, 1991). This anthology represents Neruda’s best and most recognized poems and focuses on the geography, flora, and fauna of the Inca people. It vividly describes the struggles of the people of South America against poverty and national and international oppression. Canto General comprises fifteen sections, or cantos, and not only depicts the history of Spanish America but also is a potent commemoration of pre-Columbian culture.

The Heights of Macchu Picchu is the second canto of Canto General, is written in free verse, and consists of twelve poems, or sections, which in their totality represent the protests and cries of the oppressed masses. Neruda, in this epic poem, reverently describes the sacred city of Macchu Picchu, eliciting its spirituality, its splendor, its past, and the fate of its dead and humble constructors. The poet seamlessly connects the past to the present and vows to serve as the voice of the subjugated, thereby acknowledging his role as the spokesperson for those who are unable to represent themselves.

In the first poem, the writer wanders through the ruins of the hallowed and ancient city of Macchu Picchu, searching for the meaning of his existence. He uses the image of an empty net, which gathers nothing, and describes his past experiences as unfocused and devoid of any philosophical meaning. The poet symbolically seeks the depth of the universe in his feverish quest for an iconic sign that will reveal to him some sense of optimism and hope, a “vein of gold.” Not finding this positive signal, the poet searches aloft and below, through the waves of a metaphorical sea, in a sightless exploratory attempt mentally to locate and recoup the human spirit.

In the second poem, Neruda contrasts nature’s permanence with the fleeting and temporary characteristics of mortals. The poet suggests that eternal truths are not found in urban settings but are encountered in nature’s eternalness. Neruda laments that urban dwellers do not enjoy a meaningful existence and instead are reduced to mechanical interactions dictated by their artificial environment. The poet indicates that the philosophical search for truth should be humankind’s principal objective but that this process is a slow and humbling progression.

Neruda continues his exploration and search for truth in the third poem, as he ponders and questions the purpose of humanity’s existence, which he says is transient and impermanent. He condemns those who live in the cities who, in his opinion, experience a minute death every day as they adhere to their nine-to-six routine. He compares the transitory nature of the daily habit of urban inhabitants to a black cup whose contents are easily and quickly drained, and he emphasizes the temporary characteristics of humanity while extolling the permanence of nature.

In the fourth poem, the poet arrives at the base of Macchu Picchu but portrays ambiguity as he expresses a longing for death and, at the same time, a love for his fellows. He is frustrated by his past experiences in the urban environment, as he senses that they separate him from his fellow human beings, since these earlier experiences drag him through the city streets of the modern and industrialized world until they force him to confront his own pending death.

The poet continues to explore his death in the fifth poem, in which, through a number of metaphorical descriptions centered on images of the wind, he delineates a stark and barren modern world, devoid of any spiritual connections. He realizes that it is the soul of the inhabitants of the modern world that is empty and not the world itself.

In the sixth poem, the poet physically begins to climb the ruins of Macchu Picchu; during this ascent, his spirits are lifted as he simultaneously scales the ancient city and reflects on the time in the past when this great city was constructed. It is at this moment that the poet connects the past with the present, as in his mind two parallel lines in time meet and merge as one: These two combined lines represent humankind and its temporary character and the permanently recurring cycles of the natural world. The poet describes Macchu Picchu as a symbol of the permanence of nature, since all the builders have disappeared but the permanence of the stones and of the city remain.

The poet continues to contrast permanence and impermanence in the seventh section of The Heights of Macchu Picchu. In this poem, he states that the death of the builders of Macchu Picchu led to the rebirth and the creation of what is permanent—the stones of this great city—and that the Incas did not perish because they live today in the stones of their creation. Neruda identifies himself with the personified death that lingers on the peaks of the ruins of the city. He still searches metaphysically, seeking to identify himself with his fellow humans through the permanence of nature. His journey to the peaks of Macchu Picchu is also an exercise in self-analysis, as he realizes that there are new dimensions of truth reflected in his character and in the permanency of nature.

The eight poem is an incantation of and an invocation to pre-Columbian peoples and their gods and to nature, represented by the rivers Urabamba and Wilkamayu, which the poet describes as collectively fused by an all-encompassing love. The poet evokes the past through the ancient and dead inhabitants of Macchu Picchu as a means of changing the present and preparing for the future.

In the ninth poem, the poet describes the grandeur and beauty of Macchu Picchu using a series of metaphors and images that compare this great and ancient pre-Columbian city to different and permanent elements of nature: He compares it to hurricanes, to cataracts, and to different flora to establish its permanent and enduring nature. He praises the ancient Inca builders of the city, as he stresses that they still live through the artifices of the city that they constructed.

Neruda, in this tenth poem, wonders whether the laborers who built Macchu Picchu and pre-Columbian America are similar to modern city-dwellers. He speculates about the human suffering that went into building the city and laments that its great builders may have been slaves, subject to exploitation and suffering. He also expresses concern for the ordinary people who once walked the streets of Macchu Picchu and wants to know how they lived.

In this eleventh section, Neruda goes beyond Macchu Picchu to the men who built the city. He concludes that what is important is humankind, since it is transcendental because of the eternal nature of the human spirit. The poet identifies with the indigenous and pre-Columbian population and pays homage to the people who died so that Macchu Picchu could be built. He says that they will be reborn through him and with him as their voice and addresses them all as his brothers.

In this final poem, the poet addresses the indigenous population—in particular the masons, weavers, and laborers—and encourages them to rise up and be born again with him. Neruda spiritually experiences his own rebirth and the rebirth of all the people of the Americas and solidly identifies himself with them.

In The Heights of Macchu Picchu, Neruda ascends to spiritual heights as he physically climbs the ruins of the city. He serves as the voice for the voiceless and addresses the struggles of all humanity, which serves as the centerpiece of his poem. He invites humankind to identify the past and become one with it and to use this past to forge a better future.

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