(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1361 words.)

The Heights of Macchu Picchu Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Neruda wrote The Heights of Macchu Picchu following his visit to the spectacular Incan ruins high in the Peruvian Andes in 1943. The experience affected him deeply and caused him to alter his plans from a projected long poem on Chile to an epic concerning all of Latin America. The ruins testify to the sophistication of pre-Columbian culture. Symbolically in the poem, the ruins represent the junction of the human and the natural, of time and eternity, and of life and death.

In the twelve cantos the first-person speaker undertakes a quest that leads to a conversion of sorts. In the first two cantos he reviews his past life, which he depicts as aimless: “From air to air, like an empty net,/ I went on through streets and thin air.” He sees himself in a descent, wrapped up in the trivial passions of urban life. The soul is pictured sitting “among clothes and smoke, on the broken table,” where “man kills and tortures it with paper and hate,/ stuffs it each day under rugs.”

In cantos 3-5, Neruda surveys the dismal life of contemporary man: “each day a petty death, dust, worm, a lamp/ snuffed out in suburban mud.” The speaker, however, feels drawn by “the mightiest death,” and he sees himself taken “to the iron edge . . . / to the stellar emptiness of the final steps/ and dizzying spiral highway.” This foreshadowing of his eventual ascent of Macchu Picchu is a desire that is frustrated as he roams around “dying of my own death” and suffering from “a cold gust” that passes through “loose gaps in the soul.”

In the pivotal canto 6, the speaker rises from this low point as he climbs Macchu Picchu, where the human and the natural intersect,...

(The entire section is 700 words.)