The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The Heights of Macchu Picchu is a long narrative poem forming book 2 of Pablo Neruda’s monumental choral epic, Canto general (general song), a text comprising 250 poems and organized into twelve major divisions, or cantos. The theme of Canto general is humankind’s struggle for justice in the New World. “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” is itself divided into twelve sections; it is written in free verse.

The poet, adopting the persona of the native South American man, walks among the ruins of the great Inca city Macchu Picchu, built high in the mountains near Cuzco, in Peru, as a last, and vain, retreat from the invading Spanish conquerors. It is a poem of symbolic death and resurrection in which the speaker begins as a lonely voyager and ends with a full commitment to the American indigenous people, their Indian roots, their past, and their future.

The first poem of the sequence opens with the image of an empty net, sifting experience but gathering nothing. This opening reveals that the speaker is drained by the surface of existence; he searches inward and downward for a hidden “vein of gold.” He then sinks lower, through the waves of a symbolic sea, in a blind search to rediscover “the jasmine of our exhausted human spring,” an erotic symbol associated with a lost paradise.

The second poem contrasts the enduring world of nature with the transitory goals of human beings, who drill natural objects down until they find that their own souls are left dead in the process. The speaker recalls that in his urban existence he often stopped and searched for the eternal truths he once found in nature or in love. In city life, humans are reduced to robotlike machines with no trace of the “quality of life” in which Neruda still believes. The question of where this quality of life can be found remains unanswered for three further poems; the search for truth, in the poet’s opinion, is a gradual and humbling process.

This search for truth is the subject of the third poem, which confronts modern humankind’s existence directly. This existence is likened to husking corn off the cob; urban dwellers die “each day a little death” in their “nine to five, to six” routine life. The speaker compares a day in the life of the urban people to a black cup whose contents they drain while holding it in their trembling hands. In this poem, Neruda prepares the way for the contrasting image of Machu Picchu, which is later described in its “permanence of stone.”

The fourth poem shows the speaker enticed by not only “irresistible death” but also the life and love of his fellow man. This love remains unrealizable, however, as long as all he sees in his fellow man is his daily death. His own...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The major symbol of the poem is that of Machu Picchu itself. In Neruda’s poem, Machu Picchu becomes the center of a tangled web of associations with disparate and intertwining strands. It is by no means a clear-cut symbol, for its meaning shifts as the poem’s strong current of emotions alternates between past and present, but the speaker’s journey gradually takes on the nature of a highly personal “venture into the interior” in which he explores both his own inner world and the past of the Latin American people. There is no explicit mention of the city until the sixth of the twelve poems that form the sequence, the earlier sections covering not the poet’s physical journey but a kind of pilgrimage through human life in search of meaningful truth. When the poet does reach Machu Picchu, its heights turn out to be the place from which all else makes sense, including his own continent.

Machu Picchu as a natural and human symbol is the pivotal force around which both the natural and religious imagery of the poem is focused. During the speaker’s descent into the heart of meaning, the presence of matter, both inorganic and organic, is significant as a symbol of inescapable reality. The speaker touches stone, earth, roots, trees, rain, clouds, and space in the course of his journey. Each line of the poem, each metaphor, brings this matter closer to human experience, specifically to human sexuality, until the speaker says, “I sank my tempestuous...

(The entire section is 508 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Eisner, Mark, ed. The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems. Bilingual ed. San Francisco: City Lights, 2004. Best introduction to Neruda in English. Indispensable collection of poems selected by prominent American and Chilean scholars.

Felstiner, John. Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1980. Focusing on Neruda’s poetry, this text explores the theories of literary translation.

King, John, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Modern Latin American Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Succinct analysis of the culture, history, literature, and politics of Latin America, emphasizing pre-Columbian and colonial literature.

Longo, Teresa. Pablo Neruda and the U.S. Culture Industry. New York: Routledge, 2002. Collection of essays discussing politics of marketing Neruda in the United States. Invaluable for understanding the context of Neruda’s popularity in the Western world.

Tapscott, Stephen, ed. Twentieth Century Latin American Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. An illuminating anthology covering a large selection of Latin American poetry from the twentieth century, focusing on Neruda, César Vallejo, and Octavio Paz.