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...
(The entire section is 1136 words.)