The Heights of Macchu Picchu

by Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

"The Heights of Macchu Picchu" is a poem by Pablo Neruda that is broken into 12 different poems. Important quotes from the poem focus on death, humanity, nature, and how people can live on through nature once they're gone.

One thing the poet focuses on again and again is how the modern world drains away any semblance of happiness from people. He says, "Anger has drained the tradesman’s dreary trafficking in lives," which refers to how the modern world takes away joy. People live in cramped cities without an understanding of themselves or of nature. This is something Neruda comes back to time and again throughout the poem.

Throughout the poem, the poet is focused on Macchu Picchu. He says, "Then on the ladder of the earth I climbed through the lost jungle’s tortured thicket up to you, Macchu Picchu." The entire poem is a description of not only Macchu Picchu the place but also the spirit of Macchu Picchu. It's important for a reader to understand what the city is and how it was abandoned long ago.

The poet repeatedly tries to find the spirit of the people who built and lived in Macchu Picchu. He says,

Stone upon stone, and man, where was he?
Air upon air, and man, where was he?
Time upon time, and man, where was he?

He isn't able to find the spirit in the city at first. However, the more time he spends there, the more he's able to see the life of the people who lived there. He writes,

Tell me how he slept while he lived.
Tell me if his sleep
was snoring, gaping like a black hole
that weariness dug in the wall.
The wall, the wall! If every course of stone
weighed down his sleep, and if he fell underneath
as under a moon, with his sleep!

He asks the spirit of Macchu Picchu to give him insight into the people who lived there. He believes he can find their spirits in the structures that have remained long after the people who lived there have turned to dust.

Once the poet has spent time with the spirits of Macchu Picchu, he starts to relate to them. He encourages them to be reborn through him, saying, "Rise to be born with me, brother." He asks them to share themselves with him and to, in turn, be reborn through the words he writes and that others read.

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