(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.)