Pablo Neruda Biography
Pablo Neruda is almost as famous for his political activism as he is for his eclectic, electric poetry. A communist who held several governmental posts in his native Chile, Neruda was a staunch supporter of Radical Party presidential candidate Gabriel González Videla and helped elect him to office. When Videla quickly turned against the Communist party, Neruda spoke out harshly against him. Fearing for his family’s safety, Neruda went into hiding for the next year, during which time the Communist party was banned from Chile. He remained in exile for three years and traveled throughout Europe, where he did a great deal of writing. He first became known for erotic poems such as “Tonight I Can Write,” but the masterpiece Canto General captures his range of ideas, concerns, and passions—from history and politics to nature and love.
Facts and Trivia
- Neruda was born Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes Basoalto. He took his pen name from the Czech author Jan Neruda.
- Although Neruda’s father opposed his writing interests, he persisted and had his first essay published at the age of thirteen.
- His Veinte Poemas, which includes the acclaimed poem “Tonight I Can Write,” was considered highly controversial because of its explicitly sexual nature. Neruda was only ninteen years old when the volume was published.
- Neruda was invited to speak at the International PEN Conference in 1966 and, despite the fact that he was officially banned from the United States, he was granted a special visa to attend.
- Chilean leader Pinochet tried to outlaw the public from attending Neruda’s funeral, but thousands of people broke curfew and attended anyway. This is considered the first public protest against Chilean dictators.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2117
Article abstract: Neruda is the greatest modern poet to have combined a personal and lyrical mode with a political voice in a way that spoke to and for a popular mass readership. Rooted in Chile, his poetry has a universal human significance marked by the award of the Nobel Prize in 1971.
Pablo Neruda was born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, in the small town of Parral in southern Chile, on July 12, 1904, the son of José del Carmen Reyes and Rosa de Basoalt. His mother, a schoolteacher, died of tuberculosis not long after he was born. Neruda began writing poetry at the local schools but kept it hidden from his schoolmates and his relations, who were mainly agricultural or manual workers, and his father, a tough railroad worker. The family moved to Temuco in 1906, and Neruda grew up in a frontier atmosphere, becoming familiar with the forests and the native Indians who inhabited them. His father remarried, and Neruda grew close to his stepmother, a quiet, unassuming peasant woman named Trinidad Candia Marverde. The headmaster of the local school was the poet Gabriela Mistral, who encouraged the literary talent she saw in the boy. Neruda’s reading at this time was eager and indiscriminate. He grew to be a tall, slim youth and began translating Baudelaire and winning various local poetry prizes.
In 1921, he left high school and went to the teachers’ college in Santiago (the capital of Chile) but much preferred talking about literature in the cafés to studying French. He had submitted his earliest poems for magazine publication when he was only fifteen, signing himself “Pablo Neruda.” His range of literary acquaintances widened, but his early poetry, Crepusculario (1923), remained provincial and sentimental. At twenty, however, he published Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (1924; Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, 1969, 1976) and established his reputation as a love poet.
Neruda worked fanatically, earning money writing articles for newspapers and journals and writing translations. He edited his own magazine, wrote short stories and an immature episodic novel, and began work on a larger sequence, Residencia en la tierra (3 vols., 1933, 1935, 1947; Residence on Earth and Other Poems, 1946, 1973). Yet his love affairs left him unhappy, and he remained poor. It was not until 1927 that Neruda successfully gained an appointment with Chile’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and became the honorary consul to Rangoon, Burma. He was neither a trained diplomat nor an outstanding linguist, but, as a gregarious, charismatic, presentable, and accomplished writer who had a proven ability to move his readers, he fulfilled the requirements of an ambassador for his country.
The sense of political solidarity that Neruda came to affirm was gained through years of isolation and a continuous balancing of powerful emotions of love, with rich, dark, sometimes surreal journeys of the imagination. Personal loneliness and a fond memory of his home were counterpointed in his verse. He traveled to various parts of the world on his first trip to the East and sent articles back to the Santiago daily newspaper La Nación. In Burma he encountered professionally the remnants of ancient cultures and the continuing exploitation of colonial occupation, and his personal anxieties found a counterpart in society at large. He attempted to maintain contact with friends and writers in Chile and was published in Spain, but in Burma he was depressed.
While visiting India to cover a political meeting in Calcutta in 1929, the enormous crowds that he encountered in the subcontinent brought him to greater depths of despair. He continued writing the Residence on Earth poems. In 1930, Neruda became Consul to the Dutch East Indies and married a Dutch woman, Maria Antonieta Haagenar. In 1932, they returned, briefly, to Chile. Though Neruda’s poems were by now being published and republished, they would not bring him a living wage. In 1933, he took up another consular appointment in Buenos Aires and in 1934 yet another in Barcelona. His bureaucratic experience had not made him a happy man, but now things were to change. He moved on to Madrid, where the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (whom he had met in Buenos Aires) introduced him to a new public. He separated from his first wife and later was happily married to Delia del Carril, with whom he remained until the 1950’s. His great work Residence on Earth was now published, and an international audience was responding to Neruda with vital enthusiasm. Concurrently, Neruda was becoming more thoroughly intellectually politicized, as he was introduced to the social struggles that underlay the Spanish Civil War. García Lorca, who had become a friend of Neruda, was murdered by the Fascists, and Neruda found comradeship with the French left-wing Surrealist writers Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, and with the Peruvian Cesar Vallejo. He allied himself with the political struggle of the Spanish Republic.
Neruda returned to Chile, and through 1937 and 1938 supported the struggle of the Spanish Republic and the left-wing Chilean government, giving lectures and readings. He began work on a long poetic sequence that was to comprise his greatest work, Canto general (1950). In 1939, he traveled to Paris to assist the Spanish Republican refugees in flight to Chile.
Neruda’s life continued to be peripatetic. He returned to Chile in 1940 and went on to Mexico. He became more deeply acquainted with meso-America, traveling throughout the Caribbean, Guatemala, and Cuba. Though he wrote a “Song to Stalingrad” in 1942, he became fascinated by the fate of man in the Americas, and a climb to the ruined Inca city of Machu Picchu, on October 22, 1943, resulted in one of the most profound meditative poems of the century, a key poem in the Canto general sequence: “Alturas de Machu Picchu” (1946; “The Heights of Machu Picchu,” 1966). When the poem was written, in 1945, Neruda had returned to Chile, been elected a senator, won the National Literary Prize, and officially joined the Communist Party. The political forces of the right were growing more powerful, and the leftist President González Videla became a puppet for international monopolists. Neruda, who had at first supported Videla, was now seen as a dangerous rebel. The Communist Party was made illegal and Neruda, to avoid arrest, took refuge among the rural and urban proletariat of the country before fleeing on horseback to Mexico. The poetry of Canto general that was written through 1948-1949 exhibits much of the rage and protest of the persecuted poet.
Neruda made his way to Paris and the Soviet Union. His poetry had by now been published in countries throughout the world. He was internationally honored. He returned to Mexico, where Canto general was published (with illustrations by the great mural artists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros), and though he was awarded global public recognition (the Soviet edition of Canto general ran to 250,000 copies), he was still banned in his native Chile. He met Matilde Urrutia in Mexico, and a stunning series of love poems, Los versos del Capitán (1952; The Captain’s Verses, 1972), followed. After a worldwide reading tour, Neruda and Matilde heard that he was no longer under arrest in Chile. He returned there in 1952.
His poetry turned now to the commonplace and everyday objects of the Odas elementales (1954; The Elemental Odes, 1961), simple poems of praise and delight that pleased critics and general readers of his work alike. He was equally acclaimed in capitalist and communist worlds. He separated from Delia del Carril in 1955 and remained in love with Matilde Urrutia for the rest of his life. He did not stop traveling: to South America, the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere. His vanity was appealed to wherever he went, and his gregarious love of life was indulged alongside his enthusiasm for collecting things. Royalties from book sales at last began to bring him some money, and he built a house on Isla Negra that became his favorite retreat, filled with the books and things he had collected over the years. He continued to produce poetry of great tenderness and exquisite sensuality, such as Estravagario (1958; Extravagaria, 1974) and Cien sonetos de amor (1959; One Hundred Love Sonnets, 1986). He also began work on his autobiographical Confieso que he vivido: Memorias (Memoirs, 1977), published posthumously in 1974.
In the late 1960’s, Neruda began writing for the theater, with a Spanish translation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Fulgor y muerte de Joaquín Murieta (1967; Splendor and Death of Joaquin Murieta, 1972). He also maintained his political activities, becoming the Communist candidate for the presidency of Chile. He renounced his candidacy, however, to campaign in support of his friend Salvador Allende. After Allende’s victory, Neruda, although suffering from cancer of the prostate, agreed once again to act as Chilean ambassador to France.
Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1971, and his acceptance speech presents a moving vision of a future world free of exploitation. He was seriously ill, though, and returned to Chile for the last time in 1972, to find his country poised upon disaster. Opposition to Allende from both outside and inside Chile was growing, and Neruda himself was becoming weaker. He attempted to rally friends abroad to support the Chilean government and wrote a vehement diatribe calling for the extermination of Richard M. Nixon. He was also working on his memoirs and the eight books of poetry he had planned to publish on his seventieth birthday. Disaster overtook the country, however, with Allende assassinated, the government broken, and a military dictatorship instated under Augosto Pinochet Ugarte. Neruda died in a hospital in Santiago, on September 23, 1973.
Since his involvement with the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s until his death, Pablo Neruda’s political commitment and personal sincerity were constant, unwavering even as the popularity of his work developed internationally. His loneliness drove him into himself, to explore his own imagination and his past, while the solidarity that he felt with other living things drove him to celebrate life with an infectious enthusiasm and an effusive sense of riotous abundance. Poetry was not the pursuit of an elite for Neruda. In Canto general, he took his beginnings and his bearings from Chile but opened out to hymn the Americas in general, in all their detail, animals, flowers, history, and politics, and opened further to consider their place in the global context.
A hugely prolific poet, Neruda was the most magniloquent Latin American writer to span the literature of the century, beginning in provincial Chile, centering on Europe, then returning to take his place on the global stage. Even those who consider his political beliefs misguided or naïve grant the earthly vitality and vivacious sensuality of his celebrations and the profundity of his meditations.
Neruda believed that poetry was as essential for human life as bread and that it was not the property of scholars or booksellers but the inheritance of humanity. In the end, his accommodative vision contemplated the certainty of his own death, but he continued to write, leaving numerous posthumous works. He was a love poet, a public poet, and a poet of the natural world. He identified himself with his native place, but he aligned himself with all mankind.
Costa, René de. The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979. A good introductory critical study of Neruda’s poetic achievement as a whole.
Durán, Manuel, and Margery Safir. Earth Tones: The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. A detailed survey of individual books of Neruda’s poems, including the posthumous works. Separate areas covered include Neruda as a poet of nature and of the erotic, the public, and the personal.
Feinstein, Adam. Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004. The first authoritative English-language biography of the poet’s life. Thoroughly researched and indexed.
Gallagher, D. P. “Pablo Neruda.” In Modern Latin American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. A judicious essay discussing Neruda’s relation to modernism, his love poetry, and his communism that suggests a link between The Elemental Odes and the mode of “magic realism” favored by other Latin American writers.
Riess, Frank. The Word and the Stone: Language and Imagery in Neruda’s “Canto general.” London: Oxford University Press, 1972. An extremely useful in-depth study of the forms and imagery in Neruda’s most ambitious poetic sequence.
Rodman, Selden. “Pablo Neruda’s Chile.” In South America of the Poets. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1970. A helpful essay, with illustrations by Bill Negrón, introducing Neruda’s native land.
Willard, Nancy. Testimony of the Invisible Man: William Carlos Williams, Francis Ponge, Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1970. This book is particularly useful as it considers Neruda in the company of three other internationally respected modern authors and thereby highlights his individual characteristics.