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Neruda, Pablo 1904–1973
A Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet, Neruda is best known for his early masterpiece Residencia en la tierra and Twenty Love Poems and One Song of Despair. Neruda has been called the "Latin Walt Whitman" for his epic poem Canto General , and he is considered one...
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- Critical Essays
Neruda, Pablo 1904–1973
A Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet, Neruda is best known for his early masterpiece Residencia en la tierra and Twenty Love Poems and One Song of Despair. Neruda has been called the "Latin Walt Whitman" for his epic poem Canto General, and he is considered one of the finest surrealist writers of all time. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; obituary, Vols. 45-48.)
The Nobel Prize in literature is perhaps best known for the writers who never won it…. It was, therefore, to the company of non-winners, the most distinguished writers truly associated in our minds with the prize, that Sartre aspired when he recently rejected the honor, saying it should have gone to Pablo Neruda. Each time Neruda doesn't win, it becomes more obvious that he is too big for the prize and that the only way for the Swedish Academy to achieve literary dignity is for it to accept the largesse Neruda's name could bestow on its award. [Neruda was awarded the prize in 1971.] …
In our country, Neruda is still largely unknown for two reasons that are the main weaknesses of this present volume [A New Decade: (Poems 1958–1967)]: one, a problem in the poet's art; the other, a difficulty in the translator's practice. Neruda is an openly Communist, often eloquent, sometimes flatulent, revolutionary writer whose politics disturb some Americans, offend others. For this reason he has never been properly taught in the schools where foreign poets may gain a base for their reputation here. (p. 383)
The best things in this selection … are the implicit lyric autobiography and esthetic credo of an aging poet. It is not a volume to win a Nobel Prize, nor is it half so good as The Heights of Macchu Picchu …; but it may, after all, introduce Americans to one of the biggest and most powerful of poetic voices, a voice so vast, even in its later days, that it encompasses its own failures as part of a personal authenticity and derives highest praise, perhaps, from accolades withheld. (p. 384)
Ronald Christ, in Commonweal (copyright © 1969 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), December 26, 1969.
Neruda's poems are spoken by a generic "I" who is not quite the living man Neruda, they describe a generic landscape and are addressed to a generic "people." There is a great deal of idealization in his work, and of attitudinizing. He makes a penetrating statement about this in his own prefatory note to Splendor and Death of Joaquin Murieta: "This is a tragic work, but it is also, in part, a jeu d'esprit." (p. 197)
Neruda writes fluently, easily, abundantly, a poetry of enthusiasms and attitudes that are ready at hand in the world, not a poetry of facts, perceptions, and difficult knowledge. Vallejo's poetry was an event in the Spanish language; and like MacDiarmid, Vallejo has written for the life and spirit of his people. Neruda works in the middle style, with a middle consciousness, and what he writes belongs to literature…. (p. 198)
Richard Pevear, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1973.
After reading the ample selections from the Residencia [in Selected Poems] there can be little doubt that, as Robert Bly has said, Neruda has given us "the greatest surrealist poems yet written in a Western language." The surprising thing is that one could even speak of Breton and Aragon as Neruda's peers. Nor can one come away with anything but great admiration for the Odas. The things ensnared there—chestnuts, books, tomatoes, and so forth—are given fresh, original poetic life.
Unfortunately, the weakest part of the book happens to be its translations of Neruda's greatest poem, the Canto General. It is not that Anthony Kerrigan's efforts are poor; the failure, rather, arises from exclusiveness. Something essential is lost in this section of the book and underplayed through the entire book: the ideological, political Neruda. The Canto arose out of the poet's experience in the late forties in Chile; after the government outlawed the Communist Party, the poet, who continued to speak out, was pursued by the Secret Police, went into exile, traveled clandestinely through the continent, and finally flew from Mexico to France. The Canto, like the never translated Las Uvas y El Viento (The Grapes and the Wind), contains some embarrassing political pieces which fail to go beyond propaganda. But it also contains some of the greatest political poetry of the century, pieces which while written to appeal to and arouse the masses are still very great poems. None are included here. In fact, nothing from Books V to X of the Canto is represented. It is a most extraordinary gap, for gone are some of the poems in which Neruda is most humanistic, most ideological, most humane, most socially conscious. One comes to the conclusion that behind the Selected Poems is an orthodox sense of the relation of poetry and politics. Such a sense does not serve contemporary South American literature at all. Writers such as Neruda are deeply politicized, for good reasons. To depoliticize them is to destroy one of their great qualities. While South American leftist criticism has overemphasized the political elements in Neruda, the Selected Poems does the reverse. (pp. 446-47)
Philip R. Yannella, "The Poems of Pablo Neruda," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1973, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. IX, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 445-48.
[It] may be said that Neruda's tumultuous life as a poet was dedicated in great part to a political end in Chile which looked for a time as though it had a healthy chance of coming to attainment. Neruda had more acclaim and attention than almost any other poet has been lucky enough to come by in a lifetime: but I felt that Allende's victory in 1970, and Neruda's subsequent appointment as Chilean Ambassador to France, gave Neruda a kind of joyful satisfaction on a wholly different plane. Nor was that appointment a gratuitous gift on Allende's part: Neruda was a seasoned diplomat, if not always an acquiescent one, and he took his ambassadorial function with the utmost seriousness. When, in 1971, Neruda was awarded his Nobel Prize, Allende declared a national holiday. The reports which seep out of Chile now, of the sacking of his house at Isla Negra, of book burnings, of vicious acts of retribution on the part of the military junta, can only have the effect of giving his poetry a heroic stature. Much of his poetry is heroic in its vision, and that he should die in the ashes of that vision hurts more deeply than the simple fact of his death.
Neruda must without question be the most widely circulated poet in history, mainly because of the huge spate of translation, particularly in the Soviet Union and in China. Yet his work is not at all well-known in the English language, although in the last few years selected editions and odd single volumes have appeared. Even that is curiously misleading, for it gives little or no sense of the huge bulk of his work, his persistent changes of manner and matter, his torrential poetic appetite, the almost planetary range of his poetry. (pp. 437-38)
It is unlikely, however industriously translators keep mining away, that Neruda will come across into English. For one thing, he was in many ways a careless poet, one who preferred to leave his poems behind him for the sake of new preoccupations. For another, some of his writing smacked unabashedly of political tract-writing, and is forgettable as such. For a third, he was fundamentally a Chilean and a Latin American, and Latin America, even although it seems to me to be generating the most exciting literature in our present world, never quite loses for this country the aura of a never-never land, a vague continent of names rather than realities. Moreover, the context of English poetry is a comparatively eccentric and private one, given over to private language and personal reference, a poetry of closely perceived subtleties. For that reason, the grand scale of Neruda's most elevated manner, the great hymns of his Canto General, his invocations of the Latin American continent in all its vegetal and historical vastness, come to rest somewhat uneasily in English, or at least lose the hugely inspiring tone and scale which emanate from Neruda's Spanish. I find I can never read his poems without hearing that slow, carefully-paced voice behind them, that peculiarly languid cadence which gave the words a kind of stone permanence….
His great poetic virtue was that he never repeated himself. (p. 438)
The number of Chileans who know Neruda's strongest poems by heart, the number of Latin Americans who feel him to have summed them up and given them heart, will clearly outlast any temporary horrors. The intervention of the military junta in Chile, always the most human and worldly of the Latin American countries, has been a crude shock: but I feel very firmly that it has small chance against the durable humanity of Neruda, and the sheer human abundance of his poetry. (p. 439)
Alastair Reid, "The Chilean Poet Pablo Neruda, 1904–1973, by His Translator, Alastair Reid," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1973; reprinted by permission of Alastair Reid), October 4, 1973, pp. 437-39.
Neruda's greatest poetic resource lay in his historical imagination….
Neruda's historical imagination shaped some of his finest political poems such as "They Reach the Gulf of Mexico (1493)"…. These poems have a depth of reference and a recreative energy unequalled in American poetry….
For Neruda the turbulent revolutions of the natural world meant change, change man could grow with. His essential image, especially in the last years of his life, was replenishment. He lived facing the ocean where the surf and swell that threaten human life in Eliot's poetry were what Neruda learned from as he wrote.
John Felstiner, "Pablo Neruda, 1904–1973," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 13, 1973, p. 27.
After 1953, Neruda called for a poetry that would reach ordinary people, announcing the new programme in "Obscurity and Clarity in Poetry." Determined to become more simple, he uttered phrases that were stripped of the Baroque strain of the earlier work. And yet if his commitment to human suffering led him to compose in a more severe style, it did not change his insistence on "pure" poetry: "And I sing because I sing because I sing," he declares in a later poem.
Nor did his knowledge of destruction alter his poetic concern with the things of this world. Until the end of his life, he wrote powerfully of the air, the wind, fire and bread—and, in effect, of the earth on which he lived.
Unhappily, [Five Decades: A Selection (Poems 1925–1970)] does no more to convey Neruda's extraordinary achievement than many other English versions have done. In fact, by now it is hardly surprising to American readers that the poetry of Neruda is not what his translators would have us think it is….
Although I cannot recommend the present volume, I must say that it might make some readers angry enough to get out the dictionary and read only the Spanish across the page. While a faithful translation encourages dependence on the translator, and even a good prose paraphrase serves as a substitute for the original, a weak translation can, paradoxically, force attention on the poet's own words.
Grace Schulman, "A Translator's Transgressions," in Review 74 (copyright © 1974 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Winter, 1974, p. 73.
There are rare human beings whose mere presence has a quality of meditation, and Pablo Neruda was such a man.
It is a quality which flows with compassionate energy in his poetry, as if the poems were sustained throughout by a deep inner hum. The words emerging with romantic eloquence, translate the hum into language. It is not the poet who is speaking, but the world rendering itself darkly, angrily, sensuously, laughingly, into a spiritual medium. In this sense, Neruda's great poems are hymns. They are not about anything, or rather their subject matter is merely a sort of incarnation which the hymn has chosen. So many of the poems in Residence on Earth give the appearance of being incomplete. That they actually do have a beginning, middle and end is a concealed and secondary fact: the reader experiences a moment of dark song which is exposed to him, momentarily, from the ongoing hum of experience. The poems do not so much end, as they wind down and hush temporarily…. In each poem, the poet names the animals, the passions, the miseries. And the naming goes on, delighting in its incompleteness which is simply evidence of the world's abundance.
Pablo Neruda wrote abundantly too, as if he needed to match the outer world with his inner wealth….
Extravagaria … is not one of his important books. The Residences, The Heights of Macchu Picchu, The Elementary Odes are, by far, greater achievements. In comparison, Extravagaria resembles a sort of finger exercise. The poet has taken time out to rehearse his instrument, trying out all the friendly turns of language which have served him so well. (p. 75)
The themes of Extravagaria are the familiar themes of Neruda's great poetry: love and nostalgia, the appetite for experience, the celebration of interior life. As always the poems intone a massive elegy in which grief becomes succulent and lovely, and turns into its opposite…. [It] is a while before we notice that the tones [of the chants in Extravagaria] are a little faded; that the inner hum has fallen silent, leaving the verses to perform out of habit, lapsing all too frequently into melodrama instead of surprise, sentimentality instead of compressed passions, formulas instead of incantations.
The mystery of poetic achievement is exquisite. in Extravagaria the magnificent elegiac space is there, but the life-breath is fitful, and the generous frame of the poem sags. Extravagaria is one of those books which remind us that even a great poet has clay feet, that he stands on the same earth we do; that the difference between us, therefore, is puzzling and troubling. It would be easier simply to venerate his "genius," and sit back, happy that there is nothing we need to do. But Neruda won't let us off. His greatness and his failures are merely human. (pp. 75-6)
Paul Zweig, "The Poet Rehearses His Instrument," in Review 74 (copyright © 1974 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Winter, 1974, pp. 74-6.
"We are many" is the title of a rather unconvincing poem by Pablo Neruda about his own multiple selves. The phrase could be applied with greater force perhaps to the translators of Neruda into English. They really are many….
They are many and they are not, on the whole, very good. Only Robert Bly and Anthony Kerrigan make Neruda sound in English as if he might be a good poet in Spanish….
The author of Extravagaria may well be a great writer (and is, in my view), but in this book he is merely flexing his muscles, playing his scales and paying a few debts. The work is casual, whimsical, silly, sometimes charming, occasionally clear and strong …, and almost willfully minor when set beside Residence on Earth, or any section of the Canto General, or beside the later Memorial de Isla Negra….
[The] besetting sin of Neruda's translators is a refusal to leave him alone, a reluctance to say what he says, a perverse, elaborate flight from the tone of the original. Silent mothers become mute matriarchs, true love becomes unfalsified ardor, forgetting is almost invariably oblivion. Gloves become gauntlets, coins currency, flowers blossoms, and hard cavities become adamantine hollows. The comic climax to all these attempts to bundle Neruda off into some sort of Pre-Raphaelite old folks home comes in The Heights of Macchu-Picchu, where Tarn translates the ordinary Spanish word for glass (vaso) as chalice, and Robert Pring-Mill, in an introduction to the volume, comments on the "religious overtones of such an image." There are religious overtones in the work, as it happens, but none of them accompanies that modest glass.
In one sense, of course, Neruda is an old-fashioned poet, but that is because he prolongs traditions, not because he tries to sound archaic and lofty. Many of his favorite poetic strategies belong to the nineteenth century (or even earlier) rather than to the twentieth. He prefers similes to metaphors; he likes to personify moods, conditions, landscapes; he is fond of operatic exclamations and of directly addressing countries, provinces, shades of the dead, features of the natural world like stars, rivers, and the sea; he is fond of decorous, elegant inversions, of formal antithesis (summer-winter, life-death) and of asymmetrical pairs (silence and slime, suits and pride, drunkards and jasmines, yesterday and Valparaiso). He likes dying falls and melting conclusions.
He is a poet who has not so much rejected or retreated from modernism (in the English meaning of the term) as he has managed to get along without it, to preserve older forms without seeming nostalgic or reactionary. He will not break with the poetic past so long as it will nourish the poetic present; and if he often, in spite of all this, seems more modern than he is, it is because he skillfully alludes to modernity quite a lot—borrows from the languages of mathematics and science, for example. He is a thoroughly rhetorical poet. Rather than wringing eloquence's neck, as Verlaine advised, he gives eloquence a new lease of life by making it discreet and direct. But this is the point. Neruda's vocabulary, apart from an occasional excess of fragrance, twilight, and autumn, is entirely comtemporary and prosaic—even in the early Residence on Earth, where he achieves surrealist effects by means of the most commonplace objects and animals: beds, brooms, shoes, dogs, coffins. Neruda's best poetry is born in the interplay between this everyday language and those courtly, often intricate poetic manners. (p. 8)
[Even] Neruda's greatest poetry is merely part of a larger picture, just an element in a pattern of life and writing which embodies and pleads for a whole set of Latin American possibilities: the poet in politics, the politician who is a great poet; the public man with the incomparable common touch; the popular poet, even the oral poet, since people who can't read still know and love and recite and sing poems by Neruda, who receives international critical acclaim. It is a vision of a vast but integrated personal life, and beyond that a vision of a multifarious but coherent community, summarized in one exemplary individual….
The Heights of Macchu-Picchu, written in 1945, is a sequence of twelve poems, a section of the Canto General and a major work in its own right. It is perhaps the best of all introductions to Neruda, since his gifts receive their full expression there and since it is also a form of spiritual autobiography, a description of a moral and aesthetic journey out of baffled solitude into a sense of poetic mission. It points backward toward Residence on Earth, Neruda's early masterpiece, most of which was written before 1935, and forward to the Canto General (1950), into which it was incorporated. It parodies earlier manners and scouts for later ones. Above all it balances perfectly two insistent, enduring strains in Neruda's work: the desire to clear up confusions and the desire to hang on to them.
"I am sure / of the unmoving stone," Neruda writes in a later poem, "but I know the wind." He loves the stillness and ideal geometry of Macchu-Picchu, the spectacular Andean ruin of an ancient Inca city, but he finds a battery of questions and uncertainties there, change and extinction among that rocky permanence: "Stone upon stone, but where was man?" Was Macchu-Picchu a city erected, like so many others, on misery and hunger and death, and who will speak now for the vanished laborers who built it and supplied it with meat and grain? They themselves can't return from subterranean time, as Neruda puts it, but perhaps the poet's concern for them will lend their voices to his poem. In effect Neruda is asking for their blessing on the whole of the Canto General, a colossal, unequal monument, a long celebration of the American continent, an angry, at times sentimental, at times very compelling plea for the wretched of the American earth.
It is hard to see where a poet could go after such a book—Whitman, in similar circumstances, just kept adding poems to his. Neruda's life's work was done by the time he was forty-five, and there is a sense in which he simply managed to outlive himself elegantly for twenty years, remaining as prolific as ever without really finding a subject that mattered enough. Many people admire the four books of elementary (or elemental, or both) odes … but for me they have, along with Extravagaria (1958), too much the tone of the great man showing us how humble and playful he can be….
On the other hand, there is the remarkable verse autobiography, Memorial de Isla Negra (1964), which is really casual and relaxed in the way that Extravagaria merely tries to be. Without pretensions of either humility or grandeur, the poet remembers patches of his life: his father, his family's friends, his loves; places, thoughts, moods, moments. I should say also that early and late in his career (and in between) Neruda wrote incomparable love poems, and that he seems never to have written a bad poem about the sea.
But Residence on Earth remains, in my view, the greatest of all Neruda's books. Neruda himself came to regard it very harshly. It helped people to die rather than to live, he said, and if he had the proper authority to do so he would ban it, and make sure it was never reprinted. No doubt there was an element of pose in that pronouncement since, as Rodríguez Monegal remarks, Neruda never took any steps to keep the baleful book out of his collected works, and continued to regard it as one of his best volumes….
It is a painful, brilliant, despairing work, full of surprising turns of phrase and marvelously simple, inventive imagery. "I understand the harmony of the world," Paul Claudel once wrote, "when shall I come across the melody?" Residence on Earth in its earlier parts—the last section is devoted to the Spain of the Civil War—presents a man who understands neither the harmony nor the melody, who sees only chaos and multiplicity, a busy or bored, frantic or lethargic alien world in which he has no place or purpose. Neruda wrote much of the book in India, when he was intensely lonely, and the whole of the exotic East parades across the text like a broken-down circus, an array of odd, cruel customs which add up only to nightmare. As late as in Memorial de Isla Negra we hear Neruda saying, "And if I saw anything in my life it was one evening / in India, on the edge of a river: a woman of flesh and bones being burned."
Yet there is a curious quality to all this unmistakable anguish, and I quoted Claudel … because both appear to have had exceptional propensities for despair, which they simply smothered in orthodoxy—Neruda's communism seems to have served much the same purpose as Claudel's Catholicism—and conjured away in expansive displays of ingenuousness and optimism. More important—and this is the point of the comparison here—the despair which speaks in the early works of both men is not the spleen and self-doubt of Vallejo or Kafka or Proust or any other of those heirs of Baudelaire whom we think of as paradigmatically modern men, but a sense of separation, a sense of uselessness, of a life of pure contingency in a profuse, pointless universe, which is accompanied by a seemingly entire and undiminished self-confidence….
Neruda's very impermeability to the attractions of the East is a form of strength, the sign of a substantial, unshaken identity. Like Claudel, Neruda rarely doubts himself but constantly frets about his lack of connection with others; and it is this connection with others that Neruda finally encounters in Spain—in poets and companions first of all, in Lorca and Rafael Alberti, and then in a whole attacked nation. From Spain, Neruda can return to Chile by way of Macchu-Picchu, and feel at one with the dead and the living of his continent. (p. 10)
The loneliness of Residence on Earth takes on a special, metaphysical edge because it is not the loneliness of a generally tormented, unhappy man. "Perhaps I was condemned to happiness," Neruda says in a later poem; but then the sentence was in many ways severe, for until his Spanish experience Neruda seems to have failed to find in the world any answer to his own energy and generosity and abundance. Perhaps health has its neuroses, Nietzsche wrote. Residence on Earth reflects the hovering dementia of the insufficiently demented, the echoing solitude of an undivided self. (pp. 10, 12)
Michael Wood, "The Poetry of Neruda," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 NYREV, Inc.), October 3, 1974, pp. 8-12.
Does cataloguing plants, animals, the parts of the human body, and the events of injustice make a great poet? Chopped up Whitman in a surrealistic, inorganic soup often seems to be Neruda's substitute for imaginative lyricism. A squirt of Marx is sometimes added, and floats irrelevantly on top like oil on seawater. When he denounces oppression selectively, when he lists poetic things without being poetic, he is a propagandist rather than a poet. And yet there is something fine in him, as if a strong man's body were buried under the fat of a glutton. (p. lxi)
Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 2 (Spring, 1975).
Pablo Neruda, recipient of the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature, has been translated more than any other Latin American poet of the last decade. All too often I have wondered why the translators bothered. Ben Belitt's reckless translation of Joaquin Murieta was plainly awful and Robert Bly's many translations sounded exactly like Robert Bly. Donald Walsh's rendering of The Captain's Verses was accurate and sympathetic but the collection was too limited. But Estravagaria was one of Neruda's personal favorites, and its translation by Alastair Reid is the first real proof in English that Neruda deserves an international reputation. Though one might quibble over Mr. Reid's Latinizing of the title in Extravagaria …, little fault can be found with the poems. Further, the collection has a higher, more consistent quality than previous publications. I have always been uncomfortable with Neruda's random mix of images and abstract nouns which frequently seemed hurried and unreined. There is some of this … [yet] in some lovely sections, images are developed and sustained…. If one wishes to read Neruda, Extravagaria would be well chosen; Mr. Reid's translations are certainly well done. (p. 89)
W. G. Regier, in Prairie Schooner (© 1975 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Spring, 1975.