Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Reading Pablo Neruda’s poetry requires patience, tolerance, and high spirit. Very few of the contemporary Spanish-speaking writers have created so much, so incoherently and so poetically, as this Chilean poet. Before his achievement an attitude of indifference or complete adherence becomes almost impossible. Criticism must also take into account the radicalism of his Communist ideology and the resulting controversial opinions of his readers. A literary analysis of his poetry must put aside these perspectives in order to obtain a serene and objective appreciation of his work.

Neruda’s poetry is characterized by language and attitudes as visceral as those of D. H. Lawrence. Most of the time his poetry springs tumultuously in a feverish mood, expressing his eroticism, melancholy, anxiety, and protest.

From the very beginning, in his youthful work, he expresses his romantic vein in the limpid, sad lines of CREPUSCULARIO (POEMS OF THE TWILIGHT).

At the same time, while love and beauty are sharpened by erotic desire, the poet tries to avoid them.

VEINTE POEMAS DE AMOR Y UNA CANCION DESESPERADA (TWENTY POEMS OF LOVE AND A DESPERATE SONG) inaugurates, as the title itself implies, the torture of love. Between the poet and the loved woman there is only distance and bitterness. It does not matter whether love has joy in itself; sooner or later anguish crosses the heart as a tempest and whirlwind. To heal his wounds the poet would prefer to escape from everything that would tend to hold him where he is. Since he has found only disaster in woman, it is time to fly away. In “A Desperate Song” he feels his heart broken, rotten, converted into a pit that is bitter and open to the trash of the world.

A milestone in Neruda’s poetry is his RESIDENCIAS, three books published successively in 1933, 1935, and 1947. The first two books have as title RESIDENCIA EN LA TIERRA, I and II (RESIDENCE ON EARTH); the last of the series is TERCERA RESIDENCIA (THIRD RESIDENCE). In these he adheres to surrealism and a philosophical attitude pervades the poems. Subjected to vital experiences, in a world of constant changes, he views everything in a state of disintegration: men, love, stars, waves, life. Everything belongs to the drama of the river that is constant and yet ever changing. The poet’s sense of disintegration appears everywhere in these books, in which he abandons logic and syntax as a formal consequence of his inner attitude. The result is a message of disintegration through disintegrated ideas, sentences, and words. It is hard to find a single line in these books in which there is no violence.

In the first book, RESIDENCIAS, this process of disintegration is the scenery in which the poet contemplates perpetual decadence. The only possible ways of escaping from this cosmic cataclysm are love and poetry, though time is always and stubbornly corroding all around it. His lack of faith in something, his feelings of guilt with no possible redemption, emphasizes his anxiety.

“Arte Poetica” (“Poetic Art”), one of the most hermetic and at the same time most revealing poems of this book, exemplifies those ideas. The corporal senses establish a relationship with everything that surrounds him as he locates himself among shadows and space. But suddenly there appears, as a true escape, his desire of poetizing and loving, of expressing his prophetic voice and his melancholy, and of answering to a universal call from things that question in a confused and constant manner.

The joy of love and poetry, however, is melted by time and matter. The poet is surrounded by one single thing and one single movement.

As this title suggests, Neruda shares in a semi-pantheistic conception, but with no religious implication, the same destiny of the cosmos. He is not a thing, but the universe is limiting him, restraining his ideals, paralyzing his restlessness. Paradoxically he feels both the companionship and enmity of the universe.

His symbols, with no coherent meaning but expressing his personal vision are rich: bee, sword, fire, grape, ant, butterfly, dove, fish, salt, and rose are common and meaningful words in Neruda’s poetry. Under these...

(The entire section is 1753 words.)