Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1753

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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 symbols hide love, vitality, joy, hostility, negation, dream, fugacity, erotism, plurality—words that include a very personal perspective.

His second RESIDENCIAS possesses a more mature expression within the stream of super-realism. His contact with the Spanish poets who had adopted a visionary attitude orients his production. In these poems he achieves evasion from reality through dreams, subconsciousness, and illogical reasoning. Disintegration and its consequent anguish keep pervading his poems, but he is no more a mere spectator of decadence; he is a human, anguished, and abhors his human quality.

The worship of “ugliness,” a trait of super-realism, imposes upon Neruda the use of words, sentences, and stanzas of incoherent and strange effects. But his apparent absurdities in his poetry have an intention. Since the world is for the poet a planet filled with useless, worn things, he chooses some of them to express his nausea, his feeling of futility toward all types of being.

The third RESIDENCIA begins with a series of poems of the same trend as those included in the second volume. But from the seventh, “The furies and sorrows,” written in 1934, Neruda declares that the world and his poetry have changed, as he indicates in the lines preceding the poem.

With these poems his work takes a radical turn. Until now Neruda had been the poet of egotism, solitude, disintegration, and anguish. The Communist ideology now appears in his verse and he writes political poems, full of vigor and fury.

The Spanish Civil War and World War II influenced this transformation. Neruda even ridicules his concern with his earlier themes. “Spain in my heart,” one of the poems of this book, presents his new attitude: he curses wealthy Spanish people because they are responsible for the poverty of the country, blasphemes against God, attacks tradition because of its sterility, condoles with Madrid stormed by Franco’s soldiers, and justifies his hatred of tyrannic suppression. He praises the Republican soldiers’ mothers, remembers with affection many small Spanish towns, evokes the arrival of the International Brigade, condemns Franco and his generals, wails over the destruction of Madrid, and finishes his tempestuous lines with an ode to the People’s Army, hope of salvation for the country.

His poems about Stalingrad, in the period of World War II, also have political and social themes; the tone of indignation is now directed against German soldiers, and praise is given to the Russians. His lines become less hermetic; they are more open and direct. More concerned with ideas and feelings, Neruda puts aside his old poetic techniques and stylistic resources. “New Song of Love to Stalingrad” is explanatory of his “public” poetry of the period.

CANTO GENERAL (GENERAL SONG) is one of the most ambitious book of poems ever written in Spanish. It is a work inspired by Neruda’s political ideas and his personal interpretation of Spanish-American history. A nationalist attitude echoes through many of the poems, for Chile is very often at the center of Neruda’s emotion and thought. We can find some antecedents of these poems on the attitude and production of Andres Bello, Ruben Dario, and Leopoldo Lugones, who strove through different poetic works to exalt and praise the Spanish-American continent. But no one of them reached the span and influence of Neruda’s CANTO GENERAL.

The book is divided into fifteen cantos of unequal length and value. Among lines of great lyric beauty appear also some filled with prosaic expression. Some of the positive features of the book are its almost constant strength, its vast knowledge of Spanish-American history, geography, and flora, and its wide variety of meters, forms and measures of the poems. In the last of the cantos, the poet states the sources and intention of his book.

“Amor America (America, My Love”) stands first in the book. It is a beautiful poem of praise to the continent before the arrival of the Spaniards: the Indians were tender and bloody, owners of the land until blood was spilled and a lamp was extinguished. This initial lyric introduces a series of poems presenting an ecumenical parade of themes and tones. “Alturas de Macchu Picchu” (“Heights of Macchu Picchu”), the fortress city of the Incas, perched high between two mountain peaks, gives Neruda an opportunity for a poem of great chromatic effect.

“Canto General de Chile” (“General Song to Chile”) is another poem of imaginative and descriptive strength. Geography, geological disasters, towns, people, and plants are shown amidst a stream of powerful metaphors. Neruda’s absence from his country, exile imposed because of his ideology, exacerbates his patriotic feelings, and upon his return he made this feeling clear in “Hymn and Return.”

The last series of the poems, YO SOY (I AM), is a poetic autobiography. Neruda sings to his native place and early childhood, tells his stay in Santiago, his overseas adventures, his dramatic stay in Spain, his pleasant sojourn in Mexico, a country he prefers. He closes this book with his last will, proclaiming his faith in Communism and asserting his freedom.

Neruda’s last works, ODAS ELEMENTALES (ELEMENTARY ODES), NUEVAS ODAS ELEMENTALES (NEW ELEMENTARY ODES), and TERCER LIBRO DE LAS ODAS (THIRD BOOK OF THE ODES), are composed of poems written in hendecasyllable and heptasyllable lines; in them a new poetic turn appears. Now simple themes and common things are present, often with the result that the poetry becomes platitudinous and poor. “Oda a la alcachofa” (“Ode to the Artichoke”), “Oda al caldillo de congrio” (“Ode to the Conger Eel Broth”) are some titles that speak for themselves. At the same time, however, the poet displays a greater love for nature. In “Ode to the Rose” a tone of tranquillity sharply contrasts with his former protest and violence.

Neruda’s poetry, despite its hermetism and obliquity of ideology, is valid testimony of a rebel, an anguished, impotent man of our times. His poetry is hard to understand, too long to be pleasantly read, too slanted to be ideologically shared. But its darkness and rage correspond to the expression of the oniric realm, to the telluric forces of nature, to the instincts, frustrations, and pessimism that corrodes the modern world. He projects into our time that poetic stream, vital and furious, of the poets maudits of last century, who revolted against everything and everybody, including themselves, and created a pre-existentialist current of desperation, the mood of many writers in this century.