For the reader who must rely on the English translation of the poetry of César Vallejo, there will always be some sense of distance from the original Spanish. This is all the more the case as Vallejo, like the Irish writer James Joyce, often played with his native language in his poetry, and wordplay is nearly always untranslatable.
Vallejo, who was born in Santiago de Chuco, a tiny town nestling in the Peruvian Andes, and who died in Paris, is considered by many to be the finest of all Latin America’s poets of the twentieth century. He wrote essays, short stories, a novel, literary criticism, and drama, but he is remembered mainly for his poetry. Vallejo’s work falls into five main stages: 1915-1918, Modernismo; 1919-1926, the avant-garde; 1927-1931, Marxism (Trotskyism gradually transformed into Stalinism); 1932-1935, political disillusionment; and 1936-1938, Christian Marxism. Spain, Take This Cup from Me belongs to the culminating phase of Vallejo’s work, the Christian Marxist phase. This collection of poems was written during the first two years of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1938). Vallejo died on Good Friday, 1938, after which the war dragged on for another year. Spain, Take This Cup from Me was inspired by the events of the war, about which Vallejo read in newspaper reports. (He used to wait in the railway station in Paris for news from Spain.) Vallejo also drew on his experiences during two visits he made to Spain, one as a reporter in the winter of 1936, the other as the Peruvian delegate at the International Writers’ Conference held in Madrid and Valencia in the summer of 1937.
Vallejo was not alone in writing poems about the Spanish Civil War. Others, among them the English poet Stephen Spender, the French poet Louis Aragon, the Chilean Pablo Neruda, the Cuban Nicolás Guillén, and the Spanish poets Miguel Hernández and Rafael Alberti, also used the war as a theme of their work. Vallejo’s poetry is unique, however, in that it expresses a political faith in the Republican cause through the motif of Christian resurrection, a rather unusual choice given the proletarian and often anticlerical bias of the Republicans and especially the communists who supported the Republican war effort. It was thought for many years that Spain, Take This Cup from Me had never been published. The 1939 publication had appeared just before Francisco Franco’s troops invaded Barcelona, and copies were secretly hidden in the monastery at Montserrat to prevent the work’s being destroyed; the copies were not unearthed until 1981.
Spain, Take This Cup from Me consists of fifteen poems of varying lengths. The opening poem, “Hymn to the Volunteers for the Republic” (176 lines), which is addressed to the Republican militiamen, imagines a world in which the Republicans have already won the war; it is a utopian world of harmony similar to that envisioned in the prophecies of Isaiah. “Battles” (144 lines) is dedicated to the people of Estremadura, a poor region of Spain on the west near the Portuguese border, which took the brunt of the war effort early on; Franco’s troops first landed in southern Spain from the Canary Islands and Morocco and then moved northward.
Poem 3, “He used to write with his big finger in the air . . .” (45 lines), is based on the death of an imaginary railwayman named Pedro Rojas. Both parts of his name have symbolic connotations, Pedro referring to Peter, the founder of the Christian church, and Rojas to the symbolic color of communism, red. Pedro Rojas therefore stands as a fusion of Christianity and communism. Most striking about the poem is its use of the myth of Prometheus, who was tied to a rock and had his liver eaten by an eagle every day as punishment for having given fire to humankind. In Vallejo’s use of the myth, the animal exacting the punishment becomes a vulture to underline the earthiness of the pain of warfare. Vallejo also alludes to the betacism (sound...
(The entire section is 1634 words.)