Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1634
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 change) of the Spanish language, that the letters “b” and “v” sound the same in Spanish, to emphasize his allegiance with the lower classes, who often misspell words with a “b” instead of a “v.” Vallejo reflects the illiteracy of the uneducated classes not to ridicule them but to express his political solidarity with them.
Poem 4, “The beggars fight for Spain . . .” (25 lines), portrays the struggle for the city of Santander on the northern coast of Spain. Here Vallejo expresses the powerlessness of the have-nots of this world through the image of the beggar. The sinister poem 5, “Spanish Image of Death” (45 lines), describes death, here personified and walking around the field of battle. In conclusion, the poet seems to be welcoming the person of death into his own life, as if expressing a suicidal desire. “Cortege after the Capture of Bilbao” (dated September 13, 1937; 28 lines) is based on the final procession of Republicans killed by the assault on the northern Basque town of Bilbao, which fell to the Nationalists on June 18, 1937.
Poem 7, “For several days the air, companions” (dated November 5, 1937; 26 lines), portrays the movement backward and forward of enemy lines during the struggle for the city of Gijón in the north of Spain; Gijón was finally invaded by Nationalist forces on October 21, 1937. To stress that Franco’s troops are the foreign invaders in this war, Vallejo suggests that the land “is Spanish” when it is still loyal to the Republicans. He refutes the legitimacy of Franco’s war effort, which was called a “crusade” by the Nationalists, including the Catholic Church.
Poem 8, “Here . . .” (dated September 10, 1937; 38 lines), is devoted to a mythical Republican militiaman, Ramón Collar, who is explicitly compared with Christ. The eleventh poem, “Short Prayer for a Loyalist Hero” (dated September 10, 1937; 22 lines), refers to a militiaman who fell at the battle of Toledo. The opening stanzas of the poem refer to the image at the beginning of the Gospel of St. John, where Christ is referred to as the “Word made flesh.” In his poem, Vallejo describes—in surrealist terms—a book as emerging from the dead body of a militiaman. This image also alludes by implication to the poet’s verse, which is produced from and transcends death.
“Winter During the Battle for Teruel” (33 lines), the tenth poem, is based on the ferocious battle for the city of Teruel in eastern Spain. That battle went on from December 15, 1937, until February 22, 1938, and was interrupted by some of the coldest winter weather ever experienced in that region. In this poem, Vallejo concentrates on the vicarious pain he experiences at witnessing the soldiers’ misery. The eleventh poem, “I looked at the corpse, at his visible swift order . . .” (dated September 3, 1937; 14 lines), refers to the way a dead militiaman seemed momentarily to come back to life but was confirmed dead. When the soldiers listened to his heart, they heard nothing but “dates.”
“Mass” (dated November 10, 1937; 17 lines) is perhaps Vallejo’s most famous poem; it depicts the imaginary moment on the battlefield in which a dead Republican militiaman, like Lazarus, rises and begins to walk. It is not Christ who resurrects the dead militiaman, however, but the combined love of all the inhabitants of the world. This poem is a humanist rewriting of the Lazarus story from the Synoptic Gospels; in essence it fuses the transcendent Christian belief in eternal life with the human solidarity of socialism.
“Funeral Drumroll for the Ruins of Durango” (30 lines) is based on the bombing of the city of Durango, which was destroyed on April 26, 1937. A rewriting of the Lord’s Prayer, this poem in effect sanctifies the dust and destruction that is all that is left of Durango.
“Beware, Spain, of your own Spain! . . .” (22 lines) is one of the most confessional of all of the poems in Spain, Take This Cup from Me. At the time of the Spanish Civil War, worldwide communism was split between two options: the Stalinist option, which favored “socialism in one country,” and the Trotskyist option, which favored revolutionary internationalism—that is, the spreading of the doctrine of communism throughout the world. Vallejo’s poem refers to the purges taking place in the Republican zone, which the English writer George Orwell described magnificently in his Homage to Catalonia (1938). At this time, the Stalinists were rooting out the Trotskyists and murdering them; in fact, Trotsky would himself be murdered by a Stalinist henchman, though not in Spain but in Mexico. Thus the reference in line 2 to the “sickle without the hammer” should be understood to mean an incomplete communism, a doctrine, such as Stalinism, that is missing an important ingredient. The phrase“Beware of the one hundred percent loyal” (line 15) is a reference to overzealous communist doctrinarians who are prepared to sacrifice their friends to the cause of communism.
Finally, “Spain, Take This Cup from Me” (51 lines), the fifteenth poem, from which the title of the collection is taken, describes the possibility that Spain may actually fall to its enemy; this is in fact what did happen, though Vallejo did not live to see the day. Spain, in this poem, becomes a motherlike figure, symbolizing nature (she holds the energy of the earth within her) and culture (she is compared to a schoolteacher who teaches her children how to read and write). As a mother figure, Spain stands as a mother not only for all the citizens of Spain but also for the citizens of the Spanish-speaking Latin American countries, where Spain is commonly known as la madre patria, the mother country. The poem concludes by declaring that, should Spain fall, the whole world must go out and search for Spain. This poem, like the fourteen others in Spain, Take This Cup from Me, is a gesture of anguished solidarity with Spain and the Republican militiamen who lost their lives fighting for their homeland.
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