The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In his “Spanish Image of Death,” César Vallejo issues an unusual command: the command to call Death, the alien figure whose personification functions as the central metaphor of the poem. While it may be understood in one reading as a poem lamenting the horrors of war, more broadly the poem confronts a question that preoccupied Vallejo throughout his poetry: the question of the role of the poet. The battle against Death in the poem, then, becomes the battle of human passion—spearheaded by the poet—against extinction.

Death is foremost, as the title makes clear, an image, which even before the first line highlights the question of the poet’s, the image-maker’s, powers against her. The poem opens with the speaker, the poet, sighting Death as “she”—the first detail readers learn about Death is her femaleness—steps through Irun, a Basque town near the French-Spanish border which was ferociously attacked by Fascist troops in 1936. She presents a bizarre sight, certainly, with her long skinny legs making “accordion steps” and curses flowing constantly from her mouth, yet the speaker recognizes her instantly, and has apparently spoken of her before. He describes her with precision: “her meter of cloth that I’ve mentioned,/ her gram of that weight that I’ve not mentioned.” This focus on what the poet has and has not mentioned again raises the question of his powers, which are the powers of witness and the immortalization, through...

(The entire section is 498 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Spanish Image of Death” revolves around the personification of Death; as she becomes human she also becomes vulnerable. Her weaknesses lie, like the human’s, in her contradictions. Her “audacious time” has little effect, resulting merely in an “imprecise penny,” and she creates “despotic applause,” to which she is, however, deaf. On one hand she is utterly ineffectual; on the other in her humanity she becomes doubly formidable, as the poet is forced to identify with her and she becomes capable of understanding him. The interaction with Death is portrayed in images of war; the poet locates himself “among the rifles” and “on the parapets” and asserts that Death must be followed “to the foot of the enemy tanks.” Death easily enters these places, however; she cannot be stopped by the weapons of war. She does seem somehow thwarted by irrationalism, as she “walks exactly like a man”—strong, assured, rational—and “stops at the elastic gates of dream.” Vallejo may be suggesting that irrationalism, or passion—for what is more rational than to abandon passion against the fact of one’s mortality?—is the poet’s greatest strength. The poet’s task, then, becomes Vallejo’s plea, to call to Death.

It is a horrible task, and Vallejo is painfully aware of its horror; hence the forceful tone of “Spanish Image of Death,” with its every stanza punctuated by exclamation marks. Such an ardent tone is required to invoke...

(The entire section is 497 words.)