Pablo Neruda

(b. July 12, 1904, Parral, Chile-d. Sept. 23, 1973, Santiago)

Pablo Neruda, a Chilean poet, diplomat, and politician, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. He was perhaps the most important Latin American poet of the 20th century.

Born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, Neruda began to write poetry at age 10. His father tried to discourage him from writing, which was probably why the young poet began to publish under the pseudonym Pablo Neruda, which he was legally to adopt in 1946. Neruda first published his poems in the local newspapers and later in magazines published in the Chilean capital, Santiago. In 1921 he moved to Santiago to continue his studies and become a French teacher.

His first book of poems, Crepusculario, was published in 1923. His second book, Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (1924; Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair), was inspired by an unhappy love affair. It became an instant success and is still one of Neruda’s most popular books. The verse in Twenty Love Poems is vigorous, poignant, and direct, yet subtle and very original in its imagery and metaphors. The poems express young, passionate, unhappy love perhaps better than any book of poetry in the long Romantic tradition.

More collections followed, but his poetry was not a steady source of income. He managed to get himself appointed honorary consul to Rangoon in Burma (now Yangôn, Myanmar), and for the next five years he represented his country in Asia. He continued to live in abject poverty, however, since as honorary consul he received no salary, and he was tormented by loneliness.

From Rangoon Neruda moved to Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He increasingly came to identify with the South Asian masses, who were heirs to ancient cultures but were downtrodden by poverty, colonial rule, and political oppression. It was during these years in Asia that he wrote Residencia en la tierra, 1925–1931 (1933; Residence on Earth). In this book Neruda moves beyond the lucid, conventional lyricism of Twenty Love Poems, abandoning normal syntax, rhyme, and stanzaic organization to create a highly personalized poetic technique.

His personal and collective anguish gives rise to nightmarish visions of disintegration, chaos, decay, and death that he recorded in a cryptic, difficult style inspired by Surrealism. In 1930 Neruda was named consul in Batavia (modern Jakarta), which was then the capital of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). In 1932 Neruda returned to Chile, but he still could not earn a living from his poetry. In 1933 he was appointed Chilean consul in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In 1934 Neruda took up an appointment as consul in Barcelona, Spain, and soon he was transferred to the consulate in Madrid, where he moved ever closer to communism. A second, enlarged edition of the Residencia poems entitled Residencia en la tierra, 1925–35 was published in two volumes in 1935. In this edition, Neruda begins to move away from the highly personal, often hermetic poetry of the first Residencia volume, adopting a more extroverted outlook and a clearer, more accessible style in order to better communicate his new social concerns to the reader.

After supporting the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, Neruda returned to Chile in 1937 and entered his country’s political life, giving lectures and poetry readings while also defending Republican Spain and Chile’s new centre-left government. In 1939 he was appointed special consul in Paris, where he supervised the migration to Chile of many defeated Spanish Republicans who had escaped to France.

In 1940 he took up a post as Chile’s consul general in Mexico. He also began work on a long poem, Canto general (1950; “General Song,” Eng. trans. Canto general), that he would complete only after being driven into exile from Chile, after the government he had supported as a member of the Communist Party turned toward the right. Resonant with historical and epic overtones, this epic poem celebrates Latin America-its flora, its fauna, and its history, particularly the wars of liberation from Spanish rule and the continuing struggle of its peoples to obtain freedom and social justice. It also, however, celebrates Joseph Stalin, the bloody Soviet dictator in power at the time. The poem would become one of his key works.

In 1952 the political situation in Chile once again became favourable, and Neruda was able to return home. By that time his works had been translated into many languages, and he was rich and famous. One of his major works, Odas elementales (Elemental Odes), was published in 1954. Its verse was written in a new poetic style-simple, direct, precise, and humorous-and it contained descriptions of everyday objects, situations, and beings (e.g., Ode to the Onion and Ode to the Cat).

Neruda’s poetic output during these years was stimulated by his international fame and personal happiness; 20 books of his appeared between 1958 and his death in 1973, and 8 more were published posthumously. While already ill with cancer in France, Neruda in 1971 learned that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. After traveling to Stockholm to receive his prize, he returned to Chile bedridden and terminally ill.

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