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Pablo Neruda: Embrace your Roots

by Erin McMahon

    One of the most famous poets of his time, Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basalt otherwise known as Pablo Neruda was born in Parral, Chile on July 12, 1904. Recognized mostly for the integration of politics in his work, Neruda began his writing career at the mere age of thirteen writing for publishing poems and articles in the La Mañana, a daily newspaper. Because of his family’s disdain for his career as a poet and writer, he began publishing all of his works under the Pablo Neruda pseudonym. As for his political career, Neruda was a consul in both Burma and Argentina. As a diplomat, he met many many other revered Latin American poets such as Federico García Lorca and Manuel Altolaguirre who he collaborated with. Neruda faced many hardships throughout his lifetime due to war. Through that time he chose to embrace the nationalism of his country and Latin America as a whole. His works delve into the effects of war on humans and nature, but more importantly radiate a theme of history to show his audiences how to cope with these difficult situations. His philosophy surrounds that of if one’s ancestors dealt with certain hardships so can people of the present.

    Considered to be one of Pablo Neruda’s most famous works, Canto General (General Song) is comprised of about two-hundred and thirty poems split up into fifteen designated sections. The collection is centered around many of Neruda’s passions like politics and perceptions of war and nature. A Lamp on Earth includes the connection between the humans and the environment. He takes up a voice that speaks for the nature and people who have passed on while showing the similarities of both. In A Lamp on Earth Neruda states:

Man was dust, earthen vase, an eyelid
of tremulous loam, the shape of clay...
Tender and bloody was he, but on the grip
of his weapon of moist flint,
the initials of earth were
Canto I, (Neruda 13)
The Popol Vuh is an important piece of literature in Mayan culture and Neruda’s A Lamp on Earth can be viewed as modernist version of it. The first few stanzas of the poem explain the beauty in the creation of Earth which then leads into the Spanish take over of the Mayan civilization. Leading the preceding stanza with a metaphor, Neruda depicts the death of the Mayan culture. He reinforces the ideal of speaking for inanimate objects and people who have died by indirectly comparing the death of Mayan art to the death of Mayan people allowing the “flora and fauna from which the Canto - the song - can then grow” (Cooke 413). The underlying theme of a historical event of war and nature is present in the last two lines of the poem, where this event stains the earth per say. Neruda’s ability to inflict a tone of suffering even when it doesn't involve himself, his background, or his country is shown in A Lamp on Earth. His poem evicts a feeling of helplessness in two different ways: the use of death and history. The opening statement of “Man was dust” begins the stanza with a melancholy feel. When something turns to dust, there is no rebuilding of it, marking the ultimate end of something. Neruda even continues the poem with, “No one could / remember them afterward: the wind / forgot them, the language of water / was buried” (Neruda 14). The fact that the end of the Mayan civilization, a well known event in history, is the background of this poem encourages the hopelessness of the literary work. In order to “reclaim the basis of his own community’s existence from a history of colonial and capitalist oppression, his new conversation, therefore, would need to begin beneath this history” (Cooke 412). Neruda meant to go so beyond his country’s history that he delved into another country’s, one that he felt he resinated with so much so that he could evoke the same sorrow.

    In The Liberators, another one of his poems from Canto General, Neruda states,

“Glean from the lands the shrouded
throb of sorrow, the solitude,
the wheat of threshed fields:
something germinates beneath the flags:
the ancient voice calls us again.
Descend to the mineral roots...
(Neruda 148)
At the time of Canto General’s publication, Neruda was amidst one of the political heights of his career, being elected into the Chilean senate. This explains why many of his poems touch upon the influence of nationalism in Latin America. The first two lines examine the emotions of Latin Americans in the fight between capitalism and communism. As a communist himself, Neruda’s tone in The Liberators is partial to that of a communist government. He then moves on to a characteristic of the nature that surrounds his world and that the beauty of nature is not to distract from the importance of fulfilling the task at hand. To “Descend to the mineral roots” of one’s country is to embrace the rich culture and ideals it has to offer which most importantly includes the type of government Neruda believes would be more favorable. Neruda again offers his country, an inanimate object, an alluring voice where he describes its beauties and realities. Neruda’s work in The Liberators “transcends negatively: in performance, with the poet’s voice, it travels laterally, across and through the people and the landscape, and is left there to resonate” (Cooke 414). His writing touching on two recurring subjects in his writing, people and nature and how conflict effects both of them. Neruda then offers a piece of advice to his audience regarding the history of Latin America and what to think of it. He states, “Don’t renounce the day bestowed on you / by those who died struggling. Every spike / is born of a grain seeded in the earth, / and like the wheat, the innumerable people / join roots, accumulate spikes” (Neruda 148). Neruda explains to not forget the history of one’s country, but to embrace the present and what it has to offer. He uses the metaphor of wheat for people calling on them to “join roots” and “accumulate spikes,” meaning to embrace people of all cultures and backgrounds and to gather more people.

    One of Neruda’s most well known poems is entitled Las alturas de Machu Picchu which translates to The Heights of Machu Picchu. Not being a Native himself, writing about their culture has always been a bit controversial. The poem begins describing the surroundings of a Native and their nomadic live styles. The poem describes a sense of beauty towards the beginning until a certain questions begs an answer:

What was man? In what part of his open conversation
near shops and whistling, in which of his metallic movements
lived the indestructible, the unperishing—life? (Neruda, Poem II)
At the end of poem II Neruda begins to touch upon the morality of humans and asks where the idea of invincibility within humans came from. The first sentence of the stanza asks what did man believe his life was destined for? Where did the false culmination of the idea that life would be everlasting come about? Neruda then gives and example of a scene from everyday life to exclaim how out of the blue this thought was. Continuing on through his next three poems he explains the different types of death, “especially the ‘short daily death,’ and he faces the issue dramatically rather than philosophically, thus making it personal” (Gullón 3). The haunting final lines of Las alturas de Machu Picchu, “Hasten to my veins to my mouth. / Speak through my words and my blood” (Neruda Poem IIX) is a call to combine forces between Neruda’s Latin American background and a Native American background. Furthermore, “He, the living, hopes to perpetuate those gone; and as poet, hopes to unite us with them. He offers his words and his body to join men” (Gullón 5). Las alturas de Machu Picchu exemplifies a historical theme to reinstate the effects of death on humans and nature.

    Pablo Neruda takes history to a whole new level within his poems. His ability to apply the past to the present in certain situations allows his audience to see the light at the end of the tunnel when faced with hardships of their own. The idea of death and the things it can do to humans, nature, etc. is part of Neruda’s effort to understand death himself and encourage people of the present to not fear it so much so that their lives are miserable. However, for the living to commemorate the death of their ancestors is an important part of preserving culture and learning from the past.

Works Cited

Cooke, Stuart. "Singing up country in the poetry of Judith Wright and Pablo Neruda." Australian Literary Studies, vol. 23, no. 4, 2008, p. 408+. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=paci91811&v=2.1&id=GALE %7CA194549749&it=r&asid=84f49dcedd2866c038fe29219f53920a. Accessed: 29 Nov 2016
Agosin, Marjorie. "Pablo Neruda and Nicanor Parra: A Study of Similarities." Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Deborah A. Schmitt, vol. 102, Gale, 1998. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=paci91811&v=2.1&id=GALE %7CH1100001866&it=r&asid=ae3d9432cc8a2aceaf1b83e3ceb5b3c3. Accessed: 2 Dec 2016
Bogen, Don. "Selected Odes of Pablo Neruda." Literature of Developing Nations for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Literature of Developing Nations, edited by Elizabeth Bellalouna, et al., vol. 2, Gale, 2000. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=paci91811&v=2.1&id=GALE %7CH1420031419&it=r&asid=0bf217d4e68ab7b7583e4b8c1c405ade. Accessed 02 Dec 2016
Kuhnheim, Jill. "Quests for Alternative Cultural Antecedents: The Indigenism of Pablo Neruda, Ernesto Cardenal, and Gary Snyder." Poetry Criticism, edited by Michelle Lee, vol. 64, Gale, 2005. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do? p=LitRC&sw=w&u=paci91811&v=2.1&id=GALE %7CH1420065494&it=r&asid=8a46f4313744951458163797654efb83. Accessed: 04 Dec 2016