Peace for all those alive: peace
for all lands and all waters.
In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Pablo Neruda describes his escape from the Chilean government of President Videla across the Andes to Argentina:
On either side of the trail I could observe in the wild desolation something which betrayed human activity. There were piled up branches which had lasted out many winters, offerings made by hundreds who had journeyed there, crude burial mounds in memory of the fallen, so that the passer should think of those who had not been able to struggle on but had remained there under the snow forever. My comrades, too, hacked off with their machetes branches which brushed our heads and bent down over us from the colossal trees, from oaks whose last leaves were scattering before the winter storms. And I too left a tribute at every mound, a visiting card of wood, a branch from the forest to deck one or other of the graves of these unknown travelers.
Neruda’s arduous and dangerous track through this primeval world becomes a parable of humanity’s path through its own history and present, a world which, despite the greatest dangers, is also always determined by the solidarity of the common people:
The cowherds dismounted from their horses. In the midst of the space, set up as if in a rite, was the skull of an ox. In silence the men approached it one after the other and put coins and food in the eyesockets of the skull. I joined them in this sacrifice intended for stray travellers, all kinds of refugees who would find bread and succour in the dead ox’s eye sockets.
His guides guard Neruda like their greatest treasure. In this solitude, they also encounter other people who offer them shelter and food, even nature herself cares for their well-being:
at this fire we sang and we ate, and then in the darkness we went into some primitive rooms. Through them flowed a warm stream, volcanic water in which we bathed, warmth which welled out from the mountain chain and received us in its bosom.
This inherent connection between nature, history and working people is the paramount theme of Neruda’s poetry.
Neruda was born Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes Basoalto on 12 July 1904 in Parral, central Chile. His mother died shortly after his birth, but he had a very good relationship with his stepmother. His father, a driver of a ballast train on the emerging railway, often took him as a child on journeys through the countryside of his region and so he witnessed the hard physical labour of the railwaymen, who moved stones and sand between the sleepers so that the heavy rain would not shift the tracks. This experience of primeval nature shaped Neruda’s poetry and later became the essence of the nature poems of Canto General.
Neruda grows up an atheist. Also at his school is Gerardo Seguel, later one of Chile’s first communists; the headmistress of the local girls’ school was the great Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral (Lucila Godoy), whom he meets in 1919, aged fifteen. In 1945, Mistral became the first Latin American poet to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. She lends the avid reader Russian novels. At this time, Neruda begins to publish his first poems as Neftali Reyes. His father, however, is unhappy with Neftali’s literary interest and tensions ultimately lead to the young poet changing his name to Pablo Neruda at the age of sixteen.
At this time, labour struggles in Chile increase significantly with strikes, demonstrations as well as clashes with the police. The Communist Party, first founded in 1911, could build on the vibrant FOC (Chilean Workers’ Federation) and the communist movement in Chile was to become one of the most active in Latin America thanks to the long tradition of trade union struggle in the copper and nitrate mines.
In 1921, Neruda starts a French course at Santiago university, but soon abandons this. Living in poverty, he slowly becomes politicised. Among his books are works by Pushkin and the French communist Paul Éluard. In 1923, he publishes a first collection, Book of Twilights, which indicates: “he will be counted among the very best, and not only of this country and of his era”. This is followed in 1924 by the poetry collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, marking his breakthrough.
The army’s man Carlos Ibanez del Campo takes over the presidency from Emiliano Figueroa Larrain on 7 April 1927. Two months earlier, as dictatorial Minister of the Interior, Ibanez had commanded mass arrests and declared his aim to purge the country of “anarchists and communists”. Neruda considers emigration, and inquires about posts in a diplomatic career. In 1927, he is posted to Rangoon, Burma, followed soon afterwards by a new post in Colombo, Ceylon. In his memoirs, Neruda comments on the bigotry of British colonialists towards native culture: “This terrible gap between the British masters and the vast world of the Asians was never closed. And it ensured an inhuman isolation, a total ignorance of the values and the life of the Asians.”
From here, he continues on diplomatic missions to Singapore and Java, where in 1930 he meets his first wife Maria Antonieta Hagenaar Vogelzang (Maruca), with whom he returns to Chile in 1932. Santiago is now ruled by the new dictator Carlos Davila. Ibanez had been overthrown by a “general strike of intellectuals” on 25 July 1931 and fled into exile in Argentina. After a socialist republic that lasted only twelve days, Davila, previously Chilean ambassador in Washington, takes over the presidency. Neruda is appointed vice-consul in Buenos Aires in 1933.
Here, he meets Frederico García Lorca, who becomes a close friend. At this time Neruda writes to a friend: “It seems that a wave of Marxism is criss-crossing the world. Letters I receive [from] Chilean friends are pushing me towards that position. In reality, politically speaking, you cannot be anything but a Communist or an anti-Communist today.” But, he continues, “What is true is that I hate proletarian, proletarianising art.” He was soon to move away from this position. In 1933, Residence on Earth appears, where he finds his own voice.
In the early summer of 1934, Neruda goes to Spain as consul, first to Barcelona - the consul in Madrid is Gabriela Mistral. In Madrid, Neruda renews his friendship with Lorca. The political situation in Spain deteriorates seriously. In October, a seriously ill daughter is born to Neruda. He translates William Blake’s “Visions of the Daughters of Albion” and “The Mental Traveller” into Spanish. In addition to Lorca, Neruda is acquainted in Spain with other leading poets of the time: the Spaniards Rafael Alberti, Miguel Hernández as well as the Cuban Nicolás Guillén. In June 1935, Neruda takes part in the First International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture in Paris.
In Madrid, Neruda meets his second wife, Delia del Carril, a communist twenty years his senior (marriage 1943). Under her influence, as well as witnessing events in Spain, Neruda increasingly moves towards a communist position and begins to better understand the role of art in the political struggle:
I began to become a Communist in Spain, during the civil war . . . That was where the most important period of my political life took place - as was the case for many writers throughout the world. We felt attracted by that enormous resistance to fascism which was the Spanish war. But the experience meant something else for me. Before the war in Spain, I knew writers who were all Republicans, except for one or two. And the Republic, for me, was the rebirth of culture, literature, the arts, in Spain. Federico Garcia Lorca is the expression of this poetic generation, the most explosive in the history of Spain in many centuries. So the physical destruction of all these men was a drama for me. A whole part of my life ended in Madrid.
Franco’s military coup in July 1936 is followed by repression and executions, and in August Frederico García Lorca is murdered. Lorca’s murder has a lasting effect on Neruda. The Spanish Civil War begins. In his volume Spain in Our Hearts (1937), Neruda memorialises Lorca and eloquently and unequivocally sides with the Spanish Republic - adopting a standpoint that he will never leave for the rest of his life. His poetry reaches a new quality.
His poem “I Shall Explain a Few Things” ends:
Come and see the blood on the streets,
Come and see
The blood on the streets,
Come and see the blood
On the streets.
In 1936, Neruda leaves Spain, separates from his wife and daughter and goes to Paris with Delia del Carril, where he meets Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, among others. In July 1937, Neruda is involved in organising the Second International Writers’ Congress in Defence of Culture in Valencia and Madrid. After the congress, Neruda and Delia travel to Chile. On the crossing, Neruda completes Spain in Our Hearts and in November 1937 he is involved in the founding of an Alliance of Chilean Intellectuals for the Defence of Culture. The aims of which are: the fight against fascism and solidarity with Republican Spain.
In Chile, Neruda gives readings for ordinary workers. One such reading from his volume Spain in Our Hearts for the porters’ union becomes a key experience in 1937: “‘Comrade Pablo, we are a totally forgotten people. And I can tell you that we have never been so greatly moved. We would like to say to you . . .’ And he broke down in tears, sobbing, his body trembling. Many of those around him were also crying.” Spain’s blood, the terrible suffering of its people triggers the memory of the tortured people in the history of South America - memory emerges as a central function of poetry with the poet as witness. Memory becomes the constituent principle of the Canto General, completed underground ten years later.
The overarching theme of Canto General is history - nature becoming human, the history of South America to the present, the liberation movements and the anti-imperialist struggle. The people become the protagonists of the historical process, beginning with the working people of Machu Picchu, descendants of the Incas.
In early 1939, the democratic president Pedro Aguirre Cerda, elected in December 1938, appoints Neruda special consul in Spain and entrusts him with the task of facilitating the immigration of Spanish refugees. Neruda ensures the flight of about two thousand Spanish to Chile. At the end of the year, Neruda and Delia return to Chile. The next consular post is in Mexico, a country that remains important for Neruda. After the German invasion of the USSR, Neruda actively supports the Soviet Union and writes the “Song for Stalingrad”, which deals with the common experience of the besieged, their resistance:
And the Spaniard remembers Madrid and says: sister,
resist, capital of glory, resist:
from the soil rises all the spilt blood
of Spain, and throughout Spain it is rising again,
and the Spaniard asks, next to the
firing-squad wall, if Stalingrad lives:
and there is in prison a chain of black eyes
that riddle the walls with your name,
and Spain shakes herself with your blood and your dead,
because you, Stalingrad, held out to her your heart
when Spain was giving birth to heroes like yours.
On his return from Mexico, the poet visits the Peruvian Inca site of Machu Picchu, which has a lasting impact on him. In 1945, he receives the Chilean National Prize for Literature, joins the Communist Party and supports the centre-left coalition presidential candidate Videla in 1946, who betrays his promises just one year later, persecutes progressive forces, brutally suppresses trade union struggles. Neruda advocates workers’ rights. Through his encounters with the struggling miners, Neruda increasingly realises that art must be understood by the masses.
He writes in the poem “Margarita Naranjo” about the workers in the saltpetre mine, Antofagasta:
I am dead. I’m from the “María Elena”.
My whole life I spent on the pampas.
We gave our blood for the North American
Company, my parents before us, then my brothers.
Without a strike, without anything, they surrounded us,
It was night, the whole army moved in,
they went from house to house, waking people
taking them to the concentration camp.
Later he reflects:
I have changed my style. I’m writing more simply. Little by little, I have shed complicated forms so that everyone understands my poetry. With the publication of my books in the Soviet Union, and China, in almost every country and language, I see that we must write so that everyone understands us.
Political persecution forces him underground for about a year in 1948, where he finishes Canto General. In late February 1949, he flees across the Andes to Argentina, as described in his Nobel Prize speech. From there, he is able to escape to Europe. During this period underground, Picasso, champions him at the first World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace in Wroclaw in July 1948: “He is (...) one of the greatest poets in the world.”
Neruda, newly arrived in Europe, participates in the First World Congress of Partisans for Peace on 20 April 1949, alongside Picasso, Robeson and many others. Neruda remains in Europe until 1952 and journeys to many socialist countries. He begins a relationship with Matilde Urrutia, who becomes his third wife in 1966. In the 1950s and 1960s he travels widely, always on a political mission. He also returns to Chile on a regular basis. During these years, the XXth Party Congress of the CPSU and the Cultural Revolution in China cast a shadow over Neruda’s unconditional support for all aspects of existing socialism, but it never affected his full commitment as a communist to a humane future. The 1950s also witness the Cuban Revolution, and Neruda hails it with his book of verse Song of Protest.
From: “To Fidel Castro”
And Cuba is seen by the southern miners,
the lonely sons of la pampa,
the shepherds of cold in Patagonia,
the fathers of tin and silver,
the ones who marry cordilleras
extract the copper from Chuquicamata,
men hidden in buses
in populations of pure nostalgia,
women of the fields and workshops,
children who cried away their childhoods:
this is the cup, take it, Fidel.
It is full of so much hope
that upon drinking you will know your victory
is like the aged wine of my country
made not by one man but by many men
and not by one grape but many plants:
it is not one drop but many rivers:
not one captain but many battles.
When Neruda goes to New York in 1966 to attend a meeting of the PEN Club as guest of honour, Cuban writers attack him as a traitor in an open letter. However, this never affected Neruda’s solidarity with Cuba.
Salvador Allende enters Chile’s political stage as a socialist presidential candidate in 1952. Opposed to the reactionary Vidales regime, his programme calls for the nationalisation of Chile’s mineral resources. Neruda again supports Allende’s in the 1958 election campaign.
In early 1969, the poet again supports the election campaign of the Chilean Communist Party and becomes its presidential candidate in September - a candidacy he relinquishes in January 1970 in favour of Salvador Allende who would then be sole left-wing candidate. From mid-July he is actively involved in the election campaign for Allende, who wins the election on 4 September 1970. As ambassador in Paris, Neruda receives the news in October 1971 that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Swedish Academy’s award ceremony speech says:
[In Spain he] found the fellowship of the oppressed and persecuted. He found it when he returned from the Spain of the Civil War to his own country, the battleground for conquistadors over the centuries. But out of the fellowship with this territory of terror there grew, too, awareness of its riches, pride over its past, and hope for its future, for that which he saw shimmering like a mirage far to the East. With this, Neruda’s work was transformed into the poetry of political and social preparedness under the banner of redress and visions of the future – not least so in Canto general, partly written while in exile in his own country for no other offence than an opinion. The opinion was that his country belonged to him and his compatriots and that no man’s dignity should be insulted. (…) In his work a continent awakens to consciousness.
In 1970, Mikis Theodorakis asks Neruda for permission to set Canto General to music. Neruda and Allende advise him on the selection of poems. The first six parts of the oratorio are performed in Argentina and Mexico in 1973, but the coup in Chile prevents the planned performance in the National Stadium. The six-movement version does not see its European premiere until 1974, at the L’Humanité festival in Paris, after Neruda’s death, and in 1975 in Athens after the end of the fascist junta there. The complete work, comprising thirteen movements, is premiered in 1981 in Berlin, the capital of the GDR. In Chile, the oratorio was not premiered until 1993, after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship.
In November 1972, Neruda returns to Chile seriously ill. Nevertheless, he works on some poetry books and completes his memoirs. On 11 September 1973, he hears news of the putsch, the bombing of La Moneda Palace, and the death of President Allende.
Pablo Neruda dies on 23 September. The vigil takes place in his ransacked house La Chascona. Neruda’s funeral on 25 September at the Cementerio General in Santiago becomes the first manifestation of popular revolt, despite an intimidating military presence.
When someone in a loud voice began to shout: ‘Comrade Pablo Neruda!’ we all answered ‘Present!’ The cry was repeated two or three times, and the responses grew in strength. Then suddenly, the cry was ‘Comrade Victor Jara!’ All at once, our voices cracked: this was the first time that Victor had been named in public to denounce his vile murder. ‘Present!’ Then the voice shouted: ‘Comrade Salvador Allende!’ The response was a hoarse, broken howl distorted by emotion and terror and the desire to shout it out so that the whole world could hear: ‘Present!’ I believe that was when we lost our fear, because they couldn’t do anything to us there: it was better to die with our fists in the air and singing the Internationale. And singing at the top of our voices, all of us crying, we entered the General Cemetery. Perhaps the presence of so many foreign journalists saved our lives . . .
In February 2023, an international team of forensic experts found that Neruda had been poisoned on the orders of the junta. Neruda was to have been flown out of Chile to Mexico but fearing any statements by this great poet he was murdered.
Much of the biographical information is based on Feinstein, Adam. (2005), Pablo Neruda: A passion for life, Bloomsbury Publishing USA, as well as on Neruda, Pablo (2021): The Complete Memoirs. The Expanded Edition, New York.