Pablo Neruda: The Poet of the Oppressed Millions

Macchu Picchu
Macchu Picchu

July 12 was the 112th birthday of the famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971.  Neruda has diverted the course of half a century of Hispanic poetry. His works from Crepusculario (1923, Twilight Songs) to Canto General (1950) is a process of constant expansion and development. Canto General, undoubtedly, is the greatest expression of all that Neruda stood for, both in terms of his ideological commitment and artistic mastery. Poems like ‘Heights of Macchu Picchu’, ‘Discoverers of Chile’, ‘Magellan’s Heart’, ‘The Beasts’ all represent the theme of man’s struggle for justice in the new world. Today few will question the importance of this book in the overall context of Neruda’s work.

Pablo Neruda’s poetry flourished in the intellectual and political atmosphere of 1950: the Cold War and its impact on the so called “underdeveloped” countries. In this context, through Canto General he presented an intriguing history of man in the New World. This is a chronicle of self discovery leading to a deeper awareness of cultural identification—a phenomenon common and peculiar to all the nations of the Americas. Former colonies administered as territorial extensions of Europe, their political independence in the nineteenth century did not bring with it cultural independence. The language and culture of the Old World could not be suppressed with a simple declaration of independence. Hence the problem of identity took a fresh perspective in the new generations of poets. These poets view their countries for the first time not merely as New World variants of the Greco-Roman past but as present-day socio-political realities. In this way they discover not what sets them apart as Chilean or Mexican, but what they and their people, midway through the twentieth century, ultimately share with other peoples of the hemisphere: cultural, political, and economic dependency. Pablo Neruda was the pioneer of these poets and his Canto General voiced the quintessential third-world consciousness in poetry for the first time. The result was an engaging demythification of the clichés of textbook national histories with their panoply of ideal bourgeois heroes. In their place Neruda substituted a new, general history of the Americas, universally mythifying an entire continent’s struggle for social justice and political decency. The heroes of this epic adventure are ordinary men, the oppressed millions. Canto general is an attempt at reinterpreting the past and present of Latin America and the struggle of its oppressed and downtrodden masses toward freedom.

The poetic genius of Pablo Neruda finds its fullest exposure in The Heights of Macchu Picchu, a masterpiece in world literature. The poet visited the Inca site in 1943, and his ascent to Macchu Picchu took poetic form two years after: in August 1945 he composed Macchu Picchu. Neruda and Whitman, to a large extent, can resemble each other, in their adhesive and compulsive fellowship. But Neruda even moved beyond that. Having taken the forgotten worker’s knife in his hand, he now wants their flesh and blood transfigured into him. Lives that were stippled in the ‘mother of stone’ can rise to be born through him- through his veins, because some lamb’s blood is swallowed as a child’s, and some children’s blood he saw flowing in the Madrid streets have brought him to a consanguinity with those who worked and died at Macchu Picchu; and through his mouth, because the genesis begins with the voice, and here, Pablo Neruda’s voice says:

I come to speak through your dead mouth.

All through the earth join all

the silent wasted lips

and speak from the depths to me all this long night

as if I were anchored here with you,

tell me everything, chain by chain,

link by link, and step by step,

file the knives you kept by you,

drive them into my chest and my hand

like a river of riving yellow light,

like a river where buried jaguars lie,

and let me weep, hours, days, years,

blind ages, stellar centuries.

Give me silence, water, hope.

Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes.

Fasten your bodies to me like magnets.

Hasten to my veins to my mouth.

Speak through my words and my blood.

And thus Pablo Neruda’s soul is cleansed of torments, and he assumes the role as a spokesman for the aspirations of mankind, of truth, of justice, of freedom, ‘of the violated human dignity’ as the Nobel committee called him.


About the author

Sayeed Noman

Sayeed Noman is a Fulbright scholar and an adjunct professor at Temple University. His PhD dissertation focuses on Afrocentricity, postcolonialism, and postmodernism. His interest ranges from political to economic and cultural issues.


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