‘Peace for all those alive’: Pablo Neruda on the 50th anniversary of his death
Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda (Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional de Chile). Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Chile license.

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 travelers, all kinds of refugees who would find bread and succor in the dead oxs 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:

Annemarie Heinrich, Portrait of Pablo Neruda, 1967 (public domain)

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 July 12, 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 labor 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 was 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 met in 1919, at age 15. In 1945, Mistral became the first Latin American poet to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. She lends the avid young reader Russian novels. At this time, Neruda began 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 at the age of 16 to Pablo Neruda, presumably in homage to the Czech poet Jan Neruda (1834-91).

At this time, labor struggles in Chile increased significantly with strikes and demonstrations, as well as clashes with the police. The Communist Party, first founded in 1912, could build on the vibrant FOC (Chilean Workers’ Federation). 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 started a French course at Santiago University but soon abandoned it. Living in poverty, he slowly becomes politicized. Among his books are works by Pushkin and the French communist Paul Éluard. In 1923, he published 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 was followed in 1924 by the poetry collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, marking his breakthrough.

The army’s man Carlos Ibáñez del Campo took over the presidency from Emiliano Figueroa Larrain on April 7, 1927. Two months earlier, as dictatorial Minister of the Interior, Ibáñez 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 was posted to Rangoon, Burma, followed soon afterward 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 continued on diplomatic missions to Singapore and Java, where in 1930 he met his first wife María Antonieta Hagenaar Vogelzang (Maruca), with whom he returned to Chile in 1932. Santiago is now ruled by the new dictator Carlos Dávila. Ibáñez had been overthrown by a “general strike of intellectuals” on July 25, 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 was appointed vice-consul in Buenos Aires in 1933.

Here he meets Federico 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, proletarianizing art.” He was soon to move away from this position. In 1933, Residence on Earth appears, where he finds his own voice.

Pablo Neruda visited the Soviet Union, August 1950 (Archivo Histórico del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile). Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Chile license.

In the early summer of 1934, Neruda went to Spain as consul, first to Barcelona—the consul in Madrid was Gabriela Mistral. In Madrid, Neruda renews his friendship with Lorca. The political situation in Spain deteriorated 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 Traveler” into Spanish. In addition to Lorca, Neruda is acquainted in Spain with other leading poets of the time: the Spaniards Rafael Alberti and Miguel Hernández, as well as the Cuban Nicolás Guillén. In June 1935, with fascists firmly in place in Germany, Italy, and Portugal, Neruda took part in the First International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture in Paris.

In Madrid, Neruda meets his second wife, Delia del Carril, a communist 20 years his senior. They married in 1943. Under her influence, as well as witnessing events in Spain, Neruda increasingly moves toward 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 García 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 was followed by repression and executions, and in August García Lorca was murdered. Lorca’s murder has a lasting effect on Neruda. The Spanish Civil War is on. In his volume Spain in Our Hearts (1937), Neruda memorializes Lorca, eloquently and unequivocally siding 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 left Spain, separated from his wife and daughter, and went to Paris with Delia del Carril, where he met Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, among others. In July 1937, Neruda was involved in organizing the Second International Writers’ Congress in Defense 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 Defense of Culture, whose aims are the fight against fascism and solidarity with Republican Spain.

In Chile, Neruda gave readings to 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 triggered the memory of the tortured people in the history of South America: Memory emerged as a central function of poetry with the poet as a witness. Memory became 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 became 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, appointed Neruda special consul in Spain and entrusted him with the task of facilitating the immigration of Spanish refugees. Neruda ensured the flight of about 2,000 Spaniards to Chile. At the end of the year, Neruda and Delia returned to Chile. The next consular post was in Mexico, a country that remains important for Neruda. After the 1941 German invasion of the USSR, Neruda actively supported the Soviet Union and wrote the “Song for Stalingrad,” which deals with the common experience of the besieged and their resistance:

Pablo Neruda visited the Soviet Union, August 1950 (Archivo Histórico del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile). Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Chile license.

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 received the Chilean National Prize for Literature, joined the Communist Party, and supported the center-left coalition presidential candidate Videla in 1946—who betrayed his promises just one year later, persecuted progressive forces, and brutally suppressed trade union struggles. Neruda advocates workers’ rights. Through his encounters with the struggling miners, Neruda increasingly realized that art must be understood by the masses.

He wrote in the poem “Margarita Naranjo” about the workers in the saltpeter 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 reflected:

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 fled 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 championed him at the first World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace in Wroclaw, Poland, in July 1948, as “one of the greatest poets in the world.”

Neruda, newly arrived in Europe, participated in the First World Congress of Partisans for Peace on April 20, 1949, alongside Picasso, Paul Robeson, and many others. Neruda remained in Europe until 1952 and journeyed to many socialist countries. He begins a relationship with Matilde Urrutia, who becomes his third wife in 1966. In the 1950s and ’60s, he traveled widely, always on a political mission. He also returned to Chile on a regular basis. During these years, the 20th 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 year 1959 also witnessed the Cuban Revolution, and Neruda hailed 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 went to New York in 1966 to attend a meeting of the PEN Club as a guest of honor, Cuban writers attacked him as a traitor in an open letter. However, this never affected Neruda’s solidarity with Cuba.

Salvador Allende entered Chile’s political stage as a socialist presidential candidate in 1952. Opposed to the reactionary Videla regime, his program called for the nationalization of Chile’s mineral resources. Neruda again supported Allende in the 1958 election campaign.

In early 1969, the poet again supported the election campaign of the Chilean Communist Party and became its presidential candidate in September—a candidacy he relinquished in January 1970 in favor of Salvador Allende, who would then be the sole left-wing candidate. From mid-July he was actively involved in the election campaign for Allende, who won the election on September 4, 1970. As ambassador in Paris, Neruda received the news in October 1971 that he had 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, Nerudas 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 offense 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 asked Neruda for permission to set Canto General to music. Neruda and Allende advised him on the selection of poems. The first six parts of the oratorio were performed in Argentina and Mexico in 1973, but the coup in Chile prevented the planned performance in the National Stadium. The six-movement version did 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, premiered in 1981 in Berlin, capital of the GDR. In Chile, the oratorio was not premiered until 1993, after the end of the Pinochet dictatorship.

The intersection of Pablo Neruda and Salvador Allende Streets, Köpenick, Berlin, GDR, dedication on Nov. 3, 1973 (German Federal Archives), Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.

In November 1972, Neruda returned to Chile seriously ill. Nevertheless, he worked on some poetry books and completed his memoirs. On September 11, 1973, he heard news of the putsch, the bombing of La Moneda Palace, and the death of President Allende.

Pablo Neruda died on September 23. The vigil took place in his ransacked house La Chascona. Neruda’s funeral on September 25 at the Cementerio General in Santiago became 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 Víctor Jara! All at once, our voices cracked: this was the first time that Víctor 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 couldnt 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 Adam Feinstein’s 2005 Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life (Bloomsbury), as well as on Pablo Neruda’s 2021 The Complete Memoirs: Expanded Edition (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).]

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Jenny Farrell
Jenny Farrell

Dr. Jenny Farrell is a lecturer and writer living in Galway, Ireland. Her main fields of interest are Irish and English poetry and the work of William Shakespeare. She is an associate editor of Culture Matters and also writes for Socialist Voice, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Ireland.