Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was perhaps the greatest Spanish poet of the 20th century.
The poet known as Pablo Neruda was named Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto at his birth in 1904. He signed his work "Pablo Neruda" (although he did not legally adopt that name until 1946) because his father, a railroad worker, disapproved of the son's poetic interests.
Neruda grew up in southern Chile and in 1921 moved to Santiago and enrolled in college with the intention of preparing himself for a career as an instructor of French. He left soon after, however, in order to devote more time to poetry, which had already become his central interest. His first book, Crepusculario (Twilight Book), was published in 1923, and the following year he published Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair), a book of intensely romantic and erotic poems. This became his most popular work, more than a million and a half copies of which were published in Spanish alone before his death.
Between 1927 and 1935 Neruda was a Chilean diplomat in, successively, Burma, Ceylon, Java, Singapore, Argentina, and Spain. In 1930 he married for the first time, but the marriage was unhappy, and a few years later he left his wife to live with Delia del Carril, with whom he stayed until 1955. In the late 1920s and early 1930s he completed the first two volumes of Residencia en la tierra (Residence on Earth) (1933, 1935), universally considered the finest surrealist poetry in Spanish. He claimed, however, that when he wrote these works he knew nothing of surrealism; he had simply responded to the same currents in the air which led to the formation of the surrealist movement elsewhere.
Neruda's horror at the civil and military barbarities (including the assassination of his friend the poet Federico García Lorca) which accompanied Franco's invasion of Spain transformed him into a deeply committed political poet and led to his eventual alignment with the Communist Party. The third volume of Residencia en la tierra (1947) and his subsequent poetry, particularly Canto general (General Song, 1950), are marked by this commitment. In place of the introspection and surrealist complexities of the first two volumes of Residencia, he produced a poetry that is open and direct, written not for academics and other sophisticated readers of poetry but rather, as Neruda repeatedly emphasized, workers and the politically oppressed.
Neruda also insisted that he was specifically a Latin American poet. Canto general, which he considered his principal work, celebrates his Latin American heritage. That volume includes "Alturas de Macchu Picchu" ("The Heights of Macchu Picchu"), possibly Neruda's greatest poem.
Canto general was written largely in the late 1940s while Neruda was in hiding in Chile to avoid arrest for statements he had made against the government. He escaped from Chile in 1949 and did not return until 1952 when a new regime came to power. He married Matilde Urrutia three years later and spent most of the rest of his life with her at his homes in Santiago and at Isla Negra on the Chilean coast. Isla Negra provided him with the subject or inspiration for many later poems, including his verse autobiography, Memorial de Isla Negra (Black Island Memorial, 1964). During these years he also wrote his Odas Elementales (Elemental Odes, 1954-1957), in which he developed a clear, simple, and at times humorous poetic style.
Neruda was awarded the International Peace Prize in 1950, the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953, a Doctorate in Literature from Oxford in 1965, and the Nobel Prize in 1971. In 1969 he was nominated by the Chilean Communist Party for president, but he stepped aside in favor of his friend Salvador Allende. When Allende was murdered four years later Neruda was very sick from cancer, but that event undoubtedly hastened his own death a few days later. At his death, he left 34 books of poems, essays, and drama in print as well as eight more volumes of poetry and a memoir which he had hoped to publish on his 70th birthday.
Neruda was clearly a prolific writer. His major works include Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada, the three volumes of Residencia en la tierra, Canto general, and Odas elementales, but there are few Neruda books which do not contain works or passages of a high order.
Neruda cannot be categorized by a single poetic style. No sooner had he mastered one poetic form or mood than he moved to another. The sensual, erotic poems of Veinte poemas are quite distant from the hermetic, surrealist poems of Residencia, and the political, epical Canto general is entirely unlike the conversational, colloquial, occasionally whimsical Odas elementales. His poems range from painfully intense introspection to fiery political rhetoric, yet a clarity of poetic vision and emotional conviction is found throughout his work. There have been few poets as prolific as Neruda and few who have sought after, and achieved, such high and diverse standards of excellence. The least that can be said of Neruda is that he was the greatest Spanish poet of the century.
Neruda has been fortunate in his translators. His chief translator has been Ben Belitt, whose anthology Five Decades: A Selection (Poems 1925-1970) provides an excellent introduction to the range of Neruda's achievement. Belitt talks about the problems and pleasures of translating (and reading) Neruda in Adam's Dream (1978). An outstanding translation of "The Heights of Macchu Picchu" was made by Nicholas Tarn (1966). Excellent translations of various works have been made by Robert Bly, Angel Flores, Alastair Reid, Donald Walsh, and many others. Neruda has been the subject of a vast amount of critical work, but most of it is available only in Spanish. English readers might begin with René de Costa's The Poetry of Pablo Neruda (1979), but Robert Pring-Mill's introduction to his Pablo Neruda: A Basic Anthology (1975) also provides a concise and valuable survey of Neruda's life and work. Valuable insights into the poetry are provided by Neruda himself in his Memoirs, translated by Hardie St. Martin (1976).