I Confess That I Have Lived: The Life of Pablo Neruda, South America’s finest poet

By | 01 October, 2010

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example: “The night is shattered,
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.”

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda had one of those existences that do justice to life. He got a taste of happiness and love, of justice and heroism, as well as bitterness, sadness and exile. His pseudonym, borrowed from Czech poet Jan Neruda and French poet Paul Verlaine went down in history as that of the greatest of all contemporary South American poets, the rightful heir of Ruben Darío. Born in the city of Parral, and baptised Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto (Neftalí after his mother who died two months after his birth) Neruda was born in 1904. Brought up in Temuco, the boy who would become el poeta del pueblo (the people’s poet) felt the pull of writing from a young age and it proved that his ambition was matched by a prodigious talent when his poem Enthusiasm and Perseverance was published in 1917.

At the age of twenty, in between his studies of French and Pedagogy at the University of Chile in Santiago, Neruda would write his most celebrated work: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. There was a tradition in South America of honouring poets and writers with diplomatic charges, a tradition that would follow on to Neruda. He travelled to Asia and Europe before returning to South America in 1933 to Buenos Aires, where he met the extraordinary Spanish poet Garcia Lorca.

Neruda’s literary breakthrough is considered to have taken place the same year with Residence on Earth which he wrote in green ink, the colour of hope in Hispanic culture. And hope he would need in Spain, where he was left raging by the death of friend Lorca and inspired by the sentiment awoken in him by the struggles of the Republican side during the Civil War. His response was to write an ode to resistance and valour, Spain In My Heart, which was distributed on the battle front for the soldiers. Neruda remains one of Spain’s most beloved authors and his literary legacy today stands alongside the country’s native greats.

After helping resettle Spanish Republican refugees in North and South America, and a first broken marriage, in 1938 the poet returned to his homeland where he would be made consul for Spanish emigration in Paris and later, Consul General in Mexico. Neruda grew both literarily and politically during this time and married his second wife Delia de Carril in 1943, before being chosen as a senator for the Communist party in Chile in 1945.

By this time Neruda had been awarded the National Prize of Literature and held a position as a cultural and political authority in Chile. However, in 1947, the government forced the exile of many leftists and Neruda found himself unwelcome in the country that had previously bestowed honours on him. He fled with his verb and his verses, hiding for two years from basement to basement, from darkness to darkness. He was a man who thought like very few, used his words for the pleasure of very many, and put them down in his unique voice:

Someday, somewhere – anywhere, unfailingly, you’ll find yourself, and that, and only that, can be the happiest or bitterest hour of your life.

From ship to plane, and car to train, Neruda’s life went by in between encounters and places which he gathered and immortalized in his poems. Fascinated not just by Chile but by South America as a whole, he would write General Song, published in Mexico in 1950, it being the culmination of twelve years of work; two hundred and thirty-one poems honouring the South American continent in the form of epic poetry, whose topic and treatment could evoke Walt Whitman, the poet from whom he admitted having taken more from than any other. He also tried to examine South America’s position form a Marxist point of view, where the class struggle would torment him. This not only remains internationally recognised as an extremely ambitious piece in its field, but also brought the International Peace Prize.

The wings of freedom took Neruda back to Chile again in 1952 with the withdrawal of the official order to arrest leftists. He went on to follow a literary career that brought him more success and recognition. With a host of prizes on his shelf, he would write his outstanding works Estravagario in 1958 and One Hundred Love Sonnets in 1959, especially dedicated to his third wife, Matilde Urrutia.

In over three thousand pages of anthology, Neruda talked about love and eroticism, about nature and its creatures, about the people and places of his life, about social justice, and about the sea. He did not like planes, he loved the ground, the land, the origin in which he felt comfortable and safe, and the boats going in and out of port, bringing stories from a far-away land or sailing to exotic destinations.

In 1964, a sixty-year-old señor Neruda would publish ‘Memorial of Isla Negra’, his poetic autobiography, anticipating his last years of life, and was made Doctor Honoris Causa by the University of Oxford. However, the greatest recognition to his genius was yet to come: the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 was awarded to the author of whom critic Harold Bloom said that “no western poet could be compared to him”.

At the time, a man who had seen the immense struggle for a decent life in South America and social justice in Chile continued to fight for his beliefs as he always had done. The last major event Neruda witnessed was Chile’s Coup d’État and the murder of president Allende in the presidential palace La Moneda, which would aggravate Neruda’s severe cancer. On the 23rd of September 1973, Pablo Neruda breathed for the last time, as poetic in death as he was in life: his memoirs, I confess that I have lived, were published in 1974.

In a heartbroken Chile, where the newly imposed dictatorial government banned once again the poet from being honoured by his people, a Santiago full of tears defied the curfew and went on parade to give Pablo their last goodbye.

“Love is so short and forgetting so long” so, on the thirty seventh anniversary of his death we remember him as a South American legend.

Recommended Reading:
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair
Canto General / General Song
One Hundred Love Sonnets: Cien Sonetos De Amor
Isla Negra
The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems


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