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Analysis of Pablo Neruda and The Heights Of Macchu Picchu

Updated on March 2, 2015

Pablo Neruda 1904 -1973

The Eternal Journey: A Moment

Pablo Neruda lived and died a legend, arguably the most famous and influential poet of the American continent since Whitman. He was born in Chile, and his father was a railway worker. His mother, a school teacher, died shortly after his birth. Against his father's wishes, Neruda set out to live the life of a writer and began publishing poetry and journalism at an early age. His early poems were critically well-received -- and the poet became internationally recognized -- but his poetry did not earn him decent wages. Driven to poverty, the poet took a government post to support himself. As his career unfolded, Neruda became increasingly more left-wing in his politics, although his political ideologies shifted and evolved over time alongside his poetry.

Las Alturas de Macchu Picchu is arguably is greatest work. Written well into his poetic career, Neruda charts the processes of human consciousness. The poem begins, as John Felstiner has pointed out, in open questions, formlessness, and turmoil, and it moves towards a deeper clarity and synthesis of the American psyche. Though his themes are universal, they are also personal. In the poem, Neruda finds his own path and his own myth, as it intersects with the larger myth of humanity. The process is described metaphorically and metaphysically, and unlike anglo-western-thought, Neruda does not seek definitives. His answers, according to literary scholar Nancy Willard, "are more like experiences" (Willard 84). Many scholars, like Michael Hamburger, also point to what Neruda called his "impure poetry" (Hamburger 207). All of these characteristics come to their fullest form in Las Alturas, and Neruda takes the reader on a journey through his life as it unfolds in the lives as all. Willard is quick to emphasize that Neruda attempts to lose his own life, so that his life becomes many lives, becomes all lives. Las Alturas does not seek answer sense, though, it points towards a deeper experience of the human story, where reader and poet exchange roles and walk inside one another's lives. However, scholar Edward Ford rightly points out that the poem does have a movement, towards clarity, towards synthesis, from the individual to the collective, from discord to harmony. It is the purpose of this paper to show how the poem embodies the human story itself, swirling through impermanence and loss, and finding rest here, with the poet's love, at the Inca holy site of Macchu Picchu.

Nancy Willard, in her book, In Search of the Invisible Man, seeks to understand Neruda's poetics and metaphysics in the context of his work and his life. He is a poet that takes his residence on earth, and his connection to all living things seriously. Any sense of loss and the pain in this sphere of existence is to be found only in a lack of love, and in an isolation from his fellow man. "Civilization is built on the failure to love," Willard writes. "And without love, nothing of us survivies in the imaginations of those who come after us" (Willard 107). The story of civilization and its failings is inherent in every part of Las Alturas. Neruda approaches the Inca holy site, looking to find permanence in the grandeur of nature, but first, he must confront the impermance of our earthly existence, the knowledge of death, and the harsh blows that civilization has rendered upon our people.

In his long poem, The Heights of Macchu Picchu, Neruda makes it clear that our most intense experience of impermanence is not death but our own isolation among the living (Willard 106).

Neruda then reaches out in this poem, through history, through heritages, through the scars and barriers that civilization has rendered on humanity. In doing so, the human narrative becomes one of loss and sorrow, in so many ways a vain grasping for immortality that we cannot attain in this life. It is his story, and the story of all people. Neruda laments, "I could grasp no more than a cluster of faces,/hasty masks, like an empty ring of gold..."( Neruda 313). He, too, is stuck with this loneliness, this absence of connection. He too has inherited the longing that can never be achieved without love, and through love, he still reaches out, hoping to locate life in the gaps of human strivings.

Tell me how he slept where he lived.

and like a bird for a thousand years prisoner

let the old heart of him who is forgotten

beat within me! (Neruda 314).

There is hope, if the poet can through his love and through his vision, not only live his life, but live the lives of all his people. There is, then, the possibility that love can make something that lasts. And yet even the marks of love on the earth may fade. Willard notes:

When Neruda visited the relics of the ancient mountain city of Macchu Picchu, he first saw it as a monument to the permanence of nature and impermanence of man (Willard 108).

But there is no sense of defeat and meaningless. Neruda enters the empty void of human strivings with love, with a deep respect for the beauty that this earth and this life have given him. Stories are intertwined, and the road of failure has just as more stars than the road of conquest. Western man has spent too much time wanting to own things, wanting to use them, and he has never gotten to know them. Neruda seeks first and foremost to know this place, this earth, his home, to probe the insides of things and people, to live through the hearts of his fellow man as if they are all one man, with one heart, joined in the common struggle. During his life, he was never hesitant to speak out, to be a dissident against corrupt political regimes, to run for a hiding place if necessary, but never to be silent. "I come to speak through your dead mouth.../Speak through my words and my blood" (Neruda 316). The voice of ancestors echo at Macchu Piccu, but how loud? Is their legacy as lasting as that of the natural surroundings? Waterfalls and mountains do not fade, and if man fades, then Neruda hopes that through love he can resurrect their presence and let their histories speak through him.

Neruda calls for an impure poetry, and this lies at the heart of all his work, according to Michael Hamburger. There is an unwillingness in the poet, too, to give up the sense of obscurity in the purpose of total clarity. Many Western poets and philosophers attempt to strive for clarity in all things. After all, the more clarity one has, the more power one has to master the physical world. But Neruda does not seek mastery, because he knows it is a illusion of the will. His truth can only come in surrender to obscurity and confusion, and the tension between that and the light of clarity. "The struggle between Neruda's 'obscure' and 'clear' styles can be seen in the Heights of Macchu Picchu..." (Hamburger 224). Sometimes, the opening of light strikes bold in the reader's eyes, as Neruda finds the hope of an ever-renewing spring of life in the natural world. And yet man is always there, to diminish the light with his human limitation.

While flower to flower gives up the high seed

and rock keepts its flower sown

in a beaten coat of diamond and sand

man crumples the peal of light he picks (Neruda 79).

The 'peal of light' is indeed crumpled by our world. And in its crumpling and unraveling, we lose sight of our mission, and we lose the ability to reach across the darkness of our solitude and loneliness. Neruda is no different in this inherent impurity and obscurity. He never sees his vocation as a poet granting him any superiority. He is as lost and hurting sometimes as everyone else, and his vision, too, loses its direction. Neruda suffers in the face of his own mortality, "...all I found in the wound was a cold gust/that passed through loose gaps in the soul" (Neruda 83). At times he cannot see, but obscurity, like all human limitations, is a process that needs a voice. In turn, through his impure poetry, Neruda is able to lend the obscurity his human hand of love.

Yet the tension between obscurity and clarity is not static. There is indeed a movement to the poem, from the first canto to the twelfth. The poet comes out of the womb, out of the dark abyss, and he rises. He rises both in physical time, in a literal ascent to the mountains of Macchu Piccu, and he also rises spiritually, from darkness to light, for formless to form. John Felstiner emphasizes this through his work, a book written on his own personal experience of translating this poem. For in translation, one must know more than just words, one must grasp the life behind them. Felstiner is clear about this movement from darkness to light:

Its first five cantos have nothing to do with the Inca site. Instead Neruda descends through earth and sea and retraces the anguished mood of his earlier years (Felstiner 12).

Yet by the time of Canto XII, while Neruda has not denied and turned his back on the human cost inherent in this ascent, he still urges for hope and renewal. "When the poet says 'rise to be born with me, brother,' he is not only summoning the past into the present but urging the present into the future" (Felstiner 190). There is in his ascention to both the Macchu Picchu holy site and the heights of human hope and love also a recognition of the darkness to which we all return. But the poem at this point has moved out of the obscure abyss, and the poet begins to pray his ultimate psalm, calling to his brothers and sisters, both dead and alive.

Give me silence, water, hope.

Give me struggle, iron, volcanoes.

Fasten your bodies to me like magnets (Neruda 97).

Yet this spiral upward, or at least to the center, reaches a climax towards the end. Edward Ford points out that the whole poem is a web of meaning. Topic sentences at the beginning of each cantos set the tone for the lines that follow, and later cantos refer back to topic lines of previous ones. In short, the poet, through form and substance, creates a web of meaning. This web of meaning culminates at the end of the poem, as the poet has reached the heights of Macchu Picchu, at arrived at the center of himself and his own truth.

Thus, Neruda takes a dual trajectory towards his goal which is the living human poet, himself, standing at the curx of the past and the future, speaking for the silent stones and for the dead and for the plants and animals as well as for the greater mass of humanity (Ford 67).

Willard expounds the transition from impermance to permanence that is made through love, and Hamburger talks about his shifting movement between clarity and obscurity, and back to clarity. Hamburger writes of the move from darkness to light, and Ford beautifully captures the way the poet finally arrives in the center of his own heart and the heart of all mankind. Las Alturas proves to be a work of transformation, of loss, pain, and ultimately, hope. And it is through love that the poet is able to reach across the bridge of our mortality and become the eternal.


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