Allow me to begin from the very beginning, which is the beginning not only of my encounter with Pablo Neruda but also my first exploration of poetry. I first read Neruda through the English translation of Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Neruda’s second collection of poetry published to wide acclaim when he was but 20 years old. I assume that the poems in this collection are now some of the most popular love poems in the world.
This is where I first encountered Neruda’s style of bombarding the reader with one imagery after another as a way of approximating particular feelings or experiences. Or at least that’s how I now understand Neruda anyway. This kind of writing basically consisted of assembling a lengthy succession of metaphorical images and gathering them around a central theme or feeling. In Twenty Love Poems, the overarching theme that ties the poems together is love.
Reading the Heights of Macchu Picchu thus comes as refreshing meeting with an old acquaintance. At the same time, it is also meeting a stranger.
The Twenty Love Poems and the Heights of Macchu Picchu have both similarities and differences. The two broadly share the same use of intricate webs of imagery, a staccato of complicated lines that are practically indecipherable if read alone and not in relation to the whole. Where the two diverge is in the actual content wherein the latter concerns itself not only with giving voice to the joy or sorrow of an infatuated lover but more importantly to becoming the voice of a voiceless people.
Written two years after his return to Chile in 1943 from a string of ambassadorial posts outside the country, the Heights of Macchu Picchu is part of Neruda’s turn into a more socially-oriented poetry. Neruda’s designation to Spain amidst the Spanish Civil War a decade earlier convinced him to take up the communist cause. Chile was then plagued by U.S. imperialism and the domination of the landed elites.
The Heights of Macchu Picchu and its twelve poems can be read as Neruda’s version of a manifesto for the oppressed and exploited in poetic form. Its writing inspired by a trip to the ruins of the ancient Inca fortress in the Peruvian Andes, the poem marks a transition from the romantic desire and nihilistic despair of his early years to a commitment towards collective liberation.
In the first poem we have a net “dredging through streets and ambient atmosphere” yet catching nothing and “steels converted / to the sieve of acid” to portray the rust and decay of a ravaged modernity. Amidst this moribund reality is the human quest for “the jasmine / of our exhausted human spring.” This is a journey to an originary past before the “fall of man” from Eden.
In the second poem, we proceed to the ruins of a lost paradise that man destroys with “the pulsing metal in his hands.” After “man crumples the petal of the light” he is ensnared by an oppressive society, “caught between clothes and smoke, on the sunken floor, / the soul’s reduced to a shuffled pack.” Here there is no comfort zone, “no place which my hand could rest.” The poem concludes with the question:
What was man? In what layer of his humdrum conversation,
among his shops and sirens – in which of his metallic movements
lived on imperishably the quality of life?
In the brief third poem we are told that man are but “like maize grains.” Sorrowful man and his dirty cities are but specks when compared to the majesty of nature. He is puny amidst the larger web of systemic violence engulfing the ordinary man and killing him softly everyday:
In the exhaustible store of lost deeds, shoddy
occurrences, from nine to five, to six,
and not one death but many came to each,
each day a little death: dust, maggot, lamp
Modern existence for the poet is a deathly one. And in the fourth poem this is once more reaffirmed as the poet arrives “to the cut of the blade.” This is “the vast sea of death” where love for other people is impossible amidst the individualizing dynamic of capitalist modernity that extinguishes collectivity:
Little by little, man came denying me
closing his paths and doors so that I could not touch
his wounded inexistence with my divining fingers.
This is followed by death, the ultimate end point reached in the fifth poem where there is nothing “save wind in gusts / that chilled my cold interstices of soul.” It is from this lowest depth that the sixth poem rises as man seeks solace in the thought of a glorious past, climbing “up the ladder of the earth” onto Macchu Picchu.
In the seventh poem the poet ruminates on the permanent fixtures of Macchu Picchu as “a wall, with so much life,” despite its many deaths “from perforated rocks / from cataracting aqueducts,” despite its falling “like an autumn.” The stone fortress is “the tallest crucible that ever held our silence, / a life of stone after so many lives.”
The Macchu Picchu is also the product of man’s love – of man’s labor – the poet writes in the eight poem. The infusion of this love into the stone is the reason why “The fallen kingdom survives all this while.” Meanwhile the ninth poem is an overflowing list of objects that inhabit Macchu Picchu, all of it connected by the unifying thread of being in some way related to stone:
Ultimate geometry, book of stone.
Iceberg carved among squalls.
Coral of sunken time.
But amidst all this grandeur, the poet asks in the next and tenth poem:
Stone within stone, and man where was he?
Air within air, and man where was he?
Time within time, and man where was he?
He addresses the Macchu Picchu, “allow me architecture,” and vows to search for the men whose labors created all the wealth of the Incas:
to fret stone stamens with a little stick,
climb all the steps of air into the emptiness,
scrape the intestine until I reach mankind.
Here the poet begins to ask if the era that produced the Macchu Picchu is really a golden era where man is at one with himself and nature as opposed to the exploited and alienated man of modernity. He begins to understand that the men who created the stone fortress in fact shared the same drudgery and oppression that the masses of today suffer from.
Amidst “a confusion of splendor” the poet trains his sights for the “ancient being, the slave, the sleeping one” in the eleventh poem. It is men not things that are decisive and this is true for all the men and women who offered their lives to the slave masters of antiquity in order to build the stone citadel of Macchu Picchu, a mass of men and women who became
a body, a thousand bodies, a man, a thousand
women swept by the sable whirlwind, charred with rain and night,
stoned with a leaden weight of statuary
These are the brothers that the poet addresses in the twelfth and last poem in the cycle. In this powerful climax, he proclaims:
Arise to birth with me, my brother.
Give me your hand out of the depths
sown by your sorrows.
There is no nostalgia, only a realization that what connects men, past and present is their suffering from exploitation and oppression under a succession of class societies and their collective struggle for liberation. What Neruda offers is a poetic rendering of Marx’s classic call for the workers of the world to unite: “you have nothing to lose but your chains.”
Look at me from the depths of the earth,
tiller of fields, weaver, reticent shepherd,
groom of totemic guanacos,
mason high on your treacherous scaffolding,
iceman of Andean tears,
jeweler with crushed fingers,
farmer anxious among his seedlings,
potter wasted among his clays –
bring to the cup of this new life
your ancient buried sorrows.
Show me your blood and your furrow;
say to me: here I was scourged
because a gem was dull or because the earth
failed to give up in time its tithe of corn or stone.
Neruda offers them his voice: “I come to speak for your dead mouths.” This is a concrete manifestation of the poet’s love for the people and his solidarity with their struggle, a love that makes him one of the most moving writers of the 20th Century. The poem ends along this vein beautifully:
And give me silence, give me water, hope.
Give me the struggle, the iron, the volcanoes.
Let bodies cling like magnets to my body.
Come quickly to my veins and to my mouth.
Speak through my speech, and through my blood.
From air to air, like an empty net
I went between the streets and atmosphere
arriving and departing...
- 'The Heights of Macchu Picchu'
First published separately in 1944, Alturas de Macchu Picchu1 - 'The Heights of Macchu Picchu' - forms part of Pablo Neruda's Canto General, an epic poem about the history and pre-history of Latin America2.
Pablo Neruda was born Neftali Ricardo Reyes y Basoalto in Chile in 1904. He published his first collection at the age of 19 and the following year his Viente poemas de amor y una canción desperada - Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair - appeared and became a best seller throughout the Spanish-speaking world. The book is still available today.
Neruda had a lifelong interest in politics and between 1927 and 1944 he was appointed to the consular service of Chile. His first book of political poems had been published in 1937. In 1947, while serving in the Chilean Senate, he published an open letter in which he accused the Chilean president of betrayal. An order for his arrest was put out and he went into hiding. It was during this time he wrote Canto General. In 1949 he escaped from Chile on horseback to Argentina and went into exile for several years. A romantic view of his exile is portrayed in the Oscar-winning Italian film Il Postino released in 1995.
He was later chosen as the Communist candidate for president in 1970. He also served as an ambassador to France in the years before his death.
During all this, he continued to write poetry. Neruda had a varied career as a poet. His love lyrics are renowned and he wrote in a variety of styles (symbolist, surrealist, romantic) writing powerful poetry in his later years.
In 1971 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He died in 1973.
Discovered in 1911 by the American explorer Hiram Bingham, Macchu Picchu is an Inca stronghold in the Peruvian Andes near the modern city of Cuzco. Nothing is known of its history and it appears that it was never discovered by the Spanish Conquistadors. Bingham himself believed that the site was the last refuge of the Incas from the invading Spanish.
Located 600m above the Urubamba River, the site covers about 13km2. It is one of the most recognisable images in South America and many foreign tourists travel to it on the 'Inca Trail'. Many find it a deeply spiritual site, though it is not known if the Incas saw it this way themselves.
Neruda first visited the site in the early 1940s and this experience led to 'The Heights of Macchu Picchu'.
A Run-through of the Poem
The Heights of Macchu Picchu is a long, complex poem. Split into 12 sections, each is written in dense surreal images. The following is a basic guide to each section.
I - Neruda wanders through the world as 'an empty net' gathering nothing from the world. He plunges his hand into the earth and discovers the 'sulphurous peace' of the world and its 'spent human springtime'.
II - Neruda asks what is the 'indestructible, the imperishable, life' in the world. The focus shifts from the poet himself as he struggles though the world and he sees that all the world is in a similar situation.
III – The poet describes the lives of people in the world as they struggle with living. Every day people die their 'little' deaths.
...many deaths come to each.
Every day a little death.
IV – Neruda arrives at the base of the climb to Macchu Picchu
...the stellar void of the final steps
and the vertiginous spiralling road
He recalls his own 'deaths'. This section returns to the imagery of the first line: 'I went from street to street and river to river, city to city and bed to bed'. Searching among the industrialised, modern world and finding nothing 'I rolled on dying of my own death.'
V – He realises that when he plunged his hand into the ground earlier (in the first section) he found an empty soul. It is not the world that is empty and alien but the souls of the people.
VI – 'And so I scaled the ladder of the earth...' The poet begins his climb to Macchu Picchu. As he climbs he gains an insight into the history of the site.
VII - In another echo of the opening lines of the poem he says: 'Today the empty air no longer weeps'. Neruda speaks to the lost Incas of Peru: 'you tumbled as in autumn to a single death.' He says that they live on in the stones of Macchu Picchu.
VIII – He turns his attention to the great gorge above which the city stands. He talks about the rivers Urabamba and Wilkamayu far below. As he does this, a condor flies over and casts a shadow on a stone sundial.
IX - In this part Neruda gives a long list of surreal epithets for Macchu Picchu.
Thrones toppled by the vine.
Regime of the entangled claw.
Hurricane sustained on the slopes.
Immobile catarac of turquoise
X – He asks 'where is the man?' among the bare stones. Did Macchu Picchu build itself? Neruda wants to know about the people who had once walked the streets.
XI - He plunges his hand into the earth a second time and discovers Man. 'When... the frenzied condor beats my temples... I do not see the swift brute.' Instead, 'I see the man of old'. At this point Neruda loses all connection with his European past; he is now an American and his kinship is with its indigenous people.
XII - Neruda addresses the native peoples, in particular the labourers, weavers, masons, etc. He asks them to 'Rise up to be born with me, my brother'. Neruda feels his own spiritual rebirth and a rebirth of the dead people of the Americas. The poem ends:
Cling to my body like magnets.
Hasten to my veins and to my mouth.
Speak through my words and my blood.
'The Heights of Macchu Picchu' is a poem of ascension, a common poetic device in religious poetry that can also be seen in Dante's 'Divine Comedy'. However this is not a religious poem, but rather, a spiritual one. In a similar way to Dante's poem, the 'I' in the poem represents not just the poet, but also the Common Man.
In its final passages, Neruda's poetry jumps from a personal hope to a global one; from a poetry dealing with the poet's heart to a poetry centred on humanity's struggles.
Similar to TS Eliot's 1921 poem 'The Wasteland' in showing the emptiness of the modern world, 'The Heights of Macchu Picchu' offers a solution that Eliot never did: become one with your past and use this to create a better future.