Biography of Pablo Neruda, People's Poet of Chile

Chili's Passionate Poet May Have Been Murdered

Black and white photo of Pablo Neruda
Pablo Neruda, Poet and Diplomat. Photo by RDA / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was known as a poet and emissary of the Chilean people. During a time of social upheaval, he traveled the world as a diplomat and an exile, served as a Senator for the Chilean Communist Party, and published more than 35,000 pages of poetry in his native Spanish. In 1971, Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature, "for a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent's destiny and dreams."

Neruda's words and politics were forever intertwined, and his activism may have led to his death. Recent forensic tests have stirred speculation that Neruda was murdered. 

Early Life in Poetry

Pablo Neruda is the pen name of Ricardo Eliezer Neftali Reyes y Basoalto. He was born in Parral, Chile on July 12, 1904. While he was still an infant, Neruda's mother died of tuberculosis. He grew up in the remote town of Temuco with a stepmother, a half-brother, and a half-sister.

From his earliest years, Neruda experimented with language. In his teens, he began publishing poems and articles in school magazines and local newspapers. His father disapproved, so the teenager decided to publish under a pseudonym. Why "Pablo Neruda"? Later, he speculated that he'd been inspired by Czech writer Jan Neruda.

In his Memoirs, Neruda praised the poet Gabriela Mistral for helping him discover his voice as a writer.

A teacher and headmistress of a girl's school near Temuco, Mistral took an interest in the talented youth. She introduced Neruda to Russian literature and stirred his interest in social causes. Both Neruda and his mentor eventually became Nobel Laureates, Mistral in 1945 and Neruda twenty-six years later.

After high school, Neruda moved to the capital city of Santiago and enrolled in the University of Chile. He planned to become a French teacher, as his father wished. Instead, Neruda strolled the streets in a black cape and wrote passionate, melancholy poems inspired by French symbolist literature. His father stopped sending him money, so the teenaged Neruda sold his belongings to self-publish his first book, Crepusculario (Twilight). At age 20, he completed and found a publisher for the book that would make him famous, Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair). Rhapsodic and sorrowful, the book's poems mingled adolescent thoughts of love and sex with descriptions of the Chilean wilderness. "There was thirst and hunger, and you were the fruit. / There were grief and ruin, and you were the miracle," Neruda wrote in the concluding poem, "A Song of Despair."

Diplomat and Poet

Like most Latin American countries, Chile customarily honored their poets with diplomatic posts. At age 23, Pablo Neruda became an honorary consul in Burma, now Myanmar, in Southeast Asia. Over the next decade, his assignments took him to many places, including Buenos Aires, Sri Lanka, Java, Singapore, Barcelona, and Madrid.

While in South Asia, he experimented with surrealism and began writing Residencia en la tierra  (Residence on Earth). Published in 1933, this was the first of a three-volume work that described the social upheaval and human suffering Neruda witnessed during his years of diplomatic travel and social activism. Residencia was, he said in his Memoirs, "a dark and gloomy but essential book within my work."

The third volume in Residencia, the 1937 España en el corazón (Spain in our Hearts), was Neruda's strident response to the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War, the rise of fascism, and the political execution of his friend, the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca in 1936. "In the nights of Spain," Neruda wrote in the poem "Tradition," "through the old gardens, / tradition, covered with dead snot, / spouting pus and pestilence, strolled / with its tail in the fog, ghostly and fantastic."

The political leanings expressed in "España en el corazón" cost Neruda his consular post in Madrid, Spain. He moved to Paris, founded a literary magazine, and helped the refugees who "glutted the road out of Spain." After a stint as Consul-General in Mexico City, the poet returned to Chile. He joined the Communist Party, and, in 1945, was elected to the Chilean Senate. Neruda's rousing ballad "Canto a Stalingrado" ("Song to Stalingrad") voiced a "cry of love to Stalingrad." His pro-Communist poems and rhetoric stirred outrage with the Chilean President, who had renounced Communism for a more political alignment with the United States. Neruda continued to defend Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union and the working class of his own homeland, but it was Neruda's scathing 1948 "Yo acuso" ("I Accuse") speech that finally provoked the Chilean government to take action against him.

Facing arrest, Neruda spent a year in hiding, and then in 1949 fled on horseback over the Andes Mountains into Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Dramatic Exile

The poet's dramatic escape became the subject of the film Neruda (2016) by Chilean director Pablo Larraín. Part history, part fantasy, the film follows a fictional Neruda as he dodges a fascist investigator and smuggles revolutionary poems to peasants who memorize passages. One part of this romantic re-imagining is true. While in hiding, Pablo Neruda completed his most ambitious project, Canto General (General Song). Composed of more than 15,000 lines, Canto General is both a sweeping history of the Western hemisphere and an ode to the common man.

"What were humans?" Neruda asks. "In what part of their unguarded conversations / in department stores and among sirens, in which of their metallic movements / did what in life is indestructible and imperishable live?"

Return to Chile

Pablo Neruda's return to Chile in 1953 marked a transition away from political poetry—for a short time. Writing in green ink (reportedly his favorite color), Neruda composed soulful poems about love, nature, and daily life. "I could live or not live; it does not matter / to be one stone more, the dark stone, / the pure stone which the river bears away," Neruda wrote in "Oh Earth, Wait for Me."

Nevertheless, the passionate poet remained consumed by Communism and social causes. He gave public readings and never spoke out against Stalin's war crimes. Neruda's 1969 book-length poem Fin de Mundo (World’s End) includes a defiant statement against the US role in Vietnam: "Why were they compelled to kill / innocents so far from home, / while the crimes pour cream / into the pockets of Chicago? / Why go so far to kill / Why go so far to die?"

In 1970, the Chilean Communist party nominated the poet/diplomat for president, but he withdrew from the campaign after reaching an agreement with the Marxist candidate Salvador Allende, who ultimately won the close election. Neruda, at the height of his literary career, was serving as Chile's ambassador in Paris, France, when he received the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Personal Life

Pablo Neruda lived a life of what's been called "passionate engagement" by the Los Angeles Times.

"For Neruda, poetry meant much more than the expression of emotion and personality," they write. "It was a sacred way of being and came with duties."

His was also a life of surprising contradictions. Although his poetry was musical, Neruda claimed that his ear "could never recognize any but the most obvious melodies, and even then, only with difficulty."  He chronicled atrocities, yet he had a sense of fun. Neruda collected hats and liked to dress up for parties. He enjoyed cooking and wine. Enamored by the ocean, he filled his three homes in Chile with seashells, seascapes, and nautical artifacts. While many poets seek solitude to write, Neruda seemed to thrive on social interaction. His Memoirs describe friendships with famous figures like Pablo Picasso, Garcia Lorca, Gandhi, Mao Tse-tung, and Fidel Castro.

Neruda's infamous love affairs were tangled and often overlapping. In 1930 the Spanish-speaking Neruda married María Antonieta Hagenaar, an Indonesia-born Dutch woman who spoke no Spanish. Their only child, a daughter, died at age 9 from hydrocephalus. Soon after marrying Hagenaar, Neruda began an affair with Delia del Carril, a painter from Argentina, whom he eventually married. While in exile, he began a secret relationship with Matilde Urrutia, a Chilean singer with curly red hair. Urrutia became Neruda's third wife and inspired some of his most celebrated love poetry.

In dedicating the 1959 Cien Sonetos de Amor (One Hundred Love Sonnets) to Urrutia, Neruda wrote, "I made these sonnets out of wood; I gave them the sound of that opaque pure substance, and that is how they should reach your ears…Now that I have declared the foundations of my love, I surrender this century to you: wooden sonnets that rise only because you gave them life." The poems are some of his most popular—"I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair," he writes in Sonnet XI; "I love you as one loves certain obscure things," he writes in Sonnet XVII, "secretly, between the shadow and the soul."

Neruda's Death

While the United States marks 9/11 as the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, this date has another significance in Chile. On September 11, 1973, soldiers surrounded Chile's presidential palace. Rather than surrender, President Salvador Allende shot himself. The anti-Communist coup d'état, supported by the United States CIA, launched the brutal dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

Pablo Neruda planned to flee to Mexico, speak out against the Pinochet regime, and publish a large body of new work. "The only weapons you will find in this place are words," he told soldiers who ransacked his home and dug up his garden in Isla Negra, Chile.

However, on September 23, 1973, Neruda died in a Santiago medical clinic. In her memoirs, Matilde Urrutia said his final words were, "They are shooting them! They are shooting them!" The poet was 69.

The official diagnosis was prostate cancer, but many Chileans believed that Neruda was murdered. In October 2017, forensic tests confirmed that Neruda did not die of cancer. Further tests are underway to identify toxins found in his body.

Why Is Pablo Neruda Important?

"I have never thought of my life as divided between poetry and politics," Pablo Neruda said when he accepted his presidential candidacy from the Chilean Communist Party.

He was a prolific writer whose works ranged from sensual love poems to historical epics. Hailed as a poet for the common man, Neruda believed that poetry should capture the human condition. In his essay  "Toward an Impure Poetry," he equates the imperfect human condition with poetry, "impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behaviour, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, declarations of loathing and love, idylls and beasts, the shocks of encounter, political loyalties, denials and doubts, affirmations and taxes." What kind of poetry should we seek? Verse that is "steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of the lilies and urine."

Neruda won many awards, including an International Peace Prize (1950), a Stalin Peace Prize (1953), a Lenin Peace Prize (1953), and a Nobel Prize for Literature (1971). However, some critics have attacked Neruda for his Stalinist rhetoric and his unrestrained, often militant, writings. He was called a "bourgeois imperialist" and "a great bad poet." In their announcement, the Nobel committee said they'd given the award to "a contentious author who is not only debated but for many is also debatable."

In his book The Western Canon, literary critic Harold Bloom named Neruda one of the most significant writers in Western culture, placing him alongside literary giants like Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Virginia Woolf. "All paths lead to the same goal," Neruda declared in his Nobel Lecture: "to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song...."

Recommended Reading

Neruda wrote in Spanish, and English translations of his work are hotly debated. Some translations aspire for literal meaning while others strive to capture nuances. Thirty-six translators, including Martin Espada, Jane Hirshfield, W. S. Merwin, and Mark Strand, contributed to The Poetry of Pablo Neruda compiled by literary critic Ilan Stavans. The volume has 600 poems representing the scope of Neruda's career, along with notes on the poet's life and critical commentary. Several poems are presented in both Spanish and English.

  • The Poetry of Pablo Neruda edited by Ilan Stavans, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005
    Buy on Amazon
  • Listen to Neruda read "Las Alturas de Machu Picchu" from Canto General
  • "How the Library of Congress Helped Get Pablo Neruda's Poetry Translated into English" by Peter Armenti, LOC July 31, 2015
  • Canto General, 50th Anniversary Edition, by Pablo Neruda (trans. Jack Schmitt), University of California Press, 2000
    Buy on Amazon
  • World's End (English and Spanish Edition) by Pablo Neruda (trans. William O'Daly), Copper Canyon Press; 2009
    Buy on Amazon
  • Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life by Adam Feinstein, 2004
    Buy on Amazon
  • Memoirs by Pablo Neruda (trans. Hardie St. Martin), 2001
    The poet's own reflections on his life, from student years to the coup d'état d'état that toppled Chile's government just days before Neruda's death.
    Buy on Amazon
  • The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom
    Buy on Amazon
  • My Life with Pablo Neruda (Mi vida junto a Pablo Neruda) by Matilde Urrutia (trans. Alexandria Giardino), 2004
    Pablo Neruda's widow reveals details about the poet in her memoir. Although not lyrically written, the book became a best-seller in Chile.
    Buy on Amazon
  • For ages 6 to 9, Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown (illus. Julie Paschkis), Holt, 2011
    Buy on Amazon

Sources: Memoirs by Pablo Neruda (trans. Hardie St. Martin), Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001; The Nobel Prize in Literature 1971 at Nobelprize.org; Biography of Pablo Neruda, The Chile Cultural Society; 'World's End' by Pablo Neruda by Richard Rayner, Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2009; How did Chilean poet Pablo Neruda die? Experts open new probe, Associated Press, Miami Herald, February 24, 2016; Pablo Neruda Nobel Lecture "Towards the Splendid City" at Nobelprize.org [accessed March 5, 2017]

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Craven, Jackie. "Biography of Pablo Neruda, People's Poet of Chile." ThoughtCo, Oct. 22, 2017, thoughtco.com/pablo-neruda-biography-4132416. Craven, Jackie. (2017, October 22). Biography of Pablo Neruda, People's Poet of Chile. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/pablo-neruda-biography-4132416 Craven, Jackie. "Biography of Pablo Neruda, People's Poet of Chile." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/pablo-neruda-biography-4132416 (accessed November 18, 2017).