Pablo Neruda and the Construction of Past and Future Utopias in the Canto General

By Mascia, Mark J. | Utopian Studies, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Pablo Neruda and the Construction of Past and Future Utopias in the Canto General


Mascia, Mark J., Utopian Studies


THE POETRY OF PABLO NERUDA, the Chilean Nobelist, has most often been analyzed for themes such as nature, love, human existence, and politics. The lengthy collection of the Canto general (General Song, 1950) is largely known for its fusion of two of the aforementioned elements, nature poetry and political discourse. Divided into fifteen sections, this collection poetically recounts Latin American history from its pre-Columbian origins to the point at which it was published. During the collection's coverage of approximately five and a half centuries of history, a number of poems stand out as ones which advance a highly optimistic and future-oriented vision of Latin American, and to an extent global, society. This vision is decidedly Marxist in nature, in accordance with Neruda's public stance as a leftist. This study will show that in many of the poems from the Canto general, what Neruda offers is indeed a utopian vision of the world, one which ironically finds many of its origins in human suffering and exploitation but one whose future success depends upon social action and its lyrical glorification.

The Canto general remains one of Neruda's principal works of poetry for a variety of reasons. One reason, as mentioned, is the fusion of different thematic elements that have been hallmarks in Neruda's work. Another is that it represented a milestone in his career with respect to his intended audience. For a number of years prior to this work, namely during the early years of his literary career (the 1920's and 1930's), Neruda's audience had often been an educated elite accustomed to reading the hermetic and highly symbolic poetry of the varied Latin American Vanguardists (1) in vogue at the time. With the profound historical and social changes occurring in Chile and in the world at large during the 1940's, however, Neruda's growing commitment to the Marxist cause had led him to alter his approach to poetry writing. Even before the Second World War, Latin America had become subject to numerous investment enterprises (originating largely, though not exclusively, in the United States) which exploited the majority of working citizens and helped create the conditions for left-leaning political activism. As a result, Neruda wanted the recipients of his work to include all people, whether members of an educated elite or the much larger working classes with which he had chosen to associate. The themes became more heavily infused with social concerns, and Neruda's poetic language ceased to be as difficult as it once was. This concern for social issues in Neruda's life and work has some additional grounding in the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), about which Neruda had written a number of poems glorifying the Republican struggle and condemning fascism. (2) Much of Neruda's life, due to political changes at home, had also changed course and was led clandestinely. Neruda became an exile (both in Latin America and Europe), often coming in close contact with many blue-collar individuals and families whose cause he hoped to capture in verse. It should also be mentioned that the author, though highly literate and seemingly a member of an elite himself, was the son of a railwayman who did not want him to undertake a career in writing. It is for these personal reasons--as well as the historical events unfolding at the time--that, I believe, Neruda grew to have a distinctly utopian and optimistic worldview.

The first poem of the collection, "Amor America (1400)", appearing in the section "La lampara en la tierra" ("A Lamp on Earth") (3), is significant in that it creates a foundational, pre-Columbian utopian environment from which the remainder of Latin American history is to form. In this view, before the arrival of the conquistadores, the land presently known as Latin America was uncorrupted, and from the perspective of modern eyes, "innocent". This myth of an uncorrupted ancestral land is one example of the utopian nature of much of the work.

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