by Ray Goforth
- Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes y Basoalto was born in 1904 in
a rural region of southern Chile. At an early age he knew where
his muse lay but feared the ridicule of his working class family.
It was then that he took the pseudonym of Pablo Neruda. The
origins of Pablo remain obscured but Neruda was taken from a 19th
century Czech writer.
Neruda’s early poetry relied heavily upon nature symbolism
and showed the poet’s indulgence for matters of the heart. His
writing was well received and Neruda’s fame spread quickly
through his home country. In keeping with a Latin American
tradition of honoring artists by giving them diplomatic posts,
Pablo Neruda was sent as consul to Rangoon in 1927. This change
of climate and career was to permanently alter his poetry and
Neruda was depressed by his life in Asia. The indigenous
people were completely alien while the European colonial
administrators were repugnant. In many ways he found himself
trapped in that South American dilemma of being at once a part of
and separate from European culture. His poetry became darker,
lighting upon themes of death and isolation.
Neruda was transferred to Spain in 1934. Here his spirit
was rejuvenated. He found himself in a Latin culture that was
undergoing a profound social experiment. In 1930 the monarchy
was exiled and a coalition government ruled in its place. The
next few years saw popular elections, universal suffrage,
secularization of education and the redistribution of church and
aristocrat held property. The elections of 1934 were a complete
victory for leftist groups yet many hesitated to continue with
the earlier reforms. In response, regions of the country
declared their autonomy from the central government. Civil
strife ensued but the elections of 1936 ushered in the Popular
Front coalition of Communists, Socialists, Syndicalists and
Republicans. The Popular Front pledged itself to continue the
reforms of the early revolutionaries.
Intellectuals from around the world were descending upon
Spain and Neruda found himself making friends with many of them.
He basked in the cultural renaissance and found a vigor and
enthusiasm for writing that the diplomatic corps had all but
driven out of him. While Pablo Neruda was recharging his
intellectual energies, others were plotting a revolution.
On July 18, 1936 an army insurrection led by General
Francisco Franco plunged Spain into civil war. Franco was joined
by the Catholic Church, the aristocracy, Hitler and Mussolini.
Soon Pablo Neruda was surrounded by death and destruction.
Neruda, the consul found himself in a society that was tearing
itself apart. Nazi airplanes bombed population centers while
monarchist assassins killed his friends. The intellectual
flowering that had given him back his life was now being trampled
before his eyes. His feelings can best be shown in a poem he
sent to friends back in Chile.