The Heights of Macchu Picchu

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Date: 2008
Poetry for Students
From: Poetry for Students(Vol. 28. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Poem explanation; Critical essay; Work overview; Biography
Pages: 24
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The Heights of Macchu Picchu



“The Heights of Macchu Picchu” was written by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in 1945, following an inspirational trip to the ancient Incan mountaintop fortress of Macchu Picchu in October 1943. This period in time was one of great upheaval for Neruda and for the world. Neruda's first marriage had fallen apart; his daughter, father, and stepmother died within a few years of each other, after Neruda lost a number of friends in the Spanish Civil War. Concerned about Chile, Neruda became involved in politics. He was elected to the Chilean Senate and joined the Communist Party in 1945. That same year, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, devastating many people around the world with this brutal, controversial attack, Neruda included. Neruda first published his long twelve-part poem in Spanish in Revista Nacional de Cultura in 1946. “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” later became a key section in his book-length work, Canto General (1950). Additionally, a bilingual edition of “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” translated by Nathaniel Tarn, and first published in 1967, is available from publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

In “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” Neruda addresses mythology, memory, hardship, and community. His communist beliefs color a world of majestic indigenous architecture and the anguish of an enslaved people. Through “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” Neruda seeks to give voice to the voiceless and deliver

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Pablo Neruda Pablo Neruda (Sam Falk / New York Times Co. / Getty Images)

the glory of their work back into their own hands. He reaches back in time for truths about today, making this more than just a poem about ancient history.


Pablo Neruda was born Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto on July 12, 1904, in Parral, Chile, to José del Carmen Reyes Morales, a railway worker, and Rosa Basoalto, a schoolteacher. Neruda's mother died when he was two months old. He instead grew up with his stepmother, Trinidad Candia Marverde, a half-brother, Rodolfo, and a half-sister, Laura. Neruda was interested in literature and writing from a young age and pursued it despite his father's discouragement. His first published piece was an essay for a local paper in 1917 when Neruda was only 13 years old. In 1920, he adopted the pseudonym of Pablo Neruda, in homage to Czech writer Jan Neruda; this later became his legal name.

In 1921, Neruda moved to Santiago, Chile, to study French at the University of Chile but instead he immersed himself in poetry and abandoned his studies. Crepusculario (Twilights), published in 1923, was Neruda's first volume of poetry. His famous volume Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924) was his second volume of poetry; it continues to be popular today. Neruda's work made an immediate sensation although it was considered controversial for its eroticism, especially coming from a young writer. In 1927, in need of income, Neruda began working overseas as a diplomat for the government of Chile. He was stationed in a variety of locales, including Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), Java, Singapore, Spain, Mexico, and France. While in Madrid, Spain, Neruda became friends with other writers such as Spanish poet Federico García Lorca and Peruvian poet César Vallejo. García Lorca's execution by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco motivated Neruda to become active in politics.

During these years abroad, Neruda was married twice and had a sickly daughter, who died at the age of eight. Neruda returned to Chile Page 137  |  Top of Articlein 1943, much changed from the young, poor poet who left sixteen years earlier. His visit to the Incan fortress of Macchu Picchu on October 31, 1943 inspired him to write “Alturas de Macchu Picchu” (“The Heights of Macchu Picchu”) two years later. Neruda first published the twelve-part poem in a Spanish-language magazine in 1946 but it was destined to become part of his famous 340-poem cycle, Canto General four years later.

Neruda was elected senator in Chile in 1945 and also joined the Communist Party. In 1948, Neruda and his second wife fled Chile for Argentina and then for Europe after Neruda publicly decried the president in the Senate. He was able to return in 1952 and largely remained in Chile for the rest of his life. After several near misses, Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 “for a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent's destiny and dreams.” Neruda's hard-won socialist government in Chile was overthrown in a military coup on September 11, 1973. Neruda, already quite ill, died of heart failure less than two weeks later, on September 23, 1973 at the Santa María Clinic in Santiago, Chile.

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  • Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, exiled from his homeland for a time, was inspired by the Chilean poet and set Neruda's Canto General (of which “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” is a part) to music. Theodorakis's oratorio, Canto General, premiered in 1975 and is well known in Greece and Chile. It is available as a two-disc set from the Theodorakis label, sold on, or for purchase from iTunes.
  • Neruda recited a selection of his poetry, including canto 6 from “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” for the Inter-American Development Bank on June 18, 1966, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC. The recital was wildly popular despite (or because of) Neruda's controversial communist politics, which nearly prevented his visit to the United States. The hour-long recording includes fifteen poems, eleven of which are freely available on the District of Columbia Commission on Arts and Humanities website,,a,3,q,637717.asp.
  • On June 20, 1966, two days after the recital for the Inter-American Development Bank, Neruda recorded part of “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” at the U.S. Library of Congress for their Archive of Hispanic Literature. The recording is available at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, on reel-to-reel tape, and is thirty-six minutes long.


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Canto 1

“The Heights of Macchu Picchu” opens in the first canto (a canto is a division used in long poetry) with the poet-narrator describing his work and life before ascending the mountain to Macchu Picchu. His concern with income is apparent in lines 3 and 4: “at autumn's advent, the coin handed out / in the leaves.” Neruda then describes his approach to writing poetry in Page 142  |  Top of Articlea characteristically erotic way: “like a sword sheathed in meteors / I plunged my turbulent and gentle hand / into the genital quick of the earth.” His use of words such as “nuptial” and “spring” prepare the reader for the transportation back in time that will come later, as well as the personification of his homeland, Chile in specific, and Latin America in general.

Canto 2

In the second canto, Neruda expresses the exhaustion of modern life, both his own and that of his fellow humans. He evokes the seasons, giving a sense of time passing and renewing, from summer when the “flower gives up the high seed,” to the “face ground down / among deep pits in autumn,” to “the city's winter streets.” The personification of the landscape continues to build as the poet confesses: “How many times … // have I wanted to stop and seek the timeless fathomless vein / I touched in a stone once or in the lightning a kiss released.” There is promise for renewal in the eternal promise of “germinal shells” of grain whereas, for humankind, “in which of his metallic motions / lived the indestructible, the imperishable—life?” This expresses the poet-narrator's existential disillusionment with the pattern of modern life.

Canto 3

Neruda now answers his questions posed at the end of canto 2. He underlines the struggle of everyday people, comparing them to the grain that nourishes the masses: “Lives like maize were threshed in the bottomless / granary of wasted deeds,” as if their subjugation is justified by the needs of others. He dwells on the deaths that daily fill people's lives: “each day a petty death, dust, worm, a lamp / snuffed out in suburban mud.” These “petty” deaths are a strain on humanity, “all of them weakened, waiting their death.” The closing image, of “dismal weariness” likened to “a black cup” brings to mind the coffee and tea which many people around the world consume daily, just as the “maize” from the first line of Canto 3 is a staple food. They have accepted their miserable lives, Neruda is saying.

Canto 4

The fourth canto shifts focus to Neruda himself wherein he recounts his struggles with “the mightiest death.” This is a death of more finite proportions than the petty deaths of the previous canto. “I wanted to swim in the broadest lives, / in the openest river mouths” expresses Neruda's desire to move beyond the mundane. Yet, as this canto goes on to express, he has been held back from this by other people, people who do not want to hear his words or the truth within. The last line, “I roamed round dying of my own death,” encapsulates Neruda's despair before ascending to Macchu Picchu: the frustration and seeming aimlessness of life.

Canto 5

The poet-narrator seeks renewal, even resurrection in canto 5. “I lifted the iodine bandages, plunged my hands / into meager griefs that were killing off death, / and all I found in the wound was a cold gust / that passed through loose gaps in the soul.” He is struggling to cure these miseries of mediocrity with his poetic gift but is stymied by the lifelessness of that which he faces.

Canto 6

The poet-narrator arrives at Macchu Picchu and the despairing tone of the first five cantos is blasted away with a triumphal outcry at the magnificence of this place, even ruined as it now is. The poet uses epithets to celebrate Macchu Picchu, such as “Mother of stone, spume of condors. / High reef of the human dawn.” These epithets frame Macchu Picchu as a mythical source, a mother, a place already standing at the beginning of humanity. The poet-narrator daydreams about what Macchu Picchu was like before falling to beautiful ruin: “Here men's feet rested at night / next to the eagles' feet.” He sees these people who once were, in “the trace of water in an echoing tub, / the wall brushed smooth by the touch of a face,” noting that now all else, “words, wine, bread / is gone, fallen to earth.”

Canto 7

The poet-narrator imagines “one sole death” for this grand place, a place which has no living memory of what once was. And yet memory of stone is retained: “a permanence of stone and word, / the city like a bowl, rose up in the hands / of all, living, dead, silenced, sustained.” Unoccupied by human beings, Macchu Picchu has now “a life of stone after so many lives.”

Canto 8

Now at the summit of Macchu Picchu, the poet-narrator contemplates the source for the river Urubamba, known to the ancient Incas as Wilkamayu, and considered to be a sacred river Page 143  |  Top of Articlebecause it was an earthly reflection of the celestial entity known today as the Milky Way. The “miniscule life” of “pollen”—the way nature continually renews—is transported, planted by the “wild water.” He asks of the river: “Who seized the lightning of the cold / and left it chained on the heights” and “Who yet again buries farewells?” In other words, who were these ancient people who built their citadel on Macchu Picchu and what has become of them? He is also drawn to the loss of words by these Incans, who had only an oral tradition, and imagines their language breaking down and being washed away by the river, “who goes on crushing frozen syllables, / black languages, banners of gold, / bottomless mouths, throttled shouts, / in your slender arterial waters?” Neruda concludes: “The dead realm lives on still” and “the ravening shadow of the condor cruises.” This again underlines his themes of renewal and death.

Canto 9

Canto 9 is almost completely composed of epithets, which the poet-narrator uses to describe the magnificence of Macchu Picchu. She is the “mineral serpent, rose of stone,” “rule of the ravenous claw,” “architecture of lost eagles,” and “silver wave, direction of time.” The litany of this list is chant-like and ritualistic. The long list of descriptive phrases adds dimension and layers of meaning to Macchu Picchu with an economy of words, drawing out this ancient site as much older, more mythological.

Canto 10

Addressing Macchu Picchu herself, the poet-narrator asks what humankind's involvement has been in her history: “Stone upon stone, and man, where was he?” “Hunger, did your reef-edge climb / to these high and ruinous towers?” he asks, wondering who ruined who, the mountain or the man. Hunger is a central theme of these last three cantos, which now draws a more direct correlation between the voiceless slaves of antiquity and the miserable masses of contemporary times. Neruda sees the “rags,” tears,” and “blood” the fortress was built upon and cries out: “Give me back the slave you buried!” “Ancient America, sunken bride,” he addresses Macchu Picchu, “did you keep in the deepest part / of your bitter gut, like an eagle, hunger?” This hunger, the poet argues, has been central to the creations of humankind (i.e., Macchu Picchu) as well as the undoing of human beings, suffering for the brief glory of others.

Canto 11

Recalling the primary action of canto 1, the poet-narrator declares “let me plunge my hand / and let there beat in me … / the old forgotten human heart!” This heart is not found in Macchu Picchu's splendor but rather in “the ancient human, a human slave, sleeping / in the fields, I see one body, a thousand bodies, a man, a thousand women.” Neruda's socialist beliefs, his compassion for others, draw him to the raw hands and bent backs of the people who were conscripted by others to build this now-ruined grand estate. He calls out to those laborers in the last line, “rise to be born with me, brother.”

Canto 12

In canto 12, the closing canto of “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” the poet-narrator repeats the last line of the previous canto, as if in incantation, “Rise to be born with me, brother.” Neruda calls forth the ancient laborers, using a brief list of epithets to describe their variety, their work, and their lives, much as he used epithets in canto 9 to describe Macchu Picchu's splendor—that splendor which is explicitly owed to the skills of these people. “I come to speak through your dead mouth.” “Tell me everything” the poet asks, “let me weep, hours, days, years.” He promises them: “Fasten your bodies to me like magnets. // Hasten to my veins to my mouth. // Speak through my words and my blood.” “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” then is about the hundreds of slaves yoked to Macchu Picchu, whose blood was spilled to raise her up, here within the seat of the gods, so close to the sky. Neruda feels their ancient miseries and invokes them, to give them voice so they are not forgotten. Translator John Felstiner writes: “When the poet says ‘rise to be born with me, brother,’ he is not only summoning the past to the present but urging the present into the future.” “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” as mythology is as much about what has already happened as it is about what is yet to come.



Slavery is a condition wherein one person, the slave, is owned by another person and can be forced to do work by the owner. Slavery has existed throughout human history wherever disproportionate power gives certain people the advantage over others and law does not forbid Page 144  |  Top of Articleslave ownership. As an ardent and outspoken socialist, Neruda opposed slavery. Socialists believe that a community should be supported by a shared effort of everyone living within the community. In “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” Neruda's poet-narrator comes to the heart of his quest at this mountain top fortress when, in canto 10, he asks: “Macchu Picchu, did you set / stone upon stone on a base of rags? / Coal over coal and at bottom, tears? / Fire on the gold and within it, trembling, the red / splash of blood?” From here he delves into the life of poverty and deprivation he has imagined for the slaves who built Macchu Picchu, and calls out to the slaves who constructed her in canto 11: “Jack Stonebiter, son of Wiracocha, / Jack Coldbiter, son of the green star, / Jack Barefoot, grandson of the turquoise, / rise to be born with me, brother.” Wiracocha is a temple in the ancient Incan capital of Cuzco; here, Neruda is implying that the parents of Jack Stonebiter were also slaves, conscripted to build this temple. “Green star” and “turquoise” are probably references to mining and gem production for ornamenting royalty and magnificent architecture. “Man is broader than sea and islands / and we must fall in him as in a well to rise from the bottom.” The poet emphasizes solidarity between human beings as the way for humans to rise above mortal miseries. In canto 12, calling these laborers to him, the speaker says “bring all your age-old buried / griefs to the cup of this new life,” which echoes back to the last two lines in canto 3 (“their dismal weariness each day was like / a black cup they drank down trembling”). Neruda is commenting on the slavery of contemporary times, much of which is self-imposed or hidden within the structures of culture and government. He sees modern people suffering as much as slaves ever did and calls all to come together for collective improvement of life.

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  • “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” was heavily influenced by Neruda's communist beliefs. Research communism and write an essay about how the poet's political beliefs shaped this poem. Give examples from the poem. Do you agree with Neruda's arguments? Why or why not?
  • Neruda was, for many years, an outspoken supporter of Russian leader Joseph Stalin. Late in the 1950s, he had a change of heart. Why did Neruda change his views? What did Stalin do and how were his actions eventually revealed to the rest of the world? Research this period in history (1930s-1950s) and then write a research paper that answers these questions.
  • Neruda began writing his masterpiece Canto General after his father died in 1938. It was originally titled “Canto de Chile” but Neruda later decided to broaden its scope to encompass all of Latin America. Write your own poem or short story that tells the story of a place you know well. Personify the place, like Neruda did: give it emotions, thoughts, and other human qualities. Share your work with another student or with the entire class in a group reading.
  • Macchu Picchu is believed to have been a summer retreat for Pachacuti, the Inca ruler who famously turned the Kingdom of Cuzco into the Inca Empire, which spanned six modern nations. Inca culture fascinates people to this day for its grand architecture, masterful stonework, record-keeping methods, complex social organization, and other beliefs and technologies. Choose an area of Inca culture to investigate and prepare a class presentation on what you learned. Use visual aids and prepare a short speech.

Death and Resurrection

Neruda, as a poet, was known for his love poetry, his sensuality, and, in his early verses, for loneliness. Death is a popular theme for writers all over the world but it was new to Neruda in “The Heights of Macchu Picchu.” His life was also changing dramatically at this time as he lost several friends in the Spanish Civil War and quite soon thereafter his father, his stepmother, and his daughter all died. “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” marks a turning point in Neruda's literary career. He does not give up on his sensuous nature imagery but adds to it the darker elements of renewal, marked by the failure, sometimes, to renew at all. The first 5 cantos Page 145  |  Top of Articleconcern Neruda's life before he visits Macchu Picchu and these verses are grim, almost to the point of hopelessness. Moving through the daily lives of contemporary laborers who appear numb to their fate, “a black cup they drank down trembling,” Neruda also describes himself as impotent to the world that has been circumscribed for him by other people as “I roamed round dying of my own death.” He also distinguishes between “petty” deaths that make up a miserable life and the “mightiest death” which irrevocably transforms a life. Despite his own wretchedness and frustration, which the poet-narrator demonstrates in canto 4, he is not ready for the “mightiest death” and instead pushes past the obvious darkness to the mountaintop where clarity comes to him. He sees the suffering and death of laborers from 500 years ago; nothing has changed. Little tangible evidence of these common people are left; only a suggestion of memory in the timeless stone they laid. From these cold roots, a poet such as Neruda can resurrect their essence, give voice to their Marxist plight, a pattern he saw as stretching throughout the history of Latin America, backwards and forwards.



A canto is a division used in long-form poetry. It is an Italian word derived from the Latin word for song and may be related to the oral tradition of storytelling, before writing was used to capture tales. Use of cantos is evocative of epic poetry, which was a popular narrative form up to and including the medieval period. “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” is divided into twelve cantos and, through the use of other literary devices, is heavily influenced by the styling found in epic poetry. This gives the poem a sense of antiquity and grandeur, emphasizing the timelessness of Neruda's themes of death, resurrection, and enslavement. The cantos, being a structural element, pace the poem and give the poet an opportunity to focus on different images and use different tones with each canto. For example the focus of canto 9 is the mountain-top fortress of Macchu Picchu and this canto celebrates her grand beauty. The focus shifts dramatically in canto 10 when the poet turns attention to those who constructed Macchu Picchu and his tone becomes accusatory and outraged.


An epithet is a fixed descriptive phrase which adds layers of meaning to the object it is applied to. For example, these two epithets from canto 9: “Root of the cordillera, roof of the sea” (cordillera is the Spanish word for mountain range). Epithets were used to great effect in epic poetry, drawing bold portraits of heroes and villains, describing scenery, and generally adding dimension to a story overall. Epithets are believed to be a holdover from the oral tradition because these fixed descriptive phrases made for easier memorization or even improvisation. In “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” Neruda uses epithets when trying to describe Macchu Picchu's majestic and historic quality. Rather than liberally use them throughout the poem as one would find in epic poetry, he reserves this technique to use in particular places so that it will have a bolder impact on the reader. The epithets celebrating the beauty of Macchu Picchu, for example, begin building in canto 8, then crescendo in canto 10, which is almost all epithets. Following this, Neruda criticizes Macchu Picchu for the cost of human life which was demanded in her construction.


Inca Empire

The Inca Empire emerged during the thirteenth century in the highlands of Peru and quickly established dominance over western South America through both assimilation and warfare. The Empire spread up and down the Pacific Coast and included parts of modern Columbia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. The capital city of the Inca Empire was Cuzco, located in what is today southern Peru. The major expansion of the Inca Empire occurred during the reign of Pachacuti (“earth-shaker”) who developed the four-part provincial system, which divided the Empire into manageable portions. Pachacuti aggressively assimilated neighboring royalty by offering them a choice of payment to join the empire, or warfare; many chose payment and joined the Incas. The children of foreign royalty were sent to Cuzco for education, then returned to their homelands to spread the Incan way of life.

Incan government was highly bureaucratic and systematic, which gave it stability despite the uneven loyalties of its oppressed citizens. Taxes were extremely high with the benefit being that Page 146  |  Top of Articleareas that were poorer (possibly because the land was not farmable) were distributed extra goods, perhaps giving those people a better quality of life than they knew before Inca rule. This government model shares some similarities with that of the Romans.

Pachacuti commissioned the construction of Macchu Picchu around 1450 B.C.E., probably as a royal estate for his family; it was located only fifty miles from Cuzco. By the mid-1500s, Macchu Picchu was abandoned as the Inca Empire collapsed following the Spanish conquest of the region. The Inca Empire lasted a hundred years, abruptly interrupted by foes they could not fight: diseases, such as smallpox, and technologically advanced weapons that easily overcame their Bronze Age armaments.

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  • 1400s: The Inca Empire is established in 1438 by ruler Pachacuti and is the dominant power in western South America.

    1900s: Socialist Senator Salvador Allende is elected president of Chile in 1970. He is overthrown by a military coup three years later.

    Today: Socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet is elected president of Chile in January 2006. She is the first woman to serve in this office for the nation of Chile.

  • 1400s: Yanas are the lowest social class in Inca society. They are not slaves, but because they have been permanently separated from their families and no reciprocal service or payment is owed to them, they are similar to slaves.

    1900s: Peru is ruled by a wealthy oligarchy and, although slavery is illegal (as of 1854), many poor people, especially the indigenous minority, have no choice but servitude to the interests of the wealthy.

    Today: In Peru, unemployment is high and a significant portion of the population is under the age of eighteen. Poor women and children, especially girls, are the primary victims of human trafficking in Peru and are coerced or sold into hard labor in mines, domestic labor, or the sex trade.

  • 1400s: Christopher Columbus sails for the West Indies but, in 1492, “discovers” America instead. Spanish explorers and conquistadors soon follow, bringing ruin to the indigenous populations of North and South America.

    1900s: Indigenous populations are a fraction of what they once were and many tribes are extinct. Those cultural groups trying to live alongside modern society find themselves discriminated against and they often live in extreme poverty. Young people abandon the old traditions in hopes of improving their situation.

    Today: Rights for indigenous people are being asserted and restitution of tribal lands is being made, as in the case of the Mapuche people of southern Chile. The process is slow and difficult while old prejudices prevail, but forward progress is definitely being made.


Communism is a political theory advocating a classless society. Ownership is communal and everyone works to the best of their abilities for the improvement of the community. Communism became very controversial in the early twentieth century, especially following World War II, because it was associated with totalitarian regimes, such as Stalin's Russia and Mao's China, where people were poor and ideas were oppressed so as to not threaten the stability of the communist society. The controversy surrounding communism largely arose from the strong anti-communist sentiment in the free-market economy of the United States. Highly individualistic Americans were discomforted with the impression that

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Ruins of the old Inca city Ruins of the old Inca city of Machu Picchu in the Andes in Peru (© / Alamy)

communism would turn people into anonymous drones.

Outside the United States, communism—and its parent ideology, socialism—had a strong draw for many other nations including Chile, Mexico, Cuba, Poland, Hungary, East Germany, North Korea, and Vietnam. Some countries eventually abandoned communism when it proved merely a vehicle for a single political party to absolutely control the government and use communist ideals to tyrannize the foment of new ideas. This abuse of communist ideals does not negate the potential for good and, indeed, some nations, like North Korea and Cuba, continue to structure their government and society under communism.

Neruda was an outspoken communist throughout his life, a position that many people considered to be controversial in an otherwise highly admirably poet. Beginning with his career as a Communist Senator in 1945, Neruda actively sought to establish a communist government within his homeland of Chile. He ardently believed in communist ideology, going so far as to verbally attack President Gabriel González Videla in the Chilean Senate when Neruda learned that the President broke up a labor strike by interring the striking miners in prisons and concentration camps. Neruda then had to flee the country for fear of his life; he remained in exile for four years until González Videla's government destabilized and new elections were held.


Neruda began publishing his work when he was only thirteen years old, although his family discouraged him from pursuing writing as a career. He published his first two books of poetry while Page 148  |  Top of Articlestill a young man in college and quickly gained notoriety both within Chile and abroad. His second book, 20 Poems and a Song of Despair, was an instant success and continues to be one of his most well-known, beloved works both in South America and around the world. Jonathan Cohen, writing in a Romance Notes article covering early critical reception of Neruda's work in English, notes that early reviewers were paying attention to this young poet, although not all were captivated by his work. “English translations of Neruda's poems were slow in coming, despite his growing international reputation as a major poet. A book-length collection [Residence on Earth and Other Poems] would not appear in the United States until 1946.” Neruda was an established poet and diplomat by the time he published “The Heights of Macchu Picchu”—first on its own in a Spanish-language magazine in 1946, then a few years later, in 1950, as part of Canto General. Many scholars and critics have noted that “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” marks a turning point in Neruda's poetry, as he had grown out of the loneliness of his youth and was becoming increasingly concerned with the plight of the everyday people he represented as a Senator in Chile.

Writing for the Wilson Quarterly, Edward Hirsch describes Canto General thusly: “What started out as a poem about Chile eventually grew into a poem that delineated the full geological, biological, and political history of South America. It became a comprehensive song, a general chant, a Whitmanian epic of the New World, a mythification of America.” Michael Wood, in his overview of Neruda's early works for the New York Review of Books, asserts that this poem cycle is “the best of all introductions to Neruda, since his gifts receive their full expression there.” James Wright, a critic for Poetry, reviews Nathaniel Tarn's 1968 translation of “The Heights of Macchu Picchu.” Wright is mild in his praise of Tarn, but calls Neruda “one of the precious few great masters of our time and of any time” and even compares the endurance of his work to that of Shakespeare. Indeed, the popularity of Neruda's work continues unabated.

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  • Stalin: A Biography (2006), by Robert Service, is a modern and comprehensive look into the life of this controversial communist leader known both for his defeat of Nazi Germany and the torture of his own people.
  • On the Blue Shore of Silence, written by Pablo Neruda, was produced as a special bilingual edition in 2003 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the poet's birth. It is translated by Alastair Reid and illustrated by the painter Mary Heebner. The volume focuses on Neruda's poetry about the sea.
  • Leaves of Grass (1855), by American poet Walt Whitman, heralded a new poetic tradition that was organic, sensual, and lyrical. Although fame eluded Whitman during his lifetime, scholars now acknowledge the tremendous influence of this poet; he was also one of Neruda's favorites.
  • Gypsy Ballads, by Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, was written in Spanish in 1928 and published in English in 1953. This volume established Lorca's fame; Lorca, like Neruda, was a popular writer at a young age.
  • Trilce (1922), by César Vallejo, was a significant avant-garde book of poetry. Vallejo was forced to flee his native Peru in 1923, remaining in Europe for the rest of his life; he met Neruda while visiting Spain.
  • Tales of the Little Quarter (1878), by Czech writer Jan Neruda, is a collection of short stories that takes place in the Little Quarter neighborhood of Prague. This book was translated by Ellis Peters in 1957.
  • T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life (2000), by Lyndall Gordon, provides insight into the life of the famed poet whom Neruda has been compared to stylistically and thematically. Eliot, like Neruda, also held strong social views that were highly controversial.


Carol Ullmann

Ullmann is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she examines the mythological Page 149  |  Top of Articlenature of Neruda's long poem “The Heights of Macchu Picchu.”

Neruda sought to establish a unified Latin American mythology with “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” and later, Canto General. Mythology is a set of stories or beliefs shared by a cultural group. Neruda was not ignoring the existence of already established indigenous beliefs and in fact drew on many of those symbols for this verse. But these indigenous cultural groups—such as the Bora, the Matsés, and the Yagua—have known no cultural unity, if ever, since the Inca Empire. Although called Indians by the Spanish after Christopher Columbus's mistake (he thought he had sailed to India), these people did not view themselves as a unified group.

Neruda was moved by the poverty he saw when he returned to Chile in 1943. This, coupled with his horrific and sad experiences while in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, drove the poet, who was always an optimist and a populist, to seek answers and solutions. He found these on top of a mountain in 1943. Neruda's journey, from his early manhood to the day he saw Macchu Picchu, was an expedition of mythic quality and he indeed includes this as the first half of the poem. Joseph Campbell, the renowned mythographer, writes about the hero's journey in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The hero's journey begins with a summons; throughout his quest he is offered help and he meets with tribulation. He encounters gods, who are simultaneously aid and tribulation to him; he looses friends; and eventually acquires the boon that he seeks. This journey, is, of course, not about the material object the hero returns home with; it is about the hero's spiritual growth, often symbolic in specific tales as a boy becoming a man, or a prince becoming king.

Neruda's growth, then, in this journey leading up to Macchu Picchu, was one of politicization. He did not exchange his naturalistic, erotic style for something new. He did not change, he grew, adding to his stylistic repertoire themes of death, populism, and history. Neruda was no longer just a poet, no longer solitary—now he was a poet of the people, giving voice to those who have forgotten how to talk: “I come to speak through your dead mouth.”

The mythology Neruda brings from this mountaintop citadel is an old and oft-repeated tale of servitude—the slaves of the Inca who built their cities, followed by the Incas who were killed or enslaved by the Spanish, who are in turn politically enslaved by weighty influence of their northern neighbor, the United States. To Neruda, this enslavement of humans by humans is the source of misery and ultimately self-destruction. He writes in canto 10: “Macchu Picchu, did you set / stone upon stone on a base of rags?” And in canto 7: “on a scale / with your greatness there came / the true, the most consuming / death … // you plummeted as in autumn / to one sole death.”

Subjugation, death, and innocent renewal form a pattern that repeats endlessly throughout the history of Latin America, spiraling into the despair that grips people today, as they go through their daily grind, lost in their cities, lost to each other. Neruda begins “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” with a contemporary view, taking in both his own loneliness, and the “dismal weariness” he sees in people around him. His expedition to Macchu Picchu takes him back in time and it is there that Neruda finds a promise for the future. His mythology is a racial awareness—a memory—and like all of humanity's oldest stories, Neruda's mythology of Latin America has been resurrected as a tool for memory, to combat today's wretchedness. His myth of Macchu Picchu teaches that it is only by working together and sharing life that a community can mitigate its miseries and overcome this ancestral need to possess and be possessed.

Why has Neruda chosen Macchu Picchu as the site of this myth, this awakened memory, and not some other site, like Cuzco, which was the heart of the Inca Empire and only fifty miles away? In part, it can be inferred that it is because Neruda was moved by the experience of visiting Macchu Picchu (he also visited Cuzco on the same trip). More significantly, Macchu Picchu was never discovered by the Spanish conquistadors, who frequently burned and tore down Page 150  |  Top of Articleindigenous architecture as part of their campaign of subjugation. Until the early twentieth century, it was untouched and perhaps unseen by human eyes for almost four hundred years. Macchu Picchu is a citadel of the dead, quiet, unliving, frozen in time, but Neruda does not merely see a monument to what once was: “The dead realm lives on still.”

In canto 7, Neruda directly expresses concern with memory: “Today the empty air does not weep, / is not familiar with your clayey feet, / forgets your pitchers that filtered the sky” and “whatever you were fell away: customs, frayed / syllables, masks of dazzling light.” This begins the poet's mourning for those who constructed Macchu Picchu out of their blood and sweat; from these intense feelings, Neruda constructs memories he cannot literally posses. He must create the words for these memories from blind stone and senseless river, but it is as if these people have waited for him, for a voice, and as he moves among the ruins, he is possessed by their anger and grief. He sees their presence in that which has been left behind; he also sees that which is missing and, like the bodies of these people, has returned to the earth. By canto 10, Neruda's anger is mounting to outrage and his questions directed at Macchu Picchu are accusatory. “Give me back the slave you buried!” he cries out.

A lover and bride at the dawn of this history, America is also positioned as a mother figure. Neruda characterizes her as “buried” and “sunken,” making her powerless to act on behalf of herself and her children—that is, the mountains, rivers, birds, plants, and people. Neruda writes of those people in canto 11: “I see the ancient human, a human slave, sleeping / in the fields, I see one body, a thousand bodies, a man, a thousand women.” With “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” he seeks to wake them up, revive America, and dispel the shadows of oppression.

It is an idealistic mission but it works because it is presented in a mythological context. As stated earlier, myths are instruments of instruction. The conveyance of a lesson is not had only from a story's content—delivery is just as important. In this poem, Neruda has not chosen a traditional epic model of the kind usually associated with mythology and legend but has instead borrowed pieces of time-honored composition: epithets to summarily describe (and although it is a device of economy, he makes long lists of epithets), cantos to divide the story and pace it, and, in the original Spanish, as described by John Felstiner in his translation of “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” use of classic eleven-syllable meter.

Although myths can be spiritual and even esoteric, they are always bound to the human condition. Neruda's new myth of Latin American is deeply concerned with the human condition. Stone will keep, rivers will flow—but what about the “old forgotten human heart”? It must be renewed, like spring-flowering trees, resurrected from a buried, miserable past. Joining these hands, these faces, their voices, Neruda pulls the old to the new. The laborers of antiquity are the farmers, the miners, and the factory workers of today. They were, are, and will be exploited until given a powerful voice, such as that of a senator and a world-renowned poet.

A secular savior, Neruda resurrects the dead laborers by might of memory. That is the gift of his unifying mythology: those who time would forget will be remembered. Sites like Macchu Picchu, built upon the exhausted bodies of slaves, will now stand as testament to their skill rather than the glory of gods and kings. He does not remember them out of a sense of duty but rather out of kinship. They worked as he works, with their hands, for their community. This message of communism is what Neruda seeks to convey in “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” but it is not political disingenuousness. He sincerely believes that communism—a classless, egalitarian society—is the answer to peace between human beings: “Give me your hand out of the deep / region seeded by all your grief.”

Source: Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.

Agnes Gullón

In the following review, Gullón explores the themes in “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” and remarks on the variations in narrative voice throughout the poem.

The painter of outdoor art allows the pedestrian who passes by the moving figures of a mural to merge momentarily with them, or at least to walk with them side by side. Bustling along a city street, brushing against others who form the real mass mirrored in such a mural, one comes eerily close to mistaking one's footsteps Page 151  |  Top of Articlefor those of the painted feet, the sidewalk for the wall. Yet this shifting identity barely shocks, because the mural after all is meant to depict us, the nameless many; all of us in private and perhaps secret worlds, but each able to stop to ask or give the time, or name the street.

The poet who would unite us attempts quite a bit more. Neruda achieves this fusion in Alturas de Macchu Picchu, the dozen poems set like an island in the vast sea of his Canto general. And I would like to stop there, where this synthesis of souls finds its most dramatic expression, to consider the genius of his poetry.

Just to read this sequence of poems is to reach great heights. Its surge of life—the poet's, the earth's, mankind's—makes a formal analysis seem somehow inappropriate to me. Their spirit balks at that sort of treatment.

So I propose instead to trace that spirit, or follow in its path, with stops along the way.

From the air to the air, like a net
I moved through the streets and the atmosphere,
 arriving and leaving
at the coming of fall, the scattered money
of the leaves, and between spring and tassels,
what the greatest love, as if into a glove
falling, gives us like a long moon.

The opening lines happen in the air and suggest movement everywhere: from place to place, from the motion of the net to the heart, from season to season, from one expanse (of leaves) to another (of love). Comparisons are irresistible from the outset, because the poet carries ever-forming correspondences with him on his journey. This first stanza introduces Neruda's sense of himself as a creature susceptible to sensations embracing the subjective in the cosmic; a creature whose humanity derives so intimately from the earth he inhabits that a certain confusion of essences occurs. A transmigration of sorts, and one that the poet records in a language of materials, as the second stanza shows:

Days of brilliancy I live in the unshelteredness
of bodies: steel converted
to the silence of acid:
nights unravelled to the final flour:
assaulted stamens of the nuptial land.

Bodies, steel, acid, nights, stamens: how life palpitates in each is what the poet catches in a stream of language heading for incoherence, collecting in its currents whatever drops in. And Neruda's perception is incredibly fine, picking up significance in matter usually appreciated only by geologists. The quantity of such geological detail can be a bit excessive in some of the Canto general, recalling a too thickly vegetated area where the tangles and knots of branches strike one more than the trees and plants themselves. In Macchu Picchu there is more restraint, less fixation on this aspect of nature, and I think the book benefits from it. The broad theme, that of attaining union with all men, undoubtedly lent more structure to the compositions.

There is a cosmic intensity throughout, an intermittent awareness of totality that gives the miniscule a special importance, one I would call Blakean were it not for the inevitable associations with mysticism. Neruda is no mystic, certainly. But his vision of the earth, of its evolution and engendering of man with his own peculiar, tragic history, makes the terrestrial sacred. Neruda loves the earth as Lorca did: not its rose gardens and seascapes alone, but first its minute creatures and basic elements—ants, seeds, sand, quartz, water, air, and of course stone, which in Macchu Picchu later dominates. Poetry, as Neruda often said, is like the dew, the disappearing essence that profiles the earth at dawn. And on his climb—soon an ascent—the most earthly matter accompanies him. In poem 2 he says:

And soon, between clothes and smoke, on
   the table
like a shuffled quantity, lies the soul:
quartz and sleeplessness, tears in the ocean
like pools of cold

Isolation, complexity, and disorder are the facets of man's soul that Neruda feels have always existed. He starts his journey with this Page 152  |  Top of Articleawareness and seeks assurance that there is at least some continuity, some kind of unity:

I wanted to pause and look for the eternal
    abysmal vein
I had already touched in stones or in the
    flash of
lightning that gave off a kiss.

Touching, more than seeing, hearing, smelling or tasting, is the sense which discovers most in this book, and it is understandable that tactile qualities should attract Neruda as he explores part of the earth. What gives this book its peculiar radiance is that the poet never abandons his faith in touching, even when he is trying to ‘touch’ what is completely intangible: a thread of continuity from primitive to present man. The link, he suggests, is the earth; knowing and loving the only live presence which our forebears also experienced. The rest is dead: beliefs, artifacts, entire races of people, countries … Architecture, whether mental or physical, is destructible, leaving only ruins to be studied, whereas the earth in obeying a cosmic order lives on. The substance of man, throughout its changes, is what the poet hopes to find. At the end of poem 2 he asks:

What was man? In what part of his open
near shops and whistling, in which of his
 metallic movements
lived the indestructible, the unperishing—

The question is an ancient one, probably predating its first written formulation, and inevitably leads not to an answer but to a consciousness of death, the refinement of which prepares us for venturing an answer. Consciousness of mortality marks the next three poems (3,4,5), where Neruda faces the power of death in its many guises, especially the “short daily death,” and he faces the issue dramatically rather than philosophically, thus making it personal. In poem 4 the poetic voice no longer narrates; it addresses death directly, and the dialogue is a prelude to other dialogues with successive interlocuters. Whether consciously adopted or not, the technique is adroit, for it eliminates a rhetorical atmosphere. If Neruda had begun Alturas de Macchu Picchu by addressing other men (to whom the poems are eventually dedicated), our entrance into the text could not but have seemed facile and unprivate. Dealing with the most intimate area of each man, the soul, the poet must tread questioningly. This for me is one of the book's supreme achievements: Neruda reveals a prodigious amount about his soul, respects the mystery of others and gradually fuses us all in a vision of mankind. Neruda the lyricist has triumphed over Neruda the politician, the latter of whom in lesser poems makes immediate assumptions about what we are or should be, but who supplies only stereotypes. The issue is pertinent, I believe, for too often the political and the poetical have been mistaken in Pablo Neruda. Political implications may be detected in these poems, true; but politics is not necessary, nor even relevant really.

To return to the technical question of the introduction of dialogue, it is curious that Neruda speaks first to death, then to a place (the location, Macchu Picchu), then to the multifarious life of the South American continent (down to its minerals), and finally, decisively, to fellow man (”hermano“). Progressing from the abstract to an increasingly human life dramatizes the final unity between individuals. Musically, the movement is from an orchestration to a duo, a duo that symbolizes the linking of any man with any man. As the participants in the poetic dialogue change, so do the grammatical moods used; the indicative is preferred until the poet asks for company in poem 8, where the imperative (not at all mandatory) takes over: “Come, miniscule life,” is how he urges living organisms from below to rise with him, revealing his very human desire to reach the heights in warm company, not solitary triumph. The message runs throughout Neruda's poetry and perhaps helps to explain its author's popularity today, when swarming technological inventions threaten our senses and, by extension, our sentiments. The ascent is an escape from all in contemporary life which separates us.

The poet states at the beginning of poem 6 that he has climbed to the “high city of scaled stones” out of “the atrocious tangle of lost jungles,” and it is there—with arriving, “here”—that he feels the full impact of the cosmos he has experienced intermittently until now:

Here man's feet rested at night
next to the eagle's feet in high bloodthirsty
lairs, and at dawn
they tread with the feet of the thunder
 on rarified snow
and they touched the earth and stones
Page 153  |  Top of Article
until they could recognize them at night or in

An almost erotic magic. Neruda envisions primitive man secure even amidst danger and extremes, conquering the peaks of the earth as surely as the eagle and the thunder. The images of their feet contacting the earth transmit the power and closeness of the three—man, eagle, thunder. Like a pre-Columbian sculptor, Neruda insistently exaggerates hands, feet, eyes. Through the torrential metaphors that characterize his poetry, these three features recur again and again, as if obeying an instinct, or a wish to keep alive in verse the first South American man.

At the summits death reappears, this time historically, as the end of a civilization which Neruda presents as a falling: “all that you were fell: customs, worn out / syllables, masks of dazzling light.” But although he is made conscious of death again, he is also on the verge of discovering the “eternal vein” he has been seeking; it is the stone, the material that has outlived catastrophes and recorded, past for future:

But a permanence of stone and word:
the city like a glass was raised in the hands
of all, live, dead, silent, sustained
by so much death, a wall, by so much life a
of petals of stone: the permanent rose, the
this Andean reef of glacial colonies.

With this view of Macchu Picchu, we are ready for the synthesis given five lines further:

the high site of man's dawn:
the highest vessel that ever contained silence:
a life of stone after so many lives.

These three lines depict the counterpart for all the life of the present below. Whereas no shape can contain the numerous, diverse lives and “short daily deaths,” the wandering and anguish of the cities,—in sum, the palpitating presences Neruda describes—the lost Andean colony is like a vessel of stone whose petrification suggests at once former life, and lives, and their death.

The sight of the “glacial colonies” coincides with a sudden shift in Neruda's style. It is here in poem 8 that the imperative is introduced and his language becomes much tighter, more direct. Is the change inspired by the change in nature's panorama? (With the meandering, there is a more discursive style; with the arrival, condensation.) Whatever the cause, the effect is an artistic contraction which is accentuated in poem 9, where conventional syntactical orders vanish and are replaced by an exhaustive inventory of images ordered in a distinct way. The images are issued either one per line or are neatly grouped, two per line. Such form comes as a mild shock: Neruda's language usually flows, yet here it is abruptly locked into rhythms whose regularity suggests a litany. These lines are a sample of the symmetrical accentuation (two stresses per clause), more striking in the original Spanish:

Triangular tunic, pollen of stone.
Lamp of granite, bread of stone.
Mineral serpent, rose of stone.

This type of verse contrasts with another, which is built on a single image rather than a pair and does not follow a strict pattern of accentuation; there are usually three stresses per line, but the distribution is not as symmetrical:

Regime of the claw provoked.
Gale withstood by the slope.
Immobile turquoise waterfall.

Forty-three such lines are packed together, and conventional transitions are absent. At first reading, the poem is like a stone wall: so full of content (literally speaking) that meaning cannot be penetrated. It is a poem of pure impact, perhaps the effect of Macchu Picchu on the poet's imagination. Instead of exploring and wondering as he first did, or addressing some entity in his mind, the poet now stops and names; he regresses to the most primitive type of discourse: the utterance, which in this context hardly seems like utterance because of the profusion of metaphors. At this peak in his imagery, the poet captures the spatial, temporal, material, and spiritual complexity suggested by the ruins of Macchu Picchu.

And just as the poetic language has become concentrated, so has the matter described. Stone becomes in poem 9 the beginning, middle and end of human life. Present as primary rock, it is also the statues, walls and hand-carved objects preserving man's past. Seeing the stone remains of human labors in a rocky panorama where no one has survived calls to mind the power and durability of this first solid form of the creative rhythm (air→ fire→ water→ stone). The harmony achieved by the poet is impressive: his wandering and climbing stopped, he fixates at the summits on the only solid element—stone— Page 154  |  Top of Articleand the modifications in his verbal expression register his adjustment to the surroundings.

Confrontation with this world of stone intensifies the poet's awareness of man's precarious essence in a cosmic scheme where the elements seem so firmly established. Poem 10 opens with:

Stone in stone, man, where was he?
Air in air, man, where was he?
Time in time, man, where was he?
Were you also the little broken piece
of the unfinished man, of an empty eagle
that through the streets of today, in the
through the leaves of a dead fall
is hammering his soul into his grave?
The poor hand, and foot, the poor life …

The spell has been broken. The cryptic assemblage in stone has provoked a single plaintive question: “Where was he?”, which is perhaps the same as asking “Where am I?” No answer is offered, nor could it be, considering the beliefs of the questioner. Because Neruda, an incessant traveller in his own lifetime, never quenched his thirst for “the place.” (An earlier book of poems hinted in its own title at this preoccupation: Residence on Earth.)

In the magnificent poem 10, Neruda's perceptions of matter are transfused by his awareness of orders of which matter is merely a vestigial reminder. He is at once dazzled by the real spectacle of Macchu Picchu and intent on getting beyond, to the men lost in it:

I interrogate you, salt of the roads,
show me the spoon, let me, architecture,
gnaw with a stick at the stamens of stone,
climb all the steps of air up to the void,
scratch the entrails until I touch man.

Into the realm of the untouchable and indeed, the intangible, Neruda persists in his quest: to touch, even in disappearing matter, man. His insistently physical probing reveals a poet convinced of the power of every atom of life on the earth and determined to stay close to the organic matter that nourishes him.

The impact of the summits on Neruda is reproduced in the poetry, which transports us to that “confused splendor.” And for the poet, there must have been a considerable struggle to both record his diverse impressions and manage his verbal material so as to create in us the illusion of finding that supreme reality at the summits: a sense of feeling for other men. There is evidence of this tension in the middle of poem 11:

Let me forget, wide stone, and powerful
the transcendent measurement, the stone of
and from the staff let me today slide
my hand long the hypotenuse of stiff blood
   and hairshirt.

Faced with the “powerful proportion”—massive stone, the past disintegrating the present—Neruda's wish for unity is momentarily endangered: the scale is too enormous to be captured or shared. His perspective, unlike the sophisticated perspective of an elaborate camera designed to control visual fields, is that of the poor human eye, overcome by the summits and all they suggest to his spirit. So he pleads, almost humbly, for a chance to know, at these real and figurative altitudes, with his senses: “let me slide my hand …”. Touching continues to be as important as speaking.

And his speech, which has been a confessing, telling, wondering, asking, inviting and uttering, becomes in the last line of poem 11 simply talking: “come up to be born with me, brother.” The sentence is repeated as the opening line of the final poem, where it becomes a gentle urging, showing a simplicity and compassion that echo through poem 12. It is here that Neruda explicitly states his poetic purpose: “I come to speak for your dead mouths.” He, the living, hopes to perpetuate those gone; and as poet, hopes to unite us with them. He offers his words and his body to join men. The closing line of Alturas de Macchu Picchu is:

Speak through my words and blood.

A testimony to Pablo Neruda's concept of art and life.

Source: Agnes Gullón, “Pablo Neruda at Macchu Picchu,” in Chicago Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, Autumn 1975, pp. 138-45.

Kay Engler

In the following excerpt, Engler examines the use of metaphor in Neruda's “The Heights of Macchu Picchu.”

It is generally conceded that after Residencia en la tierra (1933-35), Pablo Neruda's finest Page 155  |  Top of Articlework is Las alturas de Macchu Picchu, written in 1943 following the poet's first visit to the fabulous lost city of the Incas, first published in 1946 and later included in his Canto general (1950). Las alturas de Macchu Picchu is important not only because of its intrinsic literary merit, but also because, as critics have pointed out, it represents a key to Pablo Neruda's evolution as a poet. For example, Hernán Loyola has pointed out in Ser y morir en Pablo Neruda that Las alturas de Macchu Picchu is “[un] poema-sintesis … [cuya] significación radica en el hecho de reflejar el punto culminante de una encrucijada dialeéctica, la resolución final de una etapa del proceso interior que venía viviendo Neruda, y, al mismo tiempo, la apertura de una nueva etapa.”

Amado Alonso's now classic Poesía y estilo de Pablo Neruda stands alone as an invaluable guide to the study of the first stage of Neruda's poetic development, the surrealist period of Residencia en la tierra (1933-35). Criticism of Neruda's later works has tended to be thematic rather than stylistic, a tendency which perhaps reflects the change in Neruda's poetry itself toward a more prosaic, less hermetic style. The criticism which exists on Las alturas de Macchu Picchu is either vague and impressionistic (Loyola, de Lellis, Larrea) or thematic (Rodriguez-Fernandez, Montes). Robert Pring-Mill's brief introduction to Nathaniel Tarn's English translation of the poem stands as an exception. Pring-Mill outlines the basic structure of the work and comments briefly on the poem's imagery. What follows is an attempt to expand on Pring-Mill's introduction, to study carefully and in depth the nature of the imagery and the metaphorical structure of the work.

The poet Pablo Neruda enters the world of Macchu Picchu with a two-fold inheritance from the past: the shattering experience of a world of chaos and disorder recorded in his Residencia en la tierra and Tercera residencia, and the kinship in human suffering experienced in the Spanish Civil War and recorded in España en el corazoón. The poems of Residencia, in themselves, exhibit a spiritual duality: between a material world in chaos and disintegration and the plenum of nature and matter, of the vegetal universe which presages life and well-being; between the poet's horror at the insignificance and vulnerability of the individual human being confronted with the totality of Being and his longing to be a part of that Being; between the poet's awareness of his own discordant, disintegrating self and his search for meaning; between his profound tenderness and concern for human sorrow, fragility and weakness and his simultaneous repugnance before a distorted humanity, before what human weakness has wrought: a world which suffocates man and nature's full potentiality.

In reality, España en el corazoón adds a third dimension. Neruda abandons, for the moment, the problem of his relationship with the material world and turns instead to the problem of his relationship with his fellow men. Probing behind the world of objects, of material things, he touches on the material basis of human fraternity: a common bond of suffering willfully toward a certain end. As Luis Monguioó states: “Neruda suddenly saw himself no longer estranged, but ‘reunited’—not with accidents of matter, in blind processes of cosmic fatality, as before, but with men in processes of will.”

In the twelve poems of Las alturas de Macchu Picchu Neruda reflects and actually re-lives the earlier stages of his poetry. Macchu Picchu thus becomes the center of a complex web of associations which are only fully resolved in the context of his other works. The basic structure of the poem follows the dual vision established in the Residencias. The final resolution of the conflict, however, is profoundly influenced by the humanitarian vision of España en el corazón. Within the framework of the Residencias, the poem is a continuation of the poet's search for the individual's place in the universe and of the aesthetic used to convey that search. At the same time, the poem is an attempt to fit the mataphysics and aesthetics of the Residencias into the somewhat narrower social and historical framework of España en el corazón.Within the context of the Canto general, an epic-like work which explores the nature of Latin American history and culture, Las alturas de Macchu Picchu stands Page 156  |  Top of Articleat the thematic center of the search for historical reality.

Las alturas de Macchu Picchu and the Canto general of which it is a part stand as a monumental and grandiose effort to encompass the universal, to integrate the whole of reality. Macchu Picchu, symbolically and in a very real sense, offers the poet a kind of Archimedean point, beyond time and space, from which to survey the whole of being and to perceive the dimensions of its meaning. At the same time, Macchu Picchu stands at the center of reality past and present, temporal and eternal, particular and universal. It is, in Neruda's words, the destination of time, “dirección del tiempo,” the destination of all things, the center of meaning, the point from which all makes sense. The central paradox of Macchu Picchu, above and beyond the world, yet standing at its existential center, is the principle around which the poem is structured. On the heights of Macchu Picchu, existence is made eternal, the particular becomes universal, many are made one, being is completed.

… Neruda's metaphors of Macchu Picchu function as the concrete universals of which Frye spoke. Each image represents a particular world—human, divine, animal, vegetable, mineral—which together form the oneness of Being. Macchu Picchu joins together the vegetable world (viña, polen, rosa, planta, árbol), the animal world (águila, serpiente, caballo, paloma, abeja), the mineral world (hierro, piedra, granito, cuarzo, amaranto), the human (párpado, cabellera, cinturón, manos, dentadura), and the heavenly (cielo, alturas, estrellas). In Macchu Picchu is joined the undisciplined life force (manantial, vendaval, catarata, temporal, volcaén, ola, réfaga) and man's attempts to control it (bastión, escala, muralla, techumbre, torre, ventana, techo, cúpula, catedral); the formless vastness (luz, vapor, noche, nieblas, bruma) and man's attempt to understand it (geometrí a, libro, arquitectura).

Each metaphor serves as the center of a complex web of associations and in turn is woven into the complex web of associations which is Macchu Picchu itself. A close examination of several of these epithets will suffice to show how the individual metaphor functions in creating the total Metaphor: (1) “aguila sideral”: The eagle (representative of the animal world) flying high, reaches the stars (world of the heavenly bodies). Macchu Picchu itself reaches the height of the stars. The poet's ideal stands above the real world, reaching the level of the heavens. (2) “viña de bruma”: The vine represents the fullness of the vegetal universe; it appears in the mist where water, the current of life, is in a state of suspicion in the air, enveloping the vine. The vine is a common communion symbol (the source of wine, spilt blood), yet it appears wrapped in the mists, the mysterious nature of the Eucharist. On a purely representational level, the dark stones of Macchu Picchu appear as vine leaves enveloped in mist on a dark night. (3) “escala torrencial”: The stairway, a creation of man, made of stone, appears as a torrent of water. Water the life force, appears frozen in time, eternal. (4) “polen de piedra”: The pollen of the vegetal world (agent of germination) has turned to stone. The process of creation is made eternal. (5) “témpano entre las rá fagas labrado”: Interaction of water and wind on the cold heights have made Macchu Picchu an iceberg. Like the buried tower, its roots extend unseen far below the surface to the center of creation. (6) “muralla por los dedos suavizada”: The stone walls of Macchu Picchu are softened by human fingers. The eternity of stone and the finitude of man are one.

The eternal refrain of permanence—stone, granite, rock—runs throughout the poem: “polen de piedra […], pan de piedra […], rosa de piedra […], manantial de piedra […], luz de piedra […], vapor de piedra […], libro de piedra […], lámapara de granito […]” as the poet evokes the apocalyptic world of oneness. Yet a disturbing note in a minor key jarrs the ear in a series of ambiguous images: “paloma endurecida,” “manos de puma, roca sangrienta,” “nivel sangriento,” “luna arañada,” “volcán de manos,” “catarata oscura”; and other less ambiguous metaphors: “piedra amenazante,” “dirección del tiempo.”

The menacing stones overwhelm the poet at last, and in the next poem the subdued questioning breaks into full view: “Piedra en la piedra, el hombre, dó nde estuvo? / Aire en el aire, el hombre, dónde estuvo?” Turning against Macchu Picchu, he demands:

Macchu Picchu, pusiste
piedras en la piedra, y en la base, harapo?
Carboón sobre carbón, y en el fondo la
Fuego en el oro y en él, temblando el rojo
goteroón de la sangre?

Neruda abandons the “rosa abstracta” of Macchu Picchu because he cannot bear the thought of the human suffering required:

Page 157  |  Top of Article
Antigua America, novia sumergida,

también, tambieén tus dedos,
los que la rosa abstracta y la línea del frío, los
que el pecho sangriento del nuevo cereal
hasta la tela de materia radiante, hasta las
    duras cavidades,
tambieén tambieén, America enterrada, guardaste
    en lo más bajo,
en el amargo intestino, como un aguila, el

His vision of paradise was too abstract, too European (remember “alguien que me esperó entre violines encontró un mundo como una torre enterrada” and cannot be reconciled with his all too real love for his fellow men, past and present, and his concern for their suffering: “Déjame olvidar, ancha piedra, las piedras del panal, / y de la escuadra déjame hoy resbalar / la mano sobre la hipotenusa de áspera sangre y silicio.”

His vision now must be consistent with that he brought with him from España en el corazoón. He seeks not the collective permanence of the past, but “Juan Cortapiedras, hijo de Wiracocha, / Juan Comefrio, hijo de estrella verde, / Juan Piesdescalzos, nieto de la turquesa […].” The abstract “Sube conmigo, amor americano” of the eighth poem has become, in the last poem, “Sube a nacer conmigo, hermano.” His hand now grasps the hand of his brother. Neruda, who once spurned the trembling cup of human sorrows in favor of the stone chalice of Macchu Picchu, now asks the men of Macchu Picchu: “traed a la copa de esta nueva vida / vuestros viejos dolores enterrados.” Not the abstract stone rose, but the real blood of his brothers, spilt in sacrifice, and now coursing through his veins, is the source of communion.

The style of the work changes considerably in the last three poems. Neruda now uses the prosaic style of España en el corazñn, almost totally devoid of metaphor or complicated syntax. Like the style, the final vision of Las alturas de Macchu Picchu is that of Tercera residencia, where the poet has said: “Yo de los hombres tengo la misma mano herida, / yo sostengo la misma copa roja, / igual asombro enfurecido.”

Neruda at last abandons the apocalyptic vision which had haunted him since the early years of Residencia en la tierra. He no longer projects his desires on a world of paradise, a near-divine world, but upon the human world about him. The religious imagery of the last poem suggests his acceptance, instead, of the vision of the humanitarianism of a very human Christ. The poet asks his fellow men to reveal their sorrows, expressed in terms of the sorrows of Christ, and offers himself as a kind of substitute Christ figure who will express their sorrows for them and through whom communion is possible: “Yo vengo a hablar por vuestras bocas muertas […] / Apegadme los cuerpos como imanes. / Acudid a mis venas y a mi boca. / Hablad por mis palabras y mi sangre.”

Source: Kay Engler, “Image and Structure in Neruda's Las alturas de Macchu Picchu,” in Symposium, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer 1974, pp. 130-45.


Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 1973.

Cohen, Jonathan, “The Early History of Neruda in English (1925-1937),” in Romance Notes, Vol. 22, No. 3, Spring 1982, pp. 272-76.

Felstiner, John, Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu, Stanford University Press, 1980, p. 190.

Hirsch, Edward, “Poetry: Pablo Neruda,” in Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring 1998, pp. 113-14.

Neruda, Pablo, “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” translated by John Felstiner, in Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu, by John Felstiner, Stanford University Press, 1980, pp. 202-39.

Nobel Foundation, Nobel Diploma for Pablo Neruda, translated by the Nobel Foundation, Nobel Prize in Literature, Stockholm, Sweden, 1971, (accessed October 18, 2007).

Rivero, Eliana, “Pablo Neruda,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 331: Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature, Part 3: Lagerkvist—Pontoppidan, Gale, 2007, pp. 329-56.

Wood, Michael, “The Poetry of Neruda,” in the New York Review of Books, Vol. 21, No. 15, October 3, 1974, p. 8.

Wright, James, “‘I Come to Speak for Your Dead Mouths,’” in Poetry Vol. 112, No. 3, June 1968, p. 194.


D'Altroy, Terence N., The Incas, Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

D'Altroy, a specialist in Incan archaeology, describes the rise of the Inca Empire, its Page 158  |  Top of Articletechnological innovations, its unique government, and the cultural landscape comprising this immense empire.

Dipiazza, Francesca Davis, Chile in Pictures, Twenty-First Century Books, revised edition, 2007.

Dipiazza has interspersed lavish photographs of the diverse Chilean landscapes with maps and text, creating a book that both informs and entertains. Neruda was born in the verdant South but dedicated his political career to the peoples of the arid North.

Poirot, Luis, Pablo Neruda: Absence and Presence, translated by Alastair Reid, W. W. Norton, 2004.

Poroit has created a unique collection in this book, assembling photographs of Neruda, his homes, and his possessions, and mingling these images with reminiscences by the poet's friends, such as Diego Muños, Roberto Matta, and wife Matilde Urrutia. Poroit's book provides a refreshing new look inside the life of this famous poet.

Urrutia,Matilde, My Life with Pablo Neruda, translated by Alexandria Giardino, Stanford General Books, 2004.

Chilean singer Urrutia was Neruda's third wife and in this intimate memoir, she recalls her life alongside the famous poet as they overcame health problems, regime changes, exile, and persecution. Amongst the hardships they also shared an enduring friendship and passionate love.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3079300018