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Biography of Pablo Neruda

Green was his favorite color, he always wrote in green as it was the color of hope. Gabriel García Marquez, Colombian novelist, once referred to him as “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language”. He was a communist who fought for world unity and peace, persecuted in his country and forced to exile, his work is a reflection that safeguards the cultural heritage of Chile and the entire South American continent.


Pablo Neruda’s real name was Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto and was born in the town of Parral in the Maule Region in Chile on July 12th, 1904. His parents were José del Carmen Reyes Morales and Rosa Basoalto Opazo. He was a railway employee and she was a school teacher who died of tuberculosis two months after giving birth to his first and only son. Soon after the death of his wife José del Carmen Reyes moved his family to Temuco and a few years later he remarried Trinidad Candia Malverde. Pablo Neruda grew up Temuco with half-brother Rodolfo and half-sister Laura. He attended the Men’s Lyceum of Temuco where he completed high school. The school was renamed Lyceum Pablo Neruda of Temuco after he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Early years 1917-1920

While in high school at age 13, he published his first poems among them are “Entusiasmo y Perseverancia” – “Enthusiasm and Perseverance” in the regional daily “La Mañana”. In 1918 he published 13 poems in the journal “Run and Fly” including “My eyes”. In 1919 he won the third prize in a local contest with his poem “Nocturno ideal”.

Neruda’s father opposed his son’s interest in writing; nevertheless Neruda found support in his school teachers. At age 15 Neruda met Gabriella Mistral who was a teacher in the local girl’s school. She introduced him to the work of European poets and particularly Russian literature which influenced him the most. Because Neruda wanted to hide his publications from his father he chose the pseudonym of Pablo Neruda, all future publications after October 1920 were published under that name. A Czech poet Jan Neruda (1834-1891) inspired the young poet from whom he took his last name. Later he legally changed his name to Pablo Neruda.

In 1920 he became a contributor in “Selva Austral”, “Diario Austral of Temuco” and various literary student journals in Temuco. He became president of the Athenaeum Literary in his high school and deputy secretary of the Student Association. The same year, he won the first prize for poetry in the spring festival in Temuco. He graduated high school from the Men’s Lyceum of Temuco.

Universidad de Chile – 1921

Neruda’s father wanted him to become a teacher. In 1921 when he was 16 and after graduating from high school Neruda moved to Santiago to study Education and French at the University of Chile. He had no interest in pedagogy; his passion was in learning French so that he could read French literature in that language. Upon his arrival he published a series of poems in the university magazine “Clarity” signed as Pablo Neruda. During this period as a student he produced some of his best known work and established his reputation as a poet, he also met Rosa Albertina Azocar who was his inspiration for a series of poems in Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. It was clear that Pablo wanted to pursue a career in writing so his father stopped sending money. In July 1923 the first edition of “Crepusculario” – “Book of Twilights” was published by Clarity Editions of the Student Federation of Chile. The following year, 1924, the first edition of “Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Cancion Desesperada” – “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair” was published by Nascimiento Editors, which would become one of his best-known and most translated works. The publication of “Twenty Love Poems” was notoriously controversial due to its eroticism which led to the publication in “La Nacion” of a letter titled “”Exegesis and loneliness”. This letter explained the creation of the love poem and his frustration at the lack of understanding within the literary critics.

In 1925 he became the director of the magazine “Knights of Wands”. The following year two books were published by Nascimiento; ”Tentativa y su esperanza” –  “The habitant and his hope” and “Anillos” – “Rings”. “Crepusculario” – “Book of Twilights” goes on a second edition.

 Diplomatic career 1926

As a writer Neruda was facing poverty so he began to look for a job as a consul. Because of his literary achievement and relationships he cultivated as a writer he was able to obtain a consular job in Burma. He remained a regular contributor to the newspaper “La Nacion” in Santiago where he published his travel chronics.

From 1927 to early 1929 he stayed in Burma as an honorary consul. In 1929 he was appointed consul in Colombo, Sri Lanka. During these years he experimented with different styles and wrote a series of surrealistic poems which would be part of “Residencia en la tierra” – “Residence on Earth” one of his most important books. In 1930 he was appointed consul in Singapore and Batavia in Java where he married a Dutch woman named Marie Antoinette Haagenar Vogelzang. In 1931 the international economic downturn made the government of Chile cut on consular positions and Neruda was asked to return to Chile. After a voyage of two months, in February of 1932, he arrived in Chile accompanied by his new wife. He resettled in Santiago and was offered a job at the Library of the Foreign Ministry which did not satisfy him; two months later he was transferred to the Department of Cultural Extension of the Ministry of Labor. At this time the second edition of “Twenty Poems of Love and a Song of despair” is published.

The following year, 1933, Neruda was appointed Consul in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Nascimiento Editors publishes “Residence on Earth” limiting its publication to only one hundred copies. In Buenos Aires he met Federico García Lorca with whom he was to establish a close friendship. By the end of the year he was appointed consul in Barcelona. In Madrid he is reunited with Federico García Lorca who introduced him to Rafael Alberti, César Vallejo and Miguel Hernández. He also met Delia del Carril who later became his second wife.

In August 1934 his daughter Malva Marina Trinidad was born in Madrid, she was born with hydrocephalus, a condition that leads to brain swelling. This was a stressful period in the lives of Neruda and his wife and he began a relationship with Delia del Carril.

In 1935 Neruda was transfer to Madrid as consul replacing Gabriela Mistral. Neruda founded “Green Horse for poetry” a literary magazine. He left his wife and daughter in Barcelona and moved in with Delia del Carril.

Spanish Civil War and communism

On July 1936 the Spanish Civil War broke out and Federico Garcia Lorca was assassinated by forces loyal to Franco. This experience had an intense effect on Neruda who for the first time became politicized supporting the republican side and becoming a communist for the rest of his life. Because of his post as a consul he should remain neutral to political causes. He published anonymously “Song to the mothers of the dead militants” in the literary journal “The blue monkey” which later became part of “Spain in the heart”. The Chilean government decided to close its consulate in Madrid.

In 1937 he moved to Paris with Delia del Carril and began his work supporting the Spanish Republic. He organized the Latin American Committee to defend the Spanish Republic and gave a conference about Federico Garcia Lorca against the Chilean government advice. He published his views in the magazine “The world poets defend the Spanish people” which was published in Spanish and French. Neruda joined Peruvian Cesar Vallejo with whom he worked in the Association for the Defense of Culture. In the magazine “The blue monkey” he published the poem “In this way” later known as “I explain a few things” in his book “Spain in the heart”. This poem is a breakthrough in Neruda’s style, which changed to a radical and militant tone concerned with social and political matters.

By the end of the year he had to move back to Chile as he lost his post because of his political views. In Chile he founded the Alliance of Intellectuals from Chile for the Defense of Culture. The first edition of 2000 copies of “España en el Corazon” – “Spain in the heart” sold out in the first few weeks and 2 months later a second edition was in print. “España en el corazón” had great impact as it was printed during the civil war.

His father, Jose del Carmen Reyes, died in Temuco on May 1938. Neruda supported the election of the newly elected president, Pedro Aguirre Cerda, and soon after he was appointed special consul to Paris to assist in the immigration of Spanish refugees in France. He assisted about 2000 political refugees flee to Chile.

In 1940 Spanish philologist and literary critic, Amado Alonso, published the first major academic work about Pablo Neruda’s work; “Poetry and style of Pablo Neruda, Interpretation of a hermetic poetry”.

Mexico 1940 -1943

In 1940 Neruda was appointed Consul General of Chile in Mexico City. After the assassination attempt of Leon Trotsky Neruda granted a visa to Chile to Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros who was accused as one of the conspirators to murder Trotsky. Neruda was suspended for one month without pay for engaging in such misconduct. Once in Chile the painter spent one year painting a mural in a school in Chillán.

In 1942 Neruda was invited to Cuba by the Ministry of education to give a series of lectures. While in Cuba he received the news of the passing of Miguel Hernandez, a close friend, in Spanish prison. During his stay in Cuba he wrote two poems “To Miguel Hernandez killed in the prisons of Spain” and “The lost shepherd” which were included in “Canto General” and “The grapes and the wind” respectively. In Cuba he started collecting seashells. On a trip to Mexico at the Theater of the Mexican Union of Electricians he read his poem “Song to Stalingrad” which celebrated the first major Russian victory over the Nazis. This generated such criticism that he wrote another poem “New love song to Stalingrad”, both poems were included in his book “Third Residence”.

A first private edition of one hundred copies of “Canto general of Chile, Fragments” was published in Mexico. Exclusive and elegantly printed all the copies were signed by Neruda and given to friends and family. On March 1943 he hears the news that his daughter Malva had died in Nazi occupied Holland and shortly he married his companion Delia del Carril though the Chilean courts declared it illegal.

Once again Neruda violated his diplomatic neutrality when at the funeral of Leocadia Felizardo, mother of Brazilian communist leader Luis Carlos Prestes, read his poem “Dura elegía” making remarks that offends Getulio Vargas, the Brazilian dictator. Neruda voluntarily stepped down of his position and returned to Chile. On his way to Santiago Neruda traveled to Cusco where he visited the ruins of Machu Picchu. The Inca citadel inspired him to write “Alturas de Machu Picchu” – “Heights of Machu Picchu” which he completed in 1945. In this book he valued the accomplishments of ancient Andean civilizations but also denounced the slavery that took place in order to achieve such an outstanding construction and their subsequent conquest by the Spaniards.

Return to Chile and the Communist Party 1944

Soon after his return to Chile, Neruda was appointed candidate for senator for the provinces of Antofagasta and Tarapacá representing the Communist Party of Chile. Even thought he was not an official militant, he joined the party a few months later. A bilingual edition of “Residence on Earth” was published by New Directions, New York.

He devoted himself to campaigning and in 1945 he was elected Senator of the Republic. In 1946 Gabriel Gonzales Videla was elected President of Chile in an alliance with the Communist Party. The following year Gonzales Videla turns against the Communists and aligns himself with the United States starting a campaign against the communists. A violent repression of a miner’s strike in Lota led the poet to criticize President Gonzales Videla’s policy in a speech known as “Yo acuso” – “I accuse” in which he read the names of the miners and their families who were imprisoned. Because Gonzales Videla banned the communist party newspaper “The Century” Neruda published a letter “Intimate letter for millions of men” in many Latin American countries. This letter denounced the government policies against its workers. The government accused Neruda of defamation and of denigrating Chile abroad and started the process of impeachment. From February 1948 until March 1949 he lived in hiding and constantly changing houses to avoid being captured. During this period he finished “Canto General”.

Exile 1948

Local and international solidarity was expressed in defense of the Chilean poet. After several failed attempts to escape Chile, Neruda finally succeeded to cross the border to Argentina with the help of his friends Victor Pey, Jorge Bellet, Raul Bulnes and Victor Bianchi. When receiving the Nobel Prize in 1971, the poet remembered this adventure as a spiritual journey to freedom. Once in Buenos Aires he joined his long time friend Miguel Angel Asturias and taking advantage of their physical resemblance Asturias lent Neruda his passport to travel to Europe. He crossed the Argentinean border to Montevideo, Uruguay and from there to France disguised as the Guatemalan novelist Miguel Angel Asturias.

In order to assume his own identity Pablo Neruda had to go to Switzerland where his old passport, brought by his wife, was awaiting for him. Pablo Picasso making use of his prestige to make this possible. Back in Paris he attended the World Congress of Peace to a surprised and stunned audience. The Chilean Embassy requested to confiscate Neruda’s passport but it was in vain.

The next three years he spent his time traveling through Europe and Asia. In Moscow and Leningrad the poet participated in the sesquicentennial of the birth of Alexander Pushkin. Neruda was an admirer of the Soviet Union and Stalin which is reflected in his poetry “Canto a Stalingrado” “Song to Stalingrad” and “Nuevo canto de amor a Stalingrado”-“New love song to Stalingrad”. Later he would denounce Stalin’s cult of personality and the crimes committed under his command. He travelled to India, China, Poland, Hungary and the Czechoslovaquia, in Prage he applied for a visa to London but he was denied.

In 1949 he travelled to Mexico where he participated in the Latin American Congress for Peace. In Mexico the poet became ill with thrombophlebitis, inflammation of a vein caused by a blood clot and Matilde Urrutia, a Chilean singer, was hired take care of him starting a love affair which lasted until his death in 1973. This affair was poetically fruitful, he produced many poems where Matilde Urritia was his muse and they are included in “The captain’s verses”, “On hundred love sonnets”, “Estravagario”, “The Barcarolle and “The sea and the bells”. From 1953 onwards her presence in the poet’s work becomes more intense. In 1950 while recovering in Mexico “Canto General” was published in Mexico City with an initial edition of 500 copies and in Chile the communist party published a clandestine edition. At the end of the year he received the Stalin Prize for the Peace.

Return to Chile 1952

Neruda retuned to Chile in 1952 after three years in exile, his return was made possible by the weakness of Gonzales Vileda’s government and the support of the poet’s movement group comprised of intellectuals and politicians. During this period “The captain’s verses” was published. This book was controversial as it was published anonymously for many editions out of respect for his wife. In this book his mistress, Matilde Urrutia was the muse of his poems. By the time the book was published he was separated from his wife.

Neruda was actively involved in the presidential election of Salvador Allende and participated in the XI Congress of the Communist Party of Chile. During this period he traveled the world extensively promoting his books and giving speeches and lectures and when not traveling he would spend his time in his house in Isla Negra. In 1959 during a visit to Cuba he met Fidel Castro.

Between 1954 and 1959 seven books were published, among them are three Elementary odes books: “Elementary odes”, “Third book of odes”, “New elementary odes”, “Navigations and return”, “Extravagaria”, “Grapes and the Wind” and “One hundred love sonnets”. The last one is one of the most accomplished and greatest poems of the Neruda, it celebrates his love for his lover Matilde Urrutia whom he married in 1966.

On March 1966 his first wife Maria Antonieta Hagenaar died in Holland. The same year he became the first Latin American to receive the title of Doctor Honoris Causa in Philosophy from Oxford University

The Nobel Prize of Literature 1971

In 1970 the Communist Party of Chile appointed Neruda as pre-candidate for the upcoming presidential election; however he withdrew from it and supported Salvador Allende, the candidate of the Popular Unity Party, the first socialist elected president. In 1971 Neruda gets nominated ambassador to Chile in Paris which would last until 1972 when his health deteriorated. As ambassador he got to negotiate the Chilean external debt with the Paris Club.

On October 1971 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel Prize Academy pointed out the poet’s persecution and his work for the world’s community and peace. However the decision was not an easy one as they did not forget the poet’s past support of the Stalinist dictatorship.  At the end of the month his health started deteriorating and was operated from prostate cancer in Paris. He spent his recovery at The Manquel, a cottage he bought in Normandy. He resigned his post as ambassador of Chile in Paris.

Final Years

Neruda never recuperated and was terminally ill when he returned to Chile. He spent his final years in his house in Isla Negra accompanied by his wife Matilde Urrutia and his close friends.

As the government of Allende collapsed, prosecutions were initiated against his political supporters, most of Neruda’s friends were taken prisoners or had to seek asylum abroad. Neruda’s house in Isla Negra gets broken into and his books and notes destroyed by the military police. Meanwhile his health was rapidly failing and he had to be transferred from Isla Negra to Santiago. Neruda was hospitalized at Santa María Clinic in Santiago and three days later, on the evening of September 23, 1973 the poet died of heart failure.

Neruda was temporarily buried in the mausoleum of the Fittborn family. Large crowds gathered at the cemetery defying the measures of the military police where they paid tribute to one of the greatest poet Chile had known.

Source: Fundación Neruda

Related Information

List of the works by Pablo Neruda

Arts and Literature in Chile


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