From air to air, like an empty net
I went between the streets and atmosphere
arriving and departing...
- 'The Heights of Macchu Picchu'
First published separately in 1944, Alturas de Macchu Picchu1 - 'The Heights of Macchu Picchu' - forms part of Pablo Neruda's Canto General, an epic poem about the history and pre-history of Latin America2.
Pablo Neruda was born Neftali Ricardo Reyes y Basoalto in Chile in 1904. He published his first collection at the age of 19 and the following year his Viente poemas de amor y una canción desperada - Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair - appeared and became a best seller throughout the Spanish-speaking world. The book is still available today.
Neruda had a lifelong interest in politics and between 1927 and 1944 he was appointed to the consular service of Chile. His first book of political poems had been published in 1937. In 1947, while serving in the Chilean Senate, he published an open letter in which he accused the Chilean president of betrayal. An order for his arrest was put out and he went into hiding. It was during this time he wrote Canto General. In 1949 he escaped from Chile on horseback to Argentina and went into exile for several years. A romantic view of his exile is portrayed in the Oscar-winning Italian film Il Postino released in 1995.
He was later chosen as the Communist candidate for president in 1970. He also served as an ambassador to France in the years before his death.
During all this, he continued to write poetry. Neruda had a varied career as a poet. His love lyrics are renowned and he wrote in a variety of styles (symbolist, surrealist, romantic) writing powerful poetry in his later years.
In 1971 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He died in 1973.
Discovered in 1911 by the American explorer Hiram Bingham, Macchu Picchu is an Inca stronghold in the Peruvian Andes near the modern city of Cuzco. Nothing is known of its history and it appears that it was never discovered by the Spanish Conquistadors. Bingham himself believed that the site was the last refuge of the Incas from the invading Spanish.
Located 600m above the Urubamba River, the site covers about 13km2. It is one of the most recognisable images in South America and many foreign tourists travel to it on the 'Inca Trail'. Many find it a deeply spiritual site, though it is not known if the Incas saw it this way themselves.
Neruda first visited the site in the early 1940s and this experience led to 'The Heights of Macchu Picchu'.
A Run-through of the Poem
The Heights of Macchu Picchu is a long, complex poem. Split into 12 sections, each is written in dense surreal images. The following is a basic guide to each section.
I - Neruda wanders through the world as 'an empty net' gathering nothing from the world. He plunges his hand into the earth and discovers the 'sulphurous peace' of the world and its 'spent human springtime'.
II - Neruda asks what is the 'indestructible, the imperishable, life' in the world. The focus shifts from the poet himself as he struggles though the world and he sees that all the world is in a similar situation.
III – The poet describes the lives of people in the world as they struggle with living. Every day people die their 'little' deaths.
...many deaths come to each.
Every day a little death.
IV – Neruda arrives at the base of the climb to Macchu Picchu
...the stellar void of the final steps
and the vertiginous spiralling road
He recalls his own 'deaths'. This section returns to the imagery of the first line: 'I went from street to street and river to river, city to city and bed to bed'. Searching among the industrialised, modern world and finding nothing 'I rolled on dying of my own death.'
V – He realises that when he plunged his hand into the ground earlier (in the first section) he found an empty soul. It is not the world that is empty and alien but the souls of the people.
VI – 'And so I scaled the ladder of the earth...' The poet begins his climb to Macchu Picchu. As he climbs he gains an insight into the history of the site.
VII - In another echo of the opening lines of the poem he says: 'Today the empty air no longer weeps'. Neruda speaks to the lost Incas of Peru: 'you tumbled as in autumn to a single death.' He says that they live on in the stones of Macchu Picchu.
VIII – He turns his attention to the great gorge above which the city stands. He talks about the rivers Urabamba and Wilkamayu far below. As he does this, a condor flies over and casts a shadow on a stone sundial.
IX - In this part Neruda gives a long list of surreal epithets for Macchu Picchu.
Thrones toppled by the vine.
Regime of the entangled claw.
Hurricane sustained on the slopes.
Immobile catarac of turquoise
X – He asks 'where is the man?' among the bare stones. Did Macchu Picchu build itself? Neruda wants to know about the people who had once walked the streets.
XI - He plunges his hand into the earth a second time and discovers Man. 'When... the frenzied condor beats my temples... I do not see the swift brute.' Instead, 'I see the man of old'. At this point Neruda loses all connection with his European past; he is now an American and his kinship is with its indigenous people.
XII - Neruda addresses the native peoples, in particular the labourers, weavers, masons, etc. He asks them to 'Rise up to be born with me, my brother'. Neruda feels his own spiritual rebirth and a rebirth of the dead people of the Americas. The poem ends:
Cling to my body like magnets.
Hasten to my veins and to my mouth.
Speak through my words and my blood.
'The Heights of Macchu Picchu' is a poem of ascension, a common poetic device in religious poetry that can also be seen in Dante's 'Divine Comedy'. However this is not a religious poem, but rather, a spiritual one. In a similar way to Dante's poem, the 'I' in the poem represents not just the poet, but also the Common Man.
In its final passages, Neruda's poetry jumps from a personal hope to a global one; from a poetry dealing with the poet's heart to a poetry centred on humanity's struggles.
Similar to TS Eliot's 1921 poem 'The Wasteland' in showing the emptiness of the modern world, 'The Heights of Macchu Picchu' offers a solution that Eliot never did: become one with your past and use this to create a better future.