Image and Structure in Neruda's Las alturas de Macchu Picchu

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Author: Kay Engler
Date: Summer 1974
From: Symposium(Vol. 28, Issue 2)
Reprint In: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 64)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,765 words

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[(essay date summer 1974) In the following essay, Engler evaluates the symbolic structure of The Heights of Macchu Picchu, analyzing archetypal metaphors of apocalyptic and demonic worlds in the poem.]

It is generally conceded that after Residencia en la tierra (1933-35), Pablo Neruda's finest work 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 dialéctica, la resolución final de una etapa del proceso interior que venía viviendo Neruda, y, al mismo tiempo, la apertura de una nueva etapa."1

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,2 de Lellis,3 Larrea4) or thematic (Rodriguez-Fernandez,5 Montes6). 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.7 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 corazón. 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 corazón 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 Monguió 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."8

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 metaphysics 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 at 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,"9 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 achieves this integral vision of reality through the use of metaphor. Interwoven patterns of image and metaphor establish Macchu Picchu as the center of an apocalyptic world where total identification is possible. The nature of metaphor itself, as explained by Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism, is the basis for the construction of an apocalyptic world, "the imaginative conception of the whole of nature as the content of an infinite and eternal living body."10 As Frye explains, metaphor, in its purest and most poetic form, is a matter of the simple juxtaposition of images. Here it operates as the intuition of reality, following the associative patterns of lyricism. On the descriptive level, it operates as a simile in which both the verbal structure (the image itself) and the phenomena to which it is related (the reality behind the image) are present. On the formal, or conceptual, level where images function as ideas (in Frye's words, "where symbols are images or natural phenomena conceived as matter or content") (p. 124), metaphor operates as an analogy of natural proportions. There are four terms (two of which have a common member) implicit in the two images which make up the metaphor. Frye's example is "The hero was a lion," in which courage is the element common to both hero and lion. Finally, on a symbolic level, the metaphor may operate as a concrete universal. If the images used in the metaphor have been established through literary tradition or through the conscious effort of the poet within the confines of his work as archetypes, the metaphor unites, at the same time, individual images and the associative clusters to which they belong. Within the realm of the poetic imagination, metaphor knows no limits beyond those of human desire and fear. Here all things may be compared. In Frye's words, "The literary universe [...] is a universe in which everything is potentially identical with everything else. ... All poetry ... proceeds as though all poetic images were contained within a single universal body" (pp. 124-25). For Frye, the function of metaphor, then, rests on the concept of identity. Metaphor is the process of identifying two or more independent forms, of placing them within a larger enveloping context which nevertheless allows them to retain their individuality. As he states, "Identity is the opposite of similarity or likeness, and total identity is not uniformity, still less monotony, but a unity of various things" (p. 125).

The metaphors and images of a poem are interwoven in the form of a myth that gives structure and meaning to the work. Myth which takes the form of two contrasting worlds of total metaphorical identification, one desirable and the other undesirable, is, in Frye's terminology, "undisplaced." "Displaced" myth suggests implicit mythical patterns in a world more closely related to human experience. The two contrasting worlds are present, but in less extreme form (p. 139). The apocalyptic world presents the categories of reality in the form of the ultimate of man's ideals: the eternal oneness of Being. This is accomplished through the use of the archetypal metaphor, the concrete universal, identical with the others and with each individual in it. The source Frye uses in his discussion of undisplaced myth, the vision of apocalypse, is, of course, the Bible. In the apocalyptic world of the Bible, the divine, human, animal, vegetable and mineral worlds undergo complete metaphorical identification in the person of Christ. He sees the following pattern in the apocalyptic world of the Bible:

divine world = society of gods = One God
human world = society of men = One Man
animal world = sheepfold = One Lamb
vegetable world = garden or park = One Tree (of life)
mineral world = city = One Building, Temple, Stone.
(p. 141)

Christ, who is both one God and one Man, the Lamb of God, the Tree of Life, or the Vine of which we are the branches, the Stone on which the temple is built, unites all, metaphorically and existentially.

The demonic world, on the other hand, is "the presentation of the world that desire totally rejects: the world of nightmare, bondage and pain and confusion. ..." (p. 147). While the apocalyptic world presents the total identity, the oneness of being, the demonic world presents a world of chaos, disintegration, sterility. The demonic world is often a cruel parody of the apocalyptic world: here there is no meaning; rather there is a sense of human remoteness and futility; there is no possibility of fulfillment for the individual; there is no eucharistic communion, but cannibalism, or mutual destruction. The vegetable world is represented as nature gone wild or having destroyed itself (a desert). The city is a ruin, a waste land. The fire of purgation and cleansing has become the fire of hell, or has gone out. Water has become the water of death, or is identified with spilt blood.

These metaphorical patterns are, in themselves, static. Yet they seldom occur in isolation, and when both are present, a dialectical tension is established which pulls the reader toward "the metaphorical and mythical undisplaced core of the work" (p. 151). The relationship of these co-existent structures has traditionally been represented in the static conception of a heaven (apocalyptic world) above, a hell (demonic world) beneath, and a cyclical cosmos or order of nature between. Yet when seen as a dialectic (movement from one structure to another within the narrative of the poem), the relationship is a dynamic one, involving two fundamental movements: a cyclical movement within the order of nature and a dialectical movement from that order into the apocalyptic world above or the demonic world below.

The top half of the cycle, or the movement of ascent, is what Frye calls "the analogy of innocence;" the lower half, or the movement of descent, "the analogy of experience" (p. 151). The function of the analogies of innocence and experience is "the adaptation of myth to nature," a way of dealing with life as process. As Frye explains it, "The apocalyptic and demonic worlds, being structures of pure metaphorical identity, suggest the eternally unchanging, and lend themselves very readily to being projected existentially as heaven and hell, where there is continuous life, but no process of life" (p. 158). Through the analogies of innocence and experience single images and patterns of images come to reflect process, the cyclical movement of the natural world.

Neruda, in Las alturas de Macchu Picchu, makes use of the traditional structures of archetypal imagery which Frye describes, yet modifies them substantially in fashioning his own original vision. The work itself consists of twelve poems of varying length and metrical form, in imitation of the calendar year, twelve lunar cycles in one solar cycle. The first five poems establish the conflict between the apocalyptic and demonic worlds, and introduce the poet as the center of conflict, the point of maximum tension. The presence of Macchu Picchu is not made explicit until the sixth poem (coincident with the summer solstice in the sixth month), which is the high point of the work: here on the heights of Macchu Picchu the abolishment of the demonic world and the realization of the apocalyptic world is possible. The next three poems examine more fully the meaning of Macchu Picchu, a subtle process which results, in the tenth poem, in a second major turning point in the work: here the realization of the apocalyptic world the poet had longed for since the early years of the Residencias, and which at last seemed possible on the heights of Macchu Picchu, fails to be reconciled with the humanitarianism of España en el corazón. In the poems which follow, the meaning of Macchu Picchu changes, and the poet turns to the only possible basis for oneness with being: love for one's fellow human beings. The crisis is hinted at in the eighth poem (the waning of summer in the eighth month), is more openly suggested in the ninth month (coincident with the autumnal equinox) and takes overt form only in the tenth poem (coincident with the fullness of autumn and the coming of winter, the falling away of the outer foliage, revealing the bare branches of the trees). In the final poems, the poet celebrates his symbolic death and rebirth, the birth of a new vision (coincident with the end of the old cycle and the beginning of a new one).

In Las alturas de Macchu Picchu, both the apocalyptic and demonic worlds have been brought within the sphere of the natural order: the apocalyptic world, in large measure, is but a projection of the ascendant half of the cycle; the demonic world, of the descendent half of the cycle. The cyclical nature of the cosmos becomes an ideal in itself, so that the poet shows great fear of anything which threatens to disturb that cycle, to break down the order of the universe. Neruda's apocalyptic world is a self-contained, self-perpetuating, contracting universe where the cyclical movement has a centripetal force, drawing everything up into itself. It is a universe of elemental forces working in harmony. The projected opposite, of course, is a self-destructive, disintegrating universe where the cyclical movement has a centrifugal force which eventually unravels into nothingness, a world of alienation of being from being. It is a world of discord in which elemental forces have been seriously disrupted by the presence of man.

Neruda's vision of paradise is one of eternal spring and summer: the earth in a time of conception, creation, growth, and the bearing of fruit; man in the springtime of his existence, in the fullness of his being in oneness with the universe at the dawn of human civilization. Neruda's apocalyptic vision would make not only the world of creation but the very act of creation, the process of life, eternal: the moment must be made eternal, every individual act and being must be, at the same time, the Act of Creation and the One Being. "Entre la primavera y las espigas" (p. 2) the poet searches for "la eterna veta insondable / que antes toqué en la piedra o en el relámpago que el beso desprendía" (p. 8). The truth will be found in the eternal moment of creation.

Neruda's metaphors thus seek to eternalize both the product and the process of creation. The vegetable world provides the traditional symbol of the sheaf of wheat and the original symbol of wheat as "una historia amarilla / de pequeños pechos preñados (que) va repitiendo un número / que sin cesar es ternura en las capas germinales" (p. 8). This image of wheat implies a collective identity which is shared by all the individual grains, together repeating endlessly the yellow history of the grain. The flower is both stamen, jasmine, and the act of pollination itself. Water, traditionally a symbol of the life force, is at once the source or spring, and an endless current of rushing water. Neruda captures both concepts in a single metaphor of life eternal as "corriente como agua de manantial encadenado" (p. 8). The self-perpetuation of the world of vegetation extends to the mineral world as well, as seen in this metaphor which clearly identifies the two worlds: "... la flor a la flor entrega el alto germen / y la roca mantiene su flor diseminada / en su golpeado traje de diamante y arena" (p. 6). The rocks, too, create themselves over and over again throughout time in a myriad of different forms which nevertheless retain something of their original identity.

This is the world of genesis: the center of creation, the source of life, the beginning of time. Paradise is "la patria nupcial," "lo más genital de lo terrestre," el oro de la geología" (p. 2). As an apocalyptic world, a projection of the poet's desires, it stands at the summit of the ascendant half of the mythical cycle. As the source of meaning of the myth, its roots are buried deep in the center of that world. For Neruda, this paradise is "un mundo como una torre enterrada" (p. 2), an explicit reference as well to Macchu Picchu, where the realization of the apocalyptic world is possible.

The demonic world of the poem is one of waning life, autumn fading into winter. It is drawn, not from the harmony of the natural world in the fullness of its being, but from the discord of the world of modern civilized man, who is alienated from the elemental forces of nature and from himself. This is a world of daily death, small sorrows, in a natural world gone awry, destroyed by man. It is a surface world which has no roots. The Tree of Life has become "el miserable árbol de las razas asustadas" (p. 8), and man appears as the dead or dying leaves of a dying tree. Wheat, as a symbol of being, is not "una historia amarilla / de pequeños pechos preñados" (p. 8), but "el maíz (que) se desgranaba en el inacabable / granero de los hechos perdidos" (p. 12). The water of life has stopped flowing, and stands as "lágrimas en el océano / como estanques de frío" (p. 6). The brilliant light of paradise has gone out like "(una) lámpara / que se apaga en el lodo del suburbio" (p. 12).

In direct contrast to the self-perpetuating apocalyptic world, the demonic world is self-destructive. While nature perpetuates itself eternally, man destroys it:

Si la flor entrega el alto germen
y la roca mantiene su flor diseminada
en su golpeado traje de diamante y arena,
el hombre arruga el pétalo de luz que recoge
en los determinados manantiales marinos
y taladra el metal palpitante en sus manos.
(p. 6)

In the process, man destroys himself as well by alienating himself from the natural world. He reduces himself to the status of one of his own poor creations:

Y pronto, entre la ropa y el humo, sobre la mesa hundida,
como una barajada cantidad, queda el alma:
cuarzo y desvelo, lágrimas en el océano
como estanques de frío.
(p. 6)

swept away by the elemental forces of nature like "ropas dispersas hijas del otoño rabioso" (p. 8), lost in the ocean of time.

In human terms, love, "el más grande amor" (p. 2), the life force of the apocalyptic world, has turned to hate, the destructive force of the demonic world. Communion, symbolized in the sheaf of wheat, the vine, the leaves of the tree of life, has turned to mutual destruction and exploitation: "La cólera ha extenuado / la triste mercancía del vendedor de seres" (p. 6). The soul, imprisoned by man's material and social inventions, is killed by hate. It is killed, tortured by "papel y odio" (p. 6), submerged "en la alfombra cotidiana," torn to shreds by "las vestiduras hostiles del alambre" (p. 6).

In essence, the demonic world is a cruel and tragic parody of the apocalyptic world. In the demonic world, the hand of creation which would have implanted the life force appears as "un guante que cae" (p. 2); the sun as the source of life in the universe appears as "una larga luna" (p. 2), a far away moon, a pale echo of the sun. The life force, in man, has been rendered impotent, like "días de fulgor vivo en la intemperie de los cuerpos" (p. 2). The fullness of the natural world has been violated in "(los) estambres agredidos de la patria nupcial" (p. 2). The cyclical cosmos has broken down, like "noches deshilachadas hasta la última harina" (p. 2). In total opposition to the apocalyptic world of eternal creation, the demonic world of modern man is defined by his "inexistencia herida" (p. 18). It is a world where both the product and the process of creation have been destroyed.

Life in both the apocalyptic and demonic worlds is defined negatively, in terms of the kind of death with which it ends. Death in the apocalyptic world is as magnificent and elemental as the world of which it is a part. Because it is an intimate part of the cycle of life, it is represented as "ancho mar," "la sal invisible de las olas" (an extension of the symbol of the sea as the source of life), or as "los totales números de la noche" (the working out of the calculus of the universe) (p. 16). Death comes like "un ave de plumas férreas" (p. 22), or "un galope de claridad nocturna" (p. 16), a sudden and unique event of earth-shaking proportions: "lo que su invisible sabor diseminaba / era como mitades de hundimientos y altura / o vastas construcciones de viento y ventisquero" (p. 16). It is a sudden sharp point in time and space: "férreo filo," la angostura del aire" (p. 16), where man, at the moment of death, comes "al estelar vacío de los pasos finales / y a la vertiginosa carretera espiral" (p. 16), leading to the void and then to the center of creation once more.

Death in the demonic world has, like life itself, disintegrated into "un pequeño otoño [...]: la muerte de mil hojas" (p. 16). Life falls away in slow daily death; "El ser como el maiz se desgranaba en el inacabable / granero de los hechos perdidos, de los acontecimientos miserables" (p. 16). Man awaits his daily death: "una muerte pequeña, polvo, gusano [...] una pequeña muerte de alas gruesas" (p. 12). Death has been killed by dying: "los pobres dolores [...] mataban la muerte" (p. 22). It is no longer described in terms of the natural world, but in terms of man's world of which it is now a part. The poet, invoking Death of the apocalypse, offers an implicit condemnation of the other death:

Nunca llegaste a hurgar en el bosillo, no era
posible tu visita sin vestimenta roja:
sin auroral alfombra de cercado silencio:
sin altos o enterrados patrimonios de lágrimas.
(p. 16)

But Death, killed by dying, has become "todas las falsas muertes y las resurrecciones sin tierra, sin abismo" (p. 16). The final struggle between Life and Death can never take place, for men have weakened "esperando su muerte, su corte muerte diaria" (p. 12). Death is now "un pobre pétalo de cuerda exterminada / un átomo del pecho que no vino al combate / o el áspero rocío que no cayó en la frente." (p. 22). Unlike Death in the apocalyptic world which is a part of the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth, this death "Era lo que no pudo renacer, un pedazo / de la pequeña muerte sin paz ni territorio: un hueso, una campana que morían en él (el hombre)" (p. 22). In the demonic world, death, like life, has been stripped of all potentiality for fulfillment. Within man, who is but a skeleton of his former self, toll the bells for his own death.

In the opening lines of the poem, the poet represents himself as being suspended between the two worlds, like an empty net, sifting experience but finding nothing: "Del aire al aire, como una red vacía / iba yo entre las calles y la atmósfera" (p. 2). Drained by the surface of existence, the poet turns inward and downward in search of the apocalyptic world of his desires, "un mundo como una torre enterrada" (p. 2):

más abajo, en el oro de la geología,
como una espada envuelta en meteoros,
hundí la mano turbulenta y dulce
en lo más genital de lo terrestre.
(p. 2)

The poet's hand, as the medium of contact with the object of his desire, becomes a symbol of the desire itself. The intensity and nature of the desire is indicated in the metaphor of the hand as "una espada envuelta en meteoros." The sword of his desire thrusts upward to the paradise above, is enveloped in the meteors of heaven. Yet at the same time the direction of the desire is inward and downward, as the verb "hundir" indicates. The contact with the goal would be decisive, complete; the desire would be surrounded by its goal: the hand sunk into the center of the earth. Verbs conveying the concept of sinking or descending through time and space into a center or holding onto solid matter abound in the early poems of the work, all indicating the desire of the poet to become one with the self-contained universe.

The spatial notion of the site, or the place, upon which to rest his hand becomes symbolic of his goal. But reaching out, grasping for something to hold onto, he finds only that which is dead, blown away by the winds:

No pude asir sino un racimo de rostros o de máscaras
precipitadas, como anillos de oro vacío,
como ropas dispersas hijas de un otoño rabioso
que hiciera temblar el miserable árbol de las razas asustadas.
(p. 8)

He cannot find the place of eternal spring:

No tuve sitio donde descansar la mano
y que, corriente como agua de manantial encadenado,
o firme como grumo de antracita o cristal,
hubiera devuelto el calor o el frío de mi mano extendida.
(p. 8)

The poet's hands become "manos manantiales" (p. 18), like his desire searching for the source. But man, "el pobre roedor de calles espesas" (p. 12), dying his daily death, "fue cerrando paso y puerto para que / no tocaran mis manos manantiales su inexistencia herida" (p. 18). Yet even turning within, the poet's hands in search of springs find nothing more, and the poet himself is seen as a directionless wanderer, dying his own small death: "... sin lámpara, sin fuego / sin pan, sin piedra, sin silencio, solo, / rodé muriendo mi propia muerte" (p. 18). Yet still seeking, the poet raises "las vendas del yodo" (p. 22) of the soul's wounds, sinks his hands one last time into "los pobres dolores que mataban la muerte" (p. 22), but finds nothing, only a cold wind blowing through the interstices of his soul: "y no encontré en la herida sino una racha fría / que entraba por los vagos intersticios del alma" (p. 22).

This, the end of the fifth poem, is the lowest point of the work as a whole. Suddenly, in the sixth poem, the poet, and the rhythm of the work as a whole, leap suddenly upward. The first verb of the first line of the sixth poem marks the moment of change: "Entonces en la escala de la tierra he subido / entre la atroz maraña de las selvas perdidas / hasta ti, Macchu Picchu" (p. 26). Here, on the heights of Macchu Picchu, all seems to make sense: the apocalypse has come. Here the two parallel lines of the human and natural worlds have met and are eternalized: "En ti, como dos líneas paralelas, / la cuna del relámpago y del hombre / se mecían en un viento de espinas" (p. 26). In Macchu Picchu, heaven and earth, sea and sky, human and eternal time meet, for Macchu Picchu is "madre de piedra" (earth), "espuma de los condores" (heaven), "Alto arrecife" (sea), "de la aurora humana" (sky) (p. 26). For Neruda, "Ésta fue la morada, éste es el sitio" (p. 26). Was and is are as one, the dwelling place has become the eternal site.

Here the cycle of the seasons went on interrupted: "Aquí los anchos granos del maíz ascendieron / y bajaron de nuevo como granizo rojo" (p. 26). This was the golden age of innocence: "Aquí la hebra dorada salió de la vicuña / a vestir los amores, los túmulos, las madres, / el rey, las oraciones, los guerreros" (p. 26). Men knew peace and communion with his fellow men and with the natural world around him. Men slept in the eagle's nest and trod the night with feet of thunder. They knew the stones of the earth: "y tocaron las tierras y las piedras hasta reconocerlas en la noche o la muerte" (p. 28), as the stones knew their touch. The vestige of man is still present: "Miro las vestiduras y las manos, / el vestigio del agua en la oquedad sonora, / la pared suavizada por el tacto de un rostro [...]" (p. 28), though he and his civilization are gone: "porque todo: ropaja, piel, vasijas, / palabras, vino, panes, / se fue, cayó a la tierra" (p. 28). The poet feels himself a part of this world, for as a man, the presence of man in Macchu Picchu is his presence. The walls of the city were softened "por el tacto de un rostro / que miró con mis ojos las lámparas, / que aceitó con mis manos las desaparecidas maderas" (p. 28).

Death came, not with the furious winds of autumn which sweep away all in their path, but "con dedos / de azahar sobre todos los dormidos" (p. 28). The winds are like "suaves huracanes de pasos / lustrando el solitario recinto de la piedra" (p. 28). What endures is not the fragile presence of individual men, but "the collective permanence those men created."11 They, through their creation, endure, becoming a part of nature in the process.

The next poem continues to establish the contrast between what endures and what vanishes. Echoing an earlier tendency, Neruda again defines by opposites, defining what endures by the manner of death. The death of the men of Macchu Picchu was "la verdadera, la más abrasadora / muerte ..." (p. 32). Their death is made nobler by having been a collective one. These men are "muertos de un solo abismo, sombras de una hondonada, / la profunda ..." (p. 32), who fell, not as dry leaves, but like the whole of autumn in a single death. Individual men and their customs collapsed like weak threads. What remains is "una permanencia de piedra y de palabra" (p. 32). The Word, symbol of creation, is made eternal in stone. Macchu Picchu appears as a chalice, a communion symbol in itself, raised on high by the collective effort of men. It is the life of many in one, rendered eternal in stone. It is "la rosa permanente, la morada" (p. 34), the oneness of creation everlasting; "el alto sitio de la aurora humana" (p. 34), the place, the dawn of human existence the poet was seeking.

Here, at the end of the seventh poem, we catch only a glimpse of the final resolution of the conflict of the work. The symbol of the chalice is an ambiguous one. It of course suggests the transubstantiation of forms of life, the communion of being in the Eucharist. Yet the symbol alone and in the context of the poem suggests something of sacrifice, of spilt blood. The chalice of Macchu Picchu was lifted "en las manos / de todos, vivos, muertos, callados, sostenidos / de tanta muerte, de tanta vida un golpe / de pétalos de piedra." (p. 32). Macchu Picchu is a life of stone after so many lives, a crucible forged at what price?

The poet recovers his impetus briefly at the beginning of the eighth poem, yet fatefully introduces the third element, "amor americano," which will change the course of the work. The first stanzas have a tone of exhilaration. The poet invites his other self to rise with him in adoration of the secret stones of Macchu Picchu, to witness nature in the grandeur of its being: "Sube conmigo, amor americano, / Besa conmigo las piedras secretas" (p. 38). Yet the poet soon introduces a discordant note, viewing himself as "el hijo ciego de la nieve" (p. 38), blinded by the brilliance of the world of Macchu Picchu. He begins to question the meaning of this world: "qué idioma traes a la oreja apenas / desarraigada de la espuma andina?" (p. 28). His thoughts turn implicitly from the created, the act of creation, to the creator, from Macchu Picchu to the men who created it, and the price they paid. He questions his own purpose in coming there and the meaning he has taken from it.

Love must stay away from the border world of earth and heaven: "Amor, amor, no toques la frontera, / no adores la cabeza sumergida" (p. 42). The poet would avoid the confrontation with time: "deja que el tiempo cumple su estatura / en su salón de manantiales rotos" (p. 42), and would return once more to the valley, a new level: "Mantur estalla como un lago vivo / o como un nuevo piso de silencio" (p. 42). His love of man must remain within: "Ven a mi propio ser, al alba mía, / hasta las soledades coronadas" (p. 42), for "El reino muerto vive todavía" (p. 42): the kingdom of death survives, the fallen kingdom haunts him still. On the face of time falls the shadow of human hunger and vulnerability: "Y en el Reloj la sombra sanguinaria / del condor cruza como una nave negra" (p. 42).

The ninth poem has proved to be the most difficult for critics to handle. Juan Larrea sees the poem's similarity to religious litany, but his deep prejudice against Neruda and his poetry prevents him from understanding the real value and function of the images Neruda employs and from seeing the stylistic and thematic importance of the ninth poem in the work as a whole. Larrea begins to examine the initial metaphors, one by one, but finds them vague, absurd and arbitrary, having nothing to do with the reality of Macchu Picchu: "Las palabras se suceden sin otra razón que la vagamente surrealista y dícese que reaccionaria de la arbitrariedad."12

The ninth poem stands as an incantation, an invocation of the apocalypse, a prayer for its realization and paradoxically, in metaphors which show paradise turned against itself, a lament for the impossibility of its realization. It consists of 72 metaphors arranged in 43 twelve-syllable lines, which together evoke the presence of Macchu Picchu. Here, in explicit form, is Macchu Picchu as the incarnation of the apocalyptic world of total metaphorical identification.

In the construction of his apocalyptic world in Macchu Picchu, Neruda fully exhausts the potential of metaphor, formally and functionally. Neruda's metaphors are never explicitly of the A is B type, for the A member, Macchu Picchu, is only implicitly present. The second member of the comparison is usually of the form noun + de + noun or noun + adjective (rosa de piedra, escala torrencial) which often unite opposites. The Metaphor of the poem as a whole is accomplished by mere juxtaposition of images (individual metaphors). Both serve a quadruple function in the poem: the intuition or emotional experience of reality through poetic association; the representation of reality through description; the conception of reality on a level where image functions as idea; and the interpretation of reality on a level where image functions as symbol.

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, volcán, ola, ráfaga) 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 (geometría, 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" (p. 46): 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" (p. 46): 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" (p. 46): 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" (p. 46): The pollen of the vegetal world (agent of germination) has turned to stone. The process of creation is made eternal. (5) "témpano entre las ráfagas labrado" (p. 46): 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" (p. 48): 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 [...]" (p. 46) 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" (p. 50), "manos de puma, roca sangrienta" (p. 48), "nivel sangriento" (p. 50), "luna arañada" (p. 52), "volcán de manos (p. 52), "catarata oscura" (p. 52); and other less ambiguous metaphors: "piedra amenazante" (p. 52), "dirección del tiempo" (p. 52).

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, dónde estuvo? / Aire en el aire, el hombre, dónde estuvo?" (p. 56). Turning against Macchu Picchu, he demands:

Macchu Picchu, pusiste
piedras en la piedra, y en la base, harapo?
Carbón sobre carbón, y en el fondo la lágrima?
Fuego en el oro y en él, temblando el rojo
goterón de la sangre?
(pp. 56-58)

Neruda abandons the "rosa abstracta" (p. 58) of Macchu Picchu because he cannot bear the thought of the human suffering required:

Antigua America, novia sumergida,
también, también tus dedos,
los que la rosa abstracta y la línea del frío, los
que el pecho sangriento del nuevo cereal trasladaron
hasta la tela de materia radiante, hasta las duras cavidades,
también también, America enterrada, guardaste en lo más bajo,
en el amargo intestino, como un aguila, el hambre?
(p. 58)

His vision of paradise was too abstract, too European (remember "alguien que me esperó entre violines encontró un mundo como una torre enterrada" (p. 2)) 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" (p. 62).

His vision now must be consistent with that he brought with him from España en el corazón. 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 [...]" (p. 62). The abstract "Sube conmigo, amor americano" of the eighth poem has become, in the last poem, "Sube a nacer conmigo, hermano" (p. 66). 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" (p. 66). 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 corazón, 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."13

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" (p. 70).


1. Hernán Loyola, Ser y morir en Pablo Neruda (Santiago, Chile: Editora Santiago, 1967) p. 197.

2. As cited above.

3. Mario J. deLellis, Pablo Neruda (Buenos Aires: Editorial "La Mandrágora," 1957).

4. Juan Larrea, Del surrealismo a Machupicchu (Mexico: Juaquín Mortiz, 1967).

5. Mario Rodriguez Fernández, "El tema de la muerte en 'Alturas de Macchu Picchu' de Pablo Neruda," Anales de la Universidad de Chile (julio-septiembre de 1964): 23-50.

6. Hugo Montés, "Acera de Alturas de Macchu Picchu," Mapocho 2 No. 3 (1964): 202-209.

7. Robert Pring-Mill, Preface to The Heights of Macchu Picchu, by Pablo Neruda, trans. by Nathaniel Tarn, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966) pp. vii-xix.

8. Luis Monguió, Introduction to Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda, a bilingual edition edited and translated by Ben Belitt (New York: Grove Press, 1961) p. 22.

9. Neruda, The Heights of Macchu Picchu, p. 52.

10. Northrop Frye, An Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (New York: Atheneum, 1966), p. 119.

11. Pring-Mill, op. cit., p. xvi.

12. Larrea, op. cit., p. 145.

13. Pablo Neruda, "Reunión bajo las nuevas banderas," in Obras completas (Buenos Aires: Losuda, 1967) I, 270.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420065488