Biography of Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda was a poet, diplomat, and politician. He was born in Chile and is often considered the country’s national poet. He wrote works that fall into many different genres: love poems, political manifestos, surrealist experiments, historical epics, prose articles, autobiography, and odes to ordinary objects. Neruda won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971. After he accepted the award, he returned to Chile to read in the national stadium before a crowd of 70,000 people. The influential critic Harold Bloom included Neruda as one of only 26 essential writers in his Western Canon. Gabriel García Márquez, novelist and fellow Nobel Prize winner from Columbia, called Neruda "the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language."

Neruda was born in Parral, Chile on July 12th, 1904, with the name Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto. His mother died of tuberculous soon after his birth. His father, a railway worker, moved the family to Telemaco and remarried. At age 13, Neruda began to contribute articles and poems to the local newspaper, although his father disapproved of his writing. Fortunately, Neruda found a mentor in Gabriela Mistral, the Nobel Prize–winning poet and diplomat, who introduced him to European literature. He attended the University of Chile to study education and French. When he began to publish in literary journals he chose the pen name Pablo Neruda, in tribute to Jan Neruda, the Czechoslovakian poet. In 1923 he published his first book of poems Crepusculario (“Twilight”). A year later, when Neruda was 20 years old, his book Veinte poemas de armor y una cancion desesperad (“Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair”) was published. Inspired by an unhappy love affair, it was an instant success and established his reputation. He left school to devote himself to writing poetry.

In 1927 Neruda became a diplomat for the government of Chile, serving as honorary consul for five years in countries across Asia, including Burma (Myanmar), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and Batavia (Jakarta). La Nacion, a Santiago newspaper, published his travel chronicles. During these years Neruda wrote surreal poems which later became part of the book Residencia en la tierra (“Residence on Earth”). In 1930, Neruda married Marie Antoinette Haagenar Vogelzang, a Dutch woman he met in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). His next diplomatic post took him to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1933, where he began a friendship with Federico Garcia Lorca, a poet visiting from Spain. Later that year, he was appointed Consul General in Barcelona. In 1934 Neruda’s daughter Malva Marina Trinidad was born with hydrocephalus. The following year Neruda was transferred to Madrid, where Lorca introduced him to a circle of communist intellectuals. Neruda’s first marriage ended in 1936. He moved in with Delia del Carril, an Argentine woman who would later become his second wife.

In July of 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out. Republicans, in alliance with anarchists and communists, fought in opposition to the Nationalists, a Catholic and largely aristocratic group led by General Francisco Franco. The Nationalists executed Federico Garcia Lorca, which deeply affected Neruda. He traveled in and out of Spain to mobilize support for the Republicans and chronicled the war in Espana en el corazon (“Spain in My Heart”). This book was published by Republican troops using improvised presses near the front lines. When Chile closed its consul in Spain, Neruda moved to Paris, where he organized the Latin American Committee to defend the Spanish Republic, gave a conference about Lorca, and published political articles and poems. Because of his outspoken views, he lost his diplomatic post in 1937 and moved back to Chile. In the 1938 presidential election in Chile, Neruda supported the left-wing candidate Pedro Aguirre Cerda. When he won, Cerda appointed Neruda Special Consul to Paris. In France, Neruda helped Spanish refugees gain passage to Chile. Shortly afterward, Neruda became Consul General in Mexico, where he began to write his epic tribute to Latin America, Canto General, which was later published in 1950.

Neruda returned to Chile in 1943, was elected to the Senate in 1945, and joined the Communist Party. In the election of 1946, he supported leftist candidate Gabriel González Videla. When Videla turned to the right two years later, violently repressing a miners’ strike, Neruda felt betrayed and published an open letter criticizing the administration. Because Videla banned the Communist Party newspaper, Neruda published it as an “Intimate letter for millions of men” in many Latin American countries. In retaliation, the government expelled him from the Senate. Neruda was forced into hiding for two years to avoid arrest. In 1949 he crossed the Andes mountains on horseback by night, carrying the manuscript of Canto General in his saddlebag, to Argentina. While in exile, Neruda traveled to the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, India, China, and Mexico. He received the International Peace Prize in 1950, and the Lenin Peace Prize and the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953.

After three years in exile, Neruda was able to return to Chile in 1952. He lived with his lover Matilde Urrutia, a Chilean woman he met while in Mexico. They later married in 1966. Their relationship lasted until the end of Neruda’s life, inspiring many passionate love poems. For the next twenty-one years, Neruda wrote prolifically, stimulated by international fame and personal happiness. Some examples of his works during this period include Las Uvas y el Viento or “Grapes in the Wind,” which chronicled his years in exile, three volumes of Odas elementales, or “Elementary Odes,” and his memoirs Confieso que he vivido.

In 1970, the Communist Party of Chile selected Neruda as their presidential candidate. But Neruda withdrew and gave his support to Salvador Allende, the candidate for the socialist Popular Unity Party. Allende won the election. Neruda was then appointed as the Chilean ambassador in Paris, where he successfully negotiated Chile’s external debt. While in France in 1971, Neruda fell ill with cancer. Shortly thereafter, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel Prize academy praised Neruda’s work on behalf of the world community, and noted the persecution he had suffered. Their decision had been complicated, however, by Neruda's past praise of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Neruda returned to Chile terminally ill. In 1973, General Augusto Pinochet led a military coup to overthrow Allende’s government. Most of Neruda’s friends were taken prisoner or fled the country. The military police broke into Neruda’s house to search and destroy his papers while the poet was present. Neruda was hospitalized for cancer treatment, but returned home after a few days because he suspected that he was being poisoned on Pinochet’s orders. He had been scheduled to fly to Mexico where some speculate that he planned to lead a government in exile. Neruda died at home on September 23, 1973, hours after leaving the hospital. It was reported that he died of heart failure. Pinochet denied permission for a public funeral. Despite massive police presence, thousands of Chile’s citizens disobeyed and crowded the streets to honor Neruda. In 2013, a Chilean judge ordered an investigation into Neruda’s death. Neruda’s body was exhumed. Although forensic scientists continue to debate the results, the Interior Ministry of the Chilean government issued a statement in 2015 of the government's official position that "it was clearly possible and highly likely" that Neruda was killed by "the intervention of third parties."

Study Guides on Works by Pablo Neruda

"The Dictators," a 1950 poem by the Chilean writer Pablo Neruda, explores the power structures, inequalities, and violent conflicts in an unnamed dictatorship. It depicts ordinary individuals' suffering and death, juxtaposing these horrific scenes...

"Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market" is a 1957 poem by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, describing the encounter between a human speaker and a dead tuna at a vegetable market. The speaker addresses the tuna with a blend of awe and sadness, describing...

Neruda wrote “Ode to My Socks” (“Oda a los calcetines”) as part of a larger project to praise ordinary objects such as salt, an onion, a lemon, wine, clothes, and a watch. The Odes, around two hundred and fifty in all, also paid tribute to...

Neruda wrote “Ode to My Suit” (“Oda al Traje”) as part of a larger project to praise ordinary objects such as salt, an onion, a lemon, wine, socks, and a watch. The "Odes"—around two hundred and fifty in all—also paid tribute to particular people....