The Black Heralds

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The Black Heralds




In the early 2000s, César Vallejo was considered Peru's greatest poet, and the first line of "The Black Heralds" was said to be known by every Peruvian. Written after his move to Lima from a country village in 1916, the poem was included in a collection to be published in 1918, but Vallejo waited to issue the book until Abraham Valdelomar, an avant-garde writer, could add an introduction. However, Valdelomar died suddenly, so Vallejo released the book in 1919. There has been a confusion about the date of publication ever since. The collection was praised by Vallejo's own artistic community; however, there were few sales and few reviews. The public was accustomed to modernismo and symbolism in verse, not Vallejo's emotional and social outcry.

As time would show, The Black Heralds was actually the most traditional of Vallejo's works, a blend of modernistic influences and the unique style of structure and language that he developed even more in later works. Nonetheless, the basic themes addressed in The Black Heralds remained important elements in all of his poetry: suffering, compassion, and the various components of existential anguish. All of these elements find expression in the title poem. "The Black Heralds" opens the collection and sets a tone for the rest of the book of bitter sentiments and blasphemous rebellion, as well as a compassionate understanding of suffering. Although his first book of poetry, The Black Heralds was the last of Vallejo's works to be translated into English. Two later publications of the title poem can be found: in the 1990 English edition of Los Heraldos Negros, the translation by Kathleen Ross and Richard Schaaf; and in the 2006 collection The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo, the translation by Clayton Eshleman.


César Abraham Vallejo was born on March 16, 1892, in Santiago de Chuco, Peru, the youngest of eleven children in a family of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage. After graduating from high school in 1908, Vallejo attempted to attend college but had to withdraw because of a lack of funds. So he went to work as a clerk in his father's notary public office, then in the office of a mining company. He worked as a tutor to the children of a wealthy mine owner and as a cashier in the accounting office of a sugar plantation. Added to his rural upbringing, these experiences furthered his concern about the social injustices in Peru. In 1913, he formally enrolled at the University of Trujillo, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1915 and later earned both a master's degree in Spanish literature and a law degree.

During his college years, Vallejo joined a progressive circle of writers and intellectuals. Within this group, he discovered Latin American modernism and French symbolism, as well as political radicalism. After a few tumultuous romantic involvements, Vallejo moved to Lima in 1917. He took a job as a teacher and later principal of a prestigious private school but was fired after he refused to marry the woman with whom he was having an affair. This event, coupled with the death of his mother, prompted him to visit his home. Once there, Vallejo found himself unintentionally involved in a violent uprising. Although innocent, Vallejo was charged as an instigator and spent three months in jail. He was released on parole, but the experience embittered him for the rest of his life.

Vallejo won the Peruvian National Short Story Contest in 1921. However, his first two books of poetry, The Black Heralds (1919) (which contains the title poem) and Trilce (1922), were ill-received, so Vallejo moved to Paris in 1923. He worked for a press agency and continued with his own writing, but for the rest of his life he barely made enough money to support himself. In the late 1920s, he participated in communist activities and visited the Soviet Union three times. After an arrest in Paris, Vallejo moved to Madrid and was allowed back in Paris only when he promised to refrain from all political activities. He did so until the outbreak in 1936 of the Spanish Civil War whose republican cause reinvigorated his political involvement. Consequently, he visited Spain twice and saw for himself the horrors of war, which inspired the acclaimed poetic collection, Spain, Take This Cup from Me (1937).

Besides poetry, Vallejo wrote a novel, Tungsten (1931), as well as numerous articles and essays, and five plays that were never published or produced in his lifetime. He married Georgette Philipart in 1934, and after he died of a lingering fever in Paris on April 15, 1938, she published his final collection of poetry, Human Poems, in 1939.


  There are blows in life, so hard … I just don't
Blows as from God's hatred; as if, before them,
the backwash of everything suffered
welled-up in the soul … I just don't know!
  They are few, but they are … They open
   dark furrows                                    5
in the fiercest face and in the strongest back.
Perhaps they are the steeds of barbarian Attilas,
or the black heralds Death sends us.
  They are the deep falls of the Christs of the
of some worshipping faith Destiny blasphemes.      10
Those bloody blows are the crackling
of some bread burning up on us at the oven door.
  And man … Poor … poor man! Turns his
   eyes, as
when a slap on the shoulder summons us;
turns his eyes wild, and everything lived          15
wells-up like a pool of guilt in his gaze.
  There are blows in life, so hard … I just don't


Stanza 1

The first line of "The Black Heralds" is one of the most memorable in Spanish poetry: "There are blows in life so powerful … I just don't know!" The intensity of the poem is immediately established with the subject of the painful blows and the questioning they engender, although a question is not asked but is left to the reader's imagination by the ellipsis before the answer, "I just don't know!" The line is the cry of the oppressed as they struggle to understand why life is so hard.

In the second through fourth lines, Vallejo says that these blows are as terrible as if they were from "God's hatred." These blows are so strong that they are capable of causing all the memories of one's suffering to well up, capable of causing the pain to rise up from the depths of the soul to the surface. However, the author repeats the use of the ellipsis to create a pause that makes the "I just don't know" phrase that follows into an outcry of exasperation and frustration, as if to question his own analogy or to emphasize the impossibility of knowing why terrible things happen.

Stanza 2

Here the narrator says that even when there are only a few hard blows in one's life, any of them can cause deep wounds, "dark furrows," in even the "fiercest face and in the strongest back." The word "dark" may simply be a reference to the usually darker, redder skin color of scars, but it may also mean "dark" as in the black depths of the soul that the furrows represent or as in the dark recesses of the mind that are repressed after trauma.

In the third line, Vallejo compares the blows to "the steeds of barbarian Attilas." This phrase is a reference to the notorious historical figure, Attila the Hun, ruler of a tribe of warrior nomads who terrorized the Roman Empire for a number of years in the middle of the fifth century. Attila was known as the Scourge of God, so an allusion to this barbaric invader is fitting in a poem that in the previous stanza talked about "God's hatred."

Another comparison of the blows is made in the fourth line to "the black heralds Death sends us." The word "angel" is from the Greek word "angelos" meaning messenger, and another word for messenger is herald (in some translations of this poem the word messenger is used instead of herald), although herald carries the connotation of one who makes an announcement. Vallejo is probably making a reference to the concept of an Angel of Death that is sent by God to guide the dead on their journey to heaven or hell. Whether the murderous barbarian or those who pronounce death, the idea is that the blows of life bring terror and devastation.


  • Look for two other existential poets and compare their works to that of Vallejo. What are the common themes among these poets? List and describe these themes and note the different ways that each poet finds to express the same theme.
  • Which elements of modernism can be found in "The Black Heralds"? Identify the characteristics of modernism and then discuss whether it is possible to assess meter and rhythm when working with a translation.
  • Write a biographical analysis of Vallejo's reason for leaving Peru. Did he find what he was seeking in Paris? How did living in Paris affect his life and works? Justify your answers with specifics.
  • What was it about communism that attracted Vallejo? What was in his background, education, or lifestyle that led him to communism? Why did he travel to Russia and involve himself in the Spanish Civil War? Write an essay explaining the relationship of Vallejo to communism.
  • Besides poetry, Vallejo wrote journalistic articles, short stories, essays, and novels. Put together a list of his other works and discuss their impact and value in the body of his life's work.

Stanza 3

Continuing to make comparisons, in this stanza Vallejo does not say that the blows cause falls to the ground, but that they are falls, "deep falls of the Christs of the soul." It is an odd phrase that combines the cause and effect. The image that is evoked is that of Christ as he fell three times carrying his cross on the road to Calvary. Therefore, the falls are those of "some worshipping faith" that teaches hope and salvation, a faith that "Destiny blasphemes" because it is a useless faith to those who live and die in such misery.

In one last comparison, Vallejo writes the "bloodstained" blows are like the "crackling / of some bread burning up on us at the oven door." Perhaps the blows are described as bloodstained to make a connection to the red color of the fire that is burning the bread. Bread is often called the "staff of life" because it has been for millennia a staple in the diet of humans, so the burning bread represents the life that is being consumed by the blows of tragedy. The bread does not even get out of the oven, does not make it past the door to perform its life-affirming purpose before it is destroyed by forces that do not allow individual fulfillment.

Stanza 4

In the last of the four-line stanzas, Vallejo turns to describing the recipient of the blows: "And man … Poor … poor man!" Here, the speaker pauses in his complaint about the blows to express sympathy for the plight of the poor human and to emphasize the depth of the tragedy of the laborer through the pauses inserted by the ellipses. Vallejo then paints an image of the worker who, when summoned to further labor, looks over his shoulder with eyes as wild as those of a caged animal, eyes crazed by the madness of it all. In those eyes is a reflection of the experiences of life, the "backwash of everything suffered" mentioned in the third line of the first stanza. It is as if it these experiences of hardship were deserved for some unknowable sin.

Stanza 5

The last stanza repeats the first line of the first stanza. The effect is to emphasize the depth of the desolation and despair felt by the speaker about human limitations, the harshness of life, and life's mysteries.



The indigenous Peruvians, descendents of the great Incans, were subjected to centuries of abuse and exploitation by Spanish colonial rule. Half Indian and a speaker of Quechua, Vallejo shared this heritage and observed its effects in his provincial village and on the plantation where he worked for a time. The suffering he witnessed is reflected in "The Black Heralds," in which the speaker's life is characterized as filled with agony that cannot find expression in words but leaves the speaker frustrated and despairing. Typical of all oppressed peoples, the subject of the poem cries out for relief from the brutality of existence yet quells desperation with a fatalistic sadness about the condition which seems his destiny. Nonetheless, there is a hint of the pride of a mighty people who hunger for their rightful place, so long lost. The suffering described is both physical and emotional: blows that leave wounds in the flesh, damage faith, and drive a person to crazed desperation and confusion.

Life, Death, and God

Vallejo was greatly disturbed by questions concerning the reason for life. The specter of the grave tormented him because of his view that life is a steady march toward death. In "The Black Heralds," the title is a reference to the "black heralds sent to us by Death," and the "deep falls of the Christs of the soul" alludes to the final walk that Christ made going to his crucifixion. Perhaps Vallejo does not believe that Christ ever reached Calvary or enacted a resurrection to save humankind because in this poem the blows that cause the soul to fall are ongoing. The argument here is that a merciful God who gave the world a savior would not behave as does the hateful God that Vallejo depicts. These sentiments provide the reason that the message in "The Black Heralds" is described as questioning and challenging God, if not being outright blasphemous. Definitely, the message is one of acute, painful frustration at being unable to determine why life is so hard.

Existential Anguish

"The Black Heralds" is an excellent example of existential anguish. The poem contains classic descriptions of the existentialist experience: trying to create meaning from a world that has no meaning but is empty and confusing; trying to understand the purpose of an existence that makes no sense; trying to establish the freedom and responsibility of the individual in relation to established ethics and morality; trying to endure the hardships of life when there seems to be no valid reason or reward to do so. Angst is often associated with existentialism because there is so much anxiety, guilt, and isolation that comes with individual responsibility and that stems

from unanswered questions about causation and human suffering. A possible conclusion is that there is no meaning to life because there is only a path to nothingness, but Vallejo tells readers that he just does not know what to conclude.



Repetition is a signature device that Vallejo used throughout his career as a poet. The opening line of "The Black Heralds" is repeated as the last line for emphasis and to create an enclosed structure or circle. This enclosure may represent the prison of life that constrains humanity with time limits and physical limitations or the freedoms taken away by government and social status. The phrase, "I just don't know," not only ends the first and last lines of the poem but also the first and last lines of the first stanza in order to underline the frustration of the inexplicable.

In the seventeen lines of "The Black Heralds," Vallejo uses the word "blows" four times: in the first and second lines to establish blows as the subject, in the eleventh line, to remind the reader of the topic, and then in the last line to emphasize the importance of the blows. In addition, Vallejo uses the ellipsis before each of the "I just don't know" phrases as if the speaker runs out of words and sighs or cries out, "I just don't know." The ellipsis is also used in line 5 to create a change of thought, and in line thirteen ("And man … Poor … poor!") to stretch out and emphasize the pathetic nature of humans. Vallejo also uses the similar phrases "welled up" and "wells up" in lines four and twelve as another way to provide a connection between the first and the last sections of the poem. Thus repetition serves to tie the poem together and as a type of rhythmic device like a metronome keeping the beat.


Ellipsis points are not only used to indicate omissions from a quotation but also are used by writers to give the reader the impression that the narrator is experiencing faltering speech. The ellipsis, which consists of three spaced periods, indicates a long pause, or a thought that has trailed off and will not be completed, or will be left for the reader to complete. Sometimes a writer will use an ellipsis rather than a dash or a colon just to catch the reader's attention.

In the case of Vallejo and "The Black Heralds," the ellipsis is used six times in seventeen lines with great dramatic effect. In the famous opening line, Vallejo starts with an attention-grabbing statement about the hardships of life, but instead of reaching some profound conclusion about the bad times people all encounter, he cuts off the speaker with an ellipsis, who then says "I just don't know!" The reader immediately knows that this is a poem of frustration. The poet wants to talk about the tragedy of life, but the speaker lets the reader know right away that he does not have any answers to the mysteries of life. Twice more in the poem, Vallejo uses the ellipsis and the speaker's exasperated "I just don't know" to express the sense of being at a loss for an explanation.

In the first line of the second stanza, Vallejo trails off with an ellipsis after the speaker says, "They are few; but they are" before saying what the blows are. It is as if the speaker changes his mind about discussing what the blows are because he then starts a new sentence talking about what the blows do. The ellipsis after "but they are" also gives the impression that "are" means "exist" as in "They are few, but they still exist."

In the first line of the fourth stanza, Vallejo inserts ellipses for emphasis and to slow down the reading. "And man … Poor … poor!" highlights the pathetic nature of "poor" and once again gives the impression of an incomplete thought as if it is too painful to go into detail about the wretchedness of the human condition.

Beyond Modernismo

Much is made of the influence on Vallejo of the modernismo (modernista) movement. There were a number of famous Latin American writers who were writing in this style in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, but the first of note was the Cuban poet Jose Marti, and eventually Chilean Ruben Dario became the master of the movement. Vallejo was well aware of these other poets and their works because they created a frenzy of interest in literature that carried over into politics and economics and caught the attention of the world, even affecting literary ideas in Spain. The characteristics of modernismo included beautiful landscapes, a crafted verse that sometimes became an artifice of mannerisms, colorful imagery, and elegant, musical language. Modernistas Leopoldo Lugones and Julio Herrary y Reissig added surprising images that were admired and imitated by Vallejo. Although these elements can be seen in The Black Heralds, Vallejo was already departing from the movement in his first work by moving into darker, more realistic subjects and themes of social protest as well as dropping the typical rhetoric and ornamentation of the style. It is difficult to judge a translation for the patterns and rhythms of modernismo that may have been present in the original Spanish version, so English readers must rely on the expertise of scholars to verify that the influence is there, especially when the subject, tone, and concentrated phrases of The Black Heralds are so different from what a reader would expect from modernismo.


Native Americans use symbols and images to express themselves and their mystic fatalism, so it was natural for Vallejo, with his indigenous heritage, to embrace surrealism, a style that uses dreamlike images and suggests the unconscious or subconscious in a psychological way. Surrealism liberates the poet from literary conventions such that language can be ambiguous and ironic as it breaks the rules of logic and reason in its multiple images and irregular rhythms. In "The Black Heralds," the irregular rhythms come from the pauses inserted by the use of ellipses to change the course of the thought. The language of Vallejo's images in this poem is not as ambiguous as one would expect from a surrealist. Rather, they are created with common language and objects, but there is the surrealistic multiplicity of images, and they lead to careful thought and interpretation about the psychological as well as physical torture endured by the abused person Vallejo depicts.

There is no difficult language in "the backwash of everything suffered," "open dark furrows in the fiercest face and in the strongest back," "bloodstained blows," "crackling bread burning up at the oven door," or "like a pool of guilt, in his look." Backwash, furrows, bloodstained, pool and guilt are all terms that are understandable, but combined as they are in the phrases that create the image, they are beautifully crafted to readily conjure a vivid picture in the mind of the reader. The images created from literary and religious allusions—"steeds of barbaric Attilas," "black heralds Death sends us," "deep falls of the Christs of the soul,"—are more difficult at first but are not beyond the average reader's ability to grasp. Images are intended to appeal to the senses, and the images in "The Black Heralds" manage to cover four of the five: sight, hearing, touch, and smell. Coming one upon another in rapid succession in a relatively short poem, they bombard the reader in a powerfully effective way.


  • 1918: In Russia, the Bolsheviks execute the Romanov royal family, setting up a series of events that eventually lead to Russia becoming a communist country. At the same time, Vallejo lives in Lima and is acquainted with political activists to whom he is attracted because of his experience with rural poverty and plantation labor and his disillusionment with religion. Thus begins his eventual involvement in the communist movement.

    Today: The power of communism is diminished greatly around the world since the breakup of the Soviet Union, although China and North Korea have communist systems, and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela gains world attention as a great admirer of the last icon of Central American communism, Cuba's Fidel Castro.

  • 1918: World War I, described as the war to end all wars, comes to a conclusion, leaving the European continent, and the colonies of European countries, in an unsettled and bitter situation. After moving to Europe, Vallejo becomes involved in these issues, earning political exile from France from 1930 to 1932 and campaigning against fascism in the Spanish Civil War from 1936 until his death in 1938. One of Vallejo's last great collections of poetry, Spain, Take This Cup from Me, comes from this endeavor.

    Today: World War I does not end all wars. Rather, the terms of the Treaty of Versailles that arrange the cessation of warfare in 1918 come to be seen as a leading cause of World War II, which is more global. The treaty terms include the creation of new countries and border divisions that contributes to present-day conflicts in Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, and other parts of the Middle East.

  • 1918: Post-war sentiments change modernism from a call for change while respecting the past to a call for a complete remake of the worldview around new technologies and philosophies. This rebellion against emotionalism typically rejects any call to copy the past or return to the classics.

    Today: Modernism becomes mainstream by the 1930s and remains so until the late twentieth century when media-influenced postmodernism begins mixing elements of pop culture with electronics; postmodernism is characterized by open-endedness and collage and a self-referential irony that questions the foundations of cultural and artistic forms.

  • 1918: Vallejo prepares his first book of poetry for publication, beginning his career as a writer in several genres that is to gain him little fame and virtually no income during his lifetime.

    Today: Vallejo is considered the greatest of all Peruvian poets; new editions of his writings and works of criticism about him continue to be published.


History of Peru

Peru had been inhabited for thousands of years when, in the twelfth century, the Quechua-speaking Incas established an empire that lasted until the Spanish conquest in 1533. Peru remained a colony until 1821, then went through a number of upheavals before a period of stability started in 1844. A republican constitution was in effect from 1860 until 1920, but Peru did not have its first civilian president until 1872. Foreign debts for a costly program of public works, followed by a war with Chile, caused the Peruvian government to allow foreign capitalists in 1889 to form the Peruvian Corporation, headquartered in London, to mine up to three million tons of the country's valuable guano deposits, control the railroads for sixty-six years, and receive annual payments of eighty thousand British pounds. The arrangement averted economic disaster for Peru, but the Peruvian people hated the loss of national control and prestige.

There followed a power struggle between the Creole upper class and liberals who urged social and economic reform. The Democratic Party was formed and won the presidency in 1895 with promises of direct suffrage, increased local self-determination, and public schools. This effort, which resulted in positive economic development, was followed by the rule of Augusto Leguia y Salcedo from the Civilian Party from 1908 to 1912 and 1919 to 1930. Although a dictator, Leguia expanded sugar and cotton production and settled a boundary dispute with Chile. In 1920, he supported a new constitution that provided for the protection of Indian lands from sale or seizure. However, the provision was not enforced, leading indigenous Peruvians to organize and attracting members to the Communist Party.

During this time César Vallejo received his college education and wrote his first book of poetry, The Black Heralds. Both of Vallejo's grandmothers were natives, and he grew up with knowledge of the Indian language Quechua, which he used occasionally in his poems. While working on a plantation to earn money for college, Vallejo saw the harsh living conditions of the exploited workers. Given his background and the mood of the times, it is no surprise then that the opening poem of his first collection should deal with the oppression of the masses.

Post-World War I Artistic Movements

From the late 1800s to 1918, the modernist movement existed as a corollary to the Industrial Revolution and mechanization. Modernists advocated adaptation of society in all its aspects to rapid technological changes; traditional forms of art, literature, and social organization simply would not suffice. Therefore, a period of worldwide revolution in all the arts ensued with the belief that anything new and unrelated to the past is better than what is old and traditional.

The writings of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx helped to establish modernism since they challenged established worldviews, both religious and social, and questioned various romantic notions, for example about the innate superiority and decency of humans. At the same time, the impressionist painters took art outdoors and argued that people do not see objects so much as they see light itself as it shines on objects and transforms them. Symbolist writers expressed a theory that since language is itself symbolic in nature, writers should seek words for their sound and texture. Adding to these breaks with traditional thought was Sigmund Freud, the so-called father of psychology, who said that people perceived the world through a filter of their own basic drives and instincts, thus making reality subjective. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche advocated that vision is more important than facts or things. Consequently, impressionism, symbolism, along with the work of Freud and Nietzsche, influenced the progression toward abstraction in art and literature. Freedom of expression, experimentation, radicalism, and primitivism, the belief that nature provides truer and more healthful models than culture, were stressed.

Following such catastrophic upheavals in the social order as the Russian Revolution and World War I, modernism changed from a movement that recognized its link with the past even while questioning tradition to a movement that encouraged overturning the status quo. It was obvious that humanity was not morally progressive and reality was questionable, so surrealism, the movement that uses illogical, dreamlike images and events to suggest the unconscious, was born in an age that also fostered cubism and jazz.

In South America, modernism or modernismo replaced nationalism as the predominant trend in literature and followed the symbolist and Parnassian schools in espousing that art should be for art's sake. The modernistas wrote about exotic matters and experimented with language. Leading this movement were Jose Asuncion Silva of Colombia and Julian del Casal and Jose Marti of Cuba. The movement reached its height with Nicaraguan Ruben Dario (1867-1916) whose fundamental collection, Azul (Blue), was published in 1888. These writers influenced the up-and-coming poet, César Vallejo, who quickly moved beyond them to embrace surrealism and create his own unique style. His experimentation with language is an indication that he, too, rejected the traditional and the familiar. In the process, he joined many other Latin American writers who chose social protest for their themes. From the late nineteenth century on, Peruvian writers stressed analyzing society and exposing the conditions of the poor, especially Peruvian natives.


Many early works of writers are amateurish and only hint of the talent that later blossoms as the skills mature. In the case of Vallejo, however, the first line of the first poem, "The Black Heralds," has become a super star in the world of poetry, and the collection of the same name in which this poem appears, Vallejo's first published collection, continued into the early 2000s to rate serious academic study among literary scholars.

Efrain Kristal, writing for the American Poetry Review, suggests that the palpable intensity of the first line is what makes it one of the most well-known lines in Latin American poetry. Kristal says that the strong pathos is "not in the words that can be recited but in the silence of the ellipsis. One feels the breath knocked out of the poetic voice" as he expresses the "impotence of a suffering humanity."

In her article on Vallejo for Hispania, Phyllis White Rodríguez points out that the "strong notes" that open the poem set the tone of the piece, and the poem itself contains the themes that pervade the rest of the collection. She adds that The Black Heralds "is a tremendous shout of sadness and grief, of contradiction and protest."

Similarly, Ivan Arguelles, writing a review for the Library Journal about The Black Heralds states: "From the very first line …, the discerning reader is convinced that what follows will be a profound literary experience, a life perceived from a harrowingly surrealistic perspective." Arguelles also comments on Vallejo's rare ability to express the human condition and notes that this first book of poetry "already reveals the complex intellectual, emotional, and spiritual qualities that characterize his later work."


  • A complex and groundbreaking work, Vallejo's second book of poetry, Trilce, contains seventy-seven poems filled with creative syntax and punctuation and abstruse images. Published in 1922, the work contorts the Spanish language with Incan phrases and medical terminology to express very personal emotions.
  • Complete Later Poems: 1923-1938, translated by Valentino Gianuzzi and Michael Smith and published in 2005, contains all of Vallejo's poetic works from the time he moved to Paris until his death, including Poemas Humanos, or Human Poems, Vallejo's last and possibly finest book of poetry.
  • Vallejo wrote Tungsten: A Novel (translated by Robert Mezey and published by Syracuse University Press in 1988) to expose the situation of the exploited native Peruvians in the tungsten mining industry. Popular in the U.S.S.R. and Spain when first published, it is the narrative that goes along with the picture he depicted in "The Black Heralds" and one of the earliest social-realist novels from Spanish America.
  • Ruben Dario's Selected Writings (2005) is an English translation of some of the best poetry of the modernismo leader from Nicaragua who was a notable influence on Vallejo.
  • "The Black Heralds" was written in the style of Paul Verlaine's "Art Poetique," which appeared in a 1913 anthology that Vallejo read and appears again in Selected Poems, a 2000 publication of selected poems by Verlaine.
  • Pablo Neruda of Chile is considered by many to be South America's greatest poet. Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems (1993) presents some of Neruda's poetry with a selection of Vallejo's poetry and is an excellent study of these two masters of the craft.

Speaking of the collection as a whole, Kristal adds that The Black Heralds "marks the turn, in Hispanic poetry, from the symbolist aesthetic … to an unprecedented level of emotional rawness which eventually stretched the Spanish language beyond it grammatical possibilities." David Biespiel, writing for the Poetry Foundation about Vallejo's language in his first work, states: "Sometimes blasphemous, other times merely irreverent, The Black Heralds surrealistic imagery, tone, diction, and themes confront pastoral traditions, colonialism, and religious conformity."

The publishers of the Kathleen Ross and Richard Schaaf 1990 translation of The Black Heralds write on the inside flap of the cover of the book a summation of the critical judgment of Vallejo's first collection, saying that it "shows a mystical and social vision that penetrates the deepest recesses of the human spirit and consciousness.… [and] ushers in the dawn of a new poetry in Perú." Concerning the famous initial lines of the title poem, the publishers add that they "probably mark the beginning of Peruvian, in the sense of indigenous, poetry." However, just as the narrator in "The Black Heralds" represents all humanity, Vallejo's opening line and first collection of poetry contain universal themes that appeal to all readers.


Lois Kerschen

Kerschen is an educator and freelance writer. In this essay, she compares the differences found in various translations of the Vallejo poem "The Black Heralds" and comments on the possible changes in tone and meaning that these differences can make.

It is said that every Peruvian knows the opening line of "Los Heraldos Negros," the title poem to César Vallejo's first book, published in 1919 in Lima: "Hay golpes en la vida tan fuertes … Yono sé!" Translated into English, this line from "The Black Heralds" is: "There are blows in life so hard … I just don't know!" Or is it? The book was, of course, written and published in Spanish, so English readers have to rely upon the quality of the translation to be able to discern the tone and meaning of Vallejo's poetry. Depending on the interpretation of the translator, any given word could appear in two, three, or more variations, and some of the variations could convey quite different connotations.

Poetry is very subjective, intentionally so. The poet may have one thing in mind when writing the poem, but the reader gets something else out of it—and that is okay. Everyone does some interpreting while reading prose or poetry, according to each person's own schema, that is, the individual's own world view based on that person's individual knowledge and experience. Within reason, and following certain basic rules of language, the poem nonetheless means whatever it means to each person, including the translator. The definition of a word, its literal meaning, is the first consideration, but then the connotations come into play and can change the entire meaning of a line. "No act shows the provisional nature of reading and writing as does translation, a series of decisions and revisions themselves subject to infinite questioning and revising," states Alfred J. MacAdam in a 1980 review of Clayton Eshleman's translation of Cesar Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry.

Critics often comment on the difficulties of the translator's job. Julio Ortega, writing for Latin American Writers, states: "Vallejo is perhaps the most complicated poet of the Spanish language.… the hermetic [airtight] work of Vallejo is nearly impossible to translate." However, Efrain Kristal, writing a critique of Eshleman's 2006 book, The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo, for American Poetry Review says that Eshleman has shown that "impossible to translate" is not the same as "impossible to paraphrase," and he "renders Vallejo's paradoxes with ease, and his linguistic unconventionalities with instinctual acumen."

In the introduction to her translation of The Black Heralds, Rebecca Seiferle asserts: "Reading and translating Vallejo has been a long process of trying to meet him on his own terms, to discover what those terms were within the contexts of his particular time and, finally, taking his word for it." How well Seiferle succeeds is questioned by Christopher Maurer in an article for New Republic about her translation of Vallejo's Trilce, and one can assume that these remarks could apply to The Black Heralds as well. Maurer complains that Seiferle has only a "tenuous hold on the Spanish language." In addition, Seiferle appears to be trying to excise from Vallejo the colonization that she sees in other translations. Despite the many critics who find evidence of Vallejo's indigenous background in his poetry, which is fairly evident from his use of some native language terms, Seiferle finds these allusions to be parodies of Indian culture rather than romantic nostalgia about rural and native life. In the same article, Maurer reviews Eshleman's translation of Trilce and finds it to be a high risk for accuracy, calling Eshleman a "verbal stunt man." The point is that translators come into the job with different agendas as well as knowledge, and critics are likely to find fault with their efforts one way or another.

The translation provided by Kathleen Ross and Richard Schaaf in their 1990 publication of The Black Heralds was reviewed by Asunción Horno-Delgado for American Book Review. Her comments touch on several of the issues involved in translation that could apply to any work:

The Spanish-speaking reader will feel compelled to quibble with some of the translations … for the English translations sometimes render a Romantic overtone totally absent in Vallejo's poetry. Several other subtleties of the original Spanish are lost, as inevitably happens in translations of poetry. The translation loses some gender-based shades of meaning that are virtually impossible to translate from Spanish into English, and also those wonderful diminutive forms of Spanish that do not exist in English. Still, the magic of this poetry does survive in English, despite such absences. In general, this translation is well done and an invitation to enjoy the pleasure of the text.

For example, regarding the first line of "The Black Heralds," is it that the "blows in life" are hard, powerful, strong, violent, or heavy? In the 1990 translation of the book by Kathleen Ross and Richard Schaaf, the choice is "hard." In the 2006 edition of Clayton Eshleman's The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo, it is "powerful." In Eshleman's 1979 book, Cesar Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry, the choice is "strong." In a 1995 article by Vallejo scholar Edward Hirsch, it is "violent." In Cesar Vallejo: Selected Poems translated by H. R. Hays in 1989, it is "heavy."

From this list, it is obvious that Eshleman changed his mind between 1979 and 2006 from "strong" to "powerful." Since Eshleman has spent four decades studying Vallejo and won the National Book Award for his 1979 translation of The Complete Posthumous Poetry (in partnership with Jose Rubio Barcia), it would seem that he has the expertise in Spanish and on Vallejo to make an accurate choice. So, is the 2006 version more correct simply because more years of study have passed since the first translation and Eshleman has a better understanding of Vallejo's intent? Does the mood of the translator have an effect on the interpretation just as the mood of the reader does?

Complicating matters for the translator of poetry is the difficulty of choosing a word that not only conveys the original meaning but also the rhythm and meter of the poem. Perhaps the three-syllable word "powerful" was considered too long for the line by one of the translators who chose the one-syllable "hard" or "strong" or the two-syllable "heavy." Line two presents another issues of interpretation: Hays uses "Blows like God's hatred," while Eshleman uses "Blows as from the hatred of God." The latter is less of a comparison of the blows to God's hatred and more of a connection between the blows and God's hatred—the blows are not "like" God's hatred, they actually come from God's hatred. Eshleman's translation seems more powerful and sinister.

There are some translations that even an English-only reader or an amateur reader of poetry may question. For example, an essay for The Dictionary of Literary Biography, by Linda S. Maier, cites a translation of "Yo no sé!" as "I can't answer!" instead of "I don't know!" or "I just don't know!" Even a first-semester Spanish student knows that "No sé" is the expression for "I don't know" because that is the reply used often by students in answer to the teacher's questions. Although the phrase certainly could be interpreted to mean "I can't answer," the more common usage is simply "I don't know." Since "I can't answer" is more formal, few people cry out in frustrated anguish: "I can't answer!" Rather, they will shout "I don't know!" to express their loss of words for an explanation of their desperate situation, or as Ross and Schaaf translated the phrase "I just don't know" using "just" for further emphasis. Nonetheless, Edward Hirsch, a frequent writer on Vallejo, uses a translation in a 1995 article that has "I can't answer!" This translation uses "violent" for "hard" in the first line, but calls the poem "The Black Riders," which is totally different from all the other references. Here again, it is hard to understand how anyone could get "riders" out of "heraldos," unless one focuses on Attila's steeds. Some translations use "messengers" for "heralds." At least that is closer, but "messenger" carries less the connotation of bringing an announcement than "heralds" conveys. Is Death more likely to send a message or a pronouncement?

The Maier article also translates the third and fourth lines of "The Black Heralds" as "the deep waters of everything lived through were backed up in the soul." The better translations use "undertow" for "deep waters," which has more of a sense of danger and being pulled down. Preferred translations also use "suffering" for "lived through," which again carries more a sense of pain; things "lived through" could be joyous occasions, too. Eshleman in 1979 uses the stronger "undertow" but follows that with "flowed into our souls," which seems too gentle a phrase for an undertow. A worse choice, though, is using "backed up" instead of "welled up," which sounds more like a backed up sewer system than the rising of repressed emotions. Are the emotions backing up in the soul to places where they could hide more deeply, or are they welling up to the point of being released in an explosion of reaction? Depending on the translation, it is hard to tell if the flood of emotions is flowing forward or backward. Ross and Schaaf use the similar term "backwash," and Hays uses "dammed up." These two choices carry the same idea of being held or pushed back as the translation in Maier's article, but "dammed up" carries the meaning of being forcibly held back by structures that humans tend to build around their emotions and is, therefore, more powerful than merely being "backed up," as in a traffic jam or backwashed like water at a marina.

The questions that a critic could ask about a translator are numerous: Did the translator lean too heavily on dictionaries and literary sources? Was the translator sensitive to the everyday subtleties of the language? Did the translator take into account idiomatic usage? How well does the translator know the poet, his life, his idiosyncrasies, the emotions he would have put into his poetry? With Vallejo, was his Spanish really mixed with the Quechua language, or did his experimentation with the Spanish confuse translators about the source of his words and phrases? In addition, did he use words that were mispronounced by the rural, uneducated people of his village and thus may appear to be something different from what they are? Did Vallejo have in his language words from his indigenous, backwater upbringing that appear archaic to translators but were in popular usage where he lived? Since Vallejo experimented with language, is a word choice a neologism—a made-up word—for which there is no match in English?

With all these variables, it is no wonder that the seventh line of "The Black Heralds" might have the barbarians of Attila the Hun's army riding ponies, colts, or steeds, although it is frankly hard to imagine warriors riding ponies or colts. Steeds are noble, spirited horses bred for war and thus would seem to be the best word choice. Even plain "horses" would be better than ponies or colts whose size and youth make them unsuited for battle. However, MacAdam quotes Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinean writer as saying, in a commentary on the various translations of Homer, that "No translation is, in the last analysis, better than any other. Even the worst translation may succeed in communicating to the reader some aspect of the original absent in the ‘better’ translation." Beauty is in the eye of the beholder because beauty is subjective, poetry is subjective, and translation, besides the language skills required, is ultimately subjective, too.

Source: Lois Kerschen, Critical Essay on "The Black Heralds," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007

Linda S. Maier

In the following essay, Maier gives a critical analysis of Vallejo's work.

Although he published relatively little during his lifetime and received scant critical acclaim, César Vallejo has come to be recognized as one of the most important and complex poets of the Spanish language, one of the foremost poets of Spanish America, and the greatest Peruvian poet of all time. His literary production includes essays, novels, short stories, plays, and a screenplay; but his reputation rests primarily on his poetry, much of which appeared posthumously. Vallejo's chief contribution to poetry is his innovative use of language to communicate intense, authentic emotion and to convey both personal and existential anguish. His verse is marked by a strong sense of compassion and filled with Christian imagery that in his later works is fused with Marxist ideology. Vallejo's poetry has influenced generations of Peruvian and other Spanish American poets to undertake further experiments with poetic language and technique.

The youngest of seven boys and four girls, César Abraham Vallejo was born on 16 March 1892 in Santiago de Chuco, a small town in an agricultural region of the Andes Mountains in northern Peru, to Francisco de Paula Vallejo Benites, a notary public and district official, and María de los Santos Mendoza Gurrionero. Both of Vallejo's grandfathers were Spanish Jesuit priests, and his grandmothers were Chimú Indians. Vallejo received a traditional Catholic upbringing and was encouraged by his parents to consider the priesthood. After attending primary school in his hometown, he began secondary school in 1905 at the Colegio Nacional de San Nicolás (St. Nicholas National High School)—known as the "Athens of the Andes"—in Huamachuco, where he first began writing poetry.

Vallejo graduated from high school in 1908 and took a job as a clerk in his father's notary public office. Later he worked in the office of a mining company in Quiruvilca, between Santiago de Chuco and Huamachuco; as a tutor on a country estate; and as an assistant cashier in the accounting office of a sugar plantation near Trujillo, the capital of the department of La Libertad on the northern Peruvian coast. He was forced to abandon college plans twice during this period because he could not afford the cost of university study.

In 1913 Vallejo enrolled at the Universidad Nacional de La Libertad (La Libertad National University) in Trujillo. He completed a humanities degree in 1915 with a thesis titled El Romanticismo en la poesía castellana (Romanticism in Castilian Poetry). The thesis, which was published in 1954, is divided into a description of the origins of Spanish Romanticism and a review of typical Romantic traits of Spanish poets, including Manuel José Quintana, José de Espronceda, and José Zorrilla. Vallejo studied law at the university from 1915 to 1917 but did not complete work for a degree. To support himself as a student he taught botany and anatomy at the Centro Escolar de Varones No. 241 (Middle Boys' School No. 241), where he contributed scientific explanations in verse to the school magazine, Cultura Infantil (Children's Culture), and later at the Colegio Nacional de San Juan (St. John National School), where one of his pupils was the future novelist Ciro Alegría.

In Trujillo, Vallejo had failed romances with two women, María Rosa Sandoval and Zoila Rosa Cuadra, who merged into the figure of "Mirtho" in his early verse. He belonged to a progressive circle of writers and intellectuals known as the bohemios (bohemians) or "Trujillo group," which also included artist and journalist José Eulogio Garrido; politician Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre; philosopher and journalist Antenor Orrego; poets Óscar Imaña, Francisco Sandoval, and Alcides Spelucín; and painter Macedonio de la Torre. His reading expanded from medieval and Golden Age Spanish literature to embrace the works of Americans Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, Spaniard Miguel de Unamuno, Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó, French symbolists, and Modernista poets such as Rubén Darío of Nicaragua, Julio Herrera y Reissig of Uruguay, Juan Ramón Jiménez of Spain, Amado Nervo of Mexico, and José Santos Chocano of Peru. Vallejo began to publish his poetry in La Industria (Industry) and La Reforma (Reform), local newspapers edited by Garrido and Orrego, and to recite it publicly. La Industria said of one of his readings in a 13 October 1916 review: "Es aún novicio casi, pero en él se apunta una preciosa promesa" (Though still a novice, he promises bright hopes for the future).

In 1917 Vallejo moved to Lima, where he conducted newspaper interviews with the prominent Peruvian literary figures Abraham Valdelomar (whose pseudonym was "El Conde de Lemos" [Count Lemos]), José María Eguren, and Manuel González Prada and came into contact with the city's two leading groups of writers and intellectuals: one led by Valdelomar, the editor of the experimental magazine Colónida, and the other by essayist and political activist José Carlos Mariátegui. In 1918 he began teaching at the Colegio Barrós (Barrós High School), one of the city's finest private schools. That year his mother, who is lovingly portrayed in his early verse, died, but Vallejo was unable to return home for her funeral. Also in 1918 Valdelomar wrote of Vallejo in the Lima journal Sud-América: "Hay en tu espíritu la chispa divina de los elegidos. Eres un gran artista, un hombre sincero y bueno, un niño lleno de dolor, de tristeza, de inquietud, de sombra y de esperanza…. tu espíritu, donde anida la chispa de Dios, será inmortal, fecundará otras almas y vivirá radiante en la Gloria por los siglos de los siglos. Amén" (The divine light of the chosen is in your spirit. You are a great artist, a good and sincere man, a child filled with pain, sadness, and anxiety, with both pessimism and hope…. your spirit, where God's inspiration dwells, will be immortal and enrich others and blaze in Glory forever and ever. Amen).

When the founder of the Colegio Barrós died in September 1918, Vallejo became principal and led the reorganization of the school as the Instituto Nacional (National Institute); but an unhappy romantic involvement with a woman named Otilia, the sister-in-law of one of his colleagues, cost him his job. Subsequently, he held a short-lived post as an elementary teacher at the Colegio Nacional de Guadalupe (Guadalupe National School).

Vallejo's first collection of poetry, Los heraldos negros (translated as The Black Heralds, 1990), was printed in mid 1918 but not distributed until the following year. The title conveys the melancholy tone of the volume and announces a bleak worldview in which life heralds inevitable death. The sixty-nine poems are divided into an introductory text and six unequal sections, of which only two form thematic units: "Nostalgias imperiales" (Imperial Nostalgia), on the Peruvian countryside, and "Canciones de hogar" (Songs of Home), on the connection between happiness and family. The other poems are grouped arbitrarily and treat personal, social, and existential themes, and many incorporate Christian symbolism and allusions. Los heraldos negros is a transitional work that marks both a continuation of Spanish American Modernismo and the emergence of Vallejo's original poetic voice. Like the Modernista masters Darío, Herrera y Reissig, and Leopoldo Lugones of Argentina, Vallejo employs traditional forms, including sonnets as well as heptasyllabic (seven-syllable) and hendecasyllabic (eleven-syllable) verses, which lend musicality to his work. Moreover, he assimilates common Modernista motifs, such as idyllic landscape description and blending of mysticism and eroticism. On the other hand, Vallejo's poems exhibit greater social awareness and a more extensive use of ordinary language than most Modernista verse.

The title poem sets the pessimistic tone of the book:

Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes … Yo no
Golpes como del odio de Dios; como si ante
la resaca de todo lo sufrido
se empozara en el alma … Yo no sé!
(There are blows in life so violent … I can't
Blows as if from the hatred of God; as if
   before them,
the deep waters of everything lived through
were backed up in the soul … I can't answer!).

The pastoral compositions are also imbued with sadness; and while Vallejo equates happiness with home and family, the loss of his brother, commemorated in the elegy "A mi hermano Miguel" (To My Brother Miguel), represents the dissolution of the family unit. Similarly, Vallejo's love poems, such as "Setiembre" (September) and "Heces" (Down to the Dregs), depict painful personal experiences.

In Los heraldos negros Vallejo often cloaks social and existential themes in religious imagery; he continued to do so throughout his career. For example, in "El pan nuestro" (Our Daily Bread) he expresses concern for the under-privileged but is incapable of taking action to help them; in his imagination he distributes bread to them like the priest giving out the Host during the Eucharist. Bread is both the physical and the spiritual staff of life:

Se quisiera tocar todas las puertas,
y preguntar por no sé quién; y luego
ver a los pobres, y, llorando quedos,
dar pedacitos de pan fresco a todos.
Y saquear a los ricos sus viñedos
con las dos manos santas
que a un golpe de luz
volaron desclavadas de la Cruz!
(I wish I could beat on all the doors,
and ask for somebody; and then
look at the poor, and, while they wept softly,
give bits of fresh bread to them.
And plunder the rich of their vineyards
with those two blessed hands
which blasted the nails with one blow of light,
and flew away from the Cross!).

Vallejo compares human existence to a game of chance in which humanity, alone and defenseless, must struggle for survival in a hostile universe. In "Los dados eternos" (The Eternal Dice) God is a gamester incapable of managing the world:

Dios mío, y esta noche sorda, oscura,
ya no podrás jugar, porque la Tierra
es un dado roído y ya redondo
a fuerza de rodar a la aventura,
que no puede parar si no en un hueco,
en el hueco de inmensa sepultura
(My God, in this muffled, dark night,
you can't play anymore, because the Earth
is already a die nicked and rounded
from rolling by chance;
and it can stop only in a hollow place,
in the hollow of the enormous grave).

Vallejo's first poetry collection characterizes life as meaningless anguish and God as impotent, indifferent, and, possibly, even nonexistent.

Having lost two teaching jobs and published an unnoticed volume of poetry during his two and a half years in Lima, Vallejo decided in mid 1920 to return to his hometown. Stopping along the way in Huamachuco, he publicly recited several poems that were not well received and defiantly predicted "Llegaré a ser más grande que Rubén Darío y tendré el orgullo de ver a la América prosternada a mis pies" (One day my poetry will make me greater than even Rubén Darío, and I will have the pleasure of seeing America prostrated before my feet). He arrived in Santiago de Chuco during festivities in honor of the town's patron saint. Vallejo and nearly twenty other individuals were accused of instigating a riot on the final day of the celebration that resulted in one death, the looting and burning of the town's largest business, and an assault on the municipal telephone and telegraph offices. Vallejo went into hiding but was arrested three months later, in early November, and spent 112 days in prison in Trujillo. Although he was allowed to have books and visitors and to write, his prison experience embittered him and led to his later stories and poems exposing the world's arbitrary cruelty. During his incarceration his poem "Fabla de gesta (Elogio del Marqués)" (Heroic Fable [in Praise of the Marquis]) was awarded second prize in a municipal competition commemorating the centennial of Peru's declaration of independence.

Released in late February 1921, Vallejo returned to Lima and resumed teaching at the Colegio Nacional de Guadalupe. In late 1921 his story "Más allá de la vida y la muerte" (Beyond Life and Death) won first prize in a literary contest; it was published in the Lima magazine Variedades (Variety), along with a photograph of the author and three illustrations, the following year.

Also in 1922 Vallejo published Trilce (translated, 1973), his second book of poetry and the last to appear during his lifetime. Comprising poems written between 1918 and 1922 and including a preface by Orrego, Trilce signals a radical break with tradition and has come to be viewed as one of the major texts of avant-garde poetry in Spanish. Vallejo's knowledge of the international avant-garde movements that were occurring at the time the volume was published was derived principally from his reading of literary journals from Spain such as Cervantes, La Esfera (The Sphere), España (Spain), and Ultra; his relative lack of familiarity with the European avant-garde makes his achievement all the more notable.

Vallejo had originally intended to publish the volume as "Cráneos de bronce" (Bronze Skulls) under the pseudonym César Perú; the title he used, Trilce, is a neologism that is generally interpreted as a combination of tres (three) or triple (triple) and dulce (sweet). The volume consists of seventy-seven poems designated by Roman numerals rather than by titles. As in Los heraldos negros, Vallejo explores personal and universal existential issues; but this time he does so in a raw, idiosyncratic style. Past happiness is juxtaposed with present anguish as the family unit disintegrates with the deaths of its members. The poet's mother embodies this lost paradise in poem XXIII: "Tahona estuosa de aquellos mis bizcochos / pura yema infantil innumerable, madre" (Radiant bakery of those my sweet rolls / pure infantile innumerable yolk, mother). In poem LXI a visit to his family home produces nostalgia when the poet encounters only an empty house:

Esta noche desciendo del caballo,
ante la puerta de la casa, donde
me despedí con el cantar del gallo.
Está cerrada y nadie responde
(Tonight I get down from my horse,
before the door of the house, where
I said farewell with the cock's crowing.
It is shut and no one responds).

In poem XVIII Vallejo's prison experience becomes a metaphor of the human struggle against all limitations:

Oh las cuatro paredes de la celda.
Ah las cuatro paredes albicantes
que sin remedio dan al mismo número
(Oh the four walls of the cell.
Ah the four bleaching walls
that inevitably face the same number).

Vallejo blends conventional techniques such as antithesis, oxymoron, paradox, and free verse with neologisms; awkward alliterations; harsh sounds; linguistic and syntactic distortions; reiterations; enumerations; innovative capitalization, punctuation, and spacing; reverse writing; archaisms; idiomatic and regional expressions; and slang. In poem XXXII he invents words and uses numbers and discordant sounds to describe a sweltering afternoon in which heat and noise block human activity:

999 calorías.
Rumbb. . . . . . Trrraprrr rrach. . . . . chaz
Serpentínica u del bizcochero
enjirafada al tímpano.
Quién como los hielos. Pero nó.
Quién como lo que va ni más ni menos.
Quién como el justo medio
(999 calories.
Roombbb. . . . . . Hulllablll llust. . . . . ster
Serpenteenice of the sweet roll vendor
girafted to the eardrum.
Lucky are the ices. But no.
Lucky that which moves neither more nor less.
Lucky the golden mean).

Because of its difficult and hermetic nature, Trilce was generally ignored by critics and was despised by those who did notice it. In his October 1922 review in the Lima weekly Mundial (Universal) Luis Alberto Sánchez called the book "incomprensible y estrambótico" (incomprehensible and outlandish) and wondered, "¿Por qué habrá escrito Trilce Vallejo?" (Why did Vallejo ever write Trilce?).

In 1923 Vallejo published a collection of short stories and a novella. Escalas melografiadas (Melographic Scales) is divided into two parts, "Cuneiformes" (Cuneiforms) and "Coro de los vientos" (Choir of Winds). The stories in the first section, several of which Vallejo composed in prison, may be considered prose versions of poems in Trilce. The macabre stories in the second section reflect the influence of Edgar Allan Poe. The short novel Fabla salvaje (Savage Fable) also shows Poe's influence: set in the Andes, it explores the psyche of an Indian peasant who imagines his wife's infidelity.

After losing his teaching job because of a reduction in staff, Vallejo moved to Paris in June 1923. Not fluent in French and having, at first, neither regular employment nor permanent living quarters, Vallejo began to suffer the ill health that endured for the rest of his life. His father's death in 1924 added to his woes.

From 1925 to 1927 Vallejo was employed as a secretary at the newly created Ibero-American Press Agency and served as a correspondent for various Spanish and Spanish American periodicals, including Amauta (Inca Elder), Bolívar, El Comercio (Commerce), Cromos, Estampa (Print), Mundial, La Razón (Reason), Revista de Avance (Advance Review), Variedades, and La Voz (The Voice). His journalistic pieces generally report on European political, social, and cultural life. One of his essays, "Contra el secreto profesional" (Against Professional Secrets), published in Variedades in 1927, deals with the deficiencies of contemporary Spanish American writing; it was republished in book form in 1973. He also earned money from literary translations and Spanish-language tutoring and received a scholarship to continue his legal studies.

In Paris, Vallejo met Costa Rican sculptor Max Jiménez, Spanish painter Juan Gris, Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro, and Spanish poet and literary critic Juan Larrea, who became one of the foremost experts on his work. Vallejo and Larrea started a literary magazine, Favorables-Paris-Poema; only two issues appeared, in July and October 1926. Contributors included Gris, Huidobro, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, French Creationist poet Pierre Reverdy, and the founder of the Dada movement, Tristan Tzara. Also in 1926 Vallejo was listed in the Índice de la nueva poesía americana (Index of New Spanish American Poetry), edited by Huidobro, Peruvian poet Alberto Hidalgo, and Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.

In 1926 Vallejo began writing a novel about the Incas, "Hacia el reino de los Sciris" (Toward the Kingdom of the Sciris), but never completed it. In the following year he published in the Lima journal Amauta a prose piece, "Sabiduría" (Wisdom), that he later included in his protest novel, El tungsteno: La novela proletaria (Tungsten: The Proletarian Novel, 1931; translated as Tungsten, 1988). Vallejo also tried his hand at drama, though he destroyed the manuscript for his first play, originally titled Mampar and retitled Cancerbero (Goalkeeper). He composed two other plays: Moscú contra Moscú (Moscow vs. Moscow), retitled Entre las dos orillas corre el río (Between the Two Shores Runs the River), about a Russian princess whose daughter is a communist activist, and Lockout, on a labor-movement theme. Neither was published or produced during Vallejo's lifetime, but both are included in a two-volume edition of his dramatic works that appeared in 1979—more than forty years after his death.

From 1926 to 1928 Vallejo lived with Henriette Maisse. He had begun attending communist workshops and lectures, and in 1928 he traveled to Moscow with the intention of relocating there; but he changed his mind and returned to Paris. In 1929 he moved in with a neighbor, Georgette Phillipart, with whom he returned to the Soviet Union that year. During this second trip Vallejo interviewed the poet Vladimir Maiakovsky, who committed suicide the following year. Vallejo's leftist activities resulted in his expulsion from France in December 1930, and he and Phillipart moved to Madrid.

Shortly after his arrival in the Spanish capital, Vallejo joined the Communist Party and witnessed the proclamation of the Spanish Republic. He continued to earn a living from translation and contributions to Spanish and Spanish American magazines, though his sentimental short story about an Indian boy, "Paco Yunque," was rejected as too sad for young readers and remained unpublished until after his death. A series of articles chronicling his travels in the Soviet Union, "Un reportaje en Rusia" (A Report on Russia), appeared in the Madrid magazine Bolívar in 1930 and served as the basis of his Rusia en 1931: Reflexiones al pie del Kremlin (Russia in 1931: Reflections at the Foot of the Kremlin), published the following year. In the book Vallejo describes the new social order emerging in the Soviet Union and sets out his own manifesto for the future. Recommended by the Asociación del Mejor Libro del Mes (Book of the Month Club), whose selection committee included such prominent Spanish writers and literary critics as Azorín (pseudonym of José Martínez Ruiz), Ricardo Baeza, Enrique Díez-Canedo, and Ramón Pérez de Ayala, Rusia en 1931 went through three printings in four months and became the second-best-selling book in Spain after Sin novedad en el frente (1929), the Spanish translation of Erich Maria Remarque's Im Westen nichts neues (1928; translated as All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929). Vallejo began writing Rusia ante el segundo plan quinquenal (Russia in the Face of the Second Five-Year Plan) after a third trip to the Soviet Union in October 1931 to participate in the International Congress of Writers, but the work remained unpublished until 1965.

In 1931 the Spanish writers José Bergamín and Gerardo Diego brought out a second edition of Trilce that led the Paris reviewer Pierre Lagarde to claim that Vallejo had invented Surrealism before the Surrealists. His greatest literary success during his lifetime, however, came that same year with the publication of his best-selling proletarian protest novel El tungsteno. Written in a realistic style and set in the fictional Andean village of Quivilca, the novel is based on Vallejo's firsthand observations of the deplorable conditions in the mines of Quiruvilca. The two main characters are the heroic Indian miner Servando Huanca and the intellectual mine accountant Leonidas Benites. The plot, designed to incite outrage, includes the gang rape of an Indian woman who subsequently dies, the perversions of two wealthy brothers, the conscription of workers for the mines, and a labor revolt that ends in bloodshed.

In early 1932 Vallejo received permission to return to Paris on the condition that he refrain from political activity. With no fixed residence or steady employment, Vallejo was reduced to poverty; nevertheless, he and Phillipart were married in 1934. Between 1932 and 1936 he unsuccessfully submitted for publication three works in three genres: a collection of essays, El arte y la revolución (Art and Revolution), which was finally published in 1973; a satirical play about Peruvian political life, Colacho hermanos o Presidentes de América (The Colacho Brothers; or, Presidents of America), which was included in the 1979 edition of his plays; and a volume of poetry, "Nómina de huesos" (Payroll of Bones), which was incorporated into his posthumous Poemas humanos: 1923-1938 (1939; translated as Poemas humanos: Human Poems, 1968). Some of his other poetry was included in the Antología de la poesía española e hispanoamericana, 1882-1932 (Anthology of Spanish and Spanish American Poetry, 1882-1932), edited by Federico de Onís in 1934.

The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936 prompted Vallejo to resume his political activity. He solicited money in the street to support the Republican forces, was one of the founders of the Spanish American Committee for the Defense of the Spanish Republic, and worked on the committee's bulletin Nuestra España (Our Spain). He went to Spain twice during the war; on the second trip he attended sessions of the International Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers in Barcelona, Valencia, and Madrid and visited the battlefront.

In hopes of making money, Vallejo drafted a screenplay titled Charlot contra Chaplin (Charles against Chaplin); it was never produced. He also completed a tragedy set in Incan Peru, La piedra cansada (The Tired Stone); despite strong support from the Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, however, it was not produced during his lifetime and was first published in the 1979 edition of his theatrical works. Between September and December 1937 Vallejo composed the poems that were published in 1940 as España, aparta de mí este cáliz: 15 poemas (Spain, Take This Cup from Me: 15 Poems; translated as Spain, Let This Cup Pass from Me, 1972). He also devoted a significant amount of time to correcting, revising, and editing his unpublished poetry.

Vallejo became bedridden on 13 March 1938. The Peruvian embassy paid to have him placed in a clinic, where, after suffering from delirium and losing consciousness, he died on the morning of 15 April 1938. The International Association of Writers in Defense of Culture organized and financed Vallejo's funeral and burial in the Montrouge cemetery in south Paris; among the eulogists was French avant-garde writer Louis Aragon. In the 1960s Vallejo's widow purchased a new tombstone and had his remains transferred to Montparnasse cemetery.

Georgette de Vallejo and her friend, historian Raúl Porras Barrenechea, brought out Vallejo's unpublished poetry the year after his death under the title Poemas humanos. The volume includes 108 poems, some dated and others undated; they are in no chronological or thematic order with the exception of the last fifteen, the poems that were republished separately in 1940 as España, aparta de mí este cáliz. Critical opinion on the organization and interpretation of Vallejo's posthumous poetry varies. Some critics believe that his entire European production should be considered as a unit. Others divide it into the poems written between 1923 and 1937 and the fifteen poems of España, aparta de mí este cáliz. Still others suggest a three-part division, comprising the undated poems, which are assumed to have been written between 1923 and 1936, the dated poems from 1936 to 1938, and the poems of España, aparta de mí este cáliz.

The texts of Poemas humanos further expand Vallejo's fusion of personal and existential themes and also reflect his heightened political commitment: as in much of his previous poetry, human beings are depicted as weak, defenseless orphans, alone in a hostile universe; and political issues are addressed in poems about hunger, homelessness, and unemployment. He contrasts the absurd, chaotic present, filled with problems and class conflicts, with an ideal future based on human solidarity.

In "Palmas y guitarra" (Palms and Guitars) love offers a temporary refuge in the midst of war:

Ahora, entre nosotros, aquí,
ven conmigo, trae por la mano a tu cuerpo
y cenemos juntos y pasemos un instante la
a dos vidas y dando una parte a nuestra
Ahora, ven contigo, hazme el favor
de quejarte en mi nombre y a la luz de la
    noche teneblosa
en que traes a tu alma de la mano
y huímos en puntillas de nosotros
(Now, between ourselves, right here,
come with me, bring your body by the hand
and let's dine together and spend our life for
    a moment
in two lives, giving a part to our death.
Now, come with yourself, do me the favor
of complaining in my name and by the light
    of the teneblous night
in which you bring your soul by the hand
and we flee on tiptoes from ourselves).

All the same, death is inevitable; and Vallejo predicts his own death in "Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca" (Black Stone on a White Stone):

Me moriré en París con aguacero,
un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo.
Me moriré en París—y no me corro—
talvez un jueves, como es hoy, de otoño
(I will die in Paris with a sudden shower,
a day I can already remember.
I will die in Paris—and I don't budge—
maybe a Thursday, like today is, in autumn).

In "Intensidad y altura" (Intensity and Height) Vallejo describes the challenges of aesthetic creation:

Quiero escribir, pero me sale espuma,
quiero decir muchísimo y me atollo;
no hay cifra hablada que no sea suma,
no hay pirámide escrita, sin cogollo.
Quiero escribir, pero me siento puma;
quiero laurearme, pero me encebollo.
No hay toz hablada, que no llegue a bruma,
no hay dios ni hijo de dios, sin desarrollo
(I want to write, but out comes foam,
I want to say so much and I freeze;
there is no spoken cipher which is not a sum,
there is no written pyramid, without a core.
I want to write, but I feel like a puma;
I want to laurel myself, but I stew in onions.
There is no spoken cough, which doesn't end
    in mist,
there is no god nor son of god, without

But in the face of poverty and adversity, Vallejo says in "Un hombre pasa con un pan al hombro" (A Man Walks by with a Stick of Bread), art is inconsequential:

Un hombre pasa con un pan al hombro.
¿Voy a escribir, después, sobre mi doble?
Otro se sienta, ráscase, extrae un piojo de su
    axial, mátalo.
¿Con qué valor hablar de psicoanálisis?
Otro ha entrado a mi pecho con un palo en
    la mano.
¿Hablar luego de Sócrates al médico?
Un cojo pasa dando el brazo a un niño.
¿Voy, después, a leer a André Breton?
Otro tiembla de frío, tose, escupe sangre.
¿Cabrá aludir jamás al Yo profundo?
(A man walks by with a stick of bread on his
Am I going to write, after that, about my
Another sits, scratches, extracts a louse from
    his armpit, kills it.
How dare one speak about psychoanalysis?
Another has entered my chest with a stick in
To talk then about Socrates with the doctor?
A lame man passes by holding a child's hand.
After that am I going to read André Breton?
Another trembles from cold, coughs, spits
Will it ever be possible to allude to the pro-
    found I?).

On another level, Poemas humanos alludes to the ordeals of existence in general and proposes a collective solution to personal and human problems. In "Hoy me gusta la vida mucho menos" (Today I Like Life Much Less) and "Los nueve monstruos" (The Nine Monsters) Vallejo describes modern humanity's existential anguish, as he writes in the latter:

I, desgraciadamente,
el dolor crece en el mundo a cada rato,
crece a treinta minutos por segundo, paso a
y la naturaleza del dolor, es el dolor dos veces
y la condición del martirio, carnívoro, voraz,
es el dolor, dos veces
y la función de la yerba purísima, el dolor
dos veces
y el bien de sér, dolernos doblemente.
¡Jamás, hombres humanos,
hubo tánto dolor en el pecho, en la solapa,
    en la cartera,
en el vaso, en la carnicería, en la aritmética!
(AND, unfortunately,
pain grows in the world every moment,
grows thirty minutes a second, step by step,
and the nature of the pain, is the pain twice
and the condition of the martyrdom, carnivorous,
is the pain, twice
and the function of the purest grass, the pain
and the good of Being, to hurt us doubly.
Never, human men,
was there so much pain in the chest, in the
    lapel, in the wallet,
in the glass, in the butcher shop, in arithmetic!).

Vallejo reveals his increasing exaltation of the proletariat in "Los mineros salieron de la mina" (The Miners Came out of the Mine): "¡Salud, oh creadores de la profundidad! … (Es formidable)" (Hail, oh creators of the profundity!… [Tremendous]).

España, aparta de mí este cáliz is generally regarded as the best and most important literary text to emerge from the Spanish Civil War. The fifteen poems had first been printed in the Republican-controlled part of Spain in September 1938, but all copies were destroyed before distribution. After Vallejo's death the texts were included at the end of Poemas humanos; the following year, in Mexico, exiled Spanish poet Emilio Prados edited España, aparta de mí este cáliz, prior to its publication in 1940. Vallejo's friend Larrea wrote the preface, "Profecía de América" (American Prophecy), and Pablo Picasso contributed an ink portrait of Vallejo. The title echoes Christ's prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane to be released from his imminent sacrifice and conveys the hope that the Spanish Republic may be spared the ravages of war. Incorporating biblical discourse and imagery, the volume glorifies the Spanish Republic and presents a Christian vision of Marxism. The Spanish Civil War symbolizes human suffering and the struggle to create an ideal world, or New Jerusalem. Though the Spanish Republic is compared to a mother offering love and protection, the Republican militiaman endures Christ-like agony and personifies and redeems humanity. In "Himno a los voluntarios de la República" (Hymn to the Volunteers for the Republic) Vallejo describes Republican volunteers as humanity's heroic saviors:

por la vida, por los buenos ¡matad
a la muerte, matad a los malos!
Hacedlo por la libertad de todos,
del explotado y del explotador,
por la paz indolora—la sospecho
cuando duermo al pie de mi frente
y más cuando circulo dando voces
y hacedlo, voy diciendo,
por el analfabeto a quien escribo,
por el genio descalzo y su cordero,
por los camaradas caídos,
sus cenizas abrazadas al cadaver de un
for life, for the good ones, kill
death, kill the bad ones!
Do it for the freedom of everyone,
of the exploited and of the exploiter,
for a peace without pain—I glimpse it
when I sleep at the foot of my forehead
and even more when I travel around
and do it, I keep saying,
for the illiterate to whom I write,
for the barefoot genius and his lamb,
for the fallen comrades,
their ashes hugging the corpse of a road!).

In "Masa" (Mass) international solidarity on behalf of the Spanish Republic brings about resurrection:

Al fin de la batalla,
y muerto el combatiente, vino hacia él un
y le dijo: "¡No mueras; te amo tanto!"
Pero el cadáver ¡ay! siguió muriendo.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Entonces todos los hombres de la tierra
le rodearon; les vió el cadáver triste,
incorporóse lentamente,
abrazó al primer hombre; echóse a andar …
(At the end of the battle,
the combatant dead, a man came toward him
and said: "Don't die; I love you so much!"
But oh God the corpse kept on dying.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Then all the inhabitants of the earth
surrounded him; the corpse looked at them
    sadly, moved:
he sat up slowly,
embraced the first man; began to walk …).

Despite his declaration of faith in the Republic, Vallejo hints in the title poem at the possibility of its fall:

si la madre
España cae—digo, es un decir—
salid, niños del mundo; id a buscarla!
(if mother
Spain falls—I mean, it's just a thought—
Out, children of the world, go and look for

In contrast to the avant-garde poems of Trilce, Vallejo's posthumous poetry uses more-traditional forms and techniques. Employing free verse as well as standard verse forms, such as heptasyllabic and hendecasyllabic lines, these poems are longer and make use of reiteration and enumeration. Vallejo reclaims the religious tone of his first poetry collection and instills it with political connotations.

Though he published little and was critically underestimated during his lifetime, César Vallejo is regarded today as one of the great poets of the twentieth century and one of Spanish America's most original poetic voices. His poetry, much of which appeared after his death, conveys his deep-seated compassion and treats general themes relating to human existence in a fresh way. His remarkable combination of individuality and universality has resulted in his posthumous elevation to canonical status.

Source: Linda S. Maier, "César Vallejo," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 290, Modern Spanish American Poets, Second Series, edited by María A. Salgado, Thomson Gale, 2004, pp. 331-45.

Adam Sharman

In the following essay excerpt, Sharman asserts that traditional indigenous Andean Culture influenced Vallejo's first book Los Heraldos Negros, particularly in the concept of time, even though Vallejo was positioned in the modern world.

Vallejo's first collection of poetry, Los heraldos negros, makes space consciously, indeed self-consciously, for traditional indigenous Andean culture, though only by confining it largely to a discrete section revealingly named "Nostalgias imperiales." Broadly speaking, indigenous Andean temporality is here figured as something predominantly past, something remote, or as that which stands outside time, something eternal. Thematically, the modernista exoticization of the pre-Colombian is unmistakable in this section; technically, so too, the preference for synaesthesia. Despite the incorporation of an Andean thematics and lexicon, there is a preciousness that jars. I shall comment on just a selection of Vallejo's poems that have the narrow remit mentioned above.

In the second of the four sonnets that comprise the poem "Nostalgias imperiales," the "anciana pensativa" ponders the past in a manner redolent of the way in which the aged mariner of Darío's "Sinfonía en gris mayor" contemplates distant lands. Whereas he meditates through a haze of tobacco smoke, she, cipher for pre-Colombian Andean cultures, muses while spinning, that is to say, while practicing one of the culture's great crafts. Vallejo depicts the anciana pensativa as active in elaborating a thread of continuity with the cultures, but also as in a state of petrification—"cual relieve / de un bloque pre-incaico"—as though she were a fossilized relic-detail of another, celebrated Andean technological past. In the third sonnet, the oxen are compared to kings weeping over defunct domains. The atmosphere is melancholic, senescent, decadent; in the oxen's "widowed pupils" the dreams have no memory of the time they are supposed to revivify, not because they are supposed to revivify, not because they are gloriously timeless, but because the past is so remote …

The three sonnets that comprise "Terceto autóctono" strike a different note, that of festival time. They process the festival's sights through the sound of the traditional song form, the yaraví, and process both the sights and sounds through the conventional visual and rhythmic form of the modernista sonnet. The féte galante of Darío's "Era un aire suave" becomes an autochthonous festival. The second line of the Darío poem, "el hada Harmonía ritmaba sus vuelos," is syllabically reworked in the third line of Vallejo's opening sonnet such that the source of music is not Greek harmony, but the humble, telluric plough: "Es fiesta! El ritmo del arado vuela." The synaesthesia continues in a conceit that binds together color and music, sight and sound in the idea of an ancestral connection (blood) to the Incan worship of the sun (sacrifice) … The conceit is taken up in the last line of a final stanza that gives full recognition to the processing of Christian materials by pre-Colombian beliefs …

The stanza acknowledges the temporality that dominates the hybridization (it is a modern sun-god) and takes its distance from the traditional (the modern sun-god is for the other, …) The second sonnet abounds in couleur locale raised to epic proportions (the shepherdess's traditional clothing wraps her in a "humildad de lana heroica y triste"); while the last one depicts a river as drunk as the festival-goers as it simultaneously celebrates and mourns a time before time … The three poems attempt a species of indigenization of symbolist topoi, or "aquenando hondos suspiros" as Vallejo puts it in the first sonnet in a stanza that sounds like a distorted echo of the opening verse of "Era un aire suave," replacing the violins with Indian quenas. Ultimately, however, the poems clothe the indigenous in a symbolist aesthetic, such that the quotidian quechua words require italicization while the high-literary tropes of personification and hyperbaton remain the norm …

The poem "Aldeana" continues the use of synaesthesia, mimicking the mournful monotony of the yaraví. In it the time of the Indian is again figured alternately as the non-time of eternity or the time of death and the past, of "idilios muertos." But in "Los arrieros," from the section "Truenos," is where we find the most explicit and most revealing statement of cultural difference expressed as temporal disjuncture. There the poetic persona watches an Indian arriero heading slowly for the sierra with his donkey. As the indigenous subject distances himself in space, the "I" distances him in time … The two characters may live in the same place, the poem seems to suggest, but they do not live in the same time. I take seriously the expression "desde un siglo de duda" that Vallejo uses to position himself discursively as one removed from the representative of traditional Andean culture. Vallejo is conscious of his own modernity, of the legacy of doubt bequeathed by the death of God. Caution should attend efforts to make him into a prophet of multitemporal heterogeneity. For temporality is just what is denied to the arriero. The poem ends by making the place of the Indian into the locus of an altogether different time, the non-time of eternity … The neologism highlights the temporal difference (the Iron Age versus the Modern Age) at the same time as it suggests, speaking strictly against the idea of eternity, the deterioration (the rusting, the oxidization) of the latter.

The obvious conclusion at this point, namely, that Vallejo is a modern, cut off from tradition and uncontaminated by it, is the one to be avoided. It is untenable to draw a clear distinction in the case of Vallejo's production between a subject matter that would be ancient (that is, pre-Colombian culture) and an aesthetic form that would be modern (symbolism). Not only is the "ancient" culture resignified in the modern era, as we saw in "Terceto autótono"; symbolism itself, as Raymond Williams observes, is at once symptomatic of its own historical time and expressive of an ancient, traditional temporality. Synaesthesia may well have invoked the contemporary moment through its appeal to immediate sensory experience; it also sought to tap in to a timeless spiritual realm: "Characteristically, in the Symbolists, as clearly in Baudelaire and again in Apollinaire, [the] form of poetic revelation involved a fusion of present synaesthetic experience with the recovery of a nameable, tangible past which was yet ‘beyond’ or ‘outside’ time." In other words, symbolism can only be erected as a representative of the modern to the extent that it bears witness to the differential character of modernity itself (which would precisely never quite be itself). Williams's observation guards against the totalizing proclivities of the concept of temporalities, which we here use because of its explanatory value, but against which we must remain vigilant.

There is much more to be said about Los heraldos negros in what concerns its thematic and technical innovations and general poetic worth. I have dwelt on "Nostalgias imperiales" and certain contiguous poems for the specific, limited purpose of demonstrating that it is not enough to provide a taxonomy of the lexical and larger discursive elements of Vallejo's poetry that appear to articulate a specifically Andean indigenous vision of things. The most hackneyed tourist guidebook can effortlessly accommodate such a lexicon, the presence of which may betoken not a speaker's familiarity with the material but the distance from that reality with which he or she tries to populate the pages. It is noticeable in Vallejo's later poetry just how often the cultural and topographical references to Andean things are accompanied by the presence of exclamation marks (see ‘Gleba,’ "Los mineros salieron de la mina," and "Telúrica y magnética"), as though the author could not mention these things without an ironic voice. Not a dismissive irony, to be sure, but one that operates between a Marxist hyperbole celebrating the workers as Promethean force (such as that applied to non-Andean subjects in "Parado en una piedra") and a discourse that cannot quite have faith in them as realities rather than hyperboles …

Source: Adam Sharman, "Semicolonial Times: Vallejo and the Discourse of Modernity," in Romance Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3, Summer 2002, pp. 198-201.

Leslie Bary

In the following essay excerpt, Bary explains that Vallejo's poetry is so difficult because of his experimentation with language and his unique use of established literary movements. His verse may appear simple but often has a message contrary to appearances.

The almost notoriously difficult poetry of César Vallejo (Peru, 1892-Paris, 1938) is often defined as political for what are in fact largely biographical reasons—the poet's humble background and well-known militancy on the Left—which his writing refracts in themes such as the defense of the poor and solidarity with the Republican cause in Spain. A thematic understanding of the "political" in this poetry ascribes static, (classically) representational qualities to the work that tend to iron out Vallejo's originality along with his difficulty—thus ignoring the depth of his own thought on the relationship between politics and aesthetics.

Literary histories commonly pair Vallejo with his contemporary Pablo Neruda because both are highly acclaimed, Left-oriented writers who first arose in the heyday of the avant-garde period. Yet the simple style and clear message of socially conscious poetry such as Neruda's in Canto general, intended to make the poem available to an ill-educated public and unrecuperable to a bourgeois literary tradition, typify an esthetic very different from Vallejo's, whose most politically committed poetry is, in a seeming paradox, also nearly unreadable by traditional standards. Vallejo, in his critical writings, which question both the human value of the avant-garde style in poetry and the poetic force of Maiakovski's political verse, constantly ponders the question of how to restore the social content of words without creating a propagandistic literature. This question parallels a central problem in the contemporary critical debate: how can literature generate meaning without falling into the trap of representation or logocentric discourse? An examination of the political bases and implications of Vallejo's stylistic difficulty is crucial, then, to any reading of his work not based on paraphrase or on the study of isolated images. In what follows, I want to suggest that Vallejo is difficult because meaning (and hence the "political") in his work is neither constituted, as it is for the more traditional "social" poets, as a task primarily of representation; nor is it conceived as a question of the "interruption" of representation, that indeterminacy of meaning which according to much post-structuralist theory is in itself politically subversive. Rather, Vallejo's difficulty is that of a poetry which disturbs accepted configurations of thought, but also pushes us to participate in the creation of a new cognitive mode. Ever aware of the opacity of words, Vallejo stretches their ideological boundaries. Rather than claim to redeem language or lead us to a clear space beyond its turbulent surface, Vallejo strives within it to set in motion what he calls in one of his notebooks "el rigor dialéctico del mundo objetivo y subjetivo" (Vallejo 1977: 90).


The discovery of language as mediation is central to both modern poetry and contemporary literary theory. After the Romantics' voyage towards the limits of language, summed up by Rubén Darío at the end of the nineteenth century … after the avant-garde's emphasis on linguistic productivity at the level of the signifier over the referential function of art; and especially after the description of the world as text in so much recent literary and cultural theory, it has become commonplace to conclude that the apprehension of heterogeneous impulses and self-ironic stances in our literary and cultural texts are the last possible horizon of their reading, as well as the only possible "non-repressive" critical attitude. The self-positioning of this critical development specifically at the end of interpretation claims not to presuppose a former harmony among language, perception and "truth," but it does seem to depend on a general belief in such a harmony—a belief which deconstruction, as it is most commonly practiced, undertakes to dispel.

Recent work by critics such as Djelal Kadir, Mary Layoun, and Kum Kum Sangari has shown that the current crisis of representation in Western literature and theory, along with its attendant demise of the subject and also the "recognition" of the links between literature and politics, are constitutive rather than culminating characteristics of "Third World" (or, perhaps more specifically, post-colonial) literatures. As the Inca Garcilaso, himself the product of a hybrid culture, suggested early in the seventeenth century, the duplicity of language is primordially evident in the colonial situation—a situation in which different languages correspond to radically different cultures, and the dominant language is an imported one. Post-colonial discourse inherits the consciousness of this duplicity: the status of language (as well as that of "meaning" and "truth") is always already in question.

Vallejo's poetry dramatizes this situation. His disarticulation of "language" and "world" in all of his poetic production, and his declarations in his first collection of poems, Los heraldos negros (1919), that he doesn't know the source of the "golpes en la vida" and that he was born "un día / que Dios estuvo enfermo," even as they echo generalized modern sentiments like the death of God and the loss of connections with an origin, place these notions at the base of his poetics rather than as final realizations. Los heraldos negros does not merely register the decline of modernista "correspondances" and a supposed naturalness of linguistic representation. In fact, in this collection Vallejo does something quite different: situating himself, as Julio Ortega says, on the margins of these traditions (108), he shows the unities they presuppose to have been originally insubstantial. As it systematically empties images of plenitude or solace (such as "home," "origin," and "God"), Vallejo's writing also devalues the terms in which they have been constructed. What elsewhere are organizing images and allusions appear here (in Ortega's words) as discursive residue (109).

The Los heraldos negros sonnet "Unidad" (1988) can, for example, be read as rather simple allegory of Christian hope for resurrection after death, if we focus on the final tercet as a resolution or redemption of the crisis evoked in the first three sections of the poem. Here the metaphorical … of the first tercet, which folds into itself the images of time and death presented in in the quatrains, is superseded … Above the web of human structures and human doubt, the light-infused hand holds up a bit of lead. This is the same lead that in the quatrains was a bloody bullet, now made divine "en forma azul de corazón." Thus the problematic images of the first half of the poem are apparently transmuted; the "hand that limits" seems to be supplanted by the Hand that comforts, that resolves, that leads us beyond limits.

Yet the leap of faith this ending asks us to make also works to intensify the gap between its discourse and that of the first three stanzas, and the resolution asserted rings false at least as much as it rings true. Because the apparent resolution comes so close to the traditional "mysteries" of resurrection/redemption, it is hard to be sure that the blue heart and "great Hand" of the final tercet are not further forms of the "hostile idea" and reddened bullet that two stanzas earlier gave form to the "great Mystery"…. In fact, the instability of the terms that structure the poem—among them the leaden (bullet-like) quality of the blue heart, the transformation in the second quatrain of the moon, traditionally an emblem of poetic inspiration and authority, into a gun-barrel, … and the questionable power of the admonition "cede y pasa" in the first tercet to banish the frightening images of the quatrains—seems to suggest that there is actually no secret behind the symbols and structures we use to interpret our experience, which could be revealed so as to unify and explain them.

The reading of "Unidad" I propose, then, is that in counterpoint to its title, the poem is more about disjunctions than about unity; or, to put it another way, that it is not about the sort of Symbolist or theological unity that its final images seem, at one level, to imply. The putative resolution of the poem's paradoxes in the final tercet is actually only a kind of overlay. So the discourse of unity is not treated by the poem as a natural, organic thing but as an artificial construct, an imposed form.

Another Los heraldos negros poem, "Absoluta", very directly presents the idea of "unity" as an alien and alienating discourse. The "unidad excelsa" called for in the fourth stanza stands in sharp contrast to the failure of its attempted embodiment in the first three, and is invalidated, even as a principle, in the fifth and final one, where the "linderos," the spatial and temporal boundaries that "God" and "Love" ought to be able to conquer, are themselves the "irreducibly disdainful" victors, and the "doncella plenitud del 1" is metaphorically host to serpents, wrinkled so that part of its surface is hidden, and crossed by a shadow …

As is even more clearly the case in the poem entitled "Comunión", the tenuously balanced thematics of love and religion used to evoke physical and spiritual plenitude here are actually seen from the perspective of the great distance between the speaker and the language he uses. In both poems, what attempt to be unifying (and comforting) metaphors are made to expose their own inadequacy. (In "Comunión" this gesture becomes painfully comical, when the speaker tries, and fails, to assuage his sexual guilt by comparing the body of his beloved to the river Jordan, and her open arms to a redemptory cross.) At the close of "Comunión," furthermore, Vallejo's speaker tells us he was born on Palm Sunday and not in Bethlehem: his origin does not coincide with that of the episteme that has given him his metaphors. He enters, so to speak, in the middle of an already-written story, and at the beginning of its crisis.

I am arguing that the gap in these poems between the speaker and his language is not the same as the gap between present fragmentation and ideal unity we can see in poets like Baudelaire and in part of the Spanish American modernista tradition. Although Vallejo here uses the readily available vocabulary of fragmentation and unity, or even spleen and ideal, he seems to do so precisely because this is the only available vocabulary in the place and time he is writing. He is, in other words, attempting to insert himself into a patently problematic discourse because he has as yet found no other. His simultaneous appropriation by and problematization of pre-existing literary and cultural discourses grows, in his later work, into a will to speak from their ruins.

Source: Leslie Bary, "Politics, Aesthetics, and the Question of Meaning in Vallejo," in Hispania: A Teacher's Journal, Vol. 75, No. 5, December 1992, pp. 1147-49.

Phyllis White Rodriguez

In the following essay excerpt, Rodriguez examines Vallejo's collection Los Heraldos Negros, including the title poem, in terms of the types of messages the poet expressed. Vallejo, she says, combined the cry of the peasant, the shout of the modern reformer, and the voice of Everyman in this first work.

Who is César Vallejo? One could answer: He is the authentic interpretation of the "pueblo peruano" in its agonizing thirst for fulfillment; or: His poetry is the shout of contemporary tragedy; or: He is the expression of the anguish in the destiny of man. However we choose to describe him, he remains the same. César Vallejo is a poet, a Peruvian poet, who, through the beauty he created, has left us an artistry both simple and magnificent, and who has pointed the way to the rebirth of Peruvian expression.

He was born in 1892 or 1893 in Santiago de Chuco, a provincial Andean town in northern Peru. This is a land of mountain solitude, of cosmic sadness, of bleak crags and peaks and sultry valleys. Santiago stands at 10,500 feet. It is a town of steeply inclined, deserted streets, of patios, of cackling hens and musical brays, where the sparrows roost in the discolored tile roofs, and the aroma of the fields greets the women washing clothes in the river, the workers arriving with their yoked oxen and burros, the scratching, ragged Indians mingling with the yelping dogs. Of such things is the poetry of César Vallejo during his first epoch.

Leaving this isolated mountain corner, where his days had been full of the sweetness of family life, Vallejo began his studies in Trujillo, later making an abrupt change to the capital. In the same year, 1918, he published Los heraldos negros, his first book of poetry. It was greeted with coldness and indifference. Lima, still resounding with the brilliant modernism of Chocano and addicted to Valdelomar and the symbolist Eguren, could not receive this poetry so full of social emotion and human content, with a tenderness neither forced nor intellectual. Los Heraldos Negros is a tremendous shout of sadness and grief, of contradiction and protest. The years have increased its importance until, in Peru at least, there is a consuming interest in anything written by Vallejo …

If we should classify this book, we would say it is postmodernistic, with attendant symbolism, faint echoes of Darío and Herrera y Reissig emanating from the verses. But it is an independent modernist, as seen by the absence of rhetoric and ornamentation, and a more human and pathetic approach.

We are in the presence of an independent poet, whose subjective grief is identified with that of the Indian race. In this rests its Peruvian essence, for the true mestizo is a product of two bloods, and to deny one is to take away from the whole. We have the Indian's nostalgic attitude, his subjective tenderness of evocation. How well the symbolist cycle lends itself to interpreting the spirit of the Indian, who tends to express himself in symbols and images. This melancholic nostalgia is a sentimental thing, the nostalgia of the exile, of absence. We can see the tragedy of the Indian faced with four centuries of oppression. We sense his resignation, his mystic fatalism. Vallejo's indigenism flows as naturally as the Quechuan words he sometimes uses …

This is the nostalgia of the countryside he knew and loved. This is the silent somber Indian in the brooding sadness of the little towns of Peru. Only once, in "Terceto autóctono," is the Indian momentarily happy in his own way …

The odor of sadness, the feeling of age and decay and solitude that belong to the Peruvian landscape are notes Vallejo strikes again and again. Here is the breath of Peru. Here is the bitter-sweet poignancy of vain regret. Of what? Only Vallejo knows, and the vast somberness of Peru….

Certainly Vallejo is greatly troubled with the reason for life, and the cold breath of the tomb is ever reaching out toward him. He is by turns questioning and pessimistic, seeing life as a continual march toward the grave … The reader may find that his greatness shines out more clearly when he is expressing universal grief than when he confines himself to gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands over his own grave. In the typical Vallejoesque manner is the vivid "La cena miserable." We are all shown seated at a table, waiting, waiting, with the bitterness of a child who wakes up at midnight crying from hunger …

Then the pendulum swings the other way and he is given over to the suffering of others in his poem "El pan nuestro" that ends …

Vallejo often talks to God, shifting from almost blasphemous imprecations to speaking gently, as to any suffering person….

But always Vallejo was on his feet, speaking as one person to another.

The last portion of his book is called "Canciones de hogar." These are portraits of his family, lovingly drawn. They are beautiful in their simplicity and sincerity, in their obvious loving devotion to parents, to brothers and sisters. Through all his life, the wrinkles smooth out when Vallejo thinks of his family, his childhood. He is at his happiest then, expressing himself with tremulous emotion. He is at home….

Source: Phyllis White Rodriguez, "Cesar Vallejo," in Hispania: A Teacher's Journal, Vol. 35, No. 2, May 1952, pp. 195-97.


Arguelles, Ivan, Review of The Black Heralds, in Library Journal, Vol. 115, Issue 6, April 1, 1990, p. 118.

Biespiel, David, "Reading Guide: César Vallejo: The Ambassador of South American Surrealism," (accessed September 20, 2006).

Eshleman, Clayton, trans., The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo, University of California Press, 2006, as cited in Efrain Kristal, "César Vallejo," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 34, No. 3, May-June 2005, p. 25.

Eshleman, Clayton, and Jose Rubia Barcia, trans., Cesar Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry, University of California Press, 1978, as cited in Alfred J. MacAdam, "¡Viva Vallejo! Arriba España!" in Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 1980, p. 187.

Hays, H. R., trans., Cesar Vallejo: Selected Poems, Sachem Press, 1981, as cited in Julio Ortega, Latin American Writers, Vol. 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989, p. 730.

Hirsch, Edward, "Poetry: Cesar Vallejo," in Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 4, Autumn 1995, p. 98.

Horno-Delgado, Asunción, "The Plural ‘I,’" in American Book Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, June-July 1991, p. 22.

Kristal, Efrain, "Cesar Vallejo," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 34, No. 3, May-June 2005, p. 25.

MacAdam, Alfred J., "¡Viva Vallejo! Arriba España!" in Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 1980, p. 185.

Maier, Linda S., "César Vallejo," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 290: Modern Spanish American Poets, Second Series, edited by Maria A. Salgado, Thomson Gale, 2004, p. 336.

Maurer, Christopher, "Through a Verse Darkly," in New Republic, Vol. 209, No. 2, July 12, 1993, p. 34.

Ortega, Julio, "Cesar Vallejo," in Latin American Writers, Vol. 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989, pp. 727-28.

Rodriguez, Phyllis White, "Cesar Vallejo," in Hispania, Vol. 35, No. 2, May 1952, p. 195.

Ross, Kathleen, and Richard Schaaf, trans. The Black Heralds, by César Vallejo, Latin American Literary Review Press, 1990, jacket flap.

Seiferle, Rebecca, "Cesar Vallejo : The Thread of Indigenous Blood," in The Black Heralds, by César Vallejo, Copper Canyon Press, 2003, p. 1.

St. Martin, Hardie, "Ring-Master in the Vallejo Circus," in American Book Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, August-September 1993, p. 6.

Vallejo, César, "The Black Heralds," in The Black Heralds, translated by Kathleen Ross and Richard Schaaf, Latin American Literary Review Press, 1990, p. 17.


Hart, Stephen M., and Jorge Cornejo Polar, César Vallejo: A Critical Bibliography of Research, Tamesis Books, 2002.

A comprehensive guide to scholarship about Vallejo, this book, produced by a well-known Vallejo scholar, lists sources of information and provides helpful evaluations of the materials that are available.

Ortega, Julio, "Cesar Vallejo," in Latin American Writers, Vol. 2, 1989, pp. 727-38.

An analysis of Vallejo's work arranged chronologically with brief biographical information, this article presents excerpts in both Spanish and English and examines their poetic characteristics in a highly readable fashion.

Starn, Orin, Ivan Degregori, and Robin Kirk, eds. The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics, Duke University Press, 1995.

This book provides a broad spectrum of in-depth information about multiple aspects of Peru, including introductions to and excerpts from several of its authors.

Tapscott, Stephen, ed., Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology, University of Texas Press, 1996.

This collection of lyrical works from seventy-five poets, including Vallejo, provides helpful introductions to and evaluations of the writers as well as a selection of some of their most notable poetry.