BORN: 1892, Santiago de Chucho, Peru
DIED: 1938, Paris, France
GENRE: Drama, fiction, poetry
The Black Messengers (1919)
Spain, Take Away This Chalice (1937)
Poemas humanos (1939)
Peruvian author César Vallejo is known primarily for the highly original—almost postmodern—use of language in his poetry. His devastating vision of the world, coupled
with a hoped-for future utopia grounded in a Communist idealism, mark his writings as poignantly sensitive to the common man's struggles and ambitions. Deeply rooted in his mixed European and Peruvian Indian heritage, his poetry expresses universal themes related to the human condition. His literary production included essays, novels, short stories, plays, and a screenplay, but his reputation rests primarily on his poetry, much of which appeared posthumously.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Rural vs. City Life Vallejo was born in Santiago de Chuco, a small village in the northern Andes Mountains of Peru in 1892. Raised Catholic and encouraged to become a priest, he discovered that he could not adhere to the requirement of celibacy. Though Vallejo's relationships with women were often complicated or stormy, he remained close and secure with his family. For a time, he was a clerk in his father's notary office. His mother's friendship, in particular, was a sustaining force in his life until her death in 1918. The comfort of this rural life set for Vallejo a standard against which all later experiences seemed arduous and painful.
Early poems in his first collection, The Black Messengers (1919), relate Vallejo's bewilderment when struck with the harshness of city life in Trujillo and Lima, where he studied medicine, literature, and law. Introduced to the ideas of Marx, Darwin, and rationalist philosophers, Vallejo felt that the faith in which he was raised was no longer viable. Together with other intellectuals, he became actively interested in his pre-Columbian heritage and was anguished to learn of the suffering of aboriginals in his country.
Poems in The Black Messengers, like most Latin American poetry of the time, also follow the conventions of the modernista movement. The modernistas highlighted the melodic quality of language. Breaking a taboo, Vallejo added erotic lyrics to the descriptions of beautiful landscapes common to this style.
Personal Distress Though Vallejo thrived in his studies in the city, his personal life was filled with turmoil. When his lover broke off their relationship due to pressure from her parents, Vallejo attempted suicide. Unable to replace the caring family he had lost, Vallejo felt alienated in the city. Alienation and the apparent senselessness of his suffering became his recurrent themes.
While Vallejo was writing and publishing this poetry, Peru was undergoing radical changes itself. While Peru had a constitutional democratic government and a stable economy, a military coup in 1919 changed the course of the country. Businessman Augusto Leguía y Salcedo, who had been the constitutionally elected president from 1908 to 1912, took power and began modernizing Peru along capitalistic lines. In opposition to Leguía's dictatorship Peruvian intellectual Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre founded the leftist political party the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance.
Political Persecution After a number of years in Trujillo and Lima, Vallejo returned to his birthplace where, in 1920, he became involved in a political insurrection during which the town's general store was burned down. He was accused of instigating the conflict and was jailed for three months. The isolation and savagery of jail conditions, combined with the after effects of his mother's death, affected his mental health deeply. Accordingly, Vallejo's poems written in prison (collected in Trilce, 1922) are markedly different from the idyllic poems of The Black Messengers.
Marxism and Life Abroad In the 1920s and 1930s, Vallejo became more engaged in politics. His three visits to the Soviet Union—the first in 1928—aided in the formulation of his political views, and he subsequently produced political tracts including the essay collected in Rusia en 1931: Reflexiones al pie del Kremlin (1931), first published in Spain and not printed in Peru until almost thirty years later. He also wrote the novel Tungsten(1931), which condemns an American company for exploiting its Peruvian workers to get the element it needs to make weapons. (U.S. bankers had backed the dictatorship of Leguía, which lasted until 1930 when he was overthrown by Luis M. Sánchez-Cerro. Sánchez-Cerro was officially elected president in 1931, but assassinated in April 1933.)
Political statements emerged in his other works as well, but they did not dominate. Vallejo was an ambivalent Marxist. Scholar James Higgins finds evidence in Poemas humanos (1939) that Vallejo sometimes admired the single-mindedness of those who could submit themselves to “the cause,” but again found it impossible to subject himself without question to Marxist or Communist ideals. He moved to Spain during its civil-war years to work as a journalist and lend support to his friends in defense of the Spanish republic. (Lasting from 1936 to 1939, the Spanish Civil War pitted fascist military forces, led by nationalist general Francisco Franco, against the supporters of the Second Spanish Republic. Franco won and controlled the country until his death in 1975.) At the same time, Vallejo admired the brotherhood achieved among the activists who gave their lives to serve what they believed was the improvement of life for the poor.
Having moved to Europe in 1923, Vallejo died in Paris in 1938 at the age of forty-six. After his death, his widow Georgette de Vallejo selected poems for publication in his last major poetry collection, Poemas humanos (1939).
Works in Literary Context
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. In addition to being influenced by his Catholic/Christian background and his interest in Marxism and Communism, Vallejo was also inspired by modernista poets, especially Leopoldo Lugones and Julio Herrara y Reissig.
“Wrenched Syntax” Trilce is more difficult, more intense, and more original than Vallejo's first volume of poetry. Pared of all ornamental language, these poems convey the poet's personal urgency as he cries out against the apparent meaninglessness of his suffering. Trilce introduces the “wrenched syntax” that allows Vallejo to get beyond the constraints of linguistic conventions to a language that is true to his experience. Writing in A History of Peruvian Literature, Higgins catalogues the elements of Vallejo's diction:
Vallejo confounds the reader's expectations by his daring exploitation of the line pause, which often leaves articles, conjunctions and even particles of words dangling at the end of a line, by his frequent resort to harsh sounds to break the rhythm, by employing alliterations so awkward as to be tongue-twisters. He distorts syntactic structures, changes the grammatical function of words, plays with spelling. His poetic vocabulary is frequently unfamiliar and ‘unliterary,’ he creates new words of his own, he often conflates two words into one, he tampers with clichés to give them new meaning, he plays on the multiple meaning of words and on the similarity of sound between words. He repeatedly makes use of oxymoron and paradox and, above all, catachresis, defamiliarising objects by attributing to them qualities not normally associated with them.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Vallejo's famous contemporaries include:
Manuel González Prada (1844–1918): Director of the National Library of Peru, Prada was highly esteemed by his countrymen for his role in encouraging the development of the Peruvian intelligentsia and the Peruvian incarnation of the modernismo, or modernist movement.
Venustiano Carranza (1859–1920): One of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution, Carranza went on to become president of Mexico and presided over the creation of that country's current constitution. His reforms were considered too severe by some, too moderate by others, and he was assassinated while fleeing Mexico City after a previous, unsuccessful assassination attempt.
Benito Mussolini (1883–1945): A key figure in the formation of Fascism, a government philosophy promoting nationalism, expansionism, and anti-Communism. Mussolini (styled “Il Duce,” or “the leader”) was elected prime minister in 1922 and effectively ruled Italy until 1943. Although he was popular in the early years of his rule for his reforms, his decision to ally with Nazi Germany was seen by many Italians as dooming their country to the destruction and ruin of World War II.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938): At the end of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Atatürk was the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey. Atatürk's policies and reforms led Turkey in a modern, secular, Westernized direction.
Albert Einstein (1879–1955): The German-born physicist became world famous for his revolutionary theories, which represented the most dramatic shift in scientific thought since Newton.
Vallejo's wrenched syntax is not a mere literary performance. It is the means necessary “to discover the man that has been hitherto hidden behind its decorative facades. The discovery is not a pleasant one, and the noise in the poems makes it consequently aggressive and not beautiful,” D. P. Gallagher observes in Modern Latin American Literature. Out of Vallejo's self-discovery comes an “unprecedented, raw language” that declares Vallejo's humanness despite his confinement to make a statement “about the human problems of which Vallejo is a microcosm,” Gallagher adds. New York Review of Books contributor Michael Wood explains, “With Vallejo [syntax] is an instrument—the only possible instrument, it seems—for the confrontation of complexity, of the self caught up in the world and the world mirrored in the self. It is an answer, let us say, to the simultaneous need for a poetry that would put heart into an agonizing Spain and for a poetry that will not take wishes for truths.”
Influence Vallejo's poetry has influenced generations of Peruvian and other Spanish American poets to undertake further experiments with poetic language and technique.
Works in Critical Context
Although he published relatively little during his lifetime and received scant critical acclaim, 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. “Vallejo created a wrenching Spanish poetic language that radically altered the shape of modernist imagery and the nature of the language's rhythms. No facile trend setter, Vallejo forged a new discourse in order to express his own visceral compassion for human suffering,” Edith Grossman writes in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. “A constant feature of his poetry is a compassionate awareness of and a guilt-ridden sense of responsibility for the suffering of others,” observes Higgins in The Poet in Peru: Alienation and the Quest for a Super-Reality.
In Modern Latin American Literature, D. P. Gallagher suggests that Vallejo was “perhaps the first Latin American writer to have realized that it is precisely in the discovery of a language where literature must find itself in a continent where for centuries the written word was notorious more for what it concealed than for what it revealed, where ‘beautiful’ writing, sheer sonorous wordiness was a mere holding operation against the fact that you did not dare really say anything at all.”
Poemas humanos After its publication in 1939, Poemas humanos was well-regarded by critics over the next decades. In 1958, Xavier Abril saw a link between Vallejo's poems and the artistry of film comedian Charlie Chaplin. Abril writes in Odyssey Review, “Many of the pages of Human Poems have an indefinable Chaplinesque tint, especially those that are charged with the feeling of desolate misfortune or stark abandonment, in whish misery is like an X-ray of hunger and horror.” M. L. Rosenthal and Clayton Eshleman see the poems in a different light. In the New York Times Book Review, Rosenthal praises the poems, writing, “These are poems of cruel suffering, physical and mental, which yet have a kind of joy of realization in their singular music, harshness, humor and pain.” Writing about the collection in Tri-Quarterly, Eshleman notes, “All solutions as such fade, in Poemas Humanos, before all-powerful death; it is as if man never dies but lives eternally at the edge of death; Vallejo is the great poet of the End.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The first half of the twentieth century was an active time for poets with leftist or Communist sympathies. Like Vallejo, many poets were galvanized toward the left by the events of the Spanish Civil War. Poems that exhibit political views similar to those of Vallejo include:
Spain in My Heart (1937), a poetry collection by Pablo Neruda. Already an ardent Communist, Chilean poet Neruda wrote this collection of poetry after the death of Federico García Lorca at the hands of the Fascist nationalists.
Between the Stone and the Flower (1941), an epic poem by Octavio Paz. Although he would later denounce totalitarian Communism, Paz was an early Marxist sympathizer. This epic poem, his first of such length, concerns the proletarian struggles of Mexican peasants being exploited by greedy landlords.
Songs and Ballads of Absence (1938–1942), a poetry collection by Miguel Hernández. A fervent supporter of the leftist republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, Hernández was imprisoned after the nationalist victory. He wrote this collection of poems, reflecting on the tragedy of civil war and his own personal loss, before his death from tuberculosis.
Responses to Literature
- In a paper, describe the body of poetry that was published after Vallejo's death. How does it compare with the poetry published before he died? How are the poems introduced or edited, and what does this say about Vallejo's posthumous reputation?
- In a group, discuss these questions: How does Vallejo utilize emotions in The Black Messengers? What specific images or literary devices does he use to convey emotion? Why, do you think, did he make the artistic choices he did?
- In an essay, discuss Vallejo's political beliefs as expressed in Spain, Take Away This Chalice. Can you compare these views with the views of other poets who appear in the “Common Human Experience” sidebar?
- Vallejo's poetry has been categorized as both modernist and existentialist. What elements of modernism can you find in his work? How does his work compare with other existentialist poets of his day? Create a presentation with your conclusions
- In an essay, address these questions: Why did Vallejo choose to leave Peru? How did his time abroad influence and change his poetry?
Adamson, Joseph. Wounded Fiction: Modern Poetry And Deconstruction. New York: Garland, 1988.
Niebylski, Dianna C. The Poem on the Edge of the Word: The Limits of Language and the Uses of Silence in the Poetry of Mallarmé, Rilke, and Vallejo. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.
Abril, Xavier. “Chaplin and Vallejo.” Odyssey Review 2, no. 1 (March 1962): 172–90.
Eschleman, Clayton. “Translating César Vallejo: An Evolution.” TriQuarterly 13/14 (Fall/Winter 1968/1969): 55–82.
Rosenthal, M. L. “Poems of Singular Music, Harshness, Humor and Pain.” New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1969, 8.
César Abraham Vallejo
César Abraham Vallejo
César Abraham Vallejo (1892-1938), frequently characterized as one of Peru's best 20th-century poets, is chiefly distinguished by his use of regional themes and characters.
César Vallejo was the eleventh and last child of a lower-middle-class mestizo family of north-central Peru. He was born in the mountain community of Santiago de Chuco on March 16, 1892, and received his elementary education there. He then managed to attend the regional university at Trujillo and obtained his degree in 1915. He remained in Trujillo until 1918, employed in the local schools.
Vallejo had, by the beginning of his university studies, begun to write, finding an outlet for his poems in the local newspapers; and then, with a more established reputation, he was able to find acceptance in journals that had a wider circulation. As a writer of promise, he became a member of a local literary-intellectual circle. Although its members were most interested in literary affairs, meeting twice weekly to read their own poetry or to study the writings of such currently important authors as Rubén Dario, Amado Nervo, Walt Whitman, and Maurice Maeterlinck, they also were deeply involved in sociopolitical schemes for reform. These were certainly the interests of such a member as the political philosopher Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre, the founder of APRA (American Popular Revolutionary Alliance). Thus, even at that early point, Vallejo's interests were in social reform, as well as in poetic expression.
In 1918, the year Vallejo left Trujillo for the broader horizons of Lima, he published his first collection of poems, Los heraldos negros (The Black Heralds). The themes were of the daily lives of the Peruvians of his region and class, their joys, their loves, their sufferings at the hands of a fate they could neither influence nor control. But if the themes were local and national, the poems were more cosmopolitan, showing so much the influence of the modernists and others that one critic said that the poems were, like the author, "mestizo, " to show their mixed European-Amerindian character.
During 1919 Vallejo was associated with the short-lived but significant review Nuestra epoca. Although the magazine was a financial failure, its editors had, by the end of 1919, attracted so much attention because of their reformist zeal that most of them were forced into exile, the more prominent to Europe. Vallejo returned to Santiago de Chuco but was soon thrown into prison on trumped-up charges; and though he was never brought to trial, he remained imprisoned in his hometown and in Trujillo for several months. Those days in prison had a profound effect upon him. Before imprisonment his identification with reform and revolution had been largely theoretical and nominal; thereafter, it was actual and immediate.
As Vallejo's dedication to social change became more pronounced, his zeal for new poetic forms also intensified; thus his second volume of poems, Trilce, published in 1922, was, in effect, an act of literary violence. Its emphasis was upon freedom, not just freedom from any confines of meter or rhyming patterns but total freedom—to invent new words, create new grammatical constructions, to defy all rules, to disavow allegiance to all schools or styles. At its worst this seemed mere capriciousness; at its best, genuine creativity. This was Vallejo's best book and ended, for many years, his poetic efforts.
In mid-1923 Vallejo left Peru and moved on to Europe—first to Paris and then, in 1928, to Madrid. He never returned to Peru. Eking out an existence by doing literary hackwork, he mostly devoted himself to political affairs, becoming a Communist party militant. He turned his literary talents to the production of propaganda, extolling the glories of the day to come, after the revolution had occurred. His novel, Tungsten, which was published in 1931, was an example of this kind of writing.
With the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, however, Vallejo once again turned to poetry, though he died before the publication (1939) of Poemas humanas (Human Poems). With these, he had returned to his earlier themes and modes, stressing the sorrows and hardships of the poor of his native land though implying a greater hope for a new day for all.
There is no biography of Vallejo in English. Some biographical information is in Angel Flores, ed., The Literature of Spanish America, vol. 4 (1967). For background see Enrique Anderson Imbert, Spanish-American Literature (trans. 1963). □