23rd September 1973 the Death of Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda

Today we commemorate Pablo Neruda – genius poet and political activist hero – who died forty-four years ago aged 69. As one of the leading voices in his native Chile during its long and turbulent era of instability, Neruda was at the forefront of a visionary Pan-Latin American socialist movement for which he occupied several diplomatic posts, served as a senator and was even nominated for president. It was, however, as a poet that Neruda was and is most treasured. So evident was his prodigious talent that he found fame at the age of 20 with his very first published collection of surrealist verse. But Pablo Neruda would later come to use his rare gift to sing for and on behalf of all of Latin America – particularly its oppressed people, who in turn and en masse embraced him in a manner not seen during a poet’s lifetime since Robbie Burns in the late 1700s. And, as we shall see, in death as in life, Pablo Neruda was inextricably linked  to the populace for which he wrote.

It was whilst a consulate in Madrid at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War that Neruda underwent his political awakening. The murder of his friend and fellow poet Federico Garcia Lorca at the hands of Franco’s fascists had a particularly profound impact, and Neruda henceforth became a lifelong communist. As his deepening political commitment emerged, Neruda’s oeuvre moved away from its earlier surrealism towards the new form of  ‘socialist realism’ with its emphasis of class struggles and injustice – culminating in his masterpiece, Canto General. Much of it written whilst in exile during one of Chile’s many power struggles, this epic collection of 231 poems is a Whitmanesque homage to the whole South American continent: its nature, heroes, indigenous leaders, history and destiny. And, like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Canto General found its most appreciative audience beyond the intelligentsia, establishing Neruda as the People’s Poet of Latin America.

By September 1973, Neruda had been ill for some time with terminal cancer when General Augusto Pinochet’s bloody coup overthrew the poet’s friend and political comrade, President Salvador Allende. Within days, and as Neruda lay bedridden, Pinochet’s soldiers came and ransacked his home. “The only weapons you will find here,” Neruda told them, “are words.” In the wake of the trauma, and said to be heartbroken after hearing of Allende’s death under suspicious circumstances, Neruda’s condition worsened and he was transferred to hospital. And so it happened that – with what can only be described as impeccable poetic timing – Pablo Neruda died less than two weeks after Pinochet’s coup.

As the news swept across Chile that the legendary poet was dead, Pinochet refused permission to grant Neruda a public funeral. But in the first public display of protest against Pinochet’s regime, thousands of grieving Chileans boldly disobeyed the order and defiantly took to the streets to pay their respects to their beloved hero.

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