The Heights of Macchu Picchu
Author Pablo Neruda (Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, 1904–1973)
First Published 1946, as Alturas de Macchu Picchu
; in Canto general
, 1950; collected in Pablo Neruda: Five Decades, a Selection (Poems, 1925–1970)
Type of Poem Narrative
The Heights of Macchu Picchu
is a long narrative poem forming book 2 of Pablo Neruda’s monumental choral epic, Canto general
(general song), a text comprising 250 poems and organized into twelve major divisions, or cantos. The theme of Canto general
is humankind’s struggle for justice in the New World. "The Heights of Macchu Picchu" is itself divided into twelve sections; it is written in free verse.
The poet, adopting the persona of the native South American man, walks among the ruins of the great Inca city Macchu Picchu, built high in the mountains near Cuzco, in Peru, as a last, and vain, retreat from the invading Spanish conquerors. It is a poem of symbolic death and resurrection in which the speaker begins as a lonely voyager and ends with a full commitment to the American indigenous people, their Indian roots, their past, and their future.
The first poem of the sequence opens with the image of an empty net, sifting experience but gathering nothing. This opening reveals that the speaker is drained by the surface of existence; he searches inward and downward for a hidden "vein of gold." He then sinks lower, through the waves of a symbolic sea, in a blind search to rediscover "the jasmine of our exhausted human spring," an erotic symbol associated with a lost paradise.
The second poem contrasts the enduring world of nature with the transitory goals of human beings, who drill natural objects down until they find that their own souls are left dead in the process. The speaker recalls that in his urban existence he often stopped and searched for the eternal truths he once found in nature or in love. In city life, humans are reduced to robotlike machines with no trace of the "quality of life" in which Neruda still believes. The question of where this quality of life can be found remains unanswered for three further poems; the search for truth, in the poet’s opinion, is a gradual and humbling process.
This search for truth is the subject of the third poem, which confronts modern humankind’s existence directly. This existence is likened to husking corn off the cob; urban dwellers die "each day a little death" in their "nine to five, to six" routine life. The speaker compares a day in the life of the urban people to a black cup whose contents they drain while holding it in their trembling hands. In this poem, Neruda prepares the way for the contrasting image of Machu Picchu, which is later described in its "permanence of stone."
The fourth poem shows the speaker enticed by not only "irresistible death" but also the life and love of his fellowman. This love remains unrealizable, however, as long as all he sees in his fellowman is his daily death. His own experience in the urban context progressively alienates him from others, dragging him street by street to the last degrading hovel, where he ultimately finds himself face-to-face with his own death.
The short fifth poem defines this kind of death even more closely in a series of seemingly surrealistic images, leaving a final vision of modern life with nothing in its wounds except wind that chills one’s "cold interstices of soul." In this poem, the speaker is at his lowest spiritual point in the entire sequence.
Then, quite abruptly, the mood of the poem begins to rise in the sixth section as the speaker climbs upward in space toward the heights of Machu Picchu and backward in time toward the moment when that ancient city was created.
At that moment in time, all lines converge, past and present. Here, "two lineages that had run parallel" meet and fuse, that is, the line of inconsequential human beings and their petty deaths and the line of permanence in the recurring cycles of nature.
Machu Picchu is the place where "maize grew high" and where men gathered fleece to weave both funereal and festive garments. What endures in this place is the collective permanence those men created. All that was transitory has disappeared, leaving only "the lonely precinct of stone."
Section 7 picks up this contrast between what endures and what has vanished. The speaker sees "the true, the most consuming death" as having slain those ancient men—their death being nobler because it was a collective experience. What they left behind was their citadel "raised like a chalice in all those hands," their blood to make "a life of stone." The speaker believes that he can "identify" with the absolute "Death" he finds on the heights, but his search for this death also has been a search for a more positive kind of identity and for identification through nature with his fellowmen. The speaker’s journey teaches him—more by means of feeling than by means of thought—to see new facets of the truth, both about himself and about the nature of existence. The journey does not end, however, with the discovery of the city.
The speaker’s hopeful mood lasts through the next two poems: the eighth poem, with its vivid evocation of nature, pre-Columbian man, and his gods all fused together in an all-embracing love that the poet summons up from the past to transform the present and to anticipate the future; and the ninth, a solemn chant, building up to a final pair of lines that bring the reader starkly back to both the ancient men who built the citadel and their destination—time.
The poem’s last major turning point comes with the question opening its tenth section: "Stone within stone, and man, where was he?" The speaker begins to speculate about whether the people who built ancient America may not have been similar to modern urban people and whether the citadel might not have been erected on a base of human suffering. The speaker wonders in what conditions these people, possibly slaves, lived.
In the eleventh section, the speaker attempts to go beyond the weave of matter until he can hold "the old unremembered human heart" in his hand, seeing behind the "transcendental span" of Machu Picchu to the invisible "hypotenuse of hairshirt and salt blood" implied by the geometry of those ruins. The speaker concludes that humankind is what matters because "man is wider than all the sea"; the poet wishes to acknowledge all the people who died building this city so that they may be reborn with him and through them as his "brothers."
What really matters to the speaker at the end of the poem is that which his own experience has in common with the experience of other human beings. He also needs to reveal people to themselves in such a way that they can feel the identity behind their separate lives and share his insight.