Last reviewed: June 2018
March 16, 1892
Santiago de Chuco, Peru
April 15, 1938
César Vallejo vies with the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda for recognition as the best Spanish American poet of the twentieth century, yet the semantic difficulty of his poetry has often meant that he is not as well known outside the Spanish-speaking world as he deserves to be. Author of a novel, a novella, four dramas, a collection of short stories, a collection of essays on Marxism and literary theory, two books on Soviet Russia, and more than two hundred newspaper articles, Vallejo is mainly remembered for his poetry. César Vallejo
Born the eleventh child to a family of mixed Spanish and Indian origins, Vallejo as a child witnessed at first hand hunger, poverty, and the injustices done to Indians. His first book of poems, The Black Heralds, showed him still to be under the influence of modernismo—which favored allusions to Greco-Roman mythology—but also hinted at the emergence of a radically new personal poetic voice. The major theme of this collection was anguish at the injustice and futility of life, a feeling that was deepened by the death of his older brother, Miguel. Some poems in The Black Heralds openly question God’s role in the universe, some demonstrate the stirrings of an Amerindian consciousness, and others hint at the growth of social concern for the plight of the Indians.
In 1920, Vallejo’s involvement in political matters concerning the Indian population led to his imprisonment for nearly three months. This experience heightened his feeling of loss at the death of his mother and contributed to a state of depression that was to torment him for the rest of his life. Trilce was conceived during his imprisonment; in this work, Vallejo used startling and innovative techniques—such as neologisms, colloquialisms, and typographical innovation—to express his anguish at the disparity that he felt existed between human aspirations and the limitations of human existence.
In 1923, Vallejo left Peru for Europe; he was never to return to his homeland. While in Paris, he was unable to find stable employment; he barely made a living from translations, language tutoring, and political writing. His experience of poverty was accompanied by a growing interest in Marxism. In the late 1920s, Vallejo became a frequent visitor to the bookstore of L’Humanité, the Communist newspaper. He read Marxist and Leninist theory, and as a result, his work reflected this shift toward the political sphere. He also traveled twice to the Soviet Union during these years to see Communism at work firsthand. Vallejo was expelled from France in 1930 for his political activities (he had to go to Spain), and he joined the Communist Party in 1931.
While he published no new poetic works during the 1930s, he continued to write poetry based on his experience of life in Europe. About half of these poems, which were published posthumously under the title Human Poems, focus on the collective experience of humankind. A number of the poems express enthusiasm for the collective ethos of communism, some express dismay at the exploitation and pain experienced by the proletariat, and others express disillusionment with politics and politicians.
In July, 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out, and Vallejo was irresistibly drawn to this international political struggle. He traveled to Spain on two separate occasions and wrote some emotional poems about the conflict, subsequently collected in Spain, Take This Cup from Me. Some of the best poems of this collection focus on a Republican war hero. "Masa" (Mass), for example, perhaps Vallejo’s most famous poem, focuses on a moment on the battlefield when a dead Republican militiaman is miraculously brought back to life through the collective love of humankind.
Vallejo died on Good Friday in 1938, muttering that he wanted to go to Spain, on the very day that Francisco Franco’s troops split the Republican forces in two by reaching the Mediterranean Sea, thereby sealing the fate of the Republicans. Vallejo thus did not live to see the demise of the Republican forces he supported. A number of poems were discovered among his posthumous papers by his widow, Georgette de Vallejo, who the following year published them under the title Human Poems. They had been written from the late 1920s to the mid-1930s and had been typed up over a period of about six months preceding Vallejo’s death.