Authors: César Vallejo

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Peruvian poet

March 16, 1892

Santiago de Chuco, Peru

April 15, 1938

Paris, France

Biography

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.

Author Works Poetry: Los heraldos negros, 1918 (The Black Heralds, 1990) Trilce, 1922 (English translation, 1973) Poemas en prosa, 1939 (Prose Poems, 1978) Poemas humanos, 1939 (Human Poems, 1968) España, aparta de mí este cáliz, 1939 (Spain, Take This Cup from Me, 1974) Antologia de Cesar Vallejo, 1942 Obra poética completa, 1968 Poesía completa, 1978 César Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry, 1978 Selected Poems, 1981 The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition, 2007 Long Fiction: Fábula salvaje, 1923 (novella) El tungsteno, 1931 (Tungsten, 1988) Short Fiction: Escalas melografiadas, 1923 Hacia el reino de los Sciris, 1967 Paco Yunque, 1969 Drama: La piedra cansada, pb. 1979 Colacho hermanos: O, Presidentes de América, pb. 1979 Lock-Out, pb. 1979 Entre las dos orillas corre el río, pb. 1979 Teatro completo, pb. 1979 Nonfiction: Rusia en 1931: Reflexiones al pie del Kremlin, 1931, 1965 El romanticismo en la poesía castellana, 1954 Rusia ante el segundo plan quinquenal, 1965 Literatura y arte, 1966 El arte y la revolución, 1973 Contra el secreto profesional, 1973 Desde Europa, 1987 Bibliography Britton, R. K. "Love, Alienation, and the Absurd: Three Principal Themes in César Vallejo’s Trilce." Modern Language Review 87 (July, 1992). Demonstrates how Vallejo’s poetry expresses the anguished conviction that humankind is simply a form of animal life subject to the laws of a random, absurd universe. Buelow, Christiane von. "Vallejo’s ‘Venus de Milo’ and the Ruins of Language." PMLA 104 (January, 1989). Provides a close analysis that convincingly shows how Vallejo’s poetry dismembers the very structure of language itself. Franco, Jean. César Vallejo: The Dialectics of Poetry and Silence. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976. A good introduction to Vallejo’s work. Hart, Stephen, ed. César Vallejo: Selected Poems. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2000. Hart’s introduction and notes on Vallejo include excerpts of poetry in Spanish. (The text is in English.) Also includes a bibliography and glossary. Hedrick, Tace Megan. "Mi andina y dulce Rita: Women, Indigenism, and the Avant-Garde in César Vallejo." In Primitivism and Identity in Latin America: Essays on Art, Literature, and Culture, edited by Erik Camayd-Freixas and José Eduardo González. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000. Relates the indigenism of "Dead Idylls" from The Black Heralds to the "avant-garde concerns and practices" of Trilce, often considered Vallejo’s most brilliant work. Higgins, James. The Poet in Peru: Alienation and the Quest for a Super-Reality. Liverpool, England: Cairns, 1982. Contains a good overview of the main themes of Vallejo’s poetry. Lambie, George. "Poetry and Politics: The Spanish Civil War Poetry of César Vallejo." Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 69, no. 2 (April, 1992): 153-170. Analyzes the presence of faith and Marxism in Spain, Take This Cup from Me. 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. In a context of the language "crisis" of modern poetry and the poet’s dilemma in choosing language or silence, Niebylski examines the themes of time and death in Vallejo’s Human Poems. Sharman, Adam, ed. The Poetry and Poetics of César Vallejo. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997. Collection of essays examining Vallejo’s work from the perspectives of Marxism, history, the theme of the absent mother, and post-colonial theory. Vallejo, César. César Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry. Translated by Clayton Eshleman and José Rubia Barcia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. Offers translations of the later poems and contains a helpful introduction to Vallejo’s work.

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