Diving Into The Dionysian Apostle By Scott Maxwell

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Pablo Neruda the great Chilean poet stated in an interview, “Robert Frost says in one of his essays that poetry ought to have sorrow as its only orientation: ‘Leave sorrow alone with poetry.’ But I don’t know what Robert Frost would have thought if a young man had committed suicide and left one of his books stained with blood.”[1]

The book Neruda refers to in this quote is often called The Residencia Cycle but specifically part one of his Residencia en la tierra.  It was with this book that Neruda became internationally known and respected as a great new poet in the Spanish language.

Looking at this book of poetry and the Italian literary movement Hermeticism (Ermetismo), we will determine if it is adequate to place Neruda within this context.  Our answer to this question will also move us towards a ‘Dionysius Materialism’ within the Neruda oeuvre.

Ermetismo was coined by the Italian critic Francesco Flora as a conception that pointed to the mystical element of the origin of poetry.  This mystical element is related to the author of the Hermetic Corpus—Hermes Trismegistus.

As Frances A. Yates writes regarding this writer, “Hermes Trismegistrus, a mythical name associated with a certain class of Gnostic philosophical revelations or with magical treatises and recipes, was, for the Renaissance, a real person, an Egyptian priest who had lived in times of great antiquity and who had himself written all these works.”

This belief in the word of Hermes Trismegistrus was an alternate belief system in which epistemology was governed by feeling and intuition instead of Greek dialectics.  The belief in a hidden magic and divine illumination where the cosmos could impart knowledge directly to the seeker after being provided with the secret to opening the self up to it; this was the hermetic belief system so prevalent in the second century.

The Hermetic movement in poetry which began in the 1920’s in Italy shared some of the ideas revealed in the Hermetic Corpus.  It was a Giuseppe Ungaretti’s Life of a Man which gave the movement a manifesto of sorts.  The invention of Hermeticism (poetry) was established in order to oppose common speech and what Martin Heidegger would call everydayness.  Ungaretti would write that, “The poetic word has a sacred value derived from technical difficulty itself.”

Using only essential words, often a lack of punctuation, and symbols (borrowed from the French Symbolist) in order to construct meaning the hermeticist would “turn language back upon itself”.

Ungaretti much like Neruda (as we will see) in his manifesto wrote about “an extreme isolation”, and a “familiarity with death”.  However, very different than Neruda, Ungaretti still maintained his ties with Catholicism; Ungaretti’s Catholicism was a Gnostic variety, which played out the cosmic battle between the forces of light and darkness or even between the idea of being and non-being.  Providing the groundwork for Neruda and in particular his hermetic period we now will look at the poet himself.

Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto was born on July 12th 1904 and later changed his name legally to Pablo Neruda.  This pen name was chosen after the Czech poet Jan Neruda.  As Costa writes, “Neruda was a poet of many styles and many voices, one whose multitudinous work is central to almost every important development in twentieth-century Spanish and Spanish American poetry.” (Costa, 1979).

His most famous body of poems to date is his Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair).  Written between 1923 and 1924 this body of work placed Neruda on the map.  Neruda describes his method for this book, “I’ve put a song to my life and to the love of several dear women I’ve known.” The feeling or mood in the book of 96 pages can be felt in his most famous lines of the poems, “I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her.”

This line written in the poem shows the struggle between the fickleness of love and the sheer power it has to wreak havoc on our rationality.  However, as Neruda wrote in 1939, “The world has changed, and my poetry with it.”  This brings us to the main body of work this article will address: Residencia en la tierra (Residence on Earth). 

Residencia en la tierra I was written between 1925 and 1931 when Neruda was living abroad in Ceylon, Singapore and Java.  Neruda wrote in his memoirs describing this book, “a dark and gloomy but essential book within my work.”  In his second poem titled Alliance we read the first strophe:

Of dusty glances fallen to the ground

or of soundless leaves burying themselves.

Of metals without light, with the emptiness,

with the absence of the suddenly dead day.

At the tip of the hands the dazzlement of butterflies,

the upflight of butterflies whose light has no end

This strophe gives us a vivid picture of two diverse images.  It is here within the language of Neruda we affirm why Julio Cortazar called Neruda the “traveler”; Neruda is here showing us the fragility of temporality.  He uses “dusty glances” and leaves “burying themselves” as in the process of decomposition.  The last two lines are different than the first three because they are juxtaposed against the darkness of the first three.

The hermetic feeling of this poem is undeniable in the sense that much like Ungaretti’s Life of a Man Neruda is providing us a life bereft of ultimate meaning; he is discovering his new and very isolated surroundings as an introspective seeker of what it means to exist.  As noted previously however the differences are stark in that Ungaretti moved toward the religious and Neruda wrote at this time, “the street became my religion”.  Neruda found the beautiful not in heavenly things but in earthly things.

The third strophe in his poem Alliance makes it quite clear that the poem falls in line with his belief that the poem is a communication from lover to beloved; as Jason Wilson writes, “In 1965 he told Mario Vargas Llosa that his advice to a young poet was to ‘continue writing poems to his lover’, for poetry begins as communication between lovers.”  Here is the entire strophe:

The spying days cross in secret

But they fall within your voice of light.

Oh mistress of love, in your rest

I established my dream, my silent attitude.

With your body of timid number, suddenly extended

to the quantities that define the earth,

behind the struggle of the days white with space

and cold with slow deaths and withered stimuli,

I feel your lap burn and your kisses travel

shaping fresh swallows in my sleep.

The first line is announcing a historical event that Neruda wrote about in his memoirs.  We are now introduced to his “Burmese love, the tempestuous Josie Bliss”.  Here Neruda writes in his memoirs the corresponding historical antecedent of this “spying” we see in this first line, “Without warning, my Burmese love, the tempestuous Josie Bliss, pitched camp in front of my house.”

In line number eight he is making us feel the loneliness he feels without her and not only a “lack of stimuli” but he is experiencing a death without his beloved.  Throughout our lives we experience numerous virtual deaths, deaths that only belong to us, and are only shared as a loss of an idea—an ideality that surrenders to not only a bleakness but a negation or emptiness.  Neruda in an interview wrote that he was opposed to theory—so in this poem he is telling us that this love defined the earth for him.  Again, Neruda is using earthly metaphors instead of heavenly or supernatural ones.

Neruda begins the process Freidrich Nietzsche alluded to when writing about staring in to the abyss as he comments in his memoir here:

 Until now, the critics who have scrutinized my work have not detected this secret influence I am confessing here.  For I wrote a large part of Residencia en la tierra there, in Wellawatte.  Although my poetry is not ‘fragrant or aerial’ but sadly earthbound, I think those qualities so often clad in mourning, have something to do with my deep feelings for this music that lived within me.

 It is this music where Nietzsche and Neruda share in the Dionysian mode of being.  The influence they both share of course is Richard Wagner’s music, and Wagner’s idea that through music we reach the “category of the sublime”.

The sublime in this context is a particular greatness that is not assimilated within established categories, but instead moves beyond them.  This is exactly what Neruda did with his poetry; he stared deep into the abyss of the darkness and reached a dark sublimity.

In Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy he explains that music provides some insight into the “Dionysian ‘truth’ of existence” but it is here where the possession of Dionysius takes over and we see the destruction of the individual.  Neruda wrote about death because he felt the dissolution of the ego where the god of intoxication—Dionysius was showing him the dark abyss.  Nietzsche wrote much like Neruda would explain to us many times in different words, “to long for something beyond seeing” is why both of them wrote and thought.  This something was glimpsed in poetry and music, the hermeticism of Neruda was his move beyond conceptual analysis that wallowed within an intoxicated depression that created a beautiful darkness.


Nietzsche wrote in his Birth of Tragedy, “Existence and the world appear justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon” (Nietzsche, 2006).  This was very much the question Neruda answered, by always stating he writes because without writing there is nothing else.  Neruda embraced this pain much later and affirms much like Nietzsche that tragedy is an affirmation of creation, “The eternal joy of creation cannot exist without ‘The torment of the woman in labor’.  There is no better affirmation in our post-Death-of-God time than to embrace tragedy as a moment of sublimity.  Being is nothingness because as Heraclitus makes clear there is only becoming not being—impermanence and immanence are the only narratives to understand from the apostles of aesthetics.


It was this dissolution of the self within his hermetic poems (Nietzsche, 2006) that Neruda denounced by affirming becoming.  His poetry within the time frame of Residencia en la tierra risked the complete dissolution of the self and the annihilation of ego—the goal of Dionysius.  This is exactly why Nietzsche explains at length:


Apollo stands before me as the transfiguring genius of the principium individuationis, through which alone true redemption in appearance can be attained, while under the mystical cry of exultation of Dionysus the spell of individuation is burst apart and the path to the mothers of Being (Nietzsche, 2006)

After this period of Dionysian darkness Pablo Neruda would unite once again with Apollo the god of light and form the union between the Apollonian and the Dionysian that makes his later love poetry so sublime.  He takes joy in this earthly sublimity of individual bodies and sexuality.  His politics at this period are simply a matter of this merger between Apollo and Dionysius where he sees the light in the people and darkness of the world and exactly why his poetry provides us with a path against simple nihilism.

Works Cited:

Costa, R. d. (1979). The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Neruda, P. (2003). The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Nietzsche, F. (2006). The Birth of Tragedy. In K. A. Person, The Nietzsche Reader (pp. 42-86). Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Pablo, N. (1977). Memoirs. New York: Farrar, Staus and Giroux.

Wilson, J. (2008). A companion to Pablo Neruda. Rochester: Tamesis.


[1] http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4091/the-art-of-poetry-no-14-pablo-neruda

Photo credit: The Underground Writer.

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