Today in 1904, Chilean poet, diplomat and politician Pablo Neruda was born. Neruda, birth name Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, is one of the most celebrated poets in recent history and one of Chile’s literary greats. Basoalto adopted the name Neruda in honor of Jan Neruda, a Czech poet.
By the time he was ten years old, Neruda was already recognized as a poet. He went on to write in diverse forms. He was best known for his love poems, especially the collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, published in 1924. He also wrote epic poetry, surrealist poetry, and prose, including political polemics.
Neruda, who had the habit of writing in green ink, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.
He was also lionized by many of his famous literary contemporaries. Gabriel García Márquez referred to him as “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language.” Harold Bloom included him in The Western Canon, among 25 other writers Bloom considered to be of the highest importance to Western letters.
Neruda was a committed Leftist. He read aloud to 100,000 people at São Paulo’s Pacaembu Stadium in 1945, in honor of Communist figurehead Luís Carlos Prestes. He also served as a Senator for the Chilean Communist Party for one term.
In 1948, Chilean President González Videla made Communism illegal. A warrant was consequently issued for Neruda’s arrest. A warrant that, thankfully, went unfilled. Neruda hid in a friend’s basement and then escaped into Argentina through a remote mountain pass.
Neruda would later serve as an advisor to Salvador Allende, Chile’s socialist president who was overthrown in an American-backed coup to install dictator Augusto Pinochet. Allende, after addressing the Chilean people on live radio and expressing his hope for the country’s future, committed suicide with an AK-47 that was given to him by Fidel Castro.
As this was unfolding, Neruda was being treated for cancer in a hospital. He recused himself of treatment after five days, suspecting that his doctor gave him a poisoned injection on Pinochet’s orders.
Pablo Neruda died on September 23, 1973, only six and a half hours after receiving the suspicious injection. Despite attempting to suppress it for over two months, Pinochet was unable to prevent thousands of Chileans from marching through the streets of Santiago in a funeral procession, chanting “Neruda presente,” or “Neruda is with us.”
He remains beloved not only for his politics but for the beauty of his work.