the Splendid City
Nobel Lecture, December 13, 1971
My speech is going to be a long journey, a trip that I have taken through regions that are distant and antipodean, but not for that reason any less similar to the landscape and the solitude in Scandinavia. I refer to the way in which my country stretches down to the extreme South. So remote are we Chileans that our boundaries almost touch the South Pole, recalling the geography of Sweden, whose head reaches the snowy northern region of this planet.
Down there on those vast expanses in my native country, where I was taken by events which have already fallen into oblivion, one has to cross, and I was compelled to cross, the Andes to find the frontier of my country with Argentina. Great forests make these inaccessible areas like a tunnel through which our journey was secret and forbidden, with only the faintest signs to show us the way. There were no tracks and no paths, and I and my four companions, riding on horseback, pressed forward on our tortuous way, avoiding the obstacles set by huge trees, impassable rivers, immense cliffs and desolate expanses of snow, blindly seeking the quarter in which my own liberty lay. Those who were with me knew how to make their way forward between the dense leaves of the forest, but to feel safer they marked their route by slashing with their machetes here and there in the bark of the great trees, leaving tracks which they would follow back when they had left me alone with my destiny.
Each of us made his way forward filled with this limitless solitude, with the green and white silence of trees and huge trailing plants and layers of soil laid down over centuries, among half-fallen tree trunks which suddenly appeared as fresh obstacles to bar our progress. We were in a dazzling and secret world of nature which at the same time was a growing menace of cold, snow and persecution. Everything became one: the solitude, the danger, the silence, and the urgency of my mission.
Sometimes we followed a very faint trail, perhaps left by smugglers or ordinary criminals in flight, and we did not know whether many of them had perished, surprised by the icy hands of winter, by the fearful snowstorms which suddenly rage in the Andes and engulf the traveller, burying him under a whiteness seven storeys high.
On either side of the trail I could observe in the wild desolation something which betrayed human activity. There were piled up branches which had lasted out many winters, offerings made by hundreds who had journeyed there, crude burial mounds in memory of the fallen, so that the passer should think of those who had not been able to struggle on but had remained there under the snow for ever. My comrades, too, hacked off with their machetes branches which brushed our heads and bent down over us from the colossal trees, from oaks whose last leaves were scattering before the winter storms. And I too left a tribute at every mound, a visiting card of wood, a branch from the forest to deck one or other of the graves of these unknown travellers.
We had to cross a river. Up on the Andean summits there run small streams which cast themselves down with dizzy and insane force, forming waterfalls that stir up earth and stones with the violence they bring with them from the heights. But this time we found calm water, a wide mirrorlike expanse which could be forded. The horses splashed in, lost their foothold and began to swim towards the other bank. Soon my horse was almost completely covered by the water, I began to plunge up and down without support, my feet fighting desperately while the horse struggled to keep its head above water. Then we got across. And hardly we reached the further bank when the seasoned countryfolk with me asked me with scarce-concealed smiles:
“Were you frightened?”
“Very. I thought my last hour had come”, I said.
“We were behind you with our lassoes in our hands”, they answered.
“Just there”, added one of them, “my father fell and was swept away by the current. That didn’t happen to you.”
We continued till we came to a natural tunnel which perhaps had been bored through the imposing rocks by some mighty vanished river or created by some tremor of the earth when these heights had been formed, a channel that we entered where it had been carved out in the rock in granite. After only a few steps our horses began to slip when they sought for a foothold in the uneven surfaces of the stone and their legs were bent, sparks flying from beneath their iron shoes – several times I expected to find myself thrown off and lying there on the rock. My horse was bleeding from its muzzle and from its legs, but we persevered and continued on the long and difficult but magnificent path.
There was something awaiting us in the midst of this wild primeval forest. Suddenly, as if in a strange vision, we came to a beautiful little meadow huddled among the rocks: clear water, green grass, wild flowers, the purling of brooks and the blue heaven above, a generous stream of light unimpeded by leaves.
There we stopped as if within a magic circle, as if guests within some hallowed place, and the ceremony I now took part in had still more the air of something sacred. The cowherds dismounted from their horses. In the midst of the space, set up as if in a rite, was the skull of an ox. In silence the men approached it one after the other and put coins and food in the eyesockets of the skull. I joined them in this sacrifice intended for stray travellers, all kinds of refugees who would find bread and succour in the dead ox’s eye sockets.
But the unforgettable ceremony did not end there. My country friends took off their hats and began a strange dance, hopping on one foot around the abandoned skull, moving in the ring of footprints left behind by the many others who had passed there before them. Dimly I understood, there by the side of my inscrutable companions, that there was a kind of link between unknown people, a care, an appeal and an answer even in the most distant and isolated solitude of this world.
Further on, just before we reached the frontier which was to divide me from my native land for many years, we came at night to the last pass between the mountains. Suddenly we saw the glow of a fire as a sure sign of a human presence, and when we came nearer we found some half-ruined buildings, poor hovels which seemed to have been abandoned. We went into one of them and saw the glow of fire from tree trunks burning in the middle of the floor, carcasses of huge trees, which burnt there day and night and from which came smoke that made its way up through the cracks in the roof and rose up like a deep-blue veil in the midst of the darkness. We saw mountains of stacked cheeses, which are made by the people in these high regions. Near the fire lay a number of men grouped like sacks. In the silence we could distinguish the notes of a guitar and words in a song which was born of the embers and the darkness, and which carried with it the first human voice we had encountered during our journey. It was a song of love and distance, a cry of love and longing for the distant spring, from the towns we were coming away from, for life in its limitless extent. These men did not know who we were, they knew nothing about our flight, they had never heard either my name or my poetry; or perhaps they did, perhaps they knew us? What actually happened was that at this fire we sang and we ate, and then in the darkness we went into some primitive rooms. Through them flowed a warm stream, volcanic water in which we bathed, warmth which welled out from the mountain chain and received us in its bosom.
Happily we splashed about, dug ourselves out, as it were, liberated ourselves from the weight of the long journey on horseback. We felt refreshed, reborn, baptised, when in the dawn we started on the journey of a few miles which was to eclipse me from my native land. We rode away on our horses singing, filled with a new air, with a force that cast us out on to the world’s broad highway which awaited me. This I remember well, that when we sought to give the mountain dwellers a few coins in gratitude for their songs, for the food, for the warm water, for giving us lodging and beds, I would rather say for the unexpected heavenly refuge that had met us on our journey, our offering was rejected out of hand. They had been at our service, nothing more. In this taciturn “nothing” there were hidden things that were understood, perhaps a recognition, perhaps the same kind of dreams.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I did not learn from books any recipe for writing a poem, and I, in my turn, will avoid giving any advice on mode or style which might give the new poets even a drop of supposed insight. When I am recounting in this speech something about past events, when reliving on this occasion a never-forgotten occurrence, in this place which is so different from what that was, it is because in the course of my life I have always found somewhere the necessary support, the formula which had been waiting for me not in order to be petrified in my words but in order to explain me to myself.
During this long journey I found the necessary components for the making of the poem. There I received contributions from the earth and from the soul. And I believe that poetry is an action, ephemeral or solemn, in which there enter as equal partners solitude and solidarity, emotion and action, the nearness to oneself, the nearness to mankind and to the secret manifestations of nature. And no less strongly I think that all this is sustained – man and his shadow, man and his conduct, man and his poetry – by an ever-wider sense of community, by an effort which will for ever bring together the reality and the dreams in us because it is precisely in this way that poetry unites and mingles them. And therefore I say that I do not know, after so many years, whether the lessons I learned when I crossed a daunting river, when I danced around the skull of an ox, when I bathed my body in the cleansing water from the topmost heights – I do not know whether these lessons welled forth from me in order to be imparted to many others or whether it was all a message which was sent to me by others as a demand or an accusation. I do not know whether I experienced this or created it, I do not know whether it was truth or poetry, something passing or permanent, the poems I experienced in this hour, the experiences which I later put into verse.
From all this, my friends, there arises an insight which the poet must learn through other people. There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song – but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.
The truth is that even if some or many consider me to be a sectarian, barred from taking a place at the common table of friendship and responsibility, I do not wish to defend myself, for I believe that neither accusation nor defence is among the tasks of the poet. When all is said, there is no individual poet who administers poetry, and if a poet sets himself up to accuse his fellows or if some other poet wastes his life in defending himself against reasonable or unreasonable charges, it is my conviction that only vanity can so mislead us. I consider the enemies of poetry to be found not among those who practise poetry or guard it but in mere lack of agreement in the poet. For this reason no poet has any considerable enemy other than his own incapacity to make himself understood by the most forgotten and exploited of his contemporaries, and this applies to all epochs and in all countries.
The poet is not a “little god”. No, he is not a “little god”. He is not picked out by a mystical destiny in preference to those who follow other crafts and professions. I have often maintained that the best poet is he who prepares our daily bread: the nearest baker who does not imagine himself to be a god. He does his majestic and unpretentious work of kneading the dough, consigning it to the oven, baking it in golden colours and handing us our daily bread as a duty of fellowship. And, if the poet succeeds in achieving this simple consciousness, this too will be transformed into an element in an immense activity, in a simple or complicated structure which constitutes the building of a community, the changing of the conditions which surround mankind, the handing over of mankind’s products: bread, truth, wine, dreams. If the poet joins this never-completed struggle to extend to the hands of each and all his part of his undertaking, his effort and his tenderness to the daily work of all people, then the poet must take part, the poet will take part, in the sweat, in the bread, in the wine, in the whole dream of humanity. Only in this indispensable way of being ordinary people shall we give back to poetry the mighty breadth which has been pared away from it little by little in every epoch, just as we ourselves have been whittled down in every epoch.
The mistakes which led me to a relative truth and the truths which repeatedly led me back to the mistakes did not allow me – and I never made any claims to it – to find my way to lead, to learn what is called the creative process, to reach the heights of literature that are so difficult of access. But one thing I realized – that it is we ourselves who call forth the spirits through our own myth-making. From the matter we use, or wish to use, there arise later on obstacles to our own development and the future development. We are led infallibly to reality and realism, that is to say to become indirectly conscious of everything that surrounds us and of the ways of change, and then we see, when it seems to be late, that we have erected such an exaggerated barrier that we are killing what is alive instead of helping life to develop and blossom. We force upon ourselves a realism which later proves to be more burdensome than the bricks of the building, without having erected the building which we had regarded as an indispensable part of our task. And, in the contrary case, if we succeed in creating the fetish of the incomprehensible (or the fetish of that which is comprehensible only to a few), the fetish of the exclusive and the secret, if we exclude reality and its realistic degenerations, then we find ourselves suddenly surrounded by an impossible country, a quagmire of leaves, of mud, of cloud, where our feet sink in and we are stifled by the impossibility of communicating.
As far as we in particular are concerned, we writers within the tremendously far-flung American region, we listen unceasingly to the call to fill this mighty void with beings of flesh and blood. We are conscious of our duty as fulfillers – at the same time we are faced with the unavoidable task of critical communication within a world which is empty and is not less full of injustices, punishments and sufferings because it is empty – and we feel also the responsibility for reawakening the old dreams which sleep in statues of stone in the ruined ancient monuments, in the wide-stretching silence in planetary plains, in dense primeval forests, in rivers which roar like thunder. We must fill with words the most distant places in a dumb continent and we are intoxicated by this task of making fables and giving names. This is perhaps what is decisive in my own humble case, and if so my exaggerations or my abundance or my rhetoric would not be anything other than the simplest of events within the daily work of an American. Each and every one of my verses has chosen to take its place as a tangible object, each and every one of my poems has claimed to be a useful working instrument, each and every one of my songs has endeavoured to serve as a sign in space for a meeting between paths which cross one another, or as a piece of stone or wood on which someone, some others, those who follow after, will be able to carve the new signs.
By extending to these extreme consequences the poet’s duty, in truth or in error, I determined that my posture within the community and before life should be that of in a humble way taking sides. I decided this when I saw so many honourable misfortunes, lone victories, splendid defeats. In the midst of the arena of America’s struggles I saw that my human task was none other than to join the extensive forces of the organized masses of the people, to join with life and soul with suffering and hope, because it is only from this great popular stream that the necessary changes can arise for the authors and for the nations. And even if my attitude gave and still gives rise to bitter or friendly objections, the truth is that I can find no other way for an author in our far-flung and cruel countries, if we want the darkness to blossom, if we are concerned that the millions of people who have learnt neither to read us nor to read at all, who still cannot write or write to us, are to feel at home in the area of dignity without which it is impossible for them to be complete human beings.
We have inherited this damaged life of peoples dragging behind them the burden of the condemnation of centuries, the most paradisaical of peoples, the purest, those who with stones and metals made marvellous towers, jewels of dazzling brilliance — peoples who were suddenly despoiled and silenced in the fearful epochs of colonialism which still linger on.
Our original guiding stars are struggle and hope. But there is no such thing as a lone struggle, no such thing as a lone hope. In every human being are combined the most distant epochs, passivity, mistakes, sufferings, the pressing urgencies of our own time, the pace of history. But what would have become of me if, for example, I had contributed in some way to the maintenance of the feudal past of the great American continent? How should I then have been able to raise my brow, illuminated by the honour which Sweden has conferred on me, if I had not been able to feel some pride in having taken part, even to a small extent, in the change which has now come over my country? It is necessary to look at the map of America, to place oneself before its splendid multiplicity, before the cosmic generosity of the wide places which surround us, in order to understand why many writers refuse to share the dishonour and plundering of the past, of all that which dark gods have taken away from the American peoples.
I chose the difficult way of divided responsibility and, rather than to repeat the worship of the individual as the sun and centre of the system, I have preferred to offer my services in all modesty to an honourable army which may from time to time commit mistakes but which moves forward unceasingly and struggles every day against the anachronism of the refractory and the impatience of the opinionated. For I believe that my duties as a poet involve friendship not only with the rose and with symmetry, with exalted love and endless longing, but also with unrelenting human occupations which I have incorporated into my poetry.
It is today exactly one hundred years since an unhappy and brilliant poet, the most awesome of all despairing souls, wrote down this prophecy: “A l’aurore, armés d’une ardente patience, nous entrerons aux splendides Villes.” “In the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid Cities.”
I believe in this prophecy of Rimbaud, the Visionary. I come from a dark region, from a land separated from all others by the steep contours of its geography. I was the most forlorn of poets and my poetry was provincial, oppressed and rainy. But always I had put my trust in man. I never lost hope. It is perhaps because of this that I have reached as far as I now have with my poetry and also with my banner.
Lastly, I wish to say to the people of good will, to the workers, to the poets, that the whole future has been expressed in this line by Rimbaud: only with a burning patience can we conquer the splendid City which will give light, justice and dignity to all mankind.
In this way the song will not have been sung in vain.
From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1968-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993