Author photo by Juan Domingo Córdoba, 1929.
About the author
César Vallejo is one the greatest poets of the twentieth century, his
monument being the book-length sequence Trilce—one of only two
collections of his poetry published during his lifetime, the other being Los
heraldos negros (The Black Heralds). After Trilce Vallejo wrote
stories, essays, a novel, and several plays, but did not collect any of his
subsequent poems for book publication. Since his death, these poems have usually
been referred to as the Poemas
humanos after the title of one of the posthumous volumes.
The Shearsman edition of his poetry is the most complete one available in
English, is fully bilingual, and is based on the very latest scholarship. Each
edition comes with an introduction, and comprehensive notes for the English-speaking
The translations are by the Irish poet, and award-winning translator, Michael
Smith, and the Peruvian scholar Valentino Gianuzzi.
In March 1892, César Vallejo was born in Santiago de
Chuco, a small town in the Andean sierra of northern Peru. He died in Paris
in April 1938.
Increasingly, despite the difficulty of his poetry as compared,
for example, with the popular accessibility of the work of the Chilean Nobel
prize-winner, Pablo Neruda, this strange Peruvian is now being recognised as
the major voice in 20th century Latin-American poetry. Vallejo's background
was provincial middle-class, although this should not be taken to mean too
much, granted the context of Peru at that time. Even though he did not know
Quechua, the Andean world he grew up in is ever-present in his work, visible
even in his European writings. His father, Francisco, earned a fairly decent
living as a notary and local official. Nonetheless, with a large family to
support, of whom César was the youngest, Francisco's
earnings would not have gone too far, and money in the Vallejo household was
often scarce. Hence, César's ambition to acquire a university degree
was fulfilled only after a couple of failed attempts.
It was during one of these financially induced failures
(1911–1912), when he had to abandon his university studies and work, first
as a tutor to the children of a hacendado on an estate near Huánuco,
and later as an assistant cashier on a sugar plantation, that Vallejo witnessed,
unforgettably, the exploitation and oppression of the mainly Indo-American
Another disillusionment in Vallejo's early life occurred
in July 1920, on his return to his hometown of Santiago de Chuco for the
annual fiesta of the town's patron saint. There he found himself embroiled
in a local feud, in the course of which a store was burned and a deputy killed.
Although, it seems, that he was innocent of any complicity in the events—indeed,
Vallejo was helping the Sub-prefect to write up the legal documents—Vallejo
was somehow implicated, arrested and charged, and subsequently spent 112 days
in prison in Trujillo. This whole experience had a deeply disturbing and long-lasting
effect on Vallejo.
After a series of teaching jobs and work as a journalist, Vallejo left Peru
for good in the middle of 1923. By that time, his deeply loved mother was dead
and a passionate love affair had ended acrimoniously. Vallejo went to Paris.
There, with little money, no contacts and no French, he somehow managed to
eke out a living with journalism and some teaching. In time, of course, he
made friends, and it was in Paris that he became politically radical. He studied
Marxism and visited Russia three times in the 1930s to observe for himself
the great Soviet experiment in social engineering. And he married a French
girl, Georgette Philippart.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Vallejo passionately committed
his time and energy to the Republican cause, writing propaganda and acting
as a political instructor. When in Spain in 1937, he attended the International
Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers. What he saw in Spain during these visits
made him fearful for the fate of the Republic, but his fervour for the Republican
cause increased rather than diminished. It was during these feverish times
that Vallejo wrote most of his magnificent final poems, including the sequence
Spain, let this cup pass from me.
In March 1938 Vallejo fell gravely ill, and died in a Paris hospital on the
15th of April. The doctors gave as the cause of his death intestinal infection.
Vallejo's wife believed that it was the recurrence of the malaria that had
struck him in his youth. On his death-bed, he dictated the following words
to Georgette: 'Whatever may be the cause I have to defend before God, beyond
death I have a defender: God.'