Pablo Neruda is one of the most famous poets of the 20th century, but he left a more complicated legacy than many realize. He was launched into international recognition at age 20, and eventually became a Nobel Prize winner, a diplomat, and a senator. He’s been honored as a “resistance poet” and a voice for the oppressed, challenging aristocracy and dictatorship in Chile and across the world. And since his death in 1973, he has been remembered especially for his celebrations of love and sexuality—as one scholar put it, as a “frank, sensuous spokesman for love.”
Only recently have people focused on the more disturbing details of Neruda’s work and life: his dehumanizing descriptions of nonwhite women; the fact that he abandoned his severely disabled daughter; the passages of his memoir in which he recounts raping a young maid (“She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unresponsive”). These love sonnets were published in The Atlantic in 1986, after his death but before people began to view his literary merits in the context of his character. Today, any close reader of Neruda will face the irony of an activist for the downtrodden who also wielded his power for harm—and the mystery of how a beautiful poem about love could come from a man capable of such cruelty.