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Thoughts from Vallejo’s Pen

While the reader can certainly enjoy Cesar Vallejo’s poetry on first reading, it is impossible to fully understand or appreciate it in isolation. It is necessary to know something about his life and the history of his time to fully grasp the content and to read much of the rest of his work to understand his heart. These three poems are three threads in a tapestry of life written in poetry by Vallejo. While the work of all poets is interconnected, because they draw upon the past, and each other, to create the future, Vallejo’s work is almost an inner monologue of the poet’s social, spiritual and literary development.

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Dead Idyll, upon first reading, seems to be a poem to a lost love, and a close reading communicates that she is dead. In looking at the original Spanish text, I had an uneasy feeling about the translation of the verbs. I managed to uncover a different translation, which I like better because it uses the conditional tense in the first line. My own interpretation would fall between the two translations, as the first one is careful to preserve the form, while the second concentrates upon meaning, but adds words that are not there to enhance the theme. One example is the word “showing” which the translator puts inline five to modify hands. I would leave this out and use: hands that would contritely iron the afternoon.

The first translator is too literal and misses some of the tone, which the more recent translation is too complicated and loses some of the power, especially when concrete images are softened. I believe that the translation should be something in between, such as: “Whose hands in an act of contrition ironed the afternoon” Both translators are constrained by form. My own translation of the meaning would lose the form.

I think the translation using present tense in “Where are her hands” is correct, since he is asking where they are, now that the rain is taking even his desire to live. Since Vallejo was very concerned with form, though he did modify the rhythm of the sonnet, the translation must honor this. Vallejo tells us that he is without desire: “my blood dozes, like weak cognac”. We assume that this woman died, and that his blood was “hot” while she lived. Perhaps she contritely ironed the afternoon after morning sex. The woman is likely a combination of Maria Sandoval, who died young of tuberculosis (Hart in Eshelman 689-699), and Zoila Quadra, a young girl who inspired his attempted suicide when their affair ended. There may even be elements of his mother and sisters in the poem.

Vallejo says more with imagery than with words. He sticks to a modified sonnet form and manages iambic pentameter with a little poetic license. He actually talks about this in the poem “I pursue a form”, as he says he “(pursues) a bud of thought that seeks to be a rose”. However, I would have translated Estilo as pen, and the first line would read: “I pursue a form which does not find my pen”.

Vallejo describes his thoughts as delivered to his lips by a goddess, Venus de Milo, using personification. He says that the light which illuminates his soul is a quiet reflection. Since the reflection is not what it reflects, the word gets away. He finds only what he sees and hears in the still night: the music of the flute, the drowsiness of late night, the sighing sound of the fountain under the window of his “Sleeping Beauty” and a curious swan which seems to question him. The last line uses descriptive verbs to create an image of a swan making the characteristically graceful movement of the neck which looks like it is asking a question. It is a fitting ending to the poet’s thoughts about his inability to write what he feels. His style is Avant-guard, using plain language to convey concrete imagery with power.

The rhythm of this poem deviates from the standard iambic pentameter of the sonnet form, and his use of very simple language made Vallejo quite influential at a time when poetry was changing. He had only had personal contact with local poets at this time. However, he was reading other poets and his work has echoes of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. The content of these two poems is not political, but we can see a change in the last poem, The Grandfather.

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The woman in The Grandfather is probably a combination of Vallejo’s mother and a lover, Otilio. (Eshelman 689-699) He was likely of mixed heritage. The Peruvian power brokers were extremely proud of their pure Spanish blood and Vallejo has introduced early terrible treatment of the workers. He became involved in the socialist/communist movement. His words in this poem show us how he felt about racial discrimination, as the subject of the poem is unaware of her mixed blood.

In the first line we read “her northern eyes”, telling us that the woman was probably claiming Castilian heritage, and may even have had blue eyes. She “lives close to the rhythm of her European blood,” which tells us that she is higher class. In Peru at that time, the middle and upper classes were small and elite. He finishes this image with a startling image of a black beating on a harsh-sounding drum. Vallejo describes her very European looks, with an aquiline nose, a small mouth and very pale white skin. Vallejo shows here that the pride this woman takes in her heritage is mistaken since she has black blood as close as her “fleeing grandfather” (an escaped slave?). He points out that her hair may be blond, but that it is kinky. That Vallejo describes her flesh as it “quivers, naked and gleaming,” points more to a lover than his mother, so he has, again, mixed women into one for the subject of his poem.

He calls her “my lady,” suggesting status, and then mentions the flowers she should see in her “mysterious veins”, all from different places, including Asia (the lotus), which is curious. The flowers may symbolize the women in her family, and Vallejo’s impression that they are all beautiful. He is saying that she should value her heritage, including that mixture to which she will not admit, or of which she does not know.

The last few lines of the sonnet tell us about the grandfather “who kinked forever” her yellow hair. Vallejo describes the image of her “fleeing grandfather” as a “sweet dark shadow” close to the calm shore. This is a hint that the grandfather was an escaped slave. The poem addresses the prejudice of the society, of ruling families and expresses Vallejo’s lack of comprehension of the reason for the prejudice. So we understand that he believed the mixed blood was good, a benefit to inhabitants of a less than temperate zone.

This poem is not romantic. It is an admonishment to the ruling class that they are ignoring their beneficial mixed blood. He describes a very beautiful woman and says that she fails to value that mixed blood that makes her desirable. “Row in the live waters” is an image of her past, a river upon which float the flowers of her ancestry. The entire poem is written just to create the single image of a proud Castilian woman and a strong black lover in the reader’s mind, a symbol of the women of the entire ruling class.

Vallejo’s new use of the sonnet with plain language and somewhat different rhythms shows us why he became such a prominent figure in the literary scene of his time. Vallejo was on the very begging edge of the Avant-guard movement which eventually took over the literary world. We can see a resemblance to the contemporary Avant-guard poets like Pound and Eliot and, eventually, Guinsburg. His words are not flowery and he uses the sonnet form but changes the meter. It is good that the original Spanish is included in most publications since we do lose quite a lot in translation. Some translations adhere to the form and work the content to fit, while others stay faithful to the content and the form is subverted. It is not possible to translate these poems without losing one or the other. While I enjoy hearing the sounds of the original form, the translations which adhere to the content are more important to me, because the form is simply not as important as the content. Being able to read this work in the original form allows even those readers whose Spanish is limited to understand and enjoy the beauty of these poems, including the Spanish form.

Works Cited

Eshelman, Clayton, ed. Translator. The Complete Poetry, a Bilingual Edition. Casar Vallejo. University of California Press. 689-699. 2007.

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Hart, Steven M. A Chronology of Cesar Vallejo’s Work, in Eshelman, Appendix, 2007.

Appendix A

César Vallejo, Los heraldos negros (1919)

What would she be doing now, my sweet Andean Rita
of rush and tawny berry;
now when Byzantium asphyxiates me, and my blood
dozes, like thin cognac, inside of me.
Where would her hands, that showing contrition
ironed in the afternoon whitenesses yet to come,
be now, in this rain that deprives me of
my desire to live.
What has become of her flannel skirt; of her
toil, of her walk;
of her taste of homemade may rum.
She must be at the door watching some cloudscape,
and at length she’ll say, trembling: “Jesus…it’s so cold!”
And on the roof tiles a wild bird will cry.

Trans. Eshleman (2007)

Los Pensamientos de la pluma de Vallejo

Mientras que el lector puede disfrutar sin duda poesía de Cesar Vallejo en primera lectura, es imposible plenamente entender o aprecia en aislamiento. Es necesario saber algo sobre su vida y la historia de su tiempo para captar plenamente el contenido y leer el resto de su trabajo para comprender su corazón. Estos tres poemas son tres subprocesos en un tapiz de vida escrito en la poesía de Vallejo. Mientras que el trabajo de poetas todos está interconectado, porque basan en el pasado y entre sí, para crear el futuro, obra de Vallejo es casi un monólogo interior del desarrollo social, espiritual y literaria del poeta.

Idilio muerto, en primera lectura, parece ser un poema a un amor perdido, y una lectura atenta se comunica que ella está muerta. Mirando el texto original en español, tuve un sentimiento de malestar sobre la traducción de los verbos. He podido descubrir una traducción diferente, lo que me gusta mejor, porque utiliza el condicional en la primera linea. Mi interpretación caería entre las dos traducciones, como la primera de ellas es cuidadosa conservar la forma, mientras que el segundo concentrados al significado, pero agrega palabras que no existen en el fin de mejorar el temay el tono. Un ejemplo son las palabras “that showing contrition” que el traductor pone en línea cinco para modificar las manos. Le dejo esto y utilizar: manos que se contritas de hierro por la tarde.

El primer traductor es demasiado literal y pierde algunas del tono, que la traducción más reciente es demasiado complicada y pierde parte de la potencia, especialmente cuando se suavizan imágenes concretas. Creo que la traducción debe ser algo entre, tales como: “Whose hands in an act of contrition ironed the afternoon ” ambos traductores están limitados por el formulario. Mi traducción del significado perdería el formulario.

Yo creo que la traducción mediante presente en “Where are her hands” es correcta, ya que él pide donde están, ahora que la lluvia está tomando incluso su deseo de vivir. Dado que Vallejo estaba muy preocupado con forma, aunque él modificar el ritmo del soneto, la traducción debe honrar a esto. Vallejo nos dice que él es sin deseo: “dozes my blood like a weak cognac”. Suponemos que esta mujer murió, y que su sangre era “caliente”, mientras que vivió. Tal vez ella “en actitude copntrits planchan la tarde” después de sexo de mañana. Es probable que la mujer es una combinación de María Sandoval, que murió joven de tuberculosis. (Hart in Eshelmnan 689-699) y Zoila Quadra, una joven que inspiró su intentos de suicidio cuando terminó su relación. Incluso puede haber elementos de su madre y hermanas en la poema.

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Vallejo dice más con imágenes que con palabras. Se adhiere a una forma de soneto modificado y administra pentámetro yámbico con un poco de licencia poética. Realmente habla sobre esto en el poema “persiguen una forma”, como dice él “ (pursues) a bud of thought that seeks to be a rose “. Sin embargo, se han traducido estilo como pen y la primera línea dijera: “pursue a form that does not find my pen”.

Vallejo describe sus pensamientos, tal como se entrega sus labios por una diosa, Venus de Milo, utilizando la personificación. Dice que la luz que ilumina su alma es una reflexión tranquila. Dado que la reflexión es que no lo que refleja, la palabra se obtiene de distancia. Descubre sólo lo que ve y escucha en la noche todavía: la música de la flauta, la somnolencia de finales de la noche, el solizocontinuo del chorro de la fuente bajo la ventana de su “Bella Durmiente” y un cisne curioso que parece preguntarle. La última línea utiliza verbos descriptivos para crear una imagen de un cisne haciendo el característicamente grácil movimiento del cuello que parece es una pregunta. Es un ajuste final a pensamientos del poeta sobre su incapacidad para escribir lo que siente. Su estilo es avant-guardia, utilizando un lenguaje sencillo para transmitir imágenes concretas con el poder.

El ritmo de este poema se desvía el estándar pentámetro yámbico de la forma de soneto, y su uso de un lenguaje muy simple hecho Vallejo muy influyente en un momento en que fue cambiando poesía. Sólo tuvo contacto personal con poetas locales en este momento. Sin embargo, él estaba leyendo a otros poetas y su trabajo tiene ecos de Ezra Pound y T.S. Eliot. El contenido de estos dos poemas no es político, pero podemos ver un cambio en el último poema, el abuelo.

La mujer en el abuelo es, probablemente, una combinación de la madre de Vallejo y de un amante, Otilio. (Eshelman 689-699) Fue probablemente de herencia mezclada. Los corredores de poder peruanos fueron sumamente orgullosos de su pura sangre española y Vallejo fue introducido el tratamiento precoz terrible de los trabajadores. Se involucró en el movimiento socialista y comunista. Sus palabras en este poema nos muestran cómo se siente acerca de la discriminación racial, como el tema del poema no es consciente de su sangre mixta.

En la primera línea se puede leer “sus ojos del Norte”, nos dice que la mujer probablemente fue alegando patrimonio castellana y puede incluso han tenido ojos azules. Ella “vive cerca al ritmo de su sangre europea,” nos dice que ella es de clase superior. En el Perú en ese momento, las clases medias y altas eran pequeños y élite. Termina esta imagen con una sorprendente de un negro batiendo en un tambor de sonda duras.

Vallejo describe su aspecto muy Europea, con una nariz aquilina, una pequeña boca y piel blanca muy pálido. Vallejo aquí muestra que el orgullo de esta mujer toma en su patrimonio está equivocado, ya que ella tiene sangre negra tan cerca como su “abuelo que huía” (un esclavo fugado?). Señala que su cabello puede ser Rubio, pero que es kinky. Que Vallejo describe su carne como que “agitan, desnudo y reluciente,” apunta más a un amante de su madre, por lo que tiene, una vez más, las mujeres mixtas en uno para el tema de su poema.

La llama “mia senora,”sugiriendo el Estado y, a continuación, menciona las flores que ella debería ver en ella”misterioso venas”, todo ello desde diferentes lugares, incluyendo Asia (el loto), que es curioso. Las flores pueden simbolizar a las mujeres de su familia, y la impresión de Vallejo que son todos hermosos. Está diciendo que ella debe valorar su patrimonio, incluyendo esa mezcla para que ella no admitirán, o de que no sabe.

Las últimas líneas del soneto nos dicen sobre el abuelo “que enredados para siempre” su cabello amarillo. Vallejo describe la imagen de su abuelo”fuga” como una “dulce sombra oscura” cerca a la orilla calma. Este es un indicio de que el abuelo era un esclavo fugado. El poema aborda los prejuicios de la sociedad, de familias gobernantes y expresa falta de Vallejo de comprensión de la razón de los prejuicios. Por lo que entendemos que él creía que la sangre mixta fue buena, un beneficio para los habitantes de un menos de zonas templadas.

Este poema no es romántico. Es un reproche a la clase dirigente que ignoran sus propios beneficioso mezcla de sangre. Describe a una mujer muy hermosa y dice que ella no valor que mezcla de sangre que la hace deseable. “Fila en las aguas vivas” es una imagen de su pasado, un río que flotan las flores de su ascendencia. El poema completo se escribe simplemente para crear la imagen única de una mujer castellana orgullosa y un amante negro fuerte en la mente del lector, un símbolo de las mujeres de la clase dirigente todo.

Nuevo uso de Vallejo del soneto con un lenguaje sencillo y ritmos diferentes nos muestra por qué se convirtió en una importante figura en la escena literaria de su tiempo. Vallejo fue en el borde muy mendicidad del movimiento avant-guardia que finalmente tomó el mundo literario. Podemos ver un parecido a los poetas contemporáneos avant-guardia como Pound y Eliot y, eventualmente, Guinsburg. Sus palabras no son floridos y utiliza la forma de soneto pero cambia el medidor. Es bueno que los españoles original está incluido en la mayoría de las publicaciones, ya que perdemos bastante en la traducción. Algunas traducciones adhesión a la forma y el contenido para encajar, mientras que otros permanecen fieles al contenido y es subvertida la forma de trabajar. No es posible traducir estos poemas


Eshelman, Clayton, ed. traductor, The Completar la poesía, una edición bilingüe, Casar Vallejo, Universidad de California Prensa, 2007.

Hart, Steven M. 2007, una cronología de César Vallejo Trabajo, en Eshelman.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, November 26). Thoughts from Vallejo’s Pen.

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