César Vallejo (1892-1938): His Life and Work

By BAS editor Stephen Hart

Born in a tiny village in the Andes of Peru, Santiago de Chuco, on 16 March 1892, César Vallejo was unique in more ways than one. Both his mother, Maria de los Santos Mendoza Gurrionero (1850-1918), and his father, Francisco de Paula Vallejo Benites (1840-1924) had fathers who were Catholic priests. This had led them to experience a degree of social ostracisation in early life, as Osvaldo Vázquez Vallejo and Santiago Aguilar have argued. [1]  Some of this ostracisation and alienation rubbed off on Vallejo, and was evident in the poems he would write later on in life.

Vallejo attended primary school in Santiago de Chuco in 1900-1905 and secondary school in a nearby village, Huamachuco (1905-1908). In 1910 he enrolled in the Faculty of Humanities at La Libertad University in Trujillo, graduating in 1915 with a thesis on Romanticism in Spanish literature which clearly inspired his first collection of poems, Los heraldos negros. This book, printed in 1918 though only distributed in 1919, established Vallejo as an important poet.

In August 1920 the commercial premises of an important landowner, Carlos Santa María, were burned to the ground in Vallejo’s home town in murky circumstances, and Vallejo was accused of being involved. He fled and lay low for a few months in a friend’s house in Mansiche, a town near Trujillo. While there he had a dream in which he saw himself dead in Paris surrounded by people he did not recognise; he described this experience in the poem he later wrote, ‘Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca’.

In November 1920 he was captured by the police and spent 112 days in Trujillo’s prison, where he wrote a number of the poems that would come together as Trilce, his second collection of poems. He was released from jail as a result of a popular appeal in February 1921 and quickly moved to Lima to escape the scandal.

In October 1922 Trilce came out, the same month as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Whereas T.S. Eliot’s collection brought the American fame and fortune, Vallejo’s book was a complete failure. It was written in a Dadaist style and local readers found it incomprehensible.

In June 1923 the lawsuit against Vallejo was re-opened. The following month he fled to France, arriving in Paris on 13 July never to return home. His early years in Paris were marked by abject poverty but in 1926 he met Georgette de Phillipart, who soon became his permanent companion and whom he would marry in 1932.

Vallejo began reading Marxist theory in the late 1920s. He visited the Soviet Union three times and became politically committed, influenced first by Trotskyism and then by Stalinism. The poems he was writing at the time show the mark of this influence; they would be published after his death with a title provided by Georgette, Poemas humanos. In December 1930, as a result of his political activities, Vallejo was expelled from France, and he travelled with Georgette to Madrid, living in a modest house on Calle del Acuerdo.

In 1932 Vallejo was permitted to return to Paris as long as he reported to a local police station. In July 1936, his life was overtaken by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Vallejo became an ardent supporter of the Republicans in their struggle against Franco’s troops, and he attended the Second International Writers’ Congress held in Valencia and Madrid in July 1937. He began writing poems about Spain’s tragedy, which would come together as España, aparta de mí este cáliz.

On Good Friday, 15 April 1938, Vallejo died of a mysterious illness. His widow, published his posthumous poems the following year. Vallejo’s fame grew exponentially after his death, and he is now seen as one of Latin America’s most important poets.

For a writer such as T.S. Eliot the quotidian circumstances of a poet are not as important as the work that he or she writes, and in most cases will be irrelevant for the understanding of the poet’s work. However, this does not apply in César Vallejo’s case. As Angel Rama has pointed out, Vallejo’s poetry is highly autobiographical. He writes about the childhood he spent with his siblings – Aguedita, Nativa, and Miguel – in Tr. III, about his father in ‘Enereida’, his mother in Tr. LXV, and he writes an elegy to his brother Miguel who died tragically young in ‘A mi hermano Miguel’.

His poetry is also full of references to everyday events, such as his daily discussions about life with his wife, Georgette, and going out for a walk in the afternoon to buy the newspaper, in ‘Ello es el lugar donde me pongo…’. In ‘La de a mil’ he uses the desperate cry of a lonely lottery-ticket seller in a street in Trujillo as the springboard for a poem about fate, destiny and God’s will.

His poem, ‘Batallas III’ was inspired by the account of how a Republican soldier killed during the Spanish Civil War was found with a message in his pocket to warn his friends of the impending attack by Franco’s Nationalist troops, along with a spoon in his other pocket with which he ate his war rations.  Throughout the War Vallejo would follow its progress, and his poems refer to specific places where battles were fought. España, aparta de mí este cáliz is like a personal poetic journal of the War. 

Vallejo’s poetry went through a number of different phases  — Romanticism, modernismo, Dadaism, Marxism and Christian Marxism. One of Vallejo’s most famous poems which Peruvian schoolchildren are required to declaim before their classmates to this day is ‘Los heraldos negros’. It is a powerful poem, written in the style of the Romantic poets of nineteenth century Europe such as  José de Espronceda and Lord Byron.

For many years Vallejo’s first collection of poems was seen against the backdrop of modernismo, the Latin American poetic movement spearheaded by the Guatemalan poet, Rubén Darío (Vallejo apparently cried openly in front of all his friends when he heard news in 1916 while dining in a restaurant in Trujillo that Rubén Darío had died). However, it is more appropriate to see the collection as mainly a set of Romantic poems.[1] The terrible event that inspired the lead poem of the collection was the news that his older sister had been raped by a powerful landowner in the family’s home town, Santiago de Chuco.[2]  This turns the poem into a cry against the injustice of the world, very much in the style of the Romantics. God is also invoked, though in negative terms, since we hear about the ‘odio de Dios’ in this poem.  Another indication that this is very much a late-Romantic collection of poems is ‘Espergesia’, which is clearly a poem written under the aegis of Friedrich Nietzsche’s work in its indication that

Yo nací un día

que Dios estuvo enfermo


Nietzsche’s work had an enormous impact in Spain and Latin America in the early twentieth century as a result of the translation of his work into Spanish. His Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus spoke Zarathustra) came out in Spanish in 1900 in a translation, Así hablaba Zaratustra, by Juan Fernández, possibly a pseudonym of the Spanish philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno.[3]  Vallejo was part of a group of young writers, the Bohemia, who used to idolise Nietzsche, reciting memorised passages from Así hablaba Zaratustra and declaiming his work in the streets of Trujillo.[4]  In ‘Espergesia’ Vallejo is essentially posing as Zarathustra, and using not only the idea that God is dead (‘Gott ist tot!’) but that he remains dead (‘Gott bleibt tot!’),[5] a concept that is poetically transformed into the poetic idea that God was seriously ill on the day that Vallejo was born.

How Vallejo came to write his work Trilce (1922), seen by many as the single most important avant-garde poetry collection published in the Spanish language, so soon after publishing his Romantic work, Los heraldos negros, is something of a mystery for vallejistas. The most likely explanation is that he fell under the spell of the Dadaists, especially the French section of that movement, as argued by Carlos Fernández.[6] The Dadaists were highly controversial artists in the 1910s and 1920s who rejected and attacked all certainties, whether they were literary, philosophical, political or religious – indeed they even rejected the idea that meaning existed. Their radical approach to language may well be at the heart of the experimentation we find in Trilce whereby words are run together (‘Lomismo’; Tr. II, l. 15) and capitalised at the end instead of the beginning of the word (‘nombrE’; Tr. II, l. 16), or have been conflated to become a new word (‘excrementido’ as a mixture of ‘excrementado’ and ‘mentido’, Tr.XIX, l. 5), or deliberately mis-spelt (‘qué la bamos a hhazer’; Tr. IV, l. 9),  or broken down (‘Vusco volvvver de golpe el golpe’, Tr. IX, l. 1), or spelt backwards (‘Odumodneurtse’, Tr. XIII, l. 16), or become simply sounds (‘Rumbbb… Trrraprrrr rrach…, Tr. XXXII, l. 2), or are put together in such a way that they seem more like a collection of unconnected words rather than a poem (Tr. XXV). 

A clue as to why Vallejo made the decision to experiment so much with language is provided in the third stanza of Tr. XXXVI:

Rehusad, y vosotros, a posar las plantas

en la seguridad dupla de la Armonía.

Rehusad la simetría a buen seguro.

¡Intervenid en el conflicto

de puntas que se disputan

en la más torionda de las justas

el salto por el ojo de la aguja!

Here is Vallejo’s ars poetica: all poets should reject the easy symmetry of perfectly measured lines of verse with the same number of syllables in each one (the hexameter or the pentameter, for example), and should face the chaos of the modern world which – in the 1920s – was epitomised by inventions such as the motorcar, the aeroplane, neon lights, machine guns, chemical warfare, X-rays, automation…The paradigm-shift brought about by technology meant that the old icons of the past – such as the Venus de Milo statue held in the Louvre museum and revered for its beauty – no longer had any meaningful role to play in modern society.

As a poet Vallejo reacted to this new technological step-change by re-assessing his own tools – the rhyme system, the sonnet, the Alexandrine, for example. Finding them wanting, he chose to junk them. Turning to his most intrinsic tool, language, he begins to create something completely new, transforming nouns such as ‘amoníaco’ and adjectives such as ‘manco’ (one-armed) into verbs, adverbs such as ‘todavía’ into verbs, and adverbs such as ‘aun’ into nouns. By doing so, Vallejo is in effect opening up language, and creating new vehicles of vision out of the remnants of eviscerated words.  The struggle to create a new universe, he argues in this poem, will be full of conflict and as difficult as trying to leap through the eye of a needle, but Vallejo the Dadaist is committed to this visceral, almost physical struggle with language.

Although he left Peru in 1923 principally to escape the risk of imprisonment (as mentioned above), the dream of seeing Paris, the artistic capital of the world, must have influenced that decision. Vallejo visited museums, saw plays, met poets such as Pablo Neruda, artists such as Picasso and musicians such as Erik Satie. Vallejo decided to try his luck with a new type of poem which the French poet Charles Baudelaire had made famous, the ‘poème en prose’, and he wrote a number of poems in that style. Though not as iconoclastic as the poems of Trilce, poems such as ‘El buen sentido’, ‘La violencia de la horas’, and ‘Voy a hablar de la esperanza’, show that Vallejo was experimenting with new forms of poetic expression that were not constrained by the limits of stanzaic structure and rhyme scheme.

Vallejo was searching for a new voice in his poetry at this time, one in which he could imitate and express the rhythms of quotidian language. In his posthumous Poemas humanos and España, aparta de mí este cáliz, he successfully achieved the expression of everyday speech. Though the poems do occasionally use recondite imagery and complicated syntax, they are more recognisably reactions to an everyday occurrence.  Thus, finding out that the Court of Justice in Trujillo had issued a warrant for his arrest and extradition led to ‘Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca’; reflections on the hardship of being unemployed in Paris in the 1930s produced ‘Considerando en frío, imparcialmente…’; reflecting on the dignity of the poor gave rise to  ‘Los desgraciados’.

The Poemas humanos also have a distinctive prophetic tone in which Vallejo predicts his own death. The best example, of course, is the justly famous first stanza of ‘Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca’:

Me moriré en París con aguacero,

un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo.

Me moriré en París – y yo me corro-

tal vez en jueves, como es hoy, de otoño.

Imagining his own death in Christ-like terms – he ‘sees’ that ‘le pegaban / todos sin que él les haga nada’ – he draws attention to how Thursdays, his bones, his loneliness, the rain and the roads are all witnesses of his plight and are, as it were, on his side, unlike the real-life witnesses that were ganging up on him back in Peru. Other poems such as ‘París, Octubre 1936’ and ‘Despedida recordando un adiós’ are also poems in which Vallejo is focussed on death, although in these two poems, written in the late 1930s, Vallejo is also saying farewell to life.

Pointing in a similar direction, he is writing a predictive post mortem of his life in  ‘Aniversario’, written on 31 October 1937 to commemorate the fourteenth anniversary of his arrival in Paris and making clear that he senses that there is unlikely to be a fifteenth anniversary. Sure enough, he would not make it to July of the following year, succumbing to a mysterious illness in the spring. This premonition is suggested by the fourth stanza of the poem:

¿Te diré ahora,

quince feliz, ajeno, quince de otros?

Nada más que no crece ya el cabello,

que han venido por las cartas,

que me brillan los seres que he parido,

que no hay nadie en mi tumba

y que me han confundido con mi llanto.

The fifteenth is owned by ‘others’ because it will not be owned by him. His hair will no longer be growing, since he will already be dead by that time, and they (i.e. the critics) will have come for his letters. ‘The beings’ that he has ‘given birth to’ will ‘shine’: this is clearly a reference to his poems for which he would become famous after his death.  The last line quoted above is a warning to those biographers who confuse Vallejo’s tears with his innermost being. We shouldn’t just see him, Vallejo warns us, as the ‘crying’ poet, the poet of sadness.

Vallejo’s last collection of fifteen poems, España, aparta de mí este cáliz, is considered by many to be the most significant poetry collection dedicated to the Spanish Civil War written in the Spanish language. Unlike the poems written by Spanish poets such as Miguel Hernández, Manuel Altolaguirre and Vicente Aleixandre, and other Latin American poets such as the Chilean Pablo Neruda and the Cuban, Nicolás Guillén, Vallejo creates a rhetorical framework in which Marxism and Christianity are brought together in celebration of the ability of the Republican militiaman to overcome the limitations of death. In a way it was an early foretaste of liberation theology, encapsulated in probably his most famous poem, XII (Masa), in which Vallejo imagines the whole world coming together in order to destroy war and death:

Entonces, todos los hombres de la tierra

le rodearon; les vio el cadáver triste, emocionado;

incorporóse lentamente,

abrazó al primer hombre; echóse a andar…

[1] Stephen Hart, ‘El desenmascaramiento de la ideología burguesa en Los heraldos negros de César Vallejo’, Espergesia, 6.1 (January-July 2019), 1-18.

[2] Stephen Hart, César Vallejo: una biografía literaria, traducción de Nadia Stagnaro (Lima: Cátedra Vallejo, 2014), pp. 20-23. When his parents died their graves were buried outside the wall of the local cemetery in Santiago de Chuco. They are now safely within the hallowed ground of the cemetery since the cemetery was expanded some years after their death, and the new boundary wall brought them inside the cemetery.

[3] Stephen Hart, César Vallejo: una biografía literaria, pp. 76-78.

[4] Stephen M. Hart, ‘Vallejo entre “dos aguas encontradas” en Los heraldos negros’, Cuadernos Americanos, 170.4 (2019), 33-56 (p. 39).

[5] ‘Con César Vallejo en la otra orilla’, Cuadernos Americanos, 3 (May-June 1973), 199-205.

[6] Stephen M. Hart, ‘Vallejo entre “dos aguas encontradas” en Los heraldos negros’, p. 49.

[7] ‘El nuevo impar, potente de orfandad. César Vallejo y la crítica fundacional frente a la filiación dadaísta de Trilce’, PhD, School of European Languages, Culture and Society, UCL, 2020.