‘The Portrait in the Rock’ by Pablo Neruda is a poem about a man who was tired and disillusioned with life in Paraguay. He eventually left his country of origin, his home, and family and went into a self-imposed exile in a foreign land. Life, though, did not treat him kindly in his new country. He must have run into trouble that the police took him, beat him up, and persecuted him. He was able to escape and moved about in different countries in Europe. But because he is an illegal migrant, he was always on the run and hiding from authorities. His was a turbulent life. His friend, the one narrating the poem, sees him years later but already as a monument in stone, erected in his country of origin.
Neruda does not give the name of the person being talked about in the poem. He simply calls him his friend. This piece of poetry does not have too many metaphors. The flow of the poetry, characteristic of Neruda’s broken lines and broken thoughts, is tantamount to the flow of the story. However, Neruda’s works can never be interpreted at surface value alone. The reason why Neruda needed not to mention the person’s name is because he had chosen to make this a ‘portrait,’ and as such, the character study reveals much deeper as it delves into a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the narrative level of the poem. One thing is clear: the man who lays claim to the ‘portrait’ must have existed in history.
Interpreting the piece further, one can glimpse the history behind the story. Thus, the character most appropriately becomes a ‘portrait’ of the man, as revealed by the narrator Neruda. The “portrait in the rock” as the narrator sees in the end is a commemoration of someone. Three things can be surmised: the poem is a biographical recollection, a historical memory, or an artistic projection of self by the poet himself.
In the early part of the 20th century, as Neruda was coming into his adulthood, many countries such as Chile, where he was born, and Paraguay, among other South American countries, were being overtaken by the tides of communism. The Stalinist thought was sweeping most of the continent. Neruda himself served as a senator in the Chilean Communist Party. This was a time of revolution. The man whose ‘portrait’ is on the rock must have been a revolutionary figure, much like Neruda his friend. Neruda, from Chile, must have known this fellow revolutionary who hails from Paraguay. Both had the same ideological leanings. Both knew how it was to have a life on the run, being a revolutionary. This friend, though, led a more turbulent life than he because Neruda eventually became a diplomat of his country, posted at such countries as Mexico and Spain.
This man whose ‘portrait’ was later carved in stone as a monument to his heroism must have been one of the renowned revolutionary figures of Paraguay. Neruda, the narrator, recounts the man’s past and his rightful claim to a monument erected in his name later on. This is the biographical recollection interpretative level of the poem.
The poem can also be seen as a simple historical memory of how communist revolutionaries were in those years. When communism was outlawed in Chile, Neruda had no choice but be on the run and go into hiding because Conservative Chilean President Gonzales Videla made followers of communism as lawbreakers. To be a communist was necessarily to be on the run, go into hiding, or go on exile in some foreign land. As a historical recollection, this poem can also be traced to the time in Neruda’s life when he was appointed as special consul for Spanish emigration in Paris. He was tasked to ship back to Chile some 2,000 Spanish refugees. He saw this task as the noblest mission he had ever undertaken. He must have also probably regarded these émigrés as noble and heroic after being kept by the French in internment camps and concentration camps in France before, during, and after World War II. For Neruda, these heroic people were finally home as heroes, worthy of commemorative monuments that represent their persecution. These are the historical interpretations of the poem.
Another interpretative level of this poem is that the man whose ‘portrait’ is on stone is Neruda himself, as he creatively projects his own experience in the poem. Neruda was all three: poet, diplomat, and political figure. He remained a communist for the rest of his life, even becoming a senator for the Chilean Communist Party before communism was outlawed in Chile. He, thus, became an outlaw when a warrant was issued for his arrest. He went into hiding right after. He was smuggled by his friends from house to house. They finally hid him in a basement of a home on a Chilean port for more than a year. He subsequently escaped into exile, on horseback, through a mountain pass that leads into Argentina. He was on exile for three years.
When socialist Salvador Allende became president of Chile years later, Neruda became a close collaborator. Neruda, already a legend when he was alive, became an even bigger name in death. By this time, the dictator Pinochet was already in power in Chile. Pinochet did not allow Neruda’s funeral to become a public event. Thousands of people protested and went into civil disobedience. Neruda’s funeral became the first public protest against the Chilean military dictatorship. The revolutionary turned exile, much like the man in ‘The Portrait in the Rock,’ has had countless monuments commemorating his greatness at home.
“The Portrait in the Rock’ is about a man who existed in history. This man was closely associated with Neruda. The poem could be about a fellow hero whom he knew during his revolutionary years. The poetic piece could be a historical account of those years when revolutionaries went into hiding and exile only to return to their beloved motherlands, recognized as heroes and in whose memories monuments were erected. Lastly, the man in poem could be Neruda himself – a revolutionary who went into exile and returned to his homeland to be recognized in death as one of the greatest literary and political figures the world has ever known.