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Pablo Neruda and Kazi Nazrul Islam: Poetic Struggle for Social Justice, Equality and Humanity

by Mustofa Munir

Poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) and Poet Kazi Nazrul Islam(1899-1976) will be revered ever as great humanists. Both poets had penned the torments and sufferings of the oppressed and subjugated peoples of their countries and the world around with their classic poetic appeals and allusions. They instilled the hopes in the hearts of the people who suffered social injustices and inequalities. The human pathos, fear and disgust were blended seamlessly with their poetic works. Though Pablo Neruda politically and ideologically was a member of communist party but he represented himself as a poet for the ordinary people. His poetry captured the human conditions. He equated imperfect human conditions with quality and buoyant poetry. No political theory or policy worked there. There was a continuous process of creating a literature. Having realized his enormous valuable literary contribution to the world literature, the Nobel Committee for Literature awarded him Nobel Prize in literature in 1971 with these words " for a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent's destiny and dreams."

Neruda and Nazrul had witnessed the working men and women closely, their poverty and sufferings in which they toiled. The central theme of their verses was an integral part of humanity.

They remind us that the beauty, sublimity and abstractness of a poem baffle us always but its strong beauteous flame can endow light of hopes to the oppressed and less fortunate classes of the society.


The Chilean poet, diplomat and politician Pablo Neruda wrote mostly love poems in his early life. But he started writing and thinking in different way as he gained life experiences from the tumults and socio-political upheavals in his country and in Spain. His poetry echoed the voices of a population who were ignored by their governments and by the upper classes. His poems encouraged the common people and carried a pride to the struggling working class. Chilean workers loved his poems by heart.

In 1971 at his Nobel Prize receiving ceremony in Stockholm, he said, "In the midst of the arena of America's struggles I saw that my human task was none other than to join the extensive forces of the organized masses of the people, to join with life and soul, with suffering and hope, but it is only from this great popular stream that the necessary changes can arise for writers and for nations”

In his memoirs he wrote that the civil war in Spain changed his poetry forever. He was deeply moved and expressed what he felt—

 ”As the first bullets ripped into the guitars of Spain, when blood instead of music gushed out of them, my poetry stopped dead like a ghost in the streets of human anguish and a rush of roots and blood surged up through it. From then on, my road meets every man’s road. And suddenly I see that from the south of solitude I have moved to the north, which is the people, the people whose sword, whose handkerchief my humble poetry wants to be, to dry the sweat of its vast sorrows and give it a weapon in its struggle for bread” (memoirs page149). 

In the year 1922 in India Poet Nazrul felt the same resonance and spirit as his vina paused for a while to render the tranquil, soothing tone and alleviating melodious vibrations. His vina (lute) spouted blood-flames, spiraling up with the ragas of torments, cries and pains of the subjugated peoples of India under the British colonial government. The ragas and the melodies that burgeoned in the fiery vina were homogenized with the voice of all oppressed and indigent people of the world at large. His poems are ablaze with the themes of rebellion, enthusiasm, courage, determination, hope and sacrifice. He compiled some of those poems of inspiration in an anthology ‘The Fiery Lute’ (Agnibina) and published it in 1922.

In ‘The Fiery Lute’ the poem ‘Rebel’ produced a powerful voice of rebellion, courage, freedom and self-respect. It is the voice of the oppressed peoples of the world at large. In this poem the Poet displayed the strength of character, sturdiness of will, a keen intellect and thoughts with powerful conviction and ethical courage. He wrote ‘Say, O valiant say’ where everyone, who struggled under the British colonialism in India, was a valiant. And the ‘I’m’ is the valiant who is someone or something in its extreme form appears like a volcano, tempest, cyclone, deluge, fire, sun, Saturn and cataclysm. In one hand the valiant holds a curved bamboo flute to blow the melody and in other hand he has a war-trumpet that creates terror in enemies’ hearts. In the bugle of Israfil ( An Angel of the Doom’s day) he is the terrifying roar. He is indomitable, at the same time his softness of heart betokened a virgin’s lotus-heart— her first trembling touch and shivering in a furtive kiss.

He wrote:


Say, O valiant say—

Slashing through the mighty sky of the mighty universe,

Passing beyond the moon, sun, planets and stars,

Penetrating the earth, orbits and the heaven,

Severing the throne of the God I’ve risen—

I’m the eternal wonder of the God of the universe!

On my forehead the enrag’d god glares,

The lustrous royal insignia of goddess of victory dazzles!

Say O valiant—

I’m the eternal lofty head!’

'I’m an ascetic, a melody-soldier,

I’m the prince, fad’d out is my ochreous royal attire!

I’m Bedouin, I’m Genghis, to none

I bow down

But to me! I’m the sound

In the north-eastern horn,

I’m a thunder,

In the bugle of Israfil I’m the terrifying roar!’


In this awakening poem ‘Beware, O The Helmsman’ the poet depicted the entire India as a storm-stricken boat in the middle of an enraged sea. The Poet is encouraging the helmsman and giving him hope that the sun of India will rise again that was drowned in the river Ganges. The Poet asked the helmsman to take control of the sinking boat. In the stormy dark night the expedition was carried out by the struggling people of India who were savagely suppressed and oppressed by the ruler.

“There drowns the helpless nation,

 It knows not how to swim! O the helmsman!

Thee we shall watch today what oath hast thou taken

 To liberate thy mother land!

‘Are they Hindus or Muslims?’ Who asketh that? Helmsman!

Say, ‘Human beings are drowning in water,

They’re the progeny of my mother!”


Nazrul embraced his poverty quietly as if he is an ocean that can embrace anything that flows into it:

He expressed his gratitude to the indigence he faced.

He wrote:

“O poverty, thou hast made me great!

Christ’s honor thou hast bestowed

On me, adorned me with the crown

Of thorns!—

O the ascetic, an appalling courage thou hast

Given me to speak out unhesitatingly, endowed

Me with impolite, piercing look and razor-sharp words,

O poverty, thy curse has turned my vina into a sword!  

Thine unbearable heat, O the proud ascetic,

Made my glittering gold so insipid,

My beauty, my life, my delight,

Untimely thou hast dried up!”


Pablo Neruda wrote many poems during 1936-1939 civil war in Spain.


“Spain was a taut, dry drum-head

Daily beating a dull thud

Flat lands and eagle's nest

Silence lashed by the storm.

How much, to the point of weeping, in my soul

I love your hard soil, your poor bread,"

García Federico Lorca was a poet, leftist and supporter of Spanish Republicans. He had become increasingly outspoken in defense of the Republic. After a month of war, the Nationalists arrested Lorca and killed him. The news shook Neruda terribly. To him Lorca was the embodiment of poetry. He felt like fascists had assassinated the poetry itself. Neruda wrote a poem

“I’m explaining a few things ”. From his pounding heart he communicated the realities he was experiencing from the war and its atrocities around him in a way that could be understood through this poem:

“And you will ask: why doesn’t his poetry

speak of dreams and leaves

and the great volcanoes of his native land?

 Come and see the blood in the streets.

Come and see

the blood in the streets.

Come and see the blood

in the streets!”


He wrote:

“You will ask: And where are the lilacs?

And the metaphysics laced with poppies?

And the rain that often beat

his words filling them with holes and birds?

I’ll tell you everything that’s happening with me.

I lived in a neighborhood

of Madrid, with church bells,

with clocks, with trees.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Federico, you remember,

from under the earth,

do you remember my house with balconies on which

the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?

Hermano, hermano!


He wrote—

“With eyes still wounded by sleep,

with guns and stones, Madrid, newly wounded,

you defended yourself. You ran

through the streets

leaving trails of your holy blood, live an avenging

mountain, like a whistling

star of knives.”

 Pablo Neruda also published poetry that spoke of injustices and fascism in his own country (Chile). 

From the poems  of Canto General:

‘Rise up to be born with me, my brother

Give me your hand from the deep

zone of your disseminated sorrow.

You'll not return from the bottom of the rocks.

You'll not return from subterranean time.

Your stiff voice will not return’


In ‘The Heights of Machu Picchu’

“Then I went from street to street and river to river,

City to city and bed to bed,

 My brackish mask traversed the desert

And in the last humiliated homes without light or fire,

Without bread, without stone ,

Without silence, alone,

I rolled on dying of my own death.”

Because of the publications the Chilean Supreme Court removed him from the senate and issued a warrant for his arrest in 1948. He had delivered a critical speech to the national parliament in his defense which was later printed under the name Yo Acuso. In the parliament he spoke: "In Chile there is no freedom of speech, people do not live free from fear. Hundreds of men that fight so that our homeland can live free from misery are persecuted, mistreated, insulted, and condemned." But the parliament ignored his speech. He had no choice but to go into exile.  


In India

The sharp nails of fascism of the British Colonial government inflicted wounds on the land of India. Poet Nazrul felt the total abolishment of British colonial government and its rule in India. He urged the Himalaya to stand up for the sake of peace,--the peace of freedom and liberty.

In the poem ‘The welcoming song’(Agomoni) he wrote:

“O the Himalaya,

Wake up! Stand up today,

Let the limit of your vastness be abated!

Forget all grief—let the tears of peace roll down

From your eyes, let the peaceful abode

be illuminated!

In every home let the lamp smile,

Let the song of invocation be continued!

Let the lamp be lighted,

Let the song be sung! Let the world-sky tremble

Like a tender leaf amidst human tumults!

‘There, there she is’, the words of adoration come out

In the voice of the world, “O mother, you-- we salute!”


Poet Nazrul expressed strongly his view on women’s equality in the society and their importance in the society along with men. In his poem ‘The Woman’, he wrote:

“The song of equality I sing —

See I not any difference between man and woman!

All deeds great and e’er-beneficial were done

In this world, half of them was accomplish’d by woman,

The rest half by the man.”

Poet urged the people of the world as a whole to stop killing each other for the sake of killing. It is the time to create a strength of readiness in the heart and willingness to establish the rule of truth for the entire humanity. He urged them to sacrifice lives to defend the motherland, but no more killings, crying or lamentation. He brought the examples of great men like Abraham(AS) and Buddha. Prophet Abraham(AS) showed his readiness to sacrifice his son for the sake of the Lord of the universe and Buddha – a prince who sacrificed his princely life and abandoned his kingdom, wife and son in search of truth. It is the time to acquire strength and celebrate the day with the joy of truth.

In his poem ‘Sacrifice’ Poet Nazrul wrote—

“No more killing, today show the strength

Of readiness to establish the rule of truth!

The path towards home is not straight,

Lamentation will yield no freedom,

Is not the slaying a death? Then who’s that

Blood-greedy cries for killings?

Listen, O the zestful-spirited!

Like Abraham, sacrifice your righteous son beloved,

No more killing, today show the strength

Of readiness to establish the rule of truth!”







Books consulted

Pablo Neruda:

Memoirs (1976)

Spain in the Heart (1993)

Canto General (1943)

Kazi Nazrul Islam:


The Fiery Lute

The swinging of the sea

© copyright Professor Mustofa Munir USA 2018