Pablo Neruda was a Chilean poet whose second poetic collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair has captivated readers since its publication in 1924. The collection is divided in two parts, the first part consists of a sequence of 20 poems in roman numerals and the second part is a single long poem titled “The Song of Despair.” In the first 20 poems, Neruda explores love in many forms and stages. He writes about loves that have been lost, loves that replace solitude, and loves that haunt lovers forever. At last, in the “The Song of Despair” he encapsulates many of the concerns established through the sequence and offers a heightened emotional culmination: “It is the hour of departure. Oh abandoned one!”
Neruda was twenty years old when he published Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair and even at his young age, he does not fall into the trap of producing abstract representations of life. To the contrary, the poems represent an open curiosity for different dimensions of life like sexuality, solitude, melancholy, and loss. Also, he does not idealize beauty and love.
Neruda and Nature Imagery
Nature is a constant presence in the poems and nature imagery permeate the collection. For instance, images of stars, rivers, the wind, and sky reappear in the sequence and are also present in the final long poem as nature takes part in the lovers’ relationship. The lovers become nature itself, they are immersed in nature: she is an “earth-shell, in whom the earth sings!” (III). Neruda also uses refrains in some of the poems (VIII, XV, XVIII, XIX, XX). These repetitions, which he uses moderately, give the poems the sensitivity of a prayer, which strengthens the speaker’s lament and plea.
The tone in the poems is consistent, through the sequence you can feel that these poems are speaking to one another, sharing the same agony and pleasure. However, in “The Song of Despair” there is a palpable change in the tone, the speaker is desperate as the memory of a lover haunts him. The imagery in this poem is of shipwreck and loss: “Oh pit of debris, fierce cave of the shipwreck” and “Oh flesh, my own flesh, woman whom I loved and lost”. He also repeats the line “In you everything sank” six times and each time its meaning changes as the poem grows in emotional intensity and pain. Also this repetition gives the poem a musical quality that corresponds with his desire to title the poem a “song”.
Neruda in Translation
After reading this collection I understand better what a poetic sequence can accomplish. Neruda’s poems can all be read individually, but when encountered as a sequence they have a stronger and more powerful effect on the reader. The edition I I read was a bilingual edition, so I read the collection both in Spanish and English simultaneously to compare and evaluate the translator’s decisions. In the end, I was happy with the translation even though there were some minor instances when I disagreed with the choices the translator made. I recommend this collection wholeheartedly, especially to people who dislike love poetry for its sentimentality and melodrama. Neruda is not one of those writers; to the contrary, in his poems love is complex but the emotions are as real as the oxygen that flows through our bodies.
Neruda, Pablo. Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Trans. W. S. Merwin. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.
© Yaneirys Cruz, 2013 – Poetry Blog