The poetic universe of Pablo Neruda
The final book of poems of Neruda that I wish to focus on is One
Hundred Love Sonnets. This shows the trend-line of his later poetry.
This poem is dedicated to Matilde Urrutia who became his third wife, and
she lived with him until his death on September 23 1973.He experienced a
sense of fulfilment in his third marriage and his later poetry, in many
ways, reflects this fact. Clearly, there is a difference in tone and
tenor between his early love poems, say, those contained in Twenty Love
Poems and those in his later life. One Hundred Love Sonnets, in my
judgment, represents this change.
Many of the poems gathered in this book were written in Isla Negara
where Neruda spent much of his time after 1960.It was, then, a small
fishing village with unpaved roads and without electricity. Neruda’s
house was by the Pacific Ocean overlooking the vast expanse of blue. His
book of poems House in the Sand describes his house and its environs in
vivid terms. The sea, its rolling waves, the wind, shells on the beach
are a constant presence in the poems collected in One Hundred Love
Sonnets. In composing his poems, Neruda chose the Italian sonnet form
but he did not adhere strictly to the Italian convention and made
certain departures from it.
Instead of the dark and somber tone that characterised many of the
poems in the Residence cycle, a note of optimism now enters his poetry.
The image of the earth, which was central to his earlier love poetry,
remains so in the compositions of One Hundred Love Sonnets. This is
You will remember that leaping stream
Where sweet aromas rose and trembled,
And sometimes a bird, wearing water
And slowness, in winter feathers.
You will remember those gifts from the earth:
Indelible scents, gold clay.
Weeds in the thicket and crazy roots,
Magical thorns like swords.
You’ll remember the bouquet you picked,
Shadow and silent water,
Bouquet like a foam-covered stone.
The time was like never, and like always,
So we go there, where nothing is waiting,
We find everything waiting there.
Similarly, the tone of optimism and fulfillment continues in passages
such as the following. This is taken from sonnet XLVIII
The air and wine accompany the lovers.
The night delights them with joyous pearls.
They have the right to all carnations.
Two happy lovers, without an ending, without death,
They are born, they die, many times while they live;
They have the eternal life of the Natural
In discussing Twenty Love Poems, I made the point that they grew out
of intensely felt experiences and sensations of a young man. The Canto
General gave expression to his growing interest in public issues. Now in
his later poetry, we observe a combination of the personal and public in
interesting ways as is exemplified by passages such as the following..
My love, I returned from travel and sorrow
To your voice, to your hand flying on the guitar,
To the fire interrupting the autumn with kisses,
To the night that circles through the sky.
I ask or bread and dominion for all;
For the worker with no future I ask for land,
May no one expect my blood or my song to rest!
But I cannot give up your love, not without dying.
The sonnets in this volume are divided into four categories –
morning, noon, afternoon and night. They are designed to correspond to
the seasons in the life of human beings. There are only two characters
in these sonnets; the poet-narrator and his beloved, Matilde. She does
not speak and animates the poems through her silent, but distinct,
The union between the human and natural worlds that marked his early
erotic poetry finds expression, perhaps in a more mature form, in these
sonnets as well. Here the ocean which figures so prominently in many of
his poems gives a unity to the sonnet.
You are the daughter of the sea, oregano’s first cousin.
Swimmer, your body is pure as the water.
He goes on to claim that
Your eyes go out toward the water, and the waves rise;
Your hands go out to the earth, and the seeds swell;
You know the deep essence of water and the earth.
Conjoined in you like a formula for clay.
What I have sought to do so far is to discuss briefly, what I think
are, six of the more important works of Pablo Neruda so as to indicate
his growth as a poet as well as to convey an impression of his primary
thematic interests and formal and stylistic innovations .As I stated
earlier, Neruda is, without a doubt, one of the greatest poets of the
twentieth century who has exercised a palpable influence on the thought
and imagination of Latin American countries.
To be sure, his influence is not confined to Latin America alone; he
is valued equally highly by readers in other continents as well
What lessons does Neruda’s poetry hold for us in Sri Lanka? Here I
wish to stress three important points. First he demonstrates with great
poetic intensity the way a gifted poet can explore public themes, social
and political issues, in his or her poetry. This is indeed important in
view of the fact that many Sri Lankan writers have voiced the opinion
that poetry should grapple with complex social issues.
This demand was heard loudest in the 1970s when the call for a
people’s literature as at its peak. Pablo Neruda was a committed writer.
In works such as Canto General he sought to combine social consciousness
and lyrical power. How did he accomplish this? He accomplished this
primarily through the power of a language medium alive with metaphoric
richness and density and a soaring imagination.
For example, in the poem titled ‘The Land is Called Juan’, Neruda
displays the life stories of ordinary men, in order to underline the
common bonds that exist among the down trodden. He says that the land
belongs to them, and they, unfortunately, have been rendered invisible
Behind the liberators you could always find Juan
Working, fishing, also fighting,
In the carpenter’s shop, in his deep wet mine,
His hands have ploughed the soil, they have measured every road.
His bones are buried everywhere.
It may be that his bones are everywhere, but the fact is he has not
been vanquished. The conquering armies might harm him, but the land
belongs to him and he and his spirit will emerge from it
But he is alive. He came back from the earth. He us reborn,
He is born again like an eternal plant
When we consider passages such as these we begin to understand how
public consciousness and individual sentiment can be fruitfully blended
through the power of poetic imagination. There is a lesson for us here.
Second, we can study the complex ways in which the imaginations works
in and through his poetry. The success of a poem depends to a very large
extent on the way the poet’s imagination function within it. It is
related to such poetic resources as the use of language, imagery,
rhythm, sound effects and so on.
However deeply felt the experience is or however lofty the sentiments
are, the poem will not achieve the desired measure of success unless it
is enlivened by a powerful imagination. Even his detractors would agree
that many of Neruda’s poems are quickened by his rare imagination. A
passage such as the following, taken from his early work Twenty Love
Poems, illustrates this point.
Upstream, in the midst of the outer waves
Your parallel body yields to my arms
Like a fish infinitely fastened to my soul,
Quick and slow, in the energy under the sky.’
Third. Pablo Neruda increasingly came to see himself as a visionary
poet. He was moved by a vision of the future, of human possibilities.
Indeed, he was a seer in the true sense of the word. His Canto General
can be said to incarnate a millennial vision. Walt Whitman, who in many
ways inspired Neruda, is another visionary poet. When we examine
Neruda’s poetry carefully, we realise that the carving out of a
visionary path is indeed a challenging task. To be a visionary poet, it
is not enough to articulate some philosophical or reflective thoughts;
they have to be embodied in the very texture of the poetry.
In Neruda’s case the dazzling images carry the burden of his effort.
This again is an area that we in Sri Lanka can pursue profitably. There
have been many modern Sinhala poets who have tried to write
philosophical and visionary poetry, but their efforts have, by and
large, fallen far short of the mark.
We can, then, learn a great deal from the poetry of Pablo Neruda. At
the same time, we need to be keenly aware of his defects and blind
spots. In the interest of space I would like to identify three of them.
Firstly, although he was, for the most part, successful in blending
public issues private sentiment and convert the public issues into
poetic experiences, there are also instances where he failed in this
Some of the pieces, for example those dealing with Stalin, barely
rise above propaganda. It need hardly be said that there is a difference
between sloganeering and publicly-oriented poetry, and at times Neruda
fails to transition from one to the other.
Second, many of his poems are love poems, and even in those poems
dealing with social issues, there is a pronounced element of eroticism,
especially in the deployment of tropes.
At times, Neruda comes very close to sentimentality and melodrama; it
is only his ability to fashion startling images and open up newer vistas
of imagination that saves him from this peril. In the hands of a lesser
poet, some of these poems would have almost certainly been tarnished by
sentimentality. This is an aspect of poetry that we should examine with
Third. I personally find that Neruda missed an opportunity to engage
the cultural and intellectual traditions of Asia, while he was living in
Asia, and there by widen his intellectual horizons and enrich his
poetry. In this regard, the poetry of Octavio Paz, is most instructive.
This Nobel-Prize winning Mexican poet spent some time in India as a
diplomat. During this period, he made a genuine effort to understand the
philosophy, art and culture of India; he even taught him some Sanskrit.
As a result he was able to write a number of highly insightful essays in
Indian art and philosophy.
He wrote several poems based on his Indian experience and they are
vitalised by this informed understanding of Indian philosophy. For
example, his book titled The Monkey Grammarian, he uses a mind-journey
to the Indian city of Galta in Rajasthan, now ruined amidst forbidding
hills, to offer poetically charged reflections on many things Indian.
For Neruda, on the other hand Burma, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and
Indonesia became backgrounds for the articulation of his loneliness and
solitude. Just as the Spanish Civil War became a kind of event in his
evolving biography, these Asian countries became mere backdrops to
articulate his depressed mood.
Hence, it is my belief that he missed an opportunity. For example, he
remarked in frustration about his Asian experience, ‘distance and deep
silence separated me from the world, and I could not bring myself to
enter whole-heartedly the alien world around me’. Speaking of India he
once claimed that. ‘Everything here seems to be in ruins and tearing
itself apart.’ However, in fairness to Neruda, it has also to be said
that he recognised that there were certain elemental and unifying forces
that prevented such a catastrophe.
At the beginning of this series of columns on Neruda, I said that he
spent sometime in Sri Lanka as a diplomat. In conclusion I would like to
comment on that period of his life. In his book titled ‘Memoirs’ which
is a chain of memories from his childhood onwards he devotes some pages
to his experiences in Sri Lanka. ‘Memoirs’ is characterised by vigorous
writing that is enticingly descriptive with eloquent turns of phrase and
vivid imagery. The book runs into about 364 pages and the author devotes
about 12 pages to reminiscences of Sri Lanka.
This is how he opens his descriptions of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. ’In
1929, Ceylon, the most beautiful of the world’s large islands, had the
same colonial structures as Burma and India. The English ad entrenched
themselves in their neighborhoods and their clubs, hemmed in by vast
multitude of musicians, potters, weavers, plantation slaves, monks in
yellow, and immense gods carved into the stone mountains.
Caught between the Englishmen dressed every evening in dinner jackets
and Hindus I couldn’t hope to reach in their fabulous immensity I had
only solitude open to me, and so that time was the loneliest in my
life.’ It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many of the poems
composed during this period in Sri Lanka bear the indubitable presence
of loneliness and solitude. Neruda, as I pointed out earlier, was always
fascinated by the sea, and his stay in Sri Lanka was no exception. He
recaptures the experiences by the sea in the following manner.
‘I went to live in a small bungalow recently built in the suburb of
Wellawatte, near the sea. It was a sparsely populated area, with the
surf breaking on the reefs nearby. The music of the sea swelled into the
In the morning, the miracle of this newly washed nature was
overwhelming. I joined the fisherman very early. Equipped with long
floats, the boats looked like sea spiders.
The men pulled out fish of vivid colors, fish like birds from the
teeming forest, some with deep blue phosphorescence of intense living
velvet, others shaped like prickly balloons that shriveled up into sorry
little sacs of thorns.’
During this period of intense loneliness in Sri Lanka, Neruda had two
companions – a dog and a mongoose. As he observes, ‘my dog and my
mongoose were my sole companions. Fresh from the jungle, the latter grew
up at my side, slept in my bed, and at my table.
No one can imagine the affectionate nature of a mongoose. My little
pet was familiar with every minute of my day-to-day life, she tramped
all over my papers, and raced after me all day long. She curled up
between my shoulder and my head at siesta time and slept there the
fitful, electric sleep of wild animals.’
Neruda narrates an interesting story about his mongoose called
Kiriya. It had a reputation as a fighter, and mongooses are famous for
fighting off snakes. One day, street children had organised a clash of
wills and prowess between a viper and Neruda’s mongoose.
The fight began in earnest, and after a while the mongoose got cold
feet and ran away and hid in Neruda’s house. Neruda fexperienced a self-
diminution; he suffered an intense loss of face in the street community
from which he never recovered! He says, ‘that’s how I lost caste, more
than thirty years ago, in the suburb of Wellawatte.’
His recounting of his various experiences in Sri Lanka is
interspersed with comments on the social structure of Sri Lana at the
This was a period in which Neruda had the time to read, or more
accurately, was forced to read all kinds of books. His friend Lionel
Wendt supplied him with a never ending supply of books.
One such book that particularly stirred his imagination was Leonard
Woolf’s Village in the Jungle. He said that Village in the Jungle is ‘a
masterpiece true both to life and to literature, it was virtually
eclipsed by the fame of his wife, none other than Virginia Woolf, the
great subjective novelist of world renown.’
There are some interesting anecdotes in Neruda’s descriptions of Sri
Lankan life. The following is replete with sarcasm.
‘I stayed there a little while, caught in the magic spell of the drum
and fascinated by the voice, and then I went on my way drunk with the
enigma of an emotion I can’t describe, of a rhythm whose mystery issued
from the whole earth. An earth filled with music and wrapped in
fragrance and shadows.
The English were already seated at the table, dressed in black and
‘Forgive me, I stopped along the way to listen to some music’ I told
They, who had lived in Ceylon for twenty-five years, reacted with
elegant disbelief. Music? The natives have musicians? No one had known
about t. This was news to them.’ News indeed!
Much of Residence on Earth 1 was written in Sri Lanka, and Neruda
offers us interesting insights into its composition .He had finished
writing the first section of this poem; however, he felt that he was
making very slow progress.
He felt that he could not enter enthusiastically into his
surroundings. He says, ‘things that happened in my life, which was
suspended in a vacuum were brought together in my book as if they were
He felt that his style was becoming increasingly bitter as a
consequence of the deep melancholy that had enveloped him. As he
remarked, ‘the style is not only the man. It is also everything around
him, and if the very air he breathes does not had a chance to breathe.’
During this period he read widely; through the writings of Proust he
made his way into the joys of music. As Neruda points out, ‘Proust’s
insight illuminated whatever he touched, he frequently returned to the
enchantment of sonata. Neruda states that, ‘his (Proust’s) words led me
to re-live my own life, to recover the hidden sentiments I had almost
lost within myself in my long absence. I wanted to see in that musical
phrase Proust’s magical narrative and I was swept away on music’s
There are a few paragraphs in Memoirs dealing with his Sri Lankan
experience that serve to open a useful window onto his poetry. He
remarks that, ‘until now, critics who have scrutinized my work have not
detected this secret influence I am confessing here. For, I wrote a
large part of ‘Residence on Earth’ there, in Wellawatte. Although my
poetry is not ‘fragrant or aerial’ but sadly earth-bound, I think those
qualities, so often clad in mourning, have something to do with my deep
feelings for the music that lived within me.’
Neruda wouldn’t be Neruda if he did not get himself embroiled in
various sexual relationships. There are some passages in his
descriptions of his experience in Sri Lanka that touch on sexual
One such sad and amusing relationship is the one that he had with the
young woman who cleaned his latrine.(Remember, this was in the 1920s
when flush-toilets were not common). This is how he describes her. ‘Into
the back of the house, walking like a dusky statue, came the most
beautiful woman I had yet seen in Ceylon, a Tamil of the pariah caste.
She was wearing a red-and-gold sari of the cheapest kind of cloth.
She had heavy bangles on her bare ankles. Two tiny red dots glittered
in ether side of her nose. They must have been ordinary glass, but on
her they were rubies.’ He goes on with the description
‘She walked solemnly toward the latrine, without so much as a side
glance at me, not bothering to acknowledge my existence and vanished
with the disgusting receptacle on her head, moving away with the steps
of a goddess.’ The various accounts of his life in Sri Lanka, then,
provide us with valuable insights both into his personal life and his
art of poetry.
In this series of columns on Pablo Neruda, it was my intention to
highlight his strengths and weaknesses as a poet, and offer some
pointers to his relevance to us – to us as Sri Lankan writers and
readers. He subscribed, it seems to me, to a poetics of hyperbole; this
poetics underwrites much of his writing.
It is only the most gifted of poets, I contend, who can make use of
this poetics cogently and productively, and Neruda was certainly one of
them. He managed to pull it off while producing, for the most part,
compositions marked by an exquisite lyricism. For us, in Sri Lanka, an
aspect of his poetry that holds a special interest is his deft blending
of personal sentiment and public consciousness.
The distinguished literary critic Edward Said once observed that in
terms of achieved social vision there are important affinities of
interest between Yeats and Neruda, although there are significant
differences as well. Said refers to the way both poets succeed in
combining individual experience and social vision.
He selects a poem by Neruda – Fully Empowered – and compares it with
Yeats’ The Fisherman to demonstrate the fact that ‘in both poems the
central figure is an anonymous man of the people, who in his strength
and loneliness is a mute expression of the people, a quality that
inspires the poet in his work.’ We as Sri Lankan readers will recognize
his startling imagery, cosmic imagination, boundless energy, the
capacity to feel intensely and the ability to discover the essence of
being beyond the clutches of time as the sinews that bind his poems
Neruda was influenced by Whitman, surrealist poets, Latin American
poetry, but there was no Neruda before Neruda. Analogously, many sought
to emulate him, but there is no Neruda after Neruda.
To be continued