Having read Neruda’s iconic collection Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Canción Desesperada, I felt compelled to write about some of the patterns, motifs and techniques that make his romantic poetry quite as widely lauded as it is.
Neruda favours the metaphorical in the place of the literal almost as a rule. Take, for example, Inclinado En Las Tardes, in which the central metaphor is that of a fisherman at sea. The subject of the narrator’s adoration is described as having ’ojos oceánicos’, toward which he casts his ‘redes tristes’. Furthermore, the narrator mentions his ’soledad’, a quality intensified by the distance of his lover. Indeed, this distance is emphasised as the lover is referred to by a formal ’hembra’. The poem concludes with images of flashing stars and a ’yegua sombría’. The text as a whole is nearly all metaphor.
What some might call Neruda’s ‘reliance’ on metaphor shows in itself that love is a topic beyond the ability of literal description. The Chilean poet makes a conscious decision throughout his canon to refer to love not by talking of love as a topic, but by drawing together images, images which would otherwise have remained far apart in the reader’s mind. In drawing together these intelligible ideas and pictures, Neruda manages to articulate the unintelligible. It wouldn’t be unusual to say that love is beyond words, but Neruda appears to find his way around that difficulty with metaphor.
Indeed, not only does metaphor facilitate a description of love, it seems to also enhance that description when used in such quantity and variety as in Neruda’s poems. Fittingly, I will attempt an analogy to illustrate my point. Each metaphor carries with it connotations and associations that are individually interesting but not comprehensive. The concatenation of these links forms a chain that is greater in strength than the sum of its parts. This chain (Neruda’s description of love) has the benefits of nuance and subjectivity, where a more literal description does not. The cumulative effect might also be described as a collection of voices combining to form harmonies as a choir: individually valuable but collectively impressive.
In terms of perspective, all twenty poemas de amor are written from a narrator’s perspective in a sort of praise of the female form. That female form is frequently a specific character, but is often also a more abstract being (in Cuerpo de Mujer, for example). The relationship between narrator and subject is revealed almost exclusively through metaphor. Thus, the Nobel laureate describes the statuses of that relationship with some articulation. Often the narrator is seen as inadequate and restless, whilst the woman in question is silent, still, and calm. There is a sexual reality to this contrast, as well as a poetic idealism. This idealism and praise of the female form is consistent with the artistic obsession and fascination with the nude (statues of Aphrodite etc.).
For example, he writes of ’ojos ausentes’; here, the subject’s sense of sight is diminished, objectifying her to some extent. The poet also calls her an ’hembra distante y mía’, describing his possession of her after he does the distance between them. Neruda chooses not to place the adjective ’mi’ before the noun, but rather at the end of the clause. The possessive adjective is left alone at the end of the line, its isolation seems to convey that his possession of her is tenuous and fragile. The sense that he is losing his grip on her is reflective of her glorified beauty and significance; she is beyond his capacity to ‘have’.
A strong motif throughout the collection is natural imagery. Whether it be an ocean, ‘blancas colinas’ or the ’alas de pájaro’, Neruda has a bent for relating his love to the environment. Why? Well, I think there is an instinctive attachment between the two. Certainly, Romanticism made that connection with some vigour. This attachment is borne partly of the idea that love is somehow a natural occurrence, a connection between two people as old as time immemorial. It is as though love is among flame and wind as an eternal truth of the world we live in. Perhaps, the connection also comes from the beauty of nature. There is something inherently attractive about the spray of waves on rocks, a bird in flight, or dew on a flower. This beauty makes the narrator’s love seem all the more attractive itself.
You can find a copy of this collection here.