Pablo Neruda

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair

“Learning into the afternoons I cast my sad nets toward your oceanic eyes. There in the highest blaze my solitude lengthens and flames, its arms turning like a drowning man's.”

In his immeasurable essays on love as the antidote to human separateness, German psychotherapist Erich Fromm wrote about “Love as a state of being”, something to be sought, done, acted upon.1

Pablo Neruda’s (July 12, 1904 – September 23, 1973) Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, first published in 1952 to a rather indignant audience, carry that same physicality, that same formation of love as a thing.

Neruda’s love poems cling like webs and sting like frost.

The light wraps you in its mortal flame.
Abstracted pale mourner, standing that way
against the old propellers of the twilight
that revolves around you.

Speechless, my friend,
alone in the loneliness of this hour of the dead
and filled with the lives of fire,
pure heir of the ruined day.

From “The Light Wraps You”

Photograph of distant storm. Featured in Pablo Neruda's "Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair" in the Examined Life Library.
“You keep only darkness my distant female, from your regard sometimes the coast of dread emerges.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The way Mary Oliver imagined stones under the soil longing to be touched or Coleridge’s childhood memory of a river otter, Neruda builds and folds the deeply complex emotions of love into the vast bosom of nature. Pines, wind, sea, shore, rocks and shells.

Transposing into this space allows us to expand infinitely in metaphor.2

The body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
you look like a world, lying in surrender.
My rough peasant’s body digs in you
and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.

I was alone like a tunnel. The birds fled from me,
and night swamped me with its crushing invasion.
To survive myself I forged you like a weapon,
like an arrow in my bow, a stone in my sling.

From “Body of a Woman”

Neruda’s symbolic complexity – a woman’s body is hills, earth, a man a weapon, our place of being a tunnel, a field – allows the Chilean poet to penetrate all aspects of love: sorrow, despair, joy, fatigue, silence. In precious few poems he delivers this bundle of everything at once, unconsciously perceptive, rocking from heel to toe in some universal pulse.

Like the longing of some indistinct thing that used to be or could be but isn’t right now. Is that part of love?

So that you will hear me
my words
sometimes grow thin
as the tracks of the gulls on the beaches.

Necklace, drunken bell
for your hands smooth as grapes.

From “So You Will Hear Me”

Or what about love’s relaxed comfort? Pure perfection yet so poorly held for long, quickly gone once grasped.

Like breath, like day, like dew, like wind.

Your breast is enough for my heart,
and my wings for your freedom.
What was sleeping above your soul will rise
out of my mouth to heaven.

In you is the illusion of each day.
You arrive like the dew to the cupped flowers.
You undermine the horizon with your absence.
Eternally in flight like the wave.

I have said that you sang like the wind
like the pines and like the masts.
Like them you are tall and taciturn,
and you are sad, all at once, like a voyage.

From “Your Breast is Enough”

Photograph of ebb tide. Featured in Pablo Neruda's "Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair" in the Examined Life Library.
“Leaning into the afternoons I cast my sad nets toward your oceanic eyes. There in the highest blaze my solitude lengthens and flames, its arms turning like a drowning man’s.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Neruda’s concept of love is so abundant. So repairing. So vastly everything.

While Fromm defined love in nice, almost mutually exclusive categories like brotherly love and motherly love,3 Neruda lets it swim in conflicted complexity.

Erotic love is exclusive, but it loves in the other person all of mankind, all that is alive. It is exclusive only in the sense that I can fuse myself fully and intensely with one person only. Erotic love excludes the love for others only in the sense of erotic fusion, full commitment in all aspects of life — but not in the sense of deep brotherly love.

From Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving

It is only fitting that a love that includes everything expands beyond the corporal and the human to some Providence-granted beauty of nature.

Ralph Waldo Emerson thought nature led us to an eternal stream of consciousness while sculptor Barbara Hepworth thought that in the contemplation of nature “our sense of mystery and our imagination is kept alive.”

Drawing of murmuration by artist Ann Pease. 3 of 3
“Murmuration” by Ann Pease. “I awoke” Neruda wrote, “And at times birds fled and migrated that had been sleeping in your soul.”

Neruda is such a layered soul, always besuited. He hails from the longest, thinnest country in the world separated by mountains to the east, the largest ocean in the world to the west, and desert to the north. A Chilean friend once told me his country had the mental energy of an archipelago, an island nation.

In 1971 Neruda, fled to Argentina over the Andes as a political refugee and did not return for nearly a decade. He spoke of the flight in his 1971 Nobel Prize acceptance speech and it gives instant, brilliant illumination to his mindset.4

Each of us made his way forward filled with this limitless solitude, with the green and white silence of trees and huge trailing plants and layers of soil laid down over centuries, among half-fallen tree trunks which suddenly appeared as fresh obstacles to bar our progress. We were in a dazzling and secret world of nature which at the same time was a growing menace of cold, snow and persecution. Everything became one: the solitude, the danger, the silence, and the urgency of my mission.”

From Pablo Neruda’s “Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech,” 1971.

Read full speech here.

That “oneness” is carried so thoroughly throughout Neruda’s love poems (and in his celebration of things that have been touched and loved.

Photograph of forest light. Featured in Pablo Neruda's "Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair" in the Examined Life Library.
“Ah the vastness of pines…” wrote Neruda. “The deer go into the unchartered pinewoods, where I have lived so much of my life, where everything is so quick and uncertain” wrote Mary Oliver. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

A oneness with all mankind, with nature – isn’t that love?

Enable such love with Marcus Aurelius on how our bodies were made for cooperation, Frans de Waal on our empathy as a biologically-formed aspect of human nature and consider Ovid’s poetry of love which, 2000 years after its authorship, still sings fresh.