By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Ode to My Socks’ is a 1956 poem by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-73). Neruda, who was born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto (Pablo Neruda was his pen name, though he later changed it officially), won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 and is widely regarded as one of the major poets of South America, and, in some circles, as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, with his love poems receiving much admiration.
John Keats wrote odes to the nightingale, a Grecian urn, and the season of autumn. Alexander Pope wrote an ode on solitude, while Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote an ode to dejection. But odes don’t always have to be written about grand, mighty, or abstract subjects. Poets can also write odes to the everyday.
And Pablo Neruda is probably the laureate of odes to everyday things, with ‘Ode to My Socks’ being perhaps the most celebrated example. You can read the poem here.
What is an ode?
An ode is a short lyric poem that praises an individual, an idea, an event, or a thing. The praise element is the key detail: odes are poems which celebrate something or someone. There is no set form to the ode. For his ode, Neruda uses free verse: that is, his poem lacks a rhyme scheme or regular metre, and the line and stanza lengths are irregular and not fixed.
‘Ode to My Socks’: summary
Neruda’s poem is divided into three stanzas: two longer ones and a concluding, shorter one. The first stanza is about the socks his friend brought to him and how delighted he is with them. Maru Mori (a friend of his, though the poem doesn’t state this) gave him a pair of socks which she had knitted herself. She is a ‘sheepherder’ or shepherdess by profession, so she works with sheep and their wool.
The socks, Neruda tells us, were as soft as rabbits. When he slid them over his feet, they felt so soft and warm that it was as if they had been made with twilight (the warm glow of the sunset?) and goatskin. The socks were nevertheless ‘violent’, putting him in mind of sharks, blackbirds, and cannons: there is something formidable about how firm and strong they are.
Nevertheless, they are ‘heavenly’ socks, he tells us. Indeed, for the first time he feels his feet to be unworthy: they are like two weak firefighters facing a powerful blaze. In other words, they are inadequate to the challenge or task (firemen go into the blaze, just as Neruda puts his sock into the warming wool of the socks).
The second stanza is about how he was tempted to lock the socks away so that he might preserve them forever as rare gifts, but resisted this impulse, instead sliding the socks on over his feet and wearing them. Here the fiery imagery used in connection with the socks continues, with Neruda likening the act of locking away the socks to that of schoolboys keeping ‘fireflies’ as pets.
The ‘heavenly’ or divine aspects of the socks are also developed in this middle stanza: putting the socks away somewhere would be like a scholar keeping precious sacred texts under lock and key somewhere. But perhaps most importantly, Neruda develops the central conceit of the socks somehow being like living things: he has to resist the urge to keep them in a golden cage like rare birds, to which he would feed birdseed.
The final, much shorter stanza delivers the moral to the poem: that things are twice as good when we’re talking about a pair of woollen socks worn to keep the feet warm in the cold winter months.
‘Ode to My Socks’: analysis
Neruda begins ‘Ode to My Socks’ by telling us that Maru Mori gave him a pair of socks which she had knitted herself. This immediately establishes the scope and subject of the poem: this will be an ode to the ordinary, to something as everyday as a pair of socks.
But the socks have a transformative effect on Neruda’s own perspective of his feet, rendering them like fish made out of wool (suggesting the wiggling of the feet, from sheer delight, when wearing comfortable socks, with this movement resembling the swimming of fish through the water). They are both like living or animate creatures themselves (rabbits, sharks, birds) and able to turn Neruda’s feet into other animals in a form of transcendent metamorphosis.
Neruda concludes ‘Ode to My Socks’ by stating that the moral of his ode is that beauty is doubled, and good things are twice as good, when it is a matter of two woollen socks to be worn in winter.
Neruda is playing on the idea of socks coming as a pair, of course, but there’s also a suggestion that socks which are ‘made’ for someone specially, knitted out of wool and then gifted to them, are warming on two levels: both physically or literally, and emotionally, because they make the recipient feel looked after and loved.
We might compare here an ancient proverb that ‘he who cuts the wood for the fire warms himself twice’, because he is made physically warm by the fire but also attains a kind of spiritual or inner warmth by being able to enjoy the fruits of his labours: a fire he made himself. In the last analysis, Pablo Neruda’s ode is as much an ode to friendship as it is an ode to his socks.