By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Pablo Neruda (1904-73) is undoubtedly the most famous Chilean poet, and perhaps the greatest love poet in all of Latin-American literature.
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.
1. ‘Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines’.
This poem is the perfect place to begin our exploration of Pablo Neruda’s greatest poems, because it combines both intense feeling and a more realistic and level-headed approach to love. Sometimes known by the shorter title ‘Tonight I Can Write’, this poem is an example of metapoetry, or poetry written about writing poetry.
The central theme of the poem – a lost love – doesn’t emerge until several stanzas into this lyric, but even when it does, Neruda characteristically downplays the usual language we find in love poetry. This woman loved him, the speaker tells us, buy only ‘sometimes’. The speaker ends by signing off the poem with a declaration that these will be the last lines he writes for his lost love.
Although we may miss someone whom we remember a great deal, we can sometimes forget – unwillingly – the love and touch of someone we held dear to us. This Neruda poem is touching and true: ‘I have forgotten your face, I no longer / Remember your hands’, he tells his lost beloved.
3. Love Sonnet XI.
One of the verse forms Pablo Neruda preferred to work in for his love poetry was the sonnet: that Italian form which dates back to the Middle Ages, when it was popularised by Petrarch as the form used for courtly love.
But where courtly love tended to be chaste, based on the poet’s admiration of the unattainable woman adored from afar, Neruda’s love sonnets are about an intimate, physical kind of love. The idea of craving someone as you remember ‘the liquid measure’ of their ‘steps’ is especially arresting.
4. Love Sonnet XVII.
Any list of Neruda’s greatest poems should include several of his many wonderful love poems, and ideally, at least a couple of his love sonnets. So here’s another one: this time, one which probes the nature of the poet’s love for the addressee of the sonnet.
Neruda’s speaker rejects any more traditional symbols of passion in favour of describing his love as something more shadowy and obscure: it is less like the bloom of the flower and more like the light which (quietly, unassumedly) makes it possible for the flower to exist.
5. Love Sonnet XIX (‘When I Die I Want Your Hands on My Eyes’).
Okay, let’s have one more sonnet from Neruda. This one combines two of his greatest themes: love and death. From its striking opening line onwards, this sonnet sees the poet wishing and hoping that, when he dies, he can do so knowing that what he loves will go on living. But as so often in Neruda’s poetry, the nexus for this wish is the human body: her hands, his eyes.
6. ‘Your Feet’.
Elsewhere in his love poetry, Neruda often focuses on those physical aspects which have typically been overlooked by romantic poets: there are thousands of love poems in praise of a woman’s eyes, but how many poets have singled out their lover’s feet for poetic adulation?
In this short free-verse lyric, Neruda describes the male gaze alighting on the woman’s ‘hard’ feet. And why not? The feet are what support the rest of the woman’s body which the poet adores.
7. ‘Ode to My Socks’.
John Keats may have written odes to the nightingale and the Grecian urn, but Pablo Neruda’s greatest ode was written to his socks: specifically, the socks his friend brought to him. Maru Mori (a friend of his) 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.
For Neruda, they are ‘heavenly’ socks, which he was tempted to lock the socks away so that he might preserve them forever as rare gifts. But he resisted this impulse, instead sliding the socks on over his feet and wearing them. The poem’s ‘moral’? 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.
8. ‘Cat’s Dream’.
As well as writing some of the greatest love poems ever written, Pablo Neruda also wrote well about pets. ‘Cat’s Dream’ is a fine poetic depiction of a cat, describing the animal’s physical appearance but then imagining what a cat’s dreams must be like.
Neruda’s arresting description of the night flowing through the cat’s dreaming mind ‘like dark water’ makes it worth reading on its own – but there are many other things to admire here.
9. ‘A Dog Has Died’.
Just as Neruda didn’t write traditional love poems or odes, he also approached the elegy, or poem of mourning, in a new and original way.
He wasn’t the first to write a poem about the death of a pet dog, but ‘A Dog Has Died’ is remarkable for its unsentimental attitude to death – describing the burial of the beloved pet in rather matter-of-fact terms – even while Neruda embraces the idea of a heaven for dogs.
10. ‘If You Forget Me’.
Let’s conclude this pick of Neruda’s best poems with one of his most famous. It’s another free-verse lyric which calls for mutual forgetting but also mutual memory: if his lover forgets him, he will forget her, but if she finds herself remembering him, she can count on him still thinking of her, too.