By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Spanish poems – not just poems written by poets born or raised in Spain, but poems written in the Spanish language – are among some of the greatest love poems in world literature.
French may be considered the most famous and celebrated language of love, but Spanish poets, and Latin American poets writing in the language, have penned some of the most passionate and moving poems on the themes of love, loss, death, and other subjects.
Below, we select and introduce ten of the greatest poems written in the Spanish language, saying a little about the poets who wrote the poems as we go. We’ve linked to English translations of the poems, but the original Spanish versions can be found online.
1. Pablo Neruda, ‘Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines’.
Pablo Neruda (1904-73) is undoubtedly the most famous Chilean poet, and perhaps the greatest love poet in all of Latin-American literature. He’s such a central figure in Spanish-language poetry that we’ve included two poems from Neruda on this list (we’ll come to the second poem in a moment).
Neruda, who was born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto (Pablo Neruda was his pen name), won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 and is widely regarded as one of the major poets of South America.
This poem 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, and ‘sometimes’ he loved her too – but not always.
2. Octavio Paz, ‘Wind, Water, Stone’.
One of the most famous Spanish-American poets of the twentieth century, Paz (1914-98) was a Mexican writer who fought in the Spanish Civil War during the 1930s. Although he was a committed left-wing writer and thinker, he did not support the Communist revolution in Cuba (led by Castro) and much of his poetry steers clear of engaging directly in political matters. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990.
In the short lyric ‘Viento, agua, piedra’ (‘Wind, Water, Stone’), Paz compares and contrasts these three elemental forces, concluding that they are both symbiotic (one is the same as ‘another’) and unique (like ‘no other’).
3. Gabriela Mistral, ‘Woman: The Mad One’.
Mistral (1889-1957) was a Chilean poet, with a notable claim to fame: she was the first Latin American, male or female, to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1945.
The prize was awarded to her ‘for her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world.’ Her body of work amounts to just four volumes of poetry, but those volumes contain some of the most heartfelt love poetry in all Spanish-language literature.
In this poem, the ‘mad’ woman speaks from her bedroom, telling us of the man who she hears walking up and down the stairs outside. What does this man represent, and is it significant that he is merely heard and felt, a mysterious figure who threatens the woman’s safety within her room?
4. Lope de Vega, ‘Tomorrow’.
Lord, what am I, that with unceasing care
Thou did’st seek after me, that Thou did’st wait
Wet with unhealthy dews before my gate,
And pass the gloomy nights of winter there?
Let’s travel back to the early seventeenth century, and the earliest poet on this list. Lope de Vega (1562-1635) was a Spanish poet who lived at the same time as Shakespeare; indeed, in his The Genius of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate even speculated that if the Spanish Armada had been successful in 1588, Lope de Vega, rather than Shakespeare, might have become the leading Renaissance poet whose reputation eclipsed that of all other poets.
The poem we’ve chosen here from a formidable output (de Vega was certainly prolific) is given in a nineteenth-century English translation by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
5. Antonio Machado, ‘The Draw-Wheel’.
Here’s another Spanish-language poet who was born, and who lived, in Spain: Machado was born there in 1875 and grew up in Madrid. He and his brother sought careers in writing and acting when their father lost his fortune and the brothers had to make their own way in the world. He died in 1939 after leaving Spain during the Spanish Civil War.
‘The Draw-Wheel’ is a short poem that serves as the perfect introduction to Machado’s work: taking something not intrinsically ‘poetic’ and finding the beautiful poetry in the sound of the wheel as the water rushes over it.
6. Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, ‘On Leaving’.
Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (1814-73), who was born in Cuba, was a Romantic poet and playwright. So highly regarded was she in her lifetime that she acquired the sobriquet ‘the Spanish Sappho’.
This poem is about leaving behind her home country of Cuba, ‘my Eden’, as the poet describes it herself. Although grief fills her heart as she leaves her homeland, the poem is emotional without being sentimental.
7. Federico García Lorca, ‘Romance Sonámbulo’.
The Spanish poet Lorca (1898-1936) is well-known for his plays such as Blood Wedding and Yerma. But he was also a gifted poet, and this poem is one of his best-known and most widely admired.
In this poem, describing a dreamlike sleepwalk taken by the poem’s speaker, the word ‘green’ takes on an almost hypnotic quality through repetition. The original Spanish-language poem, in Lorca’s own words, is available by following the link above (which also includes an English translation).
8. Pablo Neruda, ‘A Dog Has Died’.
Just as Neruda didn’t write traditional love poems, 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.
9. Clara Janés, ‘No Truce’.
Clara Janés Nadal was born in Barcelona in 1940, so she is one of the few poets on this list to be a Spanish poet in the sense of being born in Spain and writing in the Spanish language.
In this short lyric poem, we get a host of intriguing images, which grow out from the initial one: a crystal ball. But is the serpent which comes out of the sea towards the end of the poem a threatening or liberating sign?
10. Jorge Luis Borges, ‘To the One Who Is Reading Me’.
Let’s conclude this pick of the best Spanish poems with something from the greatest Latin American writer never to win the Nobel Prize for Literature: the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986).
Borges never wrote a novel, but his short stories – many running to just a few pages – contain ideas enough for a whole book. His innovative stories are philosophical and paradoxical, often reading like essays as much as conventional short stories.
But Borges also wrote poetry, and this short poem, addressing the unknown reader (us?) now reading his work showcases his philosophical and intellectual interests. Here we find not a love poem but a poem about death and the ability of art to transcend it.