Pablo Neruda’s relationship with Spain examined through his focus on the concrete particulars of daily life


Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s poetry has been inextricably linked to the politics of Spain, a land which he accepts and loves as his foster-country, and for which he fought in the Spanish Civil War, espousing the Republican cause. His collection of poems titled Spain in Our Hearts [1], written amidst the bloodstained frenzy of the war, articulated in detail the terrible fate Spain had met with from despotic generals, landlords and clergymen. His famous lines from I Explain a Few Things [2] – “You will ask: / why does your poetry not speak to us of sleep, of the leaves, / of the great volcanoes of your native land? / Come and see the blood in the streets” – exhibit his passionate sympathy with the vast multitudes of people killed, maimed and displaced from their homes as a result of the war. By rejecting the audience’s plea to write about “sleep”, “leaves” and “great volcanoes” he makes it clear that poetry is meant to shock and awaken the reader to the violent reality of global politics, and not pacify or lull one into peaceful oblivion with serene images. Neruda’s voice was aimed at being representative of the voice of the working class, of peasants and factory workers, and of ordinary people whose perspectives are often obliterated from the domain of politics and history. He assumes a duty to communicate his sentiments to the public and make politics accessible to the common man, which is why he chooses to write in simple words, dealing with the varieties of everyday life through tomatoes and toothaches, with old shoes, haircuts and artichokes. As critic Roland Bleiker notes, Neruda wrote “for simple habitants who request water and moon, elements of the immutable order, schools, bread and wine, guitars and tools”. [3] Neruda is associated with Spain not only through his participation in the Civil War, but also through an acute consciousness of belonging to a country colonised by Spanish invaders and a deep understanding of the imprint colonisation left on Latin American society and culture. It is through Chile, his mother country that he begins to love and respect Spain and is appreciative of the mixing of cultures and races as a result of Chile’s colonial past.


The varieties of everyday life that Neruda’s poetry explores; illustrated by Julie Paschkis

In his poem The Way Spain Was [4] from the Third Residence, he mourns the evanescence of Spain’s rich, glorious past and recounts the tragedy that has befallen its people owing to Fascist forces which he refers to as “an imbecile God”. Life has been made tedious – “a day’s drum of dull sound”, and the land is now “taut and dry” under the “lashing weather” of conflict and strife. Neruda makes clear to the reader the vulnerable position of Spain and simultaneously asserts his sympathy and solidarity with its “barren soil”, “rough bread” and “stricken people”. Widespread poverty among the farmers and labourers has resulted in harsh circumstances and a lack of food and comfort. According to Neruda, the Spaniard has a bittersweet existence, witnessing on one hand the beauty of Spanish culture, language, art, food and terrain, and on the other, deplorable poverty and violence. It is for this reason that he fuses together “harsh wine and sweet wine”, illustrating the two flavours of Spain and describes its vineyards as both violent and delicate. Spain has been made to follow a downward trajectory, starting from a point in history where it was rich with mineral deposit which Neruda describes as “bulging like oldsters under the moon”, to the present day where it is “veined with blood and metals”. As critic Ajanta Dutt aptly posits, “The softness and violence always interconnected are most vividly presented in the final image of ‘petals and bullets’ where the incorporation of the word ‘proletariat’ affirms that Neruda is fighting for a cause. Neruda avers his love for the land and promises never to forget the beauty of life that once characterised Spain – “the lost flower of your villages” [5].

Neruda is unequivocally a chronicler of the Spanish Civil War, a mirror of society, but at the same time understands that reflection alone does not suffice as a political memoir. He is of the belief that to write poetry of political value, he has to, as critic Bleiker claims, “distort visions in order to challenge the entrenched forms of representations that have come to circumscribe our understanding of socio-political reality”. His task as a poet is to develop new ways of viewing familiar objects, opening up the reader to more possibilities and perspectives. His poetic ambition is to shatter the ideologically naturalised image of the world in order to allow multiplicities to emerge and for poetry to be able to provide new solutions to old dilemmas. In addition, Neruda is well aware of the necessity of any political communicator to be accessible to the masses if he or she wishes to actively engage in struggles that shape societal dynamics. This is why he sought to write in the language of everyday life. Simultaneously however, he was also conscious of the need to break through existing linguistic habits in order to shock the reader out of complacence, which is why his verses, though simple in language, are fragmented and complex in structure. Neruda’s “shock therapy” can be seen played out in his poem Ars Poetica[6] where he juxtaposes the crude against the beautiful to illustrate how an inquiring mind may help us see old things in new ways. This in turn may help the reader in engendering more critical, more tolerant and more ethical approaches to global politics. Ars Poetica describes a scene in a haunted house where people are intoxicated beyond the point of consciousness and the “stench of clothes scattered on the floor” in that haunted house awakens in the poet “a yearning” for the sweet-smelling flowers. Neruda brings together contrasting images of stench and sweet fragrance as well as disjunct ones like “young girls and garrisons” to achieve his purpose. He also hints at the uncertainties and fragmentation of a country like Chile in the aftermath of the violence of colonisation through disjoint sentences and phrases like “a bell cracked a little”, “a mirror tarnished”, “a lurch of objects calling without answers”, and “the unbounded expanse of night collapsing in my bedroom.” The struggle of a country colonised is compared with “a grief-maddened widower bereft of a lifetime”. Ars Poetica which can be loosely translated as The Art of Poetry reveals that the premise of poetry is not just pleasant, beautiful objects and emotions. In other words, not just an ode to the beauty of life as viewed from the sheltered living rooms of the upper classes.  Rather, poetry ought to see beyond the pleasant and the harmonious in order to grasp the complexities of life, its ups and downs, its frustrations and hopes. As critics have oft pointed out, Neruda spent much of his life trying to dispel the widespread perception that poetry is a mere entrance key to the society of high culture, a pleasant distraction for those who have the leisure to pursue verse-based fantasies, for those whose privileged education has rendered the obscure style of poems accessible. [7]Neruda expressed this ambition of his in an essay on impure poetry: “Let [this] be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand’s obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades that we love by, inside the law or beyond it. A poetry impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behaviour, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, declarations of loathing and love, idylls and beasts, the shocks of encounter, political loyalties, denials and doubts, affirmation and taxes.” [8]

672c4a874e4aa8c610190d766de9117e.jpgAnother great example of Neruda’s use of the disjoint, fragmented style to explore political tensions is Ode to the Tomato [9] from his Elementary Odes. The ode is a pictorial description of a salad which is an essential component of the midday meal in both his motherland Chile and his foster country Spain. As “light breaks in two tomato halves” which are representative of the two hemispheres of the world to which the two countries Chile and Spain belong, the making of a salad is initiated where the tomato blends beautifully with other ingredients like the blonde onion, olive oil, pimento, parsley and potatoes, suggesting a cheerful, delectable blending of Spanish and Chilean culture. According to critic Ajanta Dutt, “the melting pot of culture of America has now been replaced by the concept of the salad bowl where all te colours can mix without any losing their original shape, form, individuality and identity.” Preceding this union of vegetables and flavours is however, a violent fratricide and bloodshed in Chile because of civil strife and dictatorship. The act of cutting the tomato read like an actual murder – “the knife sinks into living flesh, red viscera” – symbolic of the political strife and violence of colonisation. However, the divisive forces have not succeeded in splitting the nation for the spirit of camaraderie runs “through the streets”. The tomato is an important agricultural produce of Latin America and of Spain, often a symbol of revelry and carnivalesque owing to the Tomatina and by using the image of the tomato to comment on complex political themes, Neruda reaches out to his readers and creates a picture of cohesiveness and unity in the face of divisiveness and the variety of races in Chile. Neruda’s works fulfil the original function of poetry as critical societal memory. Just as he uses the everyday object of a salad to connect with the public, he also describes his country in its basic, simplistic physical form with phrases like, “my thin country” and “silence lies in its long line” with the same agenda. The descriptions of Chile’s physical form indicate its fragility and vulnerability against the powerful invaders in his poem Discoverers of Chile [10]. And with these apt descriptions, conveys to the common reader the story of how the natives were made to merge their own history and culture with that of the colonial masters. Neruda’s simplicity is his greatest strength and it is through his verses accessible to the masses that the values and struggles of an epoch will been conveyed to subsequent generations.

Neruda’s poetry is therefore intertwined with the culture and politics of Spain and therefore by extension, that of Latin America as well. He acts as a mediator between complex political thought and the collective consciousness of the general public through simplistic verse which employs relatable themes and images.

[1] Neruda, P. 1937. Spain in Our Hearts. Online.

[2] Neruda, P. 1937. I Explain a Few Things. Online.

[3] Bleiker, R. 1999. ‘Pablo Neruda and the Struggle for Political Memory’. Third World Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 6, pp. 1129-1142. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

[4] Neruda, P. 1947. ‘The Way Spain Was’. Third Residence. Online.

[5] Dutt, A. 2016. Introduction to Neruda, Walcott and Atwood: Poets of the Americas. Worldview Critical Edition.

[6] Neruda, P. 1933. ‘Ars Poetica’. Residence on the Earth. Online.

[7] Ryan-Kobler, M. 2000. ‘Pablo Neruda’s “Arte Poética”: At the Prophetic Crossroads’. Revista Hispánica Moderna, Año 53, No. 2, pp. 439-448. University of Pennsylvania Press.

[8] Neruda, P. 1935. Toward an Impure Poetry. Online.

[9] Neruda, P. 1954. ‘Ode to the Tomato’. Elementary Odes. Online.

[10] Neruda, P. 1950. ‘Discoverers of Chile’. Canto General. Online.


Also published on the online literary journal O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: