On Neruda's Sonnet 18

Written in 2007

Pablo Neruda starts by dismissing traditional or conventional ways of loving:

‘as if you were a rose of salt topaz.’

The ‘rose of salt’ could mean a pure white rose symbolising the supposed purest, truest form of love. Topaz is a yellow precious stone, perhaps symbolising extravagance. These colourful, easy images give a somewhat easy to define idea of what love, according to the poet, is not.

‘Or arrow of carnations that propagate fire’

Arrow of carnations could be the pointy ends of the petals of these flowers, or the poet could be using it as a pun on ‘a row’ of carnations. Propagating fire could refer to the shape or colour of the petals or the effect they have on him. Carnations are worn on special occasions to enhance a woman’s beauty, perhaps evoking a passion within him. A link can also be made between ‘arrow’ and ‘fire’. His love isn’t derived from Cupid, nor does it cause the burning pain of jealousy.

The use of bright images in these two lines suggests an open, normal, perhaps cliché type of ‘love’ which Neruda dismisses.

‘I love you as one loves certain dark things

Secretly, between the shadow and the soul’.

He affirms that he loves her quietly just as it would be to love things not supposed to be loved. He loves her secretly reinforcing a contrast between the bright colours of the first two lines and the darkness suggested in the second two. His love for her is beyond superficial plain colours.

‘Between the shadow and the soul’ bring in various hues between the shadow, which is dark, and the pure light of the soul. Though this seems like a contrast in itself, there is a difference between the bright light of the soul and the other colours; white and yellow. There is an infinite depth to the soul, an intangibility to a shadow and an undefinable element to both, a sense of formlessness.

In the next verse, he says he loves her as

‘the plant that doesn’t bloom and carries

The light of those flowers, hidden, within itself,’

 It is to be noted here that Neruda doesn’t use similes. All imagery in this sonnet are direct.

The woman becomes a gentle plant. The fact that she doesn’t bloom suggests that the poet loves her inner beauty which isn’t expressed outwardly. The words ‘hidden within itself’ suggest an exclusiveness that they share – what’s within her only he knows. The ‘light’ of the flowers connects back to the light of the soul. The poet deliberately avoids the mention of colours are they are merely perceptions of reflections whereas light is direct, an energy.

‘And thanks to your love’ reveals that she too loves him, ‘the tight aroma that rose from the earth’ refers to the plant full of unexpressed fragrance, ‘lives in my body in darkness’ is in him. Here he becomes the earth in which this gentle plant has sprouted, still ‘in the dark’ perhaps about the world which is undeserving of her blossoms, but is full of light and aroma in itself.

Neruda brings out the absolution in which love is a dynamic constant. They are each other. They grow in each other and remain one in all the forms they take. The poet uses the word as a form of a feeling. ‘Love’ here isn’t restricted to simply romance. It takes on layers of meanings.

From the third verse on, the poet uses no more abstract imagery. He means exactly what he says and there is no other way to say it. To understand that direct language in its full meaning is difficult, for he is talking about a love which is not conventional. He doesn’t know ‘how’ he loves her; what name to give it. He doesn’t know ‘when’ because time doesn’t feel linear to him, it is more an absolute instant where every moment is forever. Nor does he know ‘from where’ he loves her. There is no source. He loves her ‘directly without problems or pride’, straightforward with no ego involved. He loves her like this because he doesn’t ‘know  any other way to love.’

He elucidates on this ‘way’ of love in the last verse. This is what I perceive to be the most powerful and accurate verse. A feeling that I thought would never be put into words to do justice to the fullness of its meaning, has been expressed here.

‘Except in this form in which I am not nor are you’

It is that feeling where, to put it in the best way I can, there are no separate entities. They exist, yet don’t exist at the same time, as one. The poet changes the meaning of ‘close’ in the last two lines, redefining it as the feeling where what is physically her hand on his chest is actually his, and her eyes close with his dreams.

When one has a fever and touches the hand to the neck, confusion is possible as to which one is warmer. This occurs because the land and the neck are of the same body. This analogy maybe used to explain how ‘one’ they are.

This poem isn’t romantic. It doesn’t paint rosy pictures of love. Though this poem may have been intended to be read with a man and woman in mind, there is an element of unconditionality about it. Why, it could be from a mother to her new-born, taking into account the analogies of the plant in the earth, the physical oneness they feel and the fact that the love is without pride. It could even be from a spiritual person to god.

Every time it is read, the poem reveals more ideas and interpretations.. It starts from being a love sonnet to a philosophical description of an absolute, unconditional, universal love on all possible scales. This feeling of oneness may occur between two lovers, best friends, a group or with the whole world where one is everything and the universe is all one. Yet each part of it is a miniature within the same pattern as the rest of it and everything as a whole. We are all connected by that oneness. We are all of the same, in the same.


See also