A Song of Despair
by Pablo Neruda
Lines 1-30 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
The memory of you emerges from the night around me.
The river mingles its stubborn lament with the sea.
- The poetic speaker remembers his beloved in the night, and listens to the sound of a river meeting the sea. He's really working this sad emo setting.
- Know what else he's working on? Some serious personification, or granting human abilities to inanimate objects (memory "emerges," and "river mingles its stubborn lament").
- First off, notice that this poem is addressed to a particular person, in this case "you." At this point we don't know who "you" is, so we'll have to keep reading to find out. Still, we think it's interesting how the speaker is addressing his (and we assume it's a he) reader directly, drawing us into the poem.
- There's also a touch of end rhyme here too, between "me" and "sea." For more on that, check out our "Form and Meter" section.
- In short, these lines set up the entire poem. We get a sad speaker, a missing person, and the presence of the sea—all the themes you need for this sob-fest poem.
Deserted like the wharves at dawn.
It is the hour of departure, oh deserted one!
- From bleak to bleaker! Or is it more bleak? Regardless, the speaker compares himself (and here we know it's a he because in the original Spanish the adjective used for "deserted" is "abandonado"—the "o" at the end tells us it is describing a man, where "abandonada" would indicate a female speaker) to the deserted piers in the morning, left behind after all the boats have shoved off. That word "like" tells us this comparison is a simile.
- The second line continues on the theme of abandonment, this time using the rhetorical device of apostrophe in an unconventional way: he addresses himself, the abandoned one! Since apostrophe is usually used to refer to something that isn't present in the poem, this usage distances the speaker from himself, showing us just how lonely he is.
- The end rhyme continues here, but actually now it's more of a slant rhyme, because, at least the way we typically pronounce them, "dawn" and "one" are a close-but-no-cigar rhyme. (And all this rhyming justifies the title, which calls this ditty a "song.")
- After we get the sea in the first couplet, it looks like the speaker might be building an extended metaphor, since here he's comparing himself now to the waves.
- Finally, notice the alliteration of the D sound: "deserted," "dawn," "departure," and again "deserted." It's a dull thud, like a guy hitting his head over and over against a wall. Of course, here we're reading the poem in translation, so we can't assume that Neruda—who wrote in Spanish, where "dawn" is "la madrugada"—intended all of these effects. But we can guess that W.S. Merwin, the English translator and himself a famous poet—had these effects in mind. (For more on translation, check out "Form and Meter" and "Sound Check.")
Cold flower heads are raining over my heart.
Oh pit of debris, fierce cave of the shipwrecked.
- These lines are a little bit ambiguous, because the image of cold flower heads raining over a heart is a, well, shall we say, unusual one? But let's think it through a little and try to understand what the metaphor is trying to say to us.
- Start with the fact that the flower heads are cold. Also, they're just the heads themselves, not the flowers (perhaps someone was playing "Mama had a baby and it's head popped off!"). Both of these facts just might remind us of death, which is a common thing to think about if you're a sad, abandoned ex-lover. (After all, death is the ultimate isolator.)
- If the dead flowers raining on the heart weren't enough, then the speaker dunks us into a "pit of debris, fierce cave of the shipwrecked." If you weren't thinking about death before, you should be feeling the water up your nose now. This guy is talking about drowning in sorrow.
- We get another apostrophe here, this time addressing the pit. Since the speaker was addressing himself as the deserted one in the previous couplet, he might be calling himself the pit here. Or he's changed the direction of his thoughts. Based on the previous line, it's also possible that he's addressing his heart, which is now a big, stinky garbage pit. It's an ambiguous point, but interesting to think about what each option would mean.
- If the poetic speaker is calling himself, or his heart, a pit (which would be pretty sad), then that gives us the idea that he's hollow and empty. If he's addressing the pit, though, it's more like he fears that place but doesn't quite identify with it.
- This is also a nice place to point out that so far the poem is written in free verse, but these two lines happen to have eleven syllables each. This is an example of metrical variation, where the poem changes its patterns out of the blue. It's basically Neruda saying, "It's my poem, I do what I want!" For more on this, check out "Form and Meter."
In you the wars and the flights accumulated.
From you the wings of the song birds rose.
- Say what? These lines really get cosmic on us. We're back to you, just like in the first couplet.
- Whoever you is, he or she is a pretty powerful being. The speaker attributes you with taking in war and flight, and being the source of songbirds' wings.
- So what could you be? We've already had the sea mentioned, and it's a vast thing that has seen its share of wars and flights. It could be the earth itself. Or it could be God, maybe. The point is we're not sure, and really can't be at this point, but we should know that whoever you is, s/he's a bad mamma jamma.
- The image of these lines really shift the focus of the poem. Instead of thinking about his poor pitiful self, the speaker is talking about you, and gigantic, powerful you seems to be very different than the abandoned speaker.
You swallowed everything, like distance.
Like the sea, like time. In you everything sank!
- Here it is! So the speaker is like an abandoned wharf (3), and you is like the sea! These similes continue our extended, nautical metaphor. So what does it mean to be like the sea? Let's check it out.
- Whoever you is, they are big, "swallow[ing] everything," like the sea. In fact, the speaker goes abstract with two of the similes, calling you enormous "like distance" and "like time."
- The sea is a pretty good simile for things as vast and inscrutable as distance and time. It's huge, scary, and can swallow up pretty much anything you throw at it (Ever try to find your sunglasses after getting hit by a wave? Yeah, the sea swallowed them.).
- The speaker's sputtering attempts to compare you to something are an example of anaphora, because he repeats the word "like" at the beginning of a few clauses in a row.
- This just gives us even more of an idea of how hard it is for him to describe this person.
It was the happy hour of assault and the kiss.
The hour of the spell that blazed like a lighthouse.
- In these lines the speaker remembers a happy time, which is nice given the dreary tone of the poem up to here.
- He brings up an assault, a kiss, and a spell. Interesting. If we had to guess we'd say he's talking about L-O-V-E.
- When the speaker says "happy hour" he's probably not talking about two-for-one drinks. Rather, he's remembering a moment when he was actually happy, and defines that moment with three images: assault, the kiss, and the spell.
- What about this idea of making assault and a kiss equal? Well, the idea of love as a battle is also a traditional one and it really brings out the physical side of love as a clash between two bodies. And the spell communicates a kind of powerful influence, as if by magic.
- That hour is also likened to a blazing lighthouse using simile. The idea of brightness after the references to darkness and dawn earlier in the poem separates the current time and its sadness from the past and its happiness. Comparing love to something that blazes is a common way to describe romantic feelings.
- These lines are important, because they give us a better idea of what the relationship was between the poetic speaker and you.
Pilot's dread, fury of a blind diver,
turbulent drunkenness of love, in you everything sank!
- These lines are addressed to you again, in another example of apostrophe. The comparison is wet and wild. The love the poetic voice refers to has more to do with the log flume than the tunnel of love.
- The "pilot" here is probably a ship's captain, because all of the images revolve around the sea. The you the poem addresses was the captain's biggest fear, something like an iceberg, or a white whale.
- You is not only terrifying—this person is also infuriating! The speaker compares her to the "fury of a blind diver," which is ambiguous, because we're not sure what exactly he's talking about. The image of a diver who can't see anything is enough to inspire panic attacks in most people, though, so the point still gets across.
- Finally the poetic voice, and it was like being on a stormy sea, drunk as a sailor.
- The final phrase, that "in you everything sank," continues the metaphor comparing you and the sea. The speaker's lover was as vast and dangerous as the sea, and it seems like he lost everything to her (we're going to assume this is a she).
In the childhood of mist my soul, winged and wounded.
Lost discoverer, in you everything sank!
- These lines continue the poetic speaker's lament about losing everything to his old lover (he's pretty broken up!).
- The first line of the couplet goes back to the time of their affair, calling it ¨the childhood of mist.¨ This gives the love a sense of innocence and also mystery, and lets us know that he's going back in time, remembering.
- In another metaphor, he compares his soul (or is it childhood he's comparing?) to a flying creature, calling it "winged and wounded," perhaps like a broken-down sea gull. And what happens to a wounded, winged thing in the sea? Grab your Kleenex—it's probably going to sink and drown.
- The speaker goes on to call his love a "lost discoverer," like one of those ship's captains who sailed off the edge of the earth and never came back. And finally, she is the all-swallowing sea again, the metaphor now becoming an epistrophe(that's fancy-talk for words that are repeated at the end of successive lines): "in you everything sank!"
- These lines give us a little bit more information as to what we're dealing with—the love is an old one, from the speaker's childhood. That relationship with time will probably be useful for understanding the poem as a whole, so let's not forget it!
You girdled sorrow, you clung to desire,
sadness stunned you, in you everything sank!
- So the speaker here is telling his old lover that she was kind of a Debbie Downer. She was all about pain and suffering, and took everyone around her down with her.
- The poem turns the abstract concepts of sorrow, desire, and sadness into concrete objects in these lines. The lover girdled—or wrapped around—sorrow, like it were a tree trunk or a person; she clung to desire like a castaway clings to a raft.
- The whole thing works to keep up the extended metaphor comparing the lover to the ocean. (If this is getting too depressing for you, check out this happy version of ocean life.)
- The lover was also stunned by sadness, which is interesting, because we thought our speaker was the one with the big sad face on. Maybe the you of the poem felt similarly—before she ripped the speaker's heart out, that is.
- Too, check out the consonance in these lines, with lots of whispering, whooshing S sounds: "sorrow," "sadness," "stunned," "sank." All those S sounds might make the reader think of the wind over the sea or even waves crashing. (For more on the sounds of the English translation of this poem, check out "Sound Check.")
- The lines end up with that old, familiar epistrophe: "in you everything sank!" It sounds like this girl was very powerful and made it hard for the people around her to be happy. Bummer.
I made the wall of shadow draw back,
beyond desire and act, I walked on.
- But enough about you… how about me? In these lines the speaker finally quits talking about how his lover was a horrible, shipwrecking ocean and gets back to his own actions. The language is kind of mysterious, but lets us know that he broke free of something that was holding him back.
- The image of a wall made out of shadow might make us think that he's still talking about depression, like a wall that isn't real, but whose darkness can still hold us back. Either that or he was really into playing Magic: The Gathering. In either case, the speaker was able to gain some power over this negative force, and made it move ("draw") back, both from his feelings ("desire") and his actions.
- These lines give us a clue as to what brought on the big loss in this poem. It seems like the speaker must have walked away from his lover, who was busy clutching sadness and desire, while he himself left desire behind.
Oh flesh, my own flesh, woman whom I loved and lost,
I summon you in the moist hour, I raise my song to you.
- Here the speaker calls out to his lost lover by singing to her. He must have heard that chicks dig musicians.
- The first part of this stanza is a biblical reference to when Adam at last sees his brand-new girlfriend, Eve. (For more on that reference, check out the "Shout-Outs" section.) Once again, the speaker's going back in time in thinking about his relationship.
- But before you get all lovey-dovey, though, read the rest of that line: the woman here was loved and lost. (Hey! That's some alliteration!). So that theme of loss keeps coming up to the surface in this poem.
- The speaker says he summons up his lost love, kind of like you would summon a spirit or a ghost, in the "moist hour." We think that might be poet-speak for dawn, because that's when everything is nice and dewy. Also, remember back in line 3 that we're talking early morning in this lonely poem.
- The speaker "raise[s]" his song, like one would raise a glass for a toast. This is more than a just a toast, though. This song is raised in terms of the speaker's voice being raised up to the lover.
Like a jar you housed the infinite tenderness,
and the infinite oblivion shattered you like a jar.
- The poet's girlfriend reminds him of a jar (not exactly a Coke-bottle figure, but, hey, the guy is too depressed to come up with a nice comparison), because she was full of tenderness but also shattered because she was overfilled with oblivion.
- What does that mean? Good question. The lover here was a like vessel (it's, like, a simile). She could be filled up with mushy stuff like love and tenderness, but she was also fragile and ended up being shattered.
- Did you notice how the first phrase of the first line is the same as the last phrase of the second line? And how the adjective "infinite" is repeated in both lines?
- If so, good job! That's an example of chiasmus, a structure where a line is repeated but the order is switched around. The reversal shows how the lover's infinite capacity for love was also dangerous for her and ended up breaking her.
There was the black solitude of the islands,
and there, woman of love, your arms took me in.
- Up to here we've been getting descriptions of a time, and now these lines start to zero in on a place. Instead of "when," the speaker talks about "there" and—surprise, surprise—the "there" has to do with the sea.
- One interesting thing about the description of the islands where the speaker and his lover used to get together is that they are called "black," "the black solitude of the islands." Trivia alert! Years after writing this poem, Neruda would settle into a beach house at "Isla Negra" ("Black Island") on the Chilean coast and live and write there.
- But, since the whole "Isla Negra" thing was years away, we have to wonder why the solitude of the islands is described as "black" in this poem. In general images of darkness aren't the happiest ones in literature, and, when you throw in the solitude, you get the feeling that the islands here are more along the lines of Lost than Gilligan.
- The woman who has been getting a pretty bad rap up to here (she makes everything sink, remember) is shown in a nicer light in these lines. After all, we don't think that it's just her arms that the speaker is on about here. Instead, we've got some synecdoche on our hands, or using a part (the arms) to represent the whole (the woman). She's the "woman of love" (at last our suspicions of the gender of "you" are confirmed), and was once a refuge to the poetic speaker when he was in the black solitude of the islands.
There were thirst and hunger, and you were the fruit.
There were grief and the ruins, and you were the miracle.
- What a woman: she gave the speaker everything he needed in the hard times. These lines repeat that "there" line from line 25, so we can assume we're still talking about the lonely islands. And they must have been deserted islands: the poetic voice was thirsty, hungry, grieving, and ruined. Bummer! But wait! This woman was his fruit and his miracle!
- The structure of these lines represents parallelism, because they repeat the same structure: "There were x, and you were the y." Here the parallelism emphasizes how the woman fulfilled the speaker's needs. It's also another example of anaphora, with the repeated ¨There were¨ line openings that give the poem a song-like quality (which, you know, makes sense because… psst… read the title!).
Ah woman, I do not know how you could contain me
in the earth of your soul, in the cross of your arms!
- The speaker is amazed that his lover could hold him in her soul and her arms. Maybe he's a giant, or maybe he just has a big personality.
- The first line is another example of apostrophe, because it directly addresses the woman who isn't present in the poem. (That "Ah" is a good warning that an apostrophe is coming up, by the way, and "Oh"s and "O"s work well too.)
- Remember way back in lines 23-24 when the speaker compared the woman to a jar? Well, here we get her as a container, someone who is filled up by her lover. This is a metaphor that is fairly common in the poetic tradition. So why a woman is like a vessel that contains her man?
- Well, the woman here is given a natural quality when the speaker refers to the "earth of your soul," but we doubt he's calling her soul dirty. Comparisons between women and the earth are also pretty traditional (think Mother Earth!), because the connection brings up ideas of fertility.
- The "cross of your arms" was also surprisingly big enough for the speaker to fit in, so this brings to mind an embrace. At the same time, though, we're also reminded of the suffering that the cross represents in Christian tradition. The woman here is being connected to the idea of martyrdom, or righteous suffering.
- Man. Things are not looking good for this speaker's girlfriend…
- Oh, and did you notice the anaphora in thesecond line? ("In the" is repeated.) These repetitions are giving the poem a cadence that lets it live up to its title, "A Song of Despair."