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A Song of Despair

A Song of Despair

by Pablo Neruda

Lines 31-58 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 31-32

How terrible and brief was my desire of you!
How difficult and drunken, how tensed and avid.

  • Now the speaker is feeling guilty about his desire for his lost lover. He is really torn up about it, but it's a little too late for that. 
  • The parallelism party continues in these lines, with the "How x and y" over and over, describing the speaker's desire.
  • All of these intense adjectives let us know that the love the speaker felt for the woman was super-intense at the time—and not always in a good way ("terrible," "difficult," and "tensed"). Luckily, though, this also meant that it faded fast ("brief").

Lines 33-34

Cemetery of kisses, there is still fire in your tombs,
still the fruited boughs burn, pecked at by birds.

  • And in case you thought those two crazy kids had a chance at making it in this life, these lines bring it all crashing down. The love affair is compared to a burning cemetery, which is almost as romantic as "roses are red, violets are blue," but not quite.\
  • The speaker addresses the woman directly again, this time calling her a "cemetery of kisses." Now that's the metaphor that every girl wants to hear describe her. That and the "tombs" make it clear that the love is ding-dong dead. However, the fire in the tombs might mean that the passion lives on even though the lovers are no longer together.
  • The burning continues in the next line, but this time they're the branches of fruit trees burning. Remember that comparison of woman to the earth and the fertility it conjures up in line 30? Well, here the fruits (signs of fertility, new life, reproduction—you get the picture) are burning. So whatever future the lovers had together is likewise going up in flames.
  • And finally the burning boughs are being pecked at by birds, the ultimate image of death and decomposition (think vultures). Man, this is not exactly an uplifting image.

Lines 35-36

Oh the bitten mouth, oh the kissed limbs,
oh the hungering teeth, oh the entwined bodies.

  • Is it us, or is it getting hot in here? These lines get into the physical particulars of what the love was like before it went up in smoke.
  • We probably don't have to tell you that this is another example of anaphora: "Oh the… ," "oh the… ," "oh the…" The song continues and the rhythm of the repetitions is speeding up to match the racy content.
  • Check out the way that the poet uses adjectives in these lines. Instead of describing actions, which would give this image a more immediate feeling, he uses past participles (the mouth was "bitten," the limbs were "kissed") that let us know that all of this hot and heavy stuff happened in the past and is now over. So the mouth isn't biting, it's bitten, and the bodies aren't entwining, they're entwined. It's all over, folks.

Lines 37-38

Oh the mad coupling of hope and force
in which we merged and despaired.

  • The speaker remembers the wild days when he and his lover were together, but it's got a mix of, well, despair (the title is starting to really make sense here) thrown in. 
  • The anaphora from lines 35-36 continues with the "oh the" here, and that building rhythm of repetition finally melts into the despair of the title.
  • Also notice the parallelism in the last part of each line—"hope and force" and "merged and despaired." This neatly ties the words "hope" and "merged" together—the two lovers coming together as one was a hopeful act—and the words "force" and "despaired"—the power of their love and their actions has to do with the hopelessness of their love ending.

Lines 39-40

And the tenderness, light as water and as flour.
And the word scarcely begun on the lips.

  • After the crazy love of the previous lines, things get nice and gentle here as the speaker uses a simile to describe the quiet tenderness he felt for his now-lost lover.
  • These lines compare the way the lovers treated each other—tenderly—with light things like… wait a minute. Since when are water and flour light? Maybe water is light because it's transparent and reflective, and flour can be light as long as it's not in a ten-pound sack, but these images are unexpected. 
  • The speaker seems to have a harder time describing these quiet, loving moments than he does the wild, violent ones. What does that tell us about the way he remembers this whole love affair? In fact, notice the way that this tenderness is compared to a word that isn't finished. He literally can't find the way to describe it!

Lines 41-42

This was my destiny and in it was the voyage of my longing,
and in it my longing fell, in you everything sank!

  • The speaker says that the tenderness he felt with his long-lost lover was his destiny, but that he lost everything in that destiny. Hate when that happens!
  • We've got that anaphora going steady still, keeping the song moving along with the "in it" beginning these phrases. Also notice the repetition of the word "longing," emphasizing the desire the speaker is remembering.
  • And just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, that old epistrophe attacks again: "in you everything sank!" The poem returns to the metaphor of the woman as a dangerous sea that swallows everything up, including the speaker's longing.

Lines 43-44

Oh pit of debris, everything fell into you,
what sorrow did you not express, in what sorrow are you not drowned!

  • No more tenderness for you, missy! The speaker picks up one of his favorite metaphors, this time describing his lover as a "pit of debris" (doesn't he know what to say to make a girl blush!) and equates her with sorrow.
  • The "Oh pit of debris" is an apostrophe that's repeated from line 6, and underlines the idea that the woman is a gigantic emptiness, sucking everything up. 
  • Also check out the repetition of "sorrow," which kind of turns the idea of sadness inside out: the woman expresses sorrow, but it is also something that can drown her. It's both inside and outside of her.

Lines 45-46

From billow to billow you still called and sang.
Standing like a sailor in the prow of a vessel.

  • In another nautical comparison, the woman is compared to a sailor standing on a ship, singing and calling through the smoke or wind or waves. This might make us think of the sirens or mermaids who called the sailors to their doom with their beautiful songs. 
  • The speaker compares his singing lover to a sailor using a simile. This connects her to the sea even more, and makes her seem strong as she stands (the "prow" is the front part of the ship) and sings as the ship tosses around.

Lines 47-48

You still flowered in songs, you still broke in currents.
Oh pit of debris, open and bitter well.

  • The speaker can't seem to make up his mind. He piles on descriptions of his lover that are very beautiful and then very negative. One minutes she's flowering in songs, the next she's a pit of debris (or turning his heart into one). Confusing!
  • The anaphora continues from line 45, repeating "you still" and describing all the things that the lover did: flower (bloom) in songs, break in currents (to move freely like a river). The connection between the woman and water is very strong here.
  • That pit of debris is back, and now the speaker calls his lover (or his own heart) an open and bitter well, as though she were a poisonous source of water.
  • She is beautiful, but dangerous, like the sea—or maybe a Bond girl.

Lines 49-50

Pale blind diver, luckless slinger,
lost discoverer, in you everything sank!

  • That blind diver is back. This time, the addressed of the poem is also a "luckless slinger" and a "lost discoverer." 
  • These addresses are all examples of apostrophe, in which the poetic speaker addresses the woman using epithets, terms that describe a person and take the place of their name. (Aren't you glad your classmates haven't nicknamed you the "pale blind diver" or "luckless slinger"?) 
  • All of these terms describe someone who looks for or aims for something but fails, due to blindness, bad luck, or a poor sense of direction. We're starting to think that falling in love with the speaker might have been her first mistake!

Lines 51-52

It is the hour of departure, the hard cold hour
which the night fastens to all the timetables.

  • So, we're back to talking about time after lots of talk about place. The speaker is talking about how cold he when all the ships leave port. This gives the lines a really desolate feeling of abandonment and loneliness.
  • Notice the personification of night, which makes night into a sort of port authority, fastening the "cold hour" (i.e., the time of the speaker's abandonment) to the ship's timetable. 
  • We like to imagine night wearing a jaunty captain's hat. Maybe even some epaulets!

Lines 53-54

The rustling belt of the sea girdles the shore.
Cold stars heave up, black birds migrate.

  • These lines describe the seashore, and it's a fairly bleak, cold scene, complete with gloomy black birds. 
  • The sea is compared to a belt in a metaphor, and notice the echo of the verb "girdles." Remember back in line 17, where the lover is described as "girdl[ing] sorrow"? This repetition of the verb that was first used for the woman and is now used for the sea reinforces the connection between woman and ocean that has run throughout this poem.
  • The stars are compared to ships as they "heave up," as though they were weighing anchor and setting sail along with the black birds. Everything is setting off, leaving the speaker all to his lonesome. Sad.

Lines 55-56

Deserted like the wharves at dawn.
Only the tremulous shadow twists in my hands.

  • The speaker has a pity party in these lines, and feels deserted and lonely.
  • The first line repeats line three, bringing us full circle back to the beginning of the poem. The speaker compares himself to the empty wharves using a simile, and lets us know just how empty he feels by saying that the only thing he has to hold is a shadow. 
  • The shadow is probably a metaphor for the memory of the lost lover. His hands are empty, because she's gone, but the souvenir of his thoughts is still there.

Line 57

Oh farther than everything. Oh farther than everything.

  • The repetition in this line is a sort of lament that winds down the whole song of despair. It's unclear exactly what is farther than everything, because the speaker doesn't say, but it might be the woman, or his memory, or their love.

Line 58

It is the hour of departure. Oh abandoned one. 

  • Here the poetic speaker addresses himself again, just like he did way back in line 4, calling himself abandoned. He's feeling pretty sorry for himself.
    The line (and the poem) ends things up with an apostrophe: "Oh abandoned one." Translation trivia: In the original Spanish, lines 4 and 58 are identical, but the translator decided to use "deserted" in line 4 in the English version, and "abandoned" in this last line. What is the effect of that decision? For more on such choices, check out "Form and Meter."

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