In the fourteen lines that make up "Love Sonnet 17," Pablo Neruda uses the word "love" nine times. So yeah, we're going to go ahead and call this a love poem. The fact that it's written in Spanish – a language of love – makes it all the more romantic, but it's not totally suave. In fact, it wouldn't be Neruda if it weren't a little strange: in the poem, the speaker attempts to define loves is some rather odd ways, and, well, he fails. Can't win 'em all.
The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was one of the premier South American poets of the twentieth century, and has come to be recognized as one of the most famous Spanish-speaking poets of all time. He had a gift for writing about love, a talent he first showcased in 1924 (when he was only 19!) when he published 20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair (Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada), a book that contained twenty love poems and, as you might have guessed, a song of despair.
While Neruda is best-known these days for his beautifully sensual and erotic love poetry, he did write about other things. He was active in Chilean politics for much of his life, and his poetry explores a very wide range of historical subjects, much of it tinged with his strong communist beliefs. In the 1960s, when Neruda began to be recognized in the United States, it was primarily his political poetry that brought him attention (largely because of the political turmoil in the US at the time).
"Love Sonnet 17" is part of Neruda's collection of 100 Love Sonnets, published in 1960 as Cien sonetos de amor. Neruda divided the book into four parts, Morning (Mañana), Afternoon (Mediodía), Evening (Tarde), and Night (Noche), and number 17 found its way into Morning. This sonnet, along with the other ninety-nine, was written for Matilde Urrutia, Neruda's third wife. (We're not sure if being married three times makes him more or less qualified to write about love.) But their love wasn't as pure as the poem might make it seem: Neruda actually cheated on his second wife with Urrutia. Maybe that's the secret he keeps talking about? You decide.
No matter how hard we (and every cheesy romantic comedy writer on earth) try, we can't ever seem to define love. Pablo Neruda gives it another shot in "Love Sonnet 17," but he can't seem to get it either – and he's a poet, for crying out loud. What we learn from this poem is that love is a mystery no matter how particular we get. It's not just a matter of distinguishing between love for precious gems and love for humans (which Neruda does), it's about trying to understand your own personal experience with love; and here, the speaker just can't do it. No matter how secure we are in our in our love for someone (like, say, their hands are our hands and their eyes see our dreams), that doesn't mean we can explain this love in words. We just feel it.