Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
I do not love you as though you were the salt-rose, topaz
Or the carnation-arrow begot in flames.
- This "love sonnet" opens with the speaker talking to his paramour (another word for lover). We don’t know if he’s talking to his wife, or girlfriend, or boyfriend, or illicit lover.
- Neruda did dedicate the Love Sonnets, however, to his wife Matilde Urrutia, so we can guess that he’s speaking to her.
- In any case, this is considered a direct address: the speaker uses the second person point of view to speak directly to the addressee of the poem.
- First, the speaker describes the ways in which he does not love this woman. Interesting strategy, but it will definitely provide some contrast for what comes later.
- Salt-rose most likely refers to a type of rose that grows near the ocean (and salt water, hence the name) and is especially resistant to a number of diseases roses commonly suffer. It is also sometimes called the rosa rugosa, or salt spray rose.
- Topaz is a mineral that comes in a variety of colors: reddish orange, yellow, bluish-brown. It's usually quite pretty.
- "Carnation-arrow begot in flames" is a tricky phrase. The speaker is describing, in a very poetic way, the brightness of a carnation (a type of flower). He compares looking at the flower to seeing an shiny arrow that's flaming like fire.
- We should tell you that translators sometimes get this whole carnation thing wrong. It is common to see it rendered as "or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off." This really just isn’t correct. The Spanish reads "O flecha de claveles que propagan el fuego," which literally means, "or the arrow of carnations that spread/propagate fire."
- Now that we know what all our natural references are, what does the speaker mean by it all? Basically, he is saying that his love for his paramour is not the same as the love one has for beautiful things like precious metals and flowers. Seems pretty self-explanatory, but it gets more complicated as the poem continues.
- Because roses and carnations are are common symbols of love and affection, the speaker might also be using this as a way to show the uniqueness of his love. His love isn't any old rose or carnation. What is it then?
I love you as are loved certain dark things,
In secret, between shadow and soul.
- Now the speaker starts to describe the way in which he does love his paramour. He loves her the way people love "dark things," "in secret, between shadow and soul."
- This is all very strange: what, exactly, are "dark things"? We don’t know, and the speaker doesn’t tell us, but it sounds like he’s talking about something sinister, something you wouldn’t admit to loving.
- "Between shadow and soul" doesn’t help us much either: he's talking about the place where these dark things are loved, but we're not sure exactly where it is.
- This secret place is external (like a shadow) but also deep down inside (like a soul). Confusing, but at least it sounds really cool. Hmmm, maybe that’s the point.
- It's also possible that Neruda is actually talking about loving someone in secret – like an affair. He allegedly cheated on his second wife with Matilde Urrutia (who this poem is about), so it could be that secret just means secret. Plain and simple.
- If that's the case, then the gap between shadow and soul might represent the conflict between the impossibility of hiding his love (like a shadow, which is there whether you like it or not) and the secrecy of his feelings (which he keeps hidden in his soul).