It ain't called "A Song of Despair" for nothin'! This poem really wails. It's a sad song, a breakup song, a lament. This guy has got the blues and he is letting it out musically.
Of course, when you talk about the sound of this poem, it's crucial to realize that there are two sets of sounds to think about: the sound of the Spanish original, and the sound of the English translation. In both cases, though, both Neruda and his English translator, W.S. Merwin, give our ears a lot to chew on (if you can imagine that image).
For example, there is a lot of repetition here that might remind you of a song's chorus, like "Oh pit of debris" or "In you everything sank!" The way those phrases keep coming back—in English or Spanish—marks them as refrains, or key ideas that this poem is trying to underscore for the reader or listener.
Then there's the alliteration. Many of the lines repeat the S sound, which reminds us of the sound of waves sizzling over the sand:
The river mingles its stubborn lament with the sea. (2)
Now, this doesn't translate exactly from the Spanish, but there is alliteration in the original Spanish version, too. Check it out. The same line quoted above in Spanish is:
El río anuda al mar su lamento obstinado.
While we may not have as much S-alliteration in the Spanish version, we still have sound to consider here. In this case, you get much more assonance with the repeating A (ah) sound, which might make us think of someone crying, or sighing.
In short, whether it's the Spanish original, or Merwin's pretty faithful translation, this poem uses sound to remind us that it's a song, meant to be heard aloud. As well, those sounds that find its listeners' ears subtly reinforce its key ideas, however sad and lonely they may be.
The title of the poem is famous, partially because the title of the super-bestselling book in which it was first published is 20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair. It's like the love poems are opening for the headliner, "A Song of Despair."
The poem has a lot of songlike qualities like repetition and, in the original Spanish version, almost all of the lines have 14 syllables, giving it a nice rhythm. The Spanish version also has assonant rhyme in every single even line, so the title of "song" makes more and more sense all the time. See "Form and Meter" for more on this.
It's interesting that the collection of love poems, which are really mushy, ends with this sad, hopeless song. That gives you an idea of the overall message of the poet, who ends not only this poem, but also his entire collection with the line, "It is the hour of departure. Oh abandoned one." Despair indeed.
Should we think of this as undoing the work of all the love poems that come before the "A Song of Despair"? Probably not. In fact, this poem is just as romantic and lovelorn as the best of the love poems. The collection really does all fit together in tone and message, but the "Song" comes at the end almost as a coda, or an epilogue, that reinforces just how strong the feelings are in the love poems.
This poem doesn't give us very many specifics when it comes to its setting. We do know that it's nighttime, and that we're near the docks—the perfect place to dump a body, do some illegal business, or mourn your lost love.
The wharves, the river meeting the sea, and the sea itself are all big parts of the geographical setting, and are really important for the metaphor the poem builds up around the woman as the dangerous sea ("in you everything sank!") and the speaker as a shipwrecked captain, who is "Deserted like the wharves at dawn" (2).
The mental environment, however, is a whole other can of worms. The speaker's mind is full of sadness and despair, and he can't shake thoughts of his lost love, which consume him the same way she consumes everything:
You swallowed everything, like distance.
Like the sea, like time. In you everything sank! (9-10)
And so, whether we're in the metaphorical seas of the woman's descriptions, or the speaker's own tortured imagination, the setting is shaped by the abandonment and despair, continually reminding us of the speaker's heartbreak. As they say, it may be a nice place to visit, but…
Our speaker is a real mopey guy, and can't shake his broken heart. The way he talks lets us know he's a he (In the original Spanish, the adjectives are masculine ones. For example, line 3 reads "Abandonado como los muelles en el alba." "Abandonado" ends in O, which tells us that it is describing a man who is abandoned.)
Other than that, we don't know his race, what he looks like, or even his job or social class. The poem really only lets us in on one fact about our speaker, which is really the focus of the entire poem: He's all hung up on his lost lover, and that's pretty much all he can think about. You might even say that our speaker is a bit obsessive, going back and forth about his lost love, his loneliness, and the woman who left him. Well, he goes on about that, and the sea—but of course it only reminds him of her. Bummer.
Breakin' up is hard to do, and this poem isn't that easy either. The figurative language could leave you wondering what the poem was about if you don't read carefully, but once you dive into the metaphors you'll really feel for the speaker and appreciate the effort it took for him to render his heartbreak so beautifully for the rest of us.
Neruda is famous for his love poems, and usually these are told from one perspective: the dude's. The girls are distant and cold, like statues or objects. It's the fellas that take center stage, much like in "A Song of Despair," in which the male speaker is often seen as having been harmed by the cruel, callous woman. Of course, that's nothing new for anyone familiar with Neruda's work. The way the speaker talks about his lost love, as a dangerous, fierce ocean that swallows everything up (key word: lost love) is classic Neruda.
Okay, Shmoopateers. You're going to have to open the bilingual part of your minds (yes, you have one!) for this discussion of the poem's form and meter. Ready? Off we go…
Here's the deal: the most popular English translation of "A Song of Despair," by accomplished American poet W.S. Merwin, is written in free verse with no real rhyme scheme. It does keep the couplet formation, though, which keeps those lines coming two-by-two until the last couple, which are stand-alone singletons.
The thing is, in the original Spanish version, Neruda had a nice rhythm going that is not conserved in the translation. Every line has fourteen syllables, and every even-numbered line had an A-O (in Spanish, it sounds like "Ah-Oh") assonant rhyme. This means that these lines all end in the same vowel sounds, even if their consonants don't exactly rhyme.
What in the heck are you talking about, you ask? Well, here's an example:
Emerge tu recuerdo de la noche en que estoy.
El rìo anuda al mar su lamento obstinado.
Abandonado como los muelles en el alba.
Es lahora de partir, ¡oh abandonado!
(The memory of you emerges from the night around me.
The river mingles its stubborn lament with the sea.
Deserted like the wharves at dawn.
it is the hour of departure, oh deserted one!) (1-4)
So see how all the lines in the Spanish original have fourteen syllables? Oh, wait. Line 4, which is about being abandoned, only has thirteen? Well, that's likely a little trick to show just how lonely the speaker is feeling—we mean, he doesn't even have all of his syllables!
Also, look at the way obstinado (ob-stee-nah-do) and abandonado (ah-bahn-do-nah-do) end in the same vowel sounds: A-O. This rhyming pattern continues all the way through the poem.
And so, as a result of this choice, we get a sing-song-y approach. While not being too heavily weighted down by rhyme, the song gets a rhythm that does its title proud. After all, we're told from the jump that this would be a song, and the regular meter and rhyme in the Spanish version is certainly in keeping with an expected song structure. Sure, it may not be a song that gets you out of your chair and tapping your feet, but this poem nevertheless seeks to be read like one of those meaningful, sad songs, filled with heartache and abandonment.
What's more, the regularity of the poem's form (in Spanish, that is) really anchors the poem in the natural world that is so important for Neruda. How's that, you ask? Well, the regular rhythm and rhyme pattern can be seen as mimicking the sea and its waves, which is an important part of the natural work in this poem. The addressed ("you") of the poem is associated with the sea throughout this poem, in fact, and it seems that not even the very form of the poem can escape the lost love's influence here. She dominates everything about this poem, even its rhymes and rhythms.
This poem plays a lot with night and day, light and dark. Pretty much anything that has to do with the present is going to be dark, depressing, and related to the night. But when the speaker thinks back to getting hot and heavy with his lover, then the fire starts blazing! Watch the way the imagery illuminates (get it?) the poem's message.
The sea looms large in this poem, and shows up in almost every couplet. The lover is closely related to the sea. In fact, she seems to be powerful, terrifying, and beautiful—just like a stormy sea that can swallow up even the bravest sailors. The sea is a big deal for Neruda in almost all of his poetry, so it's good to get acquainted with it here.
"A Song of Despair" is sung to a woman, and her old lover calls her a lot of things. She's beautiful, raging, a pit, the sea, the list goes on (really, it does… just read below). The way that the feminine is described in Neruda's poetry is controversial, some say machista (meaning essentially that he's a male chauvinist). This particular poem sees the feminine as a giant force that will swallow everything in its path. Batten down the hatches!
Things are a bit explicit in this poem. The speaker did have sexual relations with that woman, and he does make a note of it. Still, the steaminess doesn't go too far beyond "entwined bodies" and "mad coupling," so you might blush a little but you won't get in trouble for reading this in public.