Study Guide

A Song of Despair Analysis

  • Sound Check

    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.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    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.

  • Setting

    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…

  • Speaker

    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.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (7) Snow Line

    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.

  • Calling Card

    Girls Are to Be Seen, Not Heard

    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.

  • Form and Meter

    Free Verse Couplets, with Assonant End Rhyme in Spanish

    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.

  • Light and Dark Imagery

    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.

    • Line 1: The poem takes place in the night, and this line makes us focus in on the memory of the speaker, as though it were a point of light in the dark. That memory "emerges" here, like a person might, is a case of the speaker using personification
    • Line 3: The moment right between darkness and light (dawn) gets a lot of attention in the poem, and it is characterized as a lonely time. This is the time that the speaker, in a simile, seems himself as deserted as the wharves.
    • Line 12: The memory really starts to burn here. What was a little memory emerging from the night is now as bright as a beacon. We get another use of simile here, too.
    • Lines 19-20: The poetic speaker tries to get on with his life, as tough as it might be for him. He describes that in terms of darkness and light here. The heartache that he tries to move past is a "wall of shadow" that he pushes away. Both in terms of actions and desire, he tries to move on—presumably into the light.
    • Lines 25-26: Islands are lonely things (not even an isthmus to hold on to!), even metaphorical ones. When they're dark, the fact that they're plopped in the middle of the big ocean is an even lonelier thought. The woman saved the speaker from that dark loneliness. 
    • Lines 34-35: Even though the love has ended, the speaker still relates the woman and love to light. But instead of being a guiding light, like a lighthouse, here it is a consuming fire. 
    • Line 56: The shadow, which (like any shadow) is cast by blocking the light, is the only thing left for the speaker. The woman, who has been identified by light throughout the poem, is separated from the speaker by time and space, so this metaphor shows us that he has only her shadow to remember.
  • Nautical Imagery

    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.

    • Line 2: This is part of the first couplet , and sets the stage for the rest of the sea metaphors that will follow. The river is lamenting… and so is the speaker! And we know all rivers lead to the sea, so we will see which sea this river leads to. (Oh, the suspense!)
    • Lines 3: The wharves are, like the river, a place where the sea begins. he speaker compares himself, this time, to the abandoned, lonely wharves. He's always approaching the sea, but never seems to dive in.
    • Line 6: Okay, them's fighting words! The speaker can be seen calling his lover a pit of debris and the cave of the shipwrecked. She's like a mighty force that destroys the brave sailors who decide to take her on. (Of course, if we want to give him the benefit of the doubt, he could be referring to his own heart. What do you think?)
    • Lines 9-10: And the hits keep coming. Now the speaker lays it out. The woman was such a gigantic figure in his life that metaphorically she seemed to swallow up everything. (Just like the sea, get it?)
    • Line 12: The love the two characters in this poem shared was hot, and the speaker compares it to a lighthouse using a simile. And where do lighthouses live? On the shore, where the rocks are dangerous for sailors. What does this say about their relationship? Hmm? 
    • Lines 13-16: Our speaker's still stuck on this whole sinking idea. Through metaphor, the poem compares himself to two figures, both of which brave the sea and, unfortunately lose: the pilot, and the blind diver. The speaker is like one of these conquistadors who end up sunk at the bottom of the sea, or, in this case, brokenhearted. 
    • Line 43-46: Here we go again! The pit of debris is back, sucking up everything in its path and drowning it. The woman is strong, like a sailor, and could sing through the storms, but it seems as though our speaker had no such luck. 
    • Line 49-50: The speaker seems to be comparing himself to the diver, the slinger, and the discoverer again, all of whom went down in the sea of love. 
    • Lines 53: This image, of the sea being buckled to the shore, reminds us of those first lines of the speaker being like the river. Just as the sea can't be separated from the shore, it looks like he's unable to separate from his memories.
    • Line 55: The repetition of this lonely line, from way back in line 3, drives home the image of the loss and loneliness that the speaker feels as he looks out, or back, on the sea and his past.
  • Feminine Symbols

    "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!

    • Line 6: One reading of this line is that the woman is a pit or a cave, something where lost and damaged things end up. This shape, the concave one, will be recurring throughout the poem and has to do with the traditional role of the female in the reproductive act—if you catch our drift.
    • Lines 9-10: The pit or cave is hungry! The woman is compared using metaphor to distance, the sea, and time—all of which are vast and hard to comprehend, and all of which can swallow everything up, eventually. 
    • Line 21: The woman finally takes a human shape here, but instead of being her own person, she is part of the speaker. He can only think of her either as a force of nature or something that is his own. 
    • Line 23-24: That concave shape is back, and this time it's a… jar. In this simile the woman is supposed to contain everything, like a jar, and she does, but it ends up shattering her. She was a fragile jar, as it turns out. 
    • Lines 25-28: Now instead of being a destructive force, these metaphors suggest that the woman gives life. The island where she takes in the speaker is probably his loneliness, and she gives him fruit and miracles just when he needs them most. This might be an allusion to Adam and Eve, but the fruit in that story ends up being pretty problematic.
    • Lines 29-30: Once again that idea of containment comes up. The feminine figure in this poem is meant to take in and protect the masculine. 
    • Lines 33-34: And we're down in the dumps again. Just like the pit, the cave, and the jar, this time the concave shape is a tomb. This line lets us know that the love is dead, but the fruits mentioned in line 27 are still present—even if they are being pecked at by birds. 
    • Lines 43-44: Man, that pit just won't go away. The woman seems to be the place where the speaker let out all of his garbage, or baggage, or whatever you want to call it. 
    • Lines 45-46: The woman here is kind of like a siren, luring sailors to their deaths as they sing out over the sea. She is, once again like Eve, a temptress and dangerous.
    • Line 47: The song is still present, and the woman is connected to the sea again in this line through the currents. The repetition of "still" lets us know that she survived the love affair, probably without much trouble, like the sea survives a shipwreck. 
    • Line 48: The last metaphorical dig repeats the pit of debris line and this time calls the woman an open and bitter well. She's a source of water, but it's a bitter source. She can give life and nourishment, but it is painful.
    • Steaminess Rating

      PG-13

      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.

    • Allusions

      Religious References

      • Genesis 2:23 (21). This is a reference to when Adam finally sees his brand-new girlfriend, Eve. He says "This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman because she was taken out of Man." So this allusion reminds us immediately of the first ever love affair.
      • Genesis 3 (27). Just when you thought things were nice and lovey-dovey, like Adam and Eve, a snake shows up. Eve offers Adam the forbidden fruit and gets them kicked out of paradise forever. And from here on out, women will be blamed for tempting men to do bad things. Thanks a lot, Eve!