Study Guide

A Song of Despair Themes

  • Abandonment

    "A Song of Despair" is all about the speaker feeling abandoned, desolate, deserted… uh, anyone have a spare thesaurus? He is reflecting on his long-lost love, and it makes him feel as lonely as the wharves after all the ships have gone. He even calls himself "Oh abandoned one" for goodness sake. Seriously. Who does that? It's not clear if the woman abandoned him, or if he just feels lonely after their breakup, but abandonment in this poem is the name of the game.

    Questions About Abandonment

    1. Why do you think the speaker feels abandoned? Do you think it's possible that he's the one who abandoned his lover? Why or why not?
    2. What images does the poem use to evoke abandonment? What images would you use in your own abandonment poem?
    3. Are abandonment and loneliness the same thing in this poem? How do both of these themes figure into the speaker's sadness?

    Chew on This

    The wharves are used as a symbol of abandonment in the poem, but we know that the ships will come back. What we don't know is if the girl will come back to the speaker. (Especially after he calls her a "pit of debris"!)

    Not so fast there. The speaker calls himself the "abandoned one" in the last line of the poem, but there is evidence in the poem that suggests that he's more the abandoner than the abandonee.

  • Sadness

    Well, if the title "A Song of Despair" doesn't clue you in, then you're in for a surprise when you see just how weepy this poem is. It's sad, sorrowful, and lamenting. The speaker has lost his love and he is grieving for it. You might want to turn on some blues while you read if you like your poetry soundtracks to be thematic.

    Here is a video about another poem that Pablo Neruda wrote about sadness and despair.

    Questions About Sadness

    1. Why is "The Song of Despair" a song? If it were set to music, what kind would best describe its sadness?
    2. Why, exactly, is the speaker so sad? Is he the only one who is sad in the poem?
    3. Which images best evoke the feeling of sorrow at the center of the poem?
    4. Do you think the speaker clings to sadness? In other words, is he embracing his sorrow on purpose?

    Chew on This

    The speaker seems to be sad that he lost his lover, but the way he describes their relationship makes it sound like they were sad when they were together back then, too. Lose-lose.

    The woman is the source of all sadness in this poem. A-ha!

  • Foolishness and Folly

    In "A Song of Despair," the woman, who the speaker used to love, is compared to the treacherous sea, which swallows up pirates, sailors and sunglasses alike. The man who was foolish enough to fall in love with her is kind of like those sailors who used to sail over the horizon before they knew the world was round. In other words: a big, old silly-britches.

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. How does the sea figure into this whole foolishness and folly theme in the poem?
    2. Who do you think was more foolish: the speaker or the woman? Why?
    3. Was the woman the reason the man was doomed? Or is he complicit in his own folly? Why do you think so?

    Chew on This

    The poem sets up woman as the sea and man as the seafarer, and his foolish attempt to navigate her is his folly. Way to go, man.

    The poem makes the argument that all romantic relationships are doomed, and are therefore all follies. Yeah, good luck with that.

  • Memory and the Past

    We're not sure how long ago this love affair took place in "A Song of Despair," but it's definitely over. The whole poem starts with a memory, and the speaker can't shake it. Almost all of the verbs are in the past tense, and the woman the poem is about is definitely no longer in the speaker's present. His sad, sad memories are all that's left. Still, he clings to them in such a way as to suggest that he's unable to let go of sad days gone by. In a way, we think that makes this poem somehow even sadder. Who knew that was even possible?!

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. How would the poem be different if it were set in the present of the love affair, rather than looking back at it?
    2. Why is this memory so strong, and why can't the speaker let go of it?
    3. If the speaker could forget all about the woman, do you think he would? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The speaker is trapped in the past, which is the real shipwreck in this poem. Live in the now, man!

    The past is almost like a place in the poem, a place the speaker longs to return to, but—sadly—has been banned from.