Study Guide

Love Sonnet 17 Themes

  • Love

    The poem is called "Love Sonnet 17," and it comes from a book called 100 Love Sonnets, so naturally love is one of its major themes. The speaker contrasts his love for this woman with the love one feels for precious gems and beautiful flowers. Then he tries to define this love more concretely: it's like the love one has for "dark things;" it’s like an aroma; it involves some strange destruction of one’s individuality... hmmm, nothing seems like a perfect fit. Bottom line, love defies explanation. The speaker attempts to define love, but just like every attempt before him, he just can't do it.

    Questions About Love

    1. What is unique about Neruda's love poem? Why does it stand out among all the other poems written about love?
    2. What do you make of the phrase "I am not and you are not"? What does the speaker mean by this? Does this accurately describe how true love should feel?
    3. Is this a poem about loving someone for what they are on the inside? Or is that just a passing image that we shouldn't mistake for the heart of the poem?

    Chew on This

    True love defies explanation. Neruda knew this from the start; he wasn't trying to define love, he was trying to show that it can't be defined at all.

    Neruda's love poem isn't very original. So we can't define love – what's the big deal? We want to see someone who can define it.

  • Identity

    "Love Sonnet 17" thinks about identity in a unique way. In the poem, the love between the speaker and his paramour is so intense that they cease to be themselves; they lose their sense of individuality and become one with one another. In the final stanza, for example, the speaker says his hand is his lover’s hand, and hers is his. They even dream the same dreams. Neruda celebrates this oneness, but we have to think: should two people have to become one in order to be in love? Does Neruda think that people cannot maintain individual identities if they are in a relationship?

    Questions About Identity

    1. Why does Neruda wait until the final lines to bring in the imagery of two people becoming one? Couldn't he have mentioned it earlier?
    2. What does it mean that "your eyes close on my dreams" (14)? Can the speaker's lover know what he's dreaming? And how does he know this anyway?
    3. How does the use of the words "I" and "you" (or these verbal forms in the Spanish) affect the way we think about identity in the poem?

    Chew on This

    True love often causes us to lose our individuality and merge with another person. This self-annihilation is an incredibly powerful experience.

    Starting the poem with the words "I do not love you" separates the "I" and the "you" too much; the two lovers can never become one with that kind of distinction.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Neruda sure loved him some nature. In the first two lines of "Love Sonnet 17," the speaker contrasts the love he has for his paramour with the kind of love one has for flowers and precious gems. In the second stanza of the poem, he elaborates on the flower theme, suggesting that truly powerful love is not based on external beauty. The speaker is torn. He says his love is not like one’s love for natural objects, and yet he compares his feelings to an "aroma" that "rose from the soil." He relies on nature to explain love, but at the same time he realizes it doesn’t really work as an explanation. Confounding man and nature is a common practice in literature, and Neruda uses this technique wisely.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What do topaz, salt-rose, and carnations symbolize in this poem?
    2. Can you think of other love poems that feature flowers? How is this poem any different?     
    3. Is Neruda being hypocritical by saying that his love is not like his love for a flower, but then using a plant as a metaphor for his love? What gives?          
    4. What's the deal with the speaker’s reference to an "aroma"? Why choose the smell of a natural object to convey this feeling of love?

    Chew on This

    Love is like an "aroma that rose from the soil." It is like a plant, and must be nurtured, cared for, and cultivated.

    Neruda is confused: in the first stanza the speaker says that he can’t describe his love in natural terms, but in the second stanza he compares it to an "aroma" that resembles a flower.