20.08.2020 in Literature

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair

Poetry in all historical periods has always been very sensitive to the theme of love and the relations between a man and a woman. As a result of such tendency, many poems deal with the gender issues that are obviously interrelated with the exploration of love and romantic feelings. This topic was widely discussed in the oeuvre of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. n the poem titled “Tonight I Can Write,” Neruda explores the theme of broken love and discusses his interpretations of gender roles in relation to the concepts of creativity and literature that help the narrator define his attitude toward his feelings and emotions.

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Pablo Neruda was one of the most prolific, famous, and at the same time controversial poets of the twentieth century. He became an acclaimed poet at a very early age. Later in life, he paid attention to politics and was strongly criticized for his temporary support of Stalin’s ideals. He was also engaged in numerous diplomatic missions, but he had never stopped writing poetry that for him was the most effective way to reflect upon the meaning of human life and the nature of all processes taking place in the modern society.


One of the most effective ways to analyze the poems devoted to love and relations between a man and a woman is to apply the basic principles of gender criticism. The major concepts discussed by the author in these poems are connected with different aspects of human sexuality. By exploring the relations between the male narrator and his female beloved, Neruda tries to outline the gender roles in modern society. Gender criticism can also help understand how social stereotypes influence the construction of gender behavioral patterns. Moreover, it is necessary to take into account the fact that this collection of poems, “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair,” was created in 1924 when the author was only 19 years old. Later he would actively study and interact with other cultures living in Europe and travelling all over the world, but at the time when these poems were written the reality he was surrounded by was a typical Chilean male-dominated society where the gender roles were defined by century-old traditions of male superiority and women’s subservience. 

Gender plays a very important role in the poem. Although this text does not feature any direct dialogues between a man and a woman, it is certainly a form of metaphoric confrontation between the representatives of the opposite genders who have different perspective concerning the relations they had. The male narrator of the poem is suffering from psychological pain as the woman he loved decided to end their relations and left him for another man. The protagonist simultaneously writes a poem and reflects upon the nature of their relations and what future he is supposed to have without that woman. Therefore, the male perspective on the concept of love, gender roles and human sexuality is dominant in this poem.

The narrator wants to follow the stereotyped behavioral patterns for a man who has experienced a breakup with his beloved woman. In South American society, where extreme expressions of masculinity, such as moral strength, toughness and indifference to “romantic” things, is highly valued, the narrator tries to convince himself that “I no longer love her, that’s certain”. However, he is not completely sure about it, so he immediately adds, “but maybe I love her”. The narrator is desperate in creating the air of artificial indifference to this woman who, from his perspective, did absolutely wrong to him. He acknowledges that he feels pain now, but at the same time he highlights that he will soon overcome it and completely forget her. He says, “Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer / and these the last verses that I write for her”. The narrator declares that he is not going to suffer any longer, but his statements, as it has already been said, lack assuredness. He seems to be trying to comply with the stereotypical male image, but he is not confident in his ability to do it. Here the poem shows some contradictions between the inner desires of the narrator and the gender role that is imposed on him by the traditionally masculine society. The narrator may probably express some weakness or describe in more details how gloomy his world became after his beloved left him, but this type of behavior cannot be considered “truly male” and the narrator does not want to lose his social status by not corresponding to the excepted gender behavioral patterns. It may also imply that in the society where the narrator lives there is rather low level of tolerance towards the cases when a person decides not to obey the traditional gender roles, so the narrator is desperate to show his strength and his readiness to forget the woman regardless his real feelings.

Another aspect of the male gender role in this poem is the narrator’s obvious distrust to women and the concept of love in general. He repeats the phrase “saddest lines” three times in the poem thus drawing the audience’s attention to the fact that love has brought him only negative feelings and painful memories. He is not optimistic towards his future as he does not say anything about anything positive that waits for him when he manages to overcome this pain. The poem creates the impression that the narrator is sure that all women are the same, so there is no sense in waiting for something different, for any better, more sincere and harmonious relations. He says, “Love is so short, forgetting is so long”. This phrase lacks any direct gender markers, but nevertheless it tells much about the way the narrator sees traditional gender roles. Love in this poem is connected with the image of the woman and described as the feeling that brings suffering and pain. Therefore, by saying that “love is short” the narrator also draws attention to the fact that women are not able to be loyal and faithful for a long time. This phrase in combination with the lack of explanations about the causes of the break-up may mean that women, from the perspective of the narrator, are always frivolous and volatile. He also believes that men do not behave in this way. To make this contrast even stronger the poet adds the phrase “forgetting is long”. In the situation that is described in the poem it is the woman who breaks the relations and the man who is supposed to feel pain and struggle to forget the former partner. By adding this contrast to the poem the author implies that while women are easy to break relations and turn to new experiences, men are loyal and it takes them much time to forget the love they felt.

The analysis of gender roles in “Tonight I Can Write” requires exploration of the blame and guilt in this poem. The male narrator does not have any doubts about who should be blamed for the end of the relations. He says that he loved that woman and kissed her, but now she decides to be with another man. There is no explanation in the poem why she decided to make such a step – the author manifests that he is suffering and his beloved woman is now with another man. 

The concept of creativity and literature in general plays a crucial role in Neruda’s interpretation of gender in particular and love in general. The opening line of the poem sounds as follows, “Tonight I can write the saddest lines”. Therefore, starting from the very beginning the poet focuses on the strong connections between his feelings and his creative potential. The emotions he feels, despite the fact that they are quite painful and bring him much discomfort, stimulate the narrator to create poetry. Therefore, the man in the poem is indispensable to his mission and his profession. The narrator is a poet, and thus, he is always focused on his work, even in situations when he experiences great psychological tensions. It is quite a stereotypical approach to understanding of the male gender role, according to which a man should not let the feelings overcome him and also probably put his social duty higher than his relations with a woman. This aspect has always been widely explored in the poetry of all historical periods, sufficient to remember the conversation between Hector parting with his wife Andromache in The Iliad. Neruda slightly modifies this theme by shifting the man’s duty from traditional protection against enemies to the creation of poetry that is also seen as an important mission. 

The interpretation of gender roles in this poem is also closely connected with Neruda’s attitude toward nature. At the beginning of the poem he suggests the line that could have been created on an evening when he feels so much pain about his broken love. He writes, “The night is starry”. The poet creates strong parallels between his feelings and the nature that surrounds him. The light as a symbol of passion and extreme feelings is gone from his life and now he is able to see it only in the stars that are very far away from him. The phrase “in the distance” is also repeated several times in the poem. Later in the poem Neruda writes, “This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance”. He highlights that the breaking up with the woman he loved created a metaphoric wall between him and the rest of the world that has no idea about these events and does not seem to care about his feelings. He is alone and he has to cope with his pain. One of the most efficient ways to live through this painful experience is to write a poem that would reflect the poet’s emotional tensions. 

Although the poem is written from the perspective of the male narrator, it is evident that the image of the woman plays a very important role there. Neruda does not give many direct clues about the character of that woman, but there is some thought-provoking information about her attitude towards the narrator and their relations. He also mentions very few details about her appearance, for instance, “her great still eyes”. The epithet “still” is quite controversial when describing beauty of a woman. It suggests the lack of motion and passiveness, a feature that goes well with the traditional implications about the role of a woman in a masculine-powered society like Chile and other South American countries in the first decades of the twentieth century. In the middle of the poem Neruda mentions some more details related to the woman’s appearance. He writes, “Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes”. He also focuses on the eyes of the woman, but he mentions her voice and her body. These features do not tell the readers anything about the feelings of the woman – she is shown as something with great body, beautiful eyes and a nice voice. Therefore, the description of the woman in “Tonight I Can Write” is very scarce and mostly centered on the physical appearance of the beloved woman rather than on her internal psychological characteristics, like, for example, compassion, openness, charisma, or cleverness.

It is also not very clear what exactly the narrator got from these relations in a psychological sense. According to the prescribed gender role, the woman in this poem is almost absolutely “physical”, both in terms of the actual description as shown above and her contribution into the relations between her and the narrator. The poet writes, “I kissed her again and again”. The connections between the narrator and the woman seems to function mostly on the physical level as she is shown as a “creature” that is supposed to be kissed and constantly be present in the man’s arms. In addition, one of the mentioned functions of the woman was to bring warmth into these relations. The metaphorical concept of temperature is crucial in description of the gender interrelations in this text. At the beginning of the poem Neruda writes, “The stars are blue and shiver in the distance”. In addition to a very impressive example of personification when stars get the ability to perform actions typical of humans (“shiver”), this description implies that after the woman broke up with the narrator, a period of physical and emotional coldness came into his life. Later the poet develops this image by adding more details connected with the nature. He uses an elegant and impressive simile when describing the effect of her leave on his ability to write poetry. The poet says, “The verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture”. This image also contributes to the general atmosphere of coldness in the poem as the dew on the grass can be found at night and in the early morning when the temperature is rather low. All these images help the author to create strong parallels between the dichotomy of warmth and coldness and various natural elements that reflect the emotional state of the narrator.

The poem Tonight I Can Write is written in a form of vers libre or free verse. It means that there is no traditional meter pattern or rhyme. However, in this poem, Neruda manages to maintain a very melodic structure by varying stressed and unstressed syllables, paying much attention to the length of words and lines, and repeating some words throughout the poem. This repetition creates a sense of rhythm that helps the poet to improve the sounding form of the text, but at the same time it has a significant meaning as to the semantic content of the poem. Many lines in the poem end with the word “her”. Neruda writes, “To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her. / To hear the immense night, still more immense without her”. 

To communicate his message about the relations between two people Neruda often uses some parallel constructions that explain the feelings and roles of both partners. For example, he writes, “I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too” and later in a couple of lines he repeats this phrase, but in this case switching the accents, “She loved me, sometimes I loved her too”. The poet also pays much attention to the imagery used in the text to create better visual and sounding atmosphere. For instance, he writes, “My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing”. The narrator is sure that the woman would not be able to hear him, so he has to use the service of the “intermediary” – the wind that is supposed to help him in telling her what he feels. This phrase helps the readers to understand that the night when the man is writing this poem is quite windy and, as it has already been mentioned, dark and cold. Neruda is careful in mixing the audio and visual aspects of the scene he describes. To pair with the sounds of wind he adds a line that says, “My sight tries to find her as though to bring her closer”. However, here the narrator also does not get any results and the woman is too far away from him and does not want to communicate with him at all.

To conclude, the poem Tonight I Can Write is a perfect example of a gender-based conflict. The narrator describes his feelings after a painful break-up with his beloved woman and his perception is in most cases colored with the traditional stereotypical interpretations of gender roles. The man is portrayed as a strong and loyal individual who despite all his suffering is ready to continue with his social obligations, whereas the woman is shown as a frivolous and light-headed person for whom it is quite easy to change partners. Moreover, the woman is mostly described in terms of her physical appearance proving that this aspect for the narrator was more important than her inner psychological qualities.

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