Pablo Neruda and Death


In the words of Luis Monguio: “…Neruda is prepared to dispense with rhyme, with consistent patterns of meter, with traditional stanzaic usage, the discursive structure of language, punctuation, and the logical formalization of meaning…Impulses are meshed and confused in an upsurge of seemingly disjunct images, bubbling and churning in the agony of his quest for form and expression.”

For the novice and as an over simplification of facts, the poetry of Pablo Neruda can be divided into two distinct phases, the first phase begins with his writing his first poem and continues till the publication of the “Three Residences”. The poem “Nothing But Death”, is a good example of Neruda’s poetic vision and style. It is full of pathos, anguish, pain, desolation and isolation or rather alienation of Neruda with the the world, in general and with himself, his inner trials and tribulations, in particular.

In the second phase, we discover a new Neruda, like a sphinx that is reborn from its own ashes. In the second phase Neruda has discovered his mission as a poet, whose ultimate aim and responsibility is to give encouragement to man.

The poem “Nothing But Death”, as is apparent from the title is concerned with Neruda’s preoccupation with man’s helplessness and hopelessness in the face of death. In this poem he gives vent to the defenseless condition of man in the face of death.

It is a poem composed in blank ( or open verse ), we can safely conjecture in the tradition of Walt Whitman, whose influence upon Neruda’s poetry is immense.

This poem begins on a bleak note, continues in this dark vein and ends in utter desolation. “Nothing But Death” has an elegiac character and overall gives an impressionistic picture of doom and gloom. It has a hermetic tone and sketches a metaphysical meditative picture on the grim reality and the final tyranny of death.

The omniscient narrator is in a dream like state and also takes the reader into this stance. Moreover, the poem is replete with dark allegorical imagery, which at times is almost corporeal. The symbols employed by Neruda in this poem are surreal, while the oxymoron ( silence-sound ) used have more than their common, mundane rhetorical value.

Essentially, the whole mood and tone of the poem is dark__ a black hole like vacuum fills the poetic canvas, and draws the reader into it. The reader is engulfed by darkness, that pervades the entire poem.

“Nothing But Death” vividly and in a very straight forward manner depicts the banality of life. In this poem Neruda uses his powerful imagination to unite the distinct collage of metaphors and similes, to present to the reader, man’s insignificance in the cosmological scheme of things, on the one hand and presents in grim colors Neruda’s affinity for the macabre, on the other. This is a very vital ingredient and goes a long way in understanding the black undertones that dominate this poem.

In spite of the consistent, more appropriately relentless usage of sequence upon sequence of dark surrealist imagery, the somber mood , the bleak tone and the blank verse, the poem has a controlled cadence which is the hallmark of a great craftsman with words.

A creation, especially a poem, when translated from one language to another, looses much of its mystery , charisma and charm, but this is not so with Neruda’s poems. This is so because the poem is about the intrinsic universal anguish and frailty of man in the face of a great adversary__death.

The master stroke and the epitome of the poem is Neruda’s personification of death:

“Death arrives among all that sound
like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it
comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no
finger in it,
comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no

His language is simple and his use of syntax sublime and his diction is elevated. The realm of damp, cold, dark and silent world of Neruda gives the reader goose bumps.”
If a single poem of Neruda has all these literary qualities, it is befitting that his complete work is placed at a pedestal, and he is regarded equal in stature to another great artist of the twentieth century__ Pablo Picasso.

It is not surprising that one of the reasons that Jean Paul Sartre gave while refusing the Nobel Prize for Literature was that he conscientiously believed that Neruda was a more deserving candidate than him.

The poem “Nothing But Death” by Pablo Neruda, with its somber tone, interspersed with revelations that are best summed up in the words of Luis Monguio,” It is a poetry committed to the satisfaction of man’s emotional needs, and not his discursive intelligence.”


Written By: Iftikhar Tariq Khanzada

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