Sonnet XVII by Pablo Neruda
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
Or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
In secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms,
But carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
Thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
Risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
Therefore, I love you because I know no other way
Than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
So close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
So close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.
Junior year, high school. My creative writing teacher furnishes the entire class with a copy of Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet XVII. As soon as each student has the paper in hand, our teacher launches into a sonorous reading of the poem. I read along with him, silently mouthing the words, thrilled and confused by the staggering and yet, straightforward imagery.
Somewhere in the stash of angst-ridden journals I keep in a drawer at home, the photocopied poem is pasted on an empty page. Crumpled and yellowing, I no longer need the copy. It is one of those few poems I know by heart. But I keep it handy to remind myself of the day I felt the promise of poetry strike, hot and impressive and terrifying. If Sylvia Plath’s Mirror had been the catalyst, the fever behind my writing aspirations, Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet XVII was what ignited my passion for poetry.
This is a poem with a heartening twist. A poem naked in its honesty and teeming with relatability. I remember reading its first lines that first time and thinking, “How terrible to be at the receiving end of this poem!”
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose or topaz| or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.| I love you as certain dark things are to be loved| in secret between the shadow and the soul.
A salt-rose, a topaz, and even the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off—those were stunning images of something to value, of something easy to love because of their beauty. But instead, the persona described his/her lover as a dark thing to be loved in secret. The next lines had seemed equally unflattering, I thought.
I love you as the plant that never blooms| but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers.| Thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance risen from the earth| lives darkly in my body.
A plant that never blooms. Never mind that it was the type of plant that held the promise of hidden flowers… And the way love was described almost felt as if it were something contagious, unexplainable, and almost unwanted.
But the rest of the lines made me realize, this was not the traditional love poem that exalted the lover’s virtues, it was one that explained the unfathomable depth—and maybe, the irrationality—of true and lasting love.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where| I love you straightforwardly without complexities or pride.| Therefore I love you because I know no other way
Than this: where I does not exist nor you| so close that your hand on my chest is my hand| so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.
This wasn’t a poem that spoke of love at its first blush, with its rose-colored glasses and the consequent blindness to the lover’s flaws. This was a poem that spoke of what happens after the honeymoon hour. It’s a poem about commitment and a love so deeply forged that the lovers cease to be ‘each other,’ for they are as much the other as they could ever be. Oneness in the face of reality. As my theology professor would say, this is a difference between “falling in love” and actually “loving.” Love—with its becauses, and more importantly, with its despite ofs.
Also, that line break. That glorious, glorious line break from “Therefore I love you because I know no other way” to “than this.” I am always in awe with how clever this poem turned out. How unexpected and beautiful its message happens to be. Definitely one of the best and most honest love poems in history.
About the Poet
Pablo Neruda is one of the most well-known and best-loved poets of the 20th century. In 1971, the Chilean poet-diplomat was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He remains one of the most inspirational poets today—and rightfully so. While translated poetry often experiences a slight and unfortunate, though unintentional diminishment, an accidental dwarfing caused by the barriers of language, Neruda’s works retain their vivid imagery and vast, hard-hitting meanings. No doubt, we have his highly skilled translators to thank for this, but it is also very possible—if not, downright true—that the potency of the poet’s words cannot be contained by something as insignificant as a difference in language.