Like a flower without sun, a human being cannot grow or blossom without love. To live a happy, healthy life, one must love and as well as be loved. As Leo Tolstoy observed in the epic War and Peace: “Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly.”
But as we all know, love can be elusive and ineffable. To a poet, love evokes a symphony of words that in turn can inspire beautiful, profound poems. The poet’s soaring language and vivid metaphors can effectively render a complex concept into something simpler — and comprehensible. Recall T.S. Eliot’s diffident Prufrock who blurts out in a moment of frustration: “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” Fortunately for Prufrock, and the rest of us, a great love poem can eloquently express exactly what we mean, how we feel. And that is why we read, memorize, and recite some of the greatest lines from love poems and sonnets from the great poets, like Shakespeare, Byron, Keats — to name just a few.
When it comes to poems about love, the passionate Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), towers above all other modern poets. Neruda has been recognized as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century; in 1969 The New York Times Book Review called the poet “the most prolific, influential, and inventive poet of the Spanish language.” Two years later, Neruda won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. His two books of love poems (Twenty Love Poems, 1924; and 100 Love Sonnets, 1957) became instant classics when they were published.
Bookshelf pays tribute to Valentine’s Day with the most beautiful ways to say “I love you” through the impassioned and exhilarating words of Pablo Neruda.
Then love knew it was called love.
And when I lifted my eyes to your name,
suddenly your heart showed me my way
How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me,
my savage, solitary soul, my name that sends them all running.
So many times we have seen the morning star burn, kissing our eyes,
and over our heads the grey light unwinds in turning fans.
So I wait for you like a lonely house
till you will see me again and live in me.
Till then my windows ache.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you simply, without problems or pride:
I love you in this way because I don’t know any other way of loving.
Before I loved you, love, nothing was my own:
I wavered through the streets, among
Nothing mattered or had a name:
The world was made of air, which waited.
I knew rooms full of ashes,
Tunnels where the moon lived,
Rough warehouses that growled “get lost,”
Questions that insisted in the sand.
Everything was empty, dead, mute,
Fallen abandoned, and decayed:
Inconceivably alien, it all
Belonged to someone else – to no one:
Till your beauty and your poverty
Filled the autumn plentiful with gifts.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you simply, without problems or pride: I love you in this way because I do not know any other way of loving but this, in which there is no I or you, so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand, so intimate that when I fall asleep your eyes close.
In this part of the story I am the one who
dies, the only one, and I will die of love because I love you,
because I love you, Love, in fire and in blood.
For further reading: Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon by Pablo Neruda, Harper Collins (1997)
100 Love Sonnets by Pablo Neruda, University of Texas Press (1986)
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda, Chronicle Books (1993)