Like a flower without sun, a human being cannot grow or blossom without love. To live a happy, healthy life, one must love 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 as well as 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.
This being Valentine’s Day, let us turn to Neruda’s breathtaking bouquet of sonnets, titled One Hundred Love Sonnets, originally published in October 1959. Like Shakespeare’s sonnets, Neruda’s sonnets are as enduring as they are beautiful. This modern master of poetry transforms the prosaic English language into music, crafting symphonies out of letters. But putting these timeless sonnets aside, perhaps is a passage early in the book that will touch your heart deeply. You see, Neruda penned a beautiful, heartfelt tribute to his wife, Matilde Urrutia Neruda, to serve as the book’s introduction. In short, the tribute — not to mention the brilliant love sonnets — make it one of the most beautiful valentines ever written:
“My beloved wife, I suffered while I was writing these misnamed “sonnets”; they hurt me and caused me grief, but the happiness I feel in offering them to you is vast as a savanna. When I set this task for myself, I knew very well that down the right sides of sonnets, with elegant discriminating taste, poets of all times have arranged rhymes that sound like silver or crystal or cannonfire. But—with great humility—I made these sonnets out of wood; I gave them the sound of that opaque pure substance, and that is how they should reach your ears. Walking in forests or on beaches, along hidden lakes, in latitudes sprinkled with ashes, you and I have picked up pieces of pure bark; pieces of wood subject to the comings and goings of water and the weather. Out of such softened relics, then with hatchet and machete and pocketknife, I built little houses, so that your eyes, which I adore and sing to, might live in them. Now that I have declared the foundations of my love, I surrender this century to you: wooden sonnets that rise only because you gave them life.”
Say “I love you” — deeply, eloquently by sharing Neruda’s valentine with someone you love.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
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Read related posts: Pablo Neruda on Love
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For further reading: Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon by Pablo Neruda (1997)
100 Love Sonnets by Pablo Neruda (1986)
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda (1993)
The Book of Love: Writers and Their Love Letters by Cathy Davidson (1992)