The Greatest Lesson from Childhood by Pablo Neruda

alex atkins bookshelf literatureSome of life’s greatest lessons come from childhood — a time of innocence, optimism, and openness. Regrettably, some of these lessons are lost because they seem so simple that they don’t warrant a great deal of scrutiny at the time; however, in retrospect — with the wisdom of age — they can be appreciated for the gems that they truly are. Pablo Neruda, the brilliant Chilean poet, shares  one of life’s greatest lessons when he was a child in the essay “Childhood and Poetry” found in the introduction to Neruda & Vallejo: Selected Poems (1971). The enchanting story takes place in the backyard of his childhood home, when he serendipitously discovers a hole in one of the fence boards. This brief, almost magical encounter, with a kind stranger (another child), made a huge impact on Neruda in two ways: first, it inspired his poetry writing; second, by offering friendship to a complete stranger, it strengthened his connectedness to all human beings. This second concept is related to the central metaphor in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch — society is a web and one cannot disentangle a single strand without touching all the others; that is to say, there is a kinship between every person. Here is the unforgettable story of the sheep and the pinecone by Neruda:

“One time, investigating in the backyard of our house in Temuco the tiny objects and minuscule beings of my world, I came upon a hole in one of the boards of the fence. I looked through the hole and saw a landscape like that behind our house, uncared for, and wild. I moved back a few steps, because I sensed vaguely that something was about to happen. All of a sudden a hand appeared, a tiny hand of a boy about my own age. By the time I came close again, the hand was gone, and in its place there was a marvelous white sheep.

The sheep’s wool was faded. Its wheels had escaped. All of this only made it more authentic. I had never seen such a wonderful sheep. I looked back through the hole but the boy had disappeared. I went into the house and brought out a treasure of my own: a pinecone, opened, full of odor and resin, which I adored. I set it down in the same spot and went off with the sheep.

I never saw either the hand or the boy again. And I have never again seen a sheep like that either. The toy I lost finally in a fire. But even now, in 1954, almost fifty years old, whenever I pass a toy shop, I look furtively into the window, but it’s no use. They don’t make sheep like that anymore.

I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses, that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.

That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all of humanity is somehow together. That experience came to me again much later; this time it stood out strikingly against a background of trouble and persecution.

It won’t surprise you then that I attempted to give something resiny, earthlike, and fragrant in exchange for human brotherhood. Just as I once left the pinecone by the fence, I have since left my words on the door of so many people who were unknown to me, people in prison, or hunted, or alone.

That is the great lesson I learned in my childhood, in the backyard of a lonely house. Maybe it was nothing but a game two boys played who didn’t know each other and wanted to pass to the other some good things of life. Yet maybe this small and mysterious exchange of gifts remained inside me also, deep and indestructible, giving my poetry light.”

This story, like his poetry, is Neruda’s gift to humanity — given out of love. The American poet, Robert Bly, shares this fascinating insight: “What is most startling about Neruda, I think, when we compare him to [T. S.] Eliot or Dylan Thomas, or [Ezra] Pound, is the great affection that accompanies his imagination… When Eliot gave a reading, one had the feeling that the reading was a cultural experience… When Dylan Thomas read, one had the sense that he was about toe perform some magical and fantastic act… Pound used to scold the audience for not understanding what he did. When Neruda reads, the mood in the room is one of affection between the audience and himself.”

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Read related posts: The Parable of the Carpenter’s Son
The Mayonnaise Jar and Cups of Coffee
The Wisdom of a Grandparent
The Wisdom of Parents
The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Parable of the Ship Mechanic

For further reading: Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems (translated by Robert Bly)

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