Pablo Neruda – The saddest lines

young neruda
A young Pablo Neruda

 A couple of years ago, one of my students was in Panama participating in an international tennis tournament. In order for him not to fall behind, we agreed to continue classes over Skype during the period of his absence. One night we studied three love poems by the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, one of which I have translated below. When the class was over, I asked Patrick to go down to the hotel lobby and find one of the Spanish-speaking girls who was also taking part in the tournament and to read the poems to her. Always game for anything, Patrick found a Venezuelan girl, Valeria, and read the poems to her. She was extremely moved by the experience. My intention was to show my student that poetry was not written for the academic environment but was intended to be read as a normal everyday activity, and that love poetry could be extremely effective, particularly in the context of relationships with the opposite sex. He certainly got the message and so did Valeria. 

The poem translated below was taken from Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada [Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair] a collection which was first published in 1924 when Neruda was only nineteen. It has since become the Chilean poet’s best known work and has sold more than a million copies and been widely translated. Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.


Poem 20

Tonight I could write the saddest lines.

Write, for example: “The night is shattered,
and blue stars shimmer, far away.”

The night wind veers in the sky and sings.

Tonight I could write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

On nights like this I held her in my arms.
I kissed her so many times under the infinite sky.

She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.
How not to have loved her big staring eyes.

Tonight I could write the saddest lines.
To think I do not have her. To feel I’ve lost her.

To hear the inmense night, more immense without her.
And that line settles upon the soul as dew upon the grass.

What does it matter that my love could not retain her.
The night is full of stars and she’s not with me.

That’s all. Far away someone is singing. Far away.
My soul is not content to have lost her.

As though to bring her close my eyes look for her.
My heart looks for her, and she’s not with me.

The same night chills the same trees with frost.
We, the ones we were then, are not the same.

I don’t love her, it’s true, but how I loved her.
I sought the wind to carry my voice to her ear.

Someone elses’s. She’ll belong to another. Like before my kisses.
Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, it’s true, but maybe I do.
Love’s so short, and the memory so long to fade.

Because on nights like this I held her in my arms,
My soul is not content to have lost her.

Though this may be the last pain she causes me,
and these the last lines that I write.

Translation by John Lyons


Postscript: When teaching this particular poem in class I would often link it to a Bob Dylan song “Most of the time” which can be heard on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQbr4ISrjII. There are also excellent cover versions by Sophie Zelmani https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ts6gZFEiMkM and Bettye Lavette https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8Q5Mrokqfc. Enjoy!