“I have a terrible fear of being an animal” is a poem of twenty-seven lines that is divided into four stanzas. It is in free verse and makes ample use of internal rhyme and assonance in the original Spanish. One of the dated poems in Poemas humanos, this poem bears the date of October 22, 1937.
The poem is actually untitled; using its first line as its title is a convenience for scholars, critics, translators, and students, not the wish of the poet. The first line, however, does reveal more about the poem and the poet in what it does not say than in what it does. It is not “becoming” an animal that the persona/poet fears, but “being” one. With that acknowledgment, he gives credibility to his grosser animal self, the more profoundly sensual self that he carries within. Although the animal exists, it is one of “white snow.”
The first stanza also expresses the idea that each positive natural element has its negative aspect; each object of strength has its implied weakness. The animal has power, but that power is ameliorated by its snowy substance. The same is true of the other elements of nature. The splendid and supremely sunny day, because of its brilliance, has implicit within it the equally supreme and pervasive night.
The second stanza explores the absurdity of humanity—its fragmentation, its emptiness, and its implicit and unfulfilled dual nature. In the third stanza, César Vallejo seems to appeal more to the senses than to the mind. In nostalgic reminiscence of the early Symbolist poets’ perfume concerts, he seeks “aromatic logic.” The unusual juxtaposition of aroma and logic serves to infuse each with the qualities of the other, thus negating the pure quality of both.
The fourth stanza centers on the essential struggle in which each person is engaged: the basic struggle to bring together the elements of the transcendent and the prosaic, the physical and the ephemeral, the mind and the senses. The poet exhorts one to act, to remain within and without at the same time. For Vallejo, the intangibility of existence can be seen in the consistent verbal destablization of concept and sensation. Therefore, “to thrash, to exist, to cough, to secure oneself” is to be in constant flux, but the function of existence is to try to capture the essential reality that exists somewhere between all oppositions.