Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

An almost blind faith in the truth of the senses is one of the major themes of Neruda’s poem. As is the case with most of the Elementary Odes, “A Smell of Cordwood” is a canticle of material passion to a simple sensuous experience in this world. In Neruda’s instinctive materialism and ardent surrender to nature, the poet exhibits a new romanticism, intuitional and primitive, a weapon aimed at the idealism and intellectualism of the modernists. In this poem he sought above all things to communicate, to abandon whatever might obscure the understanding of his reader.

The truth of the senses, in the poem, is self-evident and needs no complex analysis or interpretation. The point of departure for the speaker’s experience appears small, insignificant, and not fully poetic. Neruda, however, quickly establishes an emotional link with the scent of cordwood. The speaker sees each aspect of that night as a gift; Neruda’s poetry is also a gift to a world that offers him beauty and life. Poetry, like the scent of pine, is a vehicle through which to give back to the world some of the beauty first given by the world to the poet’s senses.

The emotional link that the poet establishes with the fragrance in “A Smell of Cordwood” is accomplished by reminding the reader what the speaker’s impression was when he smelled the scent for the first time: “a fragrance/ that gives itself/ once, and once/ only.” By indirectly likening the scent offered by the wood to the sensuality a woman might offer, Neruda adds a human dimension to a basic property of nature that it did not have before. Consequently, the reader is reminded of the link between the natural scent and nature of humankind. Linking that natural world with the human world, particularly at the end of the poem, when the speaker states that the fragrance became “lost” in his blood, Neruda underscores the fact that not only the fragrance but also the memory of the fragrance will live on in the speaker as well as in the reader of the poem.