Dead Gallop

by Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto

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The Poem

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“Dead Gallop,” also variously translated from the Spanish as “Death Gallop” or “Gallop Toward Death,” is the opening poem of Pablo Neruda’s Residence cycle. The poem is written in five stanzas, each consisting of an uneven number of lines, the longer opening stanzas ending with considerably shorter lines. In reading the poem through, one gets a feeling of galloping or moving rapidly toward an abrupt ending. Feeling the dramatic impact of the poem is important to understanding the various disjointed images that describe the speaker’s movement toward death.

The poem begins with what appear to be sagacious observations about nature; each element seems connected to a crucial function in the universe. Ashes, seas, bells, and plums constitute some of the many sights, sounds, and smells of life. Oddly, however, these objects do not have any obvious connection with one another, although they are linked by the fact that they are “like” or “as” one another in certain ways.

In the second stanza, elemental and essential things are further examined in images such as wheels, the limbs of trees, and lilacs. The third stanza continues the span across the natural world, although the emphasis is on the way things move or remain still, depending on “what my pale heart” expects from the experiences themselves. With the first reference to a personal “my” in the poem, the speaker introduces himself. Now the reader realizes that a human source has made these subjective and wise-sounding observations.

There is a shift in the poem’s tone in the fourth stanza. It begins with the locution “Well now,” as though to denote a change in the speaker’s perception. Momentarily, then, he reflects on the fullness of the world. Even as he pauses, he considers how his thoughts, like the sounds he hears, grow “suddenly, stretching without pause.”

The feeling of endless motion carries into the last stanza, where the poem ends tersely. Throughout, the speaker has moved headlong toward something, but at the end, the outcome is anticlimactic; he does not seem to have revealed anything concrete to the reader. The inconclusive closure corresponds to the speaker’s sense of nothingness in the face of the world’s plenitude. In the earlier stanzas, the outside world has affected him so much that he contemplates images of it. The images had not appeared to him in any coherent way even though he was able to posit a relationship among them. He is able to make sense of the images when he turns them inward toward himself. Figuratively, he gallops toward his inner self and ponders the meaning of the images and impressions. While he does not speak directly of death, he does suggest that the opposite of something is nothing.

If life is characterized by a particular fullness, the opposite might be true: Death, which lies on the other side of life, could be nothingness itself. The speaker does not go completely beyond the end, however, and the poem’s last image of things growing suggests that life will still go on.

Forms and Devices

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Neruda was in his twenties when he composed the Residence poems. The tone and subject matter of “Dead Gallop” reveal a youthful cynicism about the world, despite the abundance of energy contained in that work. The reader enters into the speaker’s subjective vision of the world.

The images appear before the speaker in disjointed fashion, although he presents them as though they somehow connect or correspond with one another. The lines are linked by the poem’s dependence on simile, a figure of speech in which unlike things are compared. The repetition...

(This entire section contains 510 words.)

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of “like,” “such as,” and “as if” serves to join the various images. As the reader “gallops” along with the speaker, however, it becomes more obvious that the images are in fact disjointed and incomplete. The opening stanza itself is an extensive catalog of dismembered images which do not add up to a tangible whole. This strategy reappears in successive stanzas.

Simile is employed as a poetic device throughout the poem. The speaker compares seemingly incomparable things: shapes to sounds, places to moving things, and silence to flowers. Each comparison ends by moving onto still other comparisons, until the stanza ends with a period. In fact, the images do not necessarily have an external correspondence to the material world. They do not appear to be naturally or logically ordered. The subjective observations are conveyed by the speaker’s authoritative manner in presenting them. He thus depends on certain locutions to uphold the correlations he makes.

In the third and fourth stanzas, the speaker begins with “therefore” and “well now,” respectively, as if to indicate that he would now offer a summary of what went on in the earlier two stanzas. It is a false start, since he then proceeds to move along again in disjointed fashion. In this accumulation of unconnected images and movement without concrete ends, the speaker reveals a growing discernment beneath the mask of certainty.

The endlessness of the comparisons suggests that the external world is collapsing or, more specifically, that the speaker senses the breakdown and tries to appear confident in this understanding. Paradoxically, the tone of confidence betrays his uncertainty. As he senses his growing despair, the speaker turns inward, “to me who enters singing,” and he realizes that it is important, nevertheless, to continue thinking about the world in all its “vast disorder.”

“Dead Gallop” is often considered a depressing, or pessimistic, poem in which the speaker seems to shut himself away from the world. More accurately, the poem reflects the anguish of not knowing what death actually is and when it will come. The speaker seems reluctant to bring up the subject of death itself and chooses, instead, to create an atmosphere of uncertainty about the living world. In this way, he prepares for the unknowable by moving through living and growing things.

The poem ends abruptly, without positive reassurance, in an effort to capture what the speaker believes to be the only truth of death: It is a sudden and startling event that intrudes on life, leaving things unfinished.