“A Few Things Explained” is a lyric poem written in free verse in which the poet directly addresses the reader in an attempt both to explain why his poetry has become more sociopolitical and to denounce the Nationalist side of the Spanish Civil War.
The seventy-nine-line, twelve-stanza poem can be divided into four sections. The first section consists of the first two stanzas. In the first of these, the poet anticipates questions his reader might have concerning the rather sudden and radical change his poetry has undergone. “You will ask,” he writes, “And where are the lilacs?” The five-line stanza of questions is followed by a one-line stanza that introduces the poet’s answer to his reader, as he writes, “I’ll tell you how matters stand with me.”
The second section, consisting of four long stanzas, tells how things were when the poet lived for a time in Spain, on the outskirts of Madrid. He speaks of how his house was called “ ‘the house with the flowers,’” a happy house, he implies, frequented by small children, as well as some of Spain’s most famous poets, among them Federico García Lorca. He goes on to tell about his neighborhood and its teeming marketplace, characterized by “all the avid/ quintessence of living.” Virtually every image in this section suggests life, the day-to-day activities of living, happiness and plenitude.
This positive atmosphere is in sharp contrast with that presented in the third section of the poem, a section of five stanzas that tell of the bloody civil war that interrupted the happiness of the previous scene. This section begins with one of the strongest poetic fulcrums to be found in Pablo Neruda’s poetry. Immediately following the section of positive images, the poet begins a stanza that reads: “Till one morning everything blazed:/ one morning bonfires/ sprang out of earth/ and devoured all the living.” This fire, and “the blood and the gunpowder,” the poet implies, are all Spain has experienced since civil war broke out.
The poet goes on to describe those he blames for the war, those, he says, who have come “out of the clouds to a slaughter of innocents.” The perpetrators of this slaughter are, he implies, the Nationalist troops and their supporters; “jackals abhorred by the jackal!” he calls them. In the fourth and fifth stanzas of this section, he actually turns his attention from the reader and directly addresses the Nationalists, telling them at one point, “see the death of my house,/ look well at the havoc of Spain.” He follows this with a promise that although the Nationalists may win in the short run, they will pay for their treatment of Spain and its people in the long run (“out of your turpitude, bullets are born/ that one day will strike for the mark/ of your hearts”).
The fourth and final section of the poem functions as a coda. The first of the two stanzas that make up this section returns the poet’s address to the reader and repeats the essence of the content of the first stanza of the poem, as in it the poet anticipates the reader’s questions about the change in his poetry. The final stanza provides an answer in miniature to that question, as the poet simply states three times, “Come see the blood in the streets.”
Given its political subject matter, its declarative intent, and, in particular, its strong and unmitigated political message, “A Few Things Explained” is a poem that could have fallen easily into the category of literature that sacrifices art for message. Neruda,...
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however, has not allowed that to happen, for while the poem’s message is indeed clear, the poem is as artful as its message is strong.
One of the things that Neruda does to lift his poem above the potentially prosaic reality of its subject matter is to rely heavily on telling nouns and equally telling adjectives while almost eliminating (or at least making only very limited use of) verbs. This makes the poem read more like a list than a fully detailed description of people, places, and events. The reader still receives the information, but the vehicle that conveys the information is both more poetic and more subtle than outright and direct description. For example, when the poet describes his neighborhood before the war, virtually all his description is in the form of a series of nouns and adjectives that suggest normal, day-to-day life, happiness and plenitude: “a wild pandemonium/ of fingers and feet overflowing the streets,/ meters and liters, all the avid/ quintessence of living.” The poet continues, “fish packed in the stands,/ a contexture of roofs in the chill of the sun/ where the arrowpoints faltered;/ potatoes, inflamed and fastidious ivory,/ tomatoes again and again to the sea.” This series of images not only paints a vivid picture of the marketplace in question, but also does so in a more poetic and perhaps even more vivid fashion than standard prose description might have been able to do.
The above images contrast strongly (and contrast is another of the poet’s devices in this poem) with those that follow, which describe the situation after war breaks out. Once again, Neruda resorts to suggestive images rather than straightforward description, at first limiting his description of the war to three essential images: fire, blood, and gunpowder. Even when he discusses the Nationalist troops and their supporters, he does not name names or groups, for the most part, but instead alludes to them by means of images that suggest their identities: “Bandits in airplanes,” he writes, suggesting the help of Adolf Hitler’s Germany in the war; “marauders with seal rings and duchesses,” alluding to the monarchy; and “black friars and brigands signed with the cross,” suggesting the Catholic church.
The poet’s reliance on image is evident as well in the stanza in which he promises that the victims shall be avenged in the future. “Out of dead houses,” he writes, “it is metal that blazes/ in place of the flowers.” He warns the Nationalists that from their actions “bullets are born/ that one day will strike for the mark/ of your hearts.”
Finally, one of the most poetic passages of Neruda’s poem is also probably its most famous. The final stanza, as stated above, provides a compact answer to the question “Why has Neruda’s poetry changed?” The answer is, simply, “Come see the blood in the streets,” but Neruda repeats it three times, each time dividing the sentence (with respect to lines) differently from the time (or times) before. The repetition emphasizes the answer, and the variations suggest movement, perhaps much like that of the blood itself. This suggestion, through repetition and line division, not only makes the final stanza more poetic, but also takes the poem and its reader one step closer to the horrible reality the poet seeks to describe.