I have a terrible fear of being an animal

by Cesar Vallejo
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 397

“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.

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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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557

When reading Vallejo, and particularly the poems in Poemas humanos, it is useful to be aware of the figure of speech called synecdoche. Synecdoche is the use of a part of something to represent the whole—an individual for a class, a material for a thing—or vice versa. In “I have a terrible fear of being an animal,” Vallejo makes extensive use of synecdoche. The purpose of using this device is to expand the evocative power of language by calling up all of the associations and consequent allusions that each fragment contains, and in so doing to build the levels of meaning of the poem. Another reason, especially noteworthy in Vallejo, is to confuse the reader.

In the first stanza, for example, there are several synecdochic fragments accenting light and darkness; day and night are obvious. “Archepiscopal” is less obvious but no less germane. This metonymic device relating to the church hierarchy may imply both light and darkness depending on the needs of poet and poem.

There are repeated allusions to power or powerlessness in the references to the “animal,” to “snow,” to earthly and unearthly forces, as in the ecclesiastical reference, to the animal’s “veiny circulation,” to his ability to “breathe” and transform himself, and finally in the terrestrial but significant emblem of “money,” which leads both power and powerlessness to the man/animal.

The story that the poet tells by linking all these elements is neither direct nor easy to follow. It is almost like a series of verbal mirrors, each of which reflects and absorbs the light of the others in order to create a more rich and varied impression. In the second stanza, Vallejo refers to the human as an “absurd” creature, a “premise” rather than a person. By using synecdoche, placing a hinge at his waist, separating his neck from the rest of his body, and giving him a snout rather than a nose, Vallejo shows just how fragmented and perhaps even puppetlike the animal/man is.

By including a reference to the “tabla of [John] Locke,” Vallejo at once calls up the philosophical notion of the human entity born as a blank table, an empty slate, without heavenly gifts, and its author, who claimed that logic could be obtained through the association of ideas. The reference to “Bacon” is to Francis Bacon, the English philosopher who established the technique of scientific inquiry based on what is observable and, therefore, deducible. By means of those various synecdochic juxtapositions, Vallejo underscores how absurd any creature—even a “premise” who is a man—actually is.

When Vallejo calls upon aromatic logic in the third stanza, the reader knows that he is drawing on the earlier mentioned technique of sensory stimulation of literary efforts by perfume, but he is also alluding to what foolishness the animal, man, has made of the idea as well as the operation of logic. There is further use of the sense of smell, but in a reality in which day is night—“lunar day”—and life is equal to death: “the alive absurdity and the dead absurdity.” The pervasive scent there is putrid.

The last stanza compounds synecdochic and metonymic confusion, and the poet now can be seen thrashing about within the existence of the poem, using numbers as a further abstraction of the illusory power of words.

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