The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“A Lemon” is an ode (an ode was originally a vehicle of praise, either civic or lyrical in nature, intended to be sung in public) written in highly flexible free verse and composed of four stanzas. Pablo Neruda wrote three volumes of what he called “odas elementales” (“elementary odes”), which were translated together into English as The Elementary Odes of Pablo Neruda in 1961. As in all those poems, the subject matter is a seemingly “unpoetic,” simple, ordinary object.

The poem opens with a wild and sensuous image of “lemon flowers/ loosed/ on the moonlight.” In the next several lines, the sense of smell dominates; the lemon blossoms become “love’s/ lashed and insatiable/ essences,/ sodden with fragrance.” As the poem moves from the sense of smell to sight, the blooming flowers are suddenly transformed into yellow lemons. Continuing the stanza’s vertical movement (from moonlight to the tree to the earth), the lemons fall from their branches—which are likened to a planetarium—to the earth below.

Once the lemons drop to the earth, they are no longer described in romantic terms but rather in practical terms; they become the “Delicate merchandise!” referred to in the opening line of stanza 2. Thus the images of moonlight, love, and lemon blossoms alluded to in the previous stanza are superseded by images of bustling harbors and bazaars where lemon becomes “barbarous gold,” a commodity to be bought...

(The entire section is 599 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Unlike the poems in Neruda’s Residencia en la tierra cycle (1933-1947)—in which readers are always somewhat outside the system because of the complex language and content, mere spectators whose function is to admire the poet and his extraordinary experiences with the ordinary matter of, for example, wood, wine, and celery—the poems in the Elementary Odes series reverse the situation. These poems, including “A Lemon,” are designed to draw the reader directly into the process of wonder and discovery.

The poem is designed as a didactic construct, helping the reader to see and to speculate on the extraordinary significance of the world in which he or she lives. For this reason, the poem (as is the case with most of the Elementary Odes) ends with a kind of philosophical maxim summarizing the lesson in order to help the reader comprehend the poem’s practical import.

In “A Lemon,” as in most of the poems in The Elementary Odes of Pablo Neruda, the basic formal pattern is as follows: The elemental subject is introduced, transformed, and then summarized at the end. At the outset of the poem, the subject announced by the title is metaphorized promptly so as to bestow it with a certain level of poetic dignity. It is introduced indirectly (with the hint of lemon-blossom fragrance), then directly in the object of the lemon itself. The subject is more completely transformed later in the poem; the juice of the ripe yellow lemon cut in half is associated with religious imagery and precious gemstones, elegant and noble points of comparison for a simple lemon. Instead of simply dropping to the ground when ripe, the lemon is depicted as traveling from the heavens (the planetarium) above to the earth below.

Finally, in the poem’s conclusion, the religious/philosophical dimension predominates as the speaker philosophizes on the significance of the elemental. The speaker of the poem, addressing the partaker of the lemon directly, reminds him or her that partaking of the fruit connects that individual with the miracle of the universe and its creation in the garden of Eden. This individual is partaking of no simple, ordinary fruit but becomes part of the “diminutive fire of a planet.”