Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

The greatest difficulty in discussing the meaning of this poem lies in deciding what to do with the title. The title appears to be significant. There is, therefore, a temptation with a title such as this—a title that names something—to determine its symbolic intention. Vallejo refers to “nine monsters.” The reader’s job, it would seem, is to figure out what those monsters represent. There is, however, a danger in approaching the imagery of a poem as a set of hieroglyphics that must be deciphered. It is not always the case that symbolism can be neatly solved, as though it were a code. In poetry, the ideational bias is especially problematic. This bias overemphasizes the interpretation of meaning in a work of art, when in fact a complete system of aesthetics focuses on numerous aspects of that work in order to discover its effectiveness. Meaning, then, is not something hidden to be solved like a riddle. Rather, meaning is derived from the total aesthetic experience.

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In lines 33 through 37, Vallejo repeats the number “nine” several times, clearly echoing the title. Although the monsters are not named, it is apparent that these monsters have something to do with sounds heard in the inner ear. This ear creates the sounds itself; and it creates them in response to moments of suffering and pain—“the hour of crying,” or “the hour of hunger,” for example. So the monsters might be related to the intensification of pain at certain moments, such as throbs or jolts or anything that aggravates maladies. Beyond that, their significance is esoteric.

One thing is clear in the poem: Pain itself is monstrous; it grows phenomenally; it attacks humans; it causes upheaval in the world. In several instances, the speaker makes some curious assertions about pain. There has never been so much pain, he says in the second stanza, but why does the speaker locate pain in the lapel or in arithmetic? Through swift associations, the poet connects some rather mundane items, thereby drawing attention to the extent of pain’s infiltration into daily life. Everything, he wants to say, contributes in some measure to our suffering. He particularly associates pain with modern gadgetry and entertainment. Even those things normally thought of as comforts or diversions, such as movies and music, are in fact sources of pain.

The poem ends with a question for the secretary of health: What can be done about this rampant pain? This is a rhetorical question, not a demand. The speaker knows all too well that political or governmental solutions to the problem are ineffectual or nonexistent. Anything humankind attempts will be overwhelmed by suffering.

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