Neruda refers to the artichoke as having a tender heart, and he extends the metaphor of the poet—a tender-hearted artichoke—to himself. The poet must find ways of accommodating his sensitivity to his life and to the world in order to survive. Here the artichoke-poet is stoic in his courageous defiance of the madness that surrounds him. He digs deep into his own cupola, the ecclesiastical connotations of this domelike structure suggesting that this protectionism becomes his religion. It is his way of reaching transcendence or is at least his path to survival as he readies himself to do battle with the forces of reality that surround him.
Somehow he manages to keep calm, “impermeable bajo sus escamas” (untouchable under his scales). Other plants, such as the carrot, prefer simply to stay asleep, while the vines in the orchard expose themselves to the dangers of the strong rays of sunlight and wither and die. The cabbage is pretentious and aspires to physical beauty, while the oregano seeks sublimity through the piquant aroma that it gives off. Through all this the humble artichoke, dour and prosaic, does not aspire either to sublime beauty or to the popularity that a spicy oregano enjoys because of its aroma. It remains quiet and calm, always ready to do battle but stoically unmoved by the pretention of the other plants. It is sure in its own identity and proud of its ability to give pleasure in and on its own terms.
Clearly Pablo Neruda is alluding to his own existence—to the poet’s place in the world and to his willingness to acknowledge his gifts as well as his limitations in the vast panorama of human life. He is sure that he will have to do battle, like the Romantics and the modernists before him, against the crassness of the profane modern world, but he is also sure that his art and the strength of his poetic gift can shield him to a certain degree from the blight of that reality.
The poet appears to be content to be himself, to adopt a stoic and slightly bemused view of the contours of the society in which he finds himself. Yet Neruda’s vision is also one of praise. The poem is an ode to the beauty that he finds in the commonplace, in the sensuous world, full of its own secret poetic meaning and special beauty.