Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Pablo Neruda was a Chilean poet who lived from 1904 to 1973, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, and he published three collections of poetic odes during his life. This particular poem, "Ode to My Suit," comes from the first collection of odes, entitled Elementary Odes, which was published in 1954. The poem is written in free verse, without a rhyme scheme or regular meter, and it takes the speaker’s suit of clothes as its subject. An ode typically praises its subject in an elevated style, so it might seem unusual that Neruda would compose such a poem for something as mundane as a suit that is worn every day. By doing so, he seems to suggest that even the most commonplace of objects can be worthy of notice, of praise, or of poetry.
The poem’s speaker begins by speaking directly to the suit, using a literary device called apostrophe—the addressing of someone or something that cannot respond as though it could. He personifies the suit by describing how it waits for him each morning; it waits for him to put it on, filling it up with not only his body but also with his hopes and loves (lines 1–5).
When he emerges, “only half awake,” from the shower (lines 7–8), the speaker dons the jacket and pants and feels “embraced / by [the suit’s] unfailing loyalty” (lines 12–13). He seems to credit the suit for its patience and fidelity to him, as though it could make a different choice. After dressing, the speaker takes his morning walk and “work[s] [his] way into [his] poetry” (line 15). While a poem’s author and its speaker are not necessarily the same person, this line implies that Neruda, himself, could be the speaker of this text. It is noteworthy that the speaker can only work his way into his poetry once he has showered and donned his suit; it is a crucial part of his preparations for the day, for his creativity.
Throughout his day, the speaker is “shap[ed]” and “confront[ed]” by the things he sees (lines 20–21)—”men, women, / events and struggles” (lines 18–19). He reflects that, while he is being shaped by the things he sees, he is “shaping” his suit (lines 25–26). The suit prepares him to be shaped by the world around him, and, as he is shaped, he shapes the suit in turn. Just as the speaker feels opened up and “creased” by the things that inspire him to write (line 23), he is “wearing [the suit] threadbare” (line 28). He tells his suit, “your life grows / in the image of my own” (lines 29–30). The speaker continues to personify his suit, giving it a life that progresses alongside his.
At line 31, the speaker addresses his suit with a simile: when the wind blows, “you flap and hum / as if you were my soul” (lines 32–33). This simile likens the suit to a vital part of the speaker: the most true essence of his nature. He then says that, “in bad moments / you cling / to my bones” (lines 34–36). The suit cannot literally do this, because the speaker’s bones are inside his body and the suit is outside; the substitution of “bones” for body, then, is an example of synecdoche, the substitution of a part of something for the whole thing. This seems to juxtapose the physicality of his body with the intangibility of the soul, which is given tangible form here through its comparison to something as commonplace as a suit. Pondering his suit of clothes is compelling the speaker to ponder his soul.
Ultimately, continuing the personification of the suit, the speaker wonders whether a bullet will kill them both—himself and the suit, which would be “stain[ed] […] with [his] blood” (line 45). The speaker recognizes that his own death will perhaps be “less dramatic” and more “simple”: that the suit “will grow ill” with him and that he may someday be buried in it (lines 50–57). He explains that this is why, each day, he greets his suit “with respect” (line 61), and that they are “one being / and shall be always” (lines 63–64).
Note: This Study Guide refers to Margaret Sayers Peden's translation of Neruda's poem.