Neruda was a political activist and a committed communist all his adult life, and historical events in Chile and around the world had a profound affect on his art. "Ode to My Socks" was written in 1956, four years after his return to Chile from political exile. Neruda published four books of odes from 1954 to 1959, and the verses in these collections show a profound shift in style and theme from his earlier work. Some critics have maintained that after the horrors of World War II and the political hardships he suffered in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Neruda sought to return to an examination and celebration of more elemental, human experiences. Others have contended that the odes reflect a time of simple happiness in the poet's life with his third wife, who inspired much of his later poetry. It is worth examining the historical context in which Neruda lived to get a sense of how history shaped his poetry and perhaps contributed to the style that characterizes "Ode to My Socks."
Chile in the Early Twentieth Century
When Neruda was born in 1904, Chile had been independent from Spain for eighty-six years. Neruda's life was little affected by World War I, during which Chile remained neutral and prospered economically because of wartime demand for nitrates, one of the country's chief natural resources. However, he grew up seeing considerable poverty in his home province. From early on, he was concerned with the plight of the peasants and workers around him, and he identified with the socialist cause that aimed at addressing the economic problems of Chile's poorest citizens. After World War I, Germany began to export synthetic nitrates, and the Chilean economy collapsed. Strikes erupted from all sectors of society, and conflict developed between liberal and conservative elements. The liberals gained power with the 1920 election of Arturo Alessandri Palma, but he was unable to pass his program of reform through Congress. During these turbulent years, Neruda lived in Santiago beginning his career as a poet and political activist. In 1924 a group of military figures launched a coup d'état in order to force liberal reforms. The dictatorship they formed was overthrown early in 1925 in another military coup. A new constitution was written that reformed the electoral system, reduced the power of the Congress, and conferred greater freedoms to individuals. Alessandri was restored to the presidency for less than a year. Emiliano Figueroa took over as president in 1926, and Carlos Ibáñez del Campo ruled from 1927 until 1931. It was during this time that Neruda obtained his first posting in 1927 as a diplomat. The worldwide depression that began in 1929 caused severe economic problems in Chile. After several more coups and changes in government, Alessandri was elected president again in 1932 and served until 1938.
The Spanish Civil War
Neruda did not escape political and social turmoil by living abroad. He was in Spain when the Civil War broke out in 1936. In this conflict, conservative forces in Spain overthrew the second Spanish republic. The war pitted Nationalists, led by the wealthy landowners and aristocracy, Catholic Church, military leaders, and fascist Falange party, against the Loyalists, which consisted of liberals, anarchists, socialists, and communists. Many of Neruda's close friends and associates, including the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, were executed by Nationalist forces. Neruda aided in the Loyalist cause, organizing support for political refugees and helping them to find asylum in Chile. The events of the war had a profound effect on Neruda, and he wrote: "The world changed, and my poetry has changed. One drop of blood falling on these lines will remain alive in them indelible like love."
Chile in the 1940s and 1950s
In 1943 Neruda returned to Chile after a diplomatic posting in Mexico. The president in Chile at the time was Juan Antonio Ríos, a member of the Radical Party that was a part of a coalition of...
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