Though struck by its vivid imagery, readers of “Our Daily Bread” are often uncertain about its story and message. This imagery conveys a strong sense of existential guilt as well as a desire for redemption and social justice. The context of the poem becomes clearer as the reader progresses through its five irregular stanzas, the later stanzas clarifying the earlier ones. The importance of context in establishing the poem’s meaning contributes to the nonlinear nature of the poem and is consistent with its overall message that human communion, that which overcomes the existential despair of the individual, is possible only if the divisiveness that categorizes language and thought is surpassed.
The poem conveys the notion of the poet facing the dawn of a new day, and yet the earth is “sad” and the poet, in his guilt, is asking for absolution. It begins with the vague third-person reflexive tense (“One drinks”) to describe one drinking one’s breakfast—probably just coffee—on a somber, cold morning. References to morning throughout the poem include “breakfast,” “damp,” the “morning eye” that still sleeps, the speaker “drinking this coffee,” and lastly, the title of the poem and the request in the third stanza, both of which refer to the request in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us our daily bread.”
The dreariness of the new day is established with the words “damp,” “winter,” “mordant,” “enchained,” and “fasting.” Death is omnipresent, as the cemetery smells of the blood of loved ones. In the second stanza, the poet expresses a wish, perhaps as a result of this bleakness. This wish is also vague, as if the speaker does not know exactly what is wrong or how to remedy the situation: “One would like to knock on every door/ and ask for I don’t know whom.” The wish gets more precise as the religious imagery becomes clearer: one wishes to give the poor—who are presumably not able to break their fast—pieces of bread and to take vineyards from the rich “with the two holy hands” that “flew unnailed from the Cross.”
The last two stanzas enlarge upon the poet’s sense of guilt and switch to the first person, thus connecting the poet to the universal experience of facing each new day as an alienated being, knowing that social injustice and death are inevitable. The speaker feels estranged from his own body (“Every bone in my body belongs to another”) and guilty (“maybe I stole them!”). Although readers are not informed of the cause of this guilt, it is so acute that the poet feels not only that he has stolen but also that if he had not been born, “some other poor wretch would be drinking this coffee.”
The stanza ends with the speaker condemning himself as “a wicked thief” and asking the poem’s fundamental question: “Where am I to go?” The answer to this question involves the wish for redemption, which is repeated in the last stanza. This time, however, it is repeated more emphatically in the first person:
I would like to knock on every doorand beg forgiveness of I don’t know whom,and make him morsels of fresh breadhere, in the oven of my hear!
Forms and Devices
Written early in César Vallejo’s career, “Our Daily Bread” bears the influence of the Romantics, whom he studied at the University of Trujillo, Peru, and wrote about in his 1915 bachelor’s degree thesis, entitled El romanticismo en la pesía castellana (romanticism in Castilian poetry). The poem’s fervent expression of emotion and despair is furthered by its seven exclamation points. Just as Romantic poets, such as José Espronceda and José Zorilla, often play with the porous boundary between life and art, Vallejo also conveys the Romantic notion that the poet’s goal is to somehow overcome that despair through the poem itself. Art is thus an answer to life’s difficulties, and it follows that the poem itself is a...
(The entire section is 1,000 words.)