The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

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.

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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!

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

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 morsel of bread offered to readers.

The poem also reveals Vallejo’s debt to the Spanish American modernists—Rubén Darío and Julio Herrera y Reissig in particular—especially in its emphasis on the senses, such as the dampness of the earth, the smell of blood, and the sound of the passing cart. Such vivid imagery, often uncontextualized, is a technique used by the modernists and the French Symbolists, whom Vallejo had also read.

In the first stanza, the nonlinear nature of the poem is achieved by the use of images that move like photographic flashes from “breakfast” to “Damp cemetery earth” to “City in winter” and, finally, to “The mordant passing/ of a cart.” The most powerful image in the poem describes the taking of the vines from the rich by “the two holy hands/ which in a flash of light/ flew unnailed from the Cross!” This strong image of the cross maintains the poem’s focus on religious imagery in that it echoes the “mordant passing” of the first stanza, a more literal translation of which would be “mordant crossing” (mordaz cruzada in Spanish).

Unlike the poetry of the Spanish American modernists, however, “Our Daily Bread” refers to a reality that is far from harmonious. Here the world is awry, as is suggested by one’s drinking rather than eating breakfast. Furthermore, the first stanza ends with “an enchained emotion of fasting,” as if to underscore the idea that this is a world where logic does not apply. The unexpected use of the adjective “enchained” to modify “emotion” in this phrase is a technique that Vallejo used with increasing frequency as his poetic career progressed. This kind of catachresis is borrowed from the poets of Spain’s Golden Age, as well as from the Spanish American modernists and the French Symbolists, but instead of using the technique to somehow capture the sublime or to create a particular sound, Vallejo uses it convey his existential angst, as well as to suggest the limits of language itself.

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Themes