Tonight I Can Write

by Pablo Neruda

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How is Pablo Neruda's poem "Tonight I can write" an elegy?

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The Random House Dictionary defines the word “elegy” as “a mournful, melancholy, or plaintive poem, especially a funeral song or a lament for the dead.” Pablo Neruda’s poem “Tonight I can write the saddest lines” is clearly an elegy by this or practically any other definition. The poem is intensely mournful and melancholy and might even be considered a kind of funeral song in some respects. Indeed, initially it is not clear whether the speaker is mourning the literal death of a loved one or simply the death of their relationship. It turns out, eventually, that the latter is the case, as becomes clear when the speaker says,

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is shattered and she is not with me.

By this point, however, the speaker is half-way through the poem, and so the possibility that until that point he might be mourning a literal death cannot be dismissed. That possibility adds even more poignancy to the poem, at least at first.

Interestingly enough, near the end of the work the speaker remarks,

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.

This line might at first suggest that the speaker now feels anger toward the woman he once loved and that perhaps he even hates her.  However, he soon changes his mind and makes it clear that his feelings for her are still strong, even though they are now quite complex and ambivalent.  This is true even at the very end of the poem when he says that this is

the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her. 

Here the tone is not only mournful but perhaps even somewhat bitter, so that the last line of the poem moves away from elegy and toward condemnation.

Something extra: Why did Neruda choose the elegy -- or at least an elegiac tone -- for this poem?  The answer seems clear: the speaker is full of sadness, and elegy is the genre appropriate to the expression of sadness.  Yet one wonders if there is any chance at all that Neruda is pehaps mocking the speaker, whose sadness can seem obsessive and even self-indulgent.  This possibility is raised especially near the end of the poem, when its tone seems to verge toward bitterness. If this elegy had been written during the English Renaissance, one would feel more sure that satire and irony were involved, since it was common during that time to mock self-indulgently sad speakers. There are few clues in Neruda's poem that would unequivocally suggest such a reading (at least in W. S. Merwin's translation, which is quoted above).

One line, though, is especially intriguing:

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.

Probably this means, "I no longer love her, that's certain, but, oh, I definitely loved her in the past!"  However, the line as translated coluld also suggest, "I no longer love her, that's certain, but I do love the way I loved her in the past." In other words, the speaker misses not only the woman but the intensity of the love he once felt for her. In still other words, he misses her less than he misses his own feelings. This interpretation would be an ironic reading of that line, but irony may not be the tone here or elsewhere. It may be that the poet sympathizes with the speaker and is presenting his sadness "straight."

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