Reading: Enigma with Flower by Pablo Neruda

The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973, born as Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto) deserves a place in our anthology as well. I browsed his poetry and found this item, ‘Enigma with Flower’ suitable for today’s short reading.

Victory. It has come late, I had not learnt
how to arrive, like the lily, at will,
the white figure, that pierces
the motionless eternity of earth,
pushing at clear, faint, form,
till the hour strikes: that clay,
with a white ray, or a spur of milk.
Shedding of clothing, the thick darkness of soil,
on whose cliff the fair flower advances,
till the flag of its whiteness
defeats the contemptible deep of night,
and, from the motion of light,
spills itself in astonished seed.

The poem is set in the boldest key of lyricism, rendered in Keatsean English. The original Spanish begins like this:

Una victoria. Es tarde, no sabías.
Llegó como azucena a mi albedrío
el blanco talle que traspasa
la eternidad inmóvil de la tierra,


Victory and the whiteness of the lily. The protagonist seems shy, he doesn’t dare to break the silence of earth, to push through the clay ‘with a white ray, or a spur of milk (‘espolón de leche’)’. That’s the fragile lily flower surfacing. The flower, emerging from its bulb, is fighting the darkness of the soil and the ‘contemptible deep of night’ (‘el fondo indigno de la noche’). This description sounds very classicist indeed. The lily sheds the dark soil like clothing and appears innocent, like a virgin.

But its whiteness is just a flag, a symbol. It stands for a power it doesn’t possess, but represents. The metaphysics in the closing phrase is worth considering. The Spanish reads “y de la claridad en movimiento / se derraman atónitas semillas.” It sheds astonished/flabbergasted seeds from the clarity in motion, or something like that. This is the real flower power! The flower defeated darkness, only to be disseminated immediately, just by the motion of light. And its seed is astounded. They will become new bulbs and the process will be repeated. The little flowers put their tiny heads above the dark soil and grow into proud lilies that are caught off guard by the motion of light.

This whole procedure gains some purpose because we are there, and we can interpret it als ‘victory’.