When I set this task for myself, I knew very well that down the right sides of sonnets, with elegant discriminating taste, poets of all times have arranged rhymes that sound like silver, or crystal, or cannonfire. But—with great humility—I made these sonnets out of wood; I gave them the sound of that opaque pure substance, and that is how they should reach your ears. Walking in forests or on beaches, along hidden lakes, in latitudes sprinkled with ashes, you and I have picked up pieces of pure bark, pieces of wood subject to the comings and goings of water and the weather. Out of such softened relics, then, with hatchet, and machete and pocketknife, I built up these lumber piles of love, and with fourteen boards each I built little houses, so that your eyes, which I adore and sing to, might live in them. Now that I have declared the foundations of my love, I surrender this century to you: wooden sonnets that rise only because you gave them life.
I am reading Stephen Tapscott’s translation, which gives the Spanish originals as well. I thought I would practice my basic Spanish by translating these poems, aided by Tapscott’s English version and a dictionary. I will most probably be overly literal, if not making outright errors, so if anyone wants to correct me, please do so. Working with Neruda’s sonnets cannot harm a better understanding of the form.
Matilde, nombre de planta o piedra o vino,
de lo que nace de la tierra y dura,
palabra en cuyo crecimiento amanece,
en cuyo estío estalla la luz de los limones.
En ese nombre corren navíos de madera
rodeados por enjambres de fuego azul marino,
y esas letras son el agua de un río
que desemboca en mí corazón calcinado.
Oh nombre descubierto bajo una enredadera
como la puerta de un tunel desconocido
que comunica con la fragancía del mundo!
Oh, invádeme con tu boca abrasadora,
indágame, si quieres, con tus ojos nocturnos,
pero en tu nombre déjame navegar y dormir.
Matilde, the name of a plant or rock or wine,
of what begins from the earth and endures,
word in whose growth the day first opens,
in whose summer bursts the light of lemons.
Through that name race wooden ships,
surrounded by swarms of navy-blue fire,
and those letters are the waters of a river
that pours through my charred heart.
O name discovered among tangling vines,
like the door to an unknown tunnel
that communicates with the fragrance of the world!
O invade me with your scorching mouth,
search me, if you wish, with your night-eyes,
but in your name let me navigate and sleep.
The sonnet’s structure is interesting. The imagery of the first and second quatrains is completely different: land in the first quatrain, and sea in the second. The land imagery of the first quatrain returns in the first tercet, while the sea images of the second quatrain return in the second tercet.
Within the first quatrain, the three land images of plant, rock and wine in the first line are developed in lines 3, 2 and 4 respectively. Varying that structure, the second quatrain organizes itself into two parts: “that name” and “its letters.”
The sonnet steps up the emotion in the sestet by beginning each tercet with an exclamation.
The first three sections begin with the invocation of the beloved’s name; the fourth delays that invocation to the very last line of the poem. The wit of the tercet lies in invoking the beloved’s name against her more threatening parts.