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Who Am I?: An Explication of Pablo Neruda's Poem “We Are Many”

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Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was a renowned Chilean poet, diplomat and Communist senator, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. In his philosophical poem “We Are Many” (1967), Neruda offers the reader a brooding, introspective narrative about his comically confused sense of self-identity and conflict of self. It is an unrhymed and unmetered free-verse poem, which is in keeping with its very modern subject-matter—namely, Neruda's saddening lack of self-knowledge (in contradiction to ancient Greece's Delphic maxim “Know thyself”). Throughout the poem, Neruda expresses his rather comical inability to understand himself or even define himself in any meaningful way. This theme of a philosophical identity crisis and search for oneself is reinforced by the poem's broken architecture, which is replete with seemingly self-contradictory assertions. This free-verse poem begins with two four-line stanzas, but ends with a ten-line stanza—for a total of seven stanzas of varying and gradually increasing number of lines (4, 4, 6, 6, 7, 8, 10). It uses personifications, metaphors, hyperbole, allegory, self-parody, and other similar poetic devices to communicate its philosophical theme and deeper meaning to Neruda's numerous readers.

To begin this line-by-line explication, the poem has a somewhat unusual title—“We Are Many.” Perhaps meant as a response to the age-old question “Who am I?,” Neruda may have intended for the title to give an ironic, even saddened tone to the entire poem and also to signify the poet's multiple illusive personalities (or what modern neofreudian psychologists call a “split personality” or “multiple personalities”), as well as his many inner conflicts (that is, his struggles with his own fallible human nature). What is even more confusing is that Neruda uses the superfluous plural “We Are Many,” rather than the expected singular “I Am Many.” Neruda may have used this ironic and confusing title to describe his own Protean personality and many life struggles.

“We Are Many” uses vivid figurative language and visual imagery to voice the poet's comical disappointments and self-doubts about who he really was as a person—someone who was always seeking to discover his true identity: “Of the many men who I am, who we are / I can't find a single one” (lines 1-2). According to these first two opening lines, there is a multitude of selves who live inside him, expressive of all the numerous and changing facets of his own deeper and self-searching identity. The first stanza's lines 3-4 in particular are an apt and evocative metaphor, embodying his sense of being completely lost within his own splintered, changeable, and illusive self (“they disappear among my clothes / they've left for another city”).

Using self-mocking personification and hyperbole in a series of poetic contrasts, in the second stanza Neruda describes his profound misgivings about the consistency, steadiness and reliability of his own versatile and unpredictable character: “When everything seems to be set / to show me off as intelligent / the fool I always keep hidden / takes over all that I say” (5-8). In this satirically derisive personification, namely “the fool I always keep hidden / takes over all that I say” (7-8), the poet seems to seriously doubt even his own intellectual abilities. In the next stanza, Neruda goes so far as to describe himself as “a coward unknown to me” (12). First, he sees himself, as in a dream, as being the equal of other heroes of his day: “At other times, I am asleep / among distinguished people“ (9-10). But in the next line he awakes, “and when I look for my brave self” (11), all he sees is that “a coward unknown to me / rushes to cover my skeleton” (12-13), ending this irreverent and metaphorical personification with the hyperbole of “with a thousand fine excuses” (14). He continues his self-parody with an even greater satirical contrast and a very hyperbolic (but hardly plausible) exaggeration about his failure to be a hero: “When a decent house catches fire / instead of the fireman I summon / an arsonist bursts onto the scene / and that's me” (15-17). Neruda thus resorts to ironic personification, sarcastic self-blame (being “an arsonist,” “instead of the fireman”), and intentionally comical ambiguity—“What can I do?” (18)—to express his most intimate thoughts, emotions, self-perception, and comical uncertainty about the multiplicity of different, contrasting, and even conflicting personalities which inhabit his rather variable inner being: “What can I do to distinguish myself? / How can I pull myself together?” (19-20). In other words, what should he do to attain renown and how could he be even himself?

In the next stanza, the poet jokingly suggests that instead of being “a coward,” he wants to be a real macho hero—very much like in “all the books I read” that “are full of dazzling heroes, always sure of themselves” (21-23). Another revealing contrast is between his seemingly cowardly self (that he spoke of earlier) and these “dazzling heroes” whom he yearns to emulate, as signified by the metaphor “I die with envy of them” (24). He goes on, “and in films full of winds and bullets” (25)—referring most likely to old cowboy movies about America's Wild West—all that his envious ego can do is “I goggle at the cowboys” (26) and “I even admire the horses” (27). And then the poet almost sarcastically complains about the many different and constantly changing faces that he displays in the everyday behavior of his “lazy old self”: “But when I call for a hero / out comes my lazy old self / so I never know who I am” (28-30). Neruda is even unsure if this troubling impermanence of self-identity as well as his inconstancy and volatility of character may not continue into the future: “nor how many I am or will be” (31).

His humorous, self-deprecating, and nearly sarcastic tone is quite appropriate for the poem's introspective, almost introverted, theme and self-effacing style, given the fact that we are all very much like him—being similarly torn between our contradictory and unruly desires, often completely surprising ourselves by the things we do or say, as well as by our lack of control over our own thoughts and emotions. In fact, Freudian psychoanalysis has tried to explain the demons in our hearts by arguing that our behavior is ruled by subconscious and irrational urges, or drives—rather than by our self-conscious, rational minds. As the poet seems to imply, we are all constantly changing as we age—never remaining the same person for long. Not only do situations, circumstances, and surroundings change throughout the course of one's life, but these changes are also constantly affecting one's beliefs, character, and behavior. This fact is elegantly expressed in the poem's “bell” metaphor in the sixth stanza: “I'd love to be able to touch a bell / and summon the real me” (32-33). The poet does not want his multidimensional “myself” to melt within the multitude of his different inner beings, nor his “real me” to “disappear”: “because if I really need myself / I mustn't disappear” (34-35). While French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously complained that “Hell is other people,” Neruda seems to be saying, rather paradoxically, “Hell is deep inside me (us).”

In the last stanza, Neruda employs more metaphors to convey to the reader his sense of self-loss, disorientation, and even bitter dismay upon peering deep inside his inner self: “While I'm writing, I'm far away / and when I come back, I've gone” (36-37). When composing poetry, the poet is transported into another realm swarming with his poetic ideas, dreams and fantasies, but when he tries to return to earthly reality, his own psychic self-world is all of a sudden “gone.” Is he still the same person? Or a completely different person(s)? Neruda once again uses self-irony to highlight—with sad and helpless disappointment and powerlessness—not only the many different and perplexing aspects of himself: “I would like to know if others / go through the same things that I do” (38-39), but also his self-deriding curiosity about whether the “others” around him are “similarly” populated with “the same” unknown and unknowable “many selves”: “have as many selves as I have / and see themselves similarly” (40-41). In the poem's last four lines, Neruda resorts to the use of yet another equivocal and derisive metaphor and allegory: “and when I've exhausted this problem / I’m going to study so hard / that when I explain myself / I’ll be talking geography” (42-45), which appears to compare the “we” of his multifaceted character and plethora of embedded personalities to a little known foreign land—a real human Terra Incognita in the “geography” of his confused mind. With the literal and figurative meaning of each and every line thus explored, this is hardly a happy poem about the multiple and fathomless depths of the speaker's own split self which seems to be profoundly perplexed by one's own uncertain identity!

“We Are Many” is a poem that can be considered both “modernist” and traditionalist in different ways. On the one hand, it is “modernist” in the sense that it is an unrhymed and unmetered free-verse poem (or at least its translation by Alastair Reid is). On the other hand, the poem makes use of the traditional poetic style. For example, each line break coincides with a break in the natural rhythm of spoken speech (although I have noticed that the poem's lines in other translations of “We Are Many” are broken differently from Reid's translation). Of course, as someone once said, “poetry is what is lost in the translation”—and I am sure that Reid's translation from Spanish is no exception. One can only despair of truly appreciating any poem when one is incapable of reading the original, and is thus forced to rely on a mere translation instead.

Like Sylvia Plath's “Daddy” and Rainer Maria Rilke's “The Panther,” Pablo Neruda's “We Are Many” is a wonderfully complex poem, with each cluster of lines having its own unique rhythm and often contradictory meaning, as befits a largely autobiographical poem written by an extremely complex and enigmatic poet. In the end, “We Are Many” is yet another poem depicting feelings of betrayal or self-betrayal—very much like Plath's “Daddy” and Rilke's “The Panther.” But while “Daddy” speaks of the double betrayal of Plath by the conflated archetypal figure of her own “Nazi” father/“Fascist” husband, and “The Panther” about Rilke feeling betrayed and victimized by his parents, wife, country, and life itself, “We Are Many” delves deep into Neruda's innermost sentiments of being confused, even torn asunder, and ultimately betrayed by his own badly divided, multi-headed ego.

 

Works Cited

Neruda, Pablo. “We Are Many.” Trans. Alastair Reid. Poetry: An Introduction. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford/St.Martins, 2013. 591-592. Print.


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