‘I do not love you’ by Pablo Neruda, also known as Sonnet 17, is a fourteen-line poem that takes the form of a Petrarchan sonnet. In Petrarchan sonnets, the lines are usually divided into two parts, the opening octet (set of eight lines) and the following set of six, known as a sestet. Between the two-section, there is also usually a turn, or volta. This is a shift in the poem which can be seen through a change in narrator, belief, or setting. It can even consist of an answer to a question posed in the first half. These are features present in ‘I do not love you,’ but there are many elements of Petrarchan sonnets that do not appear in the text.
Due to the fact that this piece was originally written in Spanish, and has since been translated to English by Mark Eisner, there is no rhyme or meter evident. In the original though, Neruda did not make use of very much rhyme or structured meter anyway. There are a few moments in the Spanish original which rhyme, but they do not come close to the traditional ABBAABBA pattern of the octet, or the varying patterns which are usually represented in the sestet. Neruda did not choose to conform to either of these forms and instead left the rhyme loose and open.
Darkness in the Poem
One of the most important images in ‘I do not love you’ is darkness. It comes in a variety of forms, from “Shadow” in the fourth line, to “light…hidden” and “obscure things.” There are continual references to something dark or obscure. This changes the tone of the text, making it more mysterious and even dangerous. It is not clear why Neruda made this choice, but clearly, there is something about the situation that edges him towards the darker side of things.
Another detail of note, Neruda uses the second person. He is directly speaking to one person. Considering the fact that the collection in which the poem as included, Love Sonnets, is dedicated to Neruda’s wife. This should lead one to believe that Matilde Urrutia is the intended listener.
You can read the full poem here.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he doesn’t love his wife like one loves beautiful objects. These include flowers and topaz stones. He adds that his love is “obscure” it is not like an “arrow of carnations.”
In the next quatrain, the speaker tells his wife why he does love her. His love is like a plant that hides its beauty within itself. The plant is more of a representative of all other plants than is strikingly beautiful in itself. The “hidden” nature of the flower’s light is something that has penetrated the speaker’s body. It is an “aroma” that is living “dimly” in his body.
In the final sestet, Neruda goes through three different statements, all of which begin with “I love you.” The last lines conclude by detailing the way their lives have become intertwined and are now indistinguishable from one another.
Analysis of I do not love you
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
In the first lines of this piece the speaker directly addresses his lover. As stated above, this piece is most likely addresses Neruda’s wife, Matilde Urrutia. He tells her from the start that he doesn’t love her like she “were salt-rose, or topaz.” These are undoubtedly beautiful objects to own, and this is the point. One can find, take, and keep a rose that grows by the sea, or a topaz stone.
He continues on to say that his love doesn’t resemble “arrow of carnations that the fire shoots off.” This is a more complex line to unpack but at its most basic level, he is connecting arrows and roses, and their association with ideal love. Even aflame, this image does not represent his love.
The next four lines speak on how the poet loves his wife like one does obscure things. These are things that are somewhat dark, hidden, or out of reach of most people. It could refer to a secret love, something illicit, or it could just refer to the depth of his love and the way it penetrates down to the dark parts of his soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body
In the next lines, the speaker goes on to contrast the first four lines with four more that tell the listener why he does love her. He is thinking of a plant that is more of a representative of all other plants than is strikingly beautiful in itself. It doesn’t carry bloom but it does have “the light of hidden flowers” contained or “hidden” inside itself. This could speak to his wife’s internal beauty, something that is hidden, and one has to look a little harder to find.
In these lines, there is the first reference to “light.” This contrasts directly with the numerous images of darkness in the text. The “hidden” nature of the flower’s light is something that has penetrated the speaker’s body. It is an aroma that is living “darkly” in his body. This last line doesn’t seem to speak to a great deal of passion, but, perhaps the speaker is enjoying the way that his love thrives within him. He can keep it for himself.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.
The next lines are a little bit easier to understand. Neruda goes through three different statements, all of which begin with “I love you.” These layout the basic reasons. First, his love exists as something intangible. He couldn’t tell the listener “how, or when, or from where” his love comes. It just exists.
There are no instances in which his “pride” gets in the way of his love. He is willing to see her straight on and admit that he loves her without reservation. These features of his love are all present because that is just how he is. He doesn’t know any other way to love. This speaks to the truthful nature of these lines. He isn’t posturing or trying to woo the listener, it’s just the truth. Neruda makes use of anaphora in this section of the poem. It is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession.
In the next, and final, three lines the speaker concludes by detailing the way their lives have become intertwined. He can only love in the form he is currently existing in. His hand is her hand and her eyes are his when they are closed with his dreams.