Pablo Neruda’s poem ‘If You Forget Me’ is a poem that speaks directly to the author’s lover, warning her what will happen if she falls out of love with the speaker. While Neruda was married to Argentinian writer Delia del Carril at the time the poem was written, many believe Neruda wrote this to his lover, Matilde Urrutia, the woman who would later become his wife. Neruda, a Communist senator in Chile, was exiled from his native land for thirteen months after the fall of Communism in 1948, and this poem was most likely written while Neruda was in exile. Other critics believe this poem was written not to his lover, but to his homeland of Chile, warning her not to forget him while he is forced away. Regardless of the interpretation, the poem is one of the most popular love poems in literature, and Neruda is often called one of the greatest poets in the twentieth century; he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.
This is a poem, which you can read in full here, written by Pablo Neruda, presumably the speaker of the work, to his lover, warning her of what will happen if she forgets him while he is away. In the beginning of the poem, Neruda presents a loving and romantic picture for his lover, reminding her of how much he loves her. However, towards the middle of the poem, his tone changes, warning her that if she stops loving him, he will also cease to love her. The tone in the last stanza of the poem reverts back to the positive, romantic tone in the first section of the poem, and the speaker tells his lover that if she does not forget him, if she keeps on loving him, he will forever love her in return. The poem highlights how intense, yet fickle, a love between a man and woman can be.
Analysis of If You Forget Me
Something interesting to note is the fact that the first stanza, which is only one line, reading, “I want you to know one thing,” seems to be a continuation of the title. Therefore, it can be read as a single thought: “If you forget me, I want you to know one thing.” Reading the poem like this lends a threatening tone to the work. The tone swiftly changes in the second stanza, where Neruda explains the depth of his love directly to his mistress, writing in the first line, “You know how this is.” Neruda’s diction is quite beautiful in this stanza, referring to the “crystal moon” and “red branch” in line 5. He conjures up his senses of sight and touch, telling his lover that whatever he sees or touches will inevitably carry him back to her.
While the first half of the poem is incredibly romantic and flattering, the third and fourth stanzas paint a very different picture, and they serve as a warning to Neruda’s mistress. The third stanza stands on its own, cautioning Neruda’s lover that if she stops loving him, he will do the same in return. It also begins the first in a string of ultimatums Neruda offers to his lover.
The fourth stanza continues that thought, as the speaker tells his lover that if he is forgotten, she will be forgotten, too. In order to emphasize this even more, Neruda only includes that one thought into the stanza. It is interesting to note Neruda’s diction in that last line—“I shall already have forgotten you.” He tells his lover that if she suddenly forgets him, he wants her to know that he was the one who forgot first—it has already been done. It seems important to him that she knows it is she who was forgotten first.
He continues his warning into the fifth stanza, again telling his lover that should she “decide to leave me at the shore,” he will “on that day, at that hour…seek another land.” In this stanza, Neruda uses an extended metaphor of a shore and its land to warn his lover of the consequences of her actions. The speaker views his lover as his home, but should she decide to leave him, he will have no problem at all seeking another woman to fill her place.
In the sixth and final stanza of ‘If You Forget Me’, however, Neruda changes his tone once again, this time returning to the romantic and passionate tone of the first stanza. The first line of the last stanza is comprised of a single word: “But.” This gives the reader the impression that all that has been occurring in the previous stanzas has been setting the stage for this final one. It is as if the speaker is telling his lover, “If you do any of these things, I will do them back to you, but if you do not, this will happen instead,” for the remaining lines of the final stanza reveal what will happen if the lover does not forget him. If, instead, she feels “…that you are destined for me,” the feeling will be returned.
In the last stanza, Neruda compares his love for his mistress to a fire: it feeds off of the love his mistress has for him, and therefore, it can only be extinguished if her love dies. The speaker closes by vowing that as long as his mistress lives, the love they share for each other will be cradled between them, in their arms.
A devoted Communist, Pablo Neruda extolled the accomplishments of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. In 1945, he was elected to serve as a senator in his native Chile, and in 1946, he became the campaign manager for Gabriel González Videla, a man who turned against the Communist party once he was elected to office. Tensions heightened, and in 1948, Neruda and his wife fled Chile in fear. For over a year, the couple hid in the homes of friends and supporters. It was during this exile that Neruda would meet his muse and future wife, Matilde Urrutia, for whom this poem is said to be written. While hiding in Mexico, Neruda wrote Los Versos Del Capitan, which featured ‘If You Forget Me’. Neruda finally returned to Chile in 1952, and in 1970, he a candidate for the Chilean presidency, which he eventually gave up. The following year, he won the Nobel Prize, even though some on the committee did not want to give the award to a Communist. Neruda died in 1973 of heart failure, but since his death, many speculate, even today, that he was murdered. Love is a common theme in many of Neruda’s poems, and critics believe there is a duality in the love expressed in his poems: they can be seen to be addressed to his lover, but also to his other mistress, his country.