‘The Poet’s Obligation’ by Pablo Neruda is a three-stanza poem which is divided up into uneven stanzas of twelve, sixteen, and two lines. The two longer stanzas are made up almost entirely of a single phrase. There are no final end marks to signify a natural stopping point until the very last line of each stanza.
While reading the poem, one should seek out moments in which the speaker references to water, or the sea, as well as types of confinement, or prisons. These two contrasting images come together to emphasize the overall theme of the poem and the role the poet sees as belonging to writers.
Summary of The Poet’s Obligation
The poem begins with the speaker, who is commonly considered to be Neruda himself, addressing men who are trapped. These people are not at the sea on Friday morning but stuck in an office or relationship. He reaches out to them and shows them something of the freedom they are unable to touch in their everyday lives.
In the second longer stanza the poet-speaker takes the time to explain what he feels is his “obligation.” He has been blessed by destiny to take on the troubles of others and ease them. The poet intends to scoop up the essence of the sea, enter into the minds of men, and better their lives.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of The Poet’s Obligation
To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
the raucous rivers of the ocean flood,
the star vibrates swiftly in its corona,
and the sea is beating, dying and continuing.
In the first stanza of this piece, the poet/speaker begins by addressing his listener. It is interesting to note that the speaker does not have a full understanding of who he is speaking to. There are only a few statements that outline who this person might be. This places the reader and the speaker on the same level, both are confined to the knowledge which is on the page.
The intended listener of the poem is someone who is “not listening to the sea” on this particular “Friday morning.” The speaker is not reaching out to someone who has the ability to spend their Friday mornings in nature, near the sea, or anywhere else where there is freedom. It is the person who is stuck in a “house or office” or a number of other different types of confinement, who he is trying to reach.
These places are to the speaker as damaging to the listener as a real prison would be. It is important to note the moment in which the speaker states that a “woman” is somewhere in which one can become stuck. This phrase is strange but makes more sense in the next line when it becomes clear it is a man, or the idea of a man, to whom he is speaking. It is clear he believes that a marriage, or relationship, can be as constraining as any cell.
In the next lines, he tells the listener that is to him that he speaks. The person who is in his office, unable to go to the sea, should be hearing the words of the speaker. The next lines paint a picture of what the speaker intends to do to the trapped man’s mind. He is going to open the door, enter into his cell, and force the beginnings of a vibration.
The rumbling will begin softly, somewhere in the distance, and then grow stronger. It will add onto itself the power of the rivers, oceans, and the planets. Its force will grow stronger and imbue the listener with a new strength, and the feelings a freer man might have.
So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea’s lamenting in my awareness,
I may move, passing through windows,
and hearing me, eyes will glance upward
saying ‘How can I reach the sea?’
In the first section of the second stanza, the speaker turns away from describing what he will do for this particular type of man. He dedicates the next lines to understanding his own role in the world and what, as a poet, he is meant to do.
He begins by speaking of a destiny he sees for himself. It is drawing him through life and he is unable to turn away from it. The speaker knows he must “listen to and keep” up with what is being shared with him— into his mind come thoughts of the “sea’s lamenting.”
He can feel the “crash of the hard water” and knows he must “gather it up in a perpetual cup.” This metaphorical cup he is using is spoken of as being “perpetual.” It is unending and able to gather the powers of the sea for as long as the speaker lives. It is this power he is imbuing others with. It is a job he sees as being his destiny.
In the next lines, he lays out his entire plan. It is his goal to be able to lessen the suffering of anyone who “in prison may be” no matter what that prison is. No matter what “suffering” may occur, the speaker will always be there with his cup and the sea. He will easily move “in and out of windows” and bring to men who are seeking more in life, “the sea.”
And I shall broadcast, saying nothing,
the grey cry of the sea-birds on the coast.
In the next lines, the speaker describes how he will “pass to them” the freedom of the sea and say “nothing.” All that the men need to understand is the “starry echoes of the wave.” They will take into themselves the essence of the ocean and feel the “breaking up of foam and quicksand” and hear the “gray cry of sea birds on the coast.”
So, through me, freedom and the sea
will make their answer to the shuttered heart.
In the final couplet of the poem, the speaker reiterates his goal, and purpose, in life. It is “through [him]” that “freedom and the sea” will enter into man’s soul and “answer” the longing he has. No man will live with a “shrouded heart” while the speaker is able to enter.