‘What Spain Was Like’ by Pablo Neruda is a three stanza poem that is separated into one set of twelve lines and two sets of five. Neruda has not chosen to structure this piece with a specific pattern of rhyme. The only moments of repetition in rhyme appear sporadically, such as within lines one and six of stanza one. There are a number of instances of half or slant rhymes though. These are words that are not perfect rhymes but have noticeably similar sounds. A successful example is “thud” in line two and “god” in line twelve of the first stanza.
It is important to understand Neruda’s personal history in order to get a full appreciation for what he is trying to do with the text. Neruda was born in Chile but came to love his adopted country of Spain, even fighting in the Spanish Civil War. The poem ‘What Spain Was Like’ seems like a harsh examination of the social and political issues of his day, but it was done from a place of respect and concern for the future. It was not uncommon for Neruda to write about Spain. The country appears in other works and is the source of inspiration for the collection Spain in Our Hearts.
Read the full poem here.
Summary of What Spain Was Like
‘What Spain Was Like’ by Pablo Neruda describes the duelling natures of Spain during the years of the Spanish Civil War.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how Spain is under a great deal of pressure. The country has been pushed to its limits and then pounded like a drum. Its highs and lows have been lashed by storms but Neruda still finds a great deal to love. He recalls the beauty of the countryside and the “poor” people who lived there. He mourns over the losses the country suffered and how it changed.
In the second half of the poem he speaks in greater detail on the duality of the country. It is at the same time “rough” and “smooth.” The wine, a symbol for the resources the country has to offer, is “violent” and “delicate,” causing good and bad events to befall the land. The text ends with a hopeful message about the resounding goodness of Spain that will last longer than the strife.
Analysis of What Spain Was Like
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by using a metaphor to describe the state of Spain during the period of his residence there, especially during the Spanish Civil War. It is said be a “taut, dry drum-head.” The affairs of the country are pushed to the limit, drawn tight across the land and beaten repeatedly. The “drum beat” of the nation reminds one of the Civil War in which Neruda fought . The war lasted from 1936 to 1939. Neruda’s role in the conflict ended after he was recalled from Madrid in 1937.
It is clear that Neruda sees Spain as having endured a great number of hardships. It was “lashed” or beaten just as a storm lashes the “Flatlands” or an “eagle’s nest” high on a hillside. Although these two are opposites, they are both impacted by the events of the storm, just as all parts of Spain were touched by war and political and social strife.
In the next section Neruda’s love for the country comes through clearly. He speaks of how he thinks on the “hard soil” and “poor bread” of the country. It does not, at least at this point in history, have the capability of producing good, solid food This is in part due to the nature of the ground itself. This is an extended metaphor speaking on how deep the problems go. They reach deep into the soil, or into the depths of the country.
He also weeps over the “poor people” of Spain and the “wrinkled villages” they came from. “Wrinkled” is a rather passive word that likely refers to the damage done to the countryside during the war and the proceeding and following shortages of material. These are all things he cannot stop thinking about.
In the final three lines he mentions the “metallic meadows.” This is a powerful alliteration that speaks on the contradiction of the world. He could be simply describing how everything’s been turned upside down, or thinking on the metal that is now in the fields.
The second stanza is list-like in its form. The lines come one after another as the speaker describes other attributes of the country. First, he speaks on the “confinement” of the Spanish people and their country. They are “isolat[ed]” from one another other and from the rest of the world. This occurs not at a distance, but while they are “still conscious.” The fact that it is recognized is a positive. This means that change is possible.
He continues on to describe what the “isolation” is like. It is not a physical isolation as much as it is a mental or emotional one. There is an “abstract” wall, made of “stones of silence” around the country. It encircles the “violent and delicate vineyards.” There are two sides to Spanish life, one made of “smooth wine” and another of “rough wine.” This acknowledgement is all a part of Neruda’s attempt to recognize the good and bad of the country. As well as do his best to remember the country he knew.
It is in the final stanza of the poem that Neruda gives the reader something to hope for. He steps back from addressing Spain the country and instead, reports on what he’s seen, perhaps just to the reader, or as a note for his own recollection. He states that that country is a “Solar stone.” A part of the earth that takes in and gives off light, heat and in some instances, danger and destruction. It is “pure” compared to other places on earth but still, it is “streaked / With blood and metal.” These elements run through the country like a vein through a stone.
He make specific reference to “Proletarian Spain,” or the working segment of the population.. They are the people who are most clearly made of “petals and bullets.” The last line leaves the reader with some hope. Neruda states that Spain is a country that is “Unique, alive, asleep – resounding.” Its beauty and general goodness radiate from the land. It is this that he wants to remember and set into history more than anything else.