“Girl Lithe and Tawny”: Nature in Despair
Pablo Neruda’s “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair” use nature as a common motif to express his feelings of love towards a woman and the loneliness he feels being with her. An example of such work is found in his poem, “Girl Lithe and Tawny”. In each stanza, Neruda uses stylistic imagery of nature and its powerful beauty to help express his love and appreciation for an absent woman that he loves.
Beauty in the world can often be seen in nature, which is both powerfully dark and frightening, yet at the same time also pleasant and lovely. The natural world is beautiful simply because it is natural; it has existed before the beginnings of human kind and does not follow the ways of humanity, but instead influences and affects man. It has the ability to captivate humanity by its stunning beauty, but at the same time it is also able to destroy. It is an all-powerful force that can occasionally, by its own will, take the lives of human beings, destroy surroundings, and evoke feelings of pain and despair. In his poetry, Neruda combines these seemingly opposite perspectives of nature to symbolically express the feelings he has towards his lover, who brings him joy and adoration, yet at the same time causes him pain and sadness.
In the first stanza of the poem “Girl Lithe and Tawny”, Neruda says “and your mouth has the smile of the water”. Neruda compares the woman’s smile to “the water” symbolically in order to help the reader understand the depth of the woman’s beauty in his eyes. In this case, he is comparing her smile to water, which is vast, deep and powerful. Water is also essential to the human body, which helps Neruda explain the extent of his love for her in the fact that he needs her smile like the human body needs water. On the other hand, water can easily also be deadly in many different ways to humankind, bringing pain and anguish. By comparing the “girl” of the poem and her smile to water, Neruda is exposing both sides of his lover: both the beauty and depth of her smile that he adores, but also the deep despair and pain it brings him.
In the second stanza, Neruda again uses a powerful image of nature to express the opposing combination of love and pain he feels, this time comparing his lover to a black sun; “a black yearning sun is braided into the strands of your black mane, when you stretch your arms”. Neruda takes an object of nature that is cheery and bright, and makes it dark and mysterious. A sun is usually perceived to be pleasant and warm, which Neruda uses to express the beauty of her “black mane.” At the same time, however, the girl has taken a sun and made it black, a color of darkness and death. Using such a melancholy color as black for an object so radiant as the sun helps Neruda express the seemingly contradictory feelings of joy and sadness he feels for his lover. The fact that the sun is extremely powerful as the universal source of life for human beings helps Neruda explain the depth of influence this woman and her beauty have on him. She is capable, through her beauty (in this case, her black hair), of influencing him and bringing life to him. She is so significantly powerful in his life, however, that she is also capable of virtually destroying him.
In the third stanza, Neruda compares the woman of the poem to “the frenzied youth of the bee”. A bee is significant in the existence of nature; it helps flowers bloom and grow. A bee is responsible for making the flowers and plants around it successfully bloom, making the natural world thrive beautifully. In this sense, Neruda is saying that his lover is like a bee to him; her presence helps him thrive, grow and survive. A bee, however, is also dangerous; it is easily capable of inflicting pain when it feels threatened in any way. By comparing the girl of the poem to a bee, he is saying that he is livened through the presence she has in his life, but that she also brings him pain and anguish, a recurring theme Neruda uses in the poem in his images of nature.
In the final stanza, Neruda uses another seemingly contradictory natural image to express the various feelings he has towards his beloved. In the third line, he states “dark butterfly, sweet and definitive…” A common perception of a butterfly is a pleasant and beautiful little creature that lightly decorates nature with its presence. It does not, in any way, bring harm or pain to anyone by its presence. Neruda, however, brings a variation to this common perception by describing his lover as a “dark butterfly”. By using the word “dark,” Neruda immediately adds a feeling of mystery and dread to a creature of sweet beauty. The word “dark” inflicts a sense of sadness and hopelessness, an emotion which Neruda seems to imply throughout the poem in talking about his lover. Although he believes the woman of the poem to be sweet and beautiful like a butterfly, he is hindered in his joy with a feeling of sadness, the darkness that brings him pain even in his love.
Neruda’s use of nature as a poetic expression of the coexisting feelings of love and sadness he feels towards his lover are profound in the understanding of the poem. By relating his lover to seemingly contradictory images such as “dark butterfly” and “black yearning sun,” he is able to explain the depths of his emotion for the mentioned woman. His indirect symbolic imagery leaves the interpretation up to the reader, but the feelings he expresses are obvious and powerful and strongly convey Neruda’s passion for the woman he loves and the deep heartache he suffers.
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