Pablo Neruda’s Keeping Quiet – finally makes sense


Now we will count to twelve

and we will all keep still.

The poet uses the number twelve that probably represents the dial of a clock.

For once on the face of the Earth

let’s not speak in any language,

let’s stop for one second,

and not move our arms so much.

Let’s not speak in any language. Here the poet is encouraging a unified movement among people, with no discrimination based on race or language. This would be a mass movement for the first time on the face of the earth, and would greatly enhance unity. Let us stop for a moment and not move our hands so much in violence i.e. Let us not fight and argue so much.

It would be an exotic moment

without rush, without engines,

we would all be together

in a sudden strangeness.

It would be an splendid moment with reduced industrial activity (engines). The silence or the peace would form the common link between all of us, bringing us all together.

Fishermen in the cold sea

would not harm whales

and the man gathering salt

would look at his hurt hands.

Fishermen represent proficient hunters of all kinds. The whales represent the oppressed class of human beings, because of their helplessness. It is therefore a cry for the oppressed. In this quiet moment of introspection, people would stop hurting others in an attempt to understand themselves. The whole of humankind is in a mad rush to finish off their existence and achieve whatever goals they set. People are so occupied with the daily rush of things and the flurry to accomplish their various goals that they never take the time to look into themselves and understand themselves. Mankind has been personified as the salt gatherer in the poem. In an exotic moment of peace, people would finally slow down and look into themselves in an act of introspection, identify their follies and rectify them, making them better human beings.

Those who prepare green wars,

wars with gas, wars with fire,

victory with no survivors,

would put on clean clothes

and walk about with their

brothers

in the shade, doing nothing.

Green wars can be thought of as wars wherein people utilize nature – to hide (conceal) themselves among the foliage of forests or make use of the environment. “Victory with no survivors” is a paradox. People who win a war claim to possess victory; but is that so? Have they not lost tremendous lives in the process? How then can they claim to have had victory? All wars originate from the lack of self-understanding, and the understanding that all individuals are equal, which is why the poet stresses on introspection. There can be two interpretations drawn out from the last few lines of the stanza. One interpretation expounds that the people responsible for wars such as politicians, scientists, trigger the war and later stay in the shade walking hand in hand with the rival as brothers, while thousands of lives are lost in the battle. Another explanation is that people are never happy to go to war. They realize the absurdity of victory from war. As a result of this reflection, People can be friendly as brothers, and walk about in the shade doing no violence.

What I want should not be

confused

with total inactivity.

Life is what it is about;

I want no truck with death.

The poet’s words should not be confused with death or a state of complete dormancy. The poet’s message is about life and he does not want it to be related in any way to death. It is not a state of inactivity but rather of continued action at a slower pace.

If we were not so single-minded

about keeping our lives moving,

and for once could do nothing,

perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness

of never understanding ourselves

and of threatening ourselves with

death.

As mentioned before, the basic concern of all human beings is being alive. Human beings are single-minded about survival. Human beings are in a mad rush to finish life and accomplish all their varied targets. If people could slow down for once and do nothing, the massive silence will intrude the despair of never appreciating or recognizing ourselves. When we look around, all we see is an extremely pathetic condition wherein people are only concerned or afraid of dying and never of understanding themselves. Death is a threat to many of us because it means that we will not be able to fulfill all the targets that we create. We will not be able to accomplish the task of survival in peace.

Perhaps the Earth can teach us

as when everything seems dead

and later proves to be alive.

This paragraph is possibly empathetic toward human beings, persuading them to take a lesson from nature. During winter, the earth is blanketed with a coat of ice, and it appears as though there is no life in the environment. Even the air is frigid (frosty) and draughty. However, this is not the end and this does not last for long. The earth gets itself refined of all these trivial discrepancies, counting them all as a part of the rejuvenation process. Despite all natural disasters and calamities, the earth continues its journey. After a certain period of time, the cycle of reconstruction continues. The earth rejuvenates itself and moves on, alive once again.

Now I’ll count up to twelve

and you keep quiet and I will go.

Maintaining a third person viewpoint to the entire dilemma, the poet leaves us on a train of thought. Now that he has passed on the message, his work is done and he quietly leaves the scene.

Stephen Spender’s An elementary school classroom in a slum – finally makes sense


Far far from gusty waves these children’s faces.

Like rootless weeds, the hair torn around their pallor:

The poet speaks of a specific slum on behalf of all others, he writes about the children who have nothing to hope for, who live in a slum away from the gusty waves and the fresh breeze of liberty that all children should possess. They are called weeds as they have been set apart from the other children (flowers) their age and do not have a bright future (rootless). Their hair is naturally unkempt as they have a lot more to worry about than their appearance.

The tall girl with her weighed down head. The paper-

Seeming boy, with rat’s eyes. The stunted, unlucky heir

Of twisted bones, reciting a father’s gnarled disease,

His lesson from his desk. At back of the dim class

One unnoted, sweet and young. His eyes live in a dream,

Of squirrel’s game, in tree room, other than this.

The tall girl seems to be the oldest of the children in the slum. Her head is weighed down with the burden of responsibility that she is too young to bear. As all the families of these children were poor, it was only natural that parents expected the oldest child to leave education and rather work for a living, after they reach a certain age. The paper-seeming boy with rat’s eyes describes yet another child who appears to be extremely malnourished. With the words ‘rat’s eyes’, the poet is trying to convey a picture of the shrewdness the poor possess, as well as the greed, as no one seems to have enough. Just as the rat cautiously looks around before going for the bait, the poor grasp any opportunity they have to the necessary liberties such as food and money.

The stunted child who seems to have inherited his father’s disease (but lacks diagnosis or treatments, as those were unaffordable luxuries) reads his lesson from his desk. There is a sweet young child at the back of the dim room who does not stand out among the pitiful bunch of students and is unattended to. As a means of escape from this reality, his mind thrives on his wild imagination. Just as a squirrel darts in and out of its tree house as in a game, the child’s eyes move dreamily in a world of his own other than his class.

On sour cream walls, donations. Shakespeare’s head,

Cloudless at dawn, civilized dome riding all cities.

Belled, flowery Tyrolese valley. Open-handed map

Awarding the world its world. And yet, for these

Children, these windows, not this map, their world,

Where all their future’s painted with a fog.

A narrow street sealed with a lead sky

Far far from rivers, capes, and stars of words.

The sour cream color of the walls denotes the poverty-stricken conditions of the room that the students call ‘school’.  The paint in the room has faded out and the irony employed by the poet skillfully points out the donations for charity funds pinned up (as a contrast) on the drab walls. The other posters that embellish the dreary walls are a picture of Shakespeare’s head and one of the beautiful Tyrolese valley (that denotes civilization, yet another prospect out of reach of the children), and a map. An open-handed map represents a random, indefinite map. It does not endear to any particular place but is a general one. For the children, these maps serve as windows to the outside world within which their future is uncertain. The children cannot afford to dream of the outside world. For them, their world, their future, lay outside the windows of the classroom – the slum. Their future is confined within the boundaries of the slum – with its pallid environment canopied by a lead sky (the use of the term ‘lead’ also denotes burden and desperation) The narrow street and bleak skies denote the end of all hope – a pessimistic prospect, far away from everything beautiful – such as rivers and capes. The Stars of words is a play on the literary aspect of words – the aesthetic feature of words. The children are not given the opportunity to learn even the rudimentary terms let alone aesthetic ones.

Surely, Shakespeare is wicked, the map a bad example,

With ships and sun and love tempting them to steal-

Shakespeare was a classical writer whose works mostly revolved around royalty and the rich nobles (For example, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and the merchant of Venice). The map appears as a bad example because the children do not comprehend the presence of a world outside until the map reveals it to them. Shakespeare’s writings and the map introduce the children to such wonderful aspects as ships, the sun and love – all things that are too far-fetched in the lives of the children. Together, Shakespeare and the map have been condemned for creating an image in the minds of the children wherein they believe that the lifestyles of the rich are good. So in order to be good, the children feel they need to be rich and this tempts them to steal.

For lives that slyly turn in their cramped holes

From fog to endless night? On their slag heap, these children

Wear skins peeped through by bones and spectacles of steel

With mended glass, like bottle bits on stones.

All of their time and space are foggy slum.

So blot their maps with slums as big as doom.

The families of the children cannot afford a decent place to sleep, and they live in cramped up, congested holes / shacks. The slagheap of children again denotes malnourishment. The author creatively uses Imagery in comparing the hopeless lives of the children with their simple belongings such as their spectacles. While on the one side, it is true that the children cannot afford repair on their things like glasses, the literary meaning of the lines show their broken lives. All their belongings are broken even the silly ones like their glasses that are held together with weak rims of steel. Their dreams are broken in pieces and held together by frames that denote the precincts of the slum. Their future, time and space are a fog. The maps that are their windows to the outside world are blotted by the profundity of the slum. Doom ultimately indicates death. If the map is not utilized properly, the children will have to spend their entire lives within the slum.

Unless, governor, inspector, visitor,

This map becomes their window and these windows

That shut upon their lives like catacombs,

Break O break open till they break the town

And show the children to the green fields, and make their world

Run azure on gold sands, and let their tongues

Run naked into books the white and green leaves open

History theirs whose language is the sun.

This paragraph emanates hope. The poet appeals to the governor, inspector or some kind-hearted visitor to intervene financially into the problems of these children. The windows demonstrate exploration and fascination.  If the children do not receive any kind of financial help, the windows (the map) that are the only prospect for the children to dream again will close in on them and their lives, digging their tombs (catacombs) within the confines of the slum. We need to break open those windows and let these children outside and show them the green fields (that contrasts to the bleak environment of the slum). The color green represents ‘Hope’ and the color blue represents freedom. We can thus introduce them to a world of Hope and Freedom. The use of the term naked means no restraints or inhibitions. The children are to learn as much as they can and receive quality education. The white and green represent currency or money in some interpretations. The last line is a poetic comparison of knowledge to the sun. History only remembers the well-educated and the people who stand out from their surroundings and fight for a cause. These children are capable of being memorable in history if given the opportunity to.