Keeping Quiet – Pablo Neruda

The poet puts forward a seemingly simple theory, one that is actually capable of changing the world. On first thought, keeping quiet for a few seconds (12, in the poem) may not seem like a solution to all the problems man has created for himself. But as the poem unfolds, the reader realises the impact silent introspection can have.

The silence the poet advocates is at present non-existent  – all over the earth, every single second, someone or the other is talking. But all this talking has never resulted in mutual understanding. The poet wants us to stop this meaningless chatter and empty gestures, for just a second. The words ‘For once on the face of the Earth’ and ‘Let’s stop for one second’ show how difficult this task is. It has never been tried before.

Such a moment of silence would be unusual, extraordinary. In a world obsessed with ‘progress’ (= rushing ahead, never stopping to think) this silence would bring about a unity, a we-feeling through non-action. That is, the feeling of unity which we haven’t been able to achieve through our non-stop talking, would be possible through the ‘sudden strangeness’ of universal silence.

The fishermen killing whales would stop doing so, if they only introspected. The whale is a huge and magnificent creation of nature, but man goes out of his way to kill this harmless creature. Such wanton killing would stop if man gave himself some time to reflect on his actions. ‘Gathering salt’ refers to our habit of endlessly hurting others/ retaliating. This habit leaves us also with ‘hurt hands’. The implication here is that if man were to introspect, even for such a short period as 12 seconds, he would see the futility of hurting others and getting hurt himself. This introspection would help to end the vicious cycle man finds himself in.

Introspection would also help to end war against nature (environmental degradation) and all other wars. Wars seem to end with a victory for one side but actually there are ‘no survivors’, for there is widespread maiming, killing and mental anguish. Introspection would lead warring men to ‘put on clean clothes’, i.e., think new and constructive thoughts. Such thoughts would in turn help them to think of their erstwhile enemies as brothers and they would be able to relax ‘in the shade, doing nothing’. Shade refers to positivity (calmness of spirits as opposed to the heat and blaze of battle), and doing nothing refers to not being destructive.

The poet makes it clear that he does not advocate ‘total inactivity’ or lifelessness. He wants man to be physically inactive just long enough for him to reflect on his actions and change himself because any kind of real progress is impossible without timely introspection. So he reiterates that what he is advocating is a better life – the ‘inactivity’ does not refer to death. In today’s world man is relentlessly moving / talking/ acting. We have come to equate progress with constant movement. If we could stop this meaningless movement for a while, and ‘for once could do nothing’ (= look within, introspect), the resultant silence and introspection may help us to understand the futility of our actions, of running constantly without thinking of where we are heading. This kind of thoughtless rushing about can only end in self-destruction and so it is imperative that we now sit still and look within, that we analyse our actions and let constructive thought and action bring about peace and harmony.

The poet emphasises the importance of introspection for a better life with an example that we are all familiar with. Periodically the earth appears dead, with nothing growing in winter and autumn. But the moment spring arrives, dormant seeds take life. That period of stillness results in greenery and life. Similarly, our stillness and silence will help us to do something constructive, to bring about mutual understanding and a feeling of brotherhood. With that, the poet passes on the mantle of responsibility to each one of us, to practise at our own level. He will now go forward, to advocate his philosophy to another group of people.

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