Neruda’s Socks: Only a Catholic Could Write Like He Did


The Catholic imagination is sacramental.  That is, the Catholic is poised to see the supernatural working through the natural.  The world is shot through with God’s grace and every simple moment is an occasion of his presence.

I give you Neruda’s socks:

“Ode to My Socks” by Pablo Neruda
(translated by Robert Bly)

Mara Mori brought me
a pair of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder’s hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them

as if they were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin,
Violent socks,
my feet were two fish made of wool,
two long sharks
sea blue, shot through
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
two cannons,
my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.
They were so handsome for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks.

Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as schoolboys
keep fireflies,
as learned men collect
sacred texts,
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent socks and then my shoes.

The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.

In this case, Neruda understands that the love and attention of the knitter’s hands grant a dignity to his humble, unhandsome feet.  He could have made a shrine to the socks but understood that they were only good when they served their intended purpose.  They are good not in themselves but in their being spent, given up, sacrificed .  Even something so simple as a sock is a touch of heaven and is an instance of divine beauty granting beauty.

This visitation of the natural by the supernatural is an extension of the incarnational principle first manifest at Bethlehem whose feast we eagerly await in this season of Advent.


7 Responses to Neruda’s Socks: Only a Catholic Could Write Like He Did

  1. Jaybird says:

    Thanks for sharing this…perfectly lovely!

  2. Nan says:

    Robert Bly was the guest poet at The New Standards Holiday Concert last Saturday. I read this in his voice, complete with drumming.

  3. Um, but Neruda was a died-in-the-wool Marxist who hated the Church. True, you can say that he was raised in a Catholic society, but then again I find John Donne to be a good “Catholic” poet, and he was an apostate from the Faith. Or W.B. Yeats, or anyone else. The whole idea of “Catholicism = earthiness = Incarnational” is one I find very naive. You can say that about practically any society where culture is an outgrowth of survival and necessity. Personally, I am a fierce admirer of Hindu culture, but I don’t necessarily think there is anything to their religion other than religious patterns that show up over and over in the human longing for God.

    If you really want a good Chilean Catholic poet, try Gabriela Mistral, who in my opinion was a much better poet than Neruda anyway. Although the poem, “The Heights of Machu Pichu” from the Canto General still sends shivers down my spine: sort of a Marxist paean to the transcendent.

  4. Fr. J. says:


    Thanks for your comment. I am always pleased when you come by.

    I cannot claim to understand Neruda’s biography or his status with the Church when he died, even less the status of this soul. I call him Catholic because any number of sources report him to be a Catholic.

    His communism as I understand it originated as a horrified reaction to the links between the Church, Franco, Hitler and Mussolini in the Spanish Civil War. Being a Chilean, it is important to understand that that nation was divided down the middle on social questions of the era and that the Church was also divided. While the Church opposed Soviet communism, much of the clergy did embrace Marxist social analysis and liberation theology during the 1960’s and later. Even when I was in South America in the 1990’s it was commonplace among practicing Catholics to praise Cuba for its social welfare system and to question a capitalism which benefitted only the small wealthy class which still controlled the economies and governments of most of the Latin nations. Still, in the end, it was largely the Church which influenced the plebecite against Pinochet.

    That Neruda was a Marxist does not surprise me. I have known plenty South American Catholic Marxists back when I was a Catholic Marxist myself. I have of course rejected Marxist analysis and am a much more traditional Catholic today.

    About the sacramental imagination. Yes, it is a vague category that is not limited to Catholicism. But Catholicism is inseparable from the incarnational principle. I agree with you that this is a naive way to approach Catholicism as a whole. Catholicism is more than this spiritual principle. It is a doctrinal system, an organic reality, an institution, an historical entity and more.

    As a general category, the incarnational or sacramental principle does mix up our ordinary categories for religions. Catholics as sacramental believers do, in fact, have more in common with Hindus, animists, some aspects of Budhism and other native religions than we do with some of our otherwise co-religionists such as the Calvinists who are more similar to Muslims in their denial of mediated grace. The Jews are likely somewhere in the middle.

    So, while I cannot be sure of Neruda’s stance on the Church or faith, as a writer he does capture the sacramental imagination most associated with Catholicism in the West.

    So, thanks for the criticism, with which I generally agree.

  5. Anyway, here is some Gabriela Mistral that I translated once, on the subject of Chilean poetry:


    El mar sus millares de olas
    mece divino
    Oyendo a los mares amantes
    mezo a mi niño.

    El viento errabundo en la noche
    mece los trigos
    Oyendo a los vientos amantes
    mezo a mi niño.

    Dios Padre sus miles de mundos mece sin ruido.
    Sintiendo su mano en la sombra
    mezo a mi niño.


    The sea her thousands of waves
    rocks divine and mild.
    Hearing the loving seas
    I rock my child.

    The wheat in the night is rocked
    By the wind, lost and exiled.
    Hearing the loving winds,
    I rock my child.

    Our Father God rocks thousands of worlds
    Without sound, its pains or trials.
    Feeling His hand in the shadows,
    I rock my child.

  6. Daithi de Paore says:

    I lived in Chile for two years and was fascinated by the Catholicism there.Sometimes horrific, sometimes beautiful.The comments by Arturo are very insightful and I agree with him that it is more a human impulse than a catholic one,but apart from Hinduism and Catholicism you would struggle to find such a love for human things in other religions or in secular ideology.Great stuff.
    Patrick Kavanagh I reccomend to see an Irish Catholic writing what is usually beyond us.

  7. Download W B Yeats Poetry from Itunes Here- 32 Poems…

    […]Neruda’s Socks: Only a Catholic Could Write Like He Did « The Black Cordelias[…]…

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