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Neruda Elevates the Underclass in “Ode to Tomatoes” and
“Ode to My Socks” 

Hubert Chen
 Scholastic Art & Writing, Critical Essay,  National Gold Medal, 2020

What is a worthy subject for an ode? The 19th century English Romantic poets loved writing odes—William Wordsworth wrote one to Duty, Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Dejection, Percy Bysshe Shelley to the West Wind, and John Keats to Autumn and a Grecian Urn. However, the 20th-century Chilean poet Pablo Neruda deliberately and humorously focused his creative eye on more mundane objects—fruits, vegetables, and handmade socks—transforming them into sacred gifts. Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) is the pen name of Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, who throughout his lifetime published over 3,000 pages of poetry, many poems widely translated into different languages. Pablo’s political beliefs heavily influenced his writing, so in the politically-charged climate of Chile he had to choose his topics very carefully. His growing fame as a writer caused the Chilean government to appoint him as an honorary council abroad. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), he worked as a consul in Spain, witnessing class struggle and conflict between Fascism and Communism. During most of World War II, he served as consul to Mexico. When in 1943 he returned to Chile, he was soon elected a senator. In 1945, at the close of the war, he joined the Communist Party of Chile. When he protested Chilean President González Videla’s policies against striking miners in 1947, a warrant was issued for his arrest. For his safety and to avoid incarceration as a political prisoner, Neruda fled his home country for Argentina and then Europe.

In his deceptively simple poem “Ode to Tomatoes”, Neruda praises commonplace tomatoes, glorifying these indigenous South American fruits now found in every market and cupboard. He uses figurative language and very descriptive words to assist readers to imagine the juicy red tomato. However, when reading this ode, some readers may wonder how Neruda won the Nobel Prize in literature with such pedestrian subject matter. How can one of the most impressive poets from South America write an ode to tomatoes? Perhaps Neruda intentionally chooses to elevate mundane objects because doing so expresses his Communist political beliefs about class conflict. In Neruda’s vision, the red tomato, present in every salad and red sauce, can symbolize both Red Communism’s struggle against capitalism and the proletariat, the working-class people.

           In “Ode to Tomatoes”, it is not a stretch to say that the tomatoes represent the working class. The poem states, “The street filled with tomatoes,”(1-2) and the streets of Santiago, Chile, are usually filled with commoners, working-class people. Neruda personifies commonplace tomatoes as the proletariats in the process of revolution. Later he writes “like a tomato, its juice runs through the streets” (7-12) just as in a revolution, conflict causes the streets to run with blood. Tomato juice symbolizes violence and an attack on the working class. Neruda calls for members of the working class to defend themselves and to rebel against the class system that favors the wealthy. He then describes how pervasive the revolution of the tomatoes/proletariats is in the lines, “the tomato / invades / the kitchen, / it enters at lunchtime, / takes / its ease / on countertops, / among glasses, / butter dishes, / blue saltcellars” (15-24). Because the “kitchen” symbolizes society, Neruda explains that the proletariats are revolting in every corner of society, not just the street.

 Throughout the poem, Neruda uses very short lines, and this technique gives more emphasis to each word in the line. The few words in each line can represent the lesser-valued people of the working class, suddenly promoted, empowered, and given an entire line to possess. The three short lines “takes / its ease / on countertops,” demonstrates how the working class now takes instead of gives, adopts a lifestyle of ease instead of toil, and resides at a higher level of society. He depicts the proletariats as united and working towards a common goal, yet each worker holds a line in the overall structure of the poem, which can also represent a realigned community of “citizen” words.

Neruda later conveys to the readers the importance of the sacrificial deaths of the tomatoes/proletariats during the revolution. He writes, “the knife / sinks / into living flesh, / red / viscera / a cool / sun, / profound, / inexhaustible, / populates the salads / of Chile” (30-40). Neruda portrays this slicing of the tomato as the sacrifice of the proletariat for the greater good of Communism. He tells us that these tomatoes were the first ones to populate “the salads of Chile”, which now represents a place where the proletariats can unite together in the Communist Party of Chile. 

What had started as a violent and necessary revolution by the tomatoes/proletariats eventually turns into a wedding celebration. Different fruits and vegetables/people have come together. Neruda writes, “happily, [the tomato] is wed / to the clear onion,”(41-43) depicting this wedding as a coming together of diverse sectors of the working class. He adds that many fruits, vegetables, and even minerals, have come to celebrate and contribute to this wedding: “pepper / adds / its fragrance, / salt, its magnetism; / it is the wedding / of the day, / parsley / hoists / its flag, / potatoes / bubble vigorously” (50-60). In his writing, he gives each fruit or vegetable one entire line to signify its importance to the wedding, which represents society in general in its improved state under Communism.

Neruda concludes his ode by indirectly illustrating by way of the tomato the benefits of Communism and the role of the proletariats. He uses symbolism in his conclusion as well, characterizing the tomato as the “star of earth, recurrent / and fertile” (71-72). He describes the tomato/proletariat as the “star of the earth” because he believes that it is the lowly proletariat, the worker and peasant of the land, who should be celebrated and take center stage, lighting the way to a brighter future. Earlier in his ode, he describes the tomato sliced widthwise with a knife, the fruit’s cross-section with its radial symmetry truly resembling a star. The star imagery also references the star of Communism present in the flags of the world’s Communist countries. By stating that “the tomato” of Red Communism offers benefits without any negative effects or consequences—the fruit has “remarkable amplitude / and abundance, / no pit, / no husk, / no leaves or thorns” (77-81)—Neruda positively presents his leftist political ideas to the people of Chile.

In another playful poem of political allegory, “Ode to My Socks”, Neruda once again does something unusual for a poet of his stature and writes an ode to commonplace items. However, this time, instead of honoring tomatoes, he celebrates a gift of socks. In this ode, he praises a new pair of socks that his Chilean friend Mara Mori knitted for him. He uses figurative language to transform this pair of socks into something of a much higher order. Neruda writes of the 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” (34-44). Putting on socks is something that most people do not think twice about. However, when the speaker puts these special socks on, he expresses disdain for his “unworthy” feet, because they are so “decrepit”—so unattractive, lowly and even dirty—that they could contaminate these sacred socks. Yet when he compares his feet to working-class firemen, those men who risk their lives to save others and their property, he compares his feet to the best of the proletariats. The socks glow with an unearthly fire, a sacred light that touches on the mundane world of feet. This woven fire illuminates his feet/firemen, shielding them from the cold and lifting their status. Ironically, though his feet are unworthy, the gift of the socks makes them worthy, just as the gift of Communism elevates the proletariat.

Neruda continues to describe the transformative influence of his socks on his feet in a succession of metaphors. His early comparisons at first appear incongruous with the others that come later: “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” (17-33). This gift of the socks is something from above that radically and even violently changes what it touches. He describes the socks/Communism with the word “violent”. He tells us that during the first stages of Communism, violence is needed for change. He then proceeds to describe his feet, first as fish and sharks in the sea, then as blackbirds, and finally as two cannons. Sharks are often portrayed as dangerous predators, blackbirds as birds of death, and cannons as weapons of war. He uses violent imagery and matches it with Communism to represent radical change. Later, he also uses the word “heavenly”, and this implying that this gift of these socks was something given by a higher power like God. He tells his readers that this gift of Communism should be accepted and honored.

In the second part of his “Ode to My Socks”, Neruda continues with the idea that Communism should be embraced. He metaphorically states that the gift of Communism, much like that of his socks, should be accepted by the proletariat, saying, “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” (56-76). At first Neruda believes that he is not worthy of the socks and that his only appropriate response is to store them away in order to protect and admire them. However, Neruda soon realizes that he is worthy and he manages to resist the temptation to not use the socks. This decision symbolizes the proletariats awakening to the realization that they are indeed worthy of the gift of Communism and accepting it. Neruda believes that the proletariats are worthy and he wants them to act now to bring about the radical change of Communism instead of waiting and holding back.

Neruda concludes his “Ode to My Socks” by writing a clever stanza in which he imbeds the moral of the poem and how it relates to Communism. His playful writing style is evident in his last stanza —“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” (77-85). In these lines he employs wordplay in that he writes “beauty” twice in the line “beauty is twice beauty”.  He repeats this same type of doubling wordplay with the word “good” in the next line, “and what is good is doubly good”. In this last stanza he also manages to sum up and state the moral of the entire ode. In the first stanza he was marveling at the beauty of the socks and how he was not worthy of them. However, in the second stanza he realizes his worth and he sees the benefits of the socks. In the end he decides to wear the socks and actually use them. He is content with the socks “when it is a matter of two socks / made of wool in winter” because they keep his feet from getting cold during winter in the Andes mountains of Chile. If he had instead stored the socks away, he would not have received this extra benefit of warmth. He connects this stanza to his support of Communism, because he wants the proletariats, the working-class to accept and use this gift of Communism instead of storing it away to be treasured without being used.

Throughout his two odes—using a synergistic blend of thinly disguised political philosophy and tongue-in-cheek humor—Neruda chooses to elevate mundane, commonplace objects such as tomatoes and socks. He informs the readers about class conflict and unity by lifting up these mundane objects for praise. In Neruda’s “Ode to Tomatoes,” he uses personification to make the tomatoes represent the underclass proletariat. He describes the revolution and the sacrifice of these tomatoes/proletariats, which ultimately brings unity under the new state of Communism. He expresses that Communism is perfect for the people because it is an idea that does not come with any negatives. In his “Ode to My Socks”, he once again hoists up lowly objects, but this time, they are a pair of socks. He insinuates to his readers that the socks represent Communism and the feet that wear these socks represent the proletariats. He informs readers that the socks/Communism, once worn, will elevate the feet/proletariats and that they are worthy and ready for this change of status. He states his desire for the proletariats—of his home nation of Chile as well as those of the greater world—to accept this gift of Communism and he wants the common people of the Earth to realize that they are indeed worthy.

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