I have multiple questions about the poem "Keeping Quiet" written by Pablo Neruda. I will list them one by one.

In the second stanza, the poet has mentioned "not move our arms so much". What is the meaning of that phrase?

Here's the second stanza:

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.

What does "sudden strangeness" refer to in the third stanza?

Here's the third stanza:

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

The poet has mentioned "look at his hurt hands" in the fourth stanza. Why will the man gathering salt look at his hurt hands only when everything is paused?

Here's the fourth stanza:

Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

I am unable to understand the fifth stanza completely. Please explain it.

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
in the shade, doing nothing.

What's the meaning of the following phrases in the sixth stanza:

  • "I want no truck with death"
  • "sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death"

What I want should not be
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
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

What's the meaning of "as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive" in the seventh stanza?

Perhaps the Earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Why does the poet ask us to be quiet and where is the poet going?

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

You can read the poem here: https://ncert.nic.in/textbook.php?lefl1=13-14

  • 3
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    – Spagirl
    Aug 23, 2021 at 11:09
  • @Spagirl Edited the post. Aug 23, 2021 at 12:57
  • "I want no truck with death". This is idiomatic English for "I want nothing to do with death", which is actually what the Spanish says.
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 23, 2021 at 21:17
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    There is another English translation on this blog (originally published here), which seems to me more faithful to the original.
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 24, 2021 at 12:54

1 Answer 1


This poem - titled "A callarse" in Spanish, which literally translates as "Be quiet [!]" (exclamation mark mine for emphasis) - can be interpreted as a set of instructions on how to meditate (as in yoga). The phrase "A callarse" might be used by a teacher when addressing a classroom of children, ordering them to quiet down. It has some bite, suggesting that the author is impatient or upset, and more than suggests that we should be calm, rather he demands it. Ironically, it is a call for action: inaction.

I'll go line by line through the sections that caused confusion, referencing the original in Spanish and adding my own translations and loose interpretations (it's poetry after all):

Por una vez sobre la tierra
no hablemos en ningún idioma,
por un segundo detengámonos,
no movamos tanto los brazos.

The last two lines translate into "for a second let's hold still, let's not move our arms so much". Interpretation: take a break, don't act, keep calm.

Sería un minuto fragante,
sin prisa, sin locomotoras,
todos estaríamos juntos
en un inquietud instantánea.

The last line translates into "in an instantaneous disquietude" (note: the noun inquietud is usually feminine but here a masculine indefinite article ("un") is used, so here Neruda seems to have taken poetic license, but I don't understand why, perhaps because it is odd and emphasizes that such a moment would feel odd?). The point is that, being unaccustomed to such tranquility, it would be odd and we would feel uncomfortable.

Los pescadores del mar frío
no harían daño a las ballenas
y el trabajador de la sal
miraría sus manos rotas.

The last two lines translate as as "the salt worker would look at his broken hands".

Shoveling salt in the mines in the desert of northern Chile is arduous manual labour. The climate is extreme, hands become dry and worn and the skin cracks. You have no time to pay attention to discomfort until a collective break allows you the great relief of finally attending to them.

Los que preparan guerras verdes,
guerras de gas, guerras de fuego,
victorias sin sobrevivientes,
se pondrían un traje puro
y andarían con sus hermanos
por la sombra, sin hacer nada.

The first half references the manufacture and use of chemicals for warfare (for instance during WWI and after). Poison gases may contain chlorine and be green in color (a color which we may attribute to life but is often associated with sickness and death; green is also a color associated with the cowardly, and maybe even the unripe, perhaps immature or uncivilized). Use of such weapons is regarded as one of the most abominable acts humans have perpetrated against other humans. The continued development of increasingly sinister and destructive weapons - of "mass destruction" such as nuclear weapons that kill indiscriminately all within reach - by a "military-industrial complex" come of age, represent all that is wrong with our priorities and collective moral values. The second half suggests that those who had been auxiliaries to such crimes would be cleansed and get a new start - a heavenly pardon - and wander together with all others. Walking in the shade suggests that it would be comfortable and contrasts with the heat associated with "wars of fire" (a reference to firearms (?), "armas de fuego" in Spanish).

The following

la vida es sólo lo que se hace,
no quiero nada con la muerte.

translates as "life is what you make of it, I want nothing of death".

Si no pudimos ser unánimes
moviendo tanto nuestras vidas,
tal vez no hacer nada una vez,
tal vez un gran silencio pueda
interrumpir esta tristeza,
este no entendernos jamás
y amenazarnos con la muerte,
tal vez la tierra nos enseñe
cuando todo parece muerto
y luego todo estaba vivo.

If all out actions cannot solve our problems, if we could not come to agreement through action, perhaps inaction is the solution.

The middle lines,

tal vez un gran silencio pueda
interrumpir esta tristeza,
este no entendernos jamás
y amenazarnos con la muerte,

translate as "maybe a great silence might interrupt this sadness, this inability to ever understand each other, this threatening us with death".

As an alternative to arguing and threatening each other, perhaps we might choose to be quiet and thereby interrupt the sad state in which we find ourselves. The path humanity is following Neruda identifies as a mutual and possibly collective threat to our existence.

tal vez la tierra nos enseñe
cuando todo parece muerto
y luego todo estaba vivo.

Here Neruda plays with the tense of the verbs. The earth might teach us that even when things seem lost (dead) there is still hope and life comes anew.

Ahora contaré hasta doce
y tú te callas y me voy.

This is a personal appeal to each reader, again a reference to the poem as a call to meditate and instructions on how to meditate. It is a playful reference to school or a game. Twelve also has religious connotations within Christianity which he might be referencing, as many Spanish-speaking readers would identify this with the number of Jesus Christ's apostles. Usually we count to ten, not twelve. If you pay heed to his request his work will be done.

  • I found a Spanish version here: culturafilosofica.com/…
    – Buck Thorn
    Aug 24, 2021 at 10:26
  • 1
    There is a French version here. That webpage seems to say that the English was translated from the French, and not directly from the Spanish. This seems true to some extent: the French version translates to "life is what it is about," and not "life is what you make of it." (But the translator did correct the French line "ne regarderait pas ses mains blessées," which means "would not look at his wounded hands," and leaves out the addition of winter in the lines "when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive.")
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 24, 2021 at 12:29
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    And finally, since the poem was written after W.W.II (published in 1958), I suspect the "guerras de fuego" could refer to firebombing (although quite possibly Neruda deliberately left the poem ambiguous).
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 24, 2021 at 12:46
  • 1
    @PeterShor "la vida es solo lo que se hace" literally means "life is only that which you do" which might be interpreted philosophically in a Cartesian sense as a corollary of "I think therefore I am", or as a poetic abbreviation of "life is what you make of it".
    – Buck Thorn
    Aug 24, 2021 at 14:18
  • 1
    "Guerras de fuego" could certainly refer to nuclear or fire-bombing. "Guerras verdes" is perhaps the most ambiguous phrase. It could also refer to wars in the jungle (guerrilla wars?), or, consistent with nuclear and chemical warfare (non-conventional, scientifically developed modes), might be a reference to biological warfare.
    – Buck Thorn
    Aug 25, 2021 at 6:29

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