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Pablo Neruda opens his poem Keeping Quiet with the following lines:

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

Why did he choose to count to 'twelve' of all numbers? In fact, why count at all? The very next stanza says:

For once on the face of the Earth
Let's not speak in any one language,
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

He says here to just stop for a second, so why say count to twelve at all?

He also ends the poem the way he started:

Now, I'll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I'll go.

I understand this creates some sort of symmetry in the poem, but he changes the subject from 'we' to 'I'. Is this supposed to mean anything?

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2 Answers 2

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The narrator is metaphorically comparing himself to a clock speaking to other clocks. Prior to the 21st century, most clocks were analog; they had clock faces with numbers that went from 1 to 12, and two or three hands that constantly went around the face to indicate the time, like so:

Picture of an analog clock with numbers from 1 to 12 on a circular face, showing the time at 10 minutes past 10

The illustration shows an analog clock displaying the time at ten minutes past ten†. Such clocks are still seen occasionally, particularly in skeuomorphic designs, but are increasingly rare. However, they were the norm when Neruda was alive, as digital clocks were not mass produced until the 1970s, and Neruda died in 1973, before these had completely displaced their analog predecessors.

Counting to 12 and then keeping still therefore means stopping time. Since the movement of the hands around the clock face marks the passage of time, the narrator imagines that if all the clocks would

stop for a second
and not move our arms so much,

then a world outside time could be brought into being. All the destructive energies that we time-bound humans inflict upon ourselves and the natural world would cease.

The "sudden strangeness" of a world outside time would lead to a pause, at least, in such activities as whale-hunting and wars, as people would "walk about ... in the shade, doing nothing." As there is no longer any pressure of time, there is no need (for example) to meet a certain quota for the number of whales to be killed before hunting season is over.

The narrator then explains that the pressure of time keeps us from "understanding ourselves," and this lack of introspection leads to "sadness" and the constant threat of destruction. He then says to his auditors (human as well as horological) that he will count to twelve, after which the clocks will stop, and the human beings cease their activity. At that point, the narrator intends to absent himself, keeping the clocks/humans in the "doing nothing" that is yet not "total inactivity."

The beauty and ingenuity of Neruda's conceit is a bit hard for us to understand in our current age, when analog clocks are an increasingly distant memory. But the conceit can be extended to fit, though the fit is somewhat imprecise. Imagine if the devices we consult for the time, our smartphones, all counted up to twelve and then suddenly stopped working at noon or midnight. We'd no longer scroll mindlessly in search of distraction or engagement or news, and we might seek out actual human connections with others. That is the world Neruda's speaker imagines for us.

†The intricacies of telling time on those old-fashioned devices are beyond the scope of this answer. They involve complicated mathematical operations such as multiplying by five and counting in base 60, all without the use of so much as an abacus. However, our foreparents managed with surprising ease, in the same way that ancient Romans managed the third declension and the ablative absolute without being tripped up by the technicalities of Latin grammar. People were smart when phones weren't, I guess.

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  • 8
    Are analogue clocks really so rare where you are? There are still plenty here in the UK. Feb 16 at 16:53
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    While it is true the clock reads 10:10, it would have been pretty normal to say "going on quarter past 10" or something similar. There is a subtle difference in thinking about time with the new exactness of networked digital clocks.
    – Yorik
    Feb 16 at 18:57
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    The narrator imagines that if all the clocks would stop for a second and not move our arms so much, then a world outside time could be brought into being. All the destructive energies that we time-bound humans inflict upon ourselves and the natural world would cease.already doing it, doesn't help
    – user28434
    Feb 16 at 19:04
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    @verbose Europe generally has analog clocks in public and private and I find them more readable at a distance as a non-visually-impaired person. Monarchy, and the related competition in reputation among sovereign States, still have a purpose to make Trump wannabes and State-mandated mass human right violations inconceivable except in the fiction / news from remote lands.
    – ignis
    Feb 16 at 21:28
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    Literary analysis involves reading between the lines and interpreting the text, @Lambie, getting to the meaning behind the words. That means it can also be rather subjective. verbose's answer here explains one interpretation of the poem; you are free to interpret it differently, but that doesn't mean that the analysis presented here is a "guess".
    – Mithical
    Feb 19 at 5:21
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Poetry in translation is not the same as the original. So, please see below. I am not suggesting another translation or saying the one you see everywhere is not good. I am merely explaining some bits of the original poem which the translation does not show. And which can lead to misinterpretation.

The Spanish original:

A CALLARSE [let's keep quiet, as in when someone says: A comer, Let's eat. or A baillar, Let's dance.]

Ahora contaremos doce [Now, we will count twelve, not up to twelve, that would be hasta doce]
y nos quedamos todos quietos.

[count twelve what? months of the year? twelve years? It so happens that in Spanish doce also means 12 noon or 12 midnight. Or a sort of play on words for to count midday or midnight? And why after doing so, would one keep quiet? Also, contar in Spanish means: to tell. I don't know how that would work here.]

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

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

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

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.

No se confunda lo que quiero
con la inacción definitiva:
la vida es sólo lo que se hace,
no quiero nada con la muerte.

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.

Ahora contaré hasta doce [Now here, it is count up to twelve]
y tú te callas y me voy. [and you shut up (or be quiet) and I'm leaving or I'll leave]

An interpretation in Spanish:

Interpretación estrofa por estrofa A Callarse Lo más importante a destacar en el análisis de este poema, que parece a simple vista como un reclamo fatalista, es saber que el yo poético no quiere nada con la muerte, quiere todo con la vida. Quiere contar hasta doce y alentarnos a despertar conciencia y ser mejores seres humanos.

[translation:]

Verse-by-verse Interpretation of A Callarse The most important aspect in the analysis of this poem, which seems at first sight to be a fatalistic complaint, is to know that the poetic subject (or ego) wants nothing to do with death, but everything to do with life. It wants to count up to twelve and encourage ourselves to awaken consciousness and be better human beings.

Nos pide contar hasta doce y quedarnos quietos, inmóviles, sin hacer nada. Así comienza su propuesta. Todo con el fin de paralizarnos un momento en lo que llamará “una inquietud instantánea”.

It asks us to count up to twelve and be quiet, immobile, doing nothing. That's how his proposal begins. The aim of all this is to paralize us for a moment which he will call "an instant disquiet".

Analysis of Callarse

So, it seems that twelve is just the number twelve.

This is from a site called Tallando Poemas [trimming poetry]

Who we are_Tallando Poemas

They say this about themselves though names are not given.

Así surgió Tallando Podemos una iniciativa que busca educar a los nuevos poetas de este mundo 2.0. En el que los versos de 140 caracteres parecen tener mejor acogida. Pero no somos retrógrados ni anticuados: consideramos que los poemas cortos también son válidos si tienen contenido y profundidad.

Thus Tallando Podemos came about, an initiative that seeks to educate new poets of thisw 2.0 world. In one that verses of 140 characters are better received. But we are not retrograde nor antiquated. We consider that short poems are vaklid if they have content and depth.

Creemos que la lengua española es el idioma de la literatura. Los tecnicismos y las composiciones simples de los textos científicos e universales pertenecen a lenguas de otra orilla. Nos encanta la “ñ”, la diversificación de las palabras y la libertad de estructura.

We believe that the Spanish language is the language of literature. Technical terms and the simply written scientific and universal texts belong to languages from another shore. [as in foreign shore]. We are enchanted by its “ñ”, diversification and structural freedom.

Please note: They say in About Us, they are called: Tallando Podemos, the meaning of which would translate to: By trimming, we can. There are only two letters that separate podemos, we can, from poemas, poems in Spanish.

In sum, according to this analysis, the poet is asking the reader to count out numbers until reaching twelve. This is similar to saying to someone, count to ten and then do whatever. Why he uses twelve is not discernible.

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  • Your answer would be more convincing if you explained why the clues in English that were used to deduce that the poem references clocks ("count to twelve and keep still" and "not move our arms so much") aren't also present in the Spanish — as far as I can tell, they are.
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 20 at 12:37
  • The references is: count to twelve, and for time: one second and one minute. They are present but do not reference clocks. Because he says count to twelve, then says: por un segundo detengámonos, no movamos tanto los brazos. Sería un minuto fragante, which is: Let us stop for a second, let's not move our arms so much, that would be a fragrant minute. So, he references time but not clocks. The arms of a clock=manecillas, not brazos. My main point about this is: one usually counts to ten and then breathes, or whatever. But he says to count to twelve. How is that a clock?
    – Lambie
    Feb 20 at 15:29
  • clocks don't have arms in English, either; they have hands. And isn't a manecilla just a little hand?
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 20 at 16:50
  • @PeterShor I know that. manecillas del reloj are hands of a clock. BUT I was trying to figure out why arms seemed important to you as a clock reference. The examples you give in quotes come after you say: [...] deduce the poem references clocks. As I have already said, now twice, there is no reference to clocks anywhere in the poem.
    – Lambie
    Feb 20 at 17:11
  • There's no direct reference to prison in Paul Verlaine's Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit, either. But people have very little doubt that that's what the poem's about (despite the fact that the first translators of the poem into English completely missed this).
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 20 at 21:26

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