The poem was originally written by Pablo Neruda in Spanish but later translated to English. Its main thrust was the significance of mindfulness, introspection and retrospection as these lead to attention, unity and brotherhood.
It was an appeal to pause and really see that set in a mundane flurry of human habit; people are led to blindly perform what is expected of them while sadly not perceiving the impact to nature and society.
By asking the reader to count to twelve, the poet calls for a time to be tranquil and unmoving. His use of the number twelve could be associated to the clock hours or possibly, even the number of months in a year. Both attributions however, effectively depict how our hours and months pass by before us, as we continue to chase after them without so much as a pause in between.
Again, the poet reinforces his call not to take a step further, move nor speak. The appeal to not speak in any language is symbolic of asking people to now “speak” in one language – silence. This would bring everyone together and lead us to introspection.
In this view, symbolism may also be seen in the use of the phrase, “move our arms so much” which in this context, if taken lightly can be considered as merely brisk walking, but could also be signifying violence or our selfish pursuits. It is to be noted as well how the poet mentions “once” and “one second” in this stanza. The appeal is set on the premise that humans are constantly speaking and constantly moving- again, a reinforcement of his earlier hedge on the lack of time to be still and introspective.
Here, the poet introduces the impact of such behavior. The poet then proceeds to ask the reader to ponder, consider and bask on the glory of this rare occurrence: where the usual flurry of diverse human activity is now silenced to a standstill and in surprising unity. As humans are perceived to be unique in their own ways and possess free will, a complied deliberate silence of all shall create this mysterious yet wonderfully unusual unanimity.
Here, the poem develops by providing what ensues through this quietness. The poet shows how because of this, humans would now have more time to think about their actions and how they would have the time to notice the details that surround their daily lives. Knowing the power they have over nature but also being aware of where they stand, humans now demonstrate their free will not to harm nature. Mentioning about the man gathering salt who notices that his very hands are hurt displays the result of retrospection.
In this part, the poet references wars and those that participate in it, to drive his point home. Because there is now a time to breathe in and out, without being required to do what is usually done, or blindly follow orders, there will also be time for introspection. And through this, humans are now able to see how in a war, there really are no winners. This is where he continues to show the critical impact of allowing time for introspection: a conscious effort not to contribute or be part of dissension. Another symbolism can be spotted when the poet mentions “put on clean clothes.” This is not just to emphasize how with war, there is the shedding of blood, but rather the very act of putting on new clothes can be seen as taking on a different role, a different persona, and basically having a different take on the matter at hand.
The poet then divulges to clarify that his plea for stillness, for a moment’s pause, is not to be mistaken for the mere act of doing nothing or death. He mentions to truly look at life as it is: which is of living while experiencing the beauty of quietness and the moments that go through it. Note how he used “no truck with” which is an idiom meant to connote not having association with. The poet considers going through the hustle and bustle of life without pausing, as death.
The poet then proceeds to give the reader a conditional statement to allow him to consider what would happen if humans had not been slaves to time, routine and habit. He presents the bearing this unforeseen single iota of change, rubbing off on the majority of people, would ultimately result to a much needed introspection. The poet further injects irony when he mentions “death” in this stanza again as he goes to show how humans are terrified of eventually dying. This, while not noticing that the life they are actually “living” is merely existing, without truly being aware of what they are doing and becoming. Also, the poet asks us to learn from earth which seems to be still when seen from far away but is burstling with life with all the flora and fauna within.
Having presented the dilemma, the poet effectively passes the baton to the reader and has now given him the power and the choice to be still and begin his own introspection and retrospection. As with the central idea of his poem, the call to pause and be mindful of one’s own self and ways, resonates to the very conclusion of the poem.