Much of this poem portrays the speaker's attempt to find a satisfying symbol that might represent his love. He cycles through a number of recognizable symbols associated with romantic love, including flowers and precious stones. But he rejects them each in turn, in part, seemingly, because they are too broadly recognized: their popularity as symbolic representations of love makes them feel inappropriately public and impersonal. Thus, part of what makes this poem interesting is the way in which it grapples with preexisting symbolism, examining the baggage that those already-used symbols carry. Here, we'll do the same, examining the history of flowers, fire, and gemstones as representations of love and romance.
Flowers are perhaps the most recognizable symbol of romance for most readers, and this is reflected in the content of the poem. Neruda mentions them three times—first by referencing a "rose of salt," then carnations, and finally through a description of a plant that keeps its flowers hidden. Flowers have been traditionally used to symbolize romance, but more broadly, they have been used to mark ceremonial occasions, from courting to marriage to death. Within the context of literature, moreover, flowers have been commonly used to metaphorically represent women and femininity. Historically, these floral metaphors have been both racially and sexually loaded. As the scholar Nancy Chick writes with reference to early modern English fiction, "The pristine lily-whiteness of the skin, the innocent blushing of rosy cheeks...not only establish a white femininity, but also a pure, virginal femininity." Viewed through this lens, it is possible to read Neruda's rejection of floral symbolism, at least in its typical forms, as a rejection of the centrality of whiteness and virginity in romantic narrative.
In literary history, the symbolism of fire has ranged as widely as its usage in real life. Writers have referenced fire's capacity to warm, illuminate, and destroy by turning it into a complex symbol, not merely of these functions individually, but of the volatile interrelations between them. This has tended to mean that fire carries a very different set of connotations regarding romance when compared to the "pure, virginal femininity" evoked by flowers. Flames generally symbolize a highly sexual, desire-driven, and nearly uncontrolled type of romantic love. In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare suggests an unruly romance with the metaphor "Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs—Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes." In other words, love is volatile, capable of producing happy fires of passion, but equally capable of producing a smoky smog of heartbreak. Interestingly, though Neruda's speaker seems unhappy with the prim domesticity of floral metaphor, he's just as displeased with fire's connotations of instability and tragedy.
Finally, the poem's speaker also mentions (and then discards) the symbol of a gemstone, specifically topaz. Topaz, like a number of other gems, has at times been associated with love and said to attract love to its wearer. But, perhaps more relevant in the context of this poem, it is also particularly associated with the acquisition of wealth. Arguably, all expensive precious stones can be understood as symbols bridging love and wealth. This layered symbolism may be especially applicable in the mid-twentieth century and later, since it was in the 1930s that British businessmen sought to sell South African diamonds through an ad campaign associating diamonds with engagement rings. They were successful at increasing the demand for and price of diamonds, but their business didn't merely solidify gemstones as symbols of wealth—it perpetuated injustice and inequality with inhumane working conditions in African mines. By choosing a topaz rather than a diamond as a symbol, Neruda opts for an older and perhaps a more subtle image to link wealth and love. But the speaker's rejection of the topaz as metaphor can also be read as a rejection of the link between love and social status or class.
Symbols of romance including but not limited to the diamond can have vast environmental and human rights consequences. As scholar and physician Martin Donohoe notes in a discussion of jewelry and flowers, "Most buyers are unaware that in gifting their lovers with these aesthetically beautiful symbols, they are supporting industries which damage the environment, utilize forced labor, cause serious acute and chronic health problems, and contribute to violent conflicts." Rather than elide the tension between the symbolism of romance and the material consequences of such symbols, Neruda—himself affiliated with leftist political movements and deeply interested in issues of labor exploitation—here seems to obliquely engage with them.