The speaker’s friend gives him a gift of soft homemade socks. He tries them on and finds them to be very beautiful. The poem personifies his new socks successively as fish, sharks, blackbirds, and cannons. The speaker feels that his feet are honored by wearing these heavenly socks. Then, his feet come to seem unacceptable compared to the socks, and unworthy of wearing them. He imagines saving the socks, and in a series of metaphors examines this impulse. But he resists and, with remorse, puts them on, along with his shoes. He offers a tongue-in-cheek moral to his story: goodness and beauty are doubly so when we’re talking about socks, because they come in pairs. The serious point behind the joke is that ordinary objects are wonderful because of, not in spite of, their utility.
The poem begins in a colloquial voice, with the speaker telling a story in the past tense. It breaks up one sentence into seven lines, using enjambment, to draw attention to the image of each phrase, keep the experience of reading slow and simple, and add a bit of suspense. The sentence explains plainly the inciting incident for the poem: A friend brought the speaker a pair of homemade socks. We are thus introduced to the socks. The grammatical term for a phrase like "shepherd's hands" is the descriptive genitive, meaning that it uses a possessive noun as an adjective. In this case, “shepherd's” describes "hands.” By focusing on the shepherd character of Maru Mori’s hands, the poem makes a series of connections between the socks, her hands, the sheep who were presumably the source of the wool for the socks, and even Neruda’s native country Chile, where sheep-herding was an important industry. These are already meaningful socks because they represent an ecosystem of relationships, expressed through craft, which includes the speaker who has received the gift.
In a simile, The speaker compares the socks to rabbits, because of their soft quality. In describing how the socks feel, the language brings the sensation of touch to the poem. In placing the words "socks" and "soft" next to each other, the poem unites them with assonance. The next sentence describes an action: the speaker puts on his new socks, gingerly. With the “as if,” the poem uses another simile to compare the socks to “jewel cases.” By wearing the socks the speaker’s feet become elevated to the status of precious jewels. He imagines that the socks were made with “threads of/dusk/and sheep's wool.” We have anticipated sheep’s wool, because they were knitted by shepherd's hands. Mixed with this mundane material is a magical one: dusk, which describes a quality of light just as the sun sets—the socks are glowing.
Then in a surprising transformation, the socks turn the speaker’s feet into fish. By describing the socks as “audacious,” the poem personifies them, giving them an active spirit. Synonyms for audacious include bold, intrepid, and marked by originality and verve. In a metaphor, the speaker compares his feet to “two woolen/fish.” This means that they are in the process of transformation at this point, since they keep their wooly quality even as fish, in a comic image.
In an extension of the fish metaphor, his feet become sharks. Sharks are the opposite of woolen—smooth and not at all comforting—but they are definitely audacious. “Lapis-blue” describes the bright ultramarine-colored mineral lapis lazuli, which is found in Chile. So his feet, as sharks, have taken on the color of the sea, and also of a mineral from the earth. Chile borders the South Pacific Ocean and a small part of the South Atlantic Ocean. So the imaginative geography of this poem is distinctly Chilean. The “thread” that shoots through the sharks brings them back to the literal—to being socks—but as the thread is “golden,” the socks continue to be magical and shiny. The poem mixes literal and figurative language to explore the process of transformation in the speaker’s imagination as he regards his feet.
Continuing the series of metaphors, his feet become “two mammoth blackbirds/two cannons.” The repetition of “two” reminds us that we are looking at two feet. This doubling is the only remaining indication that they are feet at all. His feet have changed from sea creatures to creatures of the air, and large ones. They have also changed their color from blue to black. And once black, they become cannons. In this striking transformation, we have left the animal kingdom and moved to a violent man-made world. Going back to the beginning of the sentence, note that cannons are also “audacious.” This transformation brings his feet into the realm of human history, and possibly Chile’s past.
The sentence ends in hyperbole: these socks are “celestial,” meaning heavenly, or to continue the light metaphor established by the word “dusk,” filled with the glow of stars. These amazing socks honor the speaker’s feet. The word “thus” refers to all of the transformations that the speaker witnessed or imagined. The socks have made his feet beautiful, and so honored them. In considering honor, the cannons become possibly ceremonial, as in a military salute. In naming these humble socks to be so special, the poem has consecrated them, made them divine.
After seeing the heavenly beauty of his socks fully, the speaker then compares them to his feet: “for the first time/my feet seemed unacceptable to me.” He sees his feet as he has never seen them before, in a type of epiphany. Sadly his magical socks have not made his feet magical to him, but “unacceptable.” He is embarrassed by their ugliness. Using personification, the speaker compares his feet to “two tired old firefighters.” The socks continue to glow as earlier in the poem, but this time they are “luminous,” because they’re on fire. Yet they are also socks, made of ordinary “woven” material. If the feet are firefighters, and the socks are the fire, then they are in conflict. But the firefighters are exhausted and unworthy of the fight. There is also an implied threat that his feet might burn up in the fire of the socks. The gloriousness of the socks is overpowering him, and he is not up to the challenge of being so honored.
Since the socks are brand new, he considers taking them off and saving them as a collector would, preserving them for the future. He begins the sentence with “nonetheless,” referring back to the sentence before, when he found the socks too beautiful for his feet. So his “strong temptation to save them” is because of their overwhelming beauty. Nonetheless, he resists. The next three lines are a simile for his urge to save his socks, which the speaker compares to the way that children keep fireflies in a jar. As fireflies glow with phosphorescence, this continues the motif of light in the poem. The practice of trapping fireflies in a bottle evokes both wonder and cruelty.
In the following three lines, the speaker offers another metaphor for his impulse to save them: “the way that scholars/hoard/sacred documents.” This comparison moves to the other end of the life span. There’s an alliterative pattern to the words “schoolboys,” “scholars,” and “sacred.” The implication is that like the schoolboys, the scholars are trapping light, holding something divine. In the next sentence, the speaker resists the impulse again. This time, the socks are figured as birds. The speaker wants to tame them, to turn them into pets by keeping them in a golden cage and feeding them delicious treats. Part of the fun and silliness of this poem is to imagine socks in each of these scenarios.
Using a simile, the speaker compares himself putting on his socks to explorers who eat a rare deer. In this, he considers the human condition in which beauty is sacrificed out of necessity. The word choice of “explorers,” instead of hunters, means that their intention was to seek out and appreciate the world’s treasures. That is why they consume it with “remorse.” The socks are compared to the deer, so you can imagine them as “rare.” In a world of industrially produced clothing, handcrafted socks are in fact rare. The speaker wants to save and appreciate the socks, but must do the human thing and use them to keep his feet warm. The second half of the sentence is a straightforward description of the action of putting on his socks (which he continues to admire as “handsome”) and his shoes. The socks are now covered by shoes and serving their utilitarian purpose.
After the “So” we learn that this poem has a “moral,” meaning that the ode is taking the form of a fable. The colon is a punctuation mark that usually announces a literal declarative statement. Along with the moral, a literal declaration of meaning is an unusual form to find in a poem.
The moral of the poem is a sort of joke: beauty and goodness are twice as potent when you’re talking about a pair of beautiful and good socks, because there are two of them! The silliness comes from an ironic subversion of expectation: You would expect something lofty to symbolize the beautiful and the good in a poem. Instead, the punchline, set up and delivered way back in the title, is that we’re talking about socks here, the most mundane objects.
The serious philosophical point underlying the joke is that beauty and goodness—all of the wondrous magic that the poet has praised throughout the poem—are in fact contained in our relationships with ordinary things. In the series of alliterative words “when,” “woolen,” and “wintertime,” the speaker points out the goodness and beauty to be found in utility and human comforts: it is undeniably wonderful to wear socks in the winter, because they keep our feet warm.