The poem is composed of a series of four questions, each of which personifies an everyday object—two of them natural, two man-made—to explore the nature of reality. The first question considers the metaphysics and aesthetics of a rose. The second creates a potent paradox in relation to tree roots to that can be interpreted in various ways—political, spiritual, and social. The third personifies a car to address the complexities of ethics. The fourth also personifies a mode of transportation, a train, to consider the pathos of uselessness.
This first question is an imperative sentence which begins with the command “Tell me.” The speaker demands an answer from the reader—qn impossible expectation. When a speaker directly addresses someone outside of a poem, this literary device is called an “apostrophe.”
The subject of the question is a rose, a common symbol of beauty in poetry. The poem personifies the rose, imagining her as a woman. Then we are to consider the rose’s appearance: is she naked or wearing a dress? This is a question about beauty and appearances. If the rose is naked, she is concealing nothing. Her beauty is intrinsic to her being, and she simply is, without mystery. What if she is wearing a “dress”? It would have to be her “only” dress, as roses don’t change their petals to suit different occasions. If she is wearing a dress, the implication is that she is hiding something under the surface—that reality is concealed. This could also be a question about human perception. What do we see when we see a rose? Do we see the real rose "itself," or only the appearance of the rose? Is the beauty of the rose intrinsic to it, or something that we humans create? In this seemingly simple question, the poem poses one of the most profound questions about the nature of reality and beauty, placing it in the realm of philosophy, of metaphysics and aesthetics. It may also be an indication that Neruda read the Critique of Judgment by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, which considers the rose as a subject to explore human judgment of beauty.
In the second question, the speaker asks “why”; this could be either a direct question to the reader, or a rhetorical question. As in the first stanza, the subject is botanical (here, trees), and personified. The question about the rose wondered if she was revealing all, or hiding something. This question about the trees claims to know what they are doing—concealing—but asks: why? The speaker sees “splendor” in tree roots. The Spanish word, from which this is translated, is very similar: “esplendor.” It comes from the Latin word, meaning “shine, be bright.” So, there a is paradox in the language of this question: roots grow underground, yet the speaker sees them as bright and shiny, which are attributes of light. Trees bring in light through their leaves, converting it along with water into energy. So in a way, light is stored underground in the roots of trees. Trees conceal their roots because they have to. If they are uprooted, they can’t live.
There is an ironic reversal of expectation in this: Many poems have been written to praise the beauty of fruit and flowers, but roots are often overlooked as merely functional. What does it mean to see the splendor of roots? It can be seen as a political metaphor about the economic base upon which the superstructure is built. These are Marxist terms, relevant to analyzing Neruda’s poetry because he was an active member of the Communist Party. So, this short poem can be seen as a nod to the masses who do the work to keep society alive, but whose labor is concealed by ideology. Alternatively, this could be read a spiritual metaphor, or a reworking or reversal of the famous Dylan Thomas poem that begins “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees/Is my destroyer.” Roots can also refer to ancestry, so it could also be read as a metaphor for an improper shame towards one’s family history.
In contrast to the first two questions, the subject of the third question is an artificial object: a car. But it is also personified. It’s a criminal automobile, a thief—but with regrets. The speaker is concerned not so much with the car itself, which sounds pretty interesting. (What does it steal? Gasoline?). No, the poem is concerned with who has sympathy for the car. The speaker sees the car with animist eyes, as a living being, and wonders who else does too. Who lends an ear as a friend, or absolution as a priest? The question isn’t about whether something is real or not—unlike in the others, here the automobile's reality is taken for granted—but about community and imagination. Because the speaker has implied sympathy for the car, we are made to wonder if the car is doing something against its will. And since cars usually do the bidding of humans, it may be a victim of human desire. Perhaps it regrets stealing resources from the earth. It takes a poetic imagination to grant the respect of personification to a car, to see the complex ethical relationships that we ignore in ordinary thought.
The final question, about the train in the rain, could either be rhetorical, or an earnest yes/no question. As with question three, the speaker asks us to consider a mode of transportation as a person. Rain is a common symbol of sadness. Anything in the rain could be imagined to be sad: cold, wet, without the comfort of shelter. But a train is built to withstand rain. It takes an extra leap of imagination to find a giant metal train to be a subject of pathos because it’s wet. The word that makes it convincingly sad is the verb “standing,” because a train is made to move, to transport things from place to place. This is its reason for being. So if it’s standing, it is out of commission. This answer to this question, obviously, is yes—there are plenty of things that are sadder than a train standing in the rain, if you conceive of people as more worthy of sympathy than objects. But if you spread your sympathy equally, then this paralyzed, useless train is pretty sad indeed. Another question: Who is sad? The train itself, or the human perceiving the train? It could be read either way.