Neruda: poet, Communist... and seashell collector

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is known for many things: he was a career diplomat, an avid Communist, and of course, the Nobel Prize-winning author of erotically charged love poems, memoirs and surrealist verse.

But a seashell collector? Neruda's name might evoke images of the thousands of Spanish Civil War refugees he shipped to Chile on The Winnipeg, or the crowds who showed up for his funeral against the orders of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. A stooping beachcomber with trousers rolled is certainly not the image of him that usually comes to mind.

The author of Twenty Poems of Love and a Song of Despair, however, was indeed passionate about the exoskeletons of molluscs. When he was not scribbling his verses or speaking in support of left-wing figures like Stalin, he was combing markets and beaches around the world for the perfect, spirally conch. Over the course of two decades, he amassed 9,000 seashells, including one from the Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

More than 400 specimens of this little-known collection of seashells – "small countries of mother of pearl" as he called them – are now on public view for the first time at the Instituto de Cervantes in Madrid. He donated the fruits of his obsession to the University of Chile in 1954. "Neruda was constantly inspired, and amazed, at this extraordinary gift of nature," said the exhibit curator, Pedro Nunez.

The poet considered the shell a metaphor for the diversity of life within the boundaries of rigid mathematical proportions, he said. They appear, in more or less recognisable form, throughout his poems. In one verse they are "immobile legacies imprisoned by a furious wave". In another, his beloved exoskeletons morph into "the breasts of the sirens", "petrified waves" and the "immobilised play of the foam". "The best thing I have collected in my life are my shells," the poet once wrote. "They gave me the pleasure of their prodigious structure, the lunar purity of their mysterious porcelain."

The exhibit, accompanied by a soundtrack of rolling waves, demonstrates the depth of Neruda's maritime love affair – to the point of acquiring tomes filled with catalogues of species.

"I remember in the museum of Peking they opened the most sacred box of molluscs from the China Sea to give me one of only two specimens of the Thatcheria mirabilis," he said on donating his collection. "This foam of the seven seas I deliver to the university."