The Bow and the Lyre Essay - Critical Context

Octavio Paz

Critical Context

One can easily read The Bow and the Lyre as the kind of impersonal autobiography many poets could have written at the dawn of the technological age. Though poets have always been outcasts, the denial of the imaginative power of language creates a labyrinth of solipsism (the belief that the self can know only its own experiences). Joseph Campbell, the eminent writer on myth and ritual, has reached exactly the same conclusions as Paz in noting the disappearance of mythos in the contemporary Western world.

In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz had called this modern phenomenon soledad (solitude which implies alienation) and opposed it to comunion (communion or association which leads to salvation). It is not encouraging that The Bow and the Lyre emphasizes soledad to the almost total exclusion of comunion as the fruit the contemporary world will reap. Though Paz marshals a staggering variety of philosophers and poets to support his argument, conspicuous by his absence is the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. This omission is strangely pleasing, as though Paz is still willing to entertain some hope of comunion.

With the writing of The Bow and the Lyre, Paz showed that he had passed not only beyond the Surrealist involvements of his youth but also beyond the circle of poetes maudits (accursed poets), the revolutionary poets damned for their antiestablishment values. Though he continues to hold that all poets are revolutionaries, this book marked Paz’s return to Mexico and established him as its reigning philosopher-poet. The surprisingly favorable criticism it received from academic critics (such as Helen Vendler), not to mention its broad circulation in English and French translations, transformed a revolutionary into a respected literary figure.