Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577

Underlying much of Paz’s poetry is a generalized myth about nature. This myth can be conceptualized as involving an opposition between good (the natural) and evil (the artificial). In many respects, Octavio Paz can be viewed as a Romantic poet, and his poetry often contains the theme of a painful separation from nature and a yearning to be reunited with nature. Such a reunification frequently involves a return to instinctive behavior, and it is often expressed in images involving a restoration of innocence.

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In Paz’s work, it is culture that usually forces human beings away from nature, since culture usually prizes intelligence rather than emotion. The only certainty in those of Paz’s poems that reflect this theme of innocence is that which is provided by the senses. For the senses, experience is the most important criterion. In such an emphasis on sensory experience, Paz is similar to the poet Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud was disenchanted with the analytical, literary characteristics of the poetry of his time, and his poetics sought to recover the validity of sensual experience through sensual experience (usually excess). Both Paz and Rimbaud consider poetry to be a kind of knowledge of the self. For both, only the heightened senses can permit human beings a glimpse of truth.

The narrator, Paz, as a modern poet, is also a kind of Janus figure. He looks within himself throughout the poem and finds a disorientation that reflects the human condition. Then, looking around outside himself, the narrator sees a culture and society that are lacking in meaningful and fulfilling beliefs and myths. In a sense, the chief concern of A Draft of Shadows is the creation—or, rather, recreation—of myth, of the archetypal forms that primitive human beings relied upon intuitively for meaning. Such a myth is liberation through poetry, which belongs to the life-death-rebirth pattern that is basic to most religions. The myth of the return to a purified life after death formalizes the spiritual and physical aspects of life, and so formalizes the creation of a poem after difficult struggling.

Death is always present in the landscape of A Draft of Shadows, where light is obscured and obstructed by shadows. It is a land of rocks and scrub but most of all a land of language, of words on a page. Self-consciously, the narrator writes about the act of writing, the ways in which the words conflict and obscure the sights and feelings they are meant to reflect. A Draft of Shadows is very concerned with the transparency of language. So, in an important way, A Draft of Shadows is a kind of poetics that deals with the difficulties the poet encounters while trying to control his idiom. Words become a challenge on two levels: first, there is the imaginary, which can fill words with the spiritual and transcendent; second, there is the technical concern of poetic language, which twists and remakes language to suit specific ends. These two challenges are frequently at odds with each other, creating conflict and paradox in the poem.

Whenever A Draft of Shadows turns its attention to the environment, to stones and lakes and trails and goats, it reflects the narrator’s interest in Mexico and a suppressed maternal tradition. The landscape in A Draft of Shadows contains violently antagonistic elements, a reflection of Paz’s perception of Mexico. The poem reveals a suppressed violence in its opposition of passion and the fear of death.

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