Introduction

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Octavio Paz's beautiful and mysterious poem reflects many of the ideas that characterize his work in the early 1950s after his return to Mexico from Paris. Like the other verses in the volume Semillas para un himno (Seeds for Hymn) in which it appears, the style of the twenty-two-line, visually rich, unrhymed, unpunctuated poem shows the influence of surrealism, an aesthetic movement that aimed to expand human self-expression by rejecting rational control and deliberate intent in favor of uncensored images springing from the subconscious. The poem describes a mythical landscape at the beginning of creation whose unity is suddenly shattered. With the fragmentation of this previously undifferentiated world comes human language. The images presented in the poem are unexpected and startling while having familiar echoes from myths of the Christian tradition and ancient Mexico.

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The imagery, tone, and subtle allusions in the poem combine with powerful effect to present a picture of a paradise lost. The poem may be read as a depiction of a world corrupted by humans' attempt to express it in intellectual terms. It may also be viewed as a commentary on the modern predicament where humans are removed from each other because their lives lack the cohesion and meaning found in the sacred ancient myths. Another understanding of the poem is of the limitations of language to express the raw human experience that resides in the subconscious. The related themes of myth and language that figure in much of Paz's poetry are explored in "Fable" with characteristic insight, elegance, and erudition, but ultimately the poem offers no simple explanations about the nature of these subjects. Like the ancient myths themselves, the poem presents a story whose universal truths are not explicitly told but which lie buried, to be discovered using imagination and an opening up of the subconscious mind.

Summary

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Title
The poem's title is important, as it alerts readers to its subject. A fable is a legendary story of supernatural or marvelous happenings, a tale with connotations of the mythic, the allegorical, and the fabulous. It can also be a story that is not true but that is nevertheless instructive of the truth through its underlying meaning. The title, then, leads readers to expect that the content of the poem will be not of this world yet perhaps contain within it a truth that is applicable to human life and experience.

Lines 1-7
The opening lines of the poem take us to a primordial age, to the very beginnings of time when there is nothing but the most basic elements of fire, air, and water. It is the period when the world, and even water itself, is still in its youth. The grounding element of earth is notably missing from the list, and the sense conveyed is that of freedom, lightness, and freshness. In the third line we learn that out of these elements comes life. It is at first green, signifying its newness, then matures to yellow and ripens to red. The act of creation that brings forth this world is performed completely effortlessly. There is "only a step" between a thing being a dream (an internal state of seeing) and a vigil (an external act of watching), between the desire for something and its being done. The unidentified creator who brings forth this life, referred to in line 7 as "you," may be God or Nature or some other principle of generation.

Lines 8-14
The next seven lines describe the paradaisical world that has been born. There is a sense of brightness and, again, lightness and freedom in the images of the created things, which are transformations of the elements of air, fire, and water: airborne insects are living jewels; heat in the air lies down to rest at the edge of a pond; rain cascades down gently as loose hair of a willow tree. The hand of creation (again referred to as "you" but not specifically identified) has a tree growing from its palm. This tree reminds us of the Tree of Knowledge in the Christian garden of Eden. However, this tree is not associated with reason but with laughter, song, and prophecy. The tree has an element of the magical as it casts spells to fill the air with wings and bring about the "simple miracles" that are birds.

Lines 15-18
In this primitive paradise, there is no division, and everything is held in common. Things are in fact completely unified so that there is no separation at all between people and objects: everything is one. Only a single word exists. This word has no opposite, because all ideas and things are contained within it. It is like the sun, the source of all life, round and perfect and indivisible. There are echoes here of the Christian creation myth in which in the beginning there is nothing but the "word" as well as of ancient Mexican myths in which the sun is worshipped and held as sacred because of its power to make things grow.

Lines 19-22
The last four lines offer a dramatic contrast to the fluidity and airy, dreamlike nature of the earlier part of the poem. Paradise is shattered when the word, the sun, explodes and breaks into tiny pieces. Human language is born and, like fragments of a mirror, reflects in myriad ways the multitude of things in the world. This language does not see the world unified as in the innocent state of paradise, but presents a fractured, splintered reality. Words in human language reflect back to the world, which was single and unified in its sacred and original state, how its beauty and innocence have been destroyed.

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Themes