Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

“Letter of Testimony,” as the title implies, confirms several of Paz’s enduring themes: time, language, and love. Time hovers over nearly everything that he has written, an ever-present witness to human mortality. (It is interesting to note that Paz speaks very little about death, but much about time, the existence of which leads to the demise of individuals.) Time presides over “Letter of Testimony” in the first stanza. Throughout this poem, as in his other writings, Paz eschews the creation of moments outside time and even refuses the refuge offered to artists, that of claiming the immortality of art. Love (and art) can create a sense of timelessness, but the ultimate boundary is still time: “Love, timeless island,/ island surrounded by time.” Love itself in its surges imitates living and dying.

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The ability to use language is one of the defining characteristics of a human being and therefore makes humans dependent on what language can and cannot do. Philosophers and writers have made this one of the common themes of the twentieth century, and Paz in his essays and poetry has constantly discussed what it means to use words. Words are symbols, labels, but not the things themselves; nevertheless, they are all that human beings have, and they give to things a kind of reality. This is particularly true when it comes to distinguishing an individual: “That word is you,/ that word/ carries you from yourself to yourself.” Language expresses us.

Writing poetry is one of the most special ways imaginable of employing language, and viewed in this light, it is easy to understand why Paz makes so much out of the writing of poetry in his work. Poetry thrives on the paradoxical reality of words.

In later life, along with the theme of language, love occupies a preferential place in the poet’s themes. Paz’s achievement as a poet has been to glorify love as an imperious life force without yielding to the temptation to romanticize it or indeed to over-idealize it. Love is part of history; like every other human activity it is time bound. One must distinguish it from lust. Desire (lust) is pointless (a mask of death) unless it permutes into love, which is barely an instant in biological history, but enough for invention (or transfiguration) to occur: “the girl turns into a fountain,/ her hair becomes a constellation.”

One form of deifying love goes back to Plato and his enormous influence in Western civilization. It was to split the body from the soul and assign to the latter the highest stage of love. Paz recognizes that the corporal senses bring about love, and that the fusion of two bodies does not lead into the disappearance of both in the “Platonic One.” Rather, “to love is two,/ always two,” longing perhaps to be one but never complete.

The calm statement in the coda caps an impressive career: Love is perhaps a way of learning to see and to live in the world and to be in relationship with the world as are the elements of nature.

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