Octavio Paz Paz, Octavio - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Octavio Paz 1914-1998

Mexican poet, essayist, critic, nonfiction writer, editor, and translator.

The following entry provides an overview of Paz's life and works. See also Octavio Paz Literary Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 4, 6, 10, 119.

An internationally acclaimed poet and essayist, Paz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990, the first Mexican to do so. In both poetry and prose, Paz explored complex and contradictory forces in modern life, revealing a love for Mexican history and culture as well as an interest in surrealism, existentialism, oriental mysticism, and leftist politics. Among his diverse literary activities, Paz was an adept translator fluent in several languages, and he also founded and edited literary periodicals designed to introduce Latin American readers to international writers and their works.

Biographical Information

Paz was born March 31, 1914, in Mexico City. His grandfather was a writer and a government official; his father was a diplomat and political journalist who represented Mexican revolutionaries during the 1910s. While Paz was still quite young, his father was hit and killed by a train. Paz later wrote of his father's death in the poem, “Pasado en claro,” translated in English as “A Draft of Shadows.”

A family legacy of intellectual intensity and social action influenced Paz's political and cultural alignments from young adulthood. His first volume of poetry, Luna silvestre (Sylvan Moon), appeared in 1933, when he was not yet twenty. While he was a law student in Mexico, Paz corresponded with Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who offered a favorable review of his work and invited him to attend the Second International Congress of Antifascist Writers in Spain in 1937, where Paz began to build his professional reputation. This was during the Spanish Civil War; the experience broadened Paz's perspective on the place of war in history and culture, and this would become a recurring theme throughout his subsequent work.

Paz later visited France, spent two years in the United States, and in 1945, began a twenty-three-year career in the Mexican diplomatic corps, starting with an assignment to the Mexican embassy in Paris. His Parisian experience provided Paz with cultural, philosophical, and political inspiration, as well as time to pursue his literary interests. At the start of the 1950s, he published two major works—El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude), a collection of essays that appeared in 1950, and the 1951 prose-poem ¿Águila o sol? (Eagle or Sun?).

Paz's work as a Mexican diplomat continued through the 1950s and 1960s with assignments in Mexico, Tokyo, and New Delhi. In 1962, he became the ambassador to India; he resigned this post in 1968 in protest of the massacre of student protesters in Mexico City by government forces. During his time in Asia, Paz broadened his knowledge of Eastern literature, art, and philosophy, and he explored these themes in works such as Salamandra (1962), Blanco (1967), and Ladera este (East Slope) (1969).

After his diplomatic career came to an end, Paz held visiting professorships in the United States and England for several years. By 1972, he was editing the literary journal Plural. Four years later he founded Vuelta, which has become one of the foremost Latin American literary journals. He maintained an active presence in international literary circles and won numerous literary prizes, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990. Paz died from cancer April 19, 1998.

Major Works

Paz enjoyed an international reputation as a poet and essayist. Although he was considered one of the greatest poets ever to write in the Spanish language, scholars note that his prose writings attracted a larger audience. Paz continued to write and publish poetry until the year before his death, but critics identify the poetry written before 1971 as his most significant. The lines between poetry and prose were not absolute in Paz's writings; critic Jose Miguel Oviedo notes that Paz had long expressed an interest in producing “a text which would be an intersection of poetry, narrative, and essay,” which he accomplished in his 1974 exploration of India, El mono gramático (The Monkey Grammarian).

Among Paz's most significant works of poetry are ¿Águila o sol?; 1957's Piedra de sol (Sun Stone); and three collections from the 1960s: Salamandra, Blanco, and Ladera este. Later collections of poetry include Pasado en claro (A Draft of Shadows) (1975), Arbol adentro (A Tree Within) (1987), and A Tale of Two Gardens (1997).

Critical Reception

Throughout his career, Paz garnered the respect and genuine admiration of his peers and critics. This was not just for his own literary achievements but also for his role as a champion of Hispanic literature and creative expression. As noted by Robert González Ecchevarría, Paz “made the leading artistic and ideological trends in the world intelligible and relevant to Hispanic culture. And he has fashioned a Spanish capable of speaking the discourse of modernity; even when those of us who write in Spanish disagree with Paz, we must do so in the language he has given us.” In addition to the Nobel Prize in Literature, for which he was nominated several times before winning in 1990, Paz won numerous awards throughout his long career, including the International Poetry Prize in Brussels (1963), the Jerusalem Literature Prize and El Premio Nacional de Letras (National Prize in Letters) in Mexico, both in 1977. In the following decade, he was awarded the Premio Miguel de Cervantes (Miguel de Cervantes Prize) in Madrid (1981); the Neustadt Literature Prize of the University of Oklahoma (1982); the German booksellers' Peace Prize (1984); and the Oslo Poetry Prize (1985).

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Luna silvestre [Sylvan Moon] 1933

¡No pasarán! [They Shall Not Pass] 1936

Raíz del hombre [Root of Man] 1937

Bajo tu clara sombra y otros poemas sobre España [Under Your Clear Shadow and Other Poems about Spain] 1937

Entre la piedra y la flor [Between the Stone and the Flower] 1938

A la orilla del mundo [On the World's Shore] 1942

Libertad bajo palabra [Freedom on Parole] 1949

¿Águila o sol? [Eagle or Sun?] 1951

Semillas para un himno [Seeds for an Anthem] 1954

Piedra de sol [Sun Stone] 1957

La estación violenta [The Violent Season] 1958

Salamandra (1958-1961) 1962

Viento entero [Wind from All Compass Points] 1965

Blanco [White] 1967

Ladera este (1962-1968) [East Slope (1962-1968)] 1969

Vuelta [Return] 1971

Renga [with Jaques Roubaud, Edoardo Sanguinetti, and Charles Tomlinson] 1972

Early Poems: 1935-1955 1973

Pasado en claro [A Draft of Shadows] 1975

Poemas (1935-1975) 1979

Arbol adentro [A Tree Within] 1987

The Collected Poems, 1957-1987 1987

A Tale of Two Gardens: Poems from India, 1952-1995 1997

El laberinto de la soledad [The Labyrinth of Solitude] (essays) 1950

El arco y la lira: El poema; La revelación poética; Poesía e historia [The Bow and the Lyre: The Poem, the Poetic Revelation, Poetry and History] (essays) 1956

Corriente alterna [Alternating Current] (essays) 1967

Conjunciones y disyunciones [Conjunctions and Disjunctions] (essays) 1969

El mono gramático [ The Monkey Grammarian] (essays) 1974

Los hijos del limo: Del remoanticismo a la vanguardia [Children of the Mire: Modern Poetry from Romanticism to the Avant-Garde] (essays) 1974

The Siren and the Seashell and Other Essays on Poets and Poetry (essays) 1976

El ogro filantrópico [The Philanthropic Ogre] 1978

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; o, Las trampas de la fe [Sor Juana; or, The Traps of Faith] (essays) 1982

La llama doble [The Double Flame] (essays) 1993

Essays on Mexican Art (essays) 1994

Vislumbres de la India [In Light of India] (essays) 1995

An Erotic Beyond: Sade (essays) 1998

Jason Wilson (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilson, Jason. “The Early Years: Spain, Politics, and Poetry.” In Octavio Paz, pp. 1-26. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.

[In the following essay, Wilson offers a biographical and critical overview of Paz and his works, focusing mainly on the phase of his career from 1931 through the early 1940s.]

Octavio Paz was born in 1914 in Mexico City in the middle of a bloody and chaotic revolution. However, he avoided this gruesome turmoil and was brought up in a large rundown house in Mixcoac by his pious mother—Josefina Lozano, daughter of Spanish immigrants—a spinster aunt (who introduced him to authors like Victor Hugo and Rousseau), and his paternal grandfather. His father, Octavio Paz, a journalist and lawyer who defended the peasant revolutionary Emiliano Zapata (1877?-1919) in New York and who helped introduce agrarian reform after the Revolution, was usually absent. Paz evoked this family in his long poem Pasado en claro (The past clarified/copied out, 1975). His grandfather was influential: he had fought against the French (1862-68) and supported the dictator Porfirio Díaz (1830-1915); he had written novels and possessed a good library vital to Paz's early literary preparation. The library was rich in classical authors, Spanish classics, and Mexican modernistas like Amado Nervo (1870-1919), but stopped at about 1900.1

Protected by his religious mother and educated by French Marist fathers, Paz was immune from the violence and political maneuverings of those revolutionary days. Yet he grew up in a Mexico coming to terms with its unique Revolution, a period (1917-) often analyzed by Paz but never as a personal experience.

Paz's passion for the fate and history of his country forms part of an intellectual awakening to the dilemmas of postrevolutionary Mexico's possible directions: the Ateneo group, especially José Vasconcelos (1881-1951) and Alfonso Reyes (1889-1959), the philosopher Samuel Ramos (1897-1959), the muralist painters, novelists, anthropologists, and archeologists combined to form a tradition, to which Paz himself actively contributed, that sought to rediscover Mexico's identity. But this nationalistic soul-searching did not determine Paz's early classical and conservative literary development. Only as an adolescent in the 1920s did he discover his own voice through the dissident poets congregated round the magazine Contemporáneos (1928-31) whose European cultural curiosity led Paz to discover the modern Spanish poets in Gerardo Diego's Antología (1932) and then back in time to Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958) and Antonio Machado (1875-1939). This discovery of a non-Mexican modern tradition forms part of our study.2

Paz came of age as a young poet in the crisis years that marked the 1929 Wall Street crash, the rise of fascism, and the appeal of Russian socialism—but from the perspective of a Mexico puzzled by the violence and changes in a seemingly unique revolution that had closed the nation to experiences other than its own. The quality and temper of Paz's writings must be seen in the light of his need to make an idealistic order out of his times's confusions and who as a religiously educated but agnostic young poet turned elsewhere for models in a climate hostile to anything that was not zenophobically Mexican.


As early as 1939, on his return from fallen Republican Spain, Paz wrote concerning Emilio Prados (1899-1962)—in Paz's literary review Taller—that “poetry, the best poetry, is a conduct: it expresses itself in acts. It is an image come to life.”3 Far more urgent than writing a good poem, an aesthetic ivory tower response to the twentieth-century experience of competing ideologies, this suggests an urge to act out the values of poetry as a way of changing man. The images released by the poet on paper change the poet and make this change in consciousness the real poem. By 1939 Paz had discovered his identity as a poet, not as a Mexican nor a revolutionary. What unites artists as diverse as Tamayo, Cernuda, Breton, Michaux, and Villaurrutia is their moral stance toward art. Paz rescued this moral vision from the collapse of surrealism: “Surrealism is not a poetry but a poetic and even more decisively, a vision of the world.”4 In 1954 Paz stated that surrealism seduced him beyond its theories about automatic writing because of its “intransigent affirmation of certain values.”5 Paz expanded this notion to include his own work. To Claude Fell in 1975 he defined his celebrated essay El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude) as moral criticism.6

Paz characterized these values as the clash within himself between poetry and history, often employing these terms as shorthand notions for complicated processes. For example, the nightmare of history is everything that happens that threatens individual freedom. History becomes a repressive process that dehumanizes: what has been “arrebatada / por ladrones de vida hace mil siglos” (snatched away / by thieves of life a thousand centuries ago, P [Poemas (1935-1975)] 269). History suggests the degradation of life, the tyranny of successive time, rationality, ideologies, nationalisms, religions, science, and alienating city life. For Paz its immediate form was the period of Mexican history he grew up in. He could not avoid becoming imbued with Mexico's revitalised postrevolutionary nationalism. In his desire to become a poet in those circumstances he equated Mexican and all nationalisms as a mental disease. In the 1930s political life invaded every aspect of life. Poets were obliged to study economics, for poetry was not a useful social activity. Paz, reacting to this impinging of history on his freedom to be, became an outspoken critic of this narrow-minded authoritarian view of society (Pe, 66-67).

Paz came to view the revolutionary Mexican one-party system critically because he had experienced a vision of a just and free society in Spain in 1937 where the poet had a role to play and fully participated in society. Paz had witnessed the birth of the New Man there, even if briefly, before the fall of the Republic and claimed: “this memory never abandons me.”7 The ruins of this vision of the New Man haunted Paz, especially in the context of the failure of the Russian socialist revolution, the one hope of a just society for most European intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s, but that had deeply deceived Paz, who early recoiled from Stalin's version of socialism, with its gulags and totalitarian immobility. These disappointments sharpened his moral focus about the dangers of any form of authoritarianism. In 1950 he agreed that totalitarian socialism may transform the economy of a country, but “it is doubtful if it manages to free man. And this is the only thing that interests us and that justifies a Revolution” (L, 152). In 1979 he confessed that much of his intellectual life had been a polemical dialogue with Marx and Marxisms, thus linking him with other dissidents (from his friendship with Victor Serge onward) who fear the way rigid ideologies control and distort history.8

In opposition to history the values of poetry could be synthesized to what has been called the surrealist incandescent triangle of love, liberty, and poetry.9 In a letter in answer to an attack from a hostile Mexican critic in 1959 Paz elaborated: “We are facing new obstacles that will not be economic but spiritual. In the industrial society such as we are beginning to glimpse all these words—art, poetry, imagination, game, love, soul, dream, analogy—shine by their absence. Man is going nowhere if it is not to find himself. The great conquest is not of outer space but of inner.”10 The values of poetry as listed by Paz become any means that can liberate man's numbed inner space.

This moral stance is not dogmatic. As a value it is determined by its plurality, its openness to life's unexpected happenings. Paz defines human nature as a personal experience manifested vividly in the here and now and irreductible to history. It is this intangible, unmeasurable, untestable extra quality that Paz explores and defends in himself. Poetry for him becomes a saber espiritual (spiritual knowledge), a suspicion of an alternative reality, the other shore so often evoked by Paz. Art's mission is to oppose rigid ideologies and systems, as well as the functionaries who support them, in favor of “the invincible yes of life” (H, 176). In this sense poetry affirms an ecstasy whose intensity of pure life abolishes history. Paz's great theme is the redemption of the divided alienated individual through love or union with the Other, a completion of the isolated individual in a passionate couple that offers hope of a collective salvation.

The active bitter conflict between poetry and history generates moments of freedom, an epiphany that Paz calls “poetic instants.” Consequently, the poet's reactions to history become a test of his moral fiber. At this level Paz's desire to become a poet, to rebel against necessity and write poems without guilt, has led him to explore the functions of the poet and poem in society, both Western and Eastern, almost anthropologically. Many of his poems are explicitly about the possibility of poetry in a world that negates freedom. This desire to work out his salvation as a poet inevitably invokes the fatality of having been born a Mexican. This implies belonging to the marginalized provinces of the great empires of the twentieth century (Europe, the United States, Russia, Japan). Thus Paz's measuring himself with the world's great poets and thinkers takes on poignancy; he was not born in one of the centers of power and had to fight his way out of a limited nationalistic tradition to discover his true roots, his mexicanidad (Mexicanness), his contemporaneity with all who suffer history, his freedom. Paz's vueltas (returns) from living abroad (Spain, the United States, France, India) to Mexico have engendered his most fertile thinking about values. This moral stance, tested by the accidents of history, travel, change, love, aging, reading, and so on, supplies a remarkable coherency to the diversity of his work.


Paz published his first poem at the age of seventeen in 1931. He never collected it, but in 1982 Hugo Verani resuscitated “Cabellera” (“Head of hair”), signed Octavio Paz Lozano, whose most revealing detail is the epigraph, in Spanish, from the French poet Saint-John Perse.11 This epigraph suggests that French poetry sparked off Paz's career as a poet. Saint-John Perse's Anabase (1922) was translated by Octavio Barreda in January 1931 in the magazine Contemporáneos whose poets initiated Paz into modern poetry.12

In 1933 Paz published his first book, Luna silvestre (Rustic moon), in an edition of sixty-five copies, but he never reedited this slim volume. In his 1979 Poemas (1935-75) the initial date (1935) proclaims that his real career as a published poet began slightly later than 1933. Yet he does include dated poems written earlier: “Nocturno” (“Nocturne,” 1932), “Otoño” (“Autumn”), “Insomnio” (“Insomnia,” 1933), and “Espejo” (“Mirror,” 1934). Although Paz refused to disinter Luna silvestre, these earliest poems belong to the same period. Glancing through the seven poems of Luna silvestre, many lines and words repeat themselves as echoes from “Nocturno” (P, 63) from nocturno to sueño (dream), sombra (shadow), and estrella (star), as well as the use of questions “¿Cómo decir los nombres … ?” (How to say the names, P, 63) with “¿Con qué nombre clamarte … ?” (With what name to call you out) in Luna silvestre.13 These early poems are excessively lyrical in a Spanish purged of circumstantial details and color, of all that is nonpoetic. They are idealistic strainings to reach perfection, but they fail: “¿Cómo decir, oh Sueño, tu silencio en voces?” (How to say, O dream, your silence in voices? P, 63). From this conservative Castillian language it would be hard to deduce that this is a Mexican poem. Paz was already attempting to be universal, to belong linguistically to a world of pure poetry without abstruse images or distorted syntax. His later poetry can be seen as a moral reaction against the false naiveties of lyrical poetry.

Paz's later poetry further reacts against excessive dependence on Rubén Darío and the Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia. The rhythm and diction of lines from “Nocturno” (P, 63) like “Negra escala de lirios llameantes” (Black scale of blazing irises) aptly echo Darío's “diríase un trémulo de liras eolias” (you could say a quavering of aeolian lyres) from “Era un aire suave” (It was a sweet tune) in Prosas profanas (Profane proses, 1898).14 There are modernista borrowings in many other words (“trémula,” “camelia”). The debt to Villaurrutia culminated in a book tribute by Paz called Xavier Villaurrutia en persona y en obra (X. V. in person and in work, 1978). This important Mexican debt is transparent in Paz's early poems from “Nocturno,” whose title recalls Villaurrutia's famous “Nocturnos” published in 1928-29 in the magazine Contemporáneos (avidly read by Paz) and collected in Nostalgia de la muerte (Nostalgia for Death, 1938). Nearly every line from Paz's 1932 poem reveals an echo from Villaurrutia: “sombra de las voces” (shadow of voices), “mármoles ahogados” (drowned marble statues), “sueño” (dream), “asesinado” (assassinated), and “silencio” (silence) are all associated with Villaurrutia's magnificent “Nocturno de la estatua” (Nocturne of the statue; first published December 1928), lucidly commented on by Paz in 1978.15 Just the titles of Paz's other pre-1935 poems “Espejo” and “Insomnio” evoke Villaurrutia's work. These early poems, confused with the suppressed Luna silvestre, establish a position against which Paz reacts. This position encompasses both the traditional romantic lyrical poem embodied in Darío and the poetics of the solipsistic, isolated individual locked into his dreamscape, a metaphor of a no place, embodied in Villaurrutia. Paz's early poetry is Mexican only by association with Villaurrutia and his poetics of absolute interiority.

Paz's first answer to this inward, idealistic stance is political; it comes to fruition, following his 1936 trip to Yucatán, in Spain in 1937 where he traveled with his first wife, Elena Garro, and Carlos Pellicer. A political stance enters the once pure poems, breaking with both the ivory-tower purity and with Villaurrutia's obsessive self-explorations symbolized in his use of the mirror as key image. Paz opens himself out into a dialogue with history, a feature quite absent in Villaurrutia.

This crucial break involves Paz's debt to the generation of poets who literary historians have grouped around Contemporáneos, the magazine central to Paz's education as a poet and which gave him “an unforgettable jolt.”16 For it is Paz's differences with this group of individuals—Villaurrutia, Gorostiza, Cuesta, Ortiz de Montellano—that allowed him to find his own voice.17 And here a stylistic dependence on Villaurrutia is only the surface of debts we now isolate.

(1) The Contemporáneos were characterized by a universalist approach to poetry and art, especially French literature: these poets disseminated, through translations and critical notes, the best world poetry of the time: Blake, Saint-John Perse, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, Neruda, Langston Hughes, Gide, Cocteau, etc. To Julián Ríos in 1973 Paz admitted that Villaurrutia “opened the doors of modern poetry for me.”18 In 1954 Paz had thanked this generation for introducing Baudelaire, Nerval, and Blake (Pe, 175).

(2) Their universalist attitude implicitly denounced the cultural nationalism prevalent in Mexico during the 1920s and 1930s. Simply by affirming poetry, they went against the grain of socialist realism, the novels and memoirs of the Revolution. The same applies to their reaction against the politicized muralist painters. In Villaurrutia's case, he defended Tamayo (a defense continued polemically by Paz) and the photographer Manuel Alvárez Bravo. Villaurrutia also wrote magnificent essays on Ramón López Velarde and Sor Juana—reorientations continued and enriched by Paz who, following this lead, almost single-handedly redefined the Mexican poetic tradition, epitomized in his anthology Poesía en movimiento (1966).19

(3) Paz adopted the Contemporáneos's general cultural alertness and curiosity. Exemplarily, Villaurrutia reviewed books, films, and art shows: his tastes were genuinely eclectic, spreading from Rilke (Paz wrote an uncollected piece on Rilke),20 to Gide, Borges, Pirandello, and Valéry, even if this eclectic “intellectualism” at times annoyed Paz (Pe, 77).

(4) Paz differed from the Contemporáneos in terms of his moral intensity; he shared no wish to “escape everyday life.”21 In 1954 Paz defined this moral gap concerning the issues of the day between his generation and his predecessors as that between literary experiences (the purity of the poem) and “vital” attitudes (Pe, 75). Poetry had to be lived; it was a force that would transform man and destroy bourgeois society. Paz's moral imperative: “The world will be ordered according to the values of poetry—liberty and communion” (Pe, 78-79).

(5) This moral intensity concerning the values of poetry revealed the gap between Villaurrutia's private, anguished, oddly perverse poetic world (the bizarre images in his “Nocturno de la estatua”) and Paz's own discovery of the centrality of erotic love with woman (his other), liberty and politics. It was around politics, too prosaic to enter a Contemporáneos poem, that Paz diverged. According to Paz, Villaurrutia resented ideas, philosophy, Marxism, and current events, while for Paz “our situation in history anguished us.”22 In the 1930s Marxism seemed the only antidote to the catastrophic times.

(6) Most central to Paz's debt is the way both he and Villaurrutia before him reacted to surrealism. Both are suspicious of blind, mindlessly automatic (mechanical) writing, yet both admitted dabbling with it. Both admire the claims and ideas of surrealism. Both seek lucidity in poetry, “Keeping oneself awake,” said Villaurrutia.23 Both poets read deeply into the romantic sources of surrealism (Blake, Nerval, Rimbaud). Paz praised Villaurrutia's “intellectual” poems, adding: “I like the language of dreams, but mistrust dreamy poets.”24 Paz defended this clearheadedness and in so doing confirmed his moral debt.

Paz has enumerated further debts to Villaurrutia in terms of the craft of poetry: to curb his lyrical facility, be wary of words, and read poetry aware of the secret nuances (X, 34). Paz had inherited a wide-ranging cultural avidity from the Contemporáneos poets, but found their center empty; he aspired to a more moral and political core-interest in political events, revolution, changing man and society, Marxism, etc.


In 1937 Paz broke off his formal university studies—and to which he never returned: he called himself an autodidact—in order to do something more useful than study literature in the seclusion of a campus. This gesture suggests a tilting of the scales in favor of revolutionary action over reflection. Paz's dilemma centered on how to remain a lyrical poet in such harassing times, even in revolutionary Mexico under the most revolutionary president until then, Lázaro Cárdenas. Going to Yucatán resolved this dilemma. Paz worked to help implant Mexican educational policy by setting up a school in a poor rural area near Mérida. It was social concern that led Paz there, not a desire to study Mayan ruins. These experiences resulted in a long poem whose final shape has dogged Paz over forty years. Entre la piedra y la flor (Between stone and flower) was begun in Yucatán and published in 1941. In 1976, explaining his revisions, Paz identified his intentions as political: to show the asphyxiating relationship that tied workers to the impersonal, abstract, capitalistic economy (P, 666).

Entre la piedra y la flor is divided into four sections. The title presupposes the peasant who lives “entre” (between) the desert—vividly evoked in images in the first section—and the flower of the sizal plant that ties him to a miserable world as exploited proletariat. The second section taps the poet's shock faced with human suffering in that stony shell of a land. The sizal's sharp-pointed leaves are opposed to this plant's sexual flower, which flowers just once in the plant's life, and compared with the flowering of human life in such harsh conditions. Section 3 centers on man immersed in this plantation land. For sizal is more than a plant: it represents a share in the stock market, man's labor, time, and sweat. The anonymous peasants wear themselves out cultivating this “abstract” plant. Paz then describes this peasant in a language reminiscent of his later El laberinto de la soledad (the male is polite, ceremonious, and obliging but whips his wife), and he also delves into the superstitious core of this man. Section 4 returns to money and how it controls the life-cycle. Paz develops a chain of life-denying analogies: money-wheel-number-bone-time. Certain peasant values escape the tyranny of money—the poem becomes a litany here—like their attitude to death, singing, happiness, and sorrow, their illiteracy (a wisdom ignored by money), and witchcraft. The 1976 revision conserves Paz's attack on death-giving money as the reality of those oppressed lives: an orthodox anticapitalist view (P, 92-99).

We will contrast the 1976 version with some of the deleted fragments, in order to catch Paz's moral/political anger of the late 1930s. The first four sections of the 1976 version are complete rewritings. In the 1941 version the peasants are addressed in the form, the comrade/brother familiarity; in the 1976 version this becomes simply man in the third person, “them” (P, 98). But more telling than the re-creations and new images is Paz's suppression of the fifth canto. In the original this canto leads from the poet's observations and interpretations to what action must be taken. Action, the task (tarea) typifies the language of those times. The poet in 1941 (1937) wanted to absorb the peasant's anger and end the capitalist world. “Para acabar con todo” (To finish everything) ends the poem; this revolutionary's tabula rasa is cited four times.25 The crucial revolutionary verb arder (to burn) occurs ten times and points to Paz's political commitment, his “Horno invisible y puro” (Invisible and pure oven), a moral purity that later offended the poet. Paz has pruned his political revolutionary identification between the peasant's lot and the poet's task. In 1976 this conventional 1930s stance seemed ingenuous.26


In 1971 Paz recalled the radical Spanish poet Rafael Alberti's 1934 visit to Mexico. It was the first time that Paz heard poetry read aloud in public; he left dazzled. When Paz met Alberti in a bar he read him his own poems. Alberti commented that Paz's early poetry was not social or revolutionary, but added, “he is the only revolutionary poet among you, because he is the only one trying to transform the language.”27 That Paz still remembered Alberti's actual words is significant; it is also important that Alberti defined revolutionary poetry as seeking a revolution in language, not reflecting a revolutionary content. In 1984 Paz again returned to this 1934 encounter with the politicized Alberti. He modifies his admiration for Alberti's rather theatrical readings but again re-creates Alberti's praise for exploring his own intimacy. Paz ends: “I have never forgotten his words.”28 Alberti had guessed that Paz was not offering idealistic revolutionary rhetoric to satisfy his bad conscience.

In July 1936 Spain began her ferocious civil war. Paz, ever sensitive to current events, reacted from Mexico with a passionate poem echoing in its title the great rallying cry of the Republicans: “¡No pasarán!” (“They will not pass”). This circumstantial outburst has not been collected, though Paz published it in El nacional (4 October 1936) and as a pamphlet. This pamphlet has an epigraph from Elie Faure about Spain being the reality and conscience of the world. Thirty-five hundred copies were printed and all profits were ceded to the Popular Front in their “heroic” fight. The poem is an elegy that opposes human frailty and gentleness to the forces of death. Badajoz (which fell in August), Irún (fell in September), and a funerary wind are cited in a poem whose obvious protest unites it with many other poems (especially by Neruda and Vallejo) where the moral intensity and purity of the language is heightened by sharing the moral stance of the tender world of friends and comrades closing ranks against evil. The poem ends:

Detened al terror y a las mazmorras,
para que crezca, joven, en España,
la vida verdadera,
la sangre jubilosa,
la ternura feraz del mundo libre.
Detened a la muerte, camaradas!(29)

(Stop terror and the dungeons / so that true life, / jubilant blood, / the fertile tenderness of the free world / may grow, young, in Spain. / Stop death, comrades!)

At a level of values, as a poet, Paz defended youth, the true life, love, and freedom. This poem would be hard to identify as Pazian—it appeals to a collectivity and voices a collectivity—but its moral defense of “la vida verdadera” (a phrase often used by Paz) surpasses all political creeds. If these values had socialist connotations then, Paz later shed the political husk and maintained the moral seed. The poet Efraín Huerta, reviewing this poem in 1937, thought it would “burn the reader's hands.”30

Before finally embarking for Spain, Paz's involvement with the Spanish Republican cause and socialist politics had diverted his intimate lyric poetry into more political channels. In 1951 Paz evoked the fervor of those years: moral concepts like freedom, the people, hope, revolution shone brightly and without irony (Pe, 278). As if the word and the concept at last fused: the poet just had to name pueblo (people) and the concept...

(The entire section is 11176 words.)

Helen Vendler (essay date 4 April 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Vendler, Helen. “To Be a Sun Again.” New Yorker 64, no. 7 (4 April 1988): 97-101.

[In the following essay, Vendler offers a favorable review of the Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957-1987.]

Nothing in the visible estrangement of poetry from prose is more astonishing than their estrangement in one person. Octavio Paz—Mexico's famous poet, born in 1914—is a torrential writer, whose successive books of prose and verse have enriched our century; while his prose is often circumstantial, historical, and evidential, his poetry is not. It is something else. Someone reading the verse as one reads prose might say, “Abstract, generalizing, unreal.” But...

(The entire section is 2800 words.)

J. D. McClatchy (essay date April 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: McClatchy, J. D. “Masks and Passions.” Poetry 154, no. 1 (April 1989): 29-48.

[In the following excerpt, McClatchy reviews The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957-1987.]

In the prologue to his magisterial study of Sor Juana, as part of a meditation on “the system of implicit authorizations and prohibitions” in modern culture, Octavio Paz speculates that the democratic and progressivist societies dominant in the West since the late eighteenth century are constitutionally hostile to certain literary genres. Bourgeois rationalism and poetry, for instance, are oil and water. The methods and attitudes, the very nature of poetry has grown hostile to...

(The entire section is 1714 words.)

Manuel Durán (essay date winter 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Durán, Manuel. “Octavio Paz: Nobel Laureate in Literature, 1990.” World Literature Today 65, no. 1 (winter 1991): 5-7.

[In the following essay, Durán offers an overview of the works and career of Paz shortly after the poet was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990.]

A welcome surprise, a pleasant surprise: this is how most readers and critics have received the news of the awarding of the 1990 Nobel Prize in Literature to Octavio Paz. The element of surprise was due mostly to the fact that no one, or almost no one, thought that a Nobel could be accorded to a Hispanic writer so soon after the 1989 selection of the Spanish novelist Camilo José...

(The entire section is 2734 words.)

John Zubizarreta (essay date January 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Zubizarreta, John. “Darío, Stevens, and Paz: The Modernist Connection.” South Atlantic Review 56, no. 1 (January 1991): 47-60.

[In the following essay, Zubizarreta explores thematic and aesthetic similarities among Paz and poets Wallace Stevens and Rubén Darío.]

In Children of the Mire, Octavio Paz states that “A literature is a language existing not in isolation but in constant relation with other languages, other literatures” (120-21). Relation, of course, does not necessarily denote influence, for it is probable that artists of different heritages, living in the same historical epoch, feel upon their imaginations the same pressures of...

(The entire section is 5214 words.)

Richard Poirier (essay date spring 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Poirier, Richard. “On Octavio Paz.” Western Humanities Review 45, no. 1 (spring 1991): 3-9.

[In the following essay, Poirier explores connections between Paz and American poets including William James.]

Responding to a question last evening, Octavio Paz spoke with tolerant amusement of the various “tribes” now occupying the terrain of literary criticism and theory. One of these, for the moment in its ascendancy—the tribe of critical historicists or new historicists—seems to me distinctly at odds with Paz's own sense of what literature is about. They favor a kind of criticism that tends to be rhetorically assured of its global utility while being...

(The entire section is 3262 words.)

Julia A. Kushigian (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Kushigian, Julia A. “Flowing Rivers and Contiguous Shores: The Poetics of Paz.” In Orientalism in the Hispanic Literary Tradition, pp. 43-69. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Kushigian explores ways in which Paz uses language, imagery, and subject matter to depict his philosophy of the mutuality and intersection of Eastern and Western culture and philosophy.]

Few would deny Octavio Paz's principal role int he advancement and preservation of Orientalism in Hispanic letters. Paz's interest in the Orient is both historical and anthropological, as he confirms that the Native American is of Asiatic origin, and that this...

(The entire section is 13254 words.)

Timothy Clark (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Clark, Timothy. “Renga: Multi-Lingual Poetry and Questions of Place.” SubStance: A Review of Theory and Literary Criticism 21, no. 2 (1992): 32-45.

[In the following essay, Clark offers an analysis of Renga, a quadri-lingual poem written in April 1969 in Paris by Octavio Paz, Charles Tomlinson, Jacques Roubaud, and Edoardo Sanguineti.]

One of the most adventurous, peculiar and thought-provoking poetic and theoretical enterprises of modern times has yet to receive its due. In April 1969, four poets gathered in the basement of a hotel in Paris. Then followed a week of collective writing, producing a quadri-lingual work, Renga, inspired by...

(The entire section is 5470 words.)

Haider Ali Khan (essay date summer 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Khan, Haider Ali. “Paz's Poetics: Textuality, Sexuality, Politics.” Denver Quarterly 27, no. 1 (summer 1992): 92-111.

[In the following essay, Khan discusses cosmopolitan and multicultural influences on Paz's poetry.]


In their study of Kafka, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari raise a set of interrelated questions:

How many people today live in a language that is not their own? Or not yet, even know their own and know poorly the major language they are forced to serve? This is the problem of immigrants, and especially of their children, the problem of minorities, the problems of a minor...

(The entire section is 5900 words.)

Ollie O. Oviedo (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Oviedo, Ollie O. “The Surrealist Leitmotifs of Octavio Paz's ‘Salamandra/Salamander.’” In Selected Essays from the International Conference on Surrealism and the Oneiric Process, 1990, pp. 149-68. Carrolton, Ga.: West Georgia College, 1992.

[In the following essay, Oviedo examines surrealism and poetic modes in “Salamandra.”]

Any attempt to understand the poetic “modes” of Octavio Paz will require that readers first establish each poem's basic structure and, secondly, that they find the modal approach to each composition.1 This will allow them to establish a progression from Paz's poetic mode, which will mostly depend on the external...

(The entire section is 6949 words.)

Enrico Mario Santí (essay date spring 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Santí, Enrico Mario. “Octavio Paz: Otherness and the Search for the Present.” Georgia Review 49, no. 1 (spring 1995): 265-71.

[In the following essay, Santí offers an overview of Paz's career and works.]

In choosing Octavio Paz to receive the Nobel Prize in 1990, the Swedish Academy pointed particularly to Paz's “passionate writing of wide horizons … characterized by sensual intelligence and humanistic integrity.” By so doing, it acknowledged more than sixty years of a poetic and intellectual career which has made Paz one of the most important writers now living. For students of Latin American literature the news of the award came as no surprise;...

(The entire section is 3128 words.)

John Zubizarreta (essay date summer 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Zubizarreta, John. “Octavio Paz and Robert Frost: El polvo y la nieve que se deshacen entre las manos.” Comparative Literature 47, no. 3 (summer 1995): 235-50.

[In the following essay, Zubizarreta explores literary connections between Paz and Robert Frost.]

While scholars of Octavio Paz may be familiar with his 1945 interview of the American poet Robert Frost, few readers of Frost are aware of the literary connections between the two great writers. The last twenty volumes of the annual MLA bibliography, for example, list no titles indicating a comparative focus on both poets, and Frank and Melissa C. Lentricchia's compilation of 1976 is the only substantial...

(The entire section is 5780 words.)

Dean Rader (essay date fall 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Rader, Dean. “Wallace Stevens, Octavio Paz, and the Poetry of Social Engagement.” Wallace Stevens Journal 21, no. 2 (fall 1997): 175-94.

[In the following essay, Rader offers a comparison of the works of Paz with those of American poet Wallace Stevens.]

La poesía,
                    puente colgante entre historia y verdad
                    suspension bridge between history and truth]

—Octavio Paz

Poetry as manifestation of the relationship that man
                                        creates between himself & reality

—Wallace Stevens

At first glance, it would appear...

(The entire section is 9356 words.)

Barbara Mujica (essay date August 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Mujica, Barbara. “A Tale of Two Gardens.Americas (English Edition) 50, no. 4 (August 1998): 60.

[In the following essay, Mujica reviews Paz's A Tale of Two Gardens, which contains poems about India written between 1952 and 1995.]

Octavio Paz was obsessed with India. Although many American and European writers have been fascinated with the subcontinent, none has studied its culture with the intensity and thoroughness of Paz. The Mexican Nobel laureate was an expert, having researched Indian religions, history, politics, philosophy, and literature and written on Buddhism, the caste system, tantric art, and many other aspects of Indian thought....

(The entire section is 642 words.)

Manuel Durán (essay date winter 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Durán, Manuel. “Remembering Octavio Paz.” World Literature Today 73, no. 1 (winter 1999): 101-03.

[In the following essay, Durán shares personal memories and a summarization of the life and work of Paz, following the death of the poet in 1998.]

I first met Octavio Paz in Paris, in 1951. I was studying Spanish and comparative literature at the Sorbonne. Paz was the Cultural Attache of Mexico. Born in 1914, he had started to write poetry while still very young, around 1931, and was already famous in Mexico and well known in France and elsewhere.

What struck me from the start was that he was a great conversationalist, brimming with ideas...

(The entire section is 2539 words.)

Mario J. Valdés (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Valdés, Mario J. “Literary Theory in an Age of Post-Theory.” In Explorations on Post-Theory: Toward a Third Space, pp. 85-94. Frankfurt am Main: Vervuert, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Valdés considers the relationships between poetry and philosophy in Paz's works.]

Let us consider a specific problem: can poetry express philosophical concepts? Who has not at one time or another, thought about such ideas as freedom, truth, beauty, who we are, what sense, if any, we can make of the world we live in, or whether is is possible to fully know or love another. These subjects are primarily interpersonal topics taken up through the multiple forms of expression...

(The entire section is 4064 words.)

Edward Hirsch (essay date March-April 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hirsh, Edward. “Octavio Paz: In Search of a Moment.” American Poetry Review 29, no. 2 (March-April 2000): 49-51.

[In the following essay Hirsch offers an overview of theme and use of language in Paz's poetry.]

Octavio Paz practiced poetry like a secret religion. He dwelt in its mysteries, he invoked its sacraments, he read its entrails, he inscribed its revelations. Writing was for him a primordial act, and he stared down at the blank page like an abyss until it sent him reeling over the brink of language. The poems he brought back are filled with ancient wonder and strangeness, hermetic wisdom, a dizzying sense of the sacred. They are magically—sometimes...

(The entire section is 2833 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Birkerts, Sven. “Rage and Return: The Collected Works of Octavio Paz, 1957-1987.The New Republic 198, no. 11 (14 March 1988): 36-9.

Review of The Collected Works of Octavio Paz, 1957-1987.

O'Donnell, Mary Ann. “Mythic Being: ‘El hombre apalabrado’ in Octavio Paz.” RLA: Romance Languages Annual 3 (1991): 541-44.

Examination of Paz's use of word and image to represent conceptual, physical, and mythical constructs.

Stoll, Anita, and Bruce A. Beatie. “Reflected Images in Two Mexican Poems of 1957: ‘Piedra de sol,’ by Octavio Paz and ‘Misterios gozosos’ by...

(The entire section is 251 words.)