The Poem

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

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Ladera este (1962-1968) (East Slope, 1987), in which “Vrindaban” appears, represents Octavio Paz’s attempt to come to grips with the bewildering sights, sounds, and smells of India, where he served as Mexican ambassador from 1962 to 1968. In a note to the poem, Paz says that Vrindaban is one of the sacred cities of Hinduism. According to legend, Krishna, one of the chief Hindu gods, spent his youth in its forests, playing on his divine flute to entice the milkmaids to dance with him.

The poem develops its 163 lines of free verse through the parallel depiction of two experiences. Against the night and the curtain of the forest, the poet is writing. (The reader recognizes at once a recurrent Paz theme: poetry about the act of writing.) The narrative thread switches to the poet being driven in a car at night among darkened, “extinguished houses” that contrast with his “lighted thoughts,” which momentarily led him to believe that he was a tree covered with leaves. He is returning from a trip in which, as the reader will see, he has had a disturbing experience.

The poem switches back to the poet planting words in a garden, that is, writing under lamplight on a piece of paper. By now the reader notes that Paz inserts his description of himself writing in parentheses in order to set it off from the racing car and the sights of India that will soon appear.

Meanwhile, his thoughts race like the car in a kind of free association that quickly culminates in a rhetorical question about belief that receives the ambiguous answer “I believe,” which, says the poet, should be followed by a series of dots which will allow the reader to supply the missing words. India now intrudes with its misery and stench, its ecstatic combination of sublime colors and suffering, putrefaction alongside the peacock’s tail.

On his trip, Paz has met with an unsettling sight. The “saddhu,” a Hindu holy man, takes the stage covered with ashes, his eyes an expressionless glint, his bowels rumbling at the narrator. The phrase “Gone gone” refers to a famous passage in sacred Hindu writing that describes the saddhu as having left the world of phenomena and crossed over to the other shore. After another brief parenthesis about writing, Paz reveals some of the ambiguity he feels toward the holy man with the juxtaposed nouns: saint scoundrel.

The sight of the saddhu leads Paz to make an important declaration. Despite his interest in visions and epiphanies, absolutes are not his theme. He is too hungry for life to cross to the other shore, and he willingly accepts life’s corollary, death. In its last lines, the poem celebrates the act of writing (“a memory inventing itself”), awaiting the dialogue with readers who will speak with him always.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490

As is often the case with the work of Octavio Paz, the visual impact of the poem is calculated. The absence of punctuation, the columnar structure, the ambiguous placement of words contribute effects of openness, free association, parallel happenings, and special emphases on meanings by location.

Paz uses parenthetical expressions for the description of the writing process. Nearly all matter within parentheses begins with the pronoun “I,” followed by “write” or “set down.” This device situates the act of creating poetry apart from the flow of thoughts and impressions, to highlight the solitude it demands and ultimately to contrast it, in this case, with the profoundly disturbing reality of the saddhu, who as a visionary is also a kind of poet. The one exception to this practice occurs when the narrator recalls the holy man with the phrase “Gone gone.” Here the saddhu momentarily enters the space reserved for the description of the poetic act.

Paz has mixed feelings about the saddhu that he cannot, or perhaps does not wish to resolve. He resorts to the juxtaposition of contraries to bring out his dilemma. The absence of connectives (for example “or”) helps heighten the opposition. “Saint scoundrel saint,” and again “Saint clown saint beggar king damned,” the narrator will not make a choice for himself or for the reader.

Paz abstains from using end rhymes in his poetry, but that does not mean he is unaware of the musical nature of verse. Alliteration (the repetition of initial and internal sounds in a line) is one of his favorite stratagems. In the original Spanish for example, the words Ido ido (“Gone gone”), emphasized by their placement, receive an echo in Idolo podrido (rotted idol), which the English translation cannot exactly render.

Successful metaphors add to the poem’s impact. The opening “forest of breathing” refers to the night sounds that the poet must banish from his lamplight. Often one metaphor suggests another: the quiet garden that is the stars leads to the garden of letters, which then suggests the notion that the words the poet writes are seeds (germs) (“I plant signs”). An interesting personification takes place in the description of the holy man, whose odors are so strong that they come and go as if they were concubines. The “cowering pot hook” refers to the saddhu’s physical shape, but garabato (pot hook) in Spanish can also mean “scribblings,” so the word could refer as well to those signs the poet is planting.

The image of the saddhu is so potently drawn that both the reader and the poet have difficulty shaking it off. Filthy, foul smelling, smeared with ashes, flinty-eyed without the gaze of love that produces beauty, he sits on the ghat (the steps leading down to the river) like a pot hook and bedevils Paz with contradictions. The image will not leave the poet and contrasts with the protected lamp glow in which he plants his words.