Octavio Paz’s Sunstone is a poem concerned with transformation—a complete change in appearance or form. Transformation is a motif, or dominant idea, threaded throughout the epic poem, constituting part of the poem’s cyclical structure, its inspiration from Aztec sources, its theme, its content, and its historical context. The writing of Sunstone also had a transformative effect on its author.
Sunstone is named after an intricately carved, highly symbolic Aztec sculpture dated to the fifteenth century. When the Sun Stone was rediscovered in the eighteenth century, it was believed to be an iconic representation of the Aztec ritual calendar. In the late twentieth century, scholars determined that the Sun Stone represents the destruction of the four ages past, with the hungry mouth of the sun god Tonatiuh, ruler of the fifth and current age, at the center. Thus it was deduced that the Sun Stone was a sacrificial altar. Although Paz would not have known this at the time Sunstone was written, the Sun Stone as altar is still fitting symbolism for his poem. The Sun Stone is also not completely unrelated to the Aztec calendar because the calendar’s purpose is to mark the days to the end of the age and the beginning of the next. Paz’s poem, like the meshed cogs of the Aztec calendar, is concerned with a cyclical, slowly developing movement through time, punctuated by the transformation of the world and its creatures as the calendar reaches the point at which it must start over. By modern calculations, an Aztec age takes 5,125 years to pass. The start of each age begins with the destruction of the previous world. In Sunstone, Paz represents this transformation of the world as both terrifying and majestic.
Inspired by the Aztec mythology of his Mexican heritage, Paz also made the sacred planet Venus one of his central motifs. Sunstone has a structure of 584 eleven-syllable lines in the original Spanish, to echo the 584-day synodic orbit of Venus. When it is closest to the Earth, Venus is the third-brightest object in the sky, after the sun and the moon. It is always seen close to the sun and thus is known as the morning and evening star. During its orbit, Venus undergoes a dramatic transformation that is thought by the Aztecs to represent the life, death, and resurrection of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl. Starting off as a dim evening star—a human child—it grows brighter and brighter over the course of 263 days of its orbit until it suddenly disappears, or dies, at its brightest—the prime of his life. Venus is gone for eight days while it passes in front of the sun and cannot be seen from Earth, and then it suddenly reappears as an equally bright morning star. The reappearance is when Quetzalcoatl is resurrected as a god. During the next 263 days, Venus grows dimmer as its orbit takes it farther from Earth. Upon reaching its dimmest point to observers on Earth, Venus disappears behind the sun for fifty days, and at this time Quetzalcoatl returns to the womb. He repeats this cycle when the dim evening star reemerges and he is reborn. This measurable and distinct transformation fascinated many civilizations, including the Aztecs, who based their 260-day ritual calendar on Venus’s orbital phases.
Sunstone opens with the same six lines that it closes with. The first word of the first line is not capitalized, giving the sense that the text has picked up in the middle. In composing Sunstone, Paz used every ordinary punctuation mark except a period, making the poem one long sentence that has no beginning (with no capital letter to indicate a new sentence) or ending. Exclamation points and question marks are read as interjections because there are no capital letters following them, and therefore there are no new sentences. The terminal punctuation of the entire poem is a colon, not a period, which transmits an idea of continuance and anticipation, rather than finality or closure. Like the Aztec calendar, and like the circular shape of the Sun Stone, Paz’s poem is cyclical.
Sunstone is narrated by a writer who undergoes a personal transformation in addition to being witness and party to the transformation of his world at the hands of the gods. The narrator is seeking to understand his loneliness and thus the meaning of his existence. He consorts with a goddess but ultimately realizes that he will not find understanding from her, that she is not his to use. He is, instead, her tool. Her purpose is larger than he is, and she will destroy him—not out of spite or evil, but because she has a larger role to fulfill. Thus does the narrator learn to seek salvation and redemption in other people and not from the gods, who are mysterious, beautiful, terrifying, and incomprehensible.
The narrator then turns to other people, in whom he sees glimmers of his goddess. The idea that there is a part of the gods in all people is reminiscent of Quetzalcoatl, who is born a man, dies at the height of his life, and is resurrected as a god. All humans are gods waiting to be transformed. The narrator ponders whether or not death is an end, whether it could be another birth, a transformation from one life to the next. He feels both the weight of finality death brings and the freedom it inspires. The cycle of human life is as closed as the calendar of the gods—one ends so the next may begin. Through this cycle, he sees that all people are one, as if trading places from one life to the next. Time is irrevocable as well as unending. The narrator finds all of this both startling and comforting. Thus does he realize he has nothing to fear about the transformation of his world, not even death, because death is only another portal, another opportunity at life, or possibly a means to becoming a deity. The narrator finds in other people his salvation and the answer to his question about the meaning of life, which, he concludes, is love.
The natural world is built on an infinite series of transformations. Some of these transformations involve seasons, catastrophes, maturation, and evolution. Some are more easily observed than others. Some transformations are cyclical, and some are irrevocable. Paz’s narrator calls on the four elements of the natural world as agents of transformation: earth, air, water, and fire. Earth is the quiet tomb or womb to which the narrator retreats to await renewal. Air is the realm of the gods, touching everything, always present, always moving. Fire is the agent of violent change, evoking the power of the sun, which is the power of Tonatiuh, the ruling god of the fifth age. Water is the conduit of time, flowing, flowing, recycling, unceasing. These elements are recognized by the Aztecs as the underpinnings of the world’s structure.
For human beings, transformations may occur in the mental and spiritual realms. Sunstone, in part, is about spiritual transformation for the narrator. At the end of the poem, he writes of the sun erupting from his head, which is symbolic of being touched by the gods, perhaps the almighty sun god Tonatiuh. This touch indicates that the narrator is now connected to the gods, as he declares himself free of his inferior existence. To reach this dramatic change, the narrator had to let go of his ego, his sense of himself.
Paz also invokes the transformative power of poetry itself in Sunstone. He sees the human condition as fundamentally isolated, lonely. With this poem, he hopes to bring people together. His message is one of love—brotherly love, romantic love, and sexual love. In Sunstone, he is shouting to the world: Embrace change! Love one another!
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Octavio Paz, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009
Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on Sunstone, in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.