Paz explores the unity and disunity of humankind in his long poem Sunstone. The narrator of the poem seeks meaning for his existence and finds it in the visceral connection he feels with the land as well as in relationships between people. The connection he speaks of experiencing with other people is romantic love with women—women who have blended together in his mind to form a single radiant goddess. Near the beginning of the poem, this goddess is first manifest to him as a spirit of the land, whom he traverses and comes to know intimately. Thereafter he seeks this goddess, seeks the union of soul, body, and earth that he once knew when he knew her, but she is elusive. He learns to find her in the faces of other women and through these women rediscovers the balm for his loneliness, the companionship of other people. He also learns that his goddess, the spirit of the land, which supports his life and the lives of his neighbors, is dual natured. She must be fed as well as loved, and so she sacrifices him in a rite of blood and fire. The experience changes the narrator, and he gradually comes to realize that deliverance from his mortality or from this existence is not possible. His mind is then opened to the greater realization of the unity among humankind: that all people are the same person, just with different visages from one lifetime to the next. The narrator understands then that people are inseparable from each other. To abandon one another is to abandon oneself.
Unity was an important theme to Paz throughout his life, in both his poetry and his nonfiction writing. He was a worldly man, working as a diplomat for the Mexican government in France, Spain, and India, but he also kept his roots in Mexico, writing extensively about Mexican history and anthropology. Sunstone is Paz’s seminal work on this theme.
The Power of Nature
The natural world has its own voice in Paz’s poem. It does not use words recognizable in Spanish or English but rather speaks through the movement of rivers, wind, trees, birds, and other elements of the natural world. The narrator of this poem sees and feels power in the determined, uninterrupted cycle of nature. It is the original cyclical calendar: spring, summer, fall, and winter—as well as birth, life, death, and incubation. These cycles drive and organize all life on earth. The Aztecs were deeply concerned with balance, maintaining their ritual calendar so that all gods were appeased in turn. Paz’s poem is full of movement, echoing the actions of the natural world because nature is constantly moving, changing phases. As a part of the natural world, humans are also everchanging and yet intrinsically remain the same—head, heart, and spirit.
The planet Venus is Paz’s main motif from nature. He structured his 584-line poem after Venus’s 584-day synodic cycle. In lines 184 to 207, Paz’s Venus is a passionate, bloodthirsty goddess reminiscent of the Aztec god associated with that planet, Quetzalcoatl; his Venus shows another face in lines 21 though 64, where she is a beautiful young maiden who inspires love and desire, like the classic Roman goddess Venus (whom the Greeks called Aphrodite). As a deity, she is always present because she is part of the air he breathes and the soil he walks on; however, she is not easily accessible. His ecstatic encounter, after all, was paired with being a sacrificial victim.
In Sunstone, Paz combines Aztec and Christian mythologies. For the Aztecs, nature is animist, or imbued with spirits who reside in all objects. Aztecs see their gods in the actions of nature—trees falling, storms raging, rivers roiling, and planets rising and setting. Christians do not see their god directly manifest in nature but rather see nature’s beauty and complexity as evidence of God’s power. These two perspectives on nature, sometimes conflicting, coexist within the beauty and turmoil of Paz’s verse.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Octavio Paz, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009