Authors: Octavio Paz

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Mexican poet and diplomat

March 31, 1914

Mexico City, Mexico

April 19, 1998

Mexico City, Mexico


No Mexican writer did more to explore and celebrate the mysteries of Mexican life than poet and essayist Octavio Paz (pahz), considered to be the leading twentieth-century interpreter of his country’s complex culture. Paz’s poems explore life’s illusions and fragmented realities, the problem of language, the innocent individual, humankind’s loss of connection with nature and its rhythms, and the disordered, dislocated modern world. Known primarily as a poet, Paz also distinguished himself as a diplomat and essayist, delving into such areas as religion, philosophy, and politics in the course of his work.

Born into a family of intellectuals in Mexico City, Paz inherited a literary tradition through his grandfather, Irineo Paz, a newspaper publisher and novelist. His father practiced law and briefly published one of the first Spanish-language newspapers in Los Angeles, California, where the family lived for a year in the early 1920s as political exiles. Upon returning to Mexico, his father fell victim to a political assassination and Paz, an only child, was left alone with his widowed mother.

Octavio Paz.



Public domain, via Wikipedia Commons

By the 1930s Paz had become a leading voice of a new generation of Mexican intellectuals. After completing the course of study in law at the National University, he abruptly abandoned law and Mexico, failing to turn in his final thesis and traveling to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. There, he became part of the tragic intellectual venture that culminated in the fall of the Spanish Republic. As a witness to the deaths of fellow writers, exponents of the noblest expressions of language and culture, and the destruction of human values and ideals, Paz found his poetic voice and published his first two books. They received immediate recognition. Upon his return to Mexico, he collaborated in founding two important literary journals, Taller and El hijo pródigo.

During the 1940s Paz traveled to the United States on a Guggenheim Fellowship and studied at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1944 to 1945, then lived briefly in New York. The distance created by the English language and Anglo-American culture sowed the seeds for the introspective interpretation that marked the essays published in The Labyrinth of Solitude, in which Paz contrasts Mexico’s long history to that of the United States, affording a hermeneutic view of the differences between these two neighboring countries.

It was in France, however, that Paz’s love for his native land, combined with his fascination for Surrealist poetry’s notions of spontaneity, movement, dislocation, and freedom, enabled him to develop his art to a new degree of strength. The culmination of his 1946 to 1951 stay in France with the Mexican diplomatic service was the much-praised poetry collection Sun Stone, which he wrote in a Surrealist vein after leaving France and published in 1957. Lessons learned from French colleagues stayed with Paz for the remainder of his life.

His diplomatic career from the 1940s to the 1960s serving at the Mexican embassies in France, Japan, and India afforded him the opportunity to expand his views—to look at the problems of existence and the capacity for creativity in worlds still connected to the sacred and the mythic while coming to terms with progress in an increasingly dehumanized world. In Japan, he adapted some of the formalized techniques of Japanese poets to his own writing. A new concern with structure, along with his Surrealist impulses, enriched Paz’s poems.

Paz was Mexico’s ambassador to India during the 1960s, a decade that left an indelible mark on the man and his work. In literary terms, these changes are evident in Ladera este and Blanco, works that explore the language and space of literature. Here the work is symbol and sign; the text is an aesthetic (concrete) manifestation which simultaneously confers verbal meaning. In these works, Paz fully explored the “other,” not only as a manifestation of the self but also as an integral voice within his poetic construct. The “other” is what lies beyond the parameters of the ordinary; it is myth and dream, love and eroticism. During his sojourn in India Paz married Marie-José Tramini, who became his lifelong soul mate and companion. Near the end of the decade, Paz was faced with choosing between conformity and principles. In October, 1968, the Mexican government ordered troops against the student demonstrations taking place during the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. The result was a massacre, and Octavio Paz resigned as ambassador to New Delhi in protest.

Paz spent much of the 1970s and 1980s as a visiting professor at various academic institutions, including Cambridge University, where he was appointed to the Simón Bolívar Chair, and later at Harvard University as Samuel Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. In Mexico he founded and directed the literary magazine Plural (later Vuelta). This was also a period of intense and prolific writing and of international recognition. By the 1990s, Paz had been honored with several major prizes, including the 1981 Miguel de Cervantes Prize and the 1982 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and culminating with the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1990. Paz died in Mexico City on April 19, 1998, at the age of eighty-four.

All these experiences, combined with a continued and acute awareness of the meaning of the Mexican historical and cultural legacy, informed Paz’s writing. Juxtaposing dualities—such as the mythic timelessness of ancient Mexico and modern questions of temporality and human existence—and examining the larger questions that define human existence, his is a voice that constantly challenges the reader to probe and examine the tenets of the human condition.

Author Works Poetry: Luna silvestre, 1933 No pasaran!, 1936 Bajo tu clara sombra, y otros poemas sobre España, 1937 Raíz del hombre, 1937 Entre la piedra y la flor, 1938 Libertad bajo palabra, 1949 ¿Águila o sol?, 1951 (Eagle or Sun?, 1970) Semillas para un himno, 1954 Piedra de sol, 1957 (Sun Stone, 1963) La estación violenta, 1958 Agua y viento, 1959 Libertad bajo palabra: Obra poética, 1935–1957, 1960, revised 1968 Salamandra, 1958–1961, 1962 Selected Poems, 1963 Blanco, 1967 (English translation, 1971) Discos visuales, 1968 Topoemas, 1968 La centena, 1969 Ladera este, 1969 Configurations, 1971 Renga: A Chain of Poems, 1971 (with Jacques Rouboud, Eduardo Sanguineti, and Charles Tomlinson) Early Poems, 1935–1955, 1973 Pasado en claro, 1975 (A Draft of Shadows, and Other Poems, 1979) Vuelta, 1976 Poemas, 1979 Selected Poems, 1979 Airborn = Hijos del Aire, 1981 (with Charles Tomlinson) The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957–1987, 1987 Árbol adentro, 1987 (A Tree Within, 1988) Obra poetica, 1935–1988, 1990 Stanzas for an Imaginary Garden, 1990 Viento, agua, piedra/Wind,Water, Stone, 1990 La casa de la presencia: poesía e historia, 1994 A Tale of Two Gardens: Poems from India, 1952–1995, 1997 “Snapshots,” 1997 Delta de cinco brazos, 1998 Figuras y figuraciones, 1999 (Figures and Figurations, 2002) Drama: La hija de Rappaccini, pb. 1990 (dramatization of a Nathaniel Hawthorne story; Rappacini’s Daughter, 1996) Nonfiction: Voces de España, 1938 Laurel, 1941 El laberinto de la soledad: Vida y pensamiento de México, 1950, revised and enlarged, 1959 (The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, 1961) El arco y la lira, 1956 (The Bow and the Lyre, 1971) Las peras del olmo, 1957 Rufino Tamayo, 1959 (Rufino Tamayo: Myth and Magic, 1979) Magia de la risa, 1962 Cuatro poetas contemporáneos de Suecia, 1963 Cuadrivio, 1965 Poesia en movimiento, 1966 Puertas al campo, 1966 Remedios Varo, 1966 Claude Lévi-Strauss: O, El nuevo festín de Esopo, 1967 (Claude Lévi-Strauss: An Introduction, 1970) Corriento alterna, 1967 (Alternating Current, 1973) Marcel Duchamp, 1968 (Marcel Duchamp: Or, The Castle of Purity, 1970) Conjunciones y disyunciones, 1969 (Conjunctions and Disjunctions, 1974) México: La última década, 1969 Posdata, 1970 (The Other Mexico: Critique of the Pyramid, 1972) Las cosas en su sitio, 1971 Los signos en rotación, y otros ensayos, 1971 Traducción: Literatura y literalidad, 1971 Apariencia desnuda: La obra de Marcel Duchamp, 1973 (Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare, 1978) El signo y el garabato, 1973 Solo a dos voces, 1973 La búsqueda del comienzo, 1974 Los hijos del limo: Del romanticismo a la vanguardia, 1974 (Children of the Mire: Modern Poetry from Romanticism to the Avant-Garde, 1974) El mono gramático, 1974 (The Monkey Grammarian, 1981) Teatro de signos/transparencias, 1974 Versiones y diversiones, 1974 The Siren and the Seashell, and Other Essays on Poets and Poetry, 1976 Xavier Villaurrutia en persona y en obra, 1978 In/mediaciones, 1979 México en la obra de Octavio Paz, 1979, expanded 1987 El ogro filantrópico: Historia politica, 1971-1978, 1979 (The Philanthropic Ogre, 1985) Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: O, Las trampas de la fé, 1982 (Sor Juana: Or, The Traps of Faith, 1989) Sombras de obras: Arte y literatura, 1983 Tiempo nublado, 1983 (One Earth, Four or Five Worlds: Reflections on Contemporary History, 1985) Hombres en su siglo, y otros ensayos, 1984 On Poets and Others, 1986 Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature, 1987 Primeras letras, 1931–1943, 1988 (Enrico Mario Santi, editor) Poesía, mito, revolución, 1989 La búscueda del presente/In Search of the Present: Nobel Lecture, 1990, 1990 La otra voz: Poesía y fin de siglo, 1990 (The Other Voice: Essays on Modern Poetry, 1991) Pequeña crónica de grandes días, 1990 Convergencias, 1991 Al paso, 1992 One Word to the Other, 1992 Essays on Mexican Art, 1993 Itinerario, 1993 (Itinerary: An Intellectual Journey, 1999) La llama doble: Amor y erotismo, 1993 (The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism, 1995) Un más allá erótico: Sade, 1993 (An Erotic Beyond: Sade, 1998) Vislumbres de la India, 1995 (In Light of India, 1997) Reflejos, réplicas: diálogos con Francisco de Quevedo, 1996 Memorias y palabras: cartas a Pere Gimferrer 1966–1997, 1999 Por las sendas de la memoria: prólogos a una obra, 2002 Edited Texts: Antología poética, 1956 (Anthology of Mexican Poetry, 1958; Samuel Beckett, translator) New Poetry of Mexico, 1970 Miscellaneous: Lo mejor de Octavio Paz: El fuego de cada dia, 1989 Obras completas de Octavio Paz, 1994 Blanco, 1995 (facsimiles of manuscript fragments and letters) Bibliography Chiles, Frances. Octavio Paz: The Mythic Dimension. New York: P. Lang, 1987. Discusses the use of myth in Paz’s poetry. Cohen, J. M. Poetry of This Age: 1908-1965. New York: Harper and Row, 1968. An important survey of mid-century modernism. Includes bibliography, index. Durán, Manuel. “Remembering Octavio Paz.” World Literature Today 73, no. 1 (Winter, 1999): 101-103. A reminiscence and critical commentary on Paz’s work. Tributes to, critical essays on, and an interview with Paz. (Reprinted with additions from Books Abroad, Autumn, 1972.) Fein, John M. Toward Octavio Paz: A Reading of His Major Poems, 1957-1986. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986. A critical analysis of six of the longer works. Grenier, Yvon. From Art to Politics: Octavio Paz and the Pursuit of Freedom. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. Focuses on the ways in which Paz’s social and political views surface in his poetry. Hozven, Roberto, ed. Otras voces: Sobre la poesía y prosa de Octavio Paz. Riverside: University of California Press, 1996. A collection of critical essays in both English and Spanish. Includes bibliographical references. Lutes, Todd Oakley. Shipwreck and Deliverance: Politics, Culture, and Modernity in the Works of Octavio Paz, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2003. A comparative study of modernism in three Latin American authors. Quiroga, José. Understanding Octavio Paz. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. A critical study of selected poems by Paz. Includes a bibliography of the author’s works, an index, and bibliographical references. Roman, Joseph. Octavio Paz. New York: Chelsea House, 1994. A brief introduction, presenting the poet’s life and career. Suitable for young adults. Underwood, Leticia Iliana. Octavio Paz and the Language of Poetry: A Psycholinguistic Approach. New York: P. Lang, 1992. Includes illustrations and bibliographical references. Wilson, Jason. Octavio Paz. Boston: Twayne, 1986. A solid introduction in Twayne’s World Authors series. Contains a bibliography and an index. Wilson, Jason. Octavio Paz: A Study of His Poetics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Brief, useful biographical and analytical study of Paz and his poetry. Encomiums, texts, and articles concerning Paz on the occasion of his receiving the Neustadt Prize.

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