Throughout his adult life, which spanned World War II and the Cold War, Octavio Paz was a literary and political leader. He combined his talent with language with a passion for improving the world, especially Mexico, his home country. His beautiful poetry manages to make scholars ooh and ah, while being accessible to everyday people as well.
"Epitaph for an Old Woman," especially, has a way of using down-to-earth imagery to grand effect. Everyone knows it's sad when someone passes away, but in this poem Paz really digs into it. He makes us think about how and why it's sad, but also why, in a way, it's joyful.
Another thing to keep in mind when you read this poem is that, originally, it was written in Spanish. If you ask any writer or literary scholar about translation, and its effects on literature, you better have all afternoon, because you're going to get an earful. While Eliot Weinberger, the translator of the version of the poem used for this guide (published in 1987), worked closely with Paz, it's argued that when a poem is translated, it loses something. In switching it from one language to another, it's possible that we lose a lot of the cultural context of the language. Sometimes the order of words has to be switched; sometimes entire lines are cut. What may work in one language may not work at all in another.
Still, we think that translations are often successful enough that the heart of the poem can come through. For the sake of this guide, we'll be discussing only the English version. Just keep in mind, we're reading Weinberger's translation of Paz, which may have a different effect than Paz's original poem would have on a Spanish-speaking reader. All the same, we're guessing that this poem, even in translation, will have an effect on you!
We hate to break it to ya, but, sooner or later, we're all gonna die. But the good news is, whether death comes sooner or later, it's our love for life that makes death so sad. The friends we've made, romances we've had—everything we love in life makes it all the more tragic when we die.
Now, you might be thinking that we sound a little trite or cliché here talking about all this stuff. Well, that is just why we love this poem by Octavio Paz: it is deeply moving and sad, but without being corny and sappy. It shows us an old woman who passes away and joins her husband in the tomb, then considers how this moment might affect those of us on either end of death's door.
This poem can be a comfort in a time of trouble, or a new dip into sadness when you want to wallow. Really, it can be read in different ways to bring out different moods. We recommend you sample each mood and truly savor this little poem, which—despite its small size—packs a heartfelt, emotional wallop.