‘In Her Splendor Islanded’ by Octavio Paz is a twenty-four line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. The piece was originally written by Paz in Spanish and has been translated into English by Muriel Rukeyser. Due to the nature of translation, any chosen pattern of rhyme or rhythm has been altered. There is a sense of repetition to the lines of text that is separate from the format though. It comes from the textual information itself.
Paz has constructed this piece in sections of smilies and metaphors comparing a woman to various emotional elements of the world. Paz has utilized vibrant images in an attempt to accurately portray who this person is and how he feels about her.
One of the running themes in this piece is the connection between the woman and the bodies of water. In one line she described it as being “lake-water in April” and in another as “water in the moon in a dead crater.” As the title states, she is separate somehow from the rest of the world. It is her “splendor,” that makes her different.
Summary of In Her Splendor Islanded
The poem begins with the speaker stating that there is a woman who is “islanded” due to her remarkable nature. The next lines describe nature in terms of the natural world. She is like a frozen waterfall or a stopped river and there are armies sleeping inside her. The woman is in a liminal space that seems to be somewhat dangerous to those who might approach her.
The speaker goes on to describe her physically in these same terms. Her body is ephemeral. There is nothing precisely defined or outlined. Her “sex” is hidden by birds and she is as still as water on the moon.
The poem concludes with the speaker adding himself into the narrative, whispering into her ear. His words and the dynamic that exists between these two characters is on repeat. It exists within itself, burning over and over again.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of in Her Splendor Islanded
In the first section of this piece the speaker begins by restating the title of the poem, “In her splendor islanded.” This is done in an effort to remind a reader that the title is important to what is going to come next. The speaker is already trying to convey how special this woman is in comparison to all others. Her ‘specialness’ separates her from the rest of the world. In the next line, she is said to be,
[…] burning like a charm of jewels
She is both beautiful and powerful. There is an element of danger to her existence. One gets the feeling that they should not approach her for fear of being burnt. This is emphasized in the next line when he describes her as containing “An army” that is at once “terrifying and asleep.” They are all the more dangerous for the fact that they are dormant. Her “army” could be roused at any time.
Next, she is said to be “lying within the night.” Rather than sleeping, she is waiting in a kind of meditative state. She is like “clear water lying on closed eyes.” This line flows into the next two in which she is placed “in a tree’s shadow.”
The speaker compares the woman, and the state she is currently in to,
A waterfall halfway in its flight
A rapid narrow river suddenly frozen
Her power is building up within the woman and one might question how she came to be in this liminal position. And what will happen when all that power is released? The landscape in which the metaphors are working is expanded. She is a frozen river at the “foot of a great…mountain.” The mountain could represent another, stronger, immovable force she is unable to circumvent.
In the next lines, the speaker begins another comparison that also revolves around a natural landscape and water. The woman is now “lake-water in April.” She is calm, waiting, and perhaps preparing for something. Within her lake of water, she is “binding poplar and eucalyptus” leaves and twigs together.
The metaphor is expanding beyond her emotional or mental nature and into her physical body. She is defined completely, one line at a time, by nature. The speaker sees her as having,
Fishes or stars burning between her thighs
There is life and light within her. But once again with the use of the word “burning” there is something dangerous about her. There is an intensely sexual element to the lines which follow. This changes one’s perception of the narrator. This person now seems to desire the woman, at least in an abstract sort of way. He is able to describe her intimately, but also from a distance.
This is expanded with the image of “birds scarcely hiding her sex.” The speaker continues to define her via natural elements. The shadows of the birds, which presumably move continually, hide her most personal areas. There is an ephemeral quality to these lines which pushes the woman further into the realm of nature. Her body is becoming a part of the earth, so much so that now her “breasts” are said to be “two still villages under a peaceful sky.” The speaker is making his way through each part of her.
A new metaphor begins taking the woman away from the earth and to the moon. There is a stillness about her, reminiscent of the description of her as being a frozen waterfall. This time she is said to be like “water in the moon.” It has no ability to move there, nor does it make a sound.
In the final section, the speaker states that she is silent in the night. There is one sound, the “budding of” the speaker’s own words. This is the first time that he has referred to himself in the first person. He is now becoming a part of the description. The final lines are somewhat vague and up for various interpretations.
Paz’s writing has thus far been deeply imagistic. It depends on metaphors and similes to bring across particular emotions concerning this woman, the last lines push this further as they add the speaker into the poem. His words are “budding” or growing around the woman. Particularly, he sees them as being,
At the ear of water at the ear of flesh.
They are one and the same, the woman is part of the water, and the water is part of her. His words run “unhurried[ly]” through the water and through her. He is describing a particular “moment” that is once again “burning” and now repeating itself over and over. It will never be fully “consumed” as it is “Drowning” within “itself.” The woman seems to exist in a place that others cannot reach.
By the end of the poem, the woman seems more akin to an actual island than to a woman “islanded” or separated. The speaker has so fully described her in terms of the natural world that she has become that which he sees her as.