The poem entitled “I Ask It,” written by a renowned Aztec poet Nezahualcoyotl is a very short piece, though very potent as it touches upon profound human truths of existence and being, which is actually what the Aztec religion concerned itself with. The Aztec people understood their place on earth; that all life is transitory, and that humans are not granted the life cycle of nature, which is to die and be reborn every spring. The life of a human being is merely a speck in time, barely perceptible, and their fate is subject to the whimsies of the gods, who were thought to be appeased by carefully executed rituals and even blood sacrifice. Thus, this poem is a personal question of the poet, aimed at someone who might be able to answer, a god perhaps, and which can be applied to every single human being: because human lives are so short, can they truly be considered a living?
The poet commences his poem by identifying himself: “I, Nezahualcoyotl, ask this,” in an effort to state that this question is ubiquitous to human kind and it does not really matter who asks it, because the answer is the same for everyone. All members of the four layered social strata of the Aztec community are subject to the same end. It is important to note that distinguishing oneself between the Aztec social classes, was of the utmost importance, where the dress of someone symbolized the social caste he pertained to. For instance, gold was a highly relevant adornment of the noble dress, so were feathers, gems and bright colors. However, in this case, the poet knows that who asks the question is irrelevant. As a poet, Nezahualcoyotl may have possessed a more profound insight into the human psyche and condition, yet, not even he can be granted absolution from death.
Thus, he asks the question whether one truly lives on earth, being granted only a minute amount of time. For humans, there is no forever, and this was a major notion in their religion. Their calendar was built around the idea that eventually, the world would end, and that eternal darkness would engulf everything within itself. Consequently, they offered blood sacrifices to appease the gods and buy the human race at least a little more time, before this happens. Their manner of life focused on religion, nature and human kind, and how they all were interconnected.
The poet here touches upon deep truths, he himself being privy to them for being a philosophic soul. In the following lines, he shows this interconnectedness of human existence with the world around it. He states: “though it be jade, it falls apart,” in an effort to accentuate the fact that even a precious stone such as jade would eventually fall apart, back into the nothingness it came from. For the Aztec people, jade has special powers, such as the ability to heal kidney disorders or to purify the blood, which is why numerous people of the Aztec community were keeping it in their pockets. Nonetheless, not even this precious stone of such great powers can be victorious over death and decay.
Similarly, the poet continues “though it be gold it wears away,” stating that even gold wears away and disintegrates. The poet mentions gold because, along with other precious stones, it was the sole adornment worn by high official and even Montezuma, one of the most well known kings of the Aztecs. His dress and mantle were adorned with precious gems and pure gold, and he even wore golden sandals. Thus, the aesthetics of the Aztec dress code mirrored their social status, depending on the colors, precious jewels, gems and other precious metal incorporated. This, in turn, served as a good point to be made, because even poets such as Nezahualcoyotl himself, or kings such as Montezuma were subject to the cruel hand of time and death. No one was or ever will be exempt from this mortal fate.
Also, the third argument that everything withers away and dies is depicted in the torn apart feather of a bird known as quetzal. In addition to adorning their clothes with gold and precious gems, feathers were utilized to additionally beautify their clothes. Quetzal was considered a divine bird, with its shiny green tail feathers, symbolizing nature and growth, and it was also considered the god of air. Thus, wearing feathers of this particular bird proved to other people that the person wearing them on his clothes was of great social relevance.
Finally, the poet repeats the second line of his poem, as his last line, in an effort to accentuate that no one is allowed the privilege of being forever on earth, not a king, not a poet, not precious gems and metals, not even divine birds. Life is transient, passes in a blink of an eye, and thus, it is barely considered a life on a grander scale. However, as individuals, everyone is entitled to a life, to live as one desires and needs, even if it is “only a little while here.”