“Nocturne” is a poem about vision. What makes a poet a poet? In one of their guises, poets are visionaries or seers; they see things that many people do not see, or they see familiar things in an unfamiliar way. Countless lyric poems since the Romantic period have centered on this visionary faculty; to a greater or lesser degree, they are poems about the very power of vision that they exemplify.
Addressing this theme, many poets have employed a paradox: Darkness, normally a time when vision is limited at best, heightens their perception. For Octavio Paz, for example, in poems such as “Same Time,” “Clear Night,” and “San Ildefonso Nocturne,” night is the realm of interior vision, yielding poetic revelation. This is a favorite motif of Tranströmer as well; one of his books of poems published after “Nocturne” is entitled Mörkerseende (1970), variously translated as Night Vision (1971) and Seeing in the Dark (1970).
Why should night be conducive to poetic vision? By day, people are preoccupied with their jobs, families, and all the business of everyday life. (For the purposes of the poem, one must ignore the fact that many people in modern societies have to work at night. “Nocturne” implies not a literal contrast between day and night but a contrast between attitudes.) Even while they sleep, they remain in the grip of those preoccupations; meanwhile, “the mystery rolls past.” The poem’s...
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