The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Clear Night” is a long poem of 141 lines in free verse. It is divided into seven stanzas of varying length. The poem is dedicated to André Breton and Benjamin Péret, two influential Surrealist poets with whom Octavio Paz became associated in the 1940’s while he lived in Paris. From the opening two stanzas, one is led to believe that the three characters in the poem correspond directly to Paz, Breton, and Péret, and the rest of the lyric confirms this belief. The poet uses the first person with no suggestion of artifice; that is, one can safely assume that the speaker of the poem is Paz himself and not a fictional persona. The poem is cast as a recollection of an experience, so much of the time the past tense is used. At moments of special importance the poet shifts to the present tense, as if he were reliving those moments.

Contrary to the suggestion of the title, the poem begins with the three poets sitting in a café at ten o’clock on a misty autumn evening. They are the only ones lingering there. They feel the ominous approach of autumn, which is compared to a “blind giant” (line 5) and “faceless man” (line 8) advancing toward the city. Suspending such dark thoughts, the poet shifts the reader’s attention to scenes of the city, and the reader views these scenes as if through the same window as the three friends in the café. It is this experience of carefully attending to the city—not only to its main streams but also to its underground life—that informs the poet’s observations throughout the rest of the poem. In particular, he focuses on a teenage couple. The boy is streetwise and tough. The girl is more innocent, small and pale but also resilient and surprisingly durable, like a “pale branch in a patio in winter” (line 54). She is...

(The entire section is 730 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The reader of “Clear Night” is rewarded when she or he perceives the network of images that Paz has woven into the poem, for the interconnectedness of these images offers an interpretative key to the poem. In the central image of the night as it “opens” (line 79) its hand, for instance, one recalls the earlier description of time, not progressing as one normally understands it, but as opening up—the “minute opened into two” (line 20). Shortly after, the poet perceives the city as revealing itself in a similar way: “The city opens like a heart” (line 28). Finally, in the last long section of the poem, the city “unfolds” (line 106) itself to the sensitive poet. Thus, Paz invites the reader to link thematically the images of the hand, time, the city, and the clear night.

Such attention to imagery helps interpret the most enigmatic parts of the poem. In section 3, one is given a sense of a great disaster in a London subway, but the poet speaks in a highly symbolic code and depends on imagery rather than literal description to convey the significance of the event. It is no accident that the poets sit in “Café d’Angleterre” (line 1) as this event is recalled. Although their café is situated in Paris, its name (café of England) reinforces the sense that the poets are connected to the tragedy. The mutilation of the victims is described in a way that evokes the earlier image of autumn. Just as autumn is a “faceless man,” so these victims become “faceless” and lose...

(The entire section is 616 words.)