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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

“Nocturne” is a short poem written by Nobel-prize-winning Swedish poet, psychologist, and translator Tomas Tranströmer. It was published in 1962 as a part of his collection of poems titled The Half-Finished Heaven (Den halvfärdiga himlen). It consists of 16 lines, which are organized in 4 stanzas (each stanza has 4 lines), and has no particular rhyme scheme. The title comes from the Latin word “nocturnus,” which means “of the night,” and is often used to describe a scene from the night, which is exactly what Tranströmer does in his poem.

Thus, “Nocturne” talks about a lone poet who is passing through a village at night. He’s driving down a road and takes note of his surroundings, describing how he can see the villagers’s houses, barns, and cars in the ‘glare of his headlights’ as they gradually come into focus. He mentions that the people are sleeping, and in contrast, their homes and their vehicles are slowly ‘coming to life.’

I drive through a village at night, the houses rise up
in the glare of my headlights—they're awake, want to drink.
Houses, barns, signs, abandoned vehicles—now
they clothe themselves in Life.—The people are sleeping:

In the second stanza, the speaker elaborates on how the people are sleeping. He mentions that some are sleeping peacefully, while others are restless, as if they are preparing themselves for ‘eternity.’ He states that, even though their sleep is deep and heavy, they still manage to hold on to their dreams, or perhaps even their lives, and ‘don’t dare to let go.’ He compares their sleeping to ‘lowered crossing barriers when the mystery draws past.’ Because of these lines, some readers believe that the poem might actually be a metaphor for life and death, and the speaker’s journey is, in fact, his journey towards death.

some can sleep peacefully, others have drawn features
as if training hard for eternity.
They don't dare let go though their sleep is heavy.
They rest like lowered crossing barriers when the mystery draws past.

In the third stanza, the speaker leaves the village, and the road takes him deep into the forest. He describes the trees as harmonious and colorful ‘like firelight,’ as each leaf has its own particular shape and color. This might suggest that the poem might be set in autumn. In the last line, he mentions that the trees are following him on his way ‘home.’

Outside the village the road stretches far among the forest trees.
And the trees the trees keeping silence in concord with each other.
They have a theatrical color, like firelight.
How distinct each leaf! They follow me home.

In the fourth and final stanza, the speaker has presumably arrived at his home and lies down to sleep. He mentions that, as he is trying to fall asleep, he sees different signs and images behind his closed eyelids. Typical of his style, Tranströmer ends the poem in a rather puzzling way, describing how the speaker sees ‘a large letter’ that is unsuccessfully trying to push itself in the tiny space between the state of being awake and the state of dreaming.

I lie down to sleep I see strange pictures
and signs scribbling themselves behind my eyelids
on the wall of the dark. Into the slit between wakefulness and dream
a large letter tries to push itself in vain.

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