The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Nocturne” is a short poem in free verse, its sixteen lines divided into four stanzas. The title, suggesting a musical composition, establishes the mood of the poem. The night, in one of its traditional aspects, is a time for reverie, permitting the free play of thought and emotion expressed, for example, in the nocturnes of Frédéric Chopin. The poem is written in the first person. Sometimes poets use the first person to speak through a persona, whose outlook and experience may be quite different from their own. Here, however, no distinction is implied between Tomas Tranströmer the poet and the speaker of the poem. In the classic tradition of lyric poetry, the poet addresses the reader directly, with the authority of personal experience.

“Nocturne” takes as its point of departure an experience that will be familiar to most readers. When one is driving at night, objects that are caught in the beam of the headlights loom out of the darkness, almost as if they were moving forward. Instead of ignoring this trick of perception as one normally does, Tranströmer accepts it at face value. The scene is transformed, as in a folktale or dream. There is a childlike quality to this vision, too; the magically animate houses, which “step out/ into the headlights” as deer or cattle might, “want a drink.”

When the poet turns his attention to sleeping humanity, there is an important shift in perspective. In the second stanza, instead of...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

References to music abound in Tranströmer’s poems. (By profession a psychologist, he is said to be an accomplished pianist as well.) Readers who know his work in Swedish lament the loss in translation of the music of his verse. A recording of Tranströmer reading his poems (The Blue House, Watershed C-214) is very helpful in this respect; “Nocturne” is one of several poems that he reads in Swedish as well as in English. Inevitably much is lost in transit between languages. Still, if it is true, as Robert Hass writes in his introduction to Tomas Tranströmer: Selected Poems, 1954-1986 (1987), that Tranströmer “has been translated into English more regularly than any European poet of the postwar generation,” much in his poetry must survive and even flourish in translation.

One reason that Tranströmer translates so well is that he is above all a poet of metaphor. “My poems are meeting places,” he has said. “Their intent is to make a sudden connection between aspects of reality that conventional languages and outlooks ordinarily keep apart.” What is particularly interesting about this credo is that it could serve equally well as a definition of metaphor.

“Nocturne” consists of a series of images in which one thing is seen in terms of something else. Most of the metaphors are implicit at least to some degree; the comparisons are not completely spelled out. For example, the poet never explicitly compares...

(The entire section is 545 words.)