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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530

"Nocturne" is a poem by Swedish writer Tomas Tranströmer. The poem is vivid in its description of a town during the nighttime hours. The narrator cannot sleep, so he drives through the village. He ponders the inhabitants of the peaceful village. The village itself is asleep, as if it is a person that the poet dares not to disturb. In the first stanza, the narrator makes a connection, although a subtle one, between slumber and death. In the darkness, before the narrator passes through them, the houses and inanimate objects on the street are dead.

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However, when he illuminates them with his headlights, they come to life, as if they are people resurrecting from death to join the living in earthly affairs (i.e., drinking, companionship). The poet then imagines the people sleeping in the village, how some are peaceful in their slumber whilst others are fighting to stay awake, or sleep lightly and have are experiencing mental discomfort. This could be interpreted in two ways.

The first interpretation is that there are people who are at peace with what they've done in life and accept death, whilst there are others who have regrets in life and do not want to die. Perhaps the latter group are fearful of death more than the former group, because death—eternal unconsciousness—is the great unknown. They've trained their whole life to do one thing, and that is to simply live out their existence, and death breaks that lifelong rhythm.

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.

The other interpretation is that those who sleep peacefully are people with a clear conscience and are able to live harmoniously with the volatility of life by adapting to circumstances. When it comes to daily problems, they can simply "sleep it off." The ones who are troubled and have grimaced faces are people who have bad memories haunting them. They are living out their nightmares in real life, and in the dreamworld, these nightmares or past traumas are even more vivid.

The trees of the forest represent different people in the collective unconsciousness, or the dark ocean of the dream world, because the poet remarks how each leaf is unique, which is the same with people. The road disappears into this dark unknown and the poet drives straight into it. It is no surprise then that the next stanza illustrates how the poet is suddenly falling asleep. He is not home, in bed, but is still behind the wheel of his car. He is falling asleep whilst driving because he sees "signs scribbling themselves" behind his eyelids. These are the road signs ahead of him.

He is so sleepy at this point that his eyelids are barely open, resembling the slit of a letter box. He imagines an actual letter being forced through the letter slot—the slit between his eyelids—and this is perhaps a memory of someone he used to correspond to. These haunting memories are trying to keep him awake, and possibly keep him alive.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

“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 speaking from immediate personal experience, the poet adopts the generalizing manner of the sage. The last two lines of the stanza in particular recall the voice of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. (In Swedish, the quasi-biblical parallelism of these lines is even more pronounced.) Like the Preacher, but more gently, he records human folly.

In the third stanza, there is a shift back to immediate personal experience as the nighttime drive described in stanza 1 continues. Again the lyric vision is triggered by precise observation of familiar details: the “melodramatic color” of the trees caught in the headlights and the uncanny clarity of leaves illumined against the night. The metaphorical transformation enacted in stanza 1 continues here as well: The trees are granted sentience and mobility.

The fourth stanza concludes the poem yet leaves it open-ended. In stanzas 1 and 3, the poet has been seeing in the dark, thanks to the headlights of his car; now, in bed and on the verge of sleep, he is seeing in the dark in another sense. Tranströmer notes how the images one sometimes “sees” immediately before sleep seem to come from outside one’s consciousness, of their own volition.

Something from outside wants to get in—not to force entry, but to give a message. The poem concludes with another image that is rooted in a familiar sensation: the tantalizing experience of a revelation that cannot quite be grasped before sleep takes over.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545

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 houses that “step out” to animals, but his description unmistakably suggests the comparison. Some of the metaphors require a bold leap (it is surprising to think of houses transformed into living creatures), while others delight by their simple rightness (the flickering light on the trees from the passing car resembles firelight).

In “Nocturne,” many of the metaphors follow a common pattern, reinforcing one another. The pattern is established in the first stanza with the “Houses, barns, nameposts, deserted trailers” that “take on life.” In stanza 1, inanimate objects come alive; in stanza 3, trees are described in terms normally reserved for the animal kingdom: They are said to be “silent in a pact with each other,” as if they could talk if they wished, and they follow the poet home. In stanza 4, “unknown images and signs,” instead of being drawn by the poet, sketch themselves.

This pattern of transformation, which suggests a magical spell cast by the night, culminates in the image that concludes the poem: “In the slot between waking and sleep/ a large letter tries to get in without quite succeeding.” A letter is normally a passive object, but here the poet attributes will, intention, purpose to it. Not every metaphor in the poem, however, fits the pattern of passive-into-active. The “slot between waking and sleep,” for example, is a marvelous metaphor in which a unit of time—the brief interval of heightened receptivity before sleep—is described in terms of a unit of space.

It is characteristic of Tranströmer to end a poem with an enigmatic image which, like the last line of a haiku, requires the reader to make a connection with what has gone before. “After a Death,” “Out in the Open,” and “Going with the Current” are other good examples of Tranströmer poems with this kind of ending.

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