San Ildefonso Nocturne by Octavio Paz

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

One of the resonant words of this poem is the verb “invent.” The night invents another night, the city invents signs, streetlights invent yellow pools of light, and the sleeping woman invents herself. More than an example of personification, Paz’s use of inventar underlines the sense of magic and heightened awareness that has always concerned him as a poet. He intends the verb to carry its basic meaning, “to come across suddenly” (like the moments of transparency in his other poems), which implies the use of the imagination, another faculty that fascinates him.

The poem affords its author a chance to take stock of himself and to compare the present-day author, halfway through his life, with the seventeen-year-old crossing the Zócalo. The literary heroes he remembers bear special significance. Alyosha Karamazov and Julien Sorel assisted him in the invention of bolts of lightning to hurl against the century, and they stand for two sides of the poet himself: Alyosha, the pure in heart, stands as a buffer between his family and the world; and Julien, the ambitious hero from the provinces, has an enormous drive to succeed.

The “we” in this section refers to Paz and his cohorts, who, like all young idealists, made up in virtue what they were lacking in humility. As is usually the case, however, their desires for reform were betrayed by their own weaknesses as well as, in the case of Mexico, the entrenched strength of the system. Paz carries denouncement to the level of hyperbole, a zigzag of reconciliations, apostasies, recantations, and bewitchments.

He refuses to accept the possibility of blame. History itself, he writes, is the error. This assertion presumes that outside the accumulation of failures generally recorded by history there is an intimate sort of history—“everyone’s anonymous heartbeat”—which is unrepeatable and identical. This core of personal human experience allows the poet to assert that “Truth/ is the base of a time without history.”

It is such...

(The entire section is 508 words.)