The Poem

“San Ildefonso Nocturne,” written in free verse, is divided into four stanzas of unequal length. Octavio Paz once again uses punctuation, a practice that he had abandoned in previous books. He also returns to the circular form he introduced so successfully in 1957 in Piedra de sol (Sun Stone, 1963). “San Ildefonso Nocturne” begins with the poet viewing through the window of his room a garish display of neon advertising in an unnamed city. Parts 2 and 3 move into the narrator’s past as a boy in Mexico City, and part 4 closes with the poet once again in his room watching the neon advertisements flashing in the night. In Sun Stone, the same six lines open and close the poem; in “San Ildefonso Nocturne,” a similar effect is achieved through the repetition of a scene—the poet at the window.

In his hotel room, the narrator sees the neon lights of advertisements spray the blackness of his window. Preoccupied as always by communication, he connects the advertising signs with the syllable clusters he is putting down on his page. The words turn into ants; there is a tunnel that will lead him somewhere. “What does it [the night] want?” he asks at the conclusion of part 1.

The night wishes to summon him to Mexico City in the year 1931, when he would have been seventeen. Squinting lights contrast with the neon glare of part 1. Pockets of characteristic poverty greet his eyes; children cover themselves with...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

Forms and Devices

Paz achieves his circular structure by means of many devices. Not only does the scene remain the same, but also the vocabulary duplicates itself. The poem commences with an unusual use of the verb “to invent”: “In my window night/ invents another night.” A few lines later, the city “invents” the lights, and in part 4, the sleeping wife “invents herself.” This motif contributes to the circular motion of the poem. Paz also reprises metaphors and sometimes translates them. What were “Sign-seeds” in the city’s night window are flatly stated at the closure of the poem to be part of the “commercial sky.” The “high-voltage calligraphy” of the first scene goes through the stage of “squinting lights” in the evocation of the poet’s adolescence to the straightforward description of reality’s “commercial sky.”

From his reading of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), Paz learned about allusions and the practice of footnoting them, which he does in the case of the quotations from López Velarde and Nerval. He takes it for granted, however, that his readers will understand the references to Alyosha Karamazov and Julien Sorel. Part 2 contains buried allusions to Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” (“galleries of echoes”) and The Waste Land (“broken images”).

The metaphors that describe the neon lights are especially arresting. Their profusion suggests a convulsed carnival; the endless flickering...

(The entire section is 471 words.)