The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

“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.

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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 unsold newspapers. A lascivious clatter of heels, metonymy for a woman of the night, provokes two allusions explained by the poet. The lines “a sky of soot/ the flash of a skirt” are taken from the Mexican poet Ramón López Velarde, and the French phrase “C’est la mort—ou la morte” (“It is death—or the dead woman”) comes from Gérard de Nerval’s sonnet about Artemis, the huntress. Both allusions suggest prostitution.

The poet now refers specifically to San Ildefonso, a college built by the Jesuits in the seventeenth century, and his memory evokes the buried idols and canals of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán covered by present-day Mexico City and its vast central plaza, the Zócalo. He recalls two novels he read as a boy, Fyodor Dostoevski’s Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912)—thus the reference to Alyosha K (Karamazov), the saintly one of the brothers—and Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir (1830; The Red and the Black, 1898), whose hero was Julien Sorel.

Part 3 recognizes that the man who writes is the small boy, and the narrator bemoans the failure of his generation to have any positive effect upon the world. Part 4 stresses the power of language, as Paz is seen again writing at the window, and introduces a new personage, his sleeping wife; she represents nature, and with her he can lose his fear of death as he flows with her body.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

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 contained within forms “nomadic geometries.” They represent a tension in the poet’s mind (“false heaven/ hell of industry”) and beckon with the promise of the benefits of progress and the predicament it brings.

Movement between various points of time is one of the poem’s most intriguing aspects. The poem is about a series of returns, and it is significant that it appeared in a collection that Paz called Vuelta (Return, 1987), an account of his coming back to Mexico after years of living in the Far East and Europe. The first point in time is the present of the narrator, and the city whose lights he contemplates, although unnamed, is probably Mexico City. The tunnel at the end of part 1 will lead him to a point in adolescence, and the space is the Zócalo, Mexico’s huge main square (“vast as the earth”). The Zócalo is rich in reminders of his country’s colonial past (the cathedral’s façade is a petrified garden), but it also sits upon the site of the ancient Aztec capital Tenochtitlán in an area once covered by canals. The transfer made by the reader and narrator is expressed in the line “sun turned to time,/ time turned to stone,” in which the elements of life (sun), time, and history (stone) blend together.

The nocturne is haunted by history—that of the narrator and his friends—full of friendly ghosts that in his memory become flesh.

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Themes