Notice how, as readers, we naturally take the unfamiliar and make it familiar? It’s hardwired, and one of the many reasons readers like to read.
Take nocturnes. I associate them with classical music, but according to Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary, “The nocturne became a European musical type in the nineteenth century, a pensive, moody instrumental piece especially suitable for playing at night, and thereafter poetic nocturnes evoke the melancholy feelings or tonalities of piano nocturnes.”
So, yes, there’s a line to be drawn between classical music and poetry, but the nocturne as a poetic genre predates this angle, going all the way back to John Donne in 1633, when he wrote “A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day.” (Great title, John.)
For a modern take on the genre that stands opposite to aubades (“a dawn song expressing the regret of parting lovers at daybreak,” according to Hirsch, Romeo, & Juliet… the famous law firm), let’s look at Irish poet Eavan Boland’s poem by that name. As you read, keep the noise down. It’s late!
Nocturne by Eavan Boland
After a friend has gone I like the feel of it:
The house at night. Everyone asleep.
The way it draws in like atmosphere or evening.
One-o-clock. A floral teapot and a raisin scone.
A tray waits to be taken down.
The landing light is off. The clock strikes. The cat
comes into his own, mysterious on the stairs,
a black ambivalence around the legs of button-back
chairs, an insinuation to be set beside
the red spoon and the salt-glazed cup,
the saucer with the thick spill of tea
which scalds off easily under the tap. Time
is a tick, a purr, a drop. The spider
on the dining-room window has fallen asleep
among complexities as I will once
the doors are bolted and the keys tested
and the switch turned up of the kitchen light
which made outside in the back garden
an electric room—a domestication
of closed daisies, an architecture
instant and improbable.
Here’s the thing: As a reader, I’m a horrible audience for this piece. I read it and think: “Ah. Nocturne as ode to late night. Written for night owls by a night owl.”
But as a reader, I have innate strategies that work without my even knowing it. The poem’s speaker likes the feel of “The house at night. Everyone asleep,” and I identify, even though I am reliably the first person asleep in my household and always have been, barring the years when my kids were very young.
Foreign as the concept of the nocturne is, however, my inner reader flips the narrative. It reads, “The house before dawn. Everyone asleep.” Ah. Now that’s a house I know. A pensive and moody time that evokes “melancholy feelings or tonalities.”
Do you think cats don’t “come into their own” and become “mysterious” at 4 a.m., too? I wouldn’t know, having little congress with cats over the years, but I know that dogs are a different breed at that hour, as is the lighting, as are my feelings both when reading and writing. It’s a magical time with richer possibility than other times of the day.
And so, it’s enough. My unconscious, mental “switch” conveniently expands inexperience to encompass experience, a trick that writers and readers count on for both tea and sympathy.
And you know what? It’s darkest before dawn, meaning I can flip a switch and create “an electric room” outside, too. Just like that.
So go ahead. Write a nocturne just after you’ve written an aubade, no matter which you’re familiar with. Opposites attract, and your readers will adjust.