Theme 4. Day and Night
< Poem 5: To Night >
poem, commentary, analysis, exegesis
Percy Bysshe Shelley >
Posthumous Poems (1824, d2)
composed 1821 (29)
Swiftly walk o'er the western wave,
Spirit of Night!
Out of the misty eastern cave,
Where, all the long and lone daylight,
Thou wovest dreams of joy and fear,
Which make thee terrible and dear-
Swift be thy flight!
Wrap thy form in a mantle gray,
Blind with thine hair the eyes of day;
Kiss her until she be wearied out,
Then wander o'er city, and sea, and land,
Touching all with thine opiate wand-
When I arose and saw the dawn,
I sighed for thee;
When light rode high, and the dew was gone,
And noon lay heavy on flower and tree,
And the weary day turned to his rest,
Lingering like an unloved guest,
I sighed for thee.
Thy brother Death came, and cried,
Wouldst thou me?
Thy sweet child Sleep, the filmy-eyed,
Murmured like a noontide bee,
Shall I nestle near thy side?
Wouldst thou me? And I replied,
No, not thee!
Death will come when thou art dead,
Soon, too soon,
Sleep will come when thou art fled;
Of neither would I ask the boon
I ask of thee, belovèd Night,
Swift be thine approaching flight,
Come soon, soon!
The Spirit of the Night has to be associated with poetic inspiration for this poem to work, though Shelley nowhere makes this clear. In particular the line 'Death will come when thou art dead' works very well if the 'thou' is poetic inspiration. The poet is clearly saying that, should he lose his poetic inspiration, he will die.
In total, the imagery is very fine, even magical.
In the first stanza, the idea of the Spirit of the Night walking swiftly 'o'er the Western wave' is potently evocative. Where does poetic inspiration come from? Out of nature, out of our gazing over the sea towards the western horizon. The poet is inspired by the sight, but something more than the sight. For a whole day he has been inspired by 'dreams of joy and fear', the elements of creation.
In the second stanza, we have the lovely lesbian imagery of the Spirit of the Night binding day's eyes with her own hair, and kissing her 'till she be wearied out'. How do we know that the Spirit of the Night is female? We don't. Try reading the poem with the spirit as male. Or as neither male nor female. Does it work?
In the third stanza, the poet explains that he has been waiting since daybreak for her arrival, but day (the antithesis of night, and therefore possibly to be read as absence of poetic inspiration) has 'lingered like an unloved guest'. Perhaps he means the concerns of the day, the bills, petty affairs, interruptions, back-biting, gossip that interrupts the process of poetic inspiration.
In the fourth stanza, Death is introduced as the brother and Sleep as the child of the Spirit of the Night. Here, it is necessary to read the Spirit of the Night as Night. The associations between Night, Death and Sleep are obvious. But it seems that for Shelley, the Spirit of the Night has a dual nature, or at least functions on two levels, first as poetic inspiration and secondly as the phenomenon of night.
The final stanza is simply an invocation to the Spirit of Poetic Inspiration.
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