By DANIEL BOSCH.
“Men shut their doors against a setting sun.”
THE SETTING OF the sun has always been legible as a threshold to terror. The world we command in daylight we cede, at night, to danger, to death, and to the spirits of the departed. The sun also rises, yes, but at each day’s anticlimax we know darkness must prevail—for a time—and that we can do but little in the interval. For millennia, at nightfall, we have gathered around what little light we’ve had, while some few of us kept watch, however distractedly. These facts frame all our extended fictions.
The optical is the existential. The instant night falls, we see less well, and conversely—perversely—we “hear things.” Night estranges. The certainties of day-lit labor yield to doubt: What was that? At night our imaginations, less-constrained by the sharp edges of the visible, and, as in childhood, less-convinced by rationalization and counter-evidence, confirm and reconfirm: We are not safe in night. We do not belong to it. By ancient cookfires and hearths—the first footlights—we won dim globes from darkness in which learned to what we do belong. Closest to the firelight, lungs and lips wove sounds into patterns that would form the bases of all art. Auditors exhausted by the day’s labors ate, drank, listened, absorbed, objected, were indoctrinated, dozed, made more humans—became more human. At the barely-lit perimeter, from which the singer’s tales and the shaman’s spells and the songs and the laughter and the cries of parents and siblings and cousins were barely audible, expression took simpler but even more urgent form: “Who goes there?” Only rarely did the question receive a human reply.
“Men shut their doors against a setting sun,” as Shakespeare put it, but this is precisely why no one is more important to our songs and narratives than the one who has ventured into the proscribed darkness and returned to tell his tale of the night. In every known literary period and tradition speakers of such poems have staked their claims to our attention upon their authority as ambassadors from a darkness their audiences presumably know less-well. We clamor for their darkly articulate accounts of the liminal spaces they claim to have traversed. From relative safety, we listen to their soliloquies and we relish their trepidations, their extravagant beautifications and other idealizing tropes, even the ways they instrumentalize night. (Exceedingly rare is any vision of the heart of darkness). Narrative or lyric or dramatic, primeval, mediaeval, Romantic, modern, futuristic, or post-modern, night visions give character and form to rhythms of human experience which are ancient, epic, and—on this planet, at least—permanent.
Nightfall provides the conditions of plausibility for the musical, the theatrical, the oneiric, and the sexual. This remains urgently so, even when acculturating performances are not witnessed in firelight but read at great distance. Today we may not believe in the terrors that populate our ancient poems, stories, and songs of night, but neither can we do without them—we are eager to remake them in our own images. It’s not surprising that the speakers who claimed to have left the warmth of safety furthest behind are the ones we think of as “cool,” a synonym for dangerous and desirable. The Old English root of our word “nightmare” refers to a female evil spirit that suffocates its victims, and the line of patriarchy that I will trace below as the line of poetry imagines the threat of night as female sirens, mermaids, and prostitutes, eager to squander nightly virtue. When a male speaker-protagonist departs from light and safety (a cowboy, an astronaut, a Beatnik rejecting the Establishment) he is the avatar of the vast inert majority who cannot or will not achieve escape velocity. The night-driver, the night-flyer, the night-hunter—everything is more difficult where he’s travelled, and his survival and return bestow a kind of glamour. Even if in his journeying he depended upon a same-sex beloved (Gilgamesh had his Enkidu, Batman his Robin), even if by inclination he was less likely to fall prey to any dark succubus, upon his return to the culture he left behind, the dream traveler is marked as the man-most-likely to steal one’s wife or daughter. The Man-With-a-Thousand-Faces or the Man-With-No-Name may not say very much, maybe he only speaks bullet, or fist, but because he’s traveled in the lands we only dream about, we hang upon his every word and every word about him. We are only now discovering, thanks to counter-patriarchal writers, what his female counterpart might be like.
WILL POETS’ NIGHT VISIONS command our attention even when some of us are no longer subject to the particular spin entailed by Earth’s spinning? William Blake’s “The Tyger” (1794), an anthem to diurnality, is also the most popular poem in the English language, according to a survey published by Columbia University Press:
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Blake intended such “Songs of Experience” to “shew” forth, in tandem with his “Songs of Innocence,” the contrary states of the human soul. But even a visionary as radical as Blake was yet a creature of the fearful symmetries by which human time is measured. Hammer, and chain, and anvil, to be sure—all visible at the corner blacksmith’s—yet here is no knowledge of wild beasts or forests, and this speaker’s interrogation of a notional “tyger” betrays a lack of experience. He stands as far as he might from fires men control and asks his questions, but, Janus-faced, he dares not enter dreadful night. His experience of night is static; he cannot break the “mind forg’d manacles” he wears.
The speaker of John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819), by contrast, is part knight and part nightingale. Armed (not to say armored) with his Romantic conception of Nature, Keat’s speaker steps eagerly into a wood so dark “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet.” Lovesick for night, and for its grave music, he sings a song as old as humankind:
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While though art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.
Keats’s lushly anti-Enlightenment stance and diction would not withstand the century of its flowering. By the middle of the nineteenth century, empire-fed industries meant that a growing percentage of the workforce would see little of the light of day. In mills and mines and abbatoirs, in railway tunnels and in the outbuildings of cottages, steady wage labor drew and concentrated workers under the unventilated domes of a metaphorical “night,” and if the whistle at the end of a shift sounded freedom, that freedom was urban and dipped in darkness. Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal are essential poems of such post-Romantic, post-enlightenment nightfall. For the speaker of his sonnet “Romantic Sunset” (1862), “The sun is all very well when it rises—,” but
…fortunate the man who can still find
room in his heart for its high-flown farewell!
Take my case. I have seen all nature swoon
Under that gaze, like an over-driven heart.
Late as it is, who can resist the West
And the hope of entertaining one last ray . . .
No use following! The god withdraws,
And darkness comes into its own. The world
Is cold and wet and full of mysteries;
A mortuary odor fouls the marsh
Where my uncertain footsteps try to keep
From squashing frogs or snakes or something worse . . .
Neither “tyger” nor nightingale, the “something worse…” under the feet of the speaker of “Romantic Sunset” is a trans-historical metaphor—it may be a gobbet fallen from Grendel’s arm, the torn jugular of a Jabberwock, or—soon enough—a fallen Trojan or a crushed syringe.
ON THIS SIDE of the Atlantic, Baudelaire’s near contemporaries—Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, among others—expressed night visions no less passionately felt. In “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” (1865) Whitman’s speaker attests to a direct experience of night that is solitary, silent, and unadulterated by technologies or scientific intellectual apparatuses. For Whitman’s speaker, a few short steps into night offers a starry-eyed cure for the ills that come from listening what a “learn’d astronomer” has to say:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much
….applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Here book knowledge of night is washed off by immersion in actual night, and Whitman’s speaker begins to recover his humanity as soon as he steps away from “charts and diagrams” and into the “perfect silence” which halts all speech, poem included.
The speaker of Whitman’s poem retreats from intellection, but the speaker of Edgar Allan Poe’s midnight vision, “The Raven” (1845), smells of the lamp. Is it any surprise that black night bursts into his chamber to confront him, in the form of a vatic, singsong raven? But if Poe knew enough to see the madness in the scholar’s method, the similarly heart-broken speaker of his “Annabel Lee,” (1849) has drunk so deeply from hemlock he embraces a nocturnal counter-life:
For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.
WE MAY DISAPPROVE of Poe’s speaker’s vampirish nightlife, but the implication is that his daytime existence is vapid. If in the elliptical narratives told by “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” and “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” night is desirable, if troubling or creepy, the speaker of Emily Dickinson’s ecstatic puzzle-poem #269 (first published in 1891) is utterly captivated by successive night-visions that overturn clichés of safe harbor:
Wild nights—Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
To a Heart in port—
Done with the Compass—
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden—
Might I but moor—tonight—
Dickinson’s speaker’s initial refusal to go into the details of the “luxury” to be experienced in her “Wild Nights!” is more powerfully suggestive than a movie trailer or an NC-17 rated rebus. Her second song sings how nocturnal rapture transforms us—in nights of passion, we may discover our perfect mooring and cast charts and compasses aside. Yet if the speaker’s heart knows what it is to be happily “in port,” her wild nights afford her a glimpse of a more complicated mode —“Rowing in Eden”—a figure conspicuously pre-lapsarian and effortful. Bounded by the extent of Paradise, it offers a glimpse of a sea beyond luxury. Of course such voyaging can take place only after nightfall.
T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” (1917), offers what is perhaps American poetry’s most famous of invitation to night:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
ELIOT’S SPEAKER IS an American of French descent, but unlike Baudelaire’s expert witnesses, who report on solo journeys into the night, Prufrock would have us accompany him into grimy, “tedious,” “insidious” darkening streets. A guide with his hair parted behind and his trousers rolled might seem a bit of a come-down to any reader who thrilled to the “darkling” voices of Keats and his nightingale, but if he is more invested in concrete imagery drawn from a recognizably non-fiction world, Prufrock is neither more nor less fictive than the speakers of Blake’s or Dickinson’s or Whitman’s poems, and neither more nor less heroic than any reader could expect to be—unless it’s a form of modern-day heroism to describe night in specific detail:
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
Prufrock both keenly anticipates and doubts he will hear the songs of the mermaids, and he both does and does not have the last word. (The sun also rises, remember?) Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” (1934), like Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (1867), is set at evening along a similar shoreline, a doubly liminal space, where as Frost once put it, we can neither “look out far, nor in deep,” but his night-vision invokes a siren who is as modern as she is timeless, and as much a ghost of Stevens’s imagination as she is of Whistler’s. At the end of the poem, which details the song he is sure is the sound of “she, and not the sea,” the speaker calls out to an un-identifiable other, a Señor Fernandez, whom he hopes is one of those who is acquainted with the ways our experiences of night, literary and literal, organize us, acquaint us with liminality.
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Tell why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
Descending in the night, tilting in the air,
Measure the night and portion out the sea,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
O, blessed rage for order, pale Ramon!
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the distant portals, dimly starred,
And of our selves, and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
WALKING THE EDGE of a continent, in a rage for order and imagining the ocean’s voice as human and female, Stevens’s speaker acknowledges that the night sky is only less visible during all that time we call the day. Likewise the power of so many literary evocations of night which rely upon our understanding that after dark the familiar daytime landscape and objects are still there, ready to use in stories, paintings, songs, and poems; still there, ready to be seen in the mind’s eye; still there, yet transformed by moonlight, shadow, chill air, diminished sense of depth; still there, “arranging, deepening, enchanting night.”
The paintings and photographs and sculptures comprising Night Vision are drawn from same wells of human concerns that feed our literary fictions. In mediated accounts of night we bolster our connections to the limits of ancient human experience, limits that haven’t been—that can’t be transcended—not even by a Buck Rogers or a Neil Armstrong. We are right not to want to go outside after dark, right to respect the fearful symmetry that has shaped everything we know. We cannot help but to feel we live, as Galway Kinnell put it, “half-alive in the world.” Yet we are compelled to hear, or to read, or to look at, and to dream of the nocturnal exploits of human metonyms in poems, plays, novels, paintings, photographs, and other fictions. Since the advent of motion pictures, we watch such figures on screens as well as in our imaginations; their name is venerable, and legion, and their line will not end with Ziggy Stardust, Patti Smith, Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, or Amy Winehouse. When we need a super- or an anti-hero, an Antigone, a Dracula, a Don Juan, a Lisbeth Salander, a Harry Potter, a Marlow—or a Kurtz—will do. When we don’t need anyone so particular, or so memorable, when we are called rather toward the mundane yet mysterious dangers of night in our own neighborhoods, we will listen to anyone who, like the speaker of Robert Frost’s poem, is “Acquainted with the Night” (1942):
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
Yes, we live along grids of electric power, and yes, our cars speed at night through emblazoned, illuminated zones, but we know that every square meter of night a streetlight makes navigable is doubled by shadow. An actor is taught to find her light, but no nine-year old ever had to be taught to sprint from lamp pole to lamp pole coming home from a neighbor’s house at eight p.m. Though our grandchildren’s children grow up with bright liquid crystal floodlamps embedded in their wrists, if they grow up on Earth, they too will know that night means death—and that it must arrive at its appointed time, which can be “neither wrong nor right,” but is dictated by rhythms we feel more than we understand. For most of us, when it comes to night, the threshold will always be radical limit to knowledge. Thus no one who is—or claims to be—acquainted with night will fail to find an audience.
Daniel Bosch’s collection Crucible was published by Other Press in 2002. His poems, translations, and essays have appeared in The TLS, Poetry, The New Republic, The Artsfuse, and Slate. He lives in Atlanta.
Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach,” New Poems, MacMillan, London, 1867
Charles Baudelaire, “Romantic Sunset,” Les Fleurs du Mal
Richard Howard, translator, David R Godine, Boston 1984
William Blake, “The Tyger,” and “London,” Songs of Innocence and Experience,
William Blake, 1794
Emily Dickinson, “Poem 269,” Poems, Higginson and Todd, eds.
Little, Brown, Boston, 1910
T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Prufrock and Other Observations,
The Egoist, Ltd., London, 1917
Robert Frost, “Acquainted with the Night,” West-Running Brook,
Henry Holt, New York, 1928
“Neither Out Far Nor In Deep,” A Further Range,
Henry Holt, New York, 1936
John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale,” Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes,
and Other Poems, Thomas Davison, London, 1820.
Galway Kinnell, “Middle of the Way,” Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock,
Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1964
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven,” and “Annabel Lee,”
The Complete Poems of Edgar Allan Poe
J.H. Whitty, ed., Houghton, Mifflin, Boston, 1911
William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, London, 1623
Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West,”
Ideas of Order, Knopf, New York, 1936
Walt Whitman, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” Leaves of Grass,
David McKay, Philadelphia, 1900