A Bringer of New Things

I want to read and learn all I can, write thoughtfully and truthfully, live according to reason and ever more mature wisdom, and savor every wonderful little gift of life.

Great Poems: “Night” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I adore this poem, and I’ve written this post to show you why. This post is the first in a series I’m starting called, simply, “Great Poems.” For more about my reasons behind this series, see my recent postIn Defense of Understandable Poetry.”

This poem, “Night,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), is perfect for reading in bed right before turning out the light. I have actually committed it to memory, and I recite it when I’m trying to fall asleep on nights when my mind is busy.

Let’s enjoy it in sections first.

Lines 1-4

Into the darkness and the hush of night
Slowly the landscape sinks, and fades away,
And with it fade the phantoms of the day,
The ghosts of men and things, that haunt the light,

I relax in my bed as I recite this and imagine all the thoughts and events of my day fading into vapory ghosts and going out of my vision, over the horizon, like the sunset.

Lines 5-8

The crowd, the clamor, the pursuit, the flight,
The unprofitable splendor and display,
The agitations, and the cares that prey
Upon our hearts, all vanish out of sight.

This passage, which is quicker and more specific, describes the flurry of activity in an average person’s day. I especially like  themention of “cares that prey / Upon our hearts,” because I am a worrier, so I can relate to that. But now, I tell myself, it’s time for sleep; it’s time for all my worries to leave until tomorrow.

Lines 9-11

The better life begins; the world no more
Molests us; all its records we erase
From the dull commonplace book of our lives,

I am always pleased at the thought of getting away from the world and escaping into a peaceful, solitary place, where the world’s cares cannot “molest” me.

If you aren’t familiar with “commonplace books,” they were little notebooks that upper/middle class people in the 1800s used to store miscellaneous quotes, information, and thoughts.

So, the poem is suggesting that our mind is like a commonplace book in which we “write” all the miscellaneous details of our days.

Lines 12-14

That like a palimpsest is written o’er
With trivial incidents of time and place,
And lo! the ideal, hidden beneath, revives.

This is the grand finale. You need to know what a “palimpsest” is—I didn’t, though once I looked it up I remembered learning about the concept. In ancient and medieval times when parchment was expensive, scribes would sometimes take a used, faded piece of written-on parchment and simply write on top of the old writing with fresh ink. Scholars in modern times have discovered lost works by carefully removing the top layer of ink in a laboratory to reveal what was originally written on the parchment.

So, the poem is saying that when we relax into sleep at night, our minds erase the top layer of daily-life details from our mental “commonplace books” to reveal, underneath, our original, resting selves—who we are when we’re thinking about the things and people we love, the beliefs we hold, the long-term goals and dreams we aspire to, and the deepest thoughts we store within our hearts. This is “the ideal.”

Summary

So the poem’s point is that night (and, by analogy, sleep and the deep relaxation that precedes it) erases our mundane thoughts and cares of the day and restores us to our better, deeper selves.

Additonal Personal Notes

Along with night/sleep, nature also has this effect on me of erasing my shallower thoughts and restoring me to my higher self. I’m rarely as fully relaxed as I am in nature.

Also, I might as well tell you, because you’ll probably figure it out soon if you haven’t already, that I have a particular fondness for poems with very clever metaphors!

All Together

Here’s the poem (which is in the form of a sonnet) in its entirety. Thank you, Longfellow!

Into the darkness and the hush of night
    Slowly the landscape sinks, and fades away,
    And with it fade the phantoms of the day,
    The ghosts of men and things, that haunt the light,
The crowd, the clamor, the pursuit, the flight,
    The unprofitable splendor and display,
    The agitations, and the cares that prey
    Upon our hearts, all vanish out of sight.
The better life begins; the world no more
    Molests us; all its records we erase
    From the dull commonplace book of our lives,
   That like a palimpsest is written o’er
    With trivial incidents of time and place,
    And lo! the ideal, hidden beneath, revives.

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13 comments on “Great Poems: “Night” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

  1. georgetteann
    July 17, 2014

    Longfellow is one of my favorite poets, as are Whitman and Frost. If only there were a “love” button… 🙂

    Like

  2. emilievardaman
    July 17, 2014

    Thanks for the definition of palimpsest. I was stuck!

    Like

    • Sarrah J. Woods
      July 17, 2014

      Sure thing. That’s a big part of why I’m doing these posts—to take care of the hard work, like looking up words and terms, so my readers can more easily enjoy the great poetry I love so much.

      Like

  3. …I never read this one before–thanks for sharing!!…It’s definitely going into my “favorite poems” list!!…

    Like

  4. Cecilia
    July 17, 2014

    Very thoughtful post…I am interested in reading more poetry and will look forward to your series!

    Like

  5. casblomberg
    July 17, 2014

    I had never read this poem before, but I’m in love with it. I have such a hard time turning my brain off at night. I’m going to begin reciting this wonderful poem and see how releasing all the cares of the day works. I also loved the details you provided about commonplace books and palimpsest. I’m a sucker for little bits of history :-).

    Like

    • Sarrah J. Woods
      July 18, 2014

      Wonderful! I’m so glad to have led you to this treasure of a poem. I hope it helps lead you into relaxing sleep!

      Like

  6. georgetteann
    July 18, 2014

    I’ve never thought of reciting poetry as a means of drifting into sleep. But it seems that it would be meditative. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on July 17, 2014 by in Great Poems, Nature Photos and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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