Back in the 16th Century, allegedly in a prison cell in Toledo, Spain, the Christian mystic Saint John of the Cross penned these words (translated from the original Spanish):
In an obscure night
Fevered with love’s anxiety
(O hapless, happy plight!)
I went, none seeing me
Forth from my house, where all things quiet be …
Thus the mystic begins his Dark Night, what later would be named “the dark night of the soul.” The term has taken on a negative sense over time, though it has retained a mystical meaning. Saint John also expressed that same mystical journey in his treatise Ascent of Mount Carmel. Robinson Jeffers revived the ecstatic spirit of that dark night in his poem Night.
The middle-length lyric Night is perhaps Jeffers’ most compelling expression of the sublime beauty and power of darkness and death. It is one of Jeffers’ masterpieces. A mystical “singing prayer” to the night, it is a little didactic, but it does not lecture. It does have all the religious zeal of the most impassioned prayer, yet it is not preachy. Like Boats in a Fog (written at about the same time), Night is contrarian and passionate, and also like Boats in a Fog, it exhibits the verse form introduced by Tamar. Perhaps Jeffers found that lightly chaotic, fluctuating flow more apropos to the content of these two lyrics than to some of his less impassioned thought-poems.
The poem begins with an ebb, a slipping back of the sea that happens to coincide with the setting of the sun. It is not an entirely inhuman view, with a ship’s light showing faintly. The light is faint, but the poem will demonstrate that in the face of the night, all lights are faint.
Just as the sun and the sea retreat, on comes “the splendor without rays,” the powerful and peaceful presence of darkness inevitably filling the world. The poem recognizes that the darkness fills the depths of the sea, but it also finds that the night touches even the surface of the ocean “with more love” than the rough touch of the sun.
The image that Jeffers presents is not merely a grand, cosmic vision. He also touches upon the more delicate touch of the night in his coverage of deer, “the slender flocks of the mountain forest” drinking from a stream among the redwoods at night.
The poet is not ashamed of the unnatural lamp in his tower, for he recognizes that it does not threaten the vast night. Nothing does. Not even the greatest stars in the universe are even a spark against the vastness of the night. As for life, it strives incessantly against the peace of death, but Jeffers recognizes that even life, for all its strivings and insatiability, feels the deep peace of the darkness and death deep within it.
The word night is capitalized thrice in this poem, perhaps to impart a sense of the night’s omnipotence and ubiquity. As the poem sees itself as a “singing prayer,” we can see a correspondence between “O Night” and “O God:”
… but to you O Night / What? Not a spark? …
… you Night will resume / The stars in your time.
… dear Night it is memory / Prophesies, …
The text of Night is available online.
Night has been included in the following anthologies:
- The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Stanford, 2001; ed. Tim Hunt
- The Columbia Anthology of American Poetry, 1995; ed. Jay Parini
- The New Oxford Book of American Verse, 1976; ed. Richard Ellman
- Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems, Vintage Books, 1965
- The Pocket Book of Modern Verse, 11th Printing, 1963; ed. Oscar Williams.
- The Oxford Book of American Verse, 1950; ed. F.O. Matthiessen