To Night: Poem by P. B. Shelley - Summary & Analysis

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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 grey,
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—
Come, long-sought!

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, beloved Night—
Swift be thine approaching flight,
Come soon, soon!

Summary & Analysis


      To Night, composed in 1822 and published in 1824, is one of the best known lyrics written by Shelley. It is marked by intense passion and yearning, and amply illustrates Shelley's ability to make his own myths. Shelley's love for the dark, mystic and weird aspects of Nature also finds expression in this poem. The language employed in this poem is typically Shelleyan in its vividness, precision and concreteness. The poem was written at a time when Shelley's life appears to have been reasonably happy and as such its tone is not so grim as that of his poems written as little earlier.


      Night personified. The poem opens with a personification of Night. Night lives in a dark cave in the East throughout the Day. When Day ends, it moves across the waves of the Western ocean. Throughout the day, it weaves those dreams with which it visits human beings later. These are dreams of joy and fear. They make Night at once a matter of joy and terror. The poet appeals to Night to come swiftly to him.

      The magical effect of Night. Night is beautiful because of its numerous stars. It charms Day to rest. (This Day is also personified.) Night, with its' magic, puts every creature to sleep.

      Poet's longing for Night. The poet loves Night. Day makes him weary, and his longing grows as night draws nearer. In the evening, the poet is impatient for the Day to disappear. The poet describes Day as an unloved guest.

      The poet's preference. Death and Sleep are personified. They are described as offering themselves to the poet. Both of them bring peace to others, but the poet finds peace only in a wakeful Night. He loves nothing else. Night is his only beloved.

      Appeal to the Night. Therefore the poet's appeal is only to Night Death, alas, would come; so would Sleep, but only during day. The poet desires Night, and Night alone.

Critical Appreciation & Analysis

      Myth-making Power: To Night is a fine example of Shelley's power as a creator of myth. He does not imitate any Greek legend in this poem, but himself creates "forms more real than living man, Nurslings of immortality". Fowler remarks: "Personifications of Day, Night, Sleep and Death are common enough in the English poets in imitation of classical poetry, but they are apt to be frigid. The remarkable thing about Shelley's personifications is that they are more real to him than their ancient counterparts were to the great majority of the classical poets themselves. Perhaps the best help to the appreciation of the most delicate hues would be the study of some of the allegorical paintings of Burne Jones". Shelley has not only lent life and feeling to some abstractions, but has also attempted to distribute relationships among them.

      Treatment of Nature: Shelley's professed preoccupation with Night, Day, and such other mystic aspects of Nature reminds us of Coleridge's similar feelings expressed in his The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel and Kubla Khan. His description of Night is full of beautiful and exquisite nature-pictures. He conceives of Night as almost a humanized form living in "the misty eastern cave" and weaving during the day "dreams of joy and fear" for mankind. The description of Night wearing "a mantle grey" which is "star-inwrought" is at once poetic, picturesque and truthful. His mythical interpretation of the replacement of Day by Night has been given through setting up an amorous relationship between Day and Night; to Shelley, Day does not just go away, but it hides, during what is known as night time, under the all-pervading embrace of its lover, Night. The other nature-pictures in the poem—the Night "swiftly" walking "over the western wave", the Noon lying "heavy on flower and tree", the Day "lingering like an unloved guest"—are also indicative, in a similar way, of Shelley's intense and passionate association with Nature, and of his constant effort, in the fashion of Wordsworth, to find a living spirit behind every aspect of it.

      Lyrical Quality: To Night is almost flawless in construction, meter and melody. The poem is spontaneous because, like his other short lyrics, it is essentially the expression of one particular mood. Its perfection as a lyric lies in the absolute fusion of imagery and rhythm, in a diction which is almost music. The absence of anything difficult or obscure has contributed to the lyrical quality of the poem. The simplicity and the easy flow of the words, and the use of short emphatic lines at regular intervals have produced a great musical effect.

Line By Line Explanation With Critical Comments

      Ll. 1-7. Swiftly walk thy fight! These lines form the first Stanza of Shelley's poem, To Night. The poem is an appeal to the spirit of Night to visit the poet. The present Stanza describes the habitation of the Spirit of Night and what he does all day long. The poet imagines that Night, throughout the day, rests in a cave in the East. This cave is described as "misty”—the Night is dim, hence the epithet. The poet fancies that the Spirit of Night fashions dreams throughout the day—dreams with which it visits human beings when the day is over. Night is described as both terrible and dear. It is terrible because it brings fearful dreams. But it also brings dreams of joy to mankind and so it is dear to us. The poet appeals to Night to come to him, flying swiftly over the, waves of the Western Ocean. The longing of the poet for Night is captured in the very flow of the lines, and especially the short last line of the Stanza.

      Ll. 8-14. Wrap thy form.....Come, long sought! These lines constitute the second Stanza of Shelley's poem, To Night. The poem is addressed to the Spirit of Night and is an appeal to it to visit the poet swiftly. The poet is in love with Night and the poem captures his longing. In the present Stanza, the poet describes Night and then its function in earth. He compares Night to a beautiful lady covered in a grey cloak. But Night has its brilliance because of its innumerable stars, and the poet, therefore, describes the cloak as "Star in—wrought". Again, Night is compared to a beautiful woman with long hair, with which it blinds the eyes of the day. It puts Day to sleep by kissing it again and again, Finally, the poet describes how Night spreads its magic over the whole world and puts everything to sleep. Night is now compared to a wizard with a magic wand. The last line once again captures the poet's longing for Night. He has sought her for a long time and now longs for the peace that she brings.

      LI. 15-21. When arose and.....I sigh'd for thee. Thepressent Stanza expresses the poet's deep yearning for the Spirit of Night. The poet describes how he has waited for Night throughout the day. Early in the morning as the day dawned, the poet wished for the coming of the night. This longing grew as the day advanced and the dew evaporated. It persisted when noon approached and spread over flowers and trees. It reached its peak when the day came to its end and yet lingered on for some time. The poet was then so impatient for the coming of Night that day annoyed him as does an unwanted guest.

      LI. 22-28. Thy brother, not thee. The poet means to say that both death and sleep came by turns to the poet and asked if he would like to die or sleep, but he refused both the offers. The poet compares death with the night because both of them are equally frightful and because when one either falls asleep or dies the whole universe is dark in his eyes. He imagines sleep to be very sensitive or delicate because it can be disturbed by the faintest sound of anything. But the question is why the poet refuses either to sleep or die. Of course, nobody wants to die, while everybody wants to sleep. The poet does not want to sleep as he wants to enjoy the beauty of the night by remaining awake.


      Stanza I. L. 1. The western wave—the Atlantic Ocean, Swiftly...waves—Quickly cross over to the west. The poet fancies Night to be arising out of the east and advancing towards the west across the western sea. L. 2. Spirit of Night—Night is personified and spoken of as a Spirit. L. 3. misty—dark, eastern cave This "eastern cave" is supposed by the poet to be the home of Night. The setting sun lights up the west, leaving the east dim and misty. Darkness first prevails over the east and then over the west. L. 4. lone—lonely, solitary, hence clientless. (The daylight has been called lonely, for unlike night it is not accompanied by dreams), long—the world shows that the. poet is longing for the night to come soon; the poet calls daylight long, because he is longing for the approach of night. L. 5. wovest—prepared, constructed; of joy and fear—pleasing as well as dreadful. There are two kinds of dreams—those that are agreeable, and those that cause terror—the latter being called 'nightmares'. L. 6. terrible and dear—an object of fear as well as love; fear, in so far as it causes nightmares and love, so far as it produces pleasant dreams. The dreams of joy make Night dear, those of fear make her terrible. Hence she is an object of fear as well as love. L. 7. flight—approach.

      Stanza 2. L. 8. Wrap—clothe, envelop, form—figure, grey mantle—dark cloak i.e., dim twilight. ’Grey’ refers to the colour of twilight. Night is here conceived as a woman with long hair. It is to be noticed that Day which is here feminine is, by an oversight, made masculine in line 19. L. 9. Star-inwrought—spangled or studded with stars. L. 10:—i.e. darken the light of the sun; eyes of Day—sunlight; sunshine. L. 11. Kiss out—i.e. expel her gently, wearied out—induced to retire through fatigue. This is a poetical way of saying that night puts out the light of day. L. 12. Then—after the daylight is over; wander over—envelop in darkness. L. 13. Opiate—narcotics: sleep inducing; wand—a short stick used by magicians. The effect of Night’s wand is that its touch produces sleep; Touching...wand—putting all to sleep. L. 14. long-sought—desired for a long time.

      Stanza 3. L. 15. arise—i.e. from sleep. L. 16. sighed for thee—was sorry that the night had departed. L. 17. light high—the sun rose high in the sky i.e. when it was broad daylight; was gone—had evaporated in the heat of the sim. L. 18. And noon...heavy—i.e. when the heat of the midday sun began to be oppressive. L. 19. weary day—when the sun tired of his long journey was about to set; his—In line 11 Shelley has regarded 'Day' as feminine and here he regards it as masculine. This is an example of his abrupt transition of imagery. L. 20. Lingering...guest—(a. beautiful line) seeming to be slow to depart like an unwelcome guest. L. 21. Sighed for thee—longed for thee to come.

      Stanza 4. L. 22. Thy brdther Death—Death which is very like Night, because both are dark. The figure of Death is painted black. Death and Sleep are usually represented as brothers, as in Queen Mab. L. 23. wouldst thou me—do you desire me? L. 24. Sweet child sleep—sleep which is the soothing product of Night, filmy-eyed—with his eyes covered with a film, a thin membrane: i.e. with closed eyes. L. 25. Murmured...bee—The sound of bees' murmur is supposed to bring forth sleep; murmured—spoke softly, noon-tide—midday. L. 26. nestle—lie comfortably as a young bird in its nest; dwell.

      Stanza 5. L. 29. Death.....dead—I shall not live very long after the expiry of the coming night; or both will come when Night has lost all interest for me. L. 30. Soon, too soon—i.e., death is imminent. L. 31. Sleep...fled—i.e. I shall have ample time for during the day. L. 32. Of neither—neither of Death, nor of Sleep; boon—favor of coming soon.

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