Baird, John D., and Charles Ryskamp, eds. The Poems of William Cowper. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
"NIGHT, THE" Henry Vaughan (1650) First printed in the collection Silex Scintillans, "The Night" by Henry Vaughan uses a common 17th-century trope by imagining man as a microcosm, or tiny representative of the larger world, as he meditates on Christ's life. However, rather than employ the approach of contrasting the unchanging universe with human instability, vaughan employs the vitality of the world to emphasize man's lack of spirituality. Many critics consider "The Night," which appeared in the second portion of the collection, as Vaughan's masterpiece. J. B. Leish-man describes it as "one the most exquisitely tender and sensitive of all religious poems." The poem emphasizes contradictions inherent to Christianity. These contradictions include the ideas that one must lose one's self in order to be found, one must die in order to live, and one can achieve victory only through defeat. Such paradox allows Vaughan to incorporate the sort of conceit characteristic of metaphysical poets and poetry in dealing with the seeming contradiction he proposes, that darkness may reveal more than light.
A challenging piece, "The Night" is based on the biblical Gospel of John 3:2. In that verse John describes interaction between a Pharisee, a devout adherent to Torah law, and Jesus. The Pharisee, Nicodemus, tells Jesus during a nighttime visit, "Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God." He was one of only a few members of his group who recognized Jesus as God's son. vaughan establishes the night setting as crucial to the dawning of true light, or knowledge, for Nicodemus and, by extension, for all of mankind.
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The poem opens by setting a vivid scene:
Through that pure virgin-shrine, That sacred veil drawn o'er thy glorious noon, That men might look and live as glowworms shine
And face the moon, Wise Nicodemus saw such light As made him know his God by night.
The line "Through that pure virgin-shrine" has provoked various critical explanations. Alan Rudrum explains the phrase Virgin-shrine as referencing God's son in his human existence as Christ. His body, or "that sacred veil," may be seen as a paradox as both revealing God to man and shielding God from man, as the night may hide the brilliance of the sun, a pun on the term Son, seen at "thy glorious noon" by man. The later allusion to glow worms may suggest that while man cannot directly view God's full light, he can view a diminished version through Christ. The worms cannot glow in sunlight; they need the night to do so. Thus paradoxically the dark produces light. The term live suggests physical life, but also spiritual life.
The second stanza praises Nicodemus for believing while others of his group remained blind to Jesus' identity. Although the savior had been "long-expected," most could not recognize his "healing wings" as he rose, as if he were a midnight sun.
Stanza 3 contains two questions, the first "O who will tell me where / He found thee at that dead and silent hour?" Some interpret the "dead and silent hour" as an allusion to the era of civil unrest in England experienced by Vaughan and made the subject of much of his poetry. However, the reader should note that Vaughan's attention remains on Christ, not as an aspect of man's history, but rather as a vital presence in nature. The ability of nature to reflect God for man's benefit remained another of Vaughan's traditional themes. Vaughan next references the Ark of the Covenant, so important to the Jewish people, writing that "No mercy seat of gold, / No dead and dusty cherub nor carved stone" greeted Nicodemus. Rather, Christ represents God's "living works," revealed to his believers while the Jews, Christ's own people, "did sleep" in ignorance, represented in the poem by night. Vaughan's skillful use of imagery remains strong in his contrast of light and dark. The speaker broods while viewing the night landscape, its darkness allowing a contrast to the light provided by the heavenly stars, symbolic of God's saving grace. The fourth stanza builds on the story of Solomon's temple, with its architectural references. The speaker suggests more meaning is to be found in the natural world, "Where trees and herbs did watch and peep," than in human achievement.
The fifth stanza seems to some critics out of character with the others, but, as did George Herbert, on whose poem "Prayer" Vaughan's fifth and sixth stanzas may be based, Vaughan worked with a variety of formats and approaches. His address to the night—"Dear night! This world's defeat"—acts as transition into the next stanzas, in which interpreters, including Rudrum, see night as a geographic location, rather than a specific time of day. However, one could disagree with the geographic theory based on repetition in the sixth stanza of the term When, which specifically suggests time:
When my Lord's head is filled with dew, and all His locks are wet with the clear drops of night;
His still, soft call; His knocking time; the soul's dumb watch, When spirits their fair kindred catch.
That stanza alludes to the biblical passage in which Christ knocks on the door that has no lever or pull on the outside, awaiting its opening from the inside, which will signal human acceptance of his grace. Stanzas 7 and 8 make clear that the speaker's ecstatic experience remains transitory, that he will soon wake from night to enter day, "where all mix and tire / Themselves and others," and he runs "To every mire" as a result of "this world's ill-guiding light."
Vaughan concludes with a prayer as he focuses firmly on the contrast and interaction of dark and light that have provided a framework for the poem. He begins with the use of alliteration in repetition of the d sound for emphasis on the ability of night to reveal truth/God, where the false light of the world may hide it, writing, "There is in God (some say) / A deep but dazzling darkness." Paradox exists in the suggestion that darkness can
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dazzle, an attribute generally limited to light. He returns to his emphasis on the fact that the sun lends physical, not spiritual, light, writing that men on earth "Say it is late and dusky, because they / See not all clear." While they believe they require the daylight to see clearly, they are mistaken. As for the speaker, he waits "Oh for that night, where I in him / Might live invisible and dim!"
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