Literary Analysis of the poem "Hymn to the Night", by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, applying the "New Criticism" approach.
Imagery: The imagery of the hymn is very rich and diverse. Longfellow uses a lot of personifications, similes, metaphors, and other literary figures to create the aesthetic atmosphere of the poem.
Personification: The most widely used device of the poem is personification. The central image of the poem is the Night that is a personification of the beloved woman. Personification is used through the whole poem: the Night has clothes ("the trailing garments" and "sable skirts"). Moreover, the Night is spelled with the capital letter like a person's name. In the fifth stanza the poet describes it as a human being: "Oh holy Night!... Thou layest thy fingers on the lips of Care...", and the Night is like a wise teacher who consoles the poet. Moreover, the Night is a kind of divine force.
The adjective "holy" contributes to the image of the Night as a saintly and pure woman. In the last stanza the Night is the most beloved woman, divine, heavenly beautiful, pure and fair. It even has wings like an angel: "Descend with broad-winged flight". The comparison of the Night with the beloved woman is kept throughout the poem.
Longfellow does not ignore even "little" words, he enriches even the simplest and the humblest of them. The definite article before the Night contributes to the meaning of the poem in general and to the image of the Night in particular. It is always with the article and capitalized. With the help of this device the poet emphasizes personification. The Night is not an abstract phenomenon, it is a person, the beloved woman.
Metaphor: Another figure of speech that is widely used in the poem is metaphor. "The sable skirts" of the Night are "all fringed with light", so the image created by the poet is magic and light. The "perpetual peace" also flows from the fountain of cool air. This metaphor creates a feeling of calmness and pacification. The midnight air is described as contained in the cool deep cisterns. This comparison of the atmosphere to cisterns is implicit. These two comparisons work metaphorically and the meanings and associations become one.
Similes and allusions: Longfellow also uses similes when he is talking about two things at the same time. He explicitly compares the "calm, majestic presence of the Night" to the presence of "the one" he loves. She is as majestic and calm as the Night itself. In the last stanza the poet compares himself to Orestes ("Orestes-like I breathe this prayer"). This allusion to Greek mythology is very significant to the meaning of the poem. Orestes was the only son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, whose mother and her lover killed his father . He killed them in revenge. After his crime he was pursued by the Furies, and Orestes prayed to the goddess Athena for peace. So, the poet compares himself to Orestes, because he also longs for peace, for peace of mind and soul. The goddess he prays to is not Athena, it is the Night, his best beloved woman, who can console him and give repose.
There is another allusion to Homer's "Illiad", in the third line of the last stanza: "The welcome, the thrice-prayed for," which in the play is as follows: "Juno made him no answer. The sun's glorious orb now sank into Oceanus and drew down night over the land. Sorry indeed were the Trojans when light failed them, but welcome and thrice prayed for did darkness fall upon the Achaeans." (Book VIII) Paradox: Longfellow also uses such a figure of speech as a paradox. The "chambers of the Night" are filled with "sounds of sorrow and delight". These two feelings would seem impossible to combine, but in the atmosphere of the poem such a combination strikes as an extraordinary and unusual one.
Dennotation of some words: In the poem there are some words that have to be looked up in a dictionary in order to understand them, like those that follow: trail (COME AFTER) verb to (allow to) move slowly along the ground or through the air or water, after someone or something garment noun [C] FORMAL a piece of clothing sweep (MOVE) verb to move, esp. quickly and powerfully fringe (DECORATION) noun [C] a decorative edge of hanging narrow strips of material or threads on a piece of clothing or material If a piece of clothing is fringed with something, it is decorated with it.
might (POWER) noun [U] power, strength or force stoop (BEND) verb [I] to bend the top half of the body forward and down manifold (MANY) adjective LITERARY many and of several different types chime verb (of bells) to make a clear ringing sound Let the church bells chime. [I] The grandfather clock chimed nine o'clock. [T] chimes plural noun Chimes are a set of small bells, or objects that make ringing sounds.
wind chimes bear (ACCEPT) verb to accept, tolerate or endure esp. something unpleasant thrice adverb [not gradable] OLD USE three times care (WORRY) noun a feeling of worry or anxiety fair (BEAUTIFUL) adjective OLD USE (of a woman) beautiful spell (MAGIC) noun [C] spoken words which are thought to have magical power, or (the condition of being under) the influence or control of such words bear (CARRY) verb [T] SLIGHTLY FORMAL to carry and move (something) to a place In the "Hymn to the Night" there are also several words related to the Old English such as "thrice" that means three times, thou, layest, thy, thee. The author also uses different tenses, for example the past tense: "I heard the trailing garments of the Night","I saw her sable skirtsÃ¢ÂÂ¦","I felt her presence." Some lines are written in the present tense: "As of the one I love.", "The fountain of perpetual peace flows there", "And they complain no more." Connotation of some words.
Most words in the poem exploit a wide range of associations. In the second stanza we can find the words "the spell of might", and "the haunted chambers of the Night". The "spell", "haunted": the selection of such words creates a mystery, there is something magic in the air. The word "haunted" also has associations with something old and romantic. Haunted are usually ancient castles or houses; there are ghosts and spirits who remind about themselves to those whom they loved. This epithet creates the atmosphere of an old story, about far-away times and about eternal love that can never be destroyed by either distance or time.
The simile "like some old poet's rhymes" gives to this image even more romanticism and charm.
In the fourth stanza Longfellow uses the image of water: "the fountain of peace", "the spirit drank repose". The word "cisterns" usually has associations with a vessel containing spring water. In the third stanza Longfellow writes about the "manifold, soft chimes". These words are also of great significance to the atmosphere and the meaning of the poem. The word "chimes" evokes various connotations. It is something very soft and tender, something pleasantly sounding. It also connotes something divine and holy, because chimes are usually associated with church bells on special, solemn occasions.
Other comments: Longfellow also uses adjectives or phrases that express some quality or attribute which is characteristic of a person or thing. The garments of the Night are described as "trailing". The phrase creates the feeling of something soft and flowing, produces a soft low sound. The epithet "marble" that is used to describe the halls of the Night has connotations with something pure and cold. The "sable skirts" are associated with such characteristics as mournful, dark and soft. The walls of the Night are described with the help of the epithet "celestial" that connotes something divine, majestic and calm. So, the epithets in the first stanza create a feeling of softness and calmness, although there is the feeling of sorrow in the atmosphere.
In the next stanza the Night has the following description: "the calm, majestic presence of the Night". Again the poet creates the image of a divine woman, the queen of heaven or a goddess. This idea is developed further in the next stanzas with the help of phrases like: "holy Night", "the thrice-prayed for", "the most fair", "the welcome". In the last line Longfellow uses the most powerful description that reflects the key image of the poem: the Night is the "best-beloved", the only woman, saintly and pure.
Alliteration: The poet uses some poetic devices to draw a vivid picture of the poem's atmosphere. One of these devices is alliteration. For example, in the fourth stanza in the description of the sound of falling water and fountain the predominant sounds are "f", "p" and "l" ("spirit drank repose", "the fountain of perpetual peace flows there", "from those deep cisterns flows".) Here is also an example of consonance used by Longfellow: "perpetual peace". All these sounds are very soft and convey the sound of water very vividly.
Rhyme: The rhyme of the poem is in the form ABAB, as it can be seen in the following example: "I heard the trailing garments of the Night Sweep through her marble halls! I saw her sable skirts all fringed with light From the celestial walls!" Tone: The tone of the poem could be defined as a sort of admiration and veneration that there is toward a woman, who is personified as the Night. The Night is like a goddess honored, respected and above all loved.
"I felt her presence by its spell of might." "I heard the trialing garments of the Night Sweep through her marble halls! I saw her sable skirts all fringed with light From the celestial walls! Point of view: Longfellows uses the first person point of view to emphasize that he is the one who is singing this hymn to his beloved, and nobody else. "I heard the trailingÃ¢ÂÂ¦","I saw herÃ¢ÂÂ¦","I loveÃ¢ÂÂ¦" Tension: At this point, it can be understood the urgence to meet the beloved "Night" to forget about the problems, the "Night" can also be symbolized as the "peace" to console sorrows and anxiety. The tension of the poem is resolved in the last stanza.
"Peace! Peace! Orestes-like I breathe this prayer! Descend with broad-winged flight, The welcome, the thrice-prayed for, the most fair, The best-beloved Night!" Organic Unit: To conclude, it could be said that every single word in this poem becomes significant and evokes a chain of associations that contribute to the mood of the hymn and convey the poet's emotional state to the reader.