& theory
Literature &
night (spaces)
Bio: Robert
Literature and Night (Spaces)

Night in the Literary Imagination

Among a range of possible actions, the darkness of night affects how and what people can know, as well as where and how they can act. Indeed, the night mediates the practices of social power (including associated norms) as well as political authority. Even epistemological clarity is affected, for humans base at least a large part of their knowledge on observation and inferences from observations (including measurements via instruments). Consequently, the idea of the night has no one meaning, and the quotidian (and spatial) activities of humans at night present us with no single type of behavior.

Literature well conveys such multiplicities. Even if not explicitly, literary works implicate the spatiality of the night in various ways. Let a few themes, authors, and literary works — presented below with external links to full texts — suffice to illustrate my point.

— Robert W. Williams, Ph.D.  (Bio

1. Night can symbolize love; the embodied anticipation of love; or even the mysteries of love:

• Lord Byron: "She Walks in Beauty" ("...like the night")

• Robert Browning: "Meeting at Night"

• Rabindranath Tagore: Stray Birds

2. But night is also a time and a place of forbidden passions when the proper order of society is contravened:

• William Shakespeare: "Romeo and Juliet"

3. Night is a time and a space for rest, for then and there we are where we should be, such as snuggled safely in our homes with those we love:

• William Blake: "Night"

• Paul Laurence Dunbar: "Good-Night"

• Sappho: "To Evening" (Appleton translation)
HathiTrust  [Poem viewable online in a page-facsimile format]

• Leopold Senghor: "Night in Sine"

• Jean Toomer: "Evening Song"
Archive.org  [Poem viewable online in a page-facsimile format]

4. Night's time can place friends and comrades together in jovial fellow­ship; or it can distance us from our neighbors, especially in the distorting light of our encounters:

• Shakespeare: Henry IV (Scene IV at the Boar's-Head Tavern)

• Rainer Maria Rilke: "People at Night" ("Menschen bei Nacht")
[YouTube: Read in German by Oskar Werner; English subtitles]

5. Night places, even places at dusk, evoke the vital human capacity to imagine, whether it is an imagination that weaves life-changing tales, or one that leads us beyond differences, divergences, and distances:

A Thousand Nights and a Night (i.e., 1001 Nights, or Arabian Nights)
Search for different versions at the Internet Archive

• Walt Whitman: "On the Beach at Night Alone"

• Robert Frost: "Afield at Dusk"

6. Night may not bring the repose of oblivion from the day's travails; or may bring oblivion, but not repose; or may herald neither repose nor oblivion:

• Charles Baudelaire: "Harmonie du soir" ("Evening Harmony")

• Anna Sexton: "The Starry Night"

• Dylan Thomas: "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night"

7. And night for some can contain the terrifying "night-spaces" of home:

• Rainer Maria Rilke: "Third Duino Elegy"

8. Or perhaps night is not contained or even containable:

• Jorge Luis Borges: "History of the Night" ("Historia de la Noche")

9. Night provides us with the transgressive spaces of criminality:

• Edgar Allen Poe: "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"

• Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Sherlock Holmes stories
Search-results page at Project Gutenberg

10. And night is double-edged, for just as night as time-in-space can mediate social oppression, it also can provide the space-in-time by which to challenge that injustice.

• Charlotte Perkins Gilman: "The Yellow Wallpaper"

• Edwin Arlington Robinson: "The Children of the Night"

• June Jordan: "Poem about My Rights"

11. Night evokes social disorder when the day and its sunlight — profound symbols of knowledge and order in the Western world — give way to darkness and the social chaos it (re)presents:

• Lord Byron: "Darkness"

• Isaac Asimov: "Nightfall" (1941)
www.uni.edu/morgans/astro/course/nightfall.pdf  [New link: 9-24-15]
[1951 radio adaptation of "Nightfall" by NBC's Dimension X radio series: YouTube (28 minutes, 36 seconds)]

12. Indeed, night can be an abode of evil that potentially undermines an ethical stability of diurnal reality:

• Nathaniel Hawthorne: "Young Goodman Brown"

13. Here and now in the domains of night we find horror incarnate stalking:

• John William Polidori: The Vampyre

• Mary Shelley: Frankenstein
Search-results page at www.archive.org, the Internet Archive

• Bram Stoker: Dracula
Search-results page at www.archive.org, the Internet Archive

14. The things of the night (en)counter a scientific rationality that seeks to make all things knowable and technologically controllable. Here then are the places swayed by the supernatural and the uncanny:

• Horace Walpole: "The Castle of Otranto"

• Rabindranath Tagore: "The Hungry Stones"

• H.P. Lovecraft: "The Unnamable"

15. In the night there are places where and when socio-sexual norms may be less than normative for the protagonist.

• Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "Christabel"

16. The night can symbolize the profound melancholy of human existence, where there is no dawn to offer hope and purpose in life, or perhaps where the dawn seems far distant in time and place.

• James Thomson: "The City of Dreadful Night"
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1238   (Archive.org)

• Robert Frost: "Acquainted with the Night"

17. Night can symbolize death, and before that, the inexorable decline of youth's capacities in our embodied (our em-placed) selves. Yet poets may still challenge us to understand how life's evanescence imparts meaningfulness to our relations with others in the world.

• William Shakespeare: "Sonnet LXXIII"

• Alfred, Lord Tennyson: "Ulysses"

• James Weldon Johnson: "Mother Night"

Thus do the meanings of the night, emerging in their myriad of forms from human imaginations and practices, counterbalance — sometimes even contravene — attempts to incorporate the darkness into one-dimensional logics.

www.robertwilliams.org/ns/nsliterature.html Rev. 9-24-15