The Shadow of Night Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

The Shadow of Night, George Chapman’s first extant published work, has come to be thought of as the spiritual father of the Metaphysical school of English poetry. The book includes two separate long poems: “Hymnus in Noctem,” and “Hymnus in Cynthiam.” Both are highly allegorical and difficult by reason of their complex and allusive style. Two main themes of both poems are the celebration of intellect and the lamentation of worldly injustice. Many scholars have assumed that THE SHADOW OF NIGHT was a poetic manifesto of a group of poets and intellectuals (including Chapman, Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, and several others) who were characterized by a desire to push reason and science to the point of atheism. Shakespeare is said to have satirized this group in LOVE’S LABOR’S LOST, and to have called it “the school of night.” Despite the fact that these men knew one another and undoubtedly shared many unusual ideas, the school of night as such is probably the invention of modern scholars whose conclusions are based on some striking but inadequate evidence. Chapman’s THE SHADOW OF NIGHT should be read as an expression of his own attitudes and early poetic interests; that is, it should be read on its own terms.

Chapman was a believer in the Platonic doctrine that true poetry is divinely inspired; and he was also convinced that most men of his day were incapable of achieving such inspiration or, for that matter, of understanding it. They were light-minded and also ill-educated, he thought. Chapman believed himself to be one of the inspired elite who through inspiration gained insight into higher truth. He was essentially an intellectual poet, and his major poetic problem was to translate his abstract ideas into directly apprehensible poetic feeling; much of the difficulty we still find in Chapman’s poetry is a product of his trying to re-create his thought as feeling through poetry. His thought is “dark” and to a large extent non-rational (not irrational), and thus his poetry is, in appearance at least, dark and non-rational. Moreover, a certain degree of darkness and mystery, Chapman felt, was necessary to true poetry. Those who are incapable of penetrating its mystery, he claimed, would be incapable of understanding it even if it were explained to them.

Chapman’s poetic, intellectual, and moral position is outlined in his brief dedication to The Shadow of Night, “To my Dear and Most Worthy Friend, Master Mathew Roydon.” Only an exceeding rapture of delight in the pursuit of knowledge, says Chapman, can enable a man to endure the difficulties of true and deep study. Only thus motivated may a man hope to overcome ignorance and achieve judgment. Since this is true, how ridiculous it is to see average, passion-driven men who read books merely for delight and who take as the basis of judgment the fancies of the great and pass critical judgment on the work of true seekers after knowledge. How foolish it is, he continues, for such men who look on literature as a pretty toy to think that they can understand the “skill” (art) of one who learns the secrets of Skill through making his soul the heavenly familiar of Skill. Most men are full of the immoral...

(The entire section is 1328 words.)