Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683
“Eyes of Night-Time” is a full-throated song about the beauty of night and darkness. This short poem in free verse expresses the poet’s awe over nature’s beauty at night. The first stanza describes with passionate wonder the creatures that see in the dark. In the second stanza, the poet considers what human beings may see in the darkness, or what the darkness may reveal to them.
For Muriel Rukeyser, “night-time” has strong metaphorical connections to the human spirit’s darkness or hidden truths. The poem, while offering minute observations on nature at night, also deals with self-examination and attempts to comment on human nature in general. Speaking in the first person, as if recalling a recent experience, the poet describes in the first stanza what she saw “On the roads at night.” Nighttime, traditionally a time of openness and reflection, allowed her to see “the glitter of eyes.” Eyes are often thought of as windows to the soul or entryways into the inner life of another being. Much communication occurs through the eyes alone. Thus these eyes of nighttime creatures are potentially the bearers of important messages. Each might be an entrance point for understanding some mystery of nature or its beauty.
The poet enters a nighttime temperament, one of free-ranging thought and expression. She confides that “my dark around me let shine one ray.” This ray could be interpreted as her inner light, which is responding to the “spangles” and “eye shine” of the creatures whose eyes she sees. She is attempting to connect somehow with nature, and the intensity of her descriptions indicates how urgently she is doing so.
The sight of the “horned toad sitting and its tear of blood” (a horned toad does actually squirt blood from its eyes to cleanse them), however, causes her thoughts to turn to people: the “fighters and prisoners in the forest.” This image alludes to the violence in human nature, which is often wanton, unlike nature’s violence of necessity. The image “tear of blood” is a riveting evocation of suffering.
She ends her reverie in this stanza with a hint of irony. Like the forest’s animals, people are “aware in this almost total dark.” That is, they have the capacity to see and feel harmony as they look into the blackness. What makes humans different, however, is “the one broad fact of light.” This light is human intelligence, or more precisely, self-awareness, a faculty that animals lack. Nature’s creatures do not analyze themselves, and they are supposedly emotionless, with “eyes that never weep,” but they have a sort of advantage: They live in a natural state of grace, while intelligent humans are often “fighters and prisoners” by choice—battling themselves and one another. The poet observes that self-consciousness does not necessarily provide human beings with happiness or harmony.
The second stanza continues to describe the creature-and shadow-filled forest at night, expanding to include sky and water: “the illumined shadow sea” and “eyes of the brittle stars.” The fifth line shifts in setting and perspective: The poet is now addressing another person, someone close to her. This person’s eyes shine in a “shadowy red room” that nature suddenly floods—so freely and seductively that the room seems not to have walls or ceiling:
scent of the forest entering, various timecalling and the light of wood along the ceilingand over us birds calling and their circuit eyes.
The two seem immersed in a natural world—it practically inhabits them. In fact, in the last two lines, the poet reveals that they are inhabited: They have in their “bodies the eyes of the dead and the living.” These spirits offer gifts, like knowledge handed down from generation to generation.
This wisdom from the ancestors (like nature’s wisdom) comes to those who are receptive. The poet’s receptivity has been heightened by her awareness of the harmonic natural world, her courage to explore her own spiritual night, and her apparently loving relationship with another human being. The poem is actually a travelogue of self-examination prompted by a meditation on nature.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 363
In many of her poems, Rukeyser relies on a fabric woven of imagery and rhythm to provide formal unity. The Green Wave (1948), in which “Eyes of Night-Time” first appeared, contains other poems in which she experimented with her powers of observation and concentrated on new rhythms. Rukeyser preferred not to use traditional forms or patterns of fixed rhyme and meter. She wanted a poetry in which the material would generate its own form. Therefore, rhythm—the cadence, pace, and momentum of the line—was important to her. The music of the poem ought to allow it to echo and suggest—perhaps reproduce—the natural rhythms of the world she was attempting to describe.
The rhythm of stanza 1, for example, in which she describes the nighttime forest lit up by shining eyes as she passes by, is quick-paced as she recites her vision. The stanza is one sentence, which runs headlong, almost hurtling, toward a complete and sudden stop. Except for two pronounced pauses (suggesting uncertainty) near the beginning, the phrases cascade along as the rich physical details pile up. The rhythm conveys her excitement.
This technique is repeated in stanza 2, but the rhythm is different: The first four lines, in the ebb and flow of the accent and intonation of the words, create the sound of waves lapping the seashore. The rhythm suggests nature’s rich flow, the perpetual outpouring in which the poet lets herself plunge.
The long exhalation of images in “the shadowy red room” creates the sound of ecstatic release. In addition, the rushing phrases linked with “and” four times might suggest the sound of animals darting through the brush, or the rhythm of the eye lights blinking randomly like fireflies. The repetition of “eyes” here and earlier in the poem adds to that effect.
In the poem, images of light and dark intertwine; points of light continually pierce the darkness. These emerging lights represent, as images of light often do in poetry, possible revelations of truth. The play between dark and light, shadow and eye shine, gives the poem both tension and balance. Dark things bear light: “the illumined shadow sea” and “the light of wood” are two examples.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 61
Ciardi, John. Mid-Century American Poets. New York: Twayne, 1950.
Herzog, Anne F., and Janet E. Kaufman, eds. How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet? The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
Kertesz, Louise. The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
Moss, Howard. The Poet’s Story. New York: Macmillan, 1973.