Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546

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“Night and Morning” has three main themes. Modern individuals of thought and education find it difficult to hold on to traditional religious beliefs; moreover, the modern Church has failed to keep alive the faith of the past, because the modern Church does not foster intellectual inquiry. Finally, modern individuals suffer from internal conflicts of self-division, hidden under the same cloak of hypocrisy that afflicts the institution of the Church itself.

These themes are developed in ironic and self-critical ways. Intellect should be laid to rest during the sleep of night, but instead it asserts itself to challenge faith. Ironically, at night the speaker can most fully identify with the suffering Christ, because the speaker suffers most at night from his pain of doubt. The Church, like the priest, turns its back not only on the people of the congregation, but also on its own history; its “many councils and decrees/ Have perished,” partly because they did not address individual needs, partly because they did not educate simple minds, and partly because they were merely abstractions without force to survive uncomprehending persons who submitted without thought—“gave obedience to the knee.” Instead of keeping Europe “astir/ With echo of learned controversy,” the Church has acquiesced to a passive authoritarianism.

The consequence of that acquiescence, for a person of thought, is unbearable agony. Unable to believe in miracles and mysteries entirely, yet unable to refuse belief entirely, the speaker resigns himself to sharp self-division: He goes through the motions, like other “appointed shadows,” gives “obedience to the knee,” and observes “the miracle” in which “God was made man once more.” At night, however, after the “dreadful candle” is snuffed, he will know once again “the injured pride of sleep.”

The meaning produced by this mixture of themes is that the modern mind suffers beneath the appearance of conformity to public ritual. It goes on with the appearance, wearing “a borrowed robe,” because it does not have a more certain answer to spiritual questions. It yearns for the vitality of a past when thought and belief were one, but in the present that yearning is felt as a burden, not a relief, of history. Read again after one has finished the final stanza, “Night and Morning” grows in power and complication. The first stanza reads with more pain, more even than the pain of the suffering body of Christ, because the speaker cannot be relieved by the Passion and sacrifice—he can only be tormented, like Christ himself. Night brings more suffering, with confession of unbelief, to the morning, with its confession of belief. Darkness of night produces enlightenment within the speaker; light of morning conceals an interior darkness of soul.

These themes are elaborated with variations by the ten lyrics that follow “Night and Morning” in Austin Clarke’s Night and Morning collection of 1938: from the ironies of celebrating Holy Week as the shadows of “Tenebrae,” through the thoughtless, almost inhuman ritual observances of “Martha Blake,” to the unholy madness exhibited when the “heavens opened” to reveal deep darkness in “Summer Lightning.” Such themes and such poems represented a significant turn in the career of Clarke; he pressed more of his painful emotions more often into such bitter and ironic lyrics as those introduced by “Night and Morning.”