The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Night and Morning” is a short poem of thirty-six lines, divided into four stanzas with nine lines each. The title indicates the direction the poem moves—from night to morning—but also the division of feeling expressed by the speaker, who has thoughts at night that subvert his feelings in the morning.

The first stanza opens with a statement of certain knowledge, as the speaker expresses his personal identification with those who have suffered misery for hundreds of years. As in a dream, in his sleep he feels the injury of pride, the shame of mockery, and the humiliation of insult. These are elements of the suffering narrated in the Passion of Christ, as suggested by the reference to “the house of Caesar.” This identification is only partial, however, since the speaker’s thoughts are divided by doubts. The result is that he is tormented into a despair that must borrow clothing to disguise his doubts.

When morning comes, in the second stanza, the speaker goes to Mass, where he arrives with others at the appointed hour. He observes the celebration of Holy Eucharist (Holy Communion) as a ritual of mere appearances: There is no awesome transformation of the wafer and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The priest turns his back on his congregation when he adores his God. The speaker still feels his spiritual torment, even after Mass, even after the saints have all been celebrated.

In his continuing torment, the speaker recalls in the third stanza how humble acts of faith in the past have annihilated the complications of thought and deliberation. He recalls that many have labored, in great intellectual discourses, from rostrums, in early morning hours of composition, to lift simple life into heights of significance. All those labors, however, are now as forgotten as are the many intellectual martyrs who sought to restore truths of dead languages (including Latin) into living ideas.

Finally, in the last stanza, the speaker celebrates the time when, long ago, Europe was alive with intellectual debate and followed the lead of logic. Then the reality of heaven united with the reality of earth; human beings felt whole, proud, and united in their communion with one another. In that time, faith was a product of intellectual commitment, as divinity shared its being with humanity: “God was made man once more.”

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Night and Morning” is both a form of confession and an internal debate. It uses metaphors and allusion within a framework of irony to make its meaning rich and complex. As a confession, it may be spoken to a priest, or a psychoanalyst, but it is confessional mainly in an ironic sense: What ought to be confessed, loss of faith, cannot be confessed to those with faith. It can only be expressed, or confessed, to one’s self. In this respect, the poem has the form of a debate between body and soul, with a translation of the disputants into “thought” and “belief.”

Biblical and church (Roman Catholic) allusions give the poem context and orientation. “The house of Caesar” of stanza 1 is countered by “the nave,” “the altar,” “adoring priest,” and “the congregation” of the second stanza. Kneeling and Holy Communion (Eucharist) allude to church ritual in the third stanza, continued into the final stanza with its “choir” and making of God into man. The poem alludes to specific biblical events from the New Testament and the church calendar, beginning with the Passion of Christ in the first stanza, All Saints’ Day in the second, “cock-rise” and “miracle that raisedthe dead” in the third (as references to the Resurrection and the raising of Lazarus). Historical allusions are broadened in the third stanza, with “councils and decrees” (such as the Council of Trent) and scholastic debates of the Middle Ages and...

(The entire section is 477 words.)