The Poem

“Night,” written in free verse, is a short poem divided into four sections, each of which is four lines long. Like many of Robert Bly’s titles, “Night” appears to be a title without pretense or philosophical complexity; the poem is, however, richer in meaning than the title indicates. Night is a time for dreamlike thought, unmoored from the world of daylight’s reason and logic. Bly’s four sections offer four visions of night’s mysteries.

The poem is written in the first person, but it moves from a particular first-person-singular speaker—Bly himself—to a more generalized first-person plural. By writing in the first-person plural—“we”—the poet takes an enormous risk, because he appears to be speaking for all humanity. When a poet says “I,” the reader must believe the speaker. When a poet says “we,” thereby including the reader in his or her pronouncement, the reader may object to the statement or worldview.

The poem begins with what appears to be an extremely logical “if/then” proposition: “If I think of a horse,” then “I feel a joy.” Bly complicates the logic, however, by appending what appears to be an odd metaphor: If he thinks of a horse he feels joyful, as if he had thought of a pirate ship. The circular movement from thought to joy and then back to thought again is counteracted by the centrifugal force in the logic of the poem that jumps from the horse in a field to a pirate ship surrounded...

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Forms and Devices

“Night” is so deceptively simple that a reader might miss the careful structuring in the poem. Generally, there is a falling away or a downward movement in each of the four sections. The first three prepare the reader for the jolt of the final macabre image of death swallowing its victim.

In the first stanza, a scene filled only with moonlight is transformed when Bly imagines a horse “wandering about sleeplessly.” The thought of this horse is immediately replaced by that of the pirate ship, and the horse’s sleeplessness gives way to the sleep-coated trees and plants and flowers in the rest of the poem. The poet proffers one thing, then takes it away. The second stanza drops from the heights of the box elder tree to the lilacs and plants and, finally, into the casket, which might already be in the ground. The third stanza recapitulates this downward movement twice: It begins with a loamy butterfly on the wing and moves downward to a granite-infested toad; it observes the crown of a tree and ends with the “earth at its root.”

This downward movement echoes the thematic transformation from joy to the eeriness of death. The concluding death of the beetle is everyone’s death, which should not come as a complete surprise. Each section tries to warn the reader by establishing this pattern of presence and disappearance, of flight and a final resting place in the earth. Each person is like the beetle skating across the water in seemingly perfect freedom, only to discover that will means nothing in the end. Each person moves from life to death as easily as this night poem shifts from the crowns of trees to the earth around their roots.

Each section of the poem enacts the death of the beetle. The poet’s imagination apparently skates along in any direction it wills, but the form of the poem belies this haphazardness. Each time the poet tries a flight of fancy, the world of death pulls him down. Night is a time when the imagination runs wild, but finally, at least in this poem, the imagination runs back to the ultimate form of night, which is death.


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