The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 680

“A Summer Night” is a lyric of ninety-six lines, divided equally into sixteen stanzas (a later version has only twelve). On a June evening, the poet-speaker lies on the lawn, looking at the constellation Vega and aware of the moon beginning to rise. He feels fortunate to be here: a place and time of erotic happiness and fertile friendships. He is an equal lying here each evening with his friends; enchanted, each is called forth, as flowers are drawn by light into fullness of blossom.

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These are experiences that will later be recalled when the friends are separated. These evenings, when beastly emotions are tame and there is no consciousness of death, will be important to remember when emotions may be violent and times are chaotic. There is one friend among these others whom the speaker regards as his beloved; their eyes exchange affection, and each is present for the other through the passing of each day.

The second phase of the poem (stanzas 6 through 12) begins when the poet becomes aware of outside pressures threatening to destroy his happiness. He considers the larger world, that part which lies under the light of the rising moon. There, many others in all their variety are also lying at rest. The moon, however, looks down impersonally upon all objects, not discriminating between “churches and power stations,” not capable of enjoying the art that its light illuminates in the great galleries of Europe. Indeed, the moon is unable to respond to anything except gravity.

Somewhat like the moon itself, the poet and his friends look out from their island of happy contentment as if from a garden secure against the pains and sufferings that exist in the world. In their tranquillity of love, the friends do not know, and do not want to know, about the threats to Poland or anywhere else in the world. They do not want to think what might be in store for England; they indulge themselves as if on “picnics in the sun.”

Inside the wall of their garden, the friends are protected from the sight of “gathering multitudes” whose physical distress is separated from the happy friends’ metaphysical debates and limited charity. Even as he distinguishes his garden retreat from the world outside, the speaker is aware that he and his friends are nevertheless being driven down a path that they have not chosen. Their energies have been sapped, their contentment has drained them of the power to direct their own lives. They would give all they have enjoyed from their youthful past, if they could keep alive that happy contentment forever.

In the last phase of the poem, however, their tranquillity is broken by the force of events outside their happy garden. Each of them has been made small by the overpowering flood of violence, as if each had been a river dreaming of itself as the whole reality, when suddenly the great ocean overwhelmed all and revealed how inconsiderable each really is. Each is confronted by the great and horrifying fact of death as it crashes through the “dykes of our content.” Still, even ocean floods eventually retreat. While mud yet covers the devastated landscape, some “shy green stalks” will peep through, as “stranded monsters gasping lie” scattered about the landscape. Sounds of rebuilding will disturb the monsters, but those sounds will join the sight of green wheat to promise renewal amid destruction.

The speaker imagines such a future ahead for him and his friends who lie outside this June evening. He resigns himself to loss of private happiness, accepting a future strength in the rebuilding that will come after violence. That future strength that will rise through the mud of political chaos will be the product of his own, and his friends’, present happiness in love; it will be like the happy cry of a child through whom the “drowned voices of his parents rise/ In unlamenting song.” That strength of a new civilization, like the art nourished by tradition, will be a calm after a storm, a strength born of patience and loving forgiveness.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

The short lines, repeated rhyme scheme, and brief stanzas of “A Summer Night” are appropriate for the meditative mood of carelessness that governs this poem. Despite the brief interruption of imagining apocalyptic events, the poem is a sustained reflection upon the virtues of friendship, simplicity, and provincial tranquillity. The lyric is therefore like the ode practiced by the Roman poet Horace (65-68 b.c.e.), who sang his songs of happiness in rural retreats to his farm, where he could put great historical events into controlled perspective. Such a lyric may therefore be called a Horatian ode, with its repeated brief stanzas moving through a landscape of tranquil emotion and considered thought.

The devices employed to move the poem in this way are shifts in meter to mark changes in feeling and perspective, variations in the rhymes, and links of sound by alliteration and assonance. The first stanza, to illustrate the shifts of meter, contains two strong pauses and one weak pause before stopping with the period at the end. The first strong pause, a semicolon, occurs at the end of a line, while the second occurs in the middle of a line. The second stanza offers one strong pause and four weak pauses to balance the rhythm of the first stanza. Within the simple and uniform stanzas, thus, are shifts of feeling conveyed by shifts of rhythm.

There are subtleties of rhyming to complicate the appearance of uniformity and simplicity of the aabccb scheme. Masculine rhymes (space/place) are varied with feminine ones (summer/newcomer) and mixed ones (bed/overhead). In addition, there are slant-or partial-rhymes (hiding/pleading, wretchedness/distress), which cause a wrenching of the feelings beneath the prevailing tranquillity. Finally, harmonies of sound within stanzas are made by echoing consonants and vowels: In the third stanza, the consonants of “equal” link “colleagues” and “calm,” while the vowel of “with” links “in” and “sit”; the play of these links continues in “light” and “hiding,” “light,” “leaves,” and “logic,” and “leaves” and “pleading.”

In addition, image as symbol is a major device in the poem’s development. The image of the moon, which is barely noticed (by the poet’s “feet”) in the first stanza, becomes prominent in stanza 6, where a new phase of awareness begins and where the speaker’s imagination is identified with the moon’s light. Sunlight provides a balancing image, hinted at early as the power forcing flowers into blossom and late as the energy summoning wheat from the mud of devastation. Similar balancing of images, to create a rounded or symmetrical form to the poem as a whole, appears in the mention of “lion griefs” early and “tigressmotions” late, “forest of green” early and “shy green stalks” late.

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