"Night"

Joseph Wicksteed's 1928 reading of "Night" posits that although the poem begins in the natural world, it progresses into the "symbolical and spiritual" realms of cryptic "Blakean meaning" in which the wild beasts represent the passions.

In 1959, Robert F. Gleckner analyzes the psychology of the angels in "Night" and suggests that they are acting out the idea of "innocent" sympathy (towards both lion and lamb) as expressed in "On Another's Sorrow." Gleckner also posits the divine innocence of the natural order (the lion and the wolf preying on the lamb) in the poem.

Hazard Adams' 1963 reading addresses the complexity of "Night" (as well as of Blake's other "lullabies") that results from the "speaker's attempt to join the natural and supernatural--two concepts which to the child have never been apart." Adams also suggests that the voice of the adult speaker/singer is touched with "melancholy or pathos."

Harold Bloom (1963) suggests that this melancholy is a result of the adult's awareness of how precarious the harmony created by the state of innocence can be. Bloom also points out the "gentle irony" suggested by the poem: to achieve a higher state of innocence, the natural and the supernatural must necessarily by severed.

E.D. Hirsch (1964) also addresses the issue of innocence asserting that "Night" is "emphatically a poem of Innocence, for Innocence unlike Experience is much concerned with the fact of death." Hirsch also argues that the speaker is a bit "tenditious" and points out the Biblical references in the final stanzas of the poem. He offers a brief discussion of the designs, interpreting the first illustration as "primarily decorative" and the second as "an image of eternity."

D.G. Gillham's 1966 reading offers a discussion of this eternity as it is presented in the text, an eternity in which divine care awaits not just man, but all creatures. Gillham argues that this divine care is an amplification of the care suggested in "The Ecchoing Green" and "The Shepherd." He also argues that "Night" is significant because it is one of the few poems in Songs of Innocence in which the supernatural (the Angels) is mentioned and given a specific identity. Gillham also points out that although the innocent are aware of harm and death, those forces do not threaten their faith.

Furthermore, Gillham contends that Gleckner's 1959 "natural argument" is a distortion, arguing instead that the natural order is simply "not at issue in the poem." Gillham, instead, suggests that what is at issue is the nature of love. Gillham also discusses the "new world" of the poem claiming that it is simply an extension of the "virtues of delight" of the earthy world, citing as evidence of the earthliness of new world, the fact that the lambs must still be guarded by the lion against some "unspecified disaster."

However, Geoffrey Keynes' 1967 reading argues that the poem introduces "the cruelty of Nature" only to point out the "promise of its disappearance" in the next world.

Eben Bass' 1970 discussion of the "serenity" suggested by the strong vertical lines of the tree trunks in the illustrations for "Night" suggests a similarly positive reading of the poem.

In a reading of the poem that focuses on the theme of sexual experience (1973), David Wagenknecht suggests the poem's complexity and ambiguity pointing out that the speaker's identity is conflated with that of the lion. Wagenknecht also offers an interpretation of the five figures in the second illustration as representations of the five senses which form a "collective protagonist analogous to the lion-protagonist of the first picture."

In his brief treatment of the poem in 1973, Gillham reiterates his notions about the nature of love as expressed in the poem and suggests that the speaker is a child whose "innate charity inclines him to find the ideas [expressed in the poem] credible and significant."

Like Gillham, Zachary Leader (1981) compares the ideas expressed in "Night" to those of "The Ecchoing Green" and "The Shepherd" in a detailed explication of both the text and illustrations of "Night." Like Gillham, Leader acknowledges that the poem "makes no attempt to explain away or deny [the] suffering" that fails to undermine the faith and "innocent vision" of the speaker. Leader also reconciles the seemingly problematic eyes of the lion which are both ruddy and tear-filled concluding that heaven is a bit earthly, "a place of tears" (similar to Gillham's 1966 interpretation of heaven as being fraught with danger). Like Bloom (1963), Leader suggests that these tears are caused by an awareness of the "fragility of innocence." Gillham concludes that the poem "only seems to be saying that this world must be transcended in order for the innocent vision to triumph. What it actually suggests is quite the opposite: we must look here on earth for our angels and heavens."

Leader makes a similar argument about the illustrations (both of which suggest serenity) discussing the incongruity between "surface appearance and reality." Leader suggests that the lion of the first plate might be the natural lion who becomes supernatural through lying down with the lambs. He also points out the ambiguity of the five figures in plate two: they can be interpreted either as humans or as angels. Leader suggests that the such ambiguity prevents "us not only from lapsing into an easy acceptance of an other-worldly heaven, but also from denying that there is something heavenly or divine in the innocent virtues of this world."

Heather Glen's 1983 reading of "Night" as Blake's exploration of what twentieth- century sociologists refer to as "marginal . . . experiences of 'fundamental anxiety' which threaten the mutual reassurances of the society most" cites the incidents and ideas that inspire the panic in An Island in the Moon as examples of such marginal experience. Glen also discusses the Swedenborgian concept in which night is linked with faith, a metaphor with which Blake was familiar. Glen further argues that "Night" is constructed from various elements of other poems from Songs of Innocence, and therefore offers a sense of "formal resolution."

Larrissy (1985) discusses "Night" in conjunction with "The Little Boy Found" as a poem of "illusory comfort" which is similar to society's "mutual reassurances" about which Glen writes. According to Larrissy, these poems point out that seeking such comfort can be "debilitating and enslaving" citing as support an aphorism from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps."

Stanley Gardner (1986) discusses the capacity of the symbols in "Night" to express their "conceptual contraries" pointing out that the lion's strength is associated with meekness. He also argues that the lion in "Night" is an "extended 'contrary'" to the lion in "The Little Girl Lost" and that "Night" can be read as an extension of the ideas begun in "The Ecchoing Green" and "Nurse's Song." Gardner also suggests that although the speaker is often interpreted as the poet, the voice is actually that of a child. In his discussion of the illustrations, Gardner again refutes popular critical opinion claiming that the figure in the first plate is not the poet, but is the Savior.

Rodney Baine (1986) also discusses the positive nature of the "Redeemed lion" arguing that it is linked with the tiger and the wolf in order to emphasize their bloodlust and "cruelty."

In her substantial 1990 reading of "Night" that problematizes the poem's "innocent vision," Norma Greco argues against readings of the poem as a "celebration of the transcendent harmony of Innocence." She argues that the relationship between the text and its illustrations is a dialectic resulting in the exposure of the speaker's "spiritual error." She also interprets the "symbolic movement" between the two illustrations as the movement toward "spiritual loss in the very process of [the speaker's] Christian 'redemption'."

--Lydia Whitt (December 1995)

Works Cited

Adams, Hazard. William Blake: A Reading of the Shorter Poems. Seattle: U Washington P, 1963.

Baine, Rodney. The Scattered Portions. Athens, GA: privately printed, 1986.

Bloom, Harold. Blake's Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1963.

Gardner, Stanley. Blake's Innocence and Experience Retraced. London: Athlone, 1986.

Gillham, D.G. Blake's Contrary States: The Songs of Innocence and of Experience as Dramatic Poems. Cambridge: UP, 1966.

Gillham, D.G. William Blake. Cambridge: UP, 1973.

Gleckner, Robert F. The Piper and the Bard: A Study of William Blake. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1959.

Glen, Heather. Vision and Disenchantment: Blake's Songs and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads. Cambridge: UP, 1983.

Greco, Norma. "The Problematic Vision of Innocence: A View From Night." Dalhousie Review 70.1 (Spring 1990): 40-51.

Hirsch, E.D. Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to William Blake. Chicago: UP, 1964.

Keynes, Geoffrey. Commentary. Songs of Innocence and of Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. By William Blake. 1789,1794. New York: Orion, 1967.

Larrissy, Edward. William Blake. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985.

Leader, Zachary. Reading Blake's Songs. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.

Wagenknecht, David. Blake's Night: William Blake and the Idea of the Pastoral. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1973.

Wicksteed, Joseph H. Blake's Innocence and Experience. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1928.