Analysis of the Poem "Night Sweat" by Robert Lowell
Robert Lowell and a Summary of "Night Sweat"
"Night Sweat" focuses on what it is to be a human experiencing doubt, anguish and fear. This is a kind of nightmare scenario turned inside out and upside down. The environment is quite 'real', as is the creeping damp, but the inner feeling comes over as unreal.
Childhood memory mixes with creative angst, animal symbolism competes with the act of sweating and the overall feel for the reader is one of dreaded fascination. Here is a speaker becoming intimately personal before heading off into the realms of zoomorphism.
Watch out for interesting use of alliteration, assonance, metaphor and simile as the speaker gradually reveals himself to the light of day. Although the poem is a single stanza of 28 lines, it may well have been two individual sonnets before the poet, a restless reviser, decided to weld them together. The poet explains:
'In a way a poem is never finished. It simply reaches a point where it isn't worth any more alteration, where any further tampering is liable to do more harm than good.' —Robert Lowell in an interview with Stanley Kunitz, New York Times, 1964.
There are strong, dark images within which combine with a sense of foreboding and spiritual unrest. Here is a mature man wrestling with his thoughts and feelings, thankful for help and guidance from his close family. As Lowell himself said:
'Poetry can come out of utterly miserable or disorderly lives, as in the case of a Rimbaud or a Hart Crane. But to make the poems possible a huge amount of health has to go into the misery.' —Robert Lowell in an interview with Stanley Kunitz, New York Times, 1964.
Robert Lowell is best known for his so-called confessional poetry, which helped influence such poets as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton (who Lowell taught briefly at Boston University in the 1950s), but he also wrote sonnets and historical poems.
This poem was published in 1964 in his book For The Union Dead. It is often compared and contrasted with a poem called "The Man With Night Sweats" by Thom Gunn.
Work-table, litter, books and standing lamp,
plain things, my stalled equipment, the old broom—
but I am living in a tidied room,
for ten nights now I've felt the creeping damp
float over my pajamas' wilted white . . .
Sweet salt embalms me and my head is wet,
everything streams and tells me this is right;
my life's fever is soaking in night sweat—
one life, one writing! But the downward glide
and bias of existing wrings us dry—
always inside me is the child who died,
always inside me is his will to die—
one universe, one body . . . in this urn
the animal night sweats of the spirit burn.
Behind me! You! Again I feel the light
lighten my leaded eyelids, while the gray
skulled horses whinny for the soot of night.
I dabble in the dapple of the day,
a heap of wet clothes, seamy, shivering,
I see my flesh and bedding washed with light,
my child exploding into dynamite,
my wife . . . your lightness alters everything,
and tears the black web from the spider's sack,
as your heart hops and flutters like a hare.
Poor turtle, tortoise, if I cannot clear
the surface of these troubled waters here,
absolve me, help me, Dear Heart, as you bear
this world's dead weight and cycle on your back.
In this section, we'll look at the poem line-by-line to try to gain a more intimate understanding of its content.
The reader is introduced to things—a short list of solid objects, furniture in a room used for working, a lamp, books—the usual stuff a writer needs for the daily grind. They're all wrapped up in pentameter—10 syllables, with trochees to the fore (stress on the first syllable of a foot, such as litter).
It seems there's nothing special about these things; they're plain enough. But what about the equipment? Is it stalled, broken or about to be mended? Or is it simply paused? Something that should be working isn't?
Here we see hesitant syntax, we might say, lots of commas and a dash at the line end—the reader is being gently shown around the room, this space.
The first person speaker appears. I am. 'I think therefore I am', said Descartes. The mind exists to convince the body it is so.
And this speaker knows he is living and that the room is tidied, which suggests that this is a relief after the litter of the first line. But has the speaker used the old broom to do the tidying up himself? We don't know yet.
Lines 4 and 5
The atmosphere changes; we're taken into the speaker's confidence as he reveals ten nights worth of creeping damp, oh dear, affecting his white pajamas, which are wilting like something organic—like the leaves of a plant.
Note the enjambment, when a line flows on into the next without punctuation to pause it, carrying the sense on. This speaker is uncomfortable; that's an uncomfortable image the reader is given.
And so far, all of the lines are pentameters, with a mix of feet: iambic, trochaic, pyrrhic and spondaic. For example:
but I / am liv / ing in / a tid / ied room,
for ten / nights now / I've felt / the creep / ing damp
float ov / er my / paja / mas wilt / ed white . . .
Alliteration and sibilance color this line (me and my, Sweet salt) as the graphic images become more intense and slightly disturbing. What about that word embalms suggesting that the speaker feels dead or in need of preserving as the sweat surrounds him in his bed.
It's cerebral, man! His head is wet. He's having to think too much; his dreaming is heavy; he's working out as he sleeps, making his in-built thermostat work overtime.
This line is a little more obscure. Everything streams. does this mean that he feels as if he's on a river? In a river? Feels that his sweating is so profuse it creates the sensation of watery flow?
Whatever it is, the messages he's getting—the feedback from these sweats—is a positive one. That is some relief at this point in time.
Lines 8 and 9
His life is running a temperature; something's getting too hot and he's having to sweat at night to douse the flame and cool himself off.
His life is totally focussed on writing and it is this that is making him sweat. Perhaps he has deadlines; maybe it's just the internal agony of having to wrestle with thoughts all day long then having to get them in the right order so that life runs smoothly.
But there is a catch. He's writing his life; life is writing, for him, but it is existence—being—that is wringing (the way you would squeeze a cloth out dry). It's not only him but a collective us . . . so he's gone from concentrating on himself to including everyone else? or the people he's living with? His family?
Lines 11 and 12
And there is now a psycho-emotional element to ponder as the speaker goes into his past by stating that his inner child is no more . . . such a thing to say. We know that Lowell did have his mental issues, being manic-depressive and having to take medication over many years.
These lines are contradictory or complementary depending . . . there is the child who died; there is the will that lives to die. It seems the inner child isn't happy being dead or is still willing to die and can't quite manage it because life keeps getting in the way, and the writing has to be done. This is an integral part of his psyche.
Lines 13 and 14
All is one. His body is an urn (again associated with death and funerals) burning up at night and turning his emotions to ash.
The internal monologue intensifies, the speaker waking up but not quite into consciousness as the light affects his eyes and he conjures up images of horses who are not happy in the day but long for the darkness of night.
What do these animals represent? They must be symbols, of the speaker's instincts, active as he sleeps, producing the sweat with their presence.
Lines 18 and 19
He is definitely awake now, the alliterative dabble-dapple-day straight out of a Gerrard Manley Hopkins poem.
There he is in his sweaty clothes, shivering as if he just got out of a cold bath, becoming acutely aware that he is a creature of flesh and blood.
The daylight takes to the stage, he's feeling washed by the light, focusing in on the bed, that sweaty pool he must swim in at night.
A quicksilver change in the next line sees a child...his child by marriage or his inner child? It's difficult to know at first but the following line, with mention of his wife, seems to infer that this child of line 21 is his actual flesh and blood offspring.
There is great energy in this child exploding into dynamite....wow.
And the wife becomes the source of change, positive change, getting rid of the black web...a metaphorical web...straight from the spider's sack as she busies herself in a hare-like manner (note the simile flutters like a hare).
This is becoming a menagerie of a poem, with horses, spiders and hares so far appearing.
The final animal to make it out of the night sweat is the turtle or tortoise (a tortoise is a land turtle) which according to the Hindu religion, which is full of animal symbology, is the creature carrying the world on its back. It is also related to water, music and children in Greek mythology.
The gist of these final four lines is that the wife is the one who can relieve the burdens of the day, life's baggage, for the speaker. She is the one entrusted with the weight, the dead weight, and only she can absolve ( declare guilt free) him.
He is also saying that he is struggling to keep his head above water, because it can be choppy and he isn't so strong when life gets challenging.
Analysis of Rhyme
Night Sweat is a rhyming poem and seems to have started life as a conventional sonnet, with the first 14 lines having a rhyme scheme:
These are all full rhymes which bring familiar closure to lines and because they are all single syllable rhymes, reinforces the inevitability of the night sweats and their effects.
The following 14 lines retain the basic full rhyme scheme but the familiar pattern is changed:
As is evident, the full rhyme of white/right from lines 5 and 7 carries on into lines 15, 17, 20 and 21, with fresh full rhymes continuing on to the end. Note the three syllable rhymes, full, of shivering/everything in lines 19 and 22. This all adds up to a much more complex reading and listening exercise for the reader.
- The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005
- 100 Essential Modern Poems, Joseph Parisi, Ivan Dee, 2005
- The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997
© 2020 Andrew Spacey