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James Weldon Johnson's "Mother Night"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

Introduction and Text of "Mother Night"

James Weldon Johnson's "Mother Night," a Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet, metaphorically dramatizes night as the calm union of the soul with the divine Oversoul. The speaker, influenced by Eastern as well as Christian philosophical tenets, is drawing a parallel between the conflict of day and night in the cosmos and his own struggle with the pairs of opposites in his earthly sojourn.

Mother Night

Eternities before the first-born day,
Or ere the first sun fledged his wings of flame,
Calm Night, the everlasting and the same,
A brooding mother over chaos lay.
And whirling suns shall blaze and then decay,
Shall run their fiery courses and then claim
The haven of the darkness whence they came;
Back to Nirvanic peace shall grope their way.

So when my feeble sun of life burns out,
And sounded is the hour for my long sleep,
I shall, full weary of the feverish light,
Welcome the darkness without fear or doubt,
And heavy-lidded, I shall softly creep
Into the quiet bosom of the Night.

Reading of Johnson's "Mother Night"

Commentary

The speaker in Johnson's sonnet, "Mother Night," likens his own existence and protection to that of the planets—all are created and protected by the same Divine Entity.

First Quatrain: Mother Bird Brooding

Eternities before the first-born day,
Or ere the first sun fledged his wings of flame,
Calm Night, the everlasting and the same,
A brooding mother over chaos lay.

Like a brooding mother, that is, a mother bird who is sitting on her brood of eggs and then who continues to protect and keep them warm as baby birds, "Calm Night" kept watch over the unmanifested entity until the first-born day, before the first planets were created and hurled into activity: "ere the first sun fledged his wings of flame." The mature planet of the sun is like a bird that is now flying off on its own, after having been tenderly nurtured by its mother.

Mother Night tenderly nurtured the growing cosmos that ultimately resulted in planets and people. Johnson's metaphoric Night represents the non-vibratory realm of reality where nothing is manifested, and only the mind of God exists in that vibrationless realm.

There is no creation only a peaceful possibility, a potential. Until God chooses to create beings to populate His cosmos, He simply broods like a mother over chaos. Here the term chaos does not refer to our modern usage of confusion and disorder but to infinite formlessness. The term originates from the Greek Khaos, indicating a dark void from which the gods originated.

Second Quatrain: God-Union

And whirling suns shall blaze and then decay,
Shall run their fiery courses and then claim
The haven of the darkness whence they came;
Back to Nirvanic peace shall grope their way.

The second quatrain describes the plight of whirling suns as they "blaze and then decay." Those planets of fire will eventually burn out and after they do, they will return "[b]ack to Nirvanic peace." The speaker employs the term Nirvanic, adjectival form for "Nirvana," the Buddhist term for God-union, which is "Samadhi" in Hinduism, "Salvation" in Christianity, and "Fana" in Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam.

The speaker cleverly plays by punning "whirling suns," whereas sun puns son. With God as Mother Night, Her suns (sons) will "run their fiery courses" (live their passionate lives) and then recede back into the arms of the brooding mother or God.

First Tercet: From Cosmos to Self

So when my feeble sun of life burns out,
And sounded is the hour for my long sleep,
I shall, full weary of the feverish light,

The sestet then shifts from the cosmos to the speaker himself, a son of the night mother. The speaker vows that he will react to his death a certain way, but he does not clarify that way yet, but merely sets up the conditions for his final claim. As his life comes to an end, as he knows that it "is the hour for [his] long sleep," he will be fully aware that his life is ebbing.

Second Tercet: Strong Faith Realization

Welcome the darkness without fear or doubt,
And heavy-lidded, I shall softly creep
Into the quiet bosom of the Night.

And the speaker will "[w]elcome the darkness without fear or doubt." His strong faith and intuition allow him to realize that his soul is going home. His eyelids may droop, but his soul is ever ensconced in the intractable protection of the beautiful mother, the Mother Night, who will throughout eternity continue to brood over and fiercely guide and guard her beloved son.

Commemorative Stamp

Commemorative Stamp

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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