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James Weldon Johnson's "Mother Night" and Robert Graves' "Not Dead"

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.

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 on "Mother Night"

Likening his own protected existence by his Creator to the protected heavenly orbs, the speaker pays tribute to the Universal Reality—Father and Mother of the Cosmos.

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, Khaos, originates from Greek mythology, indicating a dark void from which the gods originated.

Second Quatrain: God-Union

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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.

Introduction and Text of "Not Dead"

Actually, the speaker does more than just remember because in his act of dramatizing the son's spiritual qualities, he renders the young man's presence as something quite palpable.

Not Dead

Walking through trees to cool my heat and pain,
I know that David’s with me here again.
All that is simple, happy, strong, he is.
Caressingly I stroke
Rough bark of the friendly oak.
A brook goes bubbling by: the voice is his.
Turf burns with pleasant smoke;
I laugh at chaffinch and at primroses.
All that is simple, happy, strong, he is.
Over the whole wood in a little while
Breaks his slow smile.

Commentary on "Not Dead"

The speaker in Graves' "Not Dead" is remembering his son who died in war, but this particular remembering also dramatizes the resurrection of the young man as a spiritual reality.

First Movement: Walking to Clear the Mind

Walking through trees to cool my heat and pain,
I know that David’s with me here again.
All that is simple, happy, strong, he is.
Caressingly I stroke

In the opening line of Robert Graves' "Not Dead," the speaker locates himself in a wood, "Walking through trees to cool my heat and pain." He has gone for a simple walk to clear his mind to allow himself to mourn his loss.

However, instead of mourning the loss of his son, he transforms that loss into a spiritual reality, asserting, "I know that David's with me here again." The spiritual presence of the son made itself known to the father, as the father walks through the woods.

The calmness of the natural setting has rendered the speaker capable of sensing the spiritual level of being.

Instead of dramatizing the physical absence of his son, the speaker begins to muse on the spiritual reality of the son's presence. The speaker avers that his son, David, influences the universe in a positive manner:"All that is simple, happy, strong, he is."

He is insisting that David "is"—not "was," as might be expected in remarking about the deceased. The importance of that line is so strong that is later repeated in tact. The speaker's sense of his son's essence remains with him.

Second Movement: The Ethereal Speaker

Rough bark of the friendly oak.
A brook goes bubbling by: the voice is his.
Turf burns with pleasant smoke;
I laugh at chaffinch and at primroses.

In a way of supporting his astounding claim that David is, indeed, with him again, and that David "is," the speaker suggests that the qualities he finds in nature, in fact, resurrect the qualities of his son.

The speaker lovingly touches the "[r]ough bark of the friendly oak." The oak is "friendly," suggesting the same familial and familiar relationship he enjoyed with his son.

The speaker "caressingly" "strokes" the bark; the act of listening to and perhaps discussing ideas with his son is brought back to his mind by this simple natural act of touching the bark of a tree.

Then the speaker hears the babbling of a brook and avers that that sound is David's voice. He continues finding his son in the pleasant odor of the burning turf, in the sound of a bird melody and in the beauty of the primroses.

Third Movement: Summary of a Life

All that is simple, happy, strong, he is.
Over the whole wood in a little while
Breaks his slow smile.

Then the speaker repeats the important line that describes his son: "All that is simple, happy, strong, he is." This line offers the summation of the life of the deceased, and it serves as a signifier for the speaker as he dramatizes David's qualities in order to resurrect the spirit of his son.

The final two lines, "Over the whole wood in a little while / Breaks his slow smile," reveal the success of the speaker's dramatic attempts to summon his son's spirit from the physical grave.

The speaker can sense David's smile in the "whole wood," and the speaker's mourning is transcended by the "simple, happy, strong" qualities that were and, more importantly, are the hallmark of his son.

The speaker will still miss the physical presence of his son, but the son's soul qualities will live on in the resurrection and drama of this speaker/poet's creation. The speaker comes to realize that the soul is permanent, even though the body is not.

Brief Bio of Robert Graves

Born in Wimbledon, a wealthy suburb of London, in 1895, Robert Graves enjoyed a long career as a poet, biographer, novelist, translator, classical scholar, and mythographer, before dying in Majorca in 1985.

Graves was twice married, producing four children in each marriage. The poem, "Not Dead," grows out of the war death of his son, David. Between marriages, Graves lived with the American poet, Laura Riding (aka Laura Riding Jackson), who is associated with the Fugitive Movement.

The poet's dalliance with Riding provides his biography with an especially dramatic episode. Riding took a fancy to the husband of one of their friends, and when she could not win him, jumped out a three-story window, fracturing her pelvis in three places.

Graves had tried to stop Riding from jumping by jumping out the second-floor window himself. They both recovered from their traumatic injuries. Graves went on to marry his second wife; Riding went on the win the Nashville Poetry Prize in 1924 and marry Schuyler Jackson in 1941.

Most noted for his poetry, Grave's produced upwards of 150 works in his prolific career. It is thought that he once quipped: "There's no money in poetry, but then there's no poetry in money, either."

Laura Riding Jackson

Laura Riding Jackson

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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