“A Night Scene”- A poem by Mary Shelley

Everyone knows Mary Shelley (1797-1851) as the writer of well-known Gothic novel Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus (1818), but she wrote poetry as well. Shelley was the daughter of political philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836) and her mother the was well-known writer and “early feminist” Mary Wollonstonecraft (1759-1797). She never knew her mother who died shortly after giving birth to Mary. Her parents were liberals and her father gave her a good education even if it was informal. As a young girl Mary Shelley started to write short stories and maintained a lifelong interest in writing. She wrote novels, drama, poetry and about her travels. She married the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1816 and they travelled a lot and lived a somewhat unconventional life together until he drowned in Switzerland. They met in 1814 and Mary’s father never accepted their marriage. Mary got pregnant before they married which gave the pair social difficulties. After her husband’s death Mary focused on their young son and her writing. Mary Shelley died of a brain tumour at the age of 53 in London. She had been ill for over a decade.

Context and literary themes

This poem “A Night Scene” is about a woman called Isabel. The poem is quite lenghty and has a number of themes common to any writer of the Romantic period. Pay attention to the vivid descriptions of light, the Stars and the Night. How does they frame the story told in the poem? What can be said about the woman named Isabel? Notice how the protagonist takes on a male perspective: “That on that couch my Isabel reclines. I see yon brilliant star and waving tree,”

The Poem: “A Night Scene”

I see thee not, my gentlest Isabel;

Ambrosial night, with her mysterious spell,

Has woven shadows thick before thy face,

Drawing impervious veils athwart the space

That does divide us; thy bright eyes alone

A lucid beam into the dark have thrown,

Till the long lashes and the downcast lid

Quench it again, and the bright orbs are hid.

I see thee not: the touch of they soft hand,

And thy deep sighs, fraught with emotion bland,

Are to my sense the only outward signs

That on that couch my Isabel reclines.

I see yon brilliant star and waving tree,

Through which its beams rain down inconstantly;

I see ten thousand of those radiant flowers

Which shed light on us in dim silver showers,

High in the glorious heavens; I see full well

All other forms – not thine, my Isabel.

Sweet Mystery! I know that thou art there–

I scent the fragrance of thy silken hair;

The lines that do encircle thee I trace;

That spot is hallow’d by thy lovely face;

Thy woman’s form, in soft voluptuousness,

Enriches vacant air in yon recess;

Yet to my eyes no sign of thee appears,

And the drear blank suggests a thousand fears.

Speak, Isabel! – And yet not thus were broken

The cruel spell – for have not spirits spoken?

Are then thine eyes no nearer than that star,

Which unattainably doth shine afar?

Thy voice as immaterial as the wind

That murmurs past, yet leaves no form behind?

And is the visiting of this soft gale,

Rich with the odours of the flow’rets pale,

Which sweeps my bosom with delicious fanning,

My thrilling limbs with arms aerial spanning,

Is it as truly real, as warmly glowing

As thy dear form, rich with the life-tide flowing?

Ah, darling, quick thine arms around me throw,

Press thy warm lips upon my night-cool brow,

In thy dark eyes thy fair soul I must read –

One kiss, sweet heaven, ’tis Isabel indeed!


Sources

List of works by Mary Shelley – Information about the poem cited. 

wikipedia.org (various entries about Mary Shelley and her literary works)

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“The Nightly Secret” – A poem by Friedrich Nietzsche

Context: The German writer and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is perhaps not known as any great poet in particular but he did compose a few ones. In this poem which I’ve translated from German we encounter a narrator with sleeping problems. Themes and motives in the poem are not uncommon for this period.

Themes: Sleep, the Night, Lucid dreaming, sleeplessness. Nietzsche had problems with not sleeping well and in 1882 he consumed a lot of Opium to get rid off his sleeping problems. The poem entitled “Das Nächtliche Geheimniss” comes also with the introductory line ‘Idyllen aus Messina’//idylls from Messina.

 

The Nightly Secret

Previous nights, when everyone slept,
scarcely the wind with uncertain
sighs through the streets,
Gave me peace not the pillow
Still poppy, still, what else make
a deep sleep – a good conscience.

Finally the sleep hit me
Senseless and ran to the beach
It was moonlight and mild – I met
A man and a rowing boat
Both sleepy, Herdsman and Sheep:
Sleepy pushed the rowing boat from land.

An hour, lightly two,
Or was it a year? – there sank
Suddenly my mind and thoughts
In an eternal simplicity,
And an abyss without barriers
Open up: – it was over! –

Tomorrow came: From the black depths
Stands a rowing boat and rests and rests
What happened?
So shouts, so shouted
One hundred soon – what was it?
Blood? –
Nothing happened! We slept, slept
All – oh, so good, so good!

Aiheeseen liittyvä kuva
Young Nietzsche

 

Sources

wikipedia.org

For the German version of this poem published in Der Spiegel, please visit this link.