‘A Night Thought’ by William Wordsworth is a three stanza poem which is separated into sets of six lines, or sestets. Each of these sestets follows a consistent and structured rhyming pattern of aaabab, alternating as the poet saw fit from section to section.
Wordsworth’s choice to use this framing rhyme scheme allows each stanza to exist on its own terms. While they are all related to one another, they also are mostly summarized by the sixth line. They are self-contained in the emotions, details, and narrative they convey.
Summary of A Night Thought
‘A Night Thought’ by William Wordsworth describes a speaker’s displeasure at those among the human race who do not appreciate what fortune has given them and waste their lives in displeasure.
The poem begins with the speaker pointing out, excitedly, the moon passing through the sky. He is enamoured of the sight and makes sure his listener understands why. The speaker sees the moon as being a simple, happy being. “She” is not bothered by anyone in her path and follows the “happy” trail of her destiny. No matter if one can see her all the time or not, she is always there “Sail[ing].”
In the second stanza the speaker moves onto a very different topic— that of humankind. He sees humans as living lives which are the exact opposite of that which the moon lives. Even if one is afforded every opportunity, and is graced by “Fortune,” they will still be “froward”or contrary. It is impossible, he thinks, for a human being to ever be happy with the life they have or the destiny they follow.
Within the final lines of the poem the speaker refers back to himself and what he would do if ever sadness struck him. He sees this as being a possibility in the future and makes plans to fight it off. If his “humors” ever become misaligned, he will “counter” the “impulse” to despair and pray for forgiveness from God. He does not want to spend his life mourning over something undefinable.
Analysis of A Night Thought
Lo! where the Moon along the sky
Sails with her happy destiny;
Oft is she hid from mortal eye
Or dimly seen,
But when the clouds asunder fly
How bright her mien!
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins with an exclamation. He calls out the, likely unfamiliar, word “Lo!” This short word is an archaic way of drawing attention to something interesting or important. It is comparable to saying “Hey!” Or “Look there!” From the first word a reader knows that there is something of note occurring, or at least something the speaker feels is interesting enough to point out.
The object the speaker is hoping his listener will look at is “the Moon.” It is a particularly beautiful night and the speaker is observing the moon as it “Sails with her happy destiny” through “the sky.” In this line he is drawing attention to the way the moon moves through the world and how “she” does not fight her own destiny. She is happy to continue on the path she has always been on.
The following lines allow the speaker to draw attention to fact that the moon does not seek out approval from anyone. She is sometimes “hid from mortal eye,” such as when “she” is behind the clouds. There are moments in which she cannot be, or can only “dimly” be seen. These are fleeting in their duration and quickly pass.
When the moon is revealed again— to “mortal eyes,” her “mien” or looks, are “bright.” She is outstanding to observe and brilliant in her manner. The following lines will be used to draw a comparison between the existence of the moon and that of humankind. It is the speaker’s goal to force one to reevaluate the way everyone lives.
Far different we–a froward race,
Thousands though rich in Fortune’s grace
With cherished sullenness of pace
Their way pursue,
Ingrates who wear a smileless face
The whole year through.
The second stanza begins with the introduction of humankind into the text. Wordsworth’s speaker is working on a comparison between the way that humans exist in the world and the things they value.
This stanza begins with the speaker stating that “we,” meaning humankind, are “Far different” than the moon. “We” are a “froward race.” This is another word which is no longer in common use. “Froward” refers to someone who is difficult to deal with, or is contrary, often taking an opposite or defensive stance. Humans are described in this manner. They are troublesome, difficult to control and impossible to understand. That being said, the speaker does make an attempt to categorize the lives of humankind.
There are “Thousands’ who became rich through “Fortune’s grace” alone. It was not due to any of their own ability that they came into money. These same people, who should celebrate their circumstances, are instead “sullen” in manner. They remain at a slow “pace” as they make their way through life. There is nothing about them which is at all thankful for the lives they were given.
The speaker continues on to call these men and women “Ingrates,” or ungrateful people, who “wear a smileless face” every day of the year.
If kindred humours e’er would make
My spirit droop for drooping’s sake,
From Fancy following in thy wake,
Bright ship of heaven!
A counter impulse let me take
And be forgiven.
In the final stanza of the poem the speaker considers how his own spirit would react to changed circumstances. He expresses his disdain over ever giving into sadness for sadness’ sake alone and professes his desire to always rise above this “impulse.”
The first line offers the reader a hypothetical situation the speaker thinks he could one day be in. In this situation he would suddenly become depressed. The “humours” in his body would become misaligned and send him “dropping.” This is a reference to an archaic medical system called humorism or humoralism.
The system promoted the belief that one’s body was controlled by four humours, blood, yellow and black bile and phlegm. It was created by Hippocrates and lasted well into the mid 1850s. In 1858 it was officially demolished and has not been used in modern medicine since. It is likely that Wordsworth knew of the impractical nature of this science but chose to utilize it as a metaphor for the inner working’s of his speaker’s body.
If the humours of the speaker’s body were ever to become misaligned in the way stated above, he would hope for a “counter impulse” to take him. He would then ask for “forgive[ness]” that he ever felt poorly about the state of his own life.