‘By night we linger’d on the lawn’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson is an excerpt from Tennyson’s masterpiece, ‘In Memoriam A. H. H.’ This section of the poem is also known as “In Memoriam A.H.H. OBIIT MDCCCXXXIII: 95”. It explores themes of love, sorrow, new life, and rebirth. The mood and tone are both calm in the first part of this section. Later, the tone becomes less stable, more searching, and desperate as the poet seeks out a way to depict his emotions. The poem concludes optimistically and with the speaker looking towards the future.
The poem takes the reader through a peaceful, calm, and warm natural landscape. It’s a summer night and the speaker is sitting out on a knoll singing with his companions. They all leave him and he’s alone with the echoes of the night and the bats above his head. He reflects on the past, his loss, and his love for his friend. At that moment their souls come together and he’s able to feel close to Arthur in a way he hasn’t for a long time.
Their souls separate again at the end and the landscape leads Tennyson towards a new day. It is lighter, more hopeful, and presents him with an escape from the sorrows of the past.
‘By night we linger’d on the lawn’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson is a sixteen stanza excerpt from the much longer ‘In Memoriam: A.H.H.’. This work, which is commonly considered to be Tennyson’s best, contains 133 cantos, each of which varies in the number of stanzas it contains. This specific section of the poem is canto number ninety-five. It contains fifteen stanzas, each of which holds four lines, known as quatrains.
The lines rhyme in a pattern of ABBA and follow a metrical pattern known as iambic tetrameter. This means that each line contains four sets of two beats, the first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed. One of the reasons for the poem’s lasting influence is its remarkable composition and the number of stanzas in which this pattern is maintained. The stanza form is now known as In Memoriam Stanzas.
Tennyson makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘By night we linger’d on the lawn’. These include alliteration, enjambment, imagery, and caesura. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “linger’d” and “lawn” in the very first line of the poem and “dwell,” “doubt,” and “drive” in stanza eight.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. There is a great example in the eleventh stanza. The line reads: “The blows of Death. At length my trance”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are several examples of this technique in ‘By night we linger’d on the lawn,’ for instance, the transition between lines two and three of the third stanza and lines three and four of the tenth stanza.
Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but it is much more than that. Imagery is anything one can sense with their five senses or can imagine a body doing. This poem is image-rich, with some of the best examples in stanzas three and four.
By night we linger’d on the lawn,
For underfoot the herb was dry;
And genial warmth; and o’er the sky
The silvery haze of summer drawn;
In the first stanza of ‘By night we linger’d on the lawn’ the speaker begins with a line for which this excerpt is known. It reads: “By night we linger’d on the lawn”. This is followed up by more details of the landscape and the time of day. It appears that the speaker, Tennyson, is with one or more companions. It’s a peaceful scene, one that is meant to evoke memory and calm in the reader. There’s a “genial” or kind “warmth” around them. The sky carries a “silvery haze of summer drawn”.
From these lines, a reader can get a feeling for the setting, the emotions of the speaker, and how he’s transmuting those emotions into the landscape.
And calm that let the tapers burn
Unwavering: not a cricket chirr’d:
The brook alone far-off was heard,
And on the board the fluttering urn:
The “calm” feeling present in the first stanza of ‘By night we linger’d on the lawn’ is extended into the second. The “calm,” as if has the ability, is letting the taper, or candles, burn. There is no breeze to snuff them out, nor is there the sound of “crickets” to be heard. The only thing that the speaker can hear at this moment is the “brook,” or small river. It is off in the distance, “alone” making sounds.
And bats went round in fragrant skies,
And wheel’d or lit the filmy shapes
That haunt the dusk, with ermine capes
And woolly breasts and beaded eyes;
Despite the silence, the landscape is not completely still. The speaker does take note of the bats in the sky. They are flying in amongst its fragrance. This is a powerful use of imagery, evoking multiple senses in the reader at the same time. From where the speaker is standing the bats can be seen as a group. The bats’ wheel and twirl in the sky making shapes. The speaker thinks deeper, imagining the “ermine capes” and the “beaded eyes” of these creatures. Alliteration is used in the last line with “breasts” and “beaded”.
While now we sang old songs that peal’d
From knoll to knoll, where, couch’d at ease,
The white kine glimmer’d, and the trees
Laid their dark arms about the field.
Taking his mind from the landscape, the speaker gives more details about those he’s within this stanza of ‘By night we linger’d on the lawn’. There is a group of some kind and together they are singing. They’re focusing on “old songs”. As they sing, the sound travels over the various hills around them, the “knoll[s]”. On those hills, the speaker can see “white kine,” or cows. They glimmer in what light there is. The cows’ whiteness is immediately juxtaposed with the “dark arms” of the trees. This is a reference to the shadows they cast “about the field”.
But when those others, one by one,
Withdrew themselves from me and night,
And in the house light after light
Went out, and I was all alone,
For a time, the group was together, bonding in the light. But eventually, they withdraw in this stanza of ‘By night we linger’d on the lawn’. The speaker is left alone with the night. As he grows more alone the lights around him start to go out. This is a solemn scene but is still reflecting the peace of the first stanzas. The lights go off in the houses and the people turn in for the evening.
A hunger seized my heart; I read
Of that glad year which once had been,
In those fall’n leaves which kept their green,
The noble letters of the dead:
When he as alone, he felt changed. His heart is seized with a hunger for the past, one that was certainly kindled by the “old songs” he’d been singing. He thinks back to the past, to a time in which Arthur, the main subject about whom ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’ was written.
Tennyson recalls a “year” that had been. He reads it in the “fall’n leaves” on the ground. He saw sights just like these in the past when he was happier.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
And strangely on the silence broke
The silent-speaking words, and strange
Was love’s dumb cry defying change
To test his worth; and strangely spoke
The faith, the vigour, bold to dwell
On doubts that drive the coward back,
And keen thro’ wordy snares to track
Suggestion to her inmost cell.
The “silence” of the scene of ‘By night we linger’d on the lawn’ is emphasized in the seventh stanza, only to make it all the more moving when it is broken. He taps into a variety of emotions in both the seventh and eighth stanzas. He thinks of love in his heart, as well as the loss. Tennyson dwells on the past, willing some kind of communion between himself and the friend he has lost to occur.
So word by word, and line by line,
The dead man touch’d me from the past,
And all at once it seem’d at last
The living soul was flash’d on mine,
Finally, he is able to meet with, metaphorically, his dead friend. He felt a closeness to this person he has lost, touched by his soul from the past. Their connection is strong, as it once was, their souls matching up. He is relieved for this connection to have been made, it’s what he was longing for in the previous canto.
Stanzas Ten and Eleven
And mine in this was wound, and whirl’d
About empyreal heights of thought,
And came on that which is, and caught
The deep pulsations of the world,
Æonian music measuring out
The steps of Time—the shocks of Chance—
The blows of Death. At length my trance
Was cancell’d, stricken thro’ with doubt.
In the following stanzas of ‘By night we linger’d on the lawn’, Tennyson struggles for the right words to describe what he’s experiencing. He has connected on a deeper level with the soul, or memory, of his dear friend. To him, it feels as though the world is spinning. His thoughts bounce as he considers “Time” and “Chance”. Death is ever-present, as is doubt and fear.
Vague words! but ah, how hard to frame
In matter-moulded forms of speech,
Or ev’n for intellect to reach
Thro’ memory that which I became:
Tennyson admits in the twelfth stanza of ‘By night we linger’d on the lawn’ that he’s having trouble understanding what’s happening to him. The words are “Vague” and the thoughts “hard to frame”. The human tongue does not have the capacity to form words that would adequately represent what he feels. His mind can’t even get there, it is past “intellect”.
Till now the doubtful dusk reveal’d
The knolls once more where, couch’d at ease,
The white kine glimmer’d, and the trees
Laid their dark arms about the field:
The experience he’s been going through tapers off in the thirteenth stanza of ‘By night we linger’d on the lawn’. The “dusk,” which is personified to feel some of the same “doubt” reveals the world as it was. The knolls are there, as are the cows. Tennyson uses these lines as a refrain, repeating almost word for word that lines of the fourth stanza.
And suck’d from out the distant gloom
A breeze began to tremble o’er
The large leaves of the sycamore,
And fluctuate all the still perfume,
As if on the back of his experience, from the distance a “breeze began to tremble”. The leaves of the sycamore tree move and remind the speaker once again of the smell of the air. The scene is all-consuming, tapping into all the senses. It feels as though something is building here.
And gathering freshlier overhead,
Rock’d the full-foliaged elms, and swung
The heavy-folded rose, and flung
The lilies to and fro, and said
The breeze gathers over the speaker’s head and moves the “full-foliaged elms” in this stanza of ‘By night we linger’d on the lawn’. The flowers of the scene also move, their petal shake and the lilies sway “to and fro”. Tennyson is leading the reader towards the climax of this section which comes at the very end. The stanza ends with a very skillful employment of personification. The world speaks, and a reader has to go down to the sixteenth stanza to find out what it said”.
“The dawn, the dawn,” and died away;
And East and West, without a breath,
Mixt their dim lights, like life and death,
To broaden into boundless day.
The breeze, trees, and flowers encourage Tennyson to embrace the dawn. It is there as a representative of a new day, a new outlook on life. The day opens up to him, bright and “boundless”. There is a bounce to these lines, created through both the use of alliteration and the repetition of the “b” consonant sound. It mimics the renewed hope the speaker is feeling.