‘Night Sister’ is a fantastic poem. It describes the narrator’s view of the eponymous Night Sister. The narrative appears to address nurses as a collective rather than talking about an individual. Evidence of this can be seen in the first stanza where it uses the determiner many and then few. The narrator seems to sympathize with them and offers praise for the work that they do but seems to struggle to comprehend how they are able to function. Interestingly this poem has become a favorite of nurses. It can often be found posted in nursing social media groups and chat forums.
Form and Tone
‘Night Sister’ is written in free-verse. It is separated into four stanzas each of which contains five lines. There is an interesting, if slightly disjointed, rhyme pattern of ABBBA often the A rhymes are half-rhymes. Whilst the poem has a generally positive message, much of the imagery gives it a bleak tone. It contains a lot of enjambment lines which I think helps to reflect the turbulent lifestyle that a nurse would endure.
Analysis of Night Sister
How is it possible not to grow hard,
To build a shell around yourself when you
Have to watch so much pain, and hear it too?
Many you see are puzzled, wounded; few
Are cheerful long. How can you not be scarred?
‘Night Sister’ begins with a rhetorical question. The use of this device is to grab the reader and engage them. What is interesting here is the narrative voice: It seemingly flits between viewpoints. At first, giving the impression that the poem is putting the reader in the position of a night sister. It addresses the reader as “you” and “yourself”. But later it refers to night sisters en masse, suggesting that the reader is perhaps a patient. This “head hopping” when unintentional and when used in prose can be dizzying but here I believe it is a deliberate tool. Although it could just be a rhetorical device.
The narrative continues to talk about how the night sister building a shell around themselves. The suggestion here is obviously that nurses can become guarded, but when you look at the language being used it would appear the narrator is attempting to justify that.
I think that in this first stanza that the narrator is really struggling to understand how nurses do what they do. When the narrator uses the line “how can you not be scarred” the language used is very clever. That line could be taken one of two ways. Either suggest ting that nurses are all “scarred”, or rather that they are emotionally traumatized. Or perhaps questioning why they are not. The context of the preceding information we have been given suggests the former.
To view a birth or death seems natural,
And yet you love that stillness and that call.
This stanza contains a startling contrast. The narrator gives a perceived view of witnessing a birth or death. Note the use of the word “seems”, they clearly had a preconceived notion and the remaining lines in this stanza suggest that that notion is incorrect. The imagery used here helps to portray a chaotic scene. Just look at the words being used: shouts, tears, fears. These are all negative words and when a positive word is used IE peaceful it is preceded by the word graze. The effect of this is that it creates a dark tone. The quasi positive message given in the first line is well and truly destroyed by the second and third lines.
The stanza draws to a close in a really remarkable way. After the chaos that was portrayed in the preceding lines, there is a suggested serenity. The images of the ghost and the owl are used to denote death. Perhaps the intonation is that after the noisy drama that is a birth or a death there is calm. It then continues to suggest that nurses love dealing with those situations. I really like the use of the word call, which once again has a double meaning. It suggests that nursing is a “calling” but also a call is a noise and contrasts with the use of the word stillness in the same line.
You have a memory for everyone;
My fears are silenced by the things you’ve done.
In this stanza, the narrator heaps praise on the work of the nurses. Having already suggested that the situations they have to deal with are extremely difficult in the previous stanzas. The focus here seems to be on the way that they go about their work. It strikes a contrast with the previous stanza which contained a generally negative undertone. Here the tone is far more positive. Once again look at the language being used with words like cure and compassion. And whereas in the last stanza we saw a positive being made into a negative here we see the opposite when the narrator comments that nobody is anonymous.
Once again the narrator returns to this idea of a calling. The suggestion is here that the job isn’t one that can be done by everybody. That only a certain type of person can do the job. It also has a religious undertone as “the calling” is a concept quite closely associated with becoming a nun. The idea that these lines are linked to religion is strengthened by the use of the word “pure” to describe this calling, though this might be conjecture on my part!
The end line to this stanza might be seen as the turning point of the poem. Up until this point, the narrative could be described as having a fearful undertone. But here we see them relinquishing this fear and this is attributed to the actions of the nurses. In my opinion, whilst the poet claims to have had an epiphany of sorts at this point this isn’t reflected in the tone of the poem which doesn’t appear to alter. Also interesting is the fact that this is the first point in the poem that the narrator refers to themselves. Note the use of the pronoun “my”. Can we assume then that this line is deeply personal?
We have grown cynical and often miss
That you can meet us in our own distress.
What is most interesting in the last stanza is the narrator almost seems to draw themselves away from their own opinion by adopting the “royal we”. Perhaps they are ashamed of the way society views illness. The use of the word embarrassment supports this thesis. It strikes me that this last stanza has an element of confession in it. However, In the last two lines, it returns to the underlying theme: Praising the work that nurses do.
About Elizabeth Jennings
Elizabeth Jennings was an English poet. Born in Boston she moved to Oxford at a young age and lived there for the rest of her life. Jennings is known as a traditionalist when it comes to her poetry she favors older styles rather than being innovative, favoring in particular lyric poetry. She was a member of a group of poets that called themselves “the movement”. She produced a wealth of material during her career, which spanned roughly forty-eight years. In that time she produced no less than thirty poetry collections. Amongst her many honors is being awarded a CBE.