Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poetry often took simple ideas and made them interesting and unique. In many of his works, it is clear that he was looking to make his readers think about something that they might otherwise consider either mundane or personal. In Moonlight, he is challenging himself by writing about a concept already heavy with connotation, because most people are familiar with the feeling of being out-of-doors at night, and already have their own opinions about the idea. Nevertheless, Longfellow shares his own vision with his readers in stunning form, and writes his poem in such a way as to help his readers see what he saw when we looked upon the night.
As a pale phantom with a lamp
Ascends some ruin’s haunted stair,
So glides the moon along the damp
Mysterious chambers of the air.
Now hidden in cloud, and now revealed,
As if this phantom, full of pain,
Were by the crumbling walls concealed,
And at the windows seen again.
Longfellow uses a great many thematic details to describe the feeling of nighttime in his work, rather than using physical descriptions for a setting all of his readers are already familiar with. When in the first line of the poem he describes a “pale phantom,” and in the second verse describes a “ruin’s haunted stair,” the reader already has a fairly good idea of what this poem is going to be like. The first verse is designed to portray the setting for the reader, and it does so well, even though it doesn’t actually detail where or when anything happens. We know there is a phantom in a ruin at nighttime, and Longfellow’s use of words such as “pale,” “haunted,” and “mysterious” set a bleak, though not quite sad, mood for the piece.
The first two verses of the poem also introduce its highly abstract nature. The first and second verses combined essentially explain to the reader that there is a phantom who lives in a ruin of some sort, and that it is only sometimes visible. But these verses transcend such shallow descriptions, and instead focus on the feeling of the scene; the pain of the spirit, the broken state of its home, and the dampness of the air. That the spectre is described as holding a lamp suggests that it, like anyone else, needs to be able to see through the dark, and yearns for a metaphorical light at the end of a tunnel, a particularly poignant image for a spirit described later as being “full of pain.”
Until at last, serene and proud
In all the splendor of her light,
She walks the terraces of cloud,
Supreme as Empress of the Night.
I look, but recognize no more
Objects familiar to my view;
The very pathway to my door
Is an enchanted avenue.
The third and fourth verses mark a fairly sudden shift in atmosphere for the poem. The pain-filled phantom from the previous verses emerges as a supremely splendid being of light, walking on the clouds in the sky as an empress on her throne. The royal imagery works well to offset the potentially grim image of an “Empress of the Night,” and Longfellow makes sure to emphasise the “serene and proud” figure to avoid any malicious connotations that readers might associate with nighttime.
The language here suggests that the phantom and the moonlight are both the same entity. The second verse of the poem opens with the line, “Now hidden in cloud, and now revealed,” and the now-serene spirit walks across the clouds, both descriptions which could be applied to beams of moonlight. At first they are obscured from view, making the moonlight seem pale, weak, and dark. Now that the clouds have parted, the light is powerful, as am empress, and serene in beauty.
Only now, nearly halfway through the work, does Longfellow give his poem a narrator, who makes their entry into the story by observing that the world that was once familiar is now obscured and unknown. The use of the phrase “enchanted avenue” suggests that this is not at all a bad thing, however, and it, along with the descriptions of the previous verse, gives Moonlight an excited kind of feeling to its story. Longfellow still has not provided much in the way of physical description — his word choice and use of theme and atmosphere through connotative descriptions is crucial for telling his story.
All things are changed. One mass of shade,
The elm-trees drop their curtains down;
By palace, park, and colonnade
I walk as in a foreign town.
The very ground beneath my feet
Is clothed with a diviner air;
While marble paves the silent street
And glimmers in the empty square.
The fifth and sixth verses of Moonlight see its new narrator walking through their town during the night, and everything is different. Physically, they can describe the way the trees have melded into one mass of shade, as if the bent branches are all one single curtain, rather than hundreds of leaves and branches. Everything is different; it is silent, and it feels closer to divinity. There is an air of reverence for the moonlight, which makes sense considering its regal personification from earlier. The sudden attention to physical details, such as the marble paving on the streets, makes the setting seem almost expansive by comparison to such descriptions as “some ruin” from earlier; the contrast helps Longfellow to immerse the reader in the setting without spending too much of his limited space describing it.
Illusion! Underneath there lies
The common life of every day;
Only the spirit glorifies
With its own tints the sober gray.
In vain we look, in vain uplift
Our eyes to heaven, if we are blind;
We see but what we have the gift
Of seeing; what we bring we find.
The narrator of the poem lashes out at the enchanted avenue, calling it a lie and an illusion. Although Longfellow uses the word “lies” in the sense of something resting or waiting, the dual meaning of the word works well with his exclamation of “illusion!” to start off the verse. When he writes that “only the spirit glorifies,” he is pointing out that while everything looks different at night, nothing actually has changed except for the lighting. It is the speaker’s own spirit, their own sense of superstition, paranoia, or whatever else, that gives the world around its mystical quality. It is the viewer that gives meaning to the night.
The final verse of the poem concludes it on this note, in a philosophical way. While the words have been slightly distorted to accommodate for the limitations of the style of poetry, the core idea appears to be that each person gives their own life its own meaning. “What we bring we find,” as the final line states, which means that some people liken nighttime to a dying spectre that cloaks the world in darkness. Other people see an enchanting avenue with a regal quality. Others still see “the common life of every day,” except darker. In essence, the entire poem is an experiment in connotation, the meanings people associate with words and ideas that are not universal, and are not always rational either.
The wide variety of atmospheric and thematic shifts within Moonlight that follow its own narrator’s journey are expansive enough that each reader will likely relate to one or more of the ideas presented therein, but likely not to all of them. This simple idea both informs the point of the poem and, in a way, is the point of the poem. Moonlight is a poem that is both relatable and not relatable, by design. It is an unexpected end to such an atmospheric poem, for sure — but on some level, that was the idea from the beginning.