‘Check‘ by James Brunton Stephens is a three-stanza poem that is divided up into one five line and one seven line strophe and a concluding couplet (set of two lines). The poem rhymes, from beginning to end, in the pattern of AABBCCDD…and so on.
Summary of Check
The poem begins with the speaker describing the way that night “creep[s]” along the ground without making any noise. When she reaches on obstacle, such as a tree, she covers it, and moves on to the next, “the grass beside the wall.” There is nothing that can impede her approach.
She sounds to the speaker, like the rustling of a woman’s shawl. A shawl that is black and throws that “blackness everywhere.” It touches all parts of the Earth from “sky and ground and air.” She seems to be unstoppable until she gets to where the speaker is hiding. He is within a room that is lit by a single candle he is holding. No matter what “Night” tries to do, she cannot put the candle out. It is a source of light all it’s own that she does not have power over.
The poem ends with a stalemate between the speaker and the force of “night” as she is unable to touch him.
Analysis of Check
The night was creeping on the ground;
She crept and did not make a sound
Until she reached the tree, and then
She covered it, and sole again
Along the grass beside the wall.
The first stanza of “Check” describes the abilities and character traits of “night.” The night is personified and portrayed by the poet as a woman who moves over the world, casting it into shadow. Night is given very human characteristics, some of which are almost malevolent in nature.
When night comes, she “creep[s] on the ground.” She is sneaky and it is as if she wants to surprise the world with the fact that she has come once more. As she moved, she “crept and did not make a sound.” It is clear that she has done this before and knows exactly the path she wants to take and how she wants to take it. Night stayed on her path until she got to “the tree.” Once there she “covered” it with darkness. The poet is crafting an image of darkness as an all-consuming force that is to be avoided and has the ability to wrap itself around all parts of the world.
She moves from the tree, back to the ground, and proceeds to cover the “grass beside the wall.” Up until this point the setting of “Check” could have been any way around any undefined tree, now the reader is able to assume that this is taking place somewhere in particular (where it will become clear in the next stanza).
I heard the rustle of her shawl
As she threw blackness everywhere
Upon the sky and ground and air,
And in the room where I was hid:
But no matter what she did
To everything that was without,
She could not put my candle out.
The narrator jumps into the first person, speaking of himself with the pronoun, “I.” The reader is now becoming aware that this is a much more personal story that it seemed at first. Night will somehow end up making an important impact on the speaker.
From the room that the speaker is currently situated in, he can hear, “the rustle of her shawl.” The poet has chosen to increase the number of personified features given to night. “She” is more than just a subjective pronoun choice, the narrator is seeing her as having female characteristics.
Her shawl is rustling as she moves through the environment. She throws “blackness everywhere.” She does not discriminate between one place and another, all is equal to night. Nothing is able to escape her. Night is cast down upon “the sky and ground and air.” Even these great forces of the world cannot avoid her.
In the last four lines of the stanza, the reader is given the final details about where the speaker is. He has confined himself in one room and is attempting to “hid” from night. It was there that she could not reach him. Although she tried “everything, ”she“could not put [his] candle out.”
This candle can be considered as one of a metaphorical or physical nature. Either way, she has found an obstacle she cannot overcome. Even in the darkest parts of the night, there is always a light strong enough to resist.
So I stared at the night, and she
Stared back solemnly at me.
In the final couplet, there appears to be a standoff between the speaker and night. She is there, facing him, having tried everything to “put out” his candle. Nothing has worked, so they stare at one another, neither moving. He has found a way to resist her, and maintain some light, or metaphorically, hope in the darkest of times.
About James Brunton Stephens
James Brunton Stephens was born in Bo’ness, Scotland in June of 1835. He was the son of a schoolmaster and received education from a young age. He attended the University of Edinburgh but did not take a degree. After this, he became a tutor, a job which allowed him to travel around the Continent with his pupil’s family. He would also work as a teacher at the Greenock Academy and Killbain Academy (and a number of others throughout his later life). It was during this time that he wrote two novels, Ruston Morely and Virtue Le Moyne that were published from 1861 to 1863.
In December of 1865, Stephens moved to Queensland Australia. There he continued his work as a tutor and also composed his most popular poem, “Convict Once,” published in 1871. From the years 1870 to 1874 Stephens produced a number of poems including, “The Godolphin Arabian.” Additionally, his volume of poems, The Black Gin and Other Poems appeared at this time.
In the late 1870s, Stephens helped found the Johnsonian Club in which he and his friends wrote reviews and criticisms. In 1883 he was appointed to a position as dispatch writer for the Colonial Secretary’s Office. He worked as a public servant for nineteen years, during which time he continued to write, producing his most famous patriotic poems.
In 1902, Stephens died of angina pectoris. Although his poetry has fallen out of popularity, for a time before his death he was considered Australia’s greatest living poet.