‘Mother Night’ by James Weldon Johnson is a fourteen-line sonnet which has been separated by the poet into two stanzas. The first stanza contains eight lines and can be referred to as an octave, while the second has six, making it a sestet. This structure and the pattern of rhyme the poem contains, makes it a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet.
The form was named after the famous scholar and Italian renaissance poet, Francesco Petrarca. This type of poem follows a rhyme scheme of abba abba cdecde. Often within Petrarchan sonnets, the final sestet is altered, this was not a choice Johnson made though. He chose to conform his lines to one of the two most popular patterns, the other being cdcdcd.
‘Mother Night’ is equally melancholic and optimistic in nature. The poem deals with themes of life, death, and one’s inescapable destiny. It also speaks on what darkness and night, can be.
A reader should also take note of the many instances of personification which exist within the text. The poet was making a concerted effort to make real the changes of light and dark, life, and death. When the night is referred to as “Calm” or the sun described as having “wings of flame,” they become more real. A reader is able to imagine and experience the forces with greater ease.
Summary of Mother Night
The poem begins with the speaker stating that before anything was born, including the sun, there was “Night.” It is, and was, a force that is all-consuming. There is no way to escape one’s eventually ending in the arms of “Calm Night.” It is not something to be feared though. Instead, the speaker sees it as being a “brooding mother” who watches over and waits for each of her children.
In the second half of the ‘Mother Night’, the speaker includes his own mortality in the narrative. He does not just state these beliefs, he holds them himself. The speaker knows that when the time comes he is going to happily depart from his weary life. It is not a passage he fears or dreads in any way.
Analysis of Mother Night
Eternities before the first-born day,
Or ere the first sun fledged his wings of flame,
Calm Night, the everlasting and the same,
A brooding mother over chaos lay.
And whirling suns shall blaze and then decay,
Shall run their fiery courses and then claim
The haven of the darkness whence they came;
Back to Nirvanic peace shall grope their way.
In the first stanza and octave of the poem, the speaker begins with a deeply dramatic and contemplative statement. He describes “Eternities” as being created before one even lives their first day. One’s life, and all the days that will come after one’s death, have already been created. The darker side of this equation is what the poem is going to focus on.
Also created before one’s birth, is one’s death. This is expanded further to include all of the earth. Before the “sun” even had the barest hint of “wings of flame” there was the “Calm Night.” It is interesting to note the contrast between the night which is described as “Calm” and the sun as having wings of fire. One would assume the sun has greater power, but that is not the case in this narrative.
The speaker has stated that night was created before the day. He goes on to describe the night in greater detail. It is “Calm” but also “everlasting.” There is no end to its rule. The next lines describe it as being a “mother” figure in all of life. It is something that never leaves, never stops looking on, and in its way, caring. This can be seen through its position atop all the “chaos” that is life.
In the second set of four lines, the speaker describes how the sun, which is generally depicted as being the more powerful force, is going to die. It will have its turn “blaz[ing]” and then eventually “decay.” It is not only our sun that will go through this but all suns. No force, no matter the power, can resist death. Life has its course to run and then must return to the “haven of the darkness whence [it] came.”
It is important to note at this point that although death is an intimidating force, the night and the darkness one returns to are not described that way. The place one goes to after death is not something to dread, it is more like an embrace. One might be reminded of the references to a “mother” in the previous lines. This is the tone the text is taking on. Death is something “Nirvanic,” or blissful. It will bring one a peace unknown in life.
So when my feeble sun of life burns out,
And sounded is the hour for my long sleep,
I shall, full weary of the feverish light,
Welcome the darkness without fear or doubt,
And heavy-lidded, I shall softly creep
Into the quiet bosom of the Night.
In the second set of lines, or sestet, the speaker describes his own mortality. The first lines spoke broadly on the topic, now he is narrowing it down to something more personal. He speaks on his own “feeble sun” and how at some point it will “burn out.” Somewhere in the distance, he does not know when there will be a bell that sounds. This will represent the final hour of his life and the beginning of his “long sleep.”
Death is still be represented as something peaceful. Just because the narrative has turned to the speaker’s own life, nothing has changed. He does not appear to be personally scared to enter the afterlife. In fact, when death comes he expects to be weary of life. It is his intention to welcome death when it is time. The light will have become “feverish” to him.
In the final three lines, he states that he will “Welcome the darkness without fear or doubt.” His own beliefs about the afterlife will not falter in the last moments of his life. The speaker continues with the metaphor of death and the mothering feeling of darkness. He expects that he will be tired and his eyes “heavy-lidded.”
The speaker will go to “Night” slowly. He will “creep” into her “bosom.” There he will find the safety, comfort, and warmth that did not exist for him during his life. The “mother” that is “night” will provide a home for him for all of eternity.