‘Night Sweat’ by Robert Lowell was originally published in his book “For the Union Dead” in 1964. It is an autobiographical sketch of the poet’s struggle to versify his thoughts. The metaphors used in the first section of the poem presents how the sweat-soaked poet finds it difficult to write poetry. In the following section, the glowing presence of his beloved wife enlightens his ambiance. She lightens his heart and infuses him with the energy that he wants the most. In the end, there is a request to his dearest wife to help him out of his dead thoughts.
‘Night Sweat’ by Robert Lowell is an emotionally complex poem. It’s not clear why the speaker is suffering from night sweats. The metaphorical meaning of “my stalled equipment” makes it clear that the speaker is going through writer’s block. The downward glide of his ability and his previous bias are blocking him to pen down that “one writing”. However, in the next section of the poem, the poet says his wife’s presence lightens his mind. She has such a personality that even makes the plain things of his room cheerful. At last, he requests his dear wife to redeem him from his anguish and frustration as she has done before.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Night Sweat’ by Robert Lowell contains two sonnets. The first one is in Shakespearean sonnet form and the following one is written in the Petrarchan sonnet form. Moreover, the rhyme scheme of the first fourteen-line is “ABBA CDCD EFEF GG”. In the following sonnet, the poet uses the “ABABCDDC EFGFGE” rhyme scheme. There are a total of 10 syllables in each line and the overall poem is composed of iambic pentameter with some variations. There are spondee, pyrrhic, and trochaic variations in the poem.
‘Night Sweat’ by Robert Lowell contains several literary devices. Likewise, there is an anticlimax in the second line of the poem. Here, the “stalled equipment” is a metaphor for the poet’s pen or poetic imagination. There is a personal metaphor in the “tidied room”. Moreover, there is a personification in “creeping damp”. Apart from that, the poet uses enjambment throughout the poem. However, in “wilted white” there is alliteration. There is another important metaphor in the phrase, “my life’s fever”. It’s a reference to the poet’s dead thoughts. The poet also uses anaphora in the first and second sonnet. Moreover, the “urn” symbolizes the body of the poet. It’s the use of metonymy.
Apart from that, there is a simile in the line, “as your heart hops and flutters like a hare.” In this section, the poet uses zoomorphism by referring to the hare and tortoise. The exaggerated sense of the last line makes it an example of hyperbole.
Work-table, litter, books and standing lamp,
plain things, my stalled equipment, the old broom—
float over my pajamas’ wilted white . . .
‘Night Sweat’ by Robert Lowell begins with a description of the items that the poetic persona finds in his room while he struggles to write poetry. He can see some plain things such as the work-table, litter, books, and a standing lamp. His “stalled equipment” or the pen on the table lies as if it has become useless like the “old broom” kept at one side. Here, the poet assures readers that he lives in a “tidied room” and those items are at their place, not scattered.
Thereafter, the poet refers to his physical condition. He has been going through some kind of mental turmoil for the past few nights. He is having “night sweats”. It gives him a creeping sensation.
Sweet salt embalms me and my head is wet,
and bias of existing wrings us dry—
In this section of ‘Night Sweat’ by Robert Lowell, the speaker using an oxymoron says that he feels like his skin is covered with salt. His head is wet. Several thoughts appear in his mind. But, he isn’t sure about which he should write. Thereafter the poet says his “life’s fever is soaking in night sweat”. It seems as if the poet’s imagination is soaked with his bodily sweats.
Moreover, the poet longs to write that one piece that every artist wishes to create in life. But, the downward glide of his imagination and the existing bias in his mind makes his imagination dry or infertile. In simple words, the poet is out of ideas.
always inside me is the child who died,
skulled horses whinny for the soot of night.
‘Night Sweat’ by Robert Lowell presents the poet’s mental condition again in this section. The child-like spirit in his mind has passed away. What is left, is also on the verge of extinction. Apart from that, for emphasizing the idea present here, the poet uses anaphora. Moreover, the poet says that a person has only a life to do what he wishes to do and there is no other “universe” or world to fulfill his dreams. The poet says his spirit is burning with desires and it also burns his “animal night sweat”. In this way, the poet, at the end of the first sonnet, starts to recover from his mental block.
In the following section, the wife’s presence enlightens the poet. In his life, she acts as a source of hope and comfort to his blackened eyes. Here, he refers to the activity of the gray-headed horses that whinny in the darkness of the night. The horses seem to be a reference to his mind that tries to hold him back in such a dark state.
I dabble in the dapple of the day,
as your heart hops and flutters like a hare.
In this section of ‘Night Sweat’ by Robert Lowell, the poet feels like he is dabbling in daylight as his wife there to assist him. The repetition of the “d”-sound creates an internal rhyming in this section reflecting the sense of harmony in the poet’s mind. Moreover, the poet looks around it seems that her light has made everything bright. Now, the gloom has faded and the sun of his life starts to appear in his sky. The child inside him, previously dead, now wakes up like the explosion of dynamite.
Thereafter he expresses his gratitude for his wife. He says she tears the “black webs” that are metaphorically his mental impediments. Moreover, the “spider’s sack” is a reference to the “subconscious mind”. Moreover, the poet compares her to a hare for depicting her energy and spontaneity.
Poor turtle, tortoise, if I cannot clear
this world’s dead weight and cycle on your back.
In the last few lines of ‘Night Sweat’, Robert Lowell addresses his wife as a “poor turtle” and requests her to absolve him from this stagnancy. Moreover, the poet refers to the tortoise’s carapace as a “dead weight” and compares it to responsibilities. She does her part unquestionably. For this reason, the poet counts on her in the hard times of his life.
‘Night Sweat’ by Robert Lowell was published 13 years before his death. The poet had been suffering from bipolar disorder or “manic depression” throughout his adult life. In this disorder, a person goes through periods of depression and periods of abnormally elevated mood that last from days to weeks each. In this poem, the poet expresses how this disease was eating his thoughts. Moreover, he also expressed gratitude for his wife through this poem. She was the only person who was constantly there to help him recover from depression.
Like ‘Night Sweat’ by Robert Lowell, the following poems can be read for further reference.
- The Man with Night Sweats by Thom Gunn – This poem is about a man suffering from AIDS in solitude.
- Wish by Carol Ann Duffy – In this one of her best poems, Duffy talks about her depression.
- Acquainted with the Night by Robert Frost – In this one of his best poems, Frost, one of the best 20th century American poets, talks about his depression in adult life.
- No worst, there is none by Gerald Manley Hopkins – It’s on the nature of the speaker’s depression.
You can read about 10 Heartfelt Poems about Depression here.